(1835 - 1886)




The Eliza Lynch Story

Three very different books recall the Paraguayan War

By Benjamin Moser

May 5 issue — It’s an irresistible story, better suited to grand opera than to history. An unhinged autocrat wages war on a much larger country, reducing the male population of his own Latin American nation by 90 percent. He takes for his lover a voluptuous, wealthy Irish courtesan and passes a death sentence on his own mother. No wonder so many authors have been drawn to the saga of the Paraguayan War (1865-70).


THE SUBJECT HAS spawned a massive bibliography, much of it centered on the dictator Francisco Solano Lopez and his scheming mistress, Eliza Lynch. By happy coincidence, that bibliography has just been enriched by three new volumes.
        Sian Rees’s “The Shadows of Elisa Lynch” ( 256 pages. Review ) and Nigel Cawthorne’s “The Empress of South America” ( 320 pages. Heinemann ) are two very different retellings of the story. Lynch arrived in Paraguay in 1855, the latest in a long line of Irish—Alejandro O’Reilly, governor of Louisiana; Ambrosio O’Higgins, viceroy of Peru—who had come to rule Spanish America. But as Cawthorne points out, Lynch represented not Ireland nor Spain but France, where she had made her career during the Second Empire, and whose glittering court she and Lopez dreamed of taking to South America. In short order, she became South America’s leading conspicuous consumer. Lopez partook in his own shopping spree, importing from Europe all kinds of railroads and warships; when he finally invaded Brazil, his Army was the largest on the continent.


        Cawthorne revels in the lurid aspects of the story. In one apocryphal scene, Eliza persuades a talking statue of the Virgin Mary to give up her jewels for Paraguay (i.e., Eliza). Cawthorne reserves special venom for Lopez: “He made no effort to clean his teeth... Those that remained were unwholesome in appearance and as black as the cigar he kept permanently clenched between them. His heart was blacker.”
        Rees is less exuberant, yet vividly re-creates the horrors of the war as an increasingly insane Lopez turned on his own people. In one scene she describes how his henchmen tortured a traitorous commander’s wife: “The men... stripped her, took away her necklace and bracelets, dragged rings from her fingers, threw her face up on the ground and lanced her, twice, for there were two traitors there.” But Rees’s book is undermined by errors and lacunas. Strangely, she does not mention the prototypical Latin American tyrant, Paraguay’s founder Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia. And she writes, for example, that the Paraguayan tricolor was created by Lopez in a pathetic imitation of France—though the flag dates to 1811, 15 years before Lopez was born.
        For writers who don’t want to worry about facts, another form exists. This is why Anne Enright’s slutty and pungent novel “The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch” ( 244 pages. Cape ) comes as such a delight. Enright gets to the point in the first sentence: “Francisco Solano Lopez put his penis inside Eliza Lynch on a lovely spring day in Paris, in 1854.” This congress marks the beginning of a long romance—and the beginning of Francisco Solano Lopez’s son and heir. The boat trip that returns the new lovers to Paraguay forms the narrative spine of the novel. In an inspired move, Enright shifts to first-person narration by Lynch, giving a voice to a woman who has been—with some justice—reviled as the Lady Macbeth of Paraguay.
        Enright never loses sight of the operatic nature of her heroine. She shows Eliza arriving in distant Asuncion, where she is greeted with carefully crafted scorn. The country envies her “simple, easy house of pink marble”; her carriage, “so beautifully sprung you could ride it across country without spilling a cup of tea,” and above all her beauty, “the kind of flesh that might redeem a man.” Despite many careful efforts to cultivate the worthies of the nation, Eliza finally boils over when she invites le tout Asuncion to a sumptuous lunch party onboard the same ship that brought her to Paraguay. The ladies cannot ignore an invitation from the president’s mistress, but neither can they bring themselves to greet their smiling hostess. One by one they file past her. “There was no person so unwatched as Eliza. Fifty pairs of eyes refused to see her.” Enraged by such rudeness, Eliza orders the whole French feast tossed overboard. “There was a slight scum on the river, of hollandaise sauce and sauce a la Soubise , but even that sank, in time.”

Through five hellish years of war, Eliza keeps up her standards, her silks and her sauces, unblemished by mud or famine. “You might think the men would find it an irritation, but the truth was that her face was a solace to them, her smile a balm... in some lovely, easy way, she belonged to them all. The most beautiful woman in the world.” This is Enright’s great discovery: the truth of a woman who, more than a figure of fun or camp, more than a greedy adventurer, was to her fellow colonials a symbol of beauty and love in a barbarous place, a woman whose pleasures were not only taken but given. By avoiding the trappings of historical truth, Enright succeeds in revealing a far more convincing human reality.




Nigel Cawthorne site

Una historia del Paraguay – Indice


The Lady Macbeth of Paraguay

Frances Wilson is bemused by the mythologisation of Elisa Lynch, which continues with biographies from Siân Rees and Nigel Cawthorne

Saturday February 1, 2003
The Guardian

The Shadows of Elisa Lynch: How a Nineteenth Century Irish Courtesan Became the Most Powerful Woman in Paraguay
by Siân Rees
256pp, Review

The Empress of South America
by Nigel Cawthorne
320pp, Heinemann

Perhaps more surprising than the appearance in the same month of two books on the same subject and with the same number of pages and duplicate opening scenes, is that, after years of neglect, suddenly three people have cottoned on to the chilling story of Elisa Lynch, the Lady Macbeth of Paraguay.

The first was Anne Enright, whose novel The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch was published last autumn. Now come two biographies. The Shadows of Elisa Lynch is Siân Rees's second book, The Empress of South America is Nigel Cawthorne's 32nd; both seem to have been written at lightning speed, their previous publications being still hot off the press. One has to suppose that Rees and Cawthorne, having patiently shared library resources and taken turns to look over the archives in Asuncion, were determined to beat one another to the post. In his haste, some few errors have found their way into Cawthorne's text but these are soon forgotten in the galloping pace of his prose.

Of the two books, Cawthorne's is less putdownable although the absence of footnotes or references makes it frustrating. His is an unforgiving and furious account of the events that took place in Paraguay between 1855 (when Francisco Solano Lopez, son of the Paraguayan dictator, returned from a visit to Europe accompanied by a mysterious and very pregnant Irish courtesan) and 1870, when the dazzling Elisa Lynch at last left the country, following the murders of Lopez and the son she had been carrying.


As the lover of Lopez, soon to become Marshal President, the self-styled "Madame" Lynch determined to transform the state's dusty capital into an imperial city and herself into its empress. She thus began an extensive building programme of opera houses and palaces, which either remained unfinished or were never inhabited. During the 15 years that she was a guest of Paraguay, whose history had been "a terrible and bloody farce" even before her appearance, she presided over the deaths of one million of the republic's citizens, acquired at scandalously low prices more than 32 million hectares of its land, looted its women of their jewels, and smuggled into European bank accounts many thousands of pounds' worth of Paraguayan gold.

Lopez, a psychopathic, lecherous and ugly little drunk who modeled himself on Napoleon III, began his rule by declaring a suicidal war on all other South American states, and while his skeletal and naked soldiers, thousands of whom were children, lay dying, Madame Lynch, plump on French dinners, toured the camps in her silks and finery with her grand piano in tow.

Having destroyed the economy and population of his country - it would take three generations to repopulate Paraguay - Lopez began his real campaign of terror. Convinced of a conspiracy to overthrow him, he ordered the torture and murder of those who were unfortunate enough to be still alive. Lopez was, at least, egalitarian, and included among his victims his brothers, sisters and brothers-in-law. Shortly before his own death, he ordered the assassination of his mother.

Rees's version of events has less fire than Cawthorne's. She tries to make sense of Lopez, believing, unlike Cawthorne, that the conspiracies against him were real and that he therefore had some reason to his actions.

"Sincerity looms through the horror," she says of the general's command that thousands of his people be flogged until their skin hung off them before being fettered and chained and forced to confess to crimes they did not commit. And there is her occassional attempt, albeit frail, to apologise for the actions of Elisa Lynch, the defence being that she lived in fear of Lopez too.

Having tried to humanise them, The Shadows of Elisa Lynch needs a satisfactory analysis of the dynamic between the couple who found in one another a match for their own sadism and greed. But what interests Rees more than human relationships is the relationship between people and landscape, and these more elemental ties are given a central position in her tale.

Rees's strength as a writer lies, as it did in her earlier book, The Floating Brothel, in her astonishing eye for physical detail and her vivid and evocative reconstruction of physical suffering. Her account of the war, which takes up the bulk of her narrative, is painstakingly realised and brilliantly dramatised.

What fascinates both writers is the subsequent mythologisation of Elisa Lynch, her apparently seamless shift from tyrant to patriotic martyr. A century after leaving the wreckage of Paraguay, Lynch was proclaimed its national heroine - "surpassed by none in her courage, her self-lessness, and her loyalty" - and her body removed from its plot in the Parisian graveyard where she lay and returned, in a bronze urn wrapped in the tricolour, to her adopted country.

Which only goes to show, as Cawthorne puts it, that you can fall in a sewer and still come up smelling of roses.

Frances Wilson is writing a biography of the Regency courtesan Harriette Wilson


Fancisco Solano López

Fancisco Solano López nació el 24 de julio de 1826 en Manorá, Asunción. Fue el primero de los cinco hijos legítimos de Don Carlos Antonio López y doña Juana Carrillo. Sus hermanos fueron Inocencia, casada luego con el General Vicente Barrios; Venancio; Rafaela, quien contrajo matrimonio con don Augusto Acevedo Pedra; y Benigno. Su padrino fue don Lázaro Rojas Aranda. Realizó sus primeros estudios con el maestro argentino Juan Pedro Escalada y, más tarde, con el jesuita Bernardo Parés. Tenía quince años cuando su padre accedió a la vida pública tras el fallecimiento del dictador Francia. Leía mucho, aprendió a hablar correctamente el francés y algo de inglés aún antes de su viaje a Europa. Ingresó muy joven al ejército, que en esa época era muy precario, siendo precisamente obra suya la optimización y profesionalización del mismo. En 1845, era ya coronel y al año siguiente fue nombrado comandante del cuerpo expedicionario cuando la Alianza suscrita por el Paraguay con la provincia de Corrientes por el tratado del 2l de noviembre de 1845, determinó la ayuda militar. Dice Arturo Bray: «En 1846 estaban ya frente a frente y en son de guerra, las provincias de Corrientes y Entre Ríos; esto es, Madariaga, gobernador de la primera, y el general Urquiza, por aquel entonces hombre de Rosas y sostenedor de su dictadura». Formó un ejército de 4200 hombres que debía ponerse bajo las ordenes del general Paz en Villa del Pilar. Allí conoció a Juanita Pesoa, de quien tendría tres hijos naturales. Antes de la partida, el ejército realizó el primer juramento a la bandera paraguaya, creada por ley del 25 de noviembre de 1842. El cuerpo expedicionario regresó a Paraguay, en 1846, sin haber entrado en combate. En el año 1849, fue comandante de la división paraguaya que reocupó las Misiones al sur del Paraná y, posteriormente, fue nombrado jefe del ejército nacional, con asiento en Pilar.

En 1853, con el cargo de brigadier general partió en misión especial a Europa. El objetivo era establecer relaciones diplomáticas con Gran Bretaña, Francia, Prusia y Cerdeña, pero también el objetivo era adquirir barcos y armamentos. En París, conoció a la irlandesa Elisa Alicia Lynch, quien sería su compañera y la madre de sus hijos. Durante su misión, firmó un contrato de colonización para establecer una colonia Nueva Burdeos, en el actual asiento de Villa Hayes y adquirió el buque «Tacuarí» y armamentos en Inglaterra. Regresó a fines de 1854. En 1856, fue destacado para viajar a Río de Janeiro con el fin de establecer un tratado con el canciller Paranhos sobre navegación de los ríos. A causa de una enfermedad fue reemplazado por José Berges. Fue nombrado Ministro de Guerra ese mismo año. En 1858, actuó como plenipotenciario especial para efectivizar el tratado con Paranhos, en Asunción.

El 27 de setiembre de 1859, partió de Asunción a bordo del «Tacuarí», acompañado por un séquito formado por el mayor José María Aguiar, el capitán Rómulo Yegros y los alféreces José Díaz y Pedro Duarte con la misión de mediar en el conflicto entre los gobiernos de Paraná y Buenos Aires. El acuerdo firmado el 11 de noviembre y que se conoce como el Pacto de San José de Flores establecía que Buenos Aires se declara integrante de la Confederación Argentina siendo la República del Paraguay el garante del cumplimiento del convenio solicitado tanto por el Excelentísimo Presidente de la Confederación Argentina como por el Excelentísimo Gobierno de Buenos Aires. López recibió altos honores y el titulo de «pacificador», de parte de los generales Mitre y Urquiza, entre otras personalidades argentinas. De regreso al país se abocó a organizar un moderno ejército disciplinado, visitando constantemente la fortaleza de Humaitá (cuyas ruinas siguen hoy), recién construida. A mediados de 1862, fue designado sucesor de su padre en el gobierno en caso de acefalía, hasta tanto se reuniera un Congreso para elegir un nuevo mandatario. El 10 de setiembre, muere Don Carlos Antonio López. Francisco Solano, Ministro de Guerra, asume provisoriamente. El 16 de octubre de 1862, el Congreso lo eligió presidente por un periodo de 10 años.

Durante los primeros 3 años, su gobierno se caracteriza por una intensa actividad en la administración pública, se prolongó el ferrocarril (el primero de Sudamérica) hasta Pirayú, se inició la construcción del Palacio de Gobierno, del Oratorio de la Virgen de Asunción y del Teatro Nacional. Se fundaron nuevas escuelas y se otorgaron becas a jóvenes estudiantes para Europa. Creó un nuevo campamento en Cerro León, en el que reunió a cinco mil soldados. El Brasil estaba interviniendo abiertamente en la política interna del Uruguay apoyando al general Flores y a su partido colorado. Ante un pretendido conflicto en la frontera de Río Grande do Sul, Brasil envió a José A. Saraiva para exigir reparaciones al gobierno uruguayo. Vázquez Sagastume, ministro uruguayo, sin autorización del gobierno (según algunos autores), requirió el 13 de junio de 1863, la mediación del Paraguay en el conflicto entre el Uruguay y el Brasil. El gobierno paraguayo informó a Brasil que aceptaba ejercer la mediación solicitada por el ministro uruguayo. Mientras tanto en Uruguay la mediación estaba a cargo de un tercero, formado por el ministro inglés Thorton, el canciller argentino Elizalde y el representante brasileño Saraiva, que trataba de poner fin a la guerra civil (uruguaya) entre blancos y colorados. Brasil respondió que consideraba innecesaria su mediación y el gobierno uruguayo declaró que no precisaba de los buenos oficios del gobierno paraguayo.

Poco después Brasil inició los actos de agresión contra el gobierno blanco del Uruguay, López , confirmó su temor de que Brasil extendiera su imperio primero en Uruguay y luego en Paraguay, ante la no clarificación de los hechos por parte del ministro imperial Sauvan Vianna de Lima. El 30 de agosto, en una nota dirigida a Lima, por el canciller Berges señalaba que el gobierno de la República del Paraguay consideraba cualquier ocupación del territorio oriental por fuerzas imperiales como atentatorio al equilibrio de los Estados del Plata y que esta situación interesaba a la República del Paraguay como garantía de su seguridad, paz y prosperidad. Brasil invadió a Uruguay. El gobierno paraguayo secuestró el buque «Marqués de Olinda», que el 10 de noviembre de 1864 entraba a la rada de Asunción. El día 12, Berges comunicó al representante brasileño que quedaban rotas las relaciones diplomáticas y prohibida la navegación de los ríos de la República a los brasileños.

La campaña de Matto Grosso, fue confiada al general Vicente Barrios y partió el 24 de diciembre de 1864 con 3200 hombres en cinco vapores y tres goletas. El objetivo se cumplió con éxito.

Para llegar al estado brasileño de Río Grande do Sul, López, debía necesariamente cruzar por el territorio argentino. Informó entonces a Urquiza advirtiendo que ese cruce necesario no era «una amenaza a las provincias amigas de Entre Ríos y Corrientes, ni al gobierno nacional argentino». El general Urquiza expresó su apoyo a López , y le aconsejó solicitar oficialmente el tránsito al gobierno de Buenos Aires. El 14 de enero de 1865, Berges solicitó al canciller Elizalde que «los ejércitos de la República del Paraguay puedan transitar el territorio argentino de la provincia de Corrientes en el caso de que a ello fuesen obligados por las operaciones de la guerra...».

El Congreso extraordinario del 5 de marzo nombró a López, Mariscal de los Ejércitos de la República, creó la Orden Nacional del Mérito, autorizó la contratación de un préstamo y el 17 de ese mes, ante la noticia que la Argentina había permitido la subida del río Paraná a la escuadra brasileña del almirante Tamandaré que venia a bloquear Tres Bocas, autorizó la declaración de guerra al gobierno argentino.

Una columna paraguaya al mando del general Robles atacó y ocupó la ciudad de Corrientes avanzando hacia el sur. El 1° de mayo de 1865 el canciller argentino Elizalde, el representante brasileño Octaviano y el uruguayo Carlos de Castro firmaron el tratado secreto de la Triple Alianza. Salió de Encarnación otro ejército a las órdenes del teniente coronel Antonio de la Cruz Estigarribia. El Mariscal López trasladó su Cuartel General a Humaitá. A fines de junio, el general Robles fue sometido a proceso y fusilado por indisciplina. Lo reemplazó el general Resquín. La división del teniente coronel Estigarribia se había apoderado de Uruguayana y su segundo Duarte ocupado Paso de los Libres. El 17 de agosto, el destacamento Duarte fue casi exterminado en la batalla de Yatay. Los aliados se concentraron luego sobre Uruguayana y el 19 de setiembre, Estigarribia se rindió.

Se evacuó el territorio de Corrientes y se establecieron en Paso de Patria. Se inicia la segunda etapa de la guerra, cuyas campañas más destacadas son las de Humaitá, Pikysyry y Las Cordilleras. La victoria de Curupayty frena la ofensiva aliada. El ejército paraguayo pelea en Corrales, Estero Bellaco, Tuyuty, Yatayty-Corá, Boquerón y Sauce. Cae Humaitá y López traslada su Cuartel General a San Fernando al norte del río Tebicuary. Una serie de informes llegados de Asunción, hacen que el gobierno acuse de conspiración y connivencia con el enemigo a figuras principales y se crean los tribunales que sentencian como culpables a los hermanos del Mariscal, Venancio y Benigno, sus dos cuñados Saturnino Bedoya y el General Barrios, al Canciller Berges, al Obispo Palacios y a centenares de hombres y mujeres. Es señalado como cabeza de la conspiración el ministro norteamericano Washburn junto con los cónsules de Francia, Italia y Portugal. De junio a diciembre de 1869 fueron fusiladas casi 400 personas. Los extranjeros debieron abandonar el país. Después vendrán heroicas batallas.

El 14 de febrero de 1870, el ejército se retira hasta Cerro Corá. Una columna brasileña despachada desde Concepción al mando del general Correa da Cámara se enfrenta el primero de marzo con el ejército de 200 hombres del Mariscal López. Fue herido de un lanzazo en el bajo vientre y de un sablazo en la frente. Auxiliado llega a orillas del río Aquidabán, y donde es alcanzado por el General Correa da Cámara, quien le intima a que se rinda. El Mariscal López se batió sable en mano hasta el final. Su última frase sigue siendo hasta la fecha una materia de controversia. Algunos historiadores señalan que dijo: «¡Muero por la Patria!» y otros: «¡Muero con la Patria!». Negándose a entregar su espada fue herido por otro soldado que lo ultimó de un tiro al corazón.




The Shadows of Elisa Lynch, by Siân Rees
The Empress of South America, by Nigel Cawthorne

A vicious adventuress has inspired two biographies and a novel. Jean McNeil on the Irish Evita

18 January 2003


Finally, proof the Zeitgeist really does exist. What else are we to make of the virtually simultaneous publication of two history-biography hybrids and one novel which share as the subject of an obscure woman, a reclusive country, and a war hardly anyone (in Europe, at least) has so far heard of?

Siân Rees and Nigel Cawthorne's books both trace the duly shadowy outlines of the life of Eliza Lynch, an Irishwoman who was, we are told in the latter's somewhat salivating subtitle, briefly the richest woman in the world. The source of her riches was Paraguay, the Poland of South America, a landlocked country sporadically fought over by neighouring titans Brazil and Argentina, and plundered by a succession of sociopaths ending in the longest dictatorial regime in South America (Alfredo Stroessner, from 1954-1989). To this biographical fiesta we could add Anne Enright's lushly imagined novel, The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch, (Cape), a "faction" based on a life burdened by more interpretation than fact.

Indeed, the facts are few, and even these are in dispute, as Eliza was known to be less than truthful about them. Born in County Cork in 1835, her family fled the Irish famine and fetched up in the turbulent Paris of the Second Republic. In Paris, she promoted herself as a language teacher to courtiers and stray foreign oligarchs. On the way, her biographers concur, she had been married at 15 to a Frenchman, lived in Algeria, and eloped back to Paris with a Russian.


She was only 19 when, in 1854, she met Francisco Solano López, the eldest son of the self-declared El Supremo of Paraguay and his heir apparent. They had, it seems, instant and permanent sexual chemistry. Eliza sailed to Paraguay, bore López five children (although he never married her) and was widely considered to have encouraged him into the War of Triple Alliance (1864-70) in which Paraguay lost most of its male population and a chunk of its national territory to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.

Where the facts end and interpretation begins, the biographers circle each other. What has been discarded by one is picked up by the other. Cawthorne sets the political scene, tracing the origins of López's terrifying tropical dystopia, while Rees writes knowledgeably about the post-Napoleonic Paris Eliza abandoned to seek her fortune in mysterious Paraguay. Cawthorne's is the blunter pen: by page seven we know López as "the biggest mass murderer since Genghis Khan" and that Eliza "bled the country dry". A certain general is "bloodthirsty", and Francisco's mother "lorded it over her subjects". Thus he chomps through his personnel, erring on the pantomime-villain side of characterisation. That his style is effective and engaging despite bouquets of cliché is due to the delight he takes in the ironies of fate, even if he seems hungry for Eliza's demise.

The Shadows of Elisa Lynch is subtly written, stocked with vivid descriptions of wildlife and landscape and arresting phrases (a day in the war is "atrociously beautiful"). Rees is a determined researcher, consulting primary sources in Spanish and French, and she conveys the subtleties of 19th-century diplomacy and South American politics, such as they were.

Crucially, she displays more sympathy for her subject. "If her spirit had not already been broken by the unremitting successions of blows dealt her over the past years, surely it admitted defeat during her first days in Europe," she writes, of a woman who has, 12 pages earlier and in the middle of the abominable suffering of her compatriots, schemed to buy war-abandoned lands the size of Belgium and Holland combined.

Both writers whirl the same carousel of personality: Eliza the military risk-taker, the dab hand at the property market, the fashionista of her day, the linguist who knew how to bear a grudge, but even so she remains something of a cipher. This is where fiction steps in, in the form of Anne Enright's novel, written from both Eliza's perspective and that of her Scottish doctor. Enright's fictional Eliza meditates on her pregnant state and understands she has become "evil". But after reading the biographies it's hard to believe Eliza was capable of lush subjectivity, that she was anything other than a utilitarian individual, inhabiting an interior desert of bare acts.

The carnivalesque and sickening brutality that each author takes pains to draw, although in a different colour scheme, would seem to demand an examination of the psychopathy of absolute power: of the conditions in which unscrupulous people become dangerous, when corrupt natures begin to luxuriate in carnage. But neither writer judges their subject. This is important, because it is one of the reasons why we read historical biography: to re-question the values we have assigned to history, and to pass judgement on how individuals conduct its disasters, as well as not to repeat its mistakes of, say, being led into unwinnable conflicts forged in the name of patriotism which are really about the enrichment of a small coterie. Nor do the books trace the Eliza effect on modern Paraguay, a kleptocracy whose current president is facing possible impeachment over, among other things, alleged possession of a stolen car. Could this be because we are only interested in neglected countries insofar as they cross with the stories of the British subjects who become briefly intertwined in them?

In the end, their war speaks as much about Lynch and López as any comment on the disaster of personality. Both Cawthorne and Rees give over half their books to unsparing accounts of the Paraguayan killing fields, nauseatingly gripping with their depictions of torture methods – the skinned flogees and raped women, the peasants thrown at the enemy "like sandbags". We end with a ripe understanding of the calamity of this, and perhaps all, wars: completely futile hells spawned in the vortex of political ambition.

Jean McNeil's novel 'Private View' is published by Weidenfeld



January 18, 2003

Gabriel Rozenberg on a biography that sheds light on how Eliza Lynch managed to turn the revulsion felt towards her into something approaching awe

Girl power


By Siân Rees
Review, £14.99, 256pp
ISBN 0 755 31114 0

ELISA LYNCH was the impoverished Irish courtesan whose extraordinary life took her from the slums of Paris in the 1850s to become the lover and companion of President Francisco Solano López, the war-mad dictator of Paraguay. Derided as esa grandísima puta, she exalted in faux-Parisienne luxury while López launched the absurd war against three neighbouring countries which ended with the extermination of around one million of his people.

Lynch’s motives remain mysterious, and Rees is too careful an historian to shed clear light on what her anti-heroine was up to. Her thorough account does not explain why Lynch stuck by López long after it was clear that the war was hopeless. But it does show how, through utter loyalty to the President and by ignoring her critics, she managed to turn the revulsion felt towards her into something approaching awe.

Nigel Cawthorne’s version, The Empress of South America (Heinemann), is a lot more blunt. Lynch was, he says, “largely responsible for the deaths of three-quarters of the population of the country, stealing much of its money and losing a valuable part of its territory”. His strident judgments are sometimes suspect, but his appreciation for the darkly farcical nature of the “banana republic which grows no bananas” and quick pace comes as a breath of fresh air. The tale of the Irish mistress to the Paraguayan despot is a curious one, but not one to be savoured at length.