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The maddening Edith O’Shaughnessy

23 January 2009

I find that the Mexicans are constantly studying us, which is more than we do in regard to them. They look upon us as something immensely powerful, that is able and, perhaps, if displeased, willing, to crush them. They are infinitely more subtle than we, and their efforts tend more to keeping out of our clutches than to imitating us. Our institutions, all our ways of procedure, are endlessly wearisome to them, and correspond to nothing they consider profitable and agreeable.

A Diplomat’s Wife in Mexico (1916)

Edith O’Shaughnessy (1870 – 1939) is one of those maddening writers who it is profitable to read, even though you may find yourself not much liking the author.

Though a Roman Catholic by birth,  Edith Louise Coues could have been invented by Henry James or Edith Wharton.  A  true “southern belle”, eminently secure in her belief in her racial and class superiority to the “lesser races”  after a careful convent education, she was sent to Europe both for the experience, and in the hope of finding a suitable husband.  Rather late for a Wharton heroine, she married Oxford-educated diplomat and lawyer Nelson O’Shaughnessy in 1901.   From 1901 to 1915, Edith O’Shaughnessy was a diplomatic wife, serving her country (and tea) as a proper diplomatic hostess  in Copenhagen, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Bucharest, Mexico, and Rio de Janeiro.  Her fame as a writer rests on her experiences in Mexico City during the Madero and Huerta Presidencies.

Nelson O’Shaugnessy was U.S. Charge d’Affairs in Veracruz during the “Ten Tragic Days” when (as I wrote in Gods, Gachupines and Gringos: A People’s History of Mexico, © 2008 Richard Grabman):

[Ambassador Henry Lane] Wilson … concluded Madero had to go…. As he saw it, his job ws to protect United States interests (meaning the large landowners and U.S. owned companies) in México. Madero’s election had unleased thirty years of built-up anger and resentment against the foreign control of Mexican resources. Wilson took even mild reforms (higher taxes on oil exports) as attacks on U.S. rights in México. Madero would have to go.

For Edith, neither overthrowing the democratic reformist Madero, nor the ten days of intense street fighting and bombardment in Mexico City was the tragedy. It was the lack of decent hotel service in Veracruz, and the tedium of provincial society. When — in the outrage over the U.S. involvement in Madero’s replacement by the military dictator Victoriano Huerta, Wilson was recalled by President Woodrow Wilson (no relation), Nelson O’Shaugnessy moved into the Ambassador’s residence as charge.

University of Minnesota Women's Travel Writing, 1830-1930

Source: University of Minnesota Women's Travel Writing, 1830-1930

Although not the Ambassador, Nelson was the United States representative, and Edith felt it her duty as a diplomatic wife to keep up appearances. She gave tea parties and went to receptions, where she endlessly fretted over the fate of displaced landowners and bemoaned the abuses heaped on the “better classes” by the “bandits” and “revolutionists” who didn’t know their place.

Not surprisingly, she was a favorite of Huerta. And that is what makes Edith O’Shaugnessy such a maddening figure. She was by no means stupid. And she wrote very well. In a series of letters to her mother published by Harper in 1916 as A Diplomat’s Wife In Mexico — and available as a free download), O’Shaugnessy has no illusions about Huerta’s alcoholism and bloody-mindedness.  Despite her sometimes condescending attitude towards President (mostly a matter of his indigenous heritage), she defends him in the letters as a necessarily iron-fisted leader, doing his best to control an unruly populace.

She is loyal to Huerta and seems almost smitten with him.  Huerta returned her affection, treating her as a friend, and even inviting her to family events (and, as every foreigner knows, to be invited to a Mexican family event is a sign of true acceptance).  Certainly, she was defending the indefensible, and “on the wrong side of history”, but amidst the reports on her grandson’s health and the ungoing interior decorating at the Ambassador’s residence, Mrs. Coues was probably the best informed person in the United States about the Mexican government during the early Revolution.

The published letters are still worth reading today — while not as consciously literary as Englishwoman Rosa Eleanor King’s book on Huerta and the Revolution in Morelos, Tempest Over Mexico (also available as a free download), it is better reporting.  And much more readable (and less self-serving) than Henry Lane Wilson’s Diplomatic Days (Garden City: Doubleday Page and Company, 1927).

O’Shaughnessy wrote three books altogether on her Mexican experience:  in addition to the letters, she published Diplomatic Days (1917) and Intimate Pages of Mexican History (1920).  She also later wrote two books about Alsace and a series of sketches of (and probably the only book in English about) Rankwiel, Lichtenstein.  True to her aristocratic sensibilities, she also wrote the biography of Marie Adelaide, the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, and a novel, Viennese Medley, based on her screenplay The Greater Glory which tells the story of former  aristocrats at loose ends in Vienna after the end of the First World War and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian  Empire.

Sarah Wadsworth wrote a short biographical entry for the of the University of Minnesota’s “”Womens Travel Writing Project ” but there is almost nothing (not even a Wikipedia entry) on the maddening Mrs. O’Shaughnessy.  And that’s a damn shame.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. ... permalink
    24 January 2009 5:00 pm

    Thank you so much for the link to Rosa King’s book!

  2. Meg permalink
    27 February 2009 8:35 am

    The book is also available from Kessinger Publishing for those who want a hard copy. And I hope you’ve started a Wikipedia entry on her!

  3. Mercedes Dozal permalink
    21 August 2010 12:53 am

    was the link to: ” Diplomat’s Wife In Mexico ” diconnected or it plumb concked out?
    I hope it becomes available.


  1. Winkie, wacky and wiki leaks « The Mex Files

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