Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Happy Birthday, Lady Smith!

One of the most engaging and romance-novel-like yet true stories of the 19th century has to be that of a lady named Juana María de los Dolores de León Smith, whose long and busy life took her from Spain to England and on to India and South Africa, all because she fell in love. Ready for a wonderful story?

Juana was born on March 27, 1798 of a noble Spanish family who claimed the explorer Juan Ponce de León among its forbears. But she came into the world in perilous times; Napoleon had begun his gallop across Europe, and swallowed Spain in his stride. Little Juana was placed in a convent school by her family, where it was thought she would be safe, but in 1812 she was back in her hometown of Badajoz, most of her family wiped out in the Peninsular Wars, with only an elder sister to look out for her.

Now, here’s where the romance novel bits begin…Badajoz was, of course, the site of several battles between the forces of Napoleon and his nemesis Arthur Wellesley, soon to be Duke of Wellington. When the city was captured by the British for the last time, in April 1812, the British forces ransacked it…but now, let’s hear what happened from an eyewitness, British officer John Kincaid of the 95th Rifles:

"I was conversing with a friend the day after, at the door of his tent, when we observed two ladies coming from the city, who made directly towards us; they seemed both young, and when they came near, the elder of the two threw back her mantilla to address us, showing a remarkably handsome figure, with fine features; but her sallow, sun-burnt, and careworn, though still youthful, countenance showed that in her 'the time for tender thoughts and soft endearments had fled away and gone.'

"She at once addressed us in that confident, heroic manner so characteristic of the high-bred Spanish maiden, told us who they were–the last of an ancient and honourable house–and referred to an officer high in rank in our army, who had been quartered there in the days of her prosperity, for the truth of her tale.

"Her husband, she said, was a Spanish officer in a distant part of the kingdom; he might, or he might not, still be living. But yesterday she and this her young sister were able to live in affluence and in a handsome house; to-day they knew not where to lay their heads, where to get a change of raiment or a morsel of bread. Her house, she said, was a wreck; and, to show the indignities to which they had been subjected, she pointed to where the blood was still trickling down their necks, caused by the wrenching of their ear-rings through the flesh by the hands of worse than savages, who would not take the trouble to unclasp them!

"For herself, she said, she cared not; but for the agitated and almost unconscious maiden by her side, whom she had but lately received over from the hands of her conventual instructresses, she was in despair, and knew not what to do; and that, in the rapine and ruin which was at that moment desolating the city, she saw no security for her but the seemingly indelicate one she had adopted–of coming to the camp and throwing themselves upon the protection of any British officer who would afford it; and so great, she said, was her faith in our national character, that she knew the appeal would not be made in vain, nor the confidence abused. Nor was it made in vain! Nor could it be abused, for she stood by the side of an angel! A being more transcendingly lovely I had never before seen–one more amiable I have never yet known!

"Fourteen summers had not yet passed over her youthful countenance, which was of a delicate freshness–more English than Spanish; her face, though not perhaps rigidly beautiful, was nevertheless so remarkably handsome, and so irresistibly attractive, surmounting a figure cast in nature's fairest mould, that to look at her was to love her; and I did love her, but I never told my love, and in the mean time another and a more impudent fellow stepped in and won her! But yet I was happy, for in him she found such a one as her loveliness and her misfortunes claimed–a man of honour, and a husband in every way worthy of her!"

That “impudent fellow/man of honour” was a twenty-five-year-old brigade-major named Harry Smith, well-liked and known for his fiery spirit and bravery in battle. From all accounts, it appears to have been love at first sight between him and young Juana. He married her two days later, borrowing a Catholic priest from an Irish brigade to officiate, and for the remainder of the Peninsular War Juana accompanied her Enrique (as she called him) from battlefield to battlefield, traveling with the baggage train and sleeping in the open. Her beauty, courage, and unflagging spirits earned her the devotion of the men of the 95th and she became something of a pet to Wellington, who avuncularly called her “his Juanita’. Apart from the months when Harry went to fight in America during the War of 1812, they were never separated…including at the Battle of Waterloo, where the now 17-year-old Juana waited anxiously in Brussels (and incidentally left a fascinating account of her experiences, which included being mistakenly told that Harry was dead).

After Napoleon’s defeat, life did not calm much for Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Harry (and Juana) served in South Africa, India (where he earned his knighthood and a baronetcy as well as the rank of major-general), and then back in South Africa again, where he was made governor of Cape Colony…and where the city of Ladysmith was named after Juana. They finally wound up back in England, where Harry, now a lieutenant-general, continued to serve as commander of the army’s western and northern districts until his death in 1860. Juana herself lived until 1872, missing her Harry but much loved by her friends and Harry’s family.

Now, how’s that for a romantic life?

If you’d like to learn more about Juana and Harry, check out Georgette Heyer’s extensively researched novel, The Spanish Bride, and Harry’s own memoir, published in 1901 and available free online.

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