Friday, 13 May 2011

Tales from Argentina – The O’Gormans......... (Part 5 of 6)


La Perichona started to fail in 1847, when she was 72.  Camila visited her as often as she could, and while she was away Ladislao followed a pattern.  He would pine for her and then grow in resolve that this dangerous clandestine relationship should end.  She would return and realise whence his thoughts had been turning and would bring him back to her in the first few minutes of their meeting.  They desired each other, that much was not in question, but aside from the fact that there were no opportunities when they could be alone for long enough to love each other physically, Ladislao was too tortured by what he was doing to think beyond his mind and his heart.  It could not continue… and yet it had to.

After several months of travelling to Matanza to see her grandmother and the tortured yet sweet conversations with him on her return, she made a bold suggestion.

“Come with me on my next visit” she coaxed “I want you to meet my grandmother before it is too late.”

In reply to his concerns on how they would explain his presence, it was clear that she had thought it through from every angle.  She had no qualms about the lies they would have to tell.  Her grandmother she knew would be the only person who would not judge them and she desperately wanted her blessing.

She was the stronger of the two, the protector, the thinker, the planner.  Ladislao was fearful of divine retribution and knew beyond doubt that he was destined to suffer it.  For having known such happiness he was resigned to it.  He did not doubt that at some point he would find the strength and the way to overcome the power of his attraction.

Camila for her part was fearless in the face of the inevitable condemnation of the society they lived in and trusted that after a difficult time things would resolve themselves in the end.  However she felt powerless before his fear of the wrath of God.  People she could fight, but not his belief in God.

All this and more they discussed in the carriage on the way to Matanza; conscious of the coachman they sat opposite each other with legs touching, comforted by each other's warmth.  Blanquita was waiting for them when they arrived, excited with her news that she was expecting a child after many years of believing that she was barren.  She took it as a sign from God that He had given her a child once she had done the right thing and married Pedro.

Camila asked her grandmother “what should I do when I don’t know what to do?”

Without hesitation the old lady replied “Simulate dementia, like me.”

“And if I can’t?”

“Then be a great lady”.

Later she brought Ladislao to meet her and they toasted each other’s health with brandy.   Camila noted with delight that her grandmother and Ladislao instantly understood one another.  When the alcohol had made her drowsy she told them she had a ‘favour’ to ask them.  Because it was dark and cold outside and they were some way from the house, she wanted them to stay the night in the room at the back of her cottage.

And so it was that Camila and Ladislao loved each other at last in a dusty room which contained only a crystal chandelier, a crucifix and the four-poster bed that former viceroy Liniers had had built specially for her all those years before, with its faded drapes and gilded columns.  The awkwardness and joy and the blessed sleep were such as they had never known.

There was a new determination in Ladislao when they returned to Buenos Aires.  For the first time he was giving serious consideration to the possibility of leaving the church and marrying Camila.  From a practical point of view his immediate problem was money.  Although he was loth to do so, he wrote to his uncle, the governor of Tucumán, asking him for funds.

In October the British blockade of the port of Buenos Aires was lifted, and Rosas received much praise, and a month later his greatest opponent Urquiza defeated the governor of Corrientes in battle, strengthening his hold on the province of Corrientes.

In that same month of November La Perichona refused to get out of bed.  They said of her “That old crone was the Viceroy’s mistress”, and there she lay in her bed made of jacaranda wood, no longer coquettish and triumphant but weighed down by the years and heartaches.

Camila spent time at her side, but she would barely open her eyes.  One day she was able to speak and indicated to Camila that she wanted to go.

“Why?” asked Camila despairingly “I need you”.

“No you don’t” she said in a firmer voice than of late.  “I was waiting till you no longer needed me, and that time has come.  Your affair with the priest has made you strong.”  She closed her eyes.

She died a few days later on the first day of December, and with sadness Camila travelled back to Buenos Aires with the coffin, her grandmother’s written legacy resounding in her ears.  With La Perichona’s death something had settled in her mind.  She felt her grandmother’s strength within her despite the ache of losing her. 

Like the other famous viceroy’s mistress in Peru, La Perichola,  they dressed her in white sackcloth for the wake and she was buried at La Recoleta cemetery the following day.  Although she is listed as being there, no one to this day knows exactly where she was buried.  What is  known is that she is not in the O’Gorman vault.

The young lovers’ discussions about their future became more urgent.  A blow for Ladislao was the knowledge from Camila that even if the Governor of Tucumán sent him money, as far as the O’Gormans were concerned it would make no difference.  They would never allow them to marry.  This put them on an equal footing; both would have to give up everything to be together - he the security of being a priest, she the security of being an O’Gorman.

They would flee to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, they decided.  La Perichona had often extolled its charms to Camila.  Adolfo O’Gorman would be setting off for the farm in Matanza on 7th December, and the clergy in Buenos Aires would be in mid exodus at the village of Luján for a few days to celebrate the festival of the Virgin of Luján on Sunday 5th December.  The dates seemed propitious.  They decided that Saturday 11th  would be the day they would flee together.

It was near midnight by the time Camila had been able to slip out of the house unseen, get to the Socorro church and change into the travelling clothes she had left the day before.  Ladislao fetched the horses and they mounted and rode in silence for several hours, their excitement at what they were doing carefully subdued.

After several days they reached the cathedral of Luján where the festival of the virgin had taken place the week before.  Here they conducted their own marriage ceremony officiated by Ladislao himself.  Before God they swore to be faithful and to look after each other always.

They continued with their journey at dawn the following morning, having to pay a local to tell them the way to the Pilar river, where they intended to get a boat.  The local was curious to see a young couple out and about so early, and Ladislao was surprised and impressed when Camila replied to his questions telling lies naturally and confidently.  Her name was Florentina and her merchant husband of a year was named José, she explained, and they were from the northern province of Jujuy.  Buenos Aires didn’t suit her husband and her mother-in-law didn’t suit her, so they were looking to make a fresh start somewhere else.

At a price, the local offered to take them to Rosario in the province of Santa Fé – nice place, he said – and they accepted.  When they arrived several days later they put in motion the next part of the plan – they reported that they had lost their passports and needed new documents.

In the meantime Doña Joaquina was beside herself with worry when Camila had not returned home.  She was thankful at first that her husband was away, since his anger did not bear thinking about.  The church was the first place she looked, but the caretaker told her that Father Gutiérrez would not know either because he was also away on retreat.  And then they looked at each other with horror, and knew what the other was thinking. 

When she returned home she summoned her sons and told them what had happened and her suspicions.  They immediately sent an urgent message to their father in Matanza.  Adolfo O’Gorman sent for Blanquita and Pedro, who kept their thoughts to themselves and denied all knowledge of Camila’s whereabouts.

“She has her grandmother’s sluttish blood” he spat, “she’ll be going straight into that same cottage as soon as I catch up with her.  And as for you – “he shouted at Blanquita – “this would never have happened if you had stayed with your charge as was your duty.  This is entirely your fault!”  He then departed for the city.

If Joaquina had hoped for consolation from her husband on his arrival she was to be disappointed.  He blamed his wife for her lack of authority over her youngest daughter.  “All you were born for was to bear and rear children” he ranted “and you couldn’t even do that properly!”

The women cried and wailed – Joaquina because of the humiliation visited upon them by her daughter and the insults showered on her by her husband, Clara because her future in-laws, the well-to-do Riglos family, had already cancelled their invitation for the O’Gormans to share the Christmas festivities with them, and Carmen cried with upset to see her father so angry.

Things got worse.  Eduardo reported that in ecclesiastical circles the word was spreading that Ladislao Gutiérrez was incapable of doing anything like this, and that it had all been planned by Camila.  Adolfo viewed the whole thing as a massive conspiracy against him.  First of all he had suffered the indignity of his mother’s ruined reputation; when he had buried her three weeks earlier he had felt that his shame and pain could be buried with her at last, and now this.  History was repeating itself with his daughter, and he was being humiliated by another daughter’s future in-laws.  And the Governor of Buenos Aires didn’t know about it yet.

He sat down and wrote him a letter the following day, by which time the stress had hardened his feelings.  He assured him that he had been on the farm when the elopement had occurred, that his sense of rectitude and the shame felt by his family made it imperative that all resources be made available to ensure they were caught before Camila descended into infamy, and that the maximum penalties of the law should be applied to them.

Bishop Elortondo had worked hard to establish good relations between the Church and the government of Buenos Aires, and he greatly feared that this young man from Tucumán would be responsible for undoing all the good work.  Many other members of the clergy wrote to Rosas urging him to find and punish the couple for bringing the church’s reputation into disrepute, including representatives from the Irish clergy, who wanted her put to death.  Society ladies appealed to their diocesan bishops for reassurance because they felt that their daughters were no longer safe from priests who would prey upon them when they went to mass, the one place where they ought to be free from fear.  The rumour was that Camila had been abducted and raped.

Foreign nationals sought explanations from their embassies on the same subject, and wished to know whether their governments would protect them from this sort of infamy.  Even Sarmiento  from his exile in Chile published articles remarking on the abandonment of morals in Argentina and the culprit was the ‘Caligula of the River Plate’.

In Montevideo, Uruguay, where the anti-government faction had gathered, it was said that Camila had been kidnapped by the clergyman on Rosas’ orders.  The newspapers reported that she had planned to become a nun before the incident had occurred, and that before kidnapping her, Ladislao had stolen the jewels of the temple.

Chilean and Bolivian newspapers were now reporting on the case, seeing it as yet another sign of Rosas’ incompetent government and the spreading corruption in Argentina, where immoral clergymen were fleeing with young society ladies without the infamous Governor doing anything about it.

Questions were asked by the British Government.

All were agreed.  The couple needed to be found and an example made of them.

As for Rosas himself, he was incandescent with rage.  He cared little for the impropriety of the relationship.  He had after all been having an affair with a minor for many years and she had borne him children, Bishop Elortondo was living in a state of concubinage, and there were plenty of other examples where the clergy had not covered themselves with glory.  What angered  and upset him was that by running away they had, according to him, mocked his authority.  Ladislao was a representative of the clergy and Camila as a young girl of good family who had often been a guest at his home, and a friend of his daughter Manuelita – an insider.  He said as much to Eugenia, who tactfully tried to calm the situation.  When is was evident that he was intent upon the ultimate punishment she was shocked, and hurried to Manuelita to ask her to intercede.

“Not yet” Manuelita replied “he’s still too angry.  I’ll speak to them when they find her, he won’t have her shot.”

She had never dared marry for fear of her father’s anger, and this chit of a girl had given up her family and her world to be with the man she loved.  It was very perplexing.

Manuelita Rosas

Rosas was also angry that he had not been told of their elopement until 21st December, ten days after it had occurred, and received more letters from Bishop Elortondo and Adolfo O’Gorman explaining in very respectful terms why it hadn’t been their fault.  The situation had caught the church, the government and the O’Gorman family in complete disarray, and much energy was spent on blaming each other.

On 22nd December the foreign minister sent an urgent communication to all the governors of the territory advising of the disappearance of Camila and Ladislao and that it was thought they were heading for Bolivia.  For the sake of the ‘decorum of the Church’ and the ‘desolation of her family’, they needed to be caught as soon as possible and sent back to Buenos Aires to face the full punishment of the law.  Fifty leaflets were attached to each letter with their detailed descriptions.  Ladislao Gutiérrez was described as average height, slim, olive skin, large and prominent dark eyes, dark tight curly hair, short beard, Camila O’Gorman as tall, brown eyes, white skin, brown hair, slim, chipped front tooth.  Unusually for those days, the copy of Adolfo O’Gorman’s letter to Rosas was attached in which he begged for their capture and punishment.

Rather than defend himself through the newspapers, which he despised, Rosas wrote to a high ranking dignitary in the catholic church in the knowledge that the letter would be leaked.   On 17th January 1848 he told him that Gutiérrez’ bad behaviour did not implicate the Church, for there were good and bad people at every level of society.  What was important was to punish them, as an example to others and a clear message that disorder, immorality and libertine behaviour would not be tolerated.  However, the church was not going to be excused altogether.  He was surprised on two counts, he said.  Firstly that one so young at 24 should be ordained as priest.  He did not recall the government ever approving this.  Secondly that he had not been told for 10 days of their disappearance.  He could only assume it had been an oversight.

Juan Manuel de Rosas

Rosas evidently sensed that this scandal would have far-reaching consequences for him.  He sent police officers out far and wide, and one of them struck lucky.  In Luján they found the local who had taken them to Rosario.  He didn’t know what all the fuss was about, he said.  Florentina and José were a nice couple; she had sung with the driver most of the way.  He also reported that they both wore green spectacles.


On 30th January Blanquita gave birth to a boy, Belisario.  She would have liked Camila to be godmother, but Pedro wisely suggested that she should wait to see if they were caught.  After all, the most that could happen to her was that they would put her in a convent, and they could visit her there.

Camila and Ladislao meanwhile were happy and relieved to have obtained new documents.  He was now Máximo Brandier and she was Valentina San.  They continued to make their way north east upriver, towards the part of the country where Rosas’ enemy Urquiza had mustered his forces, the provinces of Entre Ríos and Corrientes.  There was no indication that anybody knew them, and they were relaxed.  On 3rd February they arrived at the river port of Goya, province of Corrientes.  They were far from Buenos Aires and felt safe at last.

Justo José de Urquiza

The O’Gorman family made their way to Matanza for the summer, as they had done every year, and as was her habit, when she arrived Joaquina went straight to her room.  Blanquita found her there and they cried together over Camila, though when she left her mistress to sleep, Blanquita reflected that they had been crying for different reasons.  Doña Joaquina was crying for the ruin of her family’s reputation and her other daughters’ future prospects.

Camila and Ladislao loved Goya – it was peaceful and reminded Ladislao of his home village in Tucumán.  They decided to stay there for a while to earn some money, which would enable them eventually to continue to their chosen destination, Rio de Janeiro.  She had decided that when they reached Brazil she would write letters to her father and to the governor, and she knew they would understand.

In Goya they learned that the local school had no teachers, and having found a building for rent, they decided to open their own school.  The landlord allowed them the first month rent free.  Soon their natural aptitude for teaching began to show, and they had almost more pupils than they could cope with. They were enjoying themselves in a way they had never thought possible.

Meanwhile Rosas was calling upon his legal advisors to scour medieval texts for punishments that matched the present day circumstances, and several were found which stated that the priest should be put to death.  There was one law which was found to fit the bill perfectly, handed down from the Castilian king Alfonso the Wise.  One of these advisors questioned the wisdom of applying 13th century Spanish law to 19th century circumstances in Argentina, but it was clear that Rosas was not going to listen.  As far as he was concerned he would merely be applying the law, it didn’t matter how old it was.

But they had to be found first, and he was furious that there were still no signs of them.

‘Valentina’ and ‘Máximo’ settled happily into their new life, his only problem being having to keep up with their fictitious former lives as invented by Camila.  He had troubled dreams, but as soon as he woke he would see Camila and all would be well.  In March she discovered with joy that she was expecting their child.

One day in June 1848 they found a letter slipped under their door when they returned home, from a local society lady inviting them to a party on 14th June.  It was hoped they would attend because the community wished to thank them personally for the wonderful work they were doing with the children of the village.  It was signed by Ana, the wife of the Justice of the Peace in Goya, Esteban Perichon.

Camila knew that surname well – it was her grandmother’s.  She remembered being told that when her family had arrived from the island of Réunion in 1792, some of them had headed north to Corrientes.  She realised that this family must be their descendants and this was her family.  From that point onwards it was a foregone conclusion that they would attend, whether or not it was wise.

Sources: Marta Merkin: Camila O'Gorman, La historia de un amor inoportuno (Editorial Sudamericana, 1997)

Images: from Google, and stills from the film Camila, Directed by Maria Luisa Bemberg
Next Post:  The net closes in on the runaways

Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archive

A Sunday in Bristol


1 comment:

Joyful said...

What chaos ... all caused by love. Just think how much simpler things might've been if Ladislao was not a priest. Then again, he was poor so perhaps things would have been nearly as bad.

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