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Juan Valera (1824–1905). Pepita Jimenez.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

The Novel in Spain

THE THREE modern Spanish novels, “Pepita Jiménez,” by Juan Valera; “The Fourth Estate,” by Armando Palacio Valdés; and “Doña Perfecta,” by Benito Pérez Galdós, are typical of the life of Spain, seen from various points of view—but all Spanish points of view—of to-day. They are not only artistic books of fiction, but sociological and psychological documents of the greatest value. Of the three, “Pepita Jiménez” is the most charming and characteristic; and it, of the three, is least touched by the French influence of the naturalistic school. Yet, if one compares the masterpiece of Fernan Caballero, which is “The Sea Gull,” with a novel like “The Swan of Villamorta,” by her successor, Madame Pardo Bazán, one finds that there is something in the genius of Spanish literature itself not unrelated to the less “scientific” and less repellent form of naturalism. Both in “Pepita Jiménez” and “The Fourth Estate” there is that “complete synthesis of gravity of matter and gaiety of manner,” which, as Coventry Patmore says, “is the glittering crown of art, and which out of Spanish literature is to be found only in Shakespeare, and even in him in a far less obvious degree.” Valera’s masterpiece is a masterpiece of exquisite, cheerful, sensuous, but not sensual, art. It is difficult to find words to express its high value, and no words can express the nameless charm of personality which permeates its style and which is not lost in our colder English.

Of these three typical novelists, the author of “Pepita Jiménez” is the most joyously in love with life. In “Doña Perfecta,” Galdós, as in all his best-known works, is almost dangerously in love with his thesis—less so, perhaps, in “Doña Perfecta” than in his more ponderous novel “Gloria,” and the gaiety of the manner of Valdés sometimes leaves the English-speaking reader in doubt as to whether he takes life seriously. The realism of Galdós is more philosophical than that of Valdés, more abstract, and not impartial at all. In fact, the “tendency” with Galdós sometimes almost obliterates the “novel” quality, and we hear the preacher through the thin veil of fiction. On the other hand, the opponent to his doctrine, though his colleague in manner, Padre Coloma, is even more gloomy in his realism than Galdós. The hopelessness of “Currita,” Coloma’s masterpiece, is even deeper than that of “Doña Perfecta,” where one feels the coming of the storm from the very beginning. Neither Coloma, the defender of the faith as held by the orthodox Spaniard, nor Galdós, the iconoclast, looks on Spain with cheerful eyes. If in “Currita” the society of Madrid is depicted as holding only male and female rakes, in “Doña Perfecta” the society of the provinces is composed of bigots without hearts and even without common sense.

“The Fourth Estate” is the best example of Spanish realism extant. Valdés knows the sea—witness “The Joy of Captain Ribot”—and the land by the sea as well. The town of Sarrio we can not see with our eyes, we can not know the color of its walls, nor touch the furniture of its clubs, but we know it in reality as well as we know Anthony Trollope’s “Barchester,” George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” Mrs. Gaskell’s “Cranford,” Mrs.Oliphant’s “Carlingford,” or Mrs. Deland’s “Old Chester”—as well as we know Father Goriot’s boarding-house, or the interior of Mr. Squeers’s school. Valdés owes much to Balzac, but here, too, when we speak of “influences,” we must allow greatly for a certain Spanish quality, frequent in Calderon and Cervantes, which is not the realism of Balzac, but different from it because it is not self-conscious. Now, Galdós is often self-conscious, and Madame Pardo Bazán always is so; Valdés makes his picture with a light and cheerful touch, inexorably true, but with no constant assertion that he paints for the sake of truth.

The tragedy of “The Fourth Estate” is as inexorable as that of “Doña Perfecta,” but it is not the main thing. All the life in the book is not subservient to this tragedy. There is, as in life, much comedy and many sidelights from the sun. And the ending of Gonzalo, his refusal to live after the loss of a woman he loved, whom he ought to have hated, is brought about by the processes of his soul, and not by any vulgar use of machinery. The end is, as Robert Louis Stevenson once said in regard to a story of his own, “inevitable”—it could not have been otherwise. And, after all, this is the only excuse for a tragedy in a novel—even in a novel of Continental realism, which differs as much from our realism as gray from complete black. The plain speaking of Valdés has no pruriency in it. It is the plain speaking of Calderon, not the self-conscious analysis of Bourget or the deliberate pruriency of Zola, in which the roots of life, which are in the mud, are exposed at the expense of the splendid blooms that open to heaven. Valdés, in “The Fourth Estate,” is less religious than Valera, in “Pepita Jiménez”; but one feels that he is writing of a people who, as René Bazin says of the English, “still penetrated with Christianity, conserve, from their traditions, a divine ideal mingled with all human appetities.”

“Let us take, for instance, the central figure in “The Fourth Estate,” Cecilia. She is purity itself, though she loves Gonzalo with all her heart, even after his marriage with her sister. Christianity, working in one of the highest types of womanhood, could alone have produced such a creature. Don Rosendo and his wife, Doña Paula, are most carefully done—touch by touch their characters are painted until they stand before us, as if we saw them.

Doña Paula’s progress from the costume of the cigarettemaker to the gloves and hat of the great lady, and its effect on the conservative minds of Sarrio, is shown to us rather than told. “Whenever Doña Paula appeared in public with the abhorred hat upon her head, or with any other departure from her old attire, she was always greeted with a murmur of disapproval. The fault of the matter lay in her never having resented, in public or in private, or even in the sanctum of her own feelings, this malignant treatment of her fellow townsfolk. She considered it natural and reasonable, and it never occurred to her that it ought not to have been; her ideas of conventionality had never prompted her to rebel against the tyranny of public opinion. She believed in all good faith that in adopting the gloves, the mantilla, or the hat, she had committed a breach of laws both human and divine, and that the murmurs and mocking glances were the just retribution for the infraction.”

Doña Paula, married to a man much above her in rank, ardently desiring the prerogatives of her new class, and foolishly wretched when she acquires them, develops, as the story goes on, until we forget her frivolities and follies and learn to respect her. Don Rosendo, the rich, sentimental, and vain philanthropist, is a man who could only have existed in a Latin country, and in a town like Sarrio. The triumph of the character drawing of Valdés is in Venturita, the younger sister—charming, beautiful, seductive—who allured Gonzalo from his duty and his contentment. In the figure of the Duke, the egotistic, sensual, esthetic, and blasé man of the old nobility, it is easy to recognize a modern type presented often by the pessimist, Padre Coloma; but Valdés makes him individual and novel. One of the steps that lead to the end is the noteworthy scene of the picture. It is not reticently done—the process of the unveiling of the husband’s eyes is not discreetly softened, as it is in the case of Rawdon Crawley by Thackeray. Nothing is left in doubt, though the end is different. Rawdon Crawley did not love his wife as Gonzalo loved Venturita, nor had he surrendered honor itself for her, and he would not die because, though she had treacherously betrayed him, he could live without her.

Cecilia makes the greatest sacrifice a woman can make, that of her good name—not to save her sister, but to save the man she loves from the madness she knows will come upon him should he learn the truth. And, in this episode, the fineness of the art of Valdés is shown. It is an old situation—as old as the earliest Italian romance; it reeks with the smell of gas and the orange-peel of the melodramas of the nineteenth century. Many ladies in the theatre and in the novels exist only that, at the right moment, they should put themselves innocently in an equivocal position, to thrill the reader with their heroism. But the art of Valdés makes it new, and deprives it both of stupidity and indecency. About the central persons of the tragedy walk, talk, laugh, grieve, love, and hate the burghers of the town of Sarrio—this town of the fourth estate; no two are alike; the smallest person of the crowd is distinct and differentiated.

The minor characters in “Pepita Jiménez” are admirably drawn, too, but there are fewer of them; by comparison, one can not help wishing that Valdés had more of Valera’s cheerful tolerance. He is sometimes relentlessly pitiless, as in the case of Galino Maza, the retired naval officer, of M. Delaunay, the Belgian engineer, and of the eager agitator, Sinforoso Suarez; and this is the more remarkable as there are occasions of great seriousness when he is almost absurdly gay. These passages have the effect on the reader that the reply of an amiable Tagalog, in Philippine “store” clothes, had on the grave clergyman who asked him what his neighbors would do to the public school teachers when these devoted folk should go among them. “Kill them, of course,” the ingenuous savage replied, with a fetching and happy smile. One forgives Valdés because there are only a few flies of this kind in the amber.

There is nothing to forgive in “Pepita Jiménez”—the style and the fable go well together. Here, as Coventry Patmore says, “there is no sense of dislocation or incompatibility between the natural and spiritual.” To the Puritan mind, Pepita is very shocking, and the means by which she awakens the mistaken young acolyte from his dreams of an impossible mysticism as horrible as the subterfuge of Marianna in “Measure for Measure.” But the wise old ecclesiastic, who knows that the perfection of celibacy is not for all, watches the case, smiles, and forgives. English taste and English morals require that Don Luis—in fiction—should kill himself after the manner of Lucretia; but Valera is less exacting, and more true to life. The preface to “Pepita Jiménez” is one of the most delicious pieces of writing in any language. To the English mind the story represents the failure of the ideal to overcome the material—a failing which, under the circumstances, was necessary. To the Spanish mind, imbued with the principles of Catholicism, the motive is entirely different; Don Luis, the false mystic, does not fall essentially; he rises to a knowledge of his own nature, and he is happy because he, in time to save himself, recognizes in time its limitations and its true vocation. It would be a bold man who would excuse the grave Don Luis and the pious Pepita; let us leave them, as Valera leaves them, very charitably and gaily.

There is very little cheerfulness in “Doña Perfecta.” There is, however, great power of description and terrible intensity of bitterness. One leaves Sarrio with regret; one even wants to go back to the spot where agonized Gonzalo dropped into the sea, to observe Cecilia, with his children, praying in the church; but one does not care to return to the town of Orbajosa, with all its dignities. Galdós’s Rosarito is sweet, innocent, lovely, the Lucy of Lammermoor or the Ophelia of modern Spanish literature; she is more like Lucy and less like Ophelia. Pepe is a conceited young fellow, of good intentions and fine talent, who has neither common sense nor tact. The town is full of prejudices. Pepe, fresh from the scientific schools of Madrid, outrages them all. In spite of this, he has our sympathies, for all the world loves a lover. Doña Perfecta, proud, cold, unscrupulous, mistakes bigotry for spirituality and the exterior form for the sacred heart beneath the symbols of religion. She is beloved in the town because she seems to be serenely good—and she is good when no human being crosses her will. Galdós seems to hate her from the first moment she enters; she is to point his moral that religion—of the formal sort—destroys the law rather than fulfils it. And she does point it with a vengeance.

Rosarito, her daughter of pearl, of alabaster, compact of soft sighs and tender fears, and devotion to the things of Heaven, loves Pepe. And he, as his father intends, loves her. But Doña Perfecta and all the country about conspire against him—all, according to their own point of view, for the love of God. They are too blind to see that, under the “scientific” bumptiousness of Pepe, there is a faith in God as strong and more simple than their own. Doña Perfecta draws out the evil from those around her, that Pepe, who has outraged all her beliefs, opinions, and prejudices, may be forced back to Madrid. Hypocrisy and hatred spring up wherever she moves, seemingly as pure and kind as the Lady in Milton’s “Comus.” Rosarito’s love awakens depth in what seems surface shallowness, and she stakes all on her faith in Pepe. The intense scene at the foot of the crucifix is the great moment of the novel; and, after that, Pepe’s awful dread grows on him. It is the dread of a soul in the dark, surrounded by avenging forms. Rosarito fails him through weakness, and the end comes; but the real tragedy is not for them that die, but for them that live. “Doña Perfecta” is a realistic novel, not of detail, or analysis, not of physiology, but of psychology. Its thesis is modern—of the time of the beginning of Darwinism—but its pathos and humanity are of all time. It would have been better if the thesis were not so evident, for then Doña Perfecta might have been permitted to have one moment of womanly weakness, and this would have redeemed her. With all its bitterness and didacticism, “Doña Perfecta” deserves, as a sociological study, a place in this trilogy representing the modern novels of Spain. More than that, there are passages of such luminous atmosphere that only an author with more genius than talent could have written them.