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The Torquemada novels: A Summary for English-speaking Readers

by Rhian Davies

In 1889 Galdós wrote Torquemada en la hoguera for the important cultural review La España Moderna. The novel is centred on the Madrid moneylender Francisco Torquemada, who had previously appeared in other Galdós novels, notably La de Bringas (1884) and Fortunata y Jacinta (1886-87). Like his namesake, the Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada, Francisco de Torquemada, otherwise known as 'el Peor', is renowned for his cruelty towards his fellow men. Events take a new turn when Torquemada's son, Valentín, contracts meningitis. The miser, heartbroken at the thought of losing this child prodigy, who, with his mathematical skills could have helped Torquemada with his business, wonders why such a fate has befallen him. Struck by some words of his friend, Bailón, the once-time priest turned revolutionary, whose meaning he does not fully comprehend, Torquemada convinces himself that he has offended 'la Humanidad' and decides that the only way in which he can save his son is to mend his ways. He therefore sets out to act charitably. Inevitably, his fellow men are suspicious of this sudden change in the miser's ways. His tenants are wary and feel that the world must be coming to an end for Torquemada to apparently reform. The miser responds with exasperation and curses them. Similarly, when a debtor Don Juan refuses a loan, generously offered interest-free, he is angered. He always finds it difficult to be wholly and naturally charitable: hence when he sees a beggar freezing in the street his initial thought is not to give him his best cape but to go home to fetch his second-best. Likewise, when given the chance to help Isidora and her common-law husband Martín, an artist, who is dying of tuberculosis, he gives them money but takes Martín's pictures as a 'souvenir'. Torquemada's actions are rudely questioned by the old maid-servant Tía Roma, who has served the household for years, having previously worked for Torquemada's deceased wife, Doña Silvia, and who dotes on his two children, Rufina and Valentín. She declares that Torquemada cannot possibly bribe God. When Valentín dies, Torquemada is grief-stricken and suffers an epileptic fit. Just as Tía Roma predicted, he returns to his old ways and swears that he will gain revenge.

The later Torquemada novels, Torquemada en la cruz (1893), Torquemada en el purgatorio (1894) and Torquemada y San Pedro (1895) describe the miser's rise through the social ranks. In Torquemada en la cruz (1893) he is introduced to the aristocratic Aguila family, the sisters Cruz and Fidela and their blind brother Rafael, who had recently lost their wealth. They have a social position but no money, unlike Torquemada, who, in spite of his money, does not have a respectable position in the eyes of society. The two factors, money and social standing, are combined when Torquemada marries Fidela, who later bears him a son, again called Valentín, but this time the child is not a prodigy but 'un monstruo'. As Torquemada's social position improves he becomes increasingly conscious of his speech habits and, striving to achieve a more elegant form of self-expression, he begins to imitate the turns of phrase of other members of aristocratic society, particularly José Donoso, the loyal friend of the Aguila family. At the same time he is somewhat reluctantly persuaded to improve his dress and living conditions, principally by Cruz and, by the beginning of Torquemada y San Pedro, he is the 'Marqués de San Eloy' and the owner of the ducal 'Palacio de Gravelinas', complete with all the appropriate furnishings and fittings, including a gallery of paintings once owned by the Duke of Osuna. Nevertheless, Torquemada's life is anything but happy. Fidela dies and he is left acutely ill at ease as a member of the aristocratic society. He feels tied to his roots - so much so that, towards the end of Torquemada y San Pedro he ventures back into the poor district of Madrid, which he used to know so well, and enjoys a meal of veal and beans there. His pleasure is short-lived for he is taken fatally ill. At his deathbed the priest Gamborena, nicknamed 'San Pedro' by Torquemada, who feels that he bears a great resemblance to the beggar to whom he gave his cloak in Torquemada en la hoguera, tries to encourage the miser to repent of his sins. Torquemada dies uttering the words 'Conversión' but it is left to the reader to decide whether he was indeed repenting of his sins or whether he was still thinking about his project for the conversion of the national debt.

The Torquemada novels are closely linked to the events and ideas of nineteenth-century Spanish society. They explore the evolution of society and the rise of the nouveaux riches and express the diversity of responses which such social mobility evoked, ranging from the hostility of the blind Rafael, who in his despair commits suicide, and Torquemada's constant unease to the openly predatory reactions of Cruz, who is prepared to do anything to retrieve her respectable social position. The novels also consider the significance of appearances, of social traits, and of what often turn out to be superficial social norms. It could even be argued that they are closely related to the phenomenon of regeneración in the Nineteenth Century. It is perhaps significant that Galdós should have chosen to name his protagonist after Tomás de Torquemada, for the Inquisition was often a theme of the regeneracionista treatises of the period. Some argued that the Inquisition had isolated Spain from her European counterparts and condemned the country to decadence. There are, indeed, many readings that can be applied to the novels: such is the universality of Galdós's novels, which, in lending themselves to multiple readings, constantly renew their appeal for readers of all backgrounds and all beliefs.

The novels of the Torquemada series are available in one volume in the English translation by Frances López-Morillas (London: Andre Deutsch, 1988).

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