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Hispanic Studies

The First Annual Pérez Galdós Lecture:

Pérez Galdós: The Illusion of Life itself

by the

Rt Hon Roy Hattersley

No doubt many of you are wondering why I - a superannuated politician with little or no knowledge of Spanish literature - should have been asked to give a lecture on Benito Pérez Galdós. It is not for me to speculate on the reasons for the invitation. I can, however, tell you why I accepted. First because I was invited. For thirty years it has been my practice to accept prestigious and demanding speaking engagements - if the proposed date was many months ahead. And old habits die hard. Second, I knew that once I was committed I would be forced to fill a yawning gap in my knowledge. Doctor Johnson, entering the City of Bristol, was asked by an outraged lady why his dictionary defined a postern as a horse's instep. The great man answered, "Ignorance, Madam. Pure ignorance". I was similarly motivated. But I think of myself not as the S. J. Perelman character who thought that he would win the Open Golf Championship as soon as he had time to buy a set of clubs. I accepted because of a desire to improve. Most importantly, I knew - indeed it was all that I knew about him - that Galdós wrote what are described as realistic novels. That form of fiction obsessed me until I got the genre out of my system by writing three realistic novels myself.

But I do not speak to you as either an expert or an authority. I am the interested - dare I say curious - layman. Professor Round has helped me over some linguistic difficulties and some cultural complications, but the opinions are mine. T.S. Eliot said "literary criticism is the proper occupation of the civilised mind" and claimed that every educated person had the capacity to make judgement about both prose and poetry. We shall see.

Realism, in the English novel - particularly the nineteenth-century novel - is defined in many ways. The most rigorous definition was provided by Raymond Williams. Realism, he said, requires more than plausible plot, credible characters, convincing dialogue and background descriptions which illustrate details of contemporary life. Realism must provide an accurate picture of a time and a place - its mores, its standards and its values. If we read Middlemarch, we discover what life was like in a Midlands market town in the early nineteenth century and we learn about the social upheavals that affected that society. The Old Wives' Tale reveals, in extraordinary detail, how the lower middle classes lived in the Potteries of the 1860s and 70s. The same is true of Clayhanger. The reflections of time and place become - in genuinely realistic fiction - a revelation of convictions and commitments. England, during the nineteenth century experienced a political (indeed a philosophic) as well as economic upheaval. In consequence, realistic novels written in and about that time have to illuminate shifting attitudes towards property, democracy, science and religion. It is against those English - you may say insular - criteria that I want to measure the novels of Benito Pérez Galdós. I do so not in any competitive sense. This is not the European Cup Final. I simply seek to discover if the father of Spanish realism would be regarded as a realist novelist in a different literary culture.

I have no doubts that the important quality of the realistic novel is its ability to represent the spirit of the age about which it is written. And it is on that aspect of Galdós's work that I want to spend most of my time. But let me dispose of two other criteria - items in the catalogue about which my ignorance of the language prevents me from making anything like an adequate judgement. In consequence, my comments about his powers of description and talent for reproducing dialogue are no more than a superficial impression.

Galdós is generally admired for his descriptions of spectacular events - particularly riots. His account of the rising against the French in The l9th of March and the 2nd of May is often compared with Dickens's description of the Gordon riots in Barnaby Rudge. I do not take that famous example for the simple reason that holding the readers' attention by describing a riot is not half so great an achievement as maintaining their interest in something far more prosaic as in this passage from Fortunata and Jacinta.

On the other side of the orchard, the most isolated and ugliest place, there was a shed under which there were empty or broken flowerpots, a heap of manure that looked like coffee grounds, two wheelbarrows, hoses and other assorted garden tools. There had once been a lair there, and in it a pig fed on the leftovers, but the town hall had ruled that the animal had to be removed, so the lair was empty now.

I admit that I prefer the brief revealing glimpse to the paragraph of inevitable ponderous detail - Tess of the D'Urbervilles noticing the milk churns ready to be taken by rail to London and wondering about what life is like in the capital and the Far From The Madding Crowd wind tearing at the hay-rick before Gabriel Oak rescues Bathsheba's crops from Farmer Boldwood's folly. But how does that paragraph from Fortunata and Jacinta compare with (say) the descriptions of Mrs Baines's kitchen in The Old Wives' Tale and the printing shop in Clayhanger?

It seems to me to lack their elegance but share their basic value. It is a graphic description of the ugly end of the orchard and it helps us prepare to appreciate the action which takes place in front of the literary scenery. The orchard is in an asylum. (I use the description of the institution which was acceptable in Galdós's time.) Against its squalid background, one of the inmates is about to describe the vision of the Virgin Mary which has recently appeared to her. True to the spirit of Fortunata and Jacinta, it illustrates what Galdós thought was the truth of contemporary Spain - Christianity's mysteries superimposed on the reality of squalor and deprivation. The realism is in the representation of the Zeitgeist.

I wish I could be equally complementary about the realism of Galdós's dialogue. Direct speech always poses a problem for realistic novels. For the author is required to reproduce the colloquial language of the lower classes. Lawrence and Hardy are constantly derided for their embarrassing imitations of accent and dialogue. The death (in fact murder) scene in Sons and Lovers is rendered almost comic by its attempts to replicate Nottinghamshire trauma. I fear that Galdós does no better. Fortunata, the working class mistress of the wealthy Santa Cruz, considers marrying Maxi, a member of the respectable middle classes

"Me marry? No bloomin' fear! And marry that weakling! Live with him all the time? all day every day and all night as well! But just think of it, girl. To be a decent woman, married, Mrs So-and-So, a respectable person!"

Believe me, that is a translation of a passage from Fortunata and Jacinta not a paragraph from an East Enders script. It sounds more like caricature than real dialogue. Certainly there is a problem with the translation; with Galdós there often is. But he had a problem too in making his characters talk, rather than make rhetorical speeches at one another - something which even in Spanish, does not mix easily with natural and informal modes of speech. His technique had improved after he completed his early historical novels - work which seems to me to be more a tribute to his industry than to his literary skill. It is to the substance of his more mature work that I now turn.

The novels proper, as I shall call them, were written in and about a period in Spain which was characterised by constant discontent and sudden upheaval. Some of them are identified, in one way or another, with years of particular revolutionary significance. Galdós's very first published novel, The Golden Fountain, was written at or about the time of the revolution of 1868 and reflected the views of the time in its treatment of the period of Liberal government in Spain between 1820 and 1823. Sixteen years on in his career, Galdós produced That Bringas Woman, a novel set against the events of the 1868 revolution. Nazarín, written in 1895, is clearly influenced not simply by the Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo Xlll, but that pontiff's public attempt to reconcile the Spanish hierarchy with the increasingly rebellious Catholic workers. In short, to write realistic novels about Spain in the second half of the nineteenth century required the production of work which, to the superficial and uninformed twentieth century mind, seems highly unrealistic.

But then life sometimes imitates art and what seems absurd in fiction suddenly becomes part of real life. In El amigo Manso, Don Jose María Manso, having made a fortune outside his native country, forms a new political party. It received very little support and is humiliated in the election. Had I given this lecture six months ago, I might have offered that as an example of unreality within a realistic novel.

Rather more typically of the period, Galdós reflected in his novels the condition of Spain in the late nineteenth century. In the early novels, the characters personify contemporary ideas both established and heretical. In the later novels, the characters represent national characteristics which Galdós often clearly regarded as inadequate. That technique is in the classic tradition of realism. In Middlemarch, the characters represented the social changes in early nineteenth-century England, the beginning of scientific enlightenment and the demand for parliamentary reform. Characters in Jude the Obscure illustrated the Victorian dissenters' increasing impatience with conventional morality and the price that had to be paid for refusal to conform. Sons and Lovers described the changing class structures of post-industrial-revolution England and the emergence of a working class which had aspirations to improve its status and living standards. Galdós's novels performed a similar illustrative task. If they seem more exotic - perhaps too exotic as we have come to understand realism - that is because Spain in the early 1870s was more exotic than Gladstone's Britain, Bismarck's Germany and France during the early years of the Third Empire.

I choose the 1870s because Doña Perfecta was written in 1876 and deals with the contemporary Spanish problem of provincial religious bigotry. A young liberal-minded engineer moves to a Castilian town with the intention of marrying his cousin the daughter of the area's principal landowner. Because of his liberal philosophy he is treated as a heretic by the devout locals. Overcome by the antagonism, the unhappy couple attempt to elope. He is killed by Carlist partisans. She goes mad and is committed to a mental institution. We have already heard of Galdós's interest in mental disorder. We shall hear more before the evening is over.

Doña Perfecta represented the ideas of the period. That Bringas Woman dealt with national characteristics. It typifies another essential quality of realistic fiction - at least as it is understood in English. It is, by its nature, concerned with the ethical values of the period which it describes. But it faces moral issues by allowing its characters to set out their rival views of the good life. It is then for the reader to choose which he or she prefers. The author guides but does not dictate. The realistic novel cannot be didactic. For, in the real world, there is not a single universally accepted view of either truth or morality.

That Bringas Woman proceeds by way of allegory. That is in no way unusual in the realistic novel. Both Sons and Lovers and Far from the Madding Crowd are parables which mourn the passage of rural England and its innocent Arcadian values. What seems strange to the English reader is not so much the idea of fable, but the society about which the fable is written. The Bringas couple live in the Madrid Royal Palace in rooms which are above and replicate the Royal apartments. He works for the Royal Commission on Holy Places. There is a real ambiguity about the social status of his wife, Rosalía. The ambiguity is probably the cause of her insecurity and concern with appearances. She is not herself part of the Queen's retinue, though her ancestors have been very minor Palace flunkies. Her husband's Civil Service post and her domestic culture are "bourgeois-Establishment, petty-aspiring-to-be-grand". Rosalía has the status or rather the illusion of status - of a very minor lady of the Court.

Much of the early chapters is concerned with a hair-picture, a memorial to the dead son of Don Manuel Pez, a middle-ranking official in the Spanish bureaucracy with whom Bringas wishes to ingratiate himself. It was a habit in nineteenth-century Spain to make pictures from the hair of dead relatives. But few of them were designed and constructed with the complication of the Bringas tribute. That in itself is a commentary on the Bringas character - petty, meticulous incapable of determining what is and what is not worth doing. Rosalía's nature was more important to the central theme of the work. She represented the extravagant passion for luxury which typified the Spanish aristocracy and those among the middle classes whose greatest aspiration was to be accepted into a higher rank of society.

Rosalía like Spain was able to make ends meet and like the country of which she was a citizen she was incapable of acting with the decisiveness which would have avoided the obviously imminent disaster. When her husband went blind - presumably as a result of the close work on his hair-picture - she sold the family's candlesticks. Her husband regained his sight and she was driven to even more desperate extremes. Purely to solve her financial crisis, she became Pez's mistress only to discover that the man who she hoped would become her protector was himself near to destitution. Pez is lazy, bogusly pious, supported by the power of patronage and personally corrupt - all qualities which Galdós believed were common to the Spanish nation. The establishment having failed her, Rosalía was forced to accept the charity of Refugio, a courtesan turned dressmaker. For a moment the nouveau riche triumphed over the minor aristocracy and their hangers-on. Then came the Revolution of 1868 and the Bringas family were forced to flee the Royal apartments with the deposed (Queen Isabella. The story of aristocratic decline was complete.

Fortunata and Jacinta - generally regarded as Galdós's greatest novel and the source for the subtitle of this lecture - is similarly a commentary on the divisions in Spanish society. For my taste, the book is too diffuse. It lacks the rigour of a structured plot which moves remorselessly from start to finish. Its strength is its social commentary. Juanito Santa Cruz, a member of the wealthy middle classes marries Jacinta, a woman of the same status. He maintains his relationship with Fortunata - described - in what I understand to be a Spanish term of art - as "a woman of the people". That means that she was a warm-hearted, outgoing mother-figure - unlike Jacinta who was sweet, refined and, as it turned out, sterile. To Galdós, the sterility represented the nature of her class. The subsidiary characters are similarly illustrative - most notably Maxi, Fortunata's husband. Fortunata marries him as a way of rehabilitating her reputation and, when he discovers that there is no real love, he reacts in a way which is another theme of Galdós's writing and a commentary on contemporary Spain. He considers founding a new religion on the basis that death is the only true liberty, that suicide becomes a moral duty and one day a new messiah will announce the date of necessary self-destruction. Fortunata and Jacinta is celebrated for the way that it depicts Maxi and his aunt Doņa Lupe, two typical members of Spain s lower middle classes. But again, to illustrate the point that a realistic novel sometimes has to deal with what seem wholly improbable events, let me remind you of more recent history. Within the last two years there have been two American cults which not only believed in Maxi's philosophy but actually heard the voice of God calling them to suicide.

Here in Britain, we take it for granted that one feature of the realistic novel is the assertion that the humble and meek can be interesting and that the ordinary family can live extraordinary lives. By the nature of the society in which he lived and of which he wrote, Galdós often concerned himself with a stratum of society which, at least in its own opinion, was more elevated. Equally often (as in La desheredada) he was concerned with the degradation of life in city slums. But, with both the briefly rich and permanently poor, he took a sympathetic view of human frailty. The biographies tell us that Galdós was fascinated by the variety of ways in which poor and destitute families lived and that when he came from the Canary Islands to Madrid, he spent much of his time walking the streets and observing passers-by. One of his weekend relaxations was trips into the countryside where he observed the Spanish peasantry. Although he watched them with an outsider's eye, he felt a great deal of sympathy not simply for their often depressed conditions, but equally for their human foibles.

The political result of his observations was, in his mind and in many of his books, what can only be described as the classical radical paradox. It is most clearly expressed in Nazarín. Poverty, he believed, was a deadly virus which not only caused the profound distress which accompanied deprivation, but also corrupted both communities and individuals. On the other hand, poverty was the essential condition of virtue, the only state in which man or woman was entirely pure. I have to say that balancing on that sort of metaphysical high-wire is not characteristic of the English realistic novel. But then it is not typical of any nineteenth-century English fiction which is as much influenced by empiricism as was the British political system. Even Hardy who had ideas about the forces of fate and the President of the Immortals took a more simplistic view of supernatural power and divine grace. It constantly destroyed mortals in a way which always brings into my mind the opening moments of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Hardy thought of God as a celestial hob-nailed boot which descended from the sky to squash good and bad alike.

Parallel to Galdós's complicated beliefs about poverty are three other themes which appear time after time. One, to which we have already referred, is the way in which the dead hand of the church held back progress. Another is the recklessness with which established power and wealth risked chaos and revolution. I do not want to make fanciful parallels, but reading Galdós's warnings about the penalties of ignoring the needs of the dispossessed was irresistibly reminiscent of John Kenneth Galbraith's insistence that the Culture of Contentment - which is, in truth, the Culture of Complacency - is bound to end in the destruction of the established order. In 1890, after the general strike in Barcelona and Zaragoza, Galdós warned, "We are sitting on a volcano". However, Galbraith believed the bourgeoisie to be smug and selfish. Galdós thought of them as effete and decadent. The contrast between these two attitudes illustrates our difficulty in attempting to focus on Galdós as a realistic novelist. The bourgeoisie in Spain in the 1870s bore - in its beliefs and mores and its economic basis - virtually no relationship with the modern middle classes. Not only must we focus on Spanish reality. We have to set Galdós against a Spain which was moving towards the modern world far more slowly than the pace of progress in her European neighbours.

One reason for that slow progress was the domination of the Church and the Spanish people's inability to force its hierarchy into accepting the truth about human nature and the modern world. The failure to move with the times is compounded by an obsession with class which is complicated and intensified both by the many layers of the Spanish social strata and the battle which the lower orders fight to maintain the trappings of superiority. In Tormento, Amparo Sánchez Emperador shops and sews for the comfortably-off Bringas family. Agustín Caballero, the family's wealthy cousin, who has made a fortune in Mexico, falls in love with her. But she is obsessed by guilt, having - when a child - been seduced by a dissolute priest. Agustín would forgive her. All she has to do is tell him her story and marry with a clear conscience. But she cannot bring herself to take that decisive step. Because she has not the courage to face the facts of her life, the priest blackmails her (with the threat of exposure) into renewing their relationship. But although she sacrifices herself in the hope of protecting her reputation, Agustín discovers her story after her former lover's sister maliciously hints that she is a woman with a past. The couple go off to Bordeaux in more enlightened France, where they live together in sin rather than marriage. As you will guess, it is not a happy ending to a story which is a multiple parable. It is as if the Sower went forth to sow seeds and, as a result of his endeavours, we learnt about soil conservation, plant biology, the nutritional value of alternative strains of wheat, the training of agricultural labourers in Palestine during the first century AD - as well as the various degrees of understanding with which the bible message is received and accepted.

Ángel Guerra (written in 1891) is another reflection of the damaging influence of the Church. Ángel Guerra is a rich young widower who, after quarrelling with his mother, turns to a life of dissipation and (worse still by the standards of the Spanish establishment) supports revolutionary republican politics. He falls in love with a governess, Leré, who refuses to marry him because she wishes to become a nun and enter a convent in Toledo. As an illustration of the belief that the Church can solve everything and an indication of the obscurantism which was often confused with piety - Ángel Guerra converted to Christianity by love compensates for the loss of that love by founding his own monastic order - the Brotherhood of Mercy. It is to have two branches, "His" and "Hers" - though I do not know if they had suitably labelled towels and bed-linen. He is to become head of the male branch, Leré of the female. He is then murdered by his mistress's relations.

Nazarín is also about religion as an institution. But religion is mixed with theology - not at all the same thing. In length a novella rather than a novel, it is packed with ideas which mix the surrealistic and the realistic in a way which I found intellectually difficult to reconcile. Nazarín is both a reworking of Don Quixote and an adaptation of the New Testament an ambitious objective for a novel of two hundred pages. Its central character is a Christ-like figure who not so much hovers between madness and sanity as insists that the two things cannot be distinguished and illustrates the philosophy of his existence by another paradox. Much of the action concerns - and the explanation of the philosophy depends upon - an outbreak of typhus. Nazarín knows that typhus is the product of poverty and squalor. Yet he is opposed to the material progress which is necessary to create the conditions in which typhus can be eliminated. It is important not to develop the historical parallels too far. But his theory sounds, if you will forgive the racing metaphor, like Mahatma Gandhi out of Pol Pot.

Nazarín proposes - perhaps more didactically than any other Galdós novel - that Spain's problems can only be solved by a religious revival. But it rejects the idea of the model proposed by the contemporary Spanish Church and advocates a more rational form for belief and consequent ethical imperatives. The general implication and occasionally the assertion is that there is something deeply wrong with the new Spanish bourgeoisie. Since Galdós seems no more satisfied with the old aristocracy, it is perhaps permissible for me to point out that Spain in the nineteenth century was slower than any other European power to develop a socialist movement. Anarchism was far more popular than socialism in late nineteenth-century Spain.

The need for a spiritual revival built around a view of religion that Galdós regarded as more rational than the High Catholicism in nineteenth-century Spain is a constant theme of novel after novel. Sometimes, as in the case of Nazarín, it is represented as a straightforward plea for less restrictive theological views. On other occasions it is no more than an assault on orthodox Catholic teaching and conduct. But perhaps the most striking demonstration of his breach with the orthodox teachings of Rome is his attitude towards mental illness which, it is no exaggeration to say, obsessed him during the period when he wrote the later novels. La desheredada opens with scenes in a mental institution. A central theme of Nazarín is a dementia which may, or may not, be the explanation of the vision of Christ. In Doña Perfecta, what we shall call the juvenile lead takes refuge in an institution for the insane after the death of her lover. In Miau, an epileptic child sees, or imagines, God during a seizure. The preoccupation with mental disorder, with both its humanitarian and scientific overtones, clearly distinguishes Galdós from writers who discuss madness in what we shall call the romantic tradition. Putting aside the occasional apparition the miraculous status of which is deliberately left in doubt - the descriptions of psychological illness are diametrically different from let us say, Charlotte Bronte's treatment of the first Mrs Rochester, Galdós takes a more modern and a more sympathetic view. I am unable to judge as to whether the sympathy, or indeed the modernity, is typical of the Spain of his period. My own guess (and it is no more than that) is that the sympathy is more personal than general. To justify that conclusion I would have to graduate through Professor Round's Department of Hispanic Studies. That notion brings to mind the saddest phrase in language: "Too late! Too late!"

So what, in this diffuse and discursive lecture, am I saying about Benito Pérez Galdós as a realistic novelist? I am saying that, by an application of the real criteria, he qualifies. By reading him we understand about the real Spain of the period in which he wrote. He may illuminate our understanding in unusual ways. But illuminate it he certainly does. I hope His Excellency will forgive me and blame the subject of this lecture for my impertinence. But, the more I read Galdós, the more I felt not that he failed to meet the obligations of realism but that he was writing about an unreal world.

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Rt Hon Roy Hattersley

One of Britain's best-known politicians, Roy Hattersley is also a celebrated author, broadcaster and feature writer. Educated at Sheffield City Grammar School and the University of Hull, he was elected to Parliament in 1964 as the Member for the Birmingham Sparkbrook constituency, having previously served as a Sheffield City Councillor from 1957. During his long and distinguished parliamentary career, he developed particular expertise in matters relating to Europe, Education, Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs. A Cabinet Minister in the Callaghan administration, he was Deputy Leader of the Labour Party from 1983 to 1992. He retired from the House of Commons in April 1997 and received a life peerage in the Dissolution Honours List.

Roy Hattersley's most popular book is A Yorkshire Boyhood - an account of growing up in Sheffield after the war. Other works include Nelson, Goodbye to Yorkshire, Politics Apart, Press Gang, Endpiece Revisited. Choose Freedom - the Future of Democratic Socialism, The Maker's Mark, In That Quiet Earth, Skylark's Song, Between Ourselves, and Who Goes Home?

A much sought-after columnist, Roy Hattersley is a feature writer for The Guardian and has been a regular contributor to the Spectator, the Listener and Punch. He has produced articles on politics, arts and sport for all the major newspapers and won Granada's Columnist of the Year award in 1982. In the broadcast media, he has written and presented programmes for television - Fight Again (BBC2). Attlee (BBC2), The Hard Sell (BBC1), Contemporaries (GMTV) - and radio - Who Goes Home? (two series).

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