While my knowledge of contemporary Spanish literature is probably deserving of the accolade ‘adequate’, anything pre-20th century would fall into the category ‘could do better’. I haven’t even read Don Quixote, despite owning two copies. Less ambitiously, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss when Emilia Pardo Bazan’s The House of Ulloa was included in the initial Pocket Penguin titles – just as Spanish Literature Month was approaching!
The House of Ulloa, published in 1886, remains the most famous of Bazan’s eighteen novels (in fact, though widely available in Spanish, little of her work is easily accessible in English). Bazan was an important literary figure in 19th century Spain, in particular for introducing and defending naturalism. While this is evident in The House of Ulloa, Bazan would clearly not be restrained by one literary approach, and we see everything from the shadows of Gothic to the sting of satire in the novel.
The novel is set in Bazan’s native Galicia, far from the civilised society of Santiago, from where Julian, a young priest, arrives, allowing the reader to see the area through a stranger’s eyes: “What a land of wolves!” That his first sight of the Ulloa manor coincides with his horse bolting at the sound of gunfire (“The clergyman froze with terror”) indicates the characteristic timidity which the reader will greet with a mixture of sympathy and irritation throughout. The hunters are Don Pedro, the down-at-heel, rough-and-ready aristocrat into whose service the priest has been pressed, and his factor, Primitivo, whose name may be an indication (okay, it is) of his primitive nature:
“His hair was cropped very close and his face was lean and shaven, with a strong bone structure and an expression of concealed shrewdness, of savage cunning, more fitting in a Red Indian than a European.”
The novel pits civilisation (closely identified with the Catholic religion) against nature, with the characters placed on either side of the divide battling for the souls (literally, one assumes, in Bazan’s view) of those in between. Julian has explicitly been sent, according to Don Pedro, by his uncle on such a mission:
“He says he has sent a saint to instruct me and convert me.”
We see an early skirmish take place when Julian questions whether the maid, Sabel’s, young son, Perucho, should be allowed to drink wine. Primitivo (the boy’s grandfather) insists (“Do you think the lad can’t take it?”), eventually pouring a bottle’s worth into the boy’s mouth until he falls unconscious. Don Pedro, at first encouraging, is seen to be torn between the two extremes:
“’Don’t be barbaric, Primitivo,’ said the marquis, half serious and half in jest.”
Sabel and Perucho, too, fall into the category of those who might be saved. Julian, we are told,
“…felt a growing pity for Perucho, the lad whose own grandfather had intoxicated him. It upset Julian to see him pass his days rolling about in the mud of the yard, or, covered in cow dung, playing with the young calves and sucking warm milk for the mother cow’s teats, or sleeping on the grass meant for the donkey’s feed.”
Julian views Perucho’s glorying in the natural world as an evil to be cured and offers him the alphabet and catechism instead. Sabel is a more difficult prospect for Julian, her inability to clothe herself as fully as he would like (at one point he sees her “exposed legs and feet”) leading him to avoid rather than convert her, “as one avoids a harmful, dirty animal.” Bazan’s imagery makes clear it is her uncivilised, natural state he abhors:
“…it was wretched to have to live with that wicked female, who had no more modesty than a cow.”
Julian’s attempts to civilise those round him are as fruitless as his reorganisation of the neglected family archives, which leaves him with only “an aching head and sore feet,” and so he decides Don Pedro must marry. Julian convinces him to choose a devout wife – his cousin, Nucha – and so gains an ally in the battle for his soul, while also agonising over whether he has brought her to the manor to suffer.
The House of Ulloa is a wonderfully readable 19th century classic, thanks, no doubt, in part to the translation by Paul O’Prey and Lucia Graves which dates from 1990. Julian’s piety may grate at times, but the novel’s central conflict unfolds with convincing drama (and occasional melodrama), and in Primitivo we have a tyrannical figure worthy of booing whenever he appears on page. An Epilogue, set ten years after, ensures the novel ends with a final twist. The House of Ulloa may be ideally read in a book-lined library as a crackling fire warms the pages, but it holds up well under electric light.