Benito Pérez Galdós was the most famous Spanish author of the 19th century. He’s been compared to Dickens & Balzac in his depiction of Spanish society & the broad canvas of his novels. He wrote 46 novels in his great series, Episidios Nacionales, from 1873-1912. In Spain, his name needs no explanation but very few of his novels have been translated into English.
Fortunata and Jacinta is the story of two women who both love the same man. One is his wife, the other his mistress. Juanito Santa Cruz is the spoilt only son of a wealthy merchant. He’s never had to work in his life & shows no desire to try. Juanito spends his days & nights touring the poorer districts of Madrid with his friends. He meets Fortunata, a poor but beautiful young girl. They have an affair, she becomes pregnant & he leaves her. Juanito’s mother becomes concerned about his profligate lifestyle, although she doesn’t know about Fortunata. She engineers a marriage with Juanito’s cousin Jacinta, a lovely but sheltered girl who soon falls passionately in love with her husband. After the honeymoon, they settle in to a comfortable life with the older Santa Cruzes. Juanito has confessed his affair with Fortunata to his wife & she forgives him. However, Jacinta is desperate to have a child. When she doesn’t fall pregnant, she becomes obsessed with Fortunata’s son & tracks the child down to a relative of Fortunata’s who is caring for the boy. However, this child is not Fortunata’s son, who died as a baby. The unscrupulous relatives try to convince Jacinta to adopt the boy & almost succeed.
Fortunata has taken up with a man who mistreats her & when she leaves him, she has several unsuccessful relationships until she meets Maximiliano Rubín, a young man studying to be a pharmacist. Maxi falls in love with Fortunata at first sight but he’s a poor specimen, thin, sickly & unprepossessing. He lives with his aunt, Doña Lupe, who disapproves of Fortunata’s lifestyle but eventually gives in to Maxi’s desire to marry her. Fortunata is still in love with Juanito but eventually agrees to marry Maxi for security. He persuades her to enter a convent that specialises in saving fallen women, where she will be able to cleanse her soul & prepare herself for marriage & life in a respectable family. While there, she meets an old friend, Mauricia, a seamstress who has delusions & visions caused by her drinking. Fortunata leaves the convent full of good intentions & marries Maxi.
Juanito, having lost sight of Fortunata for some years, sees her again & finds her more beautiful than ever. He pursues her, renting the apartment next door to the newly married couple & easily seduces her again. Maxi discovers the relationship & the torment he suffers begins to affect his mind. Juanito again leaves Fortunata & she is taken up by Don Evaristo Feijóo, an older man who becomes her protector & teaches her more cultured manners. Eventually he convinces her to return to Maxi as he worries about her fate after his death.
Almost immediately Fortunata realises that she has made a terrible mistake. She can’t bear Maxi or his aunt, who is suspicious of her. She begins seeing Juanito again & confronts Jacinta, telling her that she is Juanito’s true wife as she met him first & had a child by him. When Fortunata becomes pregnant, she can’t hide it from Maxi, who begins having homicidal fantasies & vows to take revenge on his faithless wife & her lover.
Fortunata and Jacinta is a panoramic story of life in 1870s Madrid. The story is so rich that merely describing the plot doesn’t begin to explain how absorbing it is. I know very little about Spanish history & the references to Spanish politics went over my head but it didn’t really matter. I read a little bit about the fraught political situation around the succession to the Spanish throne but not knowing much about it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the novel. The minor characters are just wonderful. Maxi’s aunt, Doña Lupe, is a canny moneylender & investor who had brought up Maxi & his two brothers, political opportunist Juan Pablo & Nicolas, a priest whose appetite is legendary but who never pays for the enormous meals he consumes. The pharmacist, Bellester, who falls in love with Fortunata & tries to protect her from Maxi’s odd behaviour. Mauricia, the alcoholic seamstress who shocks the nuns in the convent by her foul-mouthed tirades when she manages to get hold of drink. My favourite character was Guillermina Pacheco, an indefatigable worker for the poor who bullies all her acquaintances into supporting her charitable endeavours.
Juanito Santa Cruz was a completely worthless man with no redeeming features at all. I could only wonder why Fortunata loved him so much & why she kept going back to him after he treated her so badly. She seemed to think he was her fate & didn’t even try to resist him. Jacinta became completely consumed by her desire for a child, unable to enjoy her privileged lifestyle & becoming more & more fascinated by the idea of Fortunata & her hold over Juanito. I read Fortunata and Jacinta with my 19th century bookgroup & I loved coming back to the book every week for another installment. I hope more of Galdós’ novels are translated into English as I’d love to read more of his work.