Last year, I read a novel by 19th century Spanish novelist Benito Pérez Galdós. Fortunata and Jacinta was one of my favourite books of 2015 so I was pleased when another of his novels was proposed for my 19th century bookgroup. Leon Roch was written much earlier in the author’s career & it’s very different from Fortunata. One of the members of the bookgroup memorably described it as more like an opera than a novel & I would have to agree. It’s dramatic, overwrought & passionate & not always easy to read but I did enjoy it. It features two strong female characters, as the later novel does, & their stories were fascinating.
Our hero, Leon, is a wealthy young man, interested in science & literature. He’s also an atheist. He has been in love with a childhood friend, Pepa de Fúcar, daughter of the immensely rich Don Pedro, Marquis de Casa-Fúcar, a self-made man. Leon has fallen suddenly in love with Mária de Tellería, the beautiful daughter of another Marquis, but an impoverished one. His reasons for marriage set out all the problems that will plague him in the future,
Mária’s goodness, her sense, her modesty, the submissiveness of her intelligence, her exquisite of life added to the seriousness of her tastes and instincts – all made me feel that she was the wife for me – I will be perfectly frank with you: her family are not at all to my liking. But what does that matter? I can separate from my relations. I only marry my wife and she is delightful … Her education has been neglected and she is as ignorant as can be; but on the other hand, she is free from all false ideas and frivolous accomplishments, and from those mischievous habits of mind which corrupt the judgement and nature of the girls of our day.
Rumours of Leon’s engagement enrage Pepa &, in a fit of pique, she marries Federico Cimarra, a worthless man with nothing to recommend him.
Leon & Mária are very happy at first, although his atheism upsets her as she’s a conventionally religious young woman. Her rapacious family – parents & two brothers – are constantly in debt & Leon constantly & good-humouredly bails them out. Mária’s other brother, her twin, Luis Gonzaga, is a monk &, when he is dying of consumption, he comes to stay with the Rochs. Luis’ influence on his sister is immense as he’s considered a saintly young man. He reproaches her for marrying an atheist & then for doing nothing to convert him. Mária becomes more overtly religious, dressing simply & attending Mass several times a day. She becomes estranged from Leon as he resists her emotional blackmail in her attempts to convert him & she resists his egotistical plans to educate her. Both realise painfully that they cannot change the other.
“Nay,” cried Mária with the air of a martyr, “abuse and insult me as much as you will, but do not attack my faith; that is blasphemy.”
“It is not blasphemy; I only tell you that you, and you alone, have made our marriage tie a chain of bondage. … When we married you had your beliefs and I had mine, and my respect for every man’s conscience is so great that I never thought of trying to eradicate your faith; I gave you complete liberty; I never interfered with your devotions, even when they were so excessive as to mar the happiness of our home. Then there cam a day when you went mad – I can find no other word to describe the terrific exaggeration of your bigotry since, six months ago, here in my garden, your hapless brother died in your arms. Since then you have not been a woman but a monster of bitterness and vexatiousness …”
Pepa’s marriage has been as unhappy as could have been predicted from its beginning. Her only joy is her daughter, Ramona, known as Monina. Leon & Pepa meet again for the first time in some years. Leon realises that he has always loved Pepa & her love for him has never wavered. She admits that she married Cimarra in her despair at Leon’s engagement to Mária.
“... And bitter pique rankled in my heart and made me resolve that I would give to the least worthy suitor what I had intended for the most worthy. If I could not have the best I would take the worst. Do you remember my throwing out my jewels on the dust-heap? I wanted to do the same with myself. Of what use was I if no one loved me?“
Then, Federico is reported lost at sea on a journey to America. Leon has separated from Mária & moved to a house near Pepa’s home at Suertebella, where she lives with her daughter & her father. Pepa & Leon grow closer through their love for her daughter & ugly rumours, mostly spread by Mária’s ungrateful family, accuse them of adultery. Mária, encouraged by her false friend, bored, gossipy Pilar de San Salomó, decides to confront Leon with his crimes & collapses. She is taken to Suertebella where her family & her spiritual advisor, Padre Paoletti, alternately accuse Leon & try to comfort Mária, while Leon & Pepa must confront the realities of their relationship & any future they might have.
The operatic part of this novel is in the telling. I can’t remember when I last read a novel where characters have conversations that go on for pages & pages at such a pitch of emotion & especially when they’re at death’s door. Luis Gonzaga takes chapters & chapters to die & all the time he’s haranguing Leon or Mária at great length. Mária herself, when she’s gravely ill, never stops talking, working herself up to hysteria, encouraged by the priest & her family.
There are some fantastic descriptions & set-pieces. This is Luis Gonzaga, the monk whose zeal cannot be dimmed, even when he’s dying,
The lean, angular figure, wrapped in a black gown, with a cord round the slender waist, – bare-headed, feeble and drooping, with eyes always fixed on the ground, with a dull, clammy skin and weak swaying neck that could hardly support the head above it, with broad, yellow, transparent hands like little faggots of thin sticks, too weak for anything but to be folded in prayer – wandered like an ominous shadow through the drawing rooms hung with gaudy papers or tawdry tapestry.
Galdós is funny & satirical about society & about the Church. At a bullfight, the rich find a sudden rainstorm a delightful occurrence while the poor in their open seats have to run for shelter. “After all, the rain is not a serious evil to people who keep a carriage.” His opinions of rich women with no real religious feeling, making a great show of their attendance at church & their charity work is scathing & he doesn’t hold back in his satire. Mária’s family are consummate hypocrites, expecting Leon to rescue them from their creditors while they despise his atheism & believe every scandalous story about his relationship with Pepa. Leon may be our hero but he’s shown as just as deluded as Mária; smug in his certainties & dismissive of Mária’s feelings. Emotions are always at the highest pitch & drawn out to a much greater length than necessary most of the time. I wondered if Galdos had to fill a certain number of pages for serialization as some scenes are stretched so far that I lost patience. I kept reading for the sharp satire & for the characters of Mária & Pepa, two more of Galdós’ strong, feisty women who dominate the story from the beginning.