It is the year of Benito Pérez Galdós. And, despite the unexpected revolution caused by the coronavirus – a pandemic that would surely have served as a guiding thread for the writer to portray the lives and concerns of the Madrilenians of our time – 2020 marks the hundredth anniversary of his death.
Born in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Galdós moved to Madrid in 1862, when he was only 19 years old. The city had an enormous influence on him and became a character in his books. In 1869 – the year of publication of his first novel, ‘La Fontana de Oro’ – he lived with his family in the Salamanca neighbourhood, at number 8 Serrano Street. At that time, he was a member of the editorial staff of Las Cortes and, in his spare time, he devoured the novels of Balzac.
The Canarian author wrote a large number of novels – framed in different cycles -as well as newspaper articles, short stories and plays. In this article, we review four of his works- Fortunata y Jacinta, Misericordia, Tormento and Miau-, framed in the cycle of ‘Novelas españolas contemporáneas’, where Galdós perfectly described Madrid at the end of the 19th century, immortalising the society and the most characteristic corners of the capital.
Two women, one city
‘Fortunata y Jacinta’ is one of the most popular and representative works of Spanish literary realism and of the 19th century novel. Set in the Madrid of the second half of the century, the novel recounts the intersecting lives of two women of very different social standing, involuntarily united by their passions and equally condemned by their destiny.
The Plaza de Pontejos plays a major role in the story. It is the place where the Santa Cruz family lived, and where Jacinta would later reside: “The Santa Cruz family lived in their own house in the street of Pontejos, facing the small square of the same name”, explains the writer in the novel.
Another of the key locations in the book is the Cava de San Miguel, the site of Plácido Estupiñá’s home and the scene of the first meeting between Fortunata and Juanito Santa Cruz. At the beginning and end of the novel, Fortunata lives in the same building, from which a limited view of the Plaza Mayor is described.
In addition, among many other locations, the church of San Ginés stands out as a place of worship where Guillermina Pacheco and Plácido Estupiñá attend mass.
The capital’s underworld
While in ‘Fortunata y Jacinta’ Galdós contrasted two social classes, represented in two female figures, and connected them through their passions, in ‘Misericordia’, the author pushes the reader into the capital’s underworld.
Through the wanderings of the pious Benina – a servant and beggar – the novel criticises the pride and importance of appearances of Madrid’s decadent bourgeoisie. With Benina, a large number of characters cross paths, not too illustrious – beggars, cripples and the needy – but no less realistic and representative of their time.
Throughout the story, the writer places the protagonists in very recognisable enclaves of the capital, located in popular areas in the south of the city, such as the Ronda de Toledo, the street of Mesón de Paredes or the parish church of San Sebastián, described by Galdós as a preamble to the discovery of the less graceful Madrid of the time. “Two faces, like some people, has the parish of San Sebastián… it would be better to say the church… two faces that are surely more funny than beautiful”, wrote the author about it.
Echoes of society
Tormento’ is set in the period after the dethronement of Queen Isabella II. This story narrates, in a rather humorous tone, the misadventures of a grotesque trio formed by a young orphan girl, Tormento, who is molested by the sacrilegious passions of Pedro Polo Cortés, a priest with no vocation, and saved by a redeemed rogue called Agustín Caballero.
Rumours, envy and the wickedness of the class society of the time play an important role in the story.
And, among other places, the story mentions the disappeared Plaza de Navalón – located at one end of Calle de los Trujillos – and the Plaza de Toros de la Puerta de Alcalá, where the streets Claudio Coello and Conde de Aranda, in the Salamanca neighbourhood, now meet. “The loneliness frightens me, and when I hear about the families who have gone to live in that neighbourhood, in that Sacramental that the Marquis of Salamanca is building beyond the Plaza de Toros, it gives me the shivers. Jesus, I’m scared…”, says one of the characters in the novel.
Bureaucracy for cats
After the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, two men from the State Administration experience success and failure: this is the premise of the novel ‘Miau’.
On the occasion of the descent into hell of the civil servant Ramón Villamil, who has been dismissed before he can enjoy his retirement and has no economic resources, the women of the house – nicknamed the Miau because of their cat-like appearance – and the narcissist Víctor Cadalso, Galdós creates a satire of the bureaucratic Madrid of the time, highlighting the power of influence and the office manoeuvres of the civil service.
In order to fulfil the orders of his grandfather, Ramón Villamil, and deliver his grandfather’s correspondence, Luisito Cadalso travels through iconic places such as Calle Carretas, Calle de las Huertas and Carrera de San Jerónimo. The text also refers – as in ‘Misericordia’ – to the Segovia viaduct, as a propitious place to put an end to human despair: “God have mercy on us, for if this friend forsakes us, we will all go and throw ourselves off the viaduct”.
There are many characters and stories immortalised by Galdós in the pages of his novels. And, hopefully, there will also be many who this year will venture to read the magnificent legacy that the writer left to the city and thus bring his stories to life once again. Perhaps that is the best possible tribute to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of his death.