Over-Indulging

Patrick Parrinder

Like his elder contemporary Henry James, Eça de Queirós belongs to the small and distinguished group of 19th-century novelists who wrote in exile. He was born in 1845 in a remote town of northern Portugal, but spent most of his working life in England and France. He liked to maintain that his novels were fundamentally French, and that he himself was French in everything but his fondness for ballad-singers and cod with onions. Certainly he was no Englishman, nor likely to become one, despite 14 years spent in the consular service in Bristol and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His sparkling Letters from England, contributed to a Brazilian newspaper, contain resounding denunciations of English chauvinism and of British Imperial policy in Egypt, Ireland and India. These were presumably ignored at the time by the English, just as they have ignored Portugal’s greatest novelist ever since.

Eça’s great awakening came as a result of the opening of the railway line from Paris. He and his fellow students at the University of Coimbra devoured the packing-cases of books that arrived by every train, becoming instant converts to the movements and ideas enthusing Europe in the heyday of liberalism. They read Michelet, Heine, Hugo and Darwin, joined in the cult of Garibaldi, and supported Polish and Irish independence. Eça soon embraced the doctrine of literary realism – another liberal battle-cry – and became its Portuguese spokesman. He announced that the artist’s function was to portray his society objectively, in the hope that knowledge of the truth would lead to reform; but he did not stay to see the fulfilment (or otherwise) of his hopes, choosing to follow a diplomatic career which led eventually to the coveted post of Consul-General in Paris.

It was probably just as well that respectable Tynesiders were unaware of having a realistic novelist in their midst. His early novels The Sin of Father Amaro and Cousin Bazilio were both sexually scandalous books which, had they been translated, must have fallen foul of the obscenity laws. (They would eventually appear in English eighty years later.) Cousin Bazilio, a classic realist novel of adultery, traces the course of a torrid affair with greater frankness, and much more compassion, than even its model Madame Bovary had done. Like so many late 19th-century novels of passion, it sets out to show the woman as a helpless victim. The novel is her tragedy; the seducer Bazilio gets off scot-free – his decision to walk out on an awkward situation and leave Lisbon for Paris is scarcely a penance. In the case of Father Amaro’s transgression, too, it is the woman who pays.

The latest titles in Carcanet’s admirable series of reprints are Eça’s first and last novels respectively.[*] Separated by a quarter of a century, they reveal his evolution from angry young liberal and realist to witty, urbane conservative nationalist. The change had long been coming. The Sin of Father Amaro is relentlessly anti-clerical, a devastating exposure of provincial hypocrisy and what we must now call pastoral sleaze. Already in Letters from England, however, Eça was inclined to idealise the British aristocracy and, above all, Disraeli, the charismatic outsider. (It is Gladstone’s, not Disraeli’s, Imperial policy that he attacks so savagely.) He sympathises with the feudal and chivalric pretensions of Disraeli and Walter Scott, though he also sees their absurdity. Out of this mixture came late novels such as The City and the Mountains and The Illustrious House of Ramires, with their inimitable mixture of comedy, lyricism, cavalierish high spirits and Portuguese melancholy.

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[*] The other titles, all in translations first published in the Fifties and Sixties, are as follows: Cousin Bazilio, translated by Roy Campbell (1992). The Maias, translated by Patricia McGowan and Anne Stevens (1993). The Yellow Sofa, translated by John Vetch (1993). The Illustrious House of Ramires, translated by Anne Stevens (1992). The price in each case is £14.95.