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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Fernán Caballero (Cecilia Böhl de Faber) (1796–1877)

ENGLAND, France, and Spain have each produced within this century a woman of genius, taking rank among the very first writers of their respective countries. Fernán Caballero, without possessing the breadth of intellect or the scholarship of George Eliot, or the artistic sense of George Sand, is yet worthy to be named with these two great novelists for the place she holds in Spanish literature. Interesting parallels might be drawn between them, aside from the curious coincidence that each chose a masculine pen-name to conceal her sex, and to gain the ear of a generation suspicious of feminine achievements. Each portrayed both the life of the gentleman and that of the rustic, and each is at her best in her homelier portraitures.

Unlike her illustrious compeers, Fernán Caballero did not grow up amid the scenes she drew. In the scanty records of her life it does not appear whether, like George Sand, she had first to get rid of a rebellious self before she could produce those objective masterpieces of description, where the individuality of the writer disappears in her realization of the lives and thoughts of a class alien to her own. Her inner life cannot be reconstructed from her stories: her outward life can be told in a few words. She was born December 25th, 1796, in Morges, Switzerland, the daughter of Juan Nicholas Böhl de Faber, a German merchant in Cadiz, who had married a Spanish lady of noble family. A cultivated man he was, greatly interested in the past of Spain, and had published a collection of old Castilian ballads. From him Cecilia derived her love of Spanish folk-lore. Her earliest years were spent going from place to place with her parents, now Spain, now Paris, now Germany. From six to sixteen she was at school in Hamburg. Joining her family in Cadiz, she was married at the age of seventeen. Left a widow within a short time, she married after five years the wealthy Marquis de Arco-Hermaso. His palace in Seville became a social center, for his young wife, beautiful, witty, and accomplished, was a born leader of society. She now had to the full the opportunity of studying those types of Spanish ladies and gentlemen whose gay, inconsequent chatter she has so brilliantly reproduced in her novels dealing with high life. The Marquis died in 1835, and after two years she again married, this time the lawyer De Arrom. Losing his own money and hers, he went as Spanish consul to Australia, where he died in 1863. She remained behind, retired to the country, and turned to literature. From 1857 to 1866 she lived in the Alcazar in Seville, as governess to the royal children of Spain. She died April 7th, 1877, in Seville,—somewhat solitary, for a new life of ideas flowing into Spain, and opposing her intense conservatism, isolated her from companionship.

Fernán Caballero began to publish when past fifty, attained instant success, and never again reached the high level of her first book. ‘La Gaviota’ (The Sea-Gull) appeared in 1849 in the pages of a Madrid daily paper, and at once made its author famous. ‘The Family of Alvoreda,’ an earlier story, was published after her first success. Washington Irving, who saw the manuscript of this, encouraged her to go on. Her novels were fully translated, and she soon had a European reputation. Her work may be divided into three classes: novels of social life in Seville, such as ‘Elia’ and ‘Clemencia’; novels of Andalusian peasant life, as ‘The Family of Alvoreda’ (‘La Gaviota’ uniting both); and a number of short stories pointing a moral or embodying a proverb. She published besides, in 1859, the first collection of Spanish fairy tales.

Fernán Caballero created the modern Spanish novel. For two hundred years after Cervantes there are few names of note in prose fiction. French taste dominated Spanish literature, and poor imitations of the French satisfied the reading public. A foreigner by birth and a cosmopolitan by education, the clever new-comer cried out against this foreign influence, and set herself to bring the national characteristics to the front. She belonged to the old Spanish school, with its Catholicism, its prejudices, its reverence for the old, its hatred of new ideas and modern improvements. She painted thus Old Spain with a master’s brush. But she especially loved Andalusia, that most poetic province of her country, with its deep-blue luminous sky, its luxuriant vegetation, its light-hearted, witty populace, and she wrote of them with rare insight and exquisite tenderness. Tasked with having idealized them, she replied:—“Many years of unremitting study, pursued con amore, justify me in assuring those who find fault with my portrayal of popular life that they are less acquainted with them than I am.” And in another place she says:—“It is amongst the people that we find the poetry of Spain and of her chronicles. Their faith, their character, their sentiment, all bear the seal of originality and of romance. Their language may be compared to a garland of flowers. The Andalusian peasant is elegant in his bearing, in his dress, in his language, and in his ideas.”

Her stories lose immensely in the translation, for it is almost impossible to reproduce in another tongue the racy native speech, with its constant play on words, its wealth of epigrammatic proverbs, its snatches of ballad or song interwoven into the common talk of the day. The Andalusian peasant has an inexhaustible store of bits of poetry, coplas, that fit into every occurrence of his daily life. Fernán Caballero gathered up these flowers of speech as they fell from the lips of the common man, and wove them into her tales. Besides their pictures of Andalusian rural life, these stories reveal a wealth of popular songs, ballads, legends, and fairy tales, invaluable alike to the student of manners and of folk-lore. She has little constructive skill, but much genius for detail. As a painter of manners and of nature she is unrivaled. In a few bold strokes she brings a whole village before our eyes. Nor is the brute creation forgotten. In her sympathy for animals she shows her foreign extraction, the true Spaniard having little compassion for his beasts. She inveighs against the national sport, the bull-fight; against the cruel treatment of domestic animals. Her work is always fresh and interesting, full of humor and of pathos. A close observer and a realist, she never dwells on the unlovely, is never unhealthy or sentimental. Her name is a household word in Spain, where a foremost critic wrote of ‘La Gaviota’:—“This is the dawn of a beautiful day, the first bloom of a poetic crown that will encircle the head of a Spanish Walter Scott.”

Perhaps the best summary of her work is given in her own words, where she says:—

“In composing this light work we did not intend to write a novel, but strove to give an exact and true idea of Spain, of the manners of its people, of their character, of their habits. We desired to sketch the home life of the people in the higher and lower classes, to depict their language, their faith, their traditions, their legends. What we have sought above all is to paint after nature, and with the most scrupulous exactitude, the objects and persons brought forward. Therefore our readers will seek in vain amid our actors for accomplished heroes or consummate villains, such as are found in the romances of chivalry or in melodramas. Our ambition has been to give as true an idea as possible of Spain and the Spaniards. We have tried to dissipate those monstrous prejudices transmitted and preserved like Egyptian mummies from generation to generation. It seemed to us that the best means of attaining this end was to replace with pictures traced by a Spanish pen those false sketches sprung from the pens of strangers.”