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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 Emilia Pardo Bazán (1852–1921)

AMONG European defendants and exponents of the modern realistic school, Emilia Pardo Bazán is conspicuous. She is not only a strong and subtle advocate of the methods of Zola, Turgenev, and other French and Russian realists, she is true to their creed in her own novels to the point of masculinity. As a rule the disciples of realism are booted and spurred. The quality itself implies a total absence of feminine evasions of the actual and the inevitable. There is no hint in it of the oblique vision of gentle blue eyes. It is therefore all the more surprising that Señora Pardo Bazán, a woman, with veins full of romantic Spanish blood, should prove a singularly perfect exponent of her chosen creed.

She was born in 1852, in Coruña, Spain, of a noble and ancient family. At a very early age she was brought into friendly relations with books, by being allowed to browse at will in her father’s library. Her marriage in 1868 to Don José Quiroga put an end to her systematic education under tutors; but she was to receive later the more liberal education of travel and independent study. The political exile of her father enabled her to travel through France and Italy, perfecting her knowledge of the French and Italian language and literature. After her return to Spain, she devoted herself to the study of German, and of philosophy and history; thus preparing herself for the cosmopolitan office of critic, and laying the foundations of the culture necessary for the novelist. Her artistic creed had not been formulated when she was attracted by the writings of her own countrymen,—Valera, Galdós, and Alarcón. These novelists were realists in so far as they depicted the life and manners with which they were most familiar. The idea came to the young Señora that she also might write a novel which did not require romantic grandiloquence and lofty flights of the imagination, but merely fidelity to facts. Shortly after the publication of her first novel, her new-born recognition of the requirements of realism was enlarged by acquaintance with the works of Balzac, Flaubert, Goncourt, and Daudet. Henceforth her conceptions of her art were well defined; and she became unwavering in her obedience to them. Of her novels, ‘The Swan of Vilamorta’ is perhaps the most perfect expression of her artistic tenets. It is difficult to believe that it could have been written by a woman. In its merciless adherence to facts, in its pitiless logic, in its conscientious portrayal of unlovely types of character, it might have come from the brain of a clever man of the world, turned novelist for truth’s sake. The hero of the book, the Swan, is a young would-be poet of the sentimental type, who is inclined in the cause of romance to make love to other men’s wives. The tragedy of the book, if the arid reproduction of ugly happenings can be called tragedy, centers itself less about the callow hero than about a woman who loves him with an abandonment of passion,—a schoolmistress of thirty-six, pitted with small-pox, hampered with a deformed child. Until the boy-poet comes into her life, she is content to teach, that she may provide this child with comforts. Afterwards all is changed. Her little hoard of money dwindles away to give dainty suppers to the man she loves; to keep him in the proper clothes, of which his unappreciative father deprives him; to enable him to visit a Spanish grandee, towards whose wife he cherishes a Werther-like devotion. Finally she mortgages her fresh little cottage, and puts her crippled child out to work, that she may provide him with the funds necessary for the publication of his poems. These are not only a drug in the market, but they fail to win for him the love of the grandee’s lady, now a marriageable widow. He sails to America, leaving behind him the schoolmistress, destitute both of love and money. Neither her omelets, her anisette cordials, nor her little loans, can compel his gratitude. She takes poison, and dies.

Pardo Bazán’s other novels include: ‘The Angular Stone,’ ‘La Tribuna,’ ‘A Wedding Journey,’ ‘Morriña’ (1889), ‘A Christian Woman’ (1890), ‘Misterio’ (1903), and ‘La Quimera’ (1905). Her position as a leader of the naturalistic movement in Spanish fiction was established in the 1880s and has been well maintained. Evidences of her capacity for romanticism are not wanting, but she has kept her imaginative faculty in strict service to the realistic presentation of Spanish life.

The same qualities which give to her distinction as a novelist, make of her a luminous and sympathetic critic. Moreover, the reader finds in her criticisms the charm which is sometimes lacking in her novels, where the strength has driven out the sweetness. Her work on ‘Russia: Its People and Its Literature’ is written with a certain easy brilliancy, which almost disguises its solid merits. Pardo Bazán brings to her critical tasks a rare equipment, philosophical breadth of thought, the ability to understand the interdependence of national life and national literature, the power of feeling the pulse of the times in the stray novel or poem. In her life of St. Francis of Assisi she studies the age which produced him, after the manner of the modern biographer. Whatever the nature of her work, whether history, biography, or pure criticism, she is always conscious of that ethereal atmosphere about persons and things, those emanations from a million lives, which collectively are called the time-spirit. Her defense of realism, in her essay ‘The Burning Question,’ springs as much from her intuition concerning the nature of the zeitgeist as from her intellectual appreciation of the reasonableness of the realistic school.

Aside from the worth of her contribution to the literature of modern Europe, Emilia Pardo Bazán merits distinction as being a Spanish woman who has demonstrated to her countrymen, in the face of national tradition, the most significant fact uncovered in the nineteenth century,—the power of women to learn, to understand, and to create.