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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 Armando Palacio Valdés (1853–1938)

“BEFORE heaven! your Worship should read what I have read,” exclaims an honest inn-keeper in ‘Don Quixote,’ concerning Felixmarte of Hyrcania, who, “with one back-stroke, cut asunder five giants through the middle…. At another time he encountered a great and powerful army of about a million six hundred thousand soldiers, all armed from top to toe, and routed them as if they had been a flock of sheep.”

This was said in response to a protest against his wasting his time over the foolish books of chivalry of the epoch, and a recommendation that he should read, instead, the real exploits of Gonsalvo de Cordova, the Great Captain, who had in fact put to flight a dozen men or so with his own hand. The paragraph is a useful one, as throwing light on the insatiate nature of the thirst for mere adventure and movement in fiction. It has no limits; but was just as impatient of the splendid feats of arms, battles, sieges, and romantic doings—as we should consider them—of all kinds, that were then of daily occurrence, as the same school is at present of the happenings of real life all about us. The change is one of relation rather than spirit; and the school of criticism that demands only the startling and exceptional, and eschews all else as tame, is still, numerically at least, superior to any other. How much nobler an aim is that of Palacio Valdés and his kind, who show us feeling, beauty, and innate interest everywhere throughout common existence; and who lighten and dignify the otherwise commonplace days as they pass, by leading us to look for these things. Nothing is truer than that the purpose of the arts is to please; but a Spanish proverb also well says: “Show me what pleases you and I will tell you what you are.”

Armando Palacio Valdés was born October 4th, 1853. His birthplace was Entralgo,—a small village near Oviedo, the capital of the province of Asturias, in the northwest of Spain. He received his earlier education at the small marine town of Avilés, and at Oviedo; and then took his degree in law at the University of Madrid. His first literary work was in criticism. In 1881 he began the publication of novels with ‘El Señorito Octavio,’ a rather flimsy story of Spanish provincial life, then in 1883 he gave to the world one of its really great novels, ‘Marta y María’ (Martha and Mary).

The scene opens with a crowd of good people at night elbowing one another in the street—and in the rain too—to get near the lighted house where a party is in progress, so as to hear the rare singing of Maria, that floats out at the windows. This is a book among books. Apart from its many charms in the lighter way; apart from the delectable traits of the sweetly practical, material younger sister, Martha, the plot of the book is raised to a great dignity by the conflict between earth and heaven shown in the unusual character of Maria. She is the petted elder daughter of the house, young and beautiful, and already betrothed; but she becomes possessed by an unworldly ideal of devotion, that leads her to desire to rival the mediæval saints. She shakes off, or gently loosens, all the human ties that hold her; endeavors to practice the rigors of the most cruel asceticism; and finally arrives at being apprehended in her father’s drawing-room by a file of soldiers, who lead her away, for having a part in a plot to restore the Carlist pretender to the throne of Spain. It was her conscientious belief, pushed to the point of fanaticism, that the pure cause of religion was thus going to be greatly advanced. This novel has been translated into English under the title of ‘The Marquis of Peñalta.’

The year 1883 also saw the publication of ‘El Idilio de un Enfermo’ (The Idyl of an Invalid), whose scene is Entralgo, the author’s birthplace, dubbed Riofrío in the book. A young man with shattered health goes there from Madrid, to recuperate. There are smoking chimneys in the neighborhood, for modern enterprise, largely English, is developing a treasure of mineral wealth in these northern provinces; but the invalid opens his window the morning after his arrival upon a delightful fresh prospect of mountain and vale that at once begins to bring a balm of healing to his lungs. Valdés excels in the description of the scenery in which he places his real and moving characters, but he uses the gilt with praiseworthy moderation. He is at his very best in depicting existence in the rural communities and the minor towns. But this story else is a rather sickly thing, with the germs in it of the French literary malady of which Valdés was to suffer a fierce attack, a little later. These were apparent too in ‘Aguas Fuertes’ (Etchings), 1854, a volume of slighter, but pleasant studies of life in Madrid. ‘José’ (1885) is an admirable little idyl of the existence of Cantabrian fisherfolk—not indeed with the power of Pereda’s studies, but sweetly naïve, and true in its descriptions of Nature.

Valdés devoted himself with especial ardor at Madrid to studies in political and moral science; and looked forward to a professorship in those branches. He was made first secretary for the section covering those departments at the Atheneum; a very useful semi-public institution with a fine lecture-hall and library, and a chosen membership of seven hundred persons. At twenty-two he was the editor of an important scientific magazine, La Revista Europea (The European Review). He wrote many scientific articles; and much excellent criticism, later gathered into books, on ‘The Spanish Novelists,’ ‘The Orators of the Atheneum,’ and the like.

‘Riverita’ (Young Rivera), 1886, treats largely of the career of a young man about town. The author’s vein of droll humor is indulged in a cousin of Riverita’s,—Enrique, a gilded youth, who frequents the company of bull-fighters, and takes part in an amateur bull-fight himself. The true devotee of the sport, he holds, never even perceives its gory features; his attention being fixed upon the deeds of valor of the champions, and their artistic dealing with the bull. “And besides,” he says, “I suppose you have seen dead animals at the butcher-shop. And you eat sausages, don’t you?”

‘Riverita’ leads us on to a sequel in ‘Maximina.’ At the quaint little port of Pasajes, close to San Sebastian, Riverita wooes and marries a sweet young girl of modest and shrinking nature; they move to Madrid; a child is born, and she dies. It is impossible not to see here a record of some part of the interior life of the author. On the day on which he was thirty years old, he married at Candás a young girl of sixteen. The child-wife died a year and a half later, leaving him an infant son. Marriage, birth, death,—what events are more ordinary, yet what more momentous? They are described in ‘Maximina’ in a way that touches the chords of the deepest and truest human feeling. ‘El Cuarto Poder’ (The Fourth Estate, or The Press), 1888, takes its title from the founding of a newspaper in a primitive little community; but the real scheme of the action turns round the breaking off of an engagement between plain sincere Cecilia, and a steady-going young engineer, Gonzalo, by the machinations of a pretty younger sister and arch-coquette, Venturita. The opening chapter—where, on the occasion of a gala night at the theatre, all the leading characters of the little place are introduced—is a masterly piece of exposition and of social history. ‘La Hermana San Sulpicio’ (Sister San Sulpicio), 1889, is a gay, bright piece of light comedy; showing how an engaging young novice, who has mistaken her vocation in entering a convent, finds much more happiness in leaving it and marrying her devoted suitor. Its scene is laid at Seville.

To this point Valdés may be said to have had a normal literary development. He had not, it is true, equaled ‘Marta y María,’ in any of his later performances; but all the serious work had been of high quality, and the succeeding volumes had borne honorable witness to increasing skill in craftsmanship, and to ripening power of observation; but now he suddenly turned to the following of false Gods, and in ‘Espuma’ (1890) and ‘La Fe’ (1892), he produced two thoroughly typical French novels. These caused a great stir, and they have received approbation here and there for the keen analysis of social values that some critics have detected in them; but they, and their immediate successor ‘El Mæstrante’ (The Grandee, 1893) are not of the sound Spanish tradition, and they are, for Valdés, inferior work. ‘Espuma’ (Froth) studies the more complicated social life of Madrid. In ‘La Fe’ (Faith), 1892, an earnest young priest, Gil Lastra, undertakes to convert a notorious skeptic, Montesinos, and is himself disastrously perverted. ‘El Mæstrante’ tells the story of the martyrdom of a little child, by a family whose sanity one cannot but suspect. It is a gloomy tale, but it is less French than its immediate predecessors, and gains accordingly. ‘El Origen del Pensamiento’ (The Origin of Thought), 1894, appeared in an English version—much mutilated, however—in an American magazine. An erratic old man, Don Pantaleón, conceives the notion that if he can only take off a portion of some one’s skull, he can see the actual process of the secretion of thought, and thus confer great benefit on the human race. No other victim offering, he kidnaps a sweet little grandchild of his own; but happily the child is rescued in time—at the very last moment.

In 1896 he struck the right note again in ‘Los Majos de Cádiz’ (The Cadiz Dandies), a remarkable study of the life of a social class unknown to this country. It is not always, nor often, a pleasant book, but in solid literary value it stands second to ‘Marta y María’ alone among all the author’s works. ‘La Alegría del Capítan Ribot’ (The Joy of Captain Ribot) 1899, is another fine Spanish story, breezy yet serious, with admirable scenes of Spanish family life. ‘La Aldea Perdida’ (The Lost Village), 1903, and ‘Tristan’ (1906), show a new tendency—a vein of idealism, some have called it, a speculative strain at any rate, which is quite different from the tone of any of the earlier writings.

Many, or most, of these books have been translated into several other languages, and have everywhere met with warm favor. There are in a few of them incidents and personages treated with a freedom more approximating that which French, rather than English, writers allow themselves in certain matters; but it can truthfully be said that the tone is everywhere one of exemplary morality. Regret and reproach, not a flippant levity, are the feelings made to attend the contemplation of these scenes. Palacio Valdés is particularly happy in his feminine types; above all, those of young girls just budding into womanhood. Carmen, Marta, Rosa, Teresa, Maximina, Julita, Venturita, and Sister San Sulpicio may be named; there is one or more of them in almost every book. These, in their several ways, are all depicted with a most natural and playful touch; they have the very essence of youth; they have a delicate charm, sensuous yet pure, and they are not merely pretty to look at, but their talk scintillates with intelligence. In some respects Valdés’s women recall those of Thomas Hardy, in other respects they are like Turgenev’s. In that field he is unequaled by any Spanish contemporary. And it is largely to this particular phase of his talent that he owes the very great popularity that he enjoys in Spain and out. He is less profound than Pereda, less bitterly in earnest than Pérez Galdós, less the conscious artist than Valera. His appeal is very wide. His novels may be read for what they frankly are, good stories, well told. The everlasting Why does not pursue through his pages. Pérez Galdós would influence his reader’s principles; Valera will sometimes have his amusement at his reader’s expense; not so Armando Palacio Valdés: one need fear no pitfalls between his lines.