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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 William Henry Bishop (1847–1928)

By Benito Pérez Galdós (1843–1920)

THE CONTEMPORARY school of Spanish fiction dates from about the revolution of 1868, which drove out Isabel II. and brought in a more liberal form of government. Without this revolution, it would scarcely have found opportunity for the free expression of opinion and the bold critical tone towards ancient institutions which are among its leading characteristics. It is a fresh stirring of the human intellect, a distinctly new product, and a valuable contribution to the world’s literature. It has affiliation with the Russian, the English, and other vital modern movements in fiction, and yet it can by no means be confused with that of any other country. Its method is realistic; but one of its leading figures, Pereda, a strong delineator of rural life, protests, as to himself and his works, against the use of the word,—“if,” he says vigorously, “it means to rank me under the triumphal French banner of foul-smelling realism.” That is to say, they consider the best material for fiction to be the better and sweeter part of life and its higher aspirations, and not that coarse part of it to which the French would seem to have devoted an undue amount of attention. The reader of Anglo-Saxon origin approaches this fiction with ease and sympathy; he has not to acquire any new point of view in order to understand it, nor to unlearn any wonted standards of taste or morals. At the same time, it must be said that the sane traditions of the old masters of the new school have not been followed in all sincerity by the later comers. Spanish literature of to-day (1917), while still vigorous, has not the essential health of the best work of the last thirty years of the nineteenth century; a fairly large part is made to the malodorous and morbid, and admirable talent is qualified by deplorable taste. The number of writers has increased greatly, and the various phenomena of formulæ and æsthetic over refinement, familiar to readers of French and German literature of the day, may be observed, all the way from a proud conscious brutality (Blasco Ibáñez), to seductive semi-lyrical morbidness (Valle-Inclán).

An informing Spanish critic, Emilia Pardo Bazán, herself a novelist of talent, points out that the present Spanish school cannot be said to have a “yesterday,” but only “a day before yesterday.” She means that it has skipped a certain interval, and connects itself with remoter, and not with recent, tradition. It really comes down from a time antedating even the great “Golden Age.” There is much truth in this, and it certainly is the fact that the best of the novelists of our time know their older literature well, and esteem it highly, and are much more akin to it than to the artificial classical product of the eighteenth century, and the extravagant romanticism of the earlier nineteenth, which was well read in Byron and Walter Scott. They reverence Cervantes, quote (and misquote) Quevedo, and take real pleasure in showing thorough acquaintance with the Celestina, and with the Picaros, the heroes of the Romances of Roguery, from ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’ to the eighteenth-century French ‘Gil Blas.’ But it is a mistake to push too far the search for their relation to the writers of earlier times. The great moderns study, portray, and analyze. They are a normal part of the newer world into which Spain began shyly to enter after 1868.

So far as there is English influence in this literature, it may be said to be more in the form of example than as a direct component. It has given the Spanish movement courage and persistence, to see the same ideals elsewhere affording profit and pleasure to millions of men. Otherwise it is a mere coloring, a superficial trace. In particular, Pérez Galdós is fond of introducing English characters. Some of them have the Dickens-like trait of a beaming, exuberant benevolence, and the athletic parson in ‘Gloria’ who risks his life pulling out to the rescue of a wrecked steamer is like Barrie’s Little Minister. Many of his leading characters are of that mixed blood, at Cadiz and elsewhere in the South, where one parent is English and the other Spanish, and the offspring have had the advantage of an education in England. He admires English types and ways, and yet with a reluctance too; which brings it about that they are generally introduced subject to considerable satire and mockery. English steadiness and thrift,—yes, very well; but he has a lingering tenderness still for Spanish levity and improvidence. In ‘Halma,’ all the Marquis de Feramor’s children have English names, as “Sandy” (Alexandrito), “Frank” (Paquito), and “Kitty” (Catalanita). The Marquis has been a student at Cambridge, and he imports into his career in Spanish politics the thorough study of the question at issue, the conservative temper and abhorrence of extremes, and the correct “good form” of some finished English statesman. These ideas of English policy and conservatism are talked over again, in the tertulias of the amusing family in ‘El Amigo Manso,’ who have come back wealthy from Cuba, the head of the household with the purpose of going into Parliament and securing a title.

At the head of the school of fiction in question are four writers, namely, José María de Pereda, Armando Palacio Valdés, Benito Pérez Galdós, and Juan Valera. They may be considered, in their various ways, as of well-nigh equal merit; each one has some very distinguished and distinguishing quality, in virtue of which he cannot justly be rated below the others. Pereda occupies a position apart in devoting himself wholly to the lives of humble people, the mountaineers and fishermen of the Biscayan Provinces. He never willingly departs from these scenes either in his literary or personal excursions; he has his home among them, near Santander. Valera stands apart in a different way, and would occupy himself by preference with the opposite class of society. He is the most learned and scholarly of the quartette, and his writing is the most carefully polished in style. He is a scholarly critic and essayist as well as a novelist. He is a realist like the rest, yet eschews, for instance, the imitation of dialect: he is not a realist in quite the same energetic and conscientious way; his atmosphere, while no doubt equally true, is rather dreamy and poetic. He has no ethical axe to grind, and this fact, and the greater subtlety of his humor, have worked together to win him admiration where he cared most to win it, and to make his general popularity much less than that of Pérez Galdós and Valdés. Valdés and Galdós are much more vividly modern, and they treat many of the same kind of subjects, the events of real life such as we see it all around us. Of the four, Valdés has perhaps, in certain passages, the truest tenderness and most delicate pathos, and the most genuine humor, of that sunny kind which allows us to laugh without bitterness. He can sometimes be bitter too, and such a severe social satire as ‘Froth’ and such books as ‘The Grandee’ and ‘The Origin of Thought’ leave, like many of those of Galdós, an impression of gloom; yet even in these we are charmed on the way by his light touch and easy grace of treatment. Galdós is he who takes the gravest attitude; many great problems of life and destiny occupy him seriously; he not only is very earnest, but seems so,—which does not however preclude a plentiful use of humor, as will be seen in the examples given. Furthermore, he is much the most prolific of the distinguished group, and to that extent he may be said to have the widest range.

These writers are a highly beneficent influence in Spain at the present time, spreading over it as they do a multitude of stimulating pictures and liberalizing ideas, cast into charming literary form. They cannot fail to have a considerable effect upon conduct. In its manner, its aversion to obscurity, and fondness for floods of daylight that almost abolish shadow, this fiction is like the Spanish-Roman school of art, the painting of Fortuny, the two Madrazos, and others: the two seem but manifestations of a common impulse. On another side it is to be recommended to foreigners, as affording a body of information about Spain such as the mere traveler could never attain, and which it is useless to look for in fiction depending for its interest upon clever devices of plot and fantastic adventure. It lets an illumination into the heart of what has been the most reserved and mysterious country of Europe. It shows the true Spain, and not merely the conventional one of strumming guitars and jingling mule bells. With all its strangeness, we see it full of that genuine human nature that makes the world akin; and we see, with pleasure and hope, the breaking up of the forces of mediævalism, the working of a mental and moral turmoil that is preparing the way for a general betterment.

It would not be reasonable to suppose that Spanish literature remained wholly unaffected by the vigorous French movement just across the border. On the contrary, it clearly shows the trace of the robust modern style that has prevailed in France from Balzac to Zola. This trace, however, is in the style and not in the matter. It may possibly have aided the plainness of speech in the Spanish work, which is greater than in English books; and yet this plainness of speech is probably not greater than all books should be allowed, in the interest of their own usefulness, and in order not to be narrow instead of broad pictures of life. The tone towards sexual problems is never flippant; immorality is never put in an attractive light; there is hardly anywhere a more severe homily on the text that “the wages of sin is death” than is found in the wretched career of the transgressors in such books as Galdós’s ‘Lo Prohibido,’ ‘Tormento,’ and ‘La Desheredada.’

Just as in English books, the young girl, her aspirations and her innocent love affairs before marriage, figure largely in these novels. It is not necessary for her to wait until she is married in order to become a suitable heroine for fiction. Religious revolt or dissent, again, is one of the features most often used. There is still a very close union of Church and State in Spain, and life has a very ecclesiastical coloring. Nearly every family has ties of relationship or intimacy with some ecclesiastical person of either sex. This brings it about that such figures are as frequent in books as, correspondingly, in real life. In Valera’s ‘Pepita Ximénez’ we find an earnest young student, a candidate for the priesthood, son of a noble house, turned aside from his holy career—through his father’s connivance—by the fascinations of a most charming woman, their neighbor. In Valdés’s ‘Sister San Sulpicio’ it is a young novice, a delightfully gay and bright creature, whom love and matrimony withdraw from her convent. In the same author’s ‘Marta y María’ a fair young girl is seen endeavoring to conform in the midst of modern life to the ascetic ideals of the mediæval saints, even to the point of wearing hair-cloth and beating her tender shoulders with a scourge. Galdós’s ‘Doña Perfecta’ and ‘The Family of León Roch’ combat the undue influence of the confessor, or religious adviser, in the family, and ‘Gloria’ combats the immemorial bitter prejudice against the Jews. As may be seen, many of these subjects, if approached in a flippant way, might easily lend themselves to grossness and scandal; but such is not the Spanish spirit. The tone towards the Church is severely critical, but not destructive. It is the true secular tone of this century, which holds that a conventional attention to the things of the next world is only due when all demands for benevolence towards living men are satisfied. Howells points out that Galdós attacks only the same intolerant eccelesiastical spirit that elsewhere would be known by another name. These critics would “reform the party from within”; and as they handle with so much skill and consideration the sensibilities of their countrymen who still adhere to the fold, their efforts are the more likely to have a potent effect. It seems a curious anomaly that Pereda, the one of them who is the most modern and stirring in the intellectual way, professes himself the champion of monarchy in its most absolute form.

The beginnings of the present fiction are somewhat feebly found in Antonio de Trueba, and Madame Böhl de Faber, who signed herself “Fernan Caballero,”—one of the first of those who took a man’s name, after the fashion of George Sand. These first wrote of other things than the romantic knights and castles, Moors and odalisques, of Scott and Victor Hugo. Fernan Caballero (1797 to 1877), a genial optimist who wrote idealized descriptions of nature, still has a certain vogue. Pérez Escrich produced a large number of novels of a humanitarian cast; Fernández y González poured them out, of a cheap order, in a torrent, and became the very type of hasty production. Pedro de Alarcón figures as a kind of link uniting the earlier period to the present, and such a book as his ‘El Sombrero de Tres Picos’ (The Cocked Hat) is read by some of the present generation with admiration. An extract from this story and a more extended notice of Alarcón are to be found in the LIBRARY. Students of the more realistic side of the movement should read Countess Pardo-Bazán’s valuable critical study, ‘La Cuestión Palpitante’ (The Vital Question). Various books by the leading authors named except Pereda have been well translated into English by Clara Bell, Mrs. Mary J. Serrano, Mary Springer, Rollo Ogden, Nathan Haskell Dole, and others. Selections from Pereda, Valera, and Valdés and additional particulars will be found in the LIBRARY.

BENITO PÉREZ GALDÓS was born May 10th, 1845, in the Canary Islands. Las Palmas, his birthplace, capital of the Grand Canary, is a well-built little town of about eighteen thousand people, and the island is the most fertile of the group. In climate and situation the islands belong rather to Africa than Europe. The people are considered descendants of the Gothic inhabitants of Spain, who sought refuge there from the Saracen invasion. Their existence was all but lost to sight for some centuries, and they were only brought under European sway about the time of the discovery of America. These Fortunate Islands, the somewhat unusual scene where Galdós was born and passed his youth, would seem to offer a fresh literary field, yet no word of description or reminiscence concerning them appears in any of his books. This is perhaps part of the policy of reserve that induces him to deny, even by implication, any biographical details concerning himself,—a reserve so marked as to have been generally noted as an eccentricity. Leopoldo Alas, his biographer, in the ‘Celebridades Españiolas Contemporanéas,’ assures us that it was only with the greatest difficulty he drew from him the bare admission that he was born in the Canary Islands. He made his studies there in the State college, and came to Madrid at the age of eighteen to study law. He had no great liking for it, and did not follow it further, unless as it became a step for entrance into political life, for he has been a deputy in the National Cortes, for Puerto Rico. He did not acquire skill in forensic eloquence; his biographer, above, states that he cannot put four words together in public, nor in private either. A reticent man, he is forced to write in order to find expression.

He wrote his first book in 1867 and ’68, but it was not published till 1871. In the meantime the revolution of 1868 took place, which enlarged the boundaries of freedom in literature as in many other directions; and Galdós at Barcelona had some small part in it. The book was ‘La Fontana de Oro’ (The Fount of Gold). It treats of the aspirations of the “ardent youth” of 1820, who rebelled against the reactionary policy brought in by Ferdinand VII. after the expulsion of the French from the country; and in the student hero Lázaro he perhaps displays his own ideas at the period. Violent political clubs were formed, on the model of the Jacobin Clubs of the French Revolution, and it is from the name of a café that was the meeting-place of the most famous of these clubs that the name of the story is derived. His next book was ‘El Audaz’ (The Fearless: 1872). The period is the same. The hero is an utterly fearless young radical, who has been driven to revolt through wrongs done his family by the Count de Cerezuelo. By a peculiar hazard, though far below her in social station, he meets the daughter of the count, a very proud and disdainful beauty. It is her caprice to fall in love with him, and she remains true to him to the end, when he dies in a street tumult, having first gone mad with his superheated enthusiasm. These early books are conceived upon conventional romantic lines, and hardly gave promise of their author’s future fame. They contain however passages of strong character-drawing, like that of the Porreños, three ancient spinster sisters of a fallen patrician house in ‘El Audaz,’ which are equal to his later work.

He next entered upon an extensive enterprise which soon began to give him both reputation and profit. This was the writing of a score of historical romances, after the model of those of Erckmann-Chatrian, called ‘Episódios Nacionales’ (National Episodes). They are divided into two series, the first beginning with ‘Trafalgar’ (1873), the second with ‘El Equipaje del Rey José’ (King Joseph’s Baggage: 1875). They deal with the two modern periods comprising the deliverance of the country from the usurpation of the French, and the more obscure struggles against Ferdinand VII., who sought to reduce the country under the same absolutist rule that had prevailed before the ideas of the French Revolution liberalized the whole of Europe. The history in these romances is intermingled with personal interests and adventures, to give it an air of informality; and though each is complete in itself, some knowledge of Spanish history is desirable as an aid to understanding them. They are considerably interlinked among themselves, the same characters appearing more or less in successive volumes. The hero of the first series is one Gabriel, who narrates them all in the first person. He is a poor boy who becomes servant to a family near Cadiz. He accompanies his master on board the huge Santísima Trinidad, the largest ship of her age, and is able to describe in detail the action of Trafalgar, the description being the more interesting for us as coming from the Spanish point of view. In ‘La Corte de Carlos IV.’ (The Court of Charles IV.: 1873), we find him page to a leading actress, and an eye-witness to the degeneracy of that monarch and his favorite Godoy, which resulted in the seizure of the country by Napoleon for his brother Joseph. In ‘La Batalla de los Arapiles’ (translated by Rollo Ogden as ‘The Battle of Salamanca’: 1875), the last of the series, the same Gabriel is a major, and performs an important commission for Wellington. He has risen to this level step by step, and on the way has had as many adventures as one of Dumas’s guardsmen, and has carried them off as gallantly. In the second series of ‘Episódios,’ Salvador Monsalud is the principal character. He is a young fellow who is led by dire want—and also by sharing the liberalized French view of the decadence and worthlessness of the Spanish form of rule—to take service in the body-guard of Joseph Bonaparte. A chapter full of strength and pathos, in ‘King Joseph’s Baggage,’ shows him disowned by his mother and cast off by his village sweetheart on account of such service, both of them frantic with a spirit of independence like that which animated the Maid of Saragossa. A feature of this book that gives it originality is that the action turns not upon the usual principal features of battle, but upon the fate of the rich baggage train of booty with which Joseph Bonaparte had hoped to escape to France after his brief, disastrous reign.

The ‘Episódios’ have had an extensive influence, and have been imitated, under a like title, in the Spanish Americas. The author’s tone toward the past is generally severe and disdainful. “Had Spain, perchance, a ‘constitution’ when she was the foremost nation in the world?” he puts into the mouth of one of his characters, with sardonic intent. He has been called unappreciative, and his attitude towards Spanish antiquity has been protested against by other leading writers, of more conservative feeling, as unwarranted. These romances contain some passages showing aversion to the barbarities of war, but in general they are less humanitarian than those of Erckmann-Chatrian: they are principally devoted to glorifying Spanish fortitude and courage. These books are a great advance upon the two earlier novels; from the first they showed literary workmanship of a high order: they possess ingenuity of plot, sufficient probability, and graphic power of description, movement, and conversation. In the latter respects, indeed, they surpass some of the author’s later works that make more serious pretensions.

The wider and more definitely literary reputation of Pérez Galdós rests upon more than a score of other works, in addition to the above. These are distinctly novels, as contrasted with romances; and they treat of contemporary life, in a method that aims to be conscientiously observant and impartial. It is often said, without much reflection, that we see enough of the things close about us, and need our literary recreation in the remote and strange. But it must be recalled that we see those things without the eyes of genius, and he is a true benefactor who poetizes and dignifies life in making evident that all of life is vivid with interest, even that part of it nearest to us, which without such illumination we may have thought devoid of it. The words in which the ostensible narrator of ‘Lo Prohibido’ (Forbidden Fruit: 1885), explains the purpose of his journal may well enough be taken to exhibit the method of Galdós. It was to set down “my prosaic adventures, events that in no way differ from those that fill and make up the lives of other men. I aspire to no further effects than such as the sincere and unaffected presentation of the truth may produce; and I have no design upon the reader’s emotions by means of calculated surprises, frights, or conjurer’s tricks, through which things look one way for a time and then turn out in a manner diametrically opposite.”

The titles of a number of his principal books, not hitherto given, with dates, are as follows. The dates are those when they were written, and they were generally published shortly after: ‘Doña Perfecta,’ 1876; ‘Gloria,’ 1876; ‘Torquemada en la Hoguera’ (Torquemada at the Stake: 1876); ‘Marianela,’ 1878; ‘La Familia de León Roch’ (León Roch’s Family: 1878); ‘Los Cien Mil Hijos de San Luis’ (The Hundred Thousand Sons of Saint Louis: 1877) of the Episódios; ‘Un Faccioso Más’ (A Rebel the More: 1879) the completion of the Episódios; ‘La Desheredada’ (The Disowned: 1881); ‘El Amigo Manso’ (Friend Mildman: 1882); ‘El Doctor Centeno,’ 1883; ‘Tormento,’ 1884; ‘La de Bringas’ (That Mrs. de Bringas: 1884); ‘Fortunata y Jacinta,’ 1886; ‘Miau,’ 1888; ‘La Incógnita’ (The Unknown: 1889); ‘Realidad’ (Reality: 1890); ‘Angel Guerra,’ 1891; ‘Torquemada en la Cruz’ (Torquemada on the Cross: 1894); ‘Torquemada en el Purgatorio’ (Torquemada in Purgatory: 1894); ‘Torquemada y San Pedro,’ 1895; ‘Nazarin,’ 1895; ‘Halma,’ 1896.

Even in his new departure, Galdós did not at once enter upon his final manner. ‘Doña Perfecta,’ ‘The Family of León Roch,’ and ‘Gloria’ are quite distinctly didactic, or “novels with a purpose”; while ‘Marianela’ is somewhat cloyingly sentimental, a prose poem after the manner of Ouida. In spite of all this, however, ‘Doña Perfecta’ has been pronounced by many his best work. It is the one that has obtained greatest celebrity abroad, and it is the one, all things considered, likely to be the most satisfactory example of his work to the English reader. ‘La Desheredada’ marks the transition to his final period, and he has put it upon record that with this book the real difficulties of his vocation began. It is a poignantly affecting story of a poor girl who was brought up, by a parent half knave and half insane, to believe that she was not his daughter but that of a noble house. After his death she undertakes in all good faith to prosecute her claim, and is thrown into prison as an impostor. Her heart is broken by the disillusionment; she cannot adjust herself to life again without the sweetness of that beguiling belief, and so, in the end, not having the boldness to die, she throws herself upon the street, a social outcast. Both in the person of Isidora and others, the book is a moving treatise on false education. Other leading figures are her brother, a young “hoodlum” and thief, the burden of whose career she has also to bear upon her slender shoulders, and the pampered son of the poor Sastres, who have denied themselves bread that he might have an education and luxuries. He has a hundred fine schemes for getting a living, but never a one of them includes turning his hand to a stroke of honest labor.

‘El Amigo Manso’ is an extended piece of character-drawing, self-told, in a gently humorous vein. It gives an account of a college instructor, very benevolent, very methodical and prudent, and a trifle conceited and patronizing, who is in love with a pretty governess. By the time he has settled all his judicious pros and cons, the pretty governess, who really cared nothing about him, is engaged to a suitor of a more dashing sort. The scenes of ‘Tormento,’ ‘La de Bringas,’ and ‘Miau’ are laid chiefly among the class of minor office-holders, with whose manners the author shows an exhaustive familiarity, and each has its peculiar tragic situation in itself. ‘Realidad,’ written once in the form of a novel, and again as a drama, treats of the subject of a wife’s infidelity, as it might pass in real life, instead of in the conventional and hackneyed way. Its title seems to propose to adhere even closer to the exact truth than do the others. There come to mind, in its suppressed passion and its calm, intellectual, and bitter philosophy, suggestions both of Ibsen and Sudermann. The banker Orozco, a noble and reserved nature, does not slay his wife, does not banish her from him, nor even make her reproaches. Augusta, on her side, wonders if his mind is not giving way. This bitter commentary on life is as near as her smaller mind can approach to a comprehension of his magnanimous conduct. The same Augusta, earlier, has said in conversation, “Real life is the greatest of all inventors; the only one who is ever ready, fresh, and inexhaustible in resource.” In these books, however serious, the purpose does not obtrude to the detriment of art; the reader is left free to draw his own conclusions, as from events in actual life; the author ostensibly is neither for nor against, and yet he leaves us in no doubt as to his decision, always a moral and stimulating one.

Galdós is a writer of people and things. His interest is in the lives and souls of men and women, his skill is in the analysis of their reactions upon each other, and of circumstances and social and moral tradition and environment upon them. He does not care much for descriptive writing, his style is simple, sometimes careless. Still, to the reader who knows Spain, there are passages in ‘Doña Perfecta’ that fairly bring back the smell of the red mud of the central plateau, and ‘Gloria,’ and ‘Tristana,’ and ‘Fortunata y Jacinta’ are continually forcing one to visualize some corner of a Spanish scene. But Nature, in the conventional sense, is not his concern. He gives a sufficient setting to his actions, and he takes care that the few details he needs are accurate, and in harmony. Life, as he sees it, is a serious thing, made up, oftentimes, of cruel trifles. But he is not a pessimist, unless it be pessimism to be fearless in facing unpleasant realities, and honest in admitting their unpleasantness—and their reality. In his best novels at any rate, he is natural, and we are sure that nature is not pessimistic. The sense of gloominess that often attends the reading of the work is quickly dispelled by an ineluctable feeling of the strong healthiness and sincerity of the author.

The theatre tempted Pérez Galdós only after his place as a novelist had been securely won. His earliest plays were ‘Realidad’ (1890), ‘La de San Quintin’ (1894), ‘El Abuelo’ (1897), ‘La Fiera’ (1897), of which only the second and fourth have any aptness for stage production. Indeed, the other two, as well as the later ‘Casandra’ (1905), he calls novelas, though in his preface to the first named he makes it clear that he has the theatre in mind. They are long stories in dialogue, of the general form familiar to readers of Henri Lavedan, though in their content and aim they are as different as possible from the work of that author. Simply as literature, they have some merit; as dramatic writing they have none at all. In 1900 Galdós began a period of rather strenuous devotion to the theatre with ‘Electra,’ a poor play which made a good deal of commotion in Spain, and continued his activity with ‘Mariucha’ (1903), ‘Barbara’ (1905), and ‘Casandra,’ already mentioned, besides other plays that attracted less attention. It would have been better if he had let the stage alone. Not one of his plays is good, most of them are simply bad. He has not at all the sense of the theatre; his technique is poor, he has no feeling for stage proportions, and the freedom and abandon of style which do so much for the success of his novels are sad handicaps in playwriting. Besides, in his plays he is always a preacher; and preaching from the stage, if it be ever tolerable, must be done by a consummate master of the resources of dramatic art, and with a delicacy of touch that we do not recognize even in our author’s best fiction. Intelligent admirers of Galdós will always regret that he yielded to the temptation of the boards.