It’s some time since I read this, so my memory of it is sketchy at best. I was drawn to it, primarily, because I wanted to discover, to be able to crown, the great Spanish novel that is not Don Quixote. It has long been a source of bemusement, to me, that the Spanish, so exceptional in the artistic world, have produced so few exceptional novelists or novels. Based on my research, my reading around the subject, Galdos’ Fortunata y Jacinta is the one that, at least in recent years, appears to be the most highly rated Spanish novel that is not Don Quixote, with Galdos himself often described as an Iberian Dickens. The Dickens comparison is a lazy one; his name, much like Kafka’s, seems to get thrown around without any real thought behind it. If there is a novel written during a particular period, that deals with different strands of society, and features zestful characters, then it is always called Dickensian. For my money, in terms of the novel under review here, and most other novels labelled Dickensian, the comparison is entirely superficial. If I had to compare Galdos to anyone it would be Balzac, for while his novel is an excellent read, and the characters are well-drawn, it is less obviously comedic, not as controlled, and, although strikingly modern in some aspects, it is, in crucial ways, dated; it lacks, as far as I’m concerned, Dickens’ timelessness.
Of course, that a writer is not on Dickens’ level should not mean that one ought to disregard his work, because very little is. Indeed, Fortunata and Jacinta has a lot to recommend it. It’s a thick book, and, as you all probably know by now, that makes me tingle in inappropriate places. Galdos, as the title suggests, tells the story of two women, both of whom have relations with a man, Juanito. I have read that some complain about the structure of the novel, but it is actually one of the things I most liked about it. Galdos makes somewhat tired themes – marriage, adultery etc – fresh because of the way he sets up the novel, which is to introduce a character who you think will be the focus of the story, only to relegate him to the background in favour of the two women whose lives he most influences. There is, in the beginning, a very satisfying feeling of expansion or flowering, a sense of the story working outwards from an innocuous starting point. Galdos then creates great tension and interest when the expansion ceases, and the story starts to contract, to shrink back, to a point where all the main players, and especially the two women, will come into contact; thrillingly, one feels as though the characters on a collision course with each other.
All three of the major players – Juanito, Jacinta and Fortunata – are entirely believable. Juanito is particularly intriguing; literature tends to deal with ladies men with little care, by which I mean that they are, generally speaking, psychologically and emotionally shallow. Galdos does not fall into this trap, for Juanito is a complex man. One is never entirely sure whether he loves either of the two women; at times you believe he does, and at others he seems entirely calculating and unfeeling. For me, he probably does love his wife, Jacinta, as their honeymoon shows, but that, crucially, he loves her as a wife, rather than as a woman. In contrast, one might say that what he feels for Fortunata is lust or passion, that he sees her and wants her as a woman, but I don’t think that is entirely correct. At heart, Juanito is selfish and spoiled. He has a loyal wife who dotes on him, who treats him almost like a child – they, in fact, often speak in a child-like language – and so he is used to pleasing himself, to getting what he wants. Fortunata is, really, the archetypal other, the thing that he wants because he can’t have it, because it is different to what he does have.
The issue of children is at the centre of the novel; more than adultery, or marriage, children and parenting are the most important themes. As previously stated, Juanito and Jacinta often talk in baby voices, and this works as a foreshadowing of the couple’s tragedy, the source of the greatest strain on their relationship, which is that Jacinta cannot get pregnant. Again, I was not too sure how Juanito feels about the lack of children; on one level he is unhappy as it means that his family is incomplete, and, more importantly, as a consequence of her barrenness his wife allows him less space, is more jealous and exacting; and yet on another level he is happy to be her surrogate child, for example, there is a scene when Juanito is ill, and Jacinta nurses him as though he is a sick child, which is a situation he both encourages and luxuriates in.
However, for Jacinta a surrogate isn’t enough, she needs a genuine child of her own, her need being so great that she starts to lose her mind. Galdos deals with Jacinta’s maternal madness brilliantly, and it provides many of the finest scenes in the novel, including one where she hears baby-like cries coming from a drain. Galdos holds off from providing an explanation for the noise just long enough for you, and Jacinta herself, to wonder whether she is imagining it. He then tells us that the sound is from kittens that have been dumped. By this stage, Jacinta’s madness is at such a pitch that she identifies and sympathises with any young creature and so orders them to be saved [which is unfortunately impossible].
As Jacinta’s motivations and personality are fleshed out, one comes to realise what a fascinating couple she and Juanito are. One comes, in fact, to change one’s mind about them. Initially all your sympathy is for Jacinta, and yet the more you think about her the more one realises that her child obsession overrides all else, that she would be happy for Juanito to cheat on her as long as she had a child. I am not entirely sure that Galdos meant this to be the case, but I eventually came to feel more for Juanito, or at least understand him, because one gets the impression that he is little more than a sperm donor, or that he is only important to Jacinta because she lacks a child who she could then dote on and devote herself to instead; his infidelity, his wandering eye, seemed entirely justifiable to me in those circumstances. Maybe it is because I am a man myself, but Jacinta’s neediness, her intense desire for a child, her increasing inability to find happiness in anything else, her infantilising of her husband, all meant that I started to find her incredibly irritating.
Despite not sympathising with Jacinta’s plight I was, at this point, convinced that the book is a masterpiece. However, as it progressed I started to question it, and, by extension, the author. In fact, I came to wonder whether the book is morally dubious. The first sign of this moral dubiety is when Jacinta buys a child whom she believes is Juanito’s and Fortunata’s, born of their affair before his marriage. On one level, I was ok with this, with the buying of the child, as it was an exciting plot development; and yet i started to shift a little uncomfortably in my seat when it is discovered that the child is not Juanito’s and it is therefore sent to an orphanage. Of course, I’m able to accept that lots of unfortunate or disagreeable things happen in novels and that it does not necessarily mean that the book itself is morally dubious, but I was a little thrown by this development because I had been, until that point, entirely sure that the Santa Cruz family was meant to be caring, good-natured and upstanding. Certainly Galdos had not hinted at this kind of whimsical disregard for human life in any of their number, aside from Juanito.
In any case, a much bigger issue for me was the treatment of Fortunata and, in particular, the fate of her second child. Fortunata is the other woman, and I think that Galdos mostly deals with her sensitively and sympathetically. She is a tragic character, of course, and until the last 100-200 pages I thought that he was using her to make a valid point, had an admirable goal in mind, which was to highlight the arrogance of the rich [which can also be seen in the buying and discarding of the child thought to be Juanito’s] and the abusive or manipulative behaviour of men, in general, towards needy, poor, women. All that is fine; noble, even. But, for me, what eventually happens to Fortunata and her child, at the very least, raises doubts about Galdos’ intentions; one can see the book either as a fallen woman getting what she deserves or as an attack on conservative, well-to-do, society. I can’t decide whether the fact that I finished the book not being able to say one way or the other is a credit to the author or a flaw in his work.
Part of the problem I had was with the role of the saintly Guillermina Pacheco. She is a pious woman of God who attempts to procure this second child for Jacinta. Now, it is entirely possible that I was so blinded by my irritation that I do Galdos a disservice, but I never felt as though he was criticising Guillermina’s behaviour. Indeed, she is described by the author in glowing terms, everyone [including Fortunata] likes and respects her; she is charitable, good. And yet she believes that Fortunata’s child should be taken from her, that it is ok for Fortunata to be persuaded [or brainwashed] to give him up. I had a hard time swallowing all that. If Galdos intended his book to be a critique of the church [or a critique against the abuse of a young woman through the use of religious doctrine etc], then why is Gullermina so praised by all the novel’s characters? And why does more than one character have a kind of religious experience, or submit to conversion or a re-establishing of faith, because of her or in her presence? If he meant to attack Guillermina then the author did so in the most subtle manner possible, because no one in the book expresses even the slightest doubt about her actions or character.
Whether Galdos was not being critical or not is further muddied by the outcome of this tug-of-war over the child. If, as previously stated, the intent was to show up the rich for their arrogance and callousness towards the poor, then why does Jacinta eventually get what she wants? That seems an odd conclusion. Sure, she rejects Juanito [although she doesn’t leave him] but, as I have already discussed, I never believed she truly wanted him anyway as anything other than a father to a child or as a surrogate child himself. This conclusion, to my mind, moved the novel away from being about rich manipulation to being a comment on motherhood, and who is capable of, or best suited to, raising a child. On the evidence of the book, I would say none of them, but Galdos, by having her win out, appears to declare: Jacinta. Regardless, that both Jacinta and Gullermina come out of the novel smelling of roses troubled me greatly.
But maybe that is the point; maybe Galdos’ aim was to trouble you, to befuddle you, to make you judge his characters as we judge real people i.e. as not wholly bad, nor wholly good. All his main players do objectionable things and admirable things; no one’s ethics are straightforward or down the line. Perhaps Jacinta’s winning, and one’s realisation that the child will ultimately probably end up better off for that, is evidence that life is not straightforward either. Maybe, then, Fortunata and Jacinta is a truly great book.