Fortunata and Jacinta, by Benito Perez Galdos: The Greatest Novel You’ve Never Heard of

Fortunata and Jacinta: Two Stories of Married Women, by Benito Pérez Galdós is pretty much universally regarded as one of the great novels of the 19th century, the greatest Spanish novel after Don Quixote. Yet it wasn’t translated into English until 1973 and despite having been issued–twice, in different translations (by Lester Clark (1973) and Agnes Moncy Gullón (1986)–as a Penguin Classic, it’s currently out of print in English. Which is why chances are good that you’ve never heard of it.

Although I’ve had Fortunata and Jacinta on my list of books to feature from the first day I started working on this site, I’ve put it off for years. In part, I wasn’t sure I could do it justice without creating an enormous post that would scare off all but the most dedicated readers. But I was also intimidated by the investment in time the book demands. Although the Gullón translation runs to just over 800 pages, these are dense pages with long lines and small print. In truth, Fortunata and Jacinta is about as long as War and Peace less the essay at the end. And unlike War and Peace, which moves quickly, Fortunata moves at a more relaxed pace. It’s very much a book of Spain, where the day is interrupted by siesta, everyone comes out to stroll the streets after dusk, and suppertime starts at around 10PM. Do not start this novel if you’re not willing to spend at least a few weeks on it.

Writing about Fortunata in the PEN blog, contemporary Spanish novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina captures the commitment the book demands:

You live in it. You move into it. You inhabit it. You get accustomed to it. It becomes part of the daily setting of your life, like your coffee mug or your computer or your dog. You scrape some extra minute to get back to it. You stay awake longer than you should to reach the end of a chapter. You walk the same streets the characters walk, overhear their conversations, visit the same cafés and street markets and bourgeois mansions and working-class slums and taverns.

If you make this commitment, though, you will be rewarded with one of the richest reading experiences of your life. Galdós ranks with Henry Fielding as the most amiable of all the great novelists, yet with a power of observation and description that can astonish.

V. S. Pritchett acknowledged Galdós’ abilities in his review of the Lester Clark translation in The New Statesman in 1973:

He is an excellent story-teller, he loves the inventiveness of life itself. It is extraordinary to find a novel written in the 1880s that documents the changes in the cloth trade, the rise and fall of certain kinds of café, the habits of usurers, politicians and Catholic charities but also probes the fantasies and dreams of the characters and follows their inner thoughts.

Indeed, Galdós has a gift for creating interior monologues and exterior conversations that shows he was a veteran of many hours of listening in on the talks of others.

One of the words you will learn in the course of reading this book is tertulia. A tertulia is conversation elevated to the level of an art form or ritual. “Spaniards are the most talkative creatures on earth,” Galdós observes. My wife and I once visited a Spanish family for coffee after their Sunday lunch. At one point, my wife’s friend had her daughter model a new dress for the grandparents, aunts and uncles. For the next forty-five minutes, at least, the entire family discussed, analyzed, deconstructed, and assayed the little girl’s dress from every conceivable angle. It was a scene that would have fit easily into Fortunata and Jacinta.

Early on in the novel, Galdós remarks, “Clothes, ah! Is there anyone who doesn’t see in them one of the main sources of the energy of our times, perhaps even a generative cause of movement and life?” Clothes and fabric have a particular importance as they are the source of the wealth of the Santa Cruz family, whose son Juan’s dalliance with the working girl Fortunata sets off the central drama of the book.

Juan is “a completely idle man.” His parents, having achieved a comfortable fortune through owning a successful store selling fabrics, shawls and fancy Chinese fans, indulge their only child’s lack of ambition. His father, Galdós writes, “delighted in his son’s indolence just as an artist delights in his work; the more the hands that made it grow pained and tired, the more he admires it.”

His mother intends to maintain their fortune and standing, however, and arranges for Juan to marry Jacinta, the daughter of a rival mercantiler. Before the pair marries, Juan encounters Fortunata, an orphan living with an aunt who runs an egg and poultry shop in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, and quickly seduces her. Easily bored, he abandons the girl–but not before getting her pregnant. Juan and Jacinta marry and head off for a honeymoon visiting sites throughout Spain, taking advantage of the novel convenience of train travel. The child dies soon after birth.

The tertulias are highly effective modes of communication, and Jacinta soon hears rumors of Juan’s affair. While on the honeymoon, she attempts to get thr truth out of Juan, but he manages to acknowledge as little as possible. He is an altogether shallow, self-centered and manipulative character: “Santa Cruz denied some of the facts, and others, the bitterest, he sweetened and glossed over admirably well to make them pass.”

Jacinta continues to harbor suspicions, and as years of childless marriage pass, broods upon the idea of Fortunata’s having had a child with Juan. In the meantime, having been picked up and abandoned by a string of other men, Fortunata allows herself to be taken in by Maximiliano Rubin, a pharmacy student living with his aunt, Doña Lupe, who embark on a mission to reform her.

Although she willingly enters a convent for a course of time and weds Rubin, Fortunata soon falls back into an affair with Juan, who is attracted again by the novelty of seducing a married woman. Throughout much of the book, Fortunata tries to go along with the efforts of others to change her, but is ultimately resigned to be what she is: “I was born pueblo and I’ll stay pueblo,” she says.

The two women meet only a few times in the course of the book, but they come to have a relationship that is far more powerful than either experiences with Juan. Fortunata develops “a burning desire to look like Jacinta, to be like her, to have her air–that particular kind of sweetness and composure.” And, at the end, Jacinta comes to accept Juan’s second child born to Fortunata as her own as the poor woman lays dying in her squalid apartment. Of this scene, Pritchett wrote,

The last time I wept over a novel was in reading Tess when I was 18. Fifty years later Fortunata had made me weep again. Not simply because of her death but because Galdós had portrayed a woman whole in all her moods. In our own 19th century novels this situation would be melodramatic and morally overweighted–see George Eliot’s treatment of Hetty Sorrel–but in Galdós there is no such excess.

As you might expect from a thousand-page novel, in and around the central story of Fortunata and Jacinta are woven dozens of other narratives and a cast of minor characters often as interesting as the protagonists. The women are particularly strong–Doña Lupe, for example, whose “motto was: we should always start with reality and sacrifice what seems best to what is good, and what is good to what is possible.” Or Doña Guillermina, the “saint” whose energy in wrenching donations of money, services and building materials out of everyone she encounters would put today’s best fundraisers to shame.

And there are countless descriptions of a large and complex city in the midst of social and political changes. Amadeo abdicates in favor of the first Spanish republic, which falls in turn with the restoration of Alfonso XII. The republicans push many of the Church’s enterprises out from the center of Madrid, sparking a wave of new construction: “Every day the growing mass of bricks covered up another thin layer of the landscape. With every row that was laid, it seemed as if the builders were erasing rather than adding.”

And there is all the drama one could wish for in a rich 19th century novel. At least three death scenes. Two weddings and two funerals. A fist fight between Rubin and Juan, a nails-bared fight between Fortunata and Juan’s latest lover. Several mad scenes. Feasts and starving orphans.

And there is conversation:

In our cafés, anything under the sun is fair game for conversation. Gross banalities as well as ingenious, discreet, and pertinent ideas may be heard in these palces, for they are frequented not only by rakes and swearers; enlightened people with good habits go to cafés, too. There are tertulias made up of military men, of engineers; most often, there are tertulias made up of employees and students; and whatever room they leave is filled up by out-of-towners. In a café one hears the stupidest and also the most sublime things.

Galdós wrote Fortunata and Jacinta in the space of about a year, publishing it in 1887. By then, he’d been writing novels and plays for nearly twenty years, and he carried on for over twenty more. In total, he wrote over thirty conventional novels, plus an additional forty-six that he called Episodios nacionales, which depicted episodes from 19th century Spanish history, starting with Trafalgar and culminating in Cánovas, written in 1912 and set around the time of Fortunata.

Of these seventy-some novels, roughly twenty have been translated into English in the course of the last 120 years. Of these, setting aside direct-to-print copies of very old translations, less than five are still in print–meaning, still for sale new from Amazon. The last new edition of an English translation of a work by Galdós appears to have been Juan Martín el Empecinado, one of his Episodios nacionales, translated by Alva Cellini and published by the Edwin Mellen Press in 2003. It sells for $109.95–and is out of stock. Used copies of Fortunata and Jacinta are available from Amazon starting at $3.99 and going up to $150. I recommend the Gullón translation, which is a masterpiece–fresh, lively and worked with considerable care.

Fortunata and Jacinta: Two Stories of Married Women, by Benito Pérez Galdó
Translated by Lester Clark and published by Penguin, 1973
Translated by Agnes Moncy Gullon and published by the University of Georgia Press, 1986 and Penguin, 1988

1 thought on “Fortunata and Jacinta, by Benito Perez Galdos: The Greatest Novel You’ve Never Heard of

  1. I agree with you, F&J is a wonderful novel. I read it a few months ago with my online 19th century bookgroup &, although it was daunting to begin with – as you say, small print & long lines (I read the Penguin edition), I loved it. The women were especially fine although why anyone wanted a relationship with Juanito, I have no idea! Fortunata’s death scene was intensely moving. I wish more of Galdos’ work was available in English.

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