The Court of Charles IV, by Benito Pérez Galdós

January 2nd, 2013

The Court of Charles IV was the second of the forty-six historical novels, referred to as Episodios Nacionales, written by the great Spanish novelist, Benito Pérez Galdós, whose masterpiece, Fortunata and Jacinta, was the first title featured on this site in 2012. It’s a considerably lighter work–less than a fifth the length of Fortunata and Jacinta and told in first person by young Gabriel Araceli, a poor but amibitious lad whose backstage adventures in both the theaters and court of Madrid around the year 1807 make up the book.

Gabriel, son of a poor Cadiz fisherman, was first introduced in Trafalgar, Galdós first Episodios Nacionales novel, which depicted Nelson’s great victory from the eyes of a bystander on the losing side. Gabriel has made his way to Madrid and is now in the service of Pepita Gonzalez, one of the most successful actresses of her time. Among his duties, which he itemizes at the book’s start, are to hiss performances of “The Maiden’s Yes,” a play by Leandro Fernández de Moratín, whose work she despises.

Which leads to the first of several delightful set-pieces that are the book’s real highlights. In the company of a failed poet, Gabriel attends the play to make his obligatory interjections. Galdós weaves together Gabriel’s mocking account of the performance, his observations of the antics of the theatre’s audience, which is as busy talking and fighting among themselves as watching the play, and the poet’s non-stop commentary on the flaws of the writing and references to superior elements of his own work.

Indeed, the whole of The Court of Charles IV is something of a weaving demonstration by Galdós, with the threads of love, sex and politics as the raw materials. Gabriel’s mistress Pepita is in love with and insanely jealous of her director and leading man, Isidoro Maiquez–a real-life character from the time. Isidoro, in turn, is madly in love with Lesbia, the beautiful niece of a minor member of the Spanish nobility. And Lesbia, in her turn, is being watched and manipulated by Amarantha, another duchess with whom Gabriel becomes enthralled.

Gabriel’s experiences form the backing material against which Galdós winds and twists his fictional and historical characters. Some back the King, Charles (Carlos) IV; others support a coup by his son, Ferdinand, who favors the British. All despise the prime minister, Manuel de Godoy, known as “The Prince of Peace.” As the various intrigues of court and stage are being played out, the figure of Napoleon looms in the distance, utterly misinterpreted and misunderstood by all. Within a few months after the novel’s ending, he will invade Spain and drive them all into exile.

Typical of the clueness nobles is Lesbia’s uncle, a marquis and one-time diplomat, who has perfected obscurity as a tool for appearing to be all-knowing: “He always took care to maintain a studied reserve and utter himself in half-sentences, never expressing himself clearly on any subject, so that his hearers in their doubt and darkness should question him and insist on his being more explicit.” “What will Russia do?,” he often wonders aloud, to the perplexity of his listeners.

Gabriel is a Huck Finn-like character who maintains a healthy dose of skepticism about all he sees around him. Gabriel observes of the nobility at one point, “For my part, these typical specimens of human vanity have always been a delight to me as being beyond dispute those who amuse and teach us most.” One hears the voice of Galdós in these words. Though Lady Amarantha manages to lure him into acting as a spy, he wisens up before things get out of hand and lights out from the palace of El Escorial rather as Huck lit out from Widow Douglas’ house.

Galdós wraps up his story with a last bravura set-piece, in which the different love triangles come crashing together during a private performance of Othello–or rather, of Teodoro de la Calle’s translation of Othello, which was itself based on a French translation by Jean-François Ducis. And Gabriel manages to turn the tables on Lady Amarantha with a bit of dirty linen from her own past, allowing him to exit stage right with dignity intact and another boost up the ladder of success.

Overall, a fast and enjoyable tale–nothing too deep and certainly not a book that Galdós meant to be anything more than a historical entertainment, something like a precursor of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series.

The Court of Charles IV was translated into English by Clara Bell (who also translated Ossip Schubin’s fine comedy, Our Own Set, another neglected gem) and published by W. S. Gottsberger in 1888. You can find electronic copies of this translation, full of usual OCR errors, on the Internet Archive at http://archive.org/details/courtcharlesiva00galdgoog.

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