Kicking off our Women on the Page celebrations in style, Jessica Harrison, Editor for Penguin Classics, tells us about one of her literary heroines, why she ‘deserves to be rediscovered as one of the great novelists’ and the work that means the most to her.
The author: Emilia Pardo Bazán, author of The House of Ulloa, was a fairly extraordinary woman. Born to an aristocratic family in Galicia, Spain, in 1851, she was married off to a country gentleman while still a teenager. But she quickly turned her back on her conventional background: she discovered French naturalist literature, became involved in politics, left her husband, travelled on her own in Europe, fought for women’s education, and had an affair with a fellow writer. In total, she wrote nineteen novels, as well as being a prolific journalist, foreign correspondent and the first woman to have a chair at a Spanish university. She died in Madrid in 1921.
The novel: The House of Ulloa is without a doubt one of the most captivating novels of Spanish literature, and deserves to be read alongside Zola, Hardy, the Brontës and the other greats from the period. Set in a decaying country house, the novel is largely seen through the eyes of a naive and timid young priest, Father Julián. We first encounter Julián struggling to stay on his horse as he arrives at his new place of employment – the House of Ulloa, presided over by the hard-drinking, hard-living marquis, Don Pedro. Like any crumbling pile worth its salt in a nineteenth-century novel, the house is full of secrets. Who is the grubby child who lives in the house and can gulp down red wine like a ‘real veteran’? What is Primitivo, the sinister estate manager, plotting? The book has a distinctly Gothic flavour, and Pardo Bazán ramps up the tension brilliantly. However, as the novel goes on, she subtly shows that real horror is not contained in bricks and mortar, but in the everyday cruelty of people towards each other: the indifference of husband towards wife, the brutality of strong towards weak. One of her great skills is in capturing a scene or a mood perfectly in just a few words. For example, as a bride fearfully waits for her new husband to arrive on her wedding night, we hear ‘the creak of brand new boots’ as he approaches her door, before the chapter abruptly ends. This one image conveys all the bride’s doubts and fears about sex and her marriage, and leaves the reader in a state of anxious suspense.
Despite all this, the novel is very funny. Much of the humour derives from the way that we see most of the action through the eyes of Julián, one of literature’s great innocents. He spends the majority of the novel in a fog of incomprehension and embarrassment – especially whenever anyone makes a sexual innuendo about the buxom maid with her ‘submissive, moist blue eyes’.
The novel is also a wonderful depiction of Spanish rural life: country dances, local feasts with twenty-six dishes, and hunting parties accompanied by ‘wineskins swollen with mellow wine, cooked shoulders of pork and cigars’. Emilia Pardo Bazán writes with an insider’s eye – affectionate, but always ready to skewer the pretentious, the hypocritical and the absurd with her sharp satirical pen. She deserves to be rediscovered as one of the great novelists of nineteenth-century Spain – and Father Julián and the inhabitants of the House of Ulloa will stay with you long after you finish this sly, witty and incredibly moving novel.
Find out more and buy The House of Ulloa.
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