Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Author's Portrait: Camilo Castelo Branco

Portugal is a small and unobtrusive country in the southwesternmost corner of the Iberian Peninsula – and Europe. One of her most prominent and prolific nineteenth-century writers was Camilo Castelo Branco, first Visconde de Correia Botelho, whose books have remained popular long after his death in 1890 and are still read in Portuguese schools sometimes. He was a master of romance, but despite the lasting fame he enjoys in his country his name is virtually unknown outside Portugal and other parts of the Lusitanian world. This is reason enough for me to write his portrait today.


Camilo Castelo Branco, in full Camilo Ferreira Botelho Castelo Branco, was born on 16 March 1825 in Lisbon, Portugal. He was the illegitimate son of Manuel Joaquim Botelho Castelo Branco (1778-1835), a member of a noble family from northern Portugal, and Jacinta Rosa do Espírito Santo Ferreira (1799-1827). Since both his parents died early, he grew up in the care of an unmarried paternal aunt with his older sister Carolina Rita. As from 1838 he attended the Catholic seminary of Vila Real where he discovered the works of the Portuguese poets Luís de Camões and Manuel Maria Barbosa de Bocage. At the age of sixteen Camilo Castelo Branco married Joaquina Pereira de França, but he abandoned her already in 1844, the year after their daughter Rosa was born. He went to Oporto to study medicine and soon turned to writing.

In 1845 Camilo Castelo Branco published his first literary works, namely poems and plays, and became a journalist. Then the passionate youth eloped with Patrícia Emília do Carmo de Barros with whom he had another daughter, Bernardina Amélia, in 1848. He left them too, after his first wife and his first-born daughter Rosa had died in 1847 and 1848 respectively. All the while he continued to work as a journalist and playwright. He founded several periodicals and eventually became chief editor of O Porto and Carta. In 1851 he brought out his first novel titled Anátema (Anathema), but grieving over the marriage of his new love Ana Augusta Vieira Plácido contracted with the Brazilian merchant Manuel Pinheiro Alves in 1850, he plunged into theological studies to become a priest. In 1853 he gave up theology for good and fully devoted himself to writing.

The first works that Camilo Castelo Branco penned in this early period were his famous romances of imagination Mistérios de Lisboa (1854; Mysteries of Lisbon), A Filha do Arcediago (1854; The Archdeacon’s Daughter) and Livro negro do Padre Dinis (1855; Black Book of Father Dinis) which in style remind of the works of Eugène Sue. In 1856 the prolific writer published no less than four novels: A Neta do Arcediago (The Archdeacon’s Granddaughter), Um Homem de Brios (A Man of Honour), O Sarcófago de Inês (The Sarcophagus of Ines) and the largely autobiographical romance Onde está a Felicidade? (Where is Happiness?). The latter novel established him as a writer of renown.

Still in 1856 Camilo Castelo Branco revived his relations with Ana Augusta Vieira Plácido. They lived together in hiding and had their first son, Manuel, in 1858, when the author was elected a member to the Academia Real das Ciências de Lisboa (Royal Academy of Sciences of Lisbon). Also in 1858 he brought out O Que Fazem Mulheres (What Women Do) along with Carlota Ângela and the partly autobiographical work Vingança (Revenge). In 1860 the writer and his companion were arrested, but thanks to the intervention of Judge José Maria de Almeida Teixeira de Queirós, the father of José Maria de Eça de Queirós, they were both acquitted of the charges of adultery in 1861 and could continue to live together undisturbed by the authorities.

The novel O Romance dum Homem Rico (The Love-Story of a Rich Man) appeared in 1861 and rang in a particularly productive time. In 1862 and 1863 Camilo Castelo Branco published altogether eleven novels, most important among them Amor de Perdição (1862; Doomed Love), which many literature experts look upon as his best and most characteristic novel, and O Bem e o Mal (1863; The Good and the Bad). Another notable work of this period are the Memórias do Cárcere (1862; Memories of Prison) in which he recounted his experience in the overcrowded prison of Relação in Oporto mixing it with personal ramblings and autobiographical facts.

Ana Augusta Vieira Plácido’s husband died in 1863 and the couple settled down on his estate in São Miguel de Seide. Two more sons, Jorge Camilo and Nuno, were born to the couple in 1863 and 1864 respectively which meant that the author had to support a big family with his writings, but by that time his books had become so popular and widely read that he was the very first Portuguese writer who could live off the royalties. His principal works of the 1860s and 1870s were Vinte Horas de Liteira (1864; Twenty Hours in a Sedan-Chair), A Queda dum Anjo (1865; The Fall of an Angel), O Retrato de Ricardina (1868; Ricardina’s Portrait), A Mulher Fatal (1870; The Fatal Woman), O Regicida (1874; The Regicide) and Novelas do Minho (1875-1877; Novellas of the Minho).

In his fifties Camilo Castelo Branco was hit by hard blows of fate: in 1876 Jorge Camilo was discovered to be mentally ill, in 1877 his first son Manuel – his favourite – died and in the 1880s he began to lose eyesight due to syphilis. Despite all, the author didn’t tire to write more novels, among them Eusébio Macário (1879) and A Brasileira de Prazins (1882; The Brazilian Girl from Prazens). In recognition of his merits for Portuguese literature he was made Visconde de Correia Botelho in 1885 and to relieve him financially the Portuguese Parliament granted him a lifelong pension. His last published work was Esboço de Crítica – Otelo, o Mouro de Veneza (Critical Sketch – Othelo, or the Moor of Venice) released in 1886.

During four decades Camilo Castelo Branco produced more than 260 books under his own as well as pen names. Up to this day he is best known for his romance novels, but he also wrote plays, (mediocre) poetry and essays, translated dozens of books from French and English and devoted himself to non-fiction, above all biographies, history, literary criticism and journalism. The author’s style belongs predominantly to nineteenth-century Romanticism, but also shows elements of Realism. The descriptions of domestic as well as social life in Portugal, which are typical of his work, use to be salted with sarcasm and dark humour, even bitterness.

In 1888 Camilo Castelo Branco and Ana Augusta Vieira Plácido finally got married, but the author’s failing eyesight, which prevented him from reading and working as he was used to all his life, drove him to despair. On 1 June 1890 Camilo Castelo Branco committed suicide at his home in São Miguel de Seide, Vila Nova de Famalicão, Portugal. 

All original Portuguese writings of Camilo Castelo Branco are in the public domain and many of them are available online for free on Luso Livros or on the Project Gutenberg site. As far as I know only very few of his works have been translated into English, namely Where Is Happiness?, What Women Do, Doomed Love, and The Brazilian Girl from Prazens. None of them seems to be in print!

This portrait is based on the following Portuguese websites:

To those who speak Portuguese and who would like to know more about Camilo Castelo Branco and his work I recommend the website of the Casa de Camilo in São Miguel de Seide, Vila Nova de Famalicão, Portugal at http://www.camilocastelobranco.org.

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