Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Author's Portrait: Emilia Pardo Bazán

Having a look back at the past two hundred years, it can be noticed that literature underwent a remarkable change not just in style and topics, but also regarding its authors who became socially more diverse. Particularly apparent is the fact that from the late eighteenth century on ever more women writers emerged from the shadows of patriarchal societies, notably in Europe. In more conservative, especially Roman-Catholic countries the development may have lagged behind, but there too women writers entered the scene sooner or later. A Spanish woman who gained renown as a writer in the late nineteenth century was Emilia Pardo Bazán. 

Emilia Pardo Bazán, in full Emilia Pardo Bazán y de la Rua, was born in A Coruña, Galicia, Spain, on 16 September 1851. As the daughter of the Pontifical Count José María de Pardo-Bazán y Mosquera and of Amalia María de la Rúa-Figueroa y Somoza she belonged to the wealthy and noble of Galician society. She was an only child and received the best education available for a girl at the time attending the prestigious French school in Madrid and being taught privately in A Coruña. However, she refused piano and music lessons which were common standard in the education of well-to-do girls. Emilia’s mother always encouraged the girl to read widely and to write. At the age of nine Emilia Pardo Bazán wrote her first poems and when she was fifteen her first story titled El Matrimonio del siglo XIX (The XIXth Century Couple) was published in El Almanaque de La Soberanía Nacional. 

As early as in 1868 Emilia Pardo Bazán entered into an arranged marriage with the Galician nobleman José António de Quiroga y Pérez de Deza and moved to Madrid with him. They stayed there for four years until moving to France and then travelling around Europe with her parents for two years. The time of vagabondage provided the writer with material for chronicles published in the daily newspaper El Imparcial (reprinted in 1901 under the title Por la Europa católica [Through Catholic Europe]) and allowed her to learn English and German. The experience changed her view of Spain and formed her belief that the country needed some kind of “Europeanisation” to catch up with the culturally and economically leading nations, notably with France. Moreover, she got acquainted with modern French literature. 

After 1876 Emilia Pardo Bazán’s career as a writer took off. For her essay Estudio crítico de las obras del padre Feijoo (Critical Study of the Works of Father Feijoo) she won the literary prize awarded by the municipality of Orense in celebration of the centenary of the Benedictine monk Benito Jerónimo Feijoo. It established her as writer in Spain. The same year the author gave birth to her first son, Jaime, and dedicated a volume of poetry titled Jaime to him. Three years later the birth of her first daughter, Blanca, coincided with the publication of her first novel Pascual López: autobiografía de un estudiante de Medicina (1879; Pascual López: Autobiography of a Student of Medicine). The success encouraged her to keep on writing and the following year she became editor of the short-lived magazine Revista de Galicia (Magazine of Galicia). 

The writer brought out A Wedding Trip (Un viaje de novios) in 1881 when her second daughter, Carmen, was born. In 1883 The Tribune of the People (La tribuna) followed. Those two novels were the first of Emilia Pardo Bazán’s works that clearly showed the growing influence of French realism and above all naturalism on her writing. At about the same time she produced a series of highly controversial articles about Émile Zola and his experimental novel for the magazine La Época which was subsequently reprinted as a book under the title La cuestión palpitante (1883; The Burning Question). Fearing for the family’s reputation, her husband wanted Emilia to stop writing and to distance herself from her articles which she refused. Instead she separated from him amicably in 1884 and continued to write as well as publish prolifically.

In 1885 her novel The Swan of Vilamorta (El cisne de Vilamorta) came out. The years 1886 and 1887 saw the publication of Emilia Pardo Bazán’s most famous novel, the naturalist masterpiece The House of Ulloa (Los pazos de Ulloa) and of its less known sequel Mother Nature (La madre naturaleza). The later works of the author were less acclaimed, maybe because her style became more varied in narrative approach and was no longer clearly realist or naturalist. After her father’s death in 1890 her novels and short stories also began to show a more symbolist and spiritual touch like in the novels Midsummer Madness (Insolación: 1889), A Christian Woman (La cristiana: 1890), Cuentos de amor (1894; Love Stories), Arco Iris (1895; Rainbow), Misterio (1903; Mystery), La quimera (1905; The Chimera), and Dulce dueño (1911; Sweet Master). In 1893 Emilia Pardo Bazán founded the magazine La Biblioteca de la Mujer (Woman’s Library) which continued to exist until 1913. 

As from 1887 her renown as a writer and her feminist commitment earned Emilia Pardo Bazán several important honours. She was appointed President of the Círculo de Artesanos of A Coruña (1887), first female Professor of the Ateneo in Madrid (1896), first female Honorary President of the Centro Galego in Madrid (1902), first female President of the Literature Section of the Ateneo in Madrid (1906), Honorary President of the Real Academia Galega (1906), first female Public Education Advisor (1910), and first female professor holding a chair of Contemporary Literature in Romance Languages at the Universidad Central of Madrid (1916). However, she never was accepted by the Real Academia de la Lengua although she was nominated for a seat three times. 

Throughout her life Emilia Pardo Bazán was a prolific and very versatile writer who was too open-minded to be pinned down to only one style and narrative strategy. It’s certainly true that her writing has been strongly influenced by the French novelists of her time (she also met some of them in person), but her interest in the works of the mystics and of philosophers like Karl Christian Friedrich Krause, Immanuel Kant, René Descartes, Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle and Plato as well as her attraction to Russian novels, notably those of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, reflects in her texts too. However, today the author is most noted for her influence on the naturalist as well as the realist literary movements in Spain and in addition her literary production is said to have inspired the beginnings of modern sociology in her country. 

The extensive work of Emilia Pardo Bazán comprises eighteen novels and more than 600 short stories along with numerous essays, critics and journalistic articles, various travel books, a few biographies, some plays and poetry. Several of her works have been translated into English and are still in print, among them the novels A Wedding Trip, The Swan of Vilamorta, The House of Ulloa, Mother Nature, Midsummer Madness, A Christian Woman and the short story collections First Love and Other Fascinating Stories of Spanish Life, Torn Lace and Other Stories, and The White Horse and Other Stories. The original Spanish texts have long entered into the public domain and many of them as well as some older translations are available for free via the Virtual Library Miguel de Cervantes, on Project Gutenberg, on Wikisource and several other sites of the kind. 

Emilia Pardo Bazán died in Madrid, Spain, on 12 May 1921. 

For more information about Emilia Pardo Bazán and her work I recommend the following books:

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