Modern thoughts on 19th century literature written by women: House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazan
This is the second post of a series about books written by women in the past to give me an excuse to read more female authors, which have been lacking from my bookshelf recently. Join me on this journey of discovering some badass ladies who wrote some pretty stellar literature. Spoilers ahead.
I just finished reading the House of Ulloa, a book written by a Spanish woman named Emilia Pardo Bazan. Although the novel was published in 1886 the issues are current. This is a world where the women are seen as objects for bearing children, or as virginal saints—and nothing in between. Titles, statuses and land-owning are all central subjects within the novel, which were important in 19th century Spain, especially to the author of the book. Bazan herself was born in the mid-19th century and came from a noble Galician family. She was well-read and her education was considered "unusually broad" for a Spanish woman at the time. She ended up marrying a Carlist law student (another aspect that must have influenced the politics within the novel), but they were later separated.
The story takes place mainly in the House of Ulloa, submerged in nature and removed from modern civilization. A young chaplain, Julian, is being sent to the estate to set things right after rumours of infidelity and sacrilege. The marquis of the house, Don Pedro, is unruly, wild and abusive. The majordomo Primitivo, basically Don Pedro's right hand, is a stiff, unwelcoming older man. The latter invisibly rules the manor, and his daughter Sabel runs the kitchen and all of the savage women of the estate (notably, a witchlike woman named La Sabia who the chaplain seems to fear).
We are introduced to the inhabitants of the manor through an absurd and shocking scene as Julian arrives. A toddler, Perucho, runs around wildly. He is chaotic in his actions, but still angelic with cherubic cheeks. Sabel, who the chaplain gathers is the child's mother, cannot calm him down. Primitivo holds Perucho and gives the child alcohol like it's a regular bottle. The toddler drinks a large amount and falls fast asleep. Julian tries, unsuccessfully, to stop this obvious abuse, but is unable to and questions the men's behaviour. When he learns that Primitivo is the child's own grandfather, Sabel's father, he is repulsed.
Thus is Julian's introduction to the House of Ulloa: disorder and ungodliness.
What stood out the most to me, however, isn't the cruelty of getting a child drunk, but how the chaplain—a man of God and a respected figure—is portrayed. He has the best intentions, like some good men do. He is kindhearted, but spineless. The book follows Julian as he becomes part of the strange and sinful world of tarot cards, meals without saying prayers first, and sex before marriage (as he later learns Perucho's father is Don Pedro).
Throughout his time at Ulloa, Julian goes from being resolute and steadfast in his belief that he can make a difference at the manor to desperate and disheartened. By the end of the novel, he is diminished to a ghost of his former self. His attempt to bring redemption to the house backfires after Don Pedro gets married and has a daughter, instead of a son, a "rightful heir." Julian prays constantly for Nucha, Don Pedro's wife who became ill during childbirth. He refuses to eat, and even when he notices Nucha has been abused, he still does nothing. He acts out scenes in his mind and thinks of what he would say to confront Don Pedro or Primitivo, or to make the situation better, yet he always does nothing. He is unable to follow through on any real action other than prayer.
I can't help but think about how Bazan must have felt when she wrote about Julian: He is symbolic of good men (or seemingly good) who take no action, who see terrible things, and do nothing. But Julian is the most relatable (and sometimes likeable) man in the book. The other men are brutal, conniving, violent, and selfish. The hunters boast relentlessly of slaying tigers. Primitivo laughs as he gets his own grandson, a toddler, drunk, and even prevents his daughter from leaving the manor although she is living as an abused mistress. Even the priests are power hungry and fight within the district.
The women are either depicted as peasants or virgins—with the exception of Sabel. Despite her status as a lowly kitchen maid, her father's position at the House of Ulloa allows Sabel to have some liberties within the household. She is seen by the chaplain as a sinful character, but at times as a martyr. She's one of the only characters who vacillates between ungodly and virtuous, if only slightly, in the eyes of the young chaplain.
While Julian squirms at her nakedness, Sabel isn't embarrassed. She uses her womanhood to her advantage any way she can. Instead of taking pity on Sabel, Julian is disgusted at her attempts to seduce him (or shock him) with her bare body. Her sexuality is her saving grace and her demise. Don Pedro uses her, beats her, and technically rapes her because she cannot consent. She is his property, and as a "ruined" woman, she is tied to him. Her own father is complicit in the abuse and ensures she cannot leave the estate by postponing a marriage to a man she actually loves.
The fact that Don Pedro brings home another woman, his wife Nucha, to live in the same home as his former lover shows the difference in status between men and women in the book. Although it is not openly said in the town that Sabel had the don's bastard child, it is still clear within the household. Don Pedro is never judged by others (except for Julian) on his lifestyle choices, however, Sabel is labeled a whore.
Nucha, on the other hand, is virginal, chaste and pious. The chaplain does not even want to picture her giving birth and going through such human pain. Nucha is Sabel’s opposite, but they share the same fate and are damned by the same man. They are both strong and endure the fear of living under the same roof of their abuser, while raising a child.
It was Julian who convinced Don Pedro to take Nucha as a wife—not her flirtatious sister Rita. So, although the chaplain is responsible for the arrangement, he remains impotent when it comes to saving Nucha right to the end. When Nucha breaks down and tells him of her suffering, he is humiliated for not having done anything. Once again, guilt without guidance, accepting blame and carrying the burden blindly. Julian's character is especially frustrating at this point because Nucha's suffering is his cross to bear, and he carries it around, instead of trying to solve the problem. Better to pray than to do. Better to see her as a martyr than actually help her.
The chaplain resolves to help Nucha run away, but of course, their plan is foiled. Perucho tells Primitivo and Don Pedro that Julian and Nucha are alone in the chapel. This equates to only one thing in the men's minds: Nucha and Julian are having an affair.
For the next decade, the chaplain lives a faraway, meagre existence, when all of a sudden he is summoned back to the House of Ulloa. We learn of Nucha's death, which is confirmed by the austere atmosphere of the manor, once so familiar to the chaplain, once a hopeful place when he thought marriage would solve Don Pedro's indiscretions and sins. The chaplain then sees the two grown children at the manor upon his return: Perucho and Nucha's daughter. However, even though Nucha's daughter is the legitimate heir of the estate, she seems to be wearing peasant's clothing. Perucho is wearing a finer outfit, fit for a higher class.
It is this image we end with, and on this point: Women are so easily stripped of everything. No matter their status, they are lesser than men. The woman of the estate, Nucha, and the mistress, Sabel, are both seen as objects—one chaste, one savage—despite coming from different classes. They are reduced to their archetypes, despite their individuality.
They are painfully aware of their place in the world, unlike many of the men in the novel, who abuse power, people and property without fear.
But not without punishment, as we learn with the bloody death of Primitivo, who is fatally shot in the back.
I feel a sense of injustice after reading this. The violence against women is completely normalized—a reflection, I'm sure, of certain parts of society in Bazan's time. It's sad that this is so relatable to our social climate now. In the book, there is a major double standard with how Don Pedro can openly have a mistress and a bastard child with Sabel, while still being a respected head of the estate (at least to some). Sabel is seen as a less-than-nothing peasant, but Don Pedro as a manly and stern leader.
Another example: when Don Pedro is considering a wife, it is done with the same emotion you would have when buying a farm animal. He lusts after Nucha's sister Rita, yet judges her for being flirty with other men. He is already portrayed as a jealous lover, as he beats Sabel for dancing with another man. Thus, Nucha is the clear choice for him: a quiet woman who will remain silent.
The women's strengths in the book should not be undermined by their weaknesses. The women are passionate, creative, sinful, loving, intelligent, human, fierce, and carry with them the burden and pleasure of motherhood. Even the dainty Nucha shows how far she has come since leaving her father's home for the House of Ulloa. In the end, although she is physically weak, she is mentally fierce. The conviction in her speech to Julian about why she must leave shows her evolution. Even Sabel, wild and sexualized, becomes more likeable and relatable through her choices.
These women go through changes the men do not. They have evolved in some way by the end of the novel, although the evolution (and revolution) is only within their minds. This is a step further than the men, who act out their destinies without the intellectual awareness the women possess. The men use force and fear. So maybe the women do not and cannot dominate in that same sense — but rather through their little acts of rebellion.