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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Fortunata and Jacinta

by
Benito Pérez Galdós


general information | our review | links | about the author



Title: Fortunata and Jacinta
Author: Benito Pérez Galdós
Genre: Novel
Written: 1887
Length: 829 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Fortunata and Jacinta - US
Fortunata and Jacinta - UK
Fortunata and Jacinta - Canada
  • Two Stories of Married Women
  • Spanish title: Fortunata y Jacinta
  • This translation by Agnes Gullón (1986)
  • With an Introduction by Agnes Gullón
  • Previously also translated into English by Lester Clark (1973)

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Our Assessment:

A- : sweeping novel of late nineteenth century Madrid life

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       Fortunata and Jacinta tells the stories of the two women of the title. First, however, it is the story of Juanito Santa Cruz (also called the Dauphin), the much-loved and overly coddled only son of a fairly well-to-do couple, Don Baldomero and Barbarita.
       Galdós builds his story up slowly, going into a good deal of background-detail throughout the novel, detours that eventually allow him to present the sweeping picture of life in Madrid at the time -- a time of great political, social, and technological change. His light touch and sure descriptions -- finding the right words or the appropriate brief episode to convey great changes or specific aspects of this world -- leave little that is tiresome. Still: this is a novel that moves far and wide, and often leaves some of the central characters by the wayside. (Also effective is the use of his first person narrator, in the background almost to the point of invisibility, but occasionally resurfacing with the familiar personal touch.)
       In a very roundabout manner, it takes Galdós some forty pages for the story to truly begin -- but the approach, via family and then a family friend, is a fine one. The book proceeds in never quite expected turns, Galdós imitating unpredictable life far better than most novelists, the plotlines unfolding naturally (and so sometimes also awkwardly). He recognises when the book's first turning point comes:

     And now our attention must shift to the Dauphin's visit to his family's friend and humble servant, for if Juanito Santa Cruz had not paid that visit, this story would not have been written. Another story surely would have been written, because wherever man goes he carries his novel with him; but it would not have been this one.
       What happens is that Juanito encounters a girl from a poultry business in that house. She is eating an egg -- a raw egg, sucking at it, some of the "jellyish, transparent drool" slipping between her fingers. It is a remarkable first encounter. The girl is Fortunata, and Juanito returns over the next days to court and seduce her. But Galdós doesn't reveal much about the affair, describing it mainly through the mother's eyes, who sees that Juanito is a changed man (and suspects what is going on), and then, after a year or so, observes another change in his habits.
       Juanito is then fixed up with Jacinta, his cousin, and somewhat to his own surprise he finds himself falling in love with her. Soon -- much to his mother's pleasure -- they are engaged and then married, a whirlwind romance that Galdos breezes through in a few pages.
       They make a happy couple, but on the honeymoon Jacinta prods Juanito to reveal more about his past -- including some of the details of his fling with the girl Fortunata. He reveals some of what transpired, but doesn't tell her everything.
       The married couple gets along well, living with his parents. The only disappointment is that Jacinta doesn't get pregnant. When someone comes claiming to know of a boy who is the son of Juanito and Fortunata from their earlier affair she sees an answer to that particular problem, and hatches a desperate plan: to adopt the boy.
       Fortunata's circumstances are much poorer than the circles the Santa Cruzes move in, and she and the boy she is said to have had with Juanito allow Galdos to describe a completely different part of Madrid, populated by a rich cast of characters. Among them is the man who tells Jacinta of the boy, José Izquierdo, whose words she isn't sure she can trust:
He was an author of bad novels, and not being able to write them for the public anymore he tried to fill real life with the products of his tubercular imagination.
       Later, in a brilliant scene, the starving artist overeats and becomes literally "drunk on meat" -- one of the many imaginative and compelling scenes Galdos embellishes his tale with that make it so engrossing.
       Jacinta visits the neighbourhood where José Izquierdo and the boy live, going there with another of the books great characters, Guillermina, a tireless worker for the poor who constantly bothers all her relatives (and everyone else she encounters) for help and assistance in completing her great project, building an orphanage. All seems to go well (if rather messily) in the adoption of the boy, but things don't turn out quite as hoped for.
       The second of the four volumes of the novel then turns to Fortunata's story. Barely figuring much at all for the first quarter of the book, Galdós here devotes much more attention to describing her life and circumstances. And at first here it is not Juanito returning into her life, but rather a new man who tries to help her: Maximiliano Rubín. But unfortunately Maximiliano isn't much of a man: very young, with limited money (he has to break his piggy bank to help her out), and not at all attractive. Fortunata is touched by his helpfulness, but doesn't find him very appealing. But he seems to offer her a way to mend her ways, now that she has returned to Madrid after another failed adventure.
       Maximiliano is set on marrying Fortunata, but his aunt, with whom he lives, Doña Lupe, isn't convinced, as Fortunata seems entirely the wrong sort of woman to bring into the family. A compromise of sorts is reached when all agree that Fortunata should spend a while in a re-education centre -- one of the convents in Madrid "devoted to reforming women". And Galdós has his fun describing that place and the (mis)adventures there too.
       Eventually Fortunata is released, and she and Maximiliano do get married (making Fortunata the second married woman of the subtitle). Unfortunately, she can't convince herself to love him: he remains unappealing to her, no matter how hard she tries to convince herself that this is for the best. And then, of course, seductive Juanito -- a man she can't get out of her mind -- keeps coming after her .....
       The ill-fated marriage crashes apart, but Maximiliano remains obsessed by his wife, and Galdos allows the character some remarkable transformations, as one remains unsure to the very end of how deranged (or how sensible) he is, and what he might do. Matters are complicated for Fortunata too, as she eventually gets pregnant. And Juanito's interest in her is one that waxes and wanes, as he does everything to get her, and then just as easily leaves her by the wayside.
       Fortunately, at least one other male figure comes into Fortunata's life, Don Evaristo González Feijóo. In eventually trying to make things right for her again he reminds her of what's important:
Silly, silly chulita -- everything in this world depends on form, on style. Nothing is good or bad in itself.
       And a bit later he adds:
Do you know what form, or rather, appearances are ? Well, I won't say that they are everything, but there are cases in which they're nearly everything. Society lives on them; I wouldn't say according to its desires, but as well as it can manage. Principles are very pretty, but appearances aren't any less so. If I had to choose between a society without principles and a society without appearances, I don't know which I'd take.
       Complications abound: cover-ups, confusion, misunderstandings, and all sorts of desires and passions at odds with each other. But while there is slapstick and melodrama, Fortunata and Jacinta is much more than simple soap opera fare. It is especially the characters that hold the reader's interest: Juanito and Jacinta are, after the first of the four sections of the book, almost the least of them, but secondary and tertiary characters spring to life all over, full-bodied and real (if, in their exaggeration, often tending to the slightly clownish).
       The story meanders a bit unevenly: Jacinta fades too far from the forefront, and the focus shifts too completely in this sprawling book. Nevertheless, it is a great success in evoking the transformations Madrid undergoes in the late 19th century, and depicting slices of life from many different parts of society.
       Particularly noteworthy also is Galdos' style: witty but surprisingly subtle in its presentation -- as is made clear by the easily forgotten fact that the novel is actually recounted by a first-person narrator. Only rarely does this "I" poke his head out, and even then it's easily overlooked, drowned out by the other touches, as when a chapter begins:
At noon on a beautiful day in October, Don Manuel Moreno-Isla was returning home after a short walk in Hyde Park -- I mean the Retiro. My slip of the tongue reflects the kind that my dear character was making those days; Moreno, in his mildly troubled state, had begun to confuse immediate impressions with memories.
       Fortunata and Jacinta is a long book, and doesn't proceed as straightforwardly as one might like. Patience with the sweep of the novel, taking in so much of that Madrid, is well rewarded -- but it is a big book in these more hurried times.

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Links:

Fortunata and Jacinta: Reviews:
  • Salon (scroll down for review)
Benito Perez Galdos: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920) was among the leading Spanish authors of his time.

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© 2004-2008 the complete review

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