Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

Set in Madrid in the late 19th century, Tristana, by Spanish writer Benito Pérez Galdós, is a classic story of a love triangle. As the novel opens, we are introduced to Don Lope Garrido, a handsome lifelong womaniser now living in somewhat reduced circumstances in rented rooms in the Chamberí district of Madrid. At fifty-seven (although he thinks of himself as perpetually aged forty-nine), Don Lope still cuts a dashing figure with his noble face, slim figure and his distinguished goatee beard. Here’s a great description of this gentleman:

He dressed as smartly and impeccably as his slender means permitted: a well-buffed top hat, a good-quality winter cape, dark gloves at every season of the year, an elegant cane in summer, and suits more appropriate to youth than to maturity. Don Lope Garrido – just to whet your appetite – was a skilled strategist in the war of love and prided himself on having stormed more bastions of virtue and captured more strongholds of chastity than he had hairs on his head. True, he was somewhat spent now and not fit for very much, but he could never quite give up that saucy hobby of his, and whenever he passed a pretty woman, or even a plain one, he would draw himself up and, albeit with no evil intentions, shoot her a meaningful glance, more paternal than mischievous, as if to say: “You had a very narrow escape! Think yourself lucky you weren’t born twenty years earlier…” (pg. 4)

Don Lope is aptly named as while ‘Garrido’ can mean ‘handsome and elegant,’ it also carries a suggestion of ‘garras’ meaning ‘claws’.


Living with Don Lope are two women: his maid, Saturna, and a twenty-one-year-old girl named Tristana. The inhabitants of the neighbourhood enjoy speculating on the nature of Tristana’s relationship with Don Lope. Various theories are bandied about ranging from daughter to niece to wife. But in reality the young girl is Don Lope’s ward. As the orphaned daughter of a close friend of her Don Lope’s, Tristana is entirely dependent on her guardian’s generosity, a status which this serial seducer has exploited. Within two months of Tristana’s arrival, Don Lope has added her to his very long list of conquests; she is, in effect, his plaything.

The problem was that the good gentleman’s moral sense lacked a vital component, and like some terribly mutilated organ, it functioned only partially and suffered frequent deplorable breakdowns. In accordance with the fusty old dogma of a knight sedentary, Don Lope accepted neither guilt nor responsibility when it came to anything involving the ladies. While he would never have courted the wife, spouse, or mistress of a close friend, he considered that, otherwise, everything was permitted in matters of love. (pg. 17)

At first Tristana accepts this way of life almost without question, failing to appreciate the reality of her situation. She is young, pretty and innocent. But as her twenty-second birthday approaches, Tristana begins to experience an awakening, a longing for independence and a sense of freedom.

Then there came a time when, like the shoot of a perennial plant that pushes its way up into life on a warm spring day, her mind suddenly flowered and filled with ideas, in tight little buds to begin with, then in splendid clusters. Indecipherable desires awoke in her heart. She felt restless, ambitious, although for quite what she didn’t know, for something very far off, very high up, which her eyes could not see; (pgs. 20-21)

As a result, there are signs that Tristana is starting to find life as Don Lope’s mistress more than a little distasteful. An ambitious and intelligent young woman, she dreams of learning a skill or profession, of living life as a painter, a writer or a teacher. Meanwhile, Don Lope is beginning to feel the effects of his advancing age. Sensing Tristana’s growing appetite to spread her wings, he begins to tighten the net around his young captive fearing she may deceive him or flee the nest forever.

Sensing that he was now an old lion, he, who had never considered any other man his rival, was suddenly filled with anxieties and saw robbers and enemies hiding in his very shadow. Aware of his own decrepitude, he was devoured by egotism, like a kind of senile leprosy, and the idea that the poor young woman should compare him, even if only mentally, with the imagined exemplars of youth and beauty, soured his life. His good judgement, it should be said, did not desert him entirely, and in his lucid moments, which usually occurred in the morning, he recognized the inappropriateness and irrationality of his behaviour and tried to calm his captive with trusting, affectionate words. (pgs. 29-30)

One day while out walking, Tristana meets and falls for Horacio, an attractive young artist and kindred spirit. The two young lovebirds continue to meet on a daily basis, a romance nurtured through afternoon strolls and, in time, secret trysts in the painter’s studio. Horacio, too, has experienced a difficult childhood. Orphaned at a young age and poorly treated by his tyrannical grandfather, he has found an outlet for his creativity through art. Horacio encourages Tristana’s eagerness to learn and the two feed off one another in a sense of mutual fascination and desire. Their love affair is teasing and playful.

Inside her, emotion was kicking and stamping, like a living being far larger than the breast containing it, and she vented this emotion by laughing wildly or bursting into sudden, passionate tears. It was impossible to say if this feeling was a source of joy to them or a lacerating sorrow, because they both felt as if they had been wounded by a sting that plunged deep into their souls, and were both tormented by a desire for something beyond themselves. (pg. 48)

With her spirit fully awakened, and scarred by Don Lope’s predatory behaviour, Tristana longs for the day when she can make her own way in life. Despite her love for Horacio, she is keen to reach a state of ‘honourable freedom,’ unwilling to accept dependency upon any man however much she idolises him.

And what of her home situation?  Although she does not love her guardian, Tristana still feels tied to Don Lope in some way; she experiences a strange mix of emotions towards him. There are times when Tristana loathes Don Lope for taking away her virginity, but she also feels something bordering on affection as a daughter would for her father. In reality, Don Lope’s character is far from black and white; he is a curious blend of altruistic qualities and terrible failings. He seems to have two opposing consciences: one very pure and honourable in certain respects, the other rather reprehensible. In effect, he chooses which to apply depending on the situation putting them ‘on and off like shirts’.

Don Lope wielded such power over her, such mysterious authority, that in his presence, even though she had ample reasons to rebel, she could not dredge up so much as a breath of willpower. (pg. 60)

Don Lope soon guesses that Tristana has a suitor. The evidence of love is there; he can see it on her face and hear it in her voice. That’s about as much as I’m going to say about the plot of this wonderful novel, but there are a number of moves and counterplays to come which keep the reader guessing.

Tristana is a joy to read, a subtle story of love, power, liberty, and creativity. As you may have gathered from my opening quote, Don Lope is a cunning strategist and not to be underestimated. At times, he behaves like a jealous lover, at others a watchful father or doting grandfather. He is a tricky character to pin down as we see various different facets of his personality. Tristana, too, is a complex individual, and her wishes change as the story moves forward. Even Don Lope’s maid, Saturna, is painted in a vivid and lively manner. She is Tristana’s confidante, and the conversations between the two women are one of the book’s many pleasures. The writing is sublime too: Galdós’ prose is elegant and sprightly; Margaret Jull Costa’s translation reads very smoothly.

This is my second contribution to Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month, and I must thank Guy and Scott for recommending Tristana, which I suspect will make my end-of-year highlights. You can read their excellent reviews by clicking on the links.

Tristana (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa) is published by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 2/20, #TBR20 round 2.

33 thoughts on “Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jose. Yes, I’m going to try to get hold of the film on DVD to see how it compares to the novel. (I’d been holding off until my review of the book went up just to avoid any crossover between my impressions of the film vs. the source novel.) Have you seen the movie?

        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s good to hear. I’m curious to see how Buñuel’s adaptation compares to my impressions of the novel.

          Ah, yes. I’m interested in Fortunata and Jacinta. Quite an epic by all accounts. I might need to clear a whole month for that one…

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I loved this one, and it’s quite different to most of the other Spanish literature I’ve read (although my experience of 19th-century Spanish lit is limited to say the least!). In many ways, it reminded me of the classic French novels of this period. In the introduction, it mentions that Galdós had encountered the works of Balzac during a visit to Paris, so I suspect there are similarities in style/themes.

  1. Brian Joseph

    This sounds like a great character study.

    The story of relationships involving younger women and older men and their tendency to stifle the women seem so common in are culture and date back centuries. Yet when explored by talented writers they still can yeild quality literature.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is. I think you’d like this novel very much, Brian. On the surface, it’s a classic set-up, the eternal love triangle, but in reality I think it’s much more interesting than that. Tristana’s awakening is wonderful to observe, she’s quite a feminist in many ways. And I didn’t see the ending coming. It’s quite a subtle novel.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Excellent, I’m looking forward to it. I’ve put it right at the top of the DVD rental list. You should write a post on the novel vs. film, Guy. I’ve enjoyed your previous compare-and-contrast pieces.

  2. Emma

    *moan* my virtual TBR increases again *sigh*

    This sounds excellent, really. I’m very curious about the story and how everything unfolds.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Sorry! You’d enjoy this one, Emma. I’d put money on it. The characters are really interesting, quite nuanced and shaded, and it’s not always easy to predict what they’re going to do next (which is no bad thing). I didn’t see the ending coming until the last minute and wouldn’t have guessed it at the outset.

      In some ways, it reads like a classic French novel from the 19th century. I suspect that would have been my initial reaction had I read it blind without any mention of place names. It would make an interesting comparison with other novels from that period – some of Balzac’s novels, for example. Balzac gets a mention in the intro as Galdós discovered his work during a trip to Paris, so I wonder if he was an influence or reference point? I think you’d be in a great position to take a view on that type of thing.

  3. 1streading

    I’ve read a few of Galdos’ books – Nazarin and Inferno spring to mind – and was very excited to see this was being translated but still haven’t got round to reading it. Really pleased that your review is so positive.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you’re in for a treat, Grant! I loved it – an intriguing, subversive story and the prose is a delight to read. I’ll take a look at the two you’ve mentioned as I’d be up for reading another at some stage.

  4. Anokatony

    Another Spanish writer you may or may not want to read is Camilo Jose Cela, a Nobel prize winner, whose politics were somewhar despicable. His most famous novel is ‘The Hive’ or maybe ‘The Family of Pascual Duarte’.

  5. The Little Reader Library

    I haven’t read much literature translated from Spanish but this one sounds really good, I love the description of Don Lope Garrido, and the clever play on the two possible meanings for his surname. Lovely review Jacqui.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a great description, isn’t it? The opening pages are packed full of eminently quotable passages about Don Lope.

      I haven’t read much Spanish literature from this period (pretty much everything else I’ve read was written in the 20th century), but I thoroughly enjoyed this one. In fact, I’ve enjoyed virtually every single one of the Spanish language books I’ve read in recent years. It’s definitely worth taking a closer look if you fancy reading something in translation. Hope all is well with you Lindsay – thanks for dropping by.

  6. Scott W

    Excellent review, Jacqui, and an impeccable choice of quotations. I can’t believe how often I still think of this novel, with its complex characters, tragic narrative arc, and stingingly wry observations. It’s certainly not a book lacking a sense of humor, and yet it also manages to be deeply affecting. I’m very much tempted to re-read it now.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Scott. A wonderful novel – as you say, it has so much to offer. The narrative really does follow the shape of an arc, doesn’t it? Peaking with those delightful letters Tristana and Horacio write to one another. I had it my mind that your review included an excellent analysis of that section of the novel (which I loved), so I thought I should find something else to say in mine!

      Spot on about the combination of humour and poignancy. It’s quite an affecting story, definitely one to re-read.

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  8. Max Cairnduff

    I think Guy had alerted me to this one, as it was already on my radar. Nice review as ever. The quotes seem a little florid, but that may be intentional as they seem quite 19th Century in style. Any thoughts?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Max. Yes, I put it on my wishlist after reading Guy’s review, and then Scott’s piece sealed the deal.

      That’s a fair question about the quotes and Galdos’ style of writing. It didn’t strike me as being overly elaborate or florid at the time; but then I knew I was reading a 19th-century novel, so I suspect my mind was already preconditioned to expect that type of prose style. Also, Tristana is quite young and feisty, and even though the novel is written in the third person, the passages reflecting her POV do reflect her spirited nature.

      Does that answer your question, Max? If it’s any help, I’m pretty sure you’d enjoy this novel very much, not that I’m trying to sell you on too many books while you’re in the middle of TBR20. :-)

      1. Max Cairnduff

        It does, and the book as I say is already on my radar, so I may well read it at some point. It does sound interesting. The quotes didn’t put me off, they seemed to suit the material.

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    1. JacquiWine Post author

      He certainly does hold quite a lot of the power in this scenario. It’s a great novel, one I’m very happy to have read for Spanish Lit Month. Hope you get a chance to read it too, Ratih. :)

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