The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán (tr. P O’Prey & L Graves)

Born in Galicia in 1851, Emilia Pardo Bazán was a leading exponent of Spanish Naturalism and a key figure in 19th-century Spanish literature per se. Her 1886 novel, The House of Ulloa is generally considered to be her masterpiece. My old Penguin Classics copy had been sitting on the shelves for a couple of years, but Grant’s enthusiastic reaction to the book on Twitter (following its recent inclusion in the Pocket Penguins range) prompted me to dust it off for Spanish Lit Month (now extended to August). I’m so glad I did. It’s a marvellous novel, a feisty tale of contrasting values as a virtuous Christian chaplain finds himself embroiled in the exploits of a rough and ready marquis and those of his equally lively companions.

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The chaplain in question is Julián, a gentle, innocent and rather sensitive young man who is sent to the House of Ulloa in the Galician countryside in the hope that he will be able to act as a positive influence on the marquis of the manor, a libertine by the name Don Pedro. From the opening pages of the novel, one can detect a palpable sense of foreboding: Julián’s journey to the House hints at trouble ahead; the manor itself is an old ruin; and as for the marquis and the company he keeps, the chaplain appears to have his work cut out. Here are Julián’s impressions at the end of his first evening, a night featuring a bawdy supper where a young toddler is virtually forced into drinking copious quantities of wine by the various men of the house.

All the events of the day began to swim around in his mind. The nag that had almost thrown him flat on his face; the black crucifix that had sent a shiver down his spine; but above all the hubbub over supper and the drunken child. His first impressions of the people here were that Sabel was provocative, Primitivo insolent, the abbot a heavy drinker, over-fond of his hunting, and the dogs far too spilt. As for the marquis, Julian remembered what Señor de la Lage had said:

‘You’ll find my nephew rather rough around the edges. When you’re brought up in the country and never leave it, you can’t help being dull and churlish.’ (pgs. 16 -17)

As the previous overseer of the marquis’ business papers, the abbot has left everything in an unholy mess. With this in mind, Julián’s first task is to try to introduce some much-needed order into the affairs of the manor, a task that is easier said than done, especially when he comes up against Primitivo, the commanding majordomo of the marquis’ estate. While the marquis may be lord of the manor in terms of his title and position in the family, it is Primitivo who holds all the power over the local traders and tenants.

Every improvement Julián wanted to introduce, Primitivo would shrug his shoulders at and deem impossible. Every superfluous thing Julián tried to do away with, the hunter would declare indispensable for the smooth running of the estate. Innumerable small difficulties would rise up at the approach of the earnest Julián, preventing him from making any useful change. And the most alarming thing was to observe Primitivo’s disguised but nevertheless real omnipotence. Servants, tenants, labourers, even the cattle in the sheds, seemed to be under his thumb and well-disposed towards him. The flattering respect with which they addressed the master, and the half scornful, half indifferent way in which they greeted the chaplain, turned into utter submission when it came to Primitivo. Submission that was not expressed so much in words, but in the instant observance of Primitivo’s every wish, often expressed simply by a fixed cold stare of his small, lashless eyes. (pgs. 34-35)

Primitivo is a marvellous character, a rather sly fox who has been stealthily abusing his position within the marquis’ inner circle to line his own pockets, bleeding his employer dry in the process. On the other hand, the empty-headed marquis is under Primitivo’s thumb, totally dependent on his gamekeeper’s knowledge and influence to manage everything. And besides, there’s Primitivo’s daughter, a shapely servant girl named Sabel, who also happens to be the mother of the marquis’ illegitimate son, Perucho. (Young Perucho is the aforementioned wine-drinking toddler.) The marquis knows that any attempts to replace Primitivo will almost certainly come to a sticky end.

Horrified by the marquis’ fast and loose lifestyle, Julián finds himself in a quandary once he learns of the master’s liaison with Sabel and the details of Perucho’s parentage. As a man of the cloth, he cannot be seen to condone the marquis’ unholy actions by remaining at the manor. Then again, if he leaves, who knows what manner of bedevilment may ensue at the House of Ulloa, a place so desperately in need of an upstanding influence it hurts. As a potential solution to his dilemma, Julián convinces the master to move to the local town for a while, and a visit to the marquis’ uncle is arranged.

While staying with his uncle, the marquis is persuaded of the benefits of taking a virtuous wife, so he marries his young cousin, the kind and tender-hearted Nucha. Naturally Julián is delighted – at long last the marquis seems to be on a path to a brighter future. That said, the chaplain’s next challenge is to find a way of getting Sabel and the marquis’ illegitimate child away from the House of Ulloa, another task that proves much easier said than done.

When the marquis returns to the manor with his new bride, all is sweetness and light for a while, especially once the couple discover they are expecting a baby. A new, softer, more attentive side to the marquis emerges as he tends to the needs of his wife.

It seemed as though the marquis was slowly coming out of his rough shell, and his heart, so indomitable and selfish, was changing, letting the tender feelings proper to a husband and father show through, like little weeds peeping out of the cracks in a wall. If this was not exactly the Christian matrimony envisaged by the excellent chaplain, then it was certainly very close to it. (pg 131)

This doesn’t last for long though, especially once the baby arrives. Julián soon becomes Nucha’s closest ally in the house, acting as her confidante and protector whenever it is acceptable to do so. Moreover, he lives in constant fear of Nucha’s discovery of the true identity of Sabel’s son. The marquis’ wife has taken quite a fancy to the boy, allowing him to play with her own baby as the two children get along so well. Before long, Julián’s faith coupled with the particular nature of his character cause him to face another theological dilemma. I could say a little more about this, but will leave it there to avoid revealing too much about the plot.

The House of Ulloa is a terrific book, a hugely enjoyable story packed with marvellous characters and an abundance of juicy developments to sustain the reader’s interest throughout. Several scenes are rich in humour, but the novel’s darker undercurrent is never too far away – the gothic atmosphere of the Ulloa mansion is beautifully evoked. There are hunting expeditions, some rather boisterous banquets and plenty of quieter moments too. Some of the novel’s most touching scenes feature the rather sheltered Julián as he tries his best to take care of Nucha and the youngsters in the household.

Set as it is against the backdrop of Spain’s Glorious Revolution, the novel also touches on the local politics of the day, a diversion which offers Pardo Bazán plenty of scope to explore the various underhand machinations of the district’s leading movers and shakers. After all, as she notes at one point, ‘politics is a cloak for self-interest, hypocrisy and lack of principle.’ In this next passage, she describes what happens when the marquis is persuaded by Primitivo to stand for election.

Ballot-papers were tampered with, and voting times were altered without notification. Forgery, intimidation and violence are not unusual during an election, but in this one they were combined with certain strokes of ingenuity that were entirely unprecedented. In one of the polling-stations, the cloaks of those voting for the marquis were secretly splashed with turpentine and set on fire with a match, so that the unfortunate men ran out shouting, never to return. (pg 216)

All in all, this book would make an excellent choice for the current Women in Translation Month, especially for readers interested in the classics. Alternatively, anyone looking for a damn good read should check it out. Highly recommended.

You can read Grant’s review here. Tom has also written about this novel here and here.

67 thoughts on “The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán (tr. P O’Prey & L Graves)

  1. madamebibilophile

    This sounds great Jacqui – what a story! I’ve not read anything by this author – my knowledge of translated classic literature is woeful. I’ll definitely explore this writer further.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a terrific tale, strong on characterisation and storytelling. I’d never heard of this author until I stumbled upon this novel just by chance two or three years ago. It’s great to see it in the new Pocket Penguins range, but I’m not sure how much of her other work is available in English. Even so, it’s definitely worth reading.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Well, you’re going to have to fill those shelves with something…

      Seriously though, it’s a great book, very accessible for a 19th-century classic. I was expecting something much heavier, but it turned out to be a most engaging read.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! It’s huge fun, Naomi. Kudos to Pardo Bazan for penning such a feisty tale. The characters are wonderful. A great read, especially if you’re in the mood for something with a touch of the gothic about it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Excellent. I hadn’t heard of the revolution either until this novel came along. It’s interesting how so much of our knowledge of European history seems to be focused on developments in the 20th century, particularly those connected with the two world wars. She’s good on the political/historically context of the day, this author. Hope you get a chance to read her at some point.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. It’s a great read, the sort of traditional storytelling we’ve come to expect from classic lit. It’s nice to see it in the Penguin Pocket Classics line-up – hopefully, it will encourage a few other readers to give it a whirl.

      Reply
  2. Desiree B. Silvage

    This author was brave enough to capture the Galician society of her time, abuse of power exercised by the rich over the poor, very common in that area of ​​Spain.
    I read some books of her, but not this. Although, for your review, I see that
    has the unmistakable seal of Bazan!

    Sharing!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome! Yes, if this novel is anything to go by, then Pardo Bazan was just as feisty a person as her story suggests. It’s hard to imagine just how radical this novel must have been in its day, especially coming from a woman. As you say, she doesn’t shy away from giving an insight into the rather disreputable behaviour of some of the more powerful members of the Spanish society at that time.

      Which other Bazans have you read? I’m wondering if you read her in the original Spanish as there’s not very much available in English as far as I can tell. Oh, and many thanks for reblogging my post – very much appreciated!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s bloody great, Max, a book I’m sure you would enjoy. Just remembered where I first heard about this novel. It was via The Guardian’s Nicholas Lezard who described the novel’s atmosphere as ‘a bit like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but with jokes.’ Not a bad description all in all. Here’s a link to his review:

      https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/20/house-ulloa-emilia-pardo-bazan

      There’s a note about the Glorious Revolution in the novel’s intro as it forms an important backdrop to the story. Basically, a decade of revolts against the Spanish monarchy and government culminated in this revolution in 1868, during which time Queen Isabella II was abducted and a provisional government of the revolution installed in the country. The new government was made up of a ‘shaky and ill-fated’ coalition of Progressive and Unionist parties, plus support from the Democrats. Various developments followed, including the assassination of the new Prime Minister and much in-fighting between the coalition parties who were unable to form a stable government. Pardo Bazan taps into this context when she deals with the Marquis’ decision to stand in the local election. It’s quite an eye-opener into the political dynamics of the day, rather timeless in many respects.

      Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      Actually, looking at the review again, Lezard also likens this novel to Waugh’s Scoop, which I read back in the days of my youth. The context is rather different here, but even so, I can see what he’s getting at with that comparison…an interesting thought.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yes, indeed. Those tweets from Grant turned out to be just the push I needed to pick it up. A great read for #Spanish Lit Month and for #WITMonth too. It;s nice to see it in the new Pocket Penguins range, quite an unusual choice in many respects.

      Reply
  3. Tredynas Days

    Read La Regenta last month, so this would be a logical next Spanish novel to tackle – my TBR pile also grows. Have a Pérez Galdós lined up first. Nice cover on the Penguin

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think it would, not that I’ve read La Regenta myself, but I do recall seeing various pieces about it over the past couple of years. Which Pérez Galdós do you have in mind? I really enjoyed his novella Tristana, and would like to read more by him one day. Fortunata and Jacinta is his big one, I guess. Maybe not this year, but at some point in the future. By the way, I’m not sure if you know this, but Pedro Bazan had an affair with Galdos, so there’s quite a connection there.

      The cover’s great isn’t it? Turns out to be a pretty good fit for the characters in this story, even though it’s actually taken from a costume design for Don Quixote (courtesy of Edward Burro)!

      Reply
      1. Tredynas Days

        The Galdós I have on my shelf is Miau – rescued from a library where I used to work and which was closing – they were discarding ‘surplus’ texts. It’s a rather battered old Penguin Classics edition, but had to be saved from the skip. No, I didn’t know the two had an affair; how intriguing. Think I’ll steer clear of the big ones like F & J after the giant La Regenta. I”ve not managed any WIT titles this month so far, apart from a few Clarice Lispector stories – about 150 pp in now and can’t really say I’m enjoying most of them, so may not write about them. Am almost finished Zadie Smith, On Beauty, which I have enjoyed, mostly. Back to work soon, so won’t be able to read so much, or write posts so often…oh well.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, I’ll be interested to hear more about Miau – please report back.

          Funnily enough, I wasn’t mad about the Lispector I read last year – Near to the Wild Heart. Some of the writing was dazzling, but I couldn’t help feeling as though I was missing the point of it all. Oh well, maybe she’s just not for me. I have another of her novellas so will try again at some point.

          I hope you’ll write about On Beauty. Zadie Smith is one of handful of contemporary writers of real interest to me these days. I think I’ve read pretty much all of her fiction to date, On Beauty included.

          Reply
  4. banff1972

    Sounds wonderful !I too have had this kicking around for a couple of years. I really need to clone myself or something to make time for all this great stuff…
    I’m especially intrigued by the (at first glance rather contradictory) mixture of Gothic and naturalistic conventions (though come to think of it Hartley had a bit of that), as well as Pedro Bazan’s gender. When I think of naturalism, I think of male writers (Zola, Dreiser, Arnold Bennett, maybe even George Gissing). How interesting and refreshing to have a woman to add to this group. Maybe there are lots of other female naturalist writers, and I just don’t know them? I’m woefully ignorant of Spanish literature, that’s for sure… Thanks again for the review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s marvellous. I can’t tell you how much fun I had with with this one! A wonderful discovery.

      Yes, the mix of styles is very interesting. From what I can gather, Pardo Bazan was inspired by the naturalistic approach of some the French writers at the time (in particular Zola and the Goncourt brothers), so she set out to portray the world as she saw it. The novel’s introduction mentions her desire to explore the psychological and social factors behind her characters’ motivations, also her bravery in exposing the moral decadence at play in the spheres of politics and the nobility. (All of these themes are present in Ulloa.) Nevertheless, in spite of her naturalistic tendencies, there is more than a touch of the gothic about this novel, especially in the opening section where Julian approaches the infamous House of Ulloa for the first time.

      Quite a dynamic lady this Emilia Pardo Bazan! While we’re on the subject of Spanish leading ladies, have you come across Nada by Carmen Laforet? Another wonderful Spanish novel with a strong gothic feel to it, even more so than Ulloa I’d say. I read it couple of years ago and loved it to bits.

      Oddly enough, I hadn’t experienced very much in the way of Spanish Literature until Richard and Stu started running these annual reading events. There are so many gaps in my reading as well – to give you an example, I’ve never read Don Quixote, something I really ought to remedy at some point in the future…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Funnily enough, I thought about you as I was writing about this novel. There’s every chance you’ll take to it, especially given the rather gothic atmosphere. It’s easy to forget how much of a stir this must have caused at the time of its publication. Quite a story all in all.

      Reply
  5. Amateur Reader (Tom)

    An easy book to recommend, isn’t it? Basically a comedy of manners, but with all of these other enjoyable moods or touches.

    I don’t know of any other Spanish women writers from the period – I barely know of more men – but there were a number of contemporaries in Italy working some similar Frenchified aesthetic ground who are worth seeking out: Matilde Serao in Naples, Grazia Deledda in Sardinia, Maria Messina in Sicily.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is! What an absolute delight. I recall Richard saying that this book has been a hit with everyone. Well, all those readers who were tempted to pick it up in the first place.

      Perez Galdos is the only other Spanish writer I’ve read from this period, an interesting connection given his relationship with Pardo Bazan. Many thanks for the tips on those Italian writers. A couple of the names are vaguely familiar (Serao and Messina), so I’m wondering if you and/or Scott have written about them at some point. In any case, I’ll look them up. Cheers, Tom.

      Reply
  6. bookbii

    Brilliant review Jacqui. It sounds like a novel packed with character and intrigue. For some reason I’ve not read much in the way of Spanish literature, though I learn a lot about it from your blog!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda, Yes, plenty of drama in this one – it was a joy to read.

      To be honest, I’m still fairly new to Spanish Lit, especially compared to other bloggers such as Richard, Stu and Grant. It’s been fun discovering some new writers, though! :)

      Reply
  7. Brian Joseph

    You seem to read books with the most interesting sounding characters and situations.

    I am thinking that there are few books published these days with positive depictions of clergy. That seems to be very distinctive.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s been a while since I read anything from the 19th century, but this novel reminded me just how enjoyable the classic texts can be. The characters are terrific here, as are the scenarios Pardo Bazan subjects them to. I genuinely think you would like this one Brian, especially given your interest in literature from this period.

      That’s a valid point about the depictions of clergymen in literature these days. Barbara Pym springs to mind as someone who portrays these figures in a positive, sympathetic light, but she was writing her novels in the 1950s. I suspect the mood has changed somewhat since various scandals involving the church have come to light. Last year my book group read a novel by John Boyne — A History of Loneliness — about child abuse in the Catholic Church. Not my usual choice of reading material, but thought-provoking nonetheless.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Great! It’s perfect for Spanish Lit Month. Well, by rights I should have posted this piece back in July, but luckily Richard granted us an extension to allow for late reviews.

      I’d never heard of this novel (or Pardo Bazan) until I read a review in The Guardian a few years ago. That was my trigger for buying it in the first place. So glad I picked it up. I’d love to know what you make of it, especially given her influences – she was inspired by some of the French writers of the time, Zola and the Goncourt brothers in particular. It feels quite theatrical in places, so I could imagine it working as a play (with a little adaptation, of course).

      Reply
  8. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel

    Great review. I think I would enjoy this read. Funny enough I had bought a copy few months back in the new Penguin color versions with the yellow cover. It arrived damaged and I had to return it. Maybe I should order again. It sounds like good writing plus a good story.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks. Yes, do order another copy. It’s great to see it as part of the Pocket Penguin series, quite an interesting choice in some respects as it’s not terribly well known. Hopefully the new edition will introduce to a wider audience.

      Reply
  9. buriedinprint

    Wow, that sounds like such a delicious romp of a read. I’m not sure I’ve read anything quite like it, although your response reminds me of how I felt after reading Ann Radclyffe for the first time, having thought of her as a “classic” writer and then being surprised to find that it was actually fun, and as you’ve said about this one, juicy in fact! Thanks for adding another to my TBR!

    Reply
    1. buriedinprint

      Ooops, not Radclyffe but Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Perhaps the same is true of Radclyffe, but I haven’t read her yet!

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        Even though you haven’t read her, it’s interesting you shoud mention Ann Radcliffe – not a bad shout at all in this context of this book! I’ve only read A Sicilian Romance, but there is definitely a touch of the gothic about the world Prado Bazan is portraying here. (Mary Elizabeth Brandon I’ve yet to read, so I can’t speak to any similarities in style as far as she goes…but I see where you’re coming from in terms of the fun element.) A delicious romp of a read is pretty good way of describing it too! She is rather feisty this Emilia Pardo Bazan – I do hope you get a chance to read her one day.

        Reply
  10. Bibliosa

    This sounds really good, and it’s by woman!Of course it’s going on the list. I have a thing for Spanish lit, although my knowledge of Spanish lit classics is shaky, so thanks for the introduction.:)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome! It’s great book. I haven’t read very much in the way of Spanish lit from this period, but this was a bit of a revelation for me, such a treat. Have you read Nada by Carmen Laforet? If not, it’s a book I would recommend very highly, especially if you’re interested in women writers from Spain. (You may well have come across it already, but if not, there’s a review in my archive.)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome, Grant. Yes, Primitivo was a wonderful creation, while Julian’s deeply pious nature simply added to the humour. Thanks for the nudge to pull this from the shelves – I definitely owe you one.

      Reply
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  13. Alice

    Oh this does sound good! I like it when a book has a lot happen in one place, unravelling all the personal aspects of a household that would usually be private.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s brilliant. Yes, so do I – that’s a great way of visualising it. I could imagine it working as a play, one of those farces where various things happen behind the other characters’ backs. It’s a shame that much of her work doesn’t appear to be readily available in translation, otherwise I’d be up for reading another.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I’ve yet to read Szabo although I do keep seeing her name across the blogosphere. The Door has been getting quite a lot of coverage as part of WIT Month, possibly boosted by the release of the NYRB edition last year. I’ll have to try her at some point!

          Reply
  14. Naomi

    When I saw you rate this on GR, I added it to my list, but haven’t gotten around to reading your review until now. Starting to try and catch up a bit after a busy summer!
    This really does sound like a great read. And wonderful review, as always! :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, excellent! It’s a wonderful romp of a novel. As Grant said in his comment above, it has a little bit of everything. I’m still feeling my way around Good Reads, but it’s a useful way of seeing what everyone’s been reading – glad to hear you spotted it there. .

      I hope you’ve enjoyed the summer – lots of activities with the children, I trust. :)

      Reply
  15. Richard

    I’ll have to come back to all the earlier comments later, but suffice it to say that you make me wish that I too had read this entertainment sure thing for Spanish Lit Month (as did Grant’s and Tom’s reviews previously). Just what the hell’s wrong with me?!? Rhetorical questions aside, what a great decade the 1880s were on the Iberian Peninsula: Clarín, Eça de Queiróz, Galdós, Pardo Bazán. That lineup could dominate a Spanish Lit Month all by itself.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Well, there’s always next year, Richard. It really is the most terrifically entertaining book, quite a find! There’s the makings of a wonderful play here. In fact, I’ve been wondering if it was ever adapted for the stage (or screen) – probably not, but one never knows…

      As you say, a great era for Spanish lit. I loved Galdos’ Tristana when I read it for last year’s Spanish Lit fest. You see, all these great books you’ve prompted me to read by virtue of your championing of SLM. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can certainly recommend this one! Pardo Bazán must have been quite groundbreaking in her day, especially given her willingness to tackle such potentially sensitive subjects. I’ve discovered some great writers by way of my little foray into Spanish lit: Javier Marias, Enrique Vila-Matas and Carmen Laforet to name but a few…

      Reply
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