Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

First published in 1966, this remarkable novella by the acclaimed Portuguese writer Maria Judite de Carvalho was recently translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa. It’s a work of great precision and compression – a quietly devastating story of three generations of women, confined and subsumed by the men who surround them. There are similarities with Anita Brookner’s novels here – both thematically and stylistically – as Carvalho goes deep into the inner lives of her female protagonists, conveying them unflinchingly for the reader to see.

The story centres on Dora Rosário – a widow who we see over the course of ten years from the age of twenty-five through to thirty-six. For ten years, Dora mourns her husband Duarte’s death, making a career out of grief and widowhood, effectively building a shrine to him through the memories in her mind. Duarte – a lazy, unambitious man – left Dora virtually penniless, forcing her to embark on a humiliating round of visits, searching for handouts from family and friends. These are ‘the others’, separated from Dora and her daughter, Lisa, by the nature of their circumstances.

Many of Duarte’s friends and acquaintances distance themselves from Dora, fearing she will ask for help or financial support. Even Duarte’s mother – the forthright, morally powerful Ana – is reluctant to provide any money, despite her conspicuous wealth. While Ana is happy to look after Lisa, caring for her while Dora looks for a job, she draws the line at anything else.

…all this happened under the simultaneously suspicious and reticent eye of her mother-in-law, the eye of someone who “in her place” would have done things differently. However, this suddenly easy life didn’t smooth any corners or heal any riffs. She and her daughter continued to be on one side and the others on the other side. (p. 15)

Carvalho quickly conveys a striking portrait of Dora, a woman suppressed by the hand that life has dealt her, an inward-looking individual who seems old before her time.

She never said more than was strictly necessary—the bare indispensable minimum—or else she would begin to say only what was necessary, then quickly grow tired, or stop mid-stream, as though she suddenly realized that it wasn’t worth going on and was a waste of effort. She would sit quite still then, her face a blank, like someone poised on the edge of an ellipsis or standing hesitantly at the sea’s edge in winter, and at such moments, all the light would go out of her eyes as if absorbed by a piece of blotting paper; (p. 5)

Luckily for Dora, a friend finds her a suitable job, managing an antique shop while the owner is abroad. ‘The Museum’, as her daughter Lisa calls it, seems a fitting environment for Dora, with its collection of vintage tables, desks and chairs, ‘gathered together like decaying aristocrats in a home for superior elderly folk’.  

Despite Duarte’s fecklessness and impractical principles, Dora still worships her deceased husband, whom she reflects on during the evenings after work. Her life is small and uneventful, except for the Museum and her visits to Ana and Aunt Júlia’s house for supper on Sunday evenings. Júlia too has been permanently damaged by men, haunted by the shame of her illegitimate son, who died young from Scarlet Fever. Now she is plagued by severe fits – possibly signs of madness – babbling uncontrollably in imaginary conversations with her former lover.

For Ana – who is desperate to hold off any signs of ageing – the future lies in her granddaughter, Lisa, a bright, inquisitive young teenager whose whole life is ahead of her. At seventeen, Lisa wants to travel the world, viewing a career as an air stewardess as her ticket to exotic locations. She sees her mother as hopeless and antiquated – a somewhat dowdy but polite woman who is wedded to the past.

One night, while Júlia is recovering from one of her episodes, Ana reveals something to Dora – a secret relating to Duarte which shatters Dora’s world.

[Dora:] “…At the moment, I don’t know where I am or who I am. I must be crumbling into pieces, there must be bits of me all over the place.”

[Ana:] “Sweep them up when you’re feeling brave enough and put them together again.”

“Yes, that’s what I have to do, isn’t it?” Dora said, not even thinking about what she was saying. And then immediately afterward, her voice rose dangerously in volume: When would she, too, fall and shatter? It was as if she had lost control of herself and of her voice. Or perhaps it was as if she were screaming for help from inside a coffin that had just that minute been nailed shut: (pp. 63–64)

Consequently, Dora sets about reinventing herself while simultaneously erasing Duarte from her memory, catalysing a series of events that ends in devastation.

Carvalho’s novella is narrated not by Dora herself but by a friend, Manuela, who also finds herself drawn into the turmoil generated by Ana’s revelations. Manuela has man troubles of her own; effectively isolated, she is stuck in a stagnating relationship with Ernesto, a vain, self-centred man in his early forties. In her failure to provide Ernesto with a child, Manuela realises that she is no longer her partner’s lover or companion. Instead, Ernesto sees her as ‘the landscape to which he had grown accustomed’ – a convenient audience or backdrop to reflect back his greatness.

He [Ernesto] would arrive home, give me a peck on the cheek, drink his usual glass of whiskey, then tell me all about his day in great detail, and so I thought he really loved and needed me. In fact, I was merely a convenient body beside him, and ever-attentive audience always ready to express unconditional admiration when he told me of yet another professional triumph. (p. 158)

I don’t want to say how this story plays out, other than to confirm it’s devastating to observe. Carvalho explores these women in depth, showing us how they have been failed by the men who supposedly love them. Betrayal, duplicity, selfishness and abdication of responsibility all play their parts in marginalising these women, confining them to the roles deemed acceptable by Portuguese society – a patriarchal doctrine, heavily influenced by Catholicism and Salazar’s authoritarian regime.

Furthermore, the relationships between these women are also far from ideal. Following Duarte’s death, Dora receives little support from her few remaining female friends or family members. Ana makes no secret of the fact that she partially blames Dora for Duarte’s lack of ambition – he didn’t amount to anything when alive because Dora had never pushed him. In light of this perception, Ana’s actions towards Dora – especially the bombshell revelation – seem unnecessary and cruel.

This brilliant novella is something of a minor masterpiece of 20th-century literature. A timeless reminder of how destructive the actions of unthinking men can be, defining and destroying the women who serve them. All credit to Two Lines Press for publishing this English translation – and Gary Michael Perry, whose recommendation brought it to my attention. As I alluded to at the beginning of this piece, fans of Anita Brookner, Natalia Ginzburg (and possibly Penelope Mortimer) would likely enjoy this rediscovered gem.

40 thoughts on “Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

  1. MarinaSofia

    I really, really like the sound of this and have already marked it as a TBR. It also reminds me of the work of Enchi Fumiko – author of Masks or The Waiting Years, who is also excellent at portraying the quiet devastation being wreaked upon women through men, aging, society’s expectations etc.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s really interesting! I’ve heard of Masks and may well have read a couple reviews of it in the past, although not terribly recently. They both sound right up my street. Thanks, Marina. I can see I’m going to have to read Fumiko in the future…

      Reply
  2. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    This sounds fabulous, Jacquiwine! I’ve been meaning for ages to read some Portuguese fiction but didn’t know where to start, except with Eça de Queirós’s The Maias, which I find a bit intimidating TBH. Empty Wardrobes sounds much more accessible and, yes, it does strike me as reminiscent of Anita Brookner and Ginzburg (haven’t yet read Penelope Mortimer, so can’t say about her).
    Thanks BTW for the infor about the very interesting Two Lines Press — I’ve just looked at the website and found another publisher to add to my list!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I must admit that your name sprung to mind as I was thinking about this book, wondering who among my bookish friends might like to read it. Glad to see that I guessed correctly! It definitely feels quite Brookner-ish to me – partly because of the image of Dora as a piece of furniture, in danger of gathering dust as she sits alongside those antique tables and museum pieces in the shop. But there’s also a similarity in the style – a sense of surgical-like precision in the portrayal of the protagonist’s inner life. I’d love to hear what you make of it.

      Reply
      1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

        Your perspicacity is frightening, dear JacquiWine — you were so right, it instantly appealed! Perhaps I can squeeze it in on the southern lag of my European reading tour, particularly as my pick for Spain may be a little uninspiring . . .

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ha! I thought I’d be pushing on an open door with the comparison to Brookner! That’s a good thought about fitting it into your planned reading, especially as there’s an suitable hook…

          Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review Jacqui and this really does sound like an excellent book that obviously deserved to get a wider audience. I think I’ve read very little Portuguese fiction by women, and the fact that this is a novella yet conveys so much is impressive. And interesting how the book picks up on the lack of empathy between the women – often the case, particularly in that era and probably in that culture. Glad this is getting the attention it deserves!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think that’s one of the most interesting aspects of it – the sense that these women would be so much better off if they could only support one another, rather than erecting barriers or being spiteful / dismissive. It’s actually the first translation of Carvalho’s work into English, which seems astonishing given the quality of this novel.

      Reply
  4. Jane

    This doesn’t sound like easy reading, but very interesting (I can’t understand why women don’t support each other) but I’m not sure that I’ve read any Portuguese fiction and you’ve introduced me to another indie publisher so I had better give it a try!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s an arresting story, but I found it utterly compelling. The friction between some of the women is an interesting one. In some ways I’m surprised by it, but then again not. I think Ana partly blames Dora for Duarte’s lack of drive and ambition. Plus, there a sense that Lisa (Ana’s granddaughter) will always be taken care of whatever happens, whereas Dora herself is another matter altogether. As far as Ana is concerned, Dora is worthless. She has no blood ties to the rest of the family, so there’s a sense of her being expendable or surplus to requirements. It’s a harsh way of looking at things, but sadly all too believable – I’ve seen that happen in other families, especially amongst the women!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, Costa was a big selling point, I have to admit. Her translations of Javier Marias’ novels are beguiling to read; and while I have no knowledge of Portuguese with which to assess the quality of her text, I’m sure she’s done an excellent job here.

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    Your reference to Brookner really has piqued my interest. I think this sounds lovely, devastatingly powerful and beautifullly wrrtten. like novels with women at the center of them. I am trying to remember if I have read any Portuguese fiction before, maybe not.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You probably won’t thank me for saying this, but it’s definitely a book I would recommend to you. The themes are right up your street – the ‘smallness’ of women’s lives, family dynamics and tensions in a mid-20th century setting. It’s remarkably good.

      Reply
  6. Julé Cunningham

    Well, that’s quite the cliffhanger! There’s so very little translated from Portuguese women writers that when I ran across a reference to this book in a story done about the great Margaret Jull Costa, it immediately went on my wishlist. Your wonderful review just reinforces that.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, how interesting, and I’m delighted to hear that this appeals! Margaret Jull Costa was a big part of the attraction for me, I must admit., She’s such a brilliant translator; I always take a closer look when I see her name on a book.

      Reply
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    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Many thanks, Janakay, that’s such an interesting analysis! It’s fascinating to read JCO’s observations about various aspects of the novel – not least the Catholicism. She’s right too about the surgical precision. It’s very cutting and compressed…

      Reply
      1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

        Glad you enjoyed it; I found it quite interesting myself. I’m not totally sold on Oates’ fiction (a few novels I’ve liked a lot; several I’ve liked only moderately or not at all) but she really is a remarkable critic & writer.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, agreed. I’m much more interested in her criticism than her fiction. She’s written the introductions for one or two NYRB Classics on my shelves – always very intriguing to read.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hurrah! I’ll be astounded if this doesn’t make my ‘best of’ list this year – even if it’s just a subsection for books in translation. I couldn’t help but think of Brookner as I was reading it. She’s probably the closest comparison…

      Reply
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