Trashy Edwardian novelists do Spain, or, castles, jewels, harlots, and those damn Tourists

W Hyde; illustration to 'The Spanish Jade'

Spain has been a mainstay of the Anglophone literary imagination for at least two centuries.  Most of us are all too familiar with the main co-ordinates of a literary landscape that began (in its modern version at least) with the Romantics and is still in circulation today: Andalusia and the south, Carmen, Don Quixote, bullfighting, sangria, sun, sea, orange blossom, Washington Irving and the Tales of the Alhambra, Dumas’s gateway to Africa, Europe’s exotic, oriental ‘other,’ yadda yadda. But this isn’t the only story, even if it is the most visible one. There’s more to Anglo writing on Spain than the Romantics. Ladies and gentlemen, I present … The Edwardians!*

I talked a couple of posts ago about how the 1906 wedding of the Spanish King Alfonso XIII to the British Princess Ena turned out to be a catalyst for early 20th-century Anglo interest in Spain, and for the last couple of months, I’ve been tracking down some of the gloriously trashy Anglo novels on Spain published as part of the resulting boom.** Many of them, especially the earlier ones, are available on the Internet Archive, thanks to the digitisation efforts of US and Canadian universities and, inevitably (although less helpfully, since their files aren’t as … ahem … saveable) Google. Even so, I’ve been gradually acquiring copies of as many as I can via abebooks, antiqbooks and others,*** which is proving both deeply satisfying, and surprisingly inexpensive (yay!).

The last four novels to arrive have been (in order of publication, tho’ I actually read them in reverse of that): A Castle in Spain by Bernard Capes (1903), in which Provencal-English Robin de Lois must travel from Sussex to Napoleonic Spain on a secret mission from his mother; The Spanish Jade, by Maurice Hewlett (1906), in which the jade in question is not a jewel, but a young lady called Manuela, who is saved from assault by stuffy English curate Osmund Manvers, plunging him into a drama of passion that rivals anything described in his beloved Quijote; The Spanish Necklace, by BM (Bithia) Croker (1908), in which repressed Hester Forde comes into a large fortune and learns to take control of her own destiny (and to buy some really impressive jewellery), and finally, Constance Holme‘s The Old Road from Spain (1916). The first three of these have enough in common that we can draw some tentative hypotheses from them about Spain’s place in the Edwardian literary imagination. Holme’s novel – a Mills & Boon, no less – is of a different ilk for a number of reasons, not least in the role played  in both plot and setting by the Sheep of Doom (apologies for banging on with the ovine-related buildup, but it’s just too irresistible), and so it’s going to get a review all of its own at some point in the not too distant future.

Endpaper to “The Spanish Jade”

The Capes, Hewlett and Croker novels all have the same basic premise: an Anglo individual encounters Spain, performs a mission, and undergoes a transformation. Admittedly, the encounter and subsequent transformation are given varying prominence in the overall plot: Hewlett’s novel takes place entirely in Spain, and Osmund’s adventures occupy the entire novel (until he inexplicably disappears in the final chapter), whereas Capes’s hero and Croker’s heroine don’t reach the country until much later in their personal journeys – Robin via Germany and the Netherlands, Hester via fashionable Biarritz. In each case, the Anglo protagonist is displaced from home and must travel to Spain in order to complete a political (Capes), moral (Hewlett) or personal (Croker) mission that will enable them to find a new place in the world, literally and figuratively.

The geography of each novel is, to a great extent, guided by the demands of genre: Capes’s is a historical novel of the Peninsular campaign in Spain, and follows the well-known lines of the Talavera campaign, disappearing into the mountains when the plot demands it. In contrast, Croker’s is a popular romance designed for aspirational readers, and so we get lots of detail about fashionable Biarritz locations, as well as comfortably exotic Cordoba, with a great deal of emphasis on interior decoration and furnishings. Hewlett’s novel is perhaps the most unexpected, ranging across the Castilian plains north of Madrid, through locations that must have been less familiar to Anglo readers (Palencia?!), but which suggest a first-hand knowledge, not least in his descriptions of Valladolid, where I spent my year abroad back in 1995-96, and of Madrid, where the action ends up.

So far, so … unsurprising? I think it’s pretty clear that none of these novels are lost masterpieces whose rediscovery is going to set the world on fire. What *is* interesting though is to read them in the context of the circulation of knowledge about Spain and its relation with the Anglo world at a time when the advent of mass tourism, cheap popular editions, and university Spanish courses were bringing more Brits than ever before into direct contact with Spain, its language and culture.

In fact, these new audiences and their effect on Spain are a source of interest to the authors themselves, above all Hewlett and Capes, both of whom explicitly intervene in our reading, via a prologue that guides the reader in how to ‘read’ or ‘see’ the version of Spain presented in the novel. Capes opens with the narrator’s memory of encountering the panoramic view of Gibraltar displayed in Barker’s Panorama Rooms in Leicester Square, contrasting this immersive experience with that of viewing a series of Philip Reinagle’s sketches from a tour of Spain displayed in an adjacent room. Raising questions about the relation between memory and experience in the circulation of ‘knowledge’ about Spain, the narrator questions how far his subsequent experiences in similar landscapes (which we’ll hear about in the novel) have conditioned his memory of preferring the apparently slight, ‘sporting’ sketches to the all-encompassing panorama:

Was the moral thus, indeed, designed, or have I adopted it from my later knowledge? Mr Reinagle was, I am rather inclined to think, a “sporting” artist, and guiltless of such rhapsodical flights. But to me the picture has always remained a significant memory, a symbol of life as we must recognise it (2).

Hewlett’s introduction also nudges us to reflect on how we know what (we think) we know about Spain, arguing that popular knowledge of Spain is being transformed, inevitably for the worse, by ‘Teutonic travellers and journalists’ (x), although ‘that end is not yet, the Lord be praised, and will not be in your time or mine’ (x). Where Capes maintains the fiction of a narrator speaking to us from the past (Robin is born in 1785), Hewlett speaks to us from his own present, albeit one collapsing into the past.  Although his story could still just about have taken place in 1906, he says (Teutons and hacks notwithstanding),

as a matter of fact it belongs to George Borrow’s day, this tale, when gentlemen rode a-horseback between town and town, and followed the river-bed rather than the road. A stranger then, in the plains of Castile, was either a fool who knew not when he was well off, or an unfortunate, whose misery at home forced him afield. There was no genus Tourist; the traveller was conspicuous and could be traced from Spain to Spain (xi).

In contrast to the overt self-reflectiveness of these two novels, Croker’s is apparently unmediated, a straightforward story of a young woman’s search for life, love, and the right jewellery. The British holidaymakers among whom Hester circulates in Biarritz are, to a great extent, characteristic of precisely the ‘genus Tourist’ that so distresses Hewlett. They converge on a prescribed set of fashionable hotels, restaurants and cafes, act according to a similarly prescribed set of social conventions, and where they notice the landscape around them, it is only as a series of carefully chosen, picturesque views. Hester, of course, is different (she’s a heroine – she has to be!), although as she becomes more self-aware, her difference becomes a source of concern:

She realized that she was Early Victorian in her ideas, and old for her age, and determined to endeavour to dress herself with more care, to learn to do her hair differently, and to make the most of her appearance – such as it was. Yes, she would buy the necklace at once; and with this intention firmly implanted in her mind, she finally fell asleep (79-80).

As this quotation makes clear, Hester’s transformation is located alongside the transition from ‘Early Victorian’ to Edwardian conventions and attitudes, but the Spanish element allows us to read this transition slant. That is, the novel isn’t a straightforward celebration of modernization, but one in which the foreign, and attitudes to the foreign, provide an essential escape valve. The ‘Spanish necklace’ is crucial to the realization of Hester’s transformation, since it is only when she eventually learns its origin and is able to decode its significance (which the Spaniards around her have all understood instantly) that she is able to achieve the future she desires. In other words (and I’m trying to avoid too many spoilers here!), we might read the necklace as symbolic of the situated knowledge that opens the door for Hester to pass from Tourist to Visitor, and thus to a more fully-realized future than the one modelled by her Anglocentric companions in Biarritz.

All three of these novels, then, reflect in different ways on the visual, textual and material circulation of knowledge about Spain in the rapidly-transforming context of Edwardian England. I’m not going to claim for a second that they are essential reads (to be honest, The Spanish Necklace is the only one that really bears rereading – and that’s mostly because I’m a sucker for a good love story), but I do think that they provide an excellent, and largely overlooked snapshot of an important moment in Anglo-Spanish cultural relations, and the place of Spain in the Anglo imagination. And that’s before we even get to those fatidical ovines …

* Loosely defined in every way, but helpful shorthand.

** Okay, in truth I let my data obsession get the better of me. Yup, another Excel spreadsheet database. Now up to 80+ Anglo novels about Spain, mostly published between 1830s and 1930s. And growing. All suggestions welcome!

*** And I have to give a special shout out to Clement Burston books of Bowness on Windermere in the British Lake District, who has furnished more of my library than anybody else.

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5 comments

  1. […] that was Julia Navarro’s Dime quien soy, and after a couple of months devoted largely to trashy Edwardian fiction, I’m finally ready to begin the next Project Bestseller marathon read. As promised, my […]

  2. […] between the tercentenary of the Spanish Armada in 1888 and the First World War. That means more trashy Edwardian novels (and some Victorians), more on the Anglo-Spanish royal wedding and the quite spectacular wave of […]

  3. I saw your reference to Philip Reinagle’s sketches of Spain (1770s). I have been searching for a printed (or electronic) source of information about this work for some time. Could you possibly provide a reference? That would be much appreciated.

    Dave T. Vail, Arizona

    1. Hi Dave, and thanks for stopping by. The only reference I have on Reinagle’s sketches is the one I quote in this post, which is on the opening page of Bernard Capes’s A Castle in Spain (London: Smith, Elder, 1903). The book doesn’t seem to be available electronically, at least not through http://www.openlibrary.org, but there isn’t, I think, any information other than what I’ve quote here. Sorry I can’t be of more help!

      1. Kristy,
        First, thanks for your reply–it is a delightful surprise that a blogger actually answers a request. And of course I certainly appreciate the information itself. You have, for whatever it’s worth, a dedicated reader. I have been a hispanophile all my life (don’t ask me why–I do not have an answer) despite the fact that I am an archaeologist (retired) who specializes in Polynesia and Micronesia.

        I look forward to your future blogs and I will investigate your books as well.

        Dave

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