Holiday Reading (2): On not reviewing Clare Clark’s “Beautiful Lies”, or, the stranger-than-fiction lives of Gabriela and Robert Cunninghame Graham

So, back to The Holiday. As I think I might just possibly have mentioned before, the major priorities for the week, other than a touch of sightseeing and a generous sampling of sack, were swimming and reading, reading and swimming, swimming, reading, and swimming some more. And as you can see (left), the conditions were particularly lovely for both. Bliss.

La Catedral del mar had already taken us perilously close to a budget airline baggage limit that was clearly not devised with the holidaying bookworm in mind, and so, in a frenzy of late-night pre-departure downloading, I filled up the Kindle with an eclectic range of classics, obscure-but-out-of-copyright 19th-century novels, and a couple of newly-published things I’d spotted in the Saturday reviews. One of these was Clare Clark’s brand new historical novel Beautiful Lies, set in 1887 London, which had been out barely a month, and whose blurb begins:

It is 1887, and an unsettled London is preparing for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. For Maribel Campbell Lowe, the beautiful, bohemian wife of a maverick politician, it is the year she plans to make her own mark on the world. But her husband’s outspoken views inspire enmity as well as admiration – and the wife of a member of parliament should not be hiding the kind of secrets Maribel has buried in her past…

All very intriguing, and as you can probably imagine, most UK reviewers have responded to the heavy PR nudge, and made the connections between the novel’s setting and our very own Jubilee Year, with its backdrop of social, political and economic chaos. However, what drew me to the novel was the apparently throwaway remark  in Lucy Scholes’s review in the Indy, that the novel’s protagonists, Maribel and Edward Campbell-Lowe, are based on ‘the real-life couple, Robert Cunninghame Graham and his wife Gabriela’.

Now, this is where the process of reviewing the novel gets interesting, at least for me. The Cunninghame Grahams are are a fascinating pair, each with a colourful biography that is practically a novel in itself. HOWEVER. The more you know about their life together, the less surprised you will be by Clark’s story of Maribel and Edward Campbell Lowe, and so, in the spirit of fair reviewing, I’m not going to give anything away here.* Instead, for those of you who are wondering what a contemporary British novel set in London is doing on a blog called Books on Spain, here are some (hopefully) unspoilery thoughts on the Cunninghame Grahams and their place in my current book project.

Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham (1852-1936) was a Scottish landowner, Liberal MP and later the first president of both the Scottish Labour Party (1888) and the Scottish National Party (1934). He was also an active social campaigner and a prolific writer of history, biography, essay, and short fiction. A Spanish grandmother meant he grew up speaking Spanish, and as a young man, he headed to Argentina as a cattle rancher, where he became known as ‘Don Roberto’ – a period that is vividly described in many of his dozens of short stories. During the first decade of the 20th century, when popular interest in Spain was booming and as one slightly miffed Spanish expert put it in 1904, ‘Everyone goes to Spain these days, and almost every one writes a book about it the moment he or she comes back’, Cunninghame Graham’s short stories of the Argentinian Pampas, Moorish monuments, and Galician goldmines provided a biting alternative to conventional travel accounts. My favourite of all his stories is ‘Los Peares, un minuto!’ (Faith, 1909), which vividly captures the heart-rending chaos of the moment when the entire population of a tiny Galician hamlet boards the train that will take them to Vigo and onwards on an emigrant ship to Argentina. Heart-breaking.

Like her husband, Gabriela Cunninghame Graham (1858-1906) played an important (although much less recognized) part in Anglo-Spanish cultural relations at the turn of the 20th century. As my Indiana-based colleague Maryellen Bieder has recently shown in her wonderful study ‘Emilia Pardo Bazán and Gabriela Cunninghame Graham: A Literary and Personal Friendship’,** during the 1890s, Gabriela became one of very few known female correspondents of the great 19th-century Spanish intellectual Emilia Pardo Bazán. As well as an intimate friendship, reconstructed from letters held in the National Library of Scotland, Bieder shows how the two women also supported one another professionally. While Emilia introduced Gabriela’s work to the literary journal La España Moderna and to her Spanish author friends such as Clarin and Valera, Gabriela sought to raise her friend’s profile in the Anglophone press, among other things translating her novel El destripador de antaño and publishing it as Minia in Novel Review in 1892. Gabriela was also an author in her own right, publishing a much-reprinted biography of Santa Teresa of Avila in 1894.***

The Cunninghame Grahams were an important, if now largely forgotten hub in turn-of-the-20th-century networks of Anglo-Hispanic cultural relations. While much has been written about them, I’m not sure even now that we fully appreciate either the complexity of their insanely transnational web of connections or the wider resonances of their diverse publications. I’d especially like to know more about their connection with Galicia, where they lived for several years in the early 1880s, and which has its own part to play in Beautiful Lies.

And what about Clare Clark’s novel? Well, I enjoyed it. It’s vividly drawn, and Maribel (Gabriela) makes a lively companion as we follow the story through her eyes. Essentially, though, I think there are two novels here to be reviewed: the first, the fiction of Maribel and Edward in 1880s London, is the one I raced through by the pool in Lanzarote, and it’s a great read. The other, for those who already know the story of Robert and Gabriela, is rather more complex and raises all kinds of thorny questions about the fragile boundaries between history, biography, and fiction; the power of imagination to breathe life into those frustrating gaps in the historical record, and our responsibilities when we take that path; and what it means for that record once the dust of both writer’s and readers’ imaginations has settled into new and – perhaps – imperishable patterns.

Clare Clark: Beautiful Lies (Harvill Secker, 2012). Find out more: Community Reviews on GoodreadsLesley Bown on bookoxygenUK newspaper reviews at The Omnivore.


* If you don’t mind being spoiled, you can read Clark’s interview with Foyle’s in which she discusses the novel and its source material.

** Maryellen Bieder. ‘Emilia Pardo Bazán and Gabriela Cunninghame Graham: A Literary and Personal Friendship’. Bulletin of Spanish Studies 89.5 (2012): 725-749 [You can visit the journal homepage here, but unfortunately access is hidden behind a paywall]

*** If you want to read more, the wonderful Open Library has links to online editions of both Robert’s and Gabriela’s works.

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