Saturday, March 29, 2008

Cruel Spain, Romantic Spain

Dr. Johnson advised a young James Boswell to visit Spain and write a book about it. Johnson thought it would make his reputation – there were no books in England about Spain. This was in 1763. Boswell followed the core of Johnson’s advice, very successfully, but went to Corsica rather than Spain. So England maintained its ignorance.

An educated Englishman in the 17th or 18th century might have had a lot to say about Spain, actually. The Spanish were cruel, backwards, superstitious, enchained by a sort of primitive degeneration of Catholicism, ruled by sinister monks and Jesuits, who used murder and kidnapping to pursue power and wealth. And that’s just in Spain – in America, the Spanish were even worse, more brutal, more destructive. The Spanish were monsters, basically.

Later writers called this “The Black Legend”. It’s a complicated mix of genuine information and concern about what we now call human rights abuses in America and bizarre concoctions, often lurid, always anti-Catholic, about monasteries and Jesuits. See Matthew Lewis’s Gothic hackwork The Monk (1795) or Charles Maturin’s brilliant, insane, anti-Catholic nightmare Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1590 or so) is an early example. I happened to hear Beethoven’s Fidelio (1814?) last night, which is another one – a real story about a terrible French prison is in the opera transferred to Seville.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, it was actually Italy rather than Spain that played the same role – see John Webster, or Thomas Otway, or almost any poison and murder-fueled revenge tragedy, aside from Kyd. I don’t know when the shift away from Italy occurred. I assume it is related to the rise of The Grand Tour. As English people visited Italy in significant numbers, the portrayal of Italians as power-mad lunatics began to ring false. Englishmen didn’t go to Spain until 1808, as soldiers in a bloody, protracted war.

Did the exposure change the perception of Spain? I don’t know. But Romanticism, that did the trick. Romantics were attracted to the exoticism of Spain – the not-so-distant Moorish heritage and architecture, the bullfights, Spanish notions of honor. Byron, in Lara and the first book of Don Juan, for example, or Merimeé’s Carmen, or Washington Irving’s genial Tales from the Alhambra. For the Romantics, the bandits and gypsies and primitivism were wonderful, signs of an authentic culture, an alternative to all the modern problems of more advanced civilizations.

The Romantics may have been full of nonsense in their own way, although their attitude is a lot more pleasant. And at least these writers had been to Spain – Irving, at least, truly fell in love with it. They were the first writers of note that I know of to be interested in Spain as it actually existed.


  1. Hemingway's effective evocation of Spain in Sun Also Rises is primarily why it is one of my favouritest novels. Funny that he shares that in common with the Romantics.

    Ann Radcliffe's The Italian is also an anti-Catholic screed to some extent (despite the introduction writer's bewildering attempt to detect ironic undermining of that "superificial" surface). However, the eeevil monk turned out to be the best character in the whole thing while the couple of good Catholics were pretty bland (and not very good Catholics anyway because, obviously, if you're a good person you would naturally depart from the Church's teaching).

    I've heard that The Monk is such lurid fun. I ought to get to it some time.

    I wonder if the anti-Protestant fiction was as entertaining? The Little Professor has covered some potentially amusing texts.

  2. I strongly recommend "Melmoth the Wanderer" over "The Monk" using both well-written vs badly-written and intersting vs less interesting criteria. But "The Monk" is worth a shot for anyone with interested in Gothic literature. It's pretty nuts, and pretty good for a book written by a 19 year old.

    The Little Professor's posts do make one curious, don't they?

    As for Hemingway: huge Romantic, big capital R.