Tuesday, July 15, 2014

What an event! - the baby in The House of Ulloa

Litlove, of Tales from the Reading Room, was reading a particularly male novel and had this amusing feeling:

I was also feeling incorrigibly feminine, and rather wishing that someone, in either of these novels, would have a baby or go shopping or need to sit down and speculate on another person’s emotions.

For all of their supposed realism and attention to the world around them, how many babies are there in 19th century fiction?  In L’Assommoir, baby Nana vanishes until she is old enough for Zola to find her interesting.  The House of Ulloa, though, has a baby, and what a baby:

The pink, waxen face; the moist, toothless mouth, like a pale coral taken from the sea; the tiny feet, whose heels were red from continuous and graceful kicking…  To this soft bun that still seemed to retain the gelatinous texture of the protoplasm, that lacked self-consciousness and lived only for physical sensations, the mother attributed sense and knowledge.  (Ch. 18)

That first line is from the point of view of the mooncalf priest “who had seen only chubby cherubs on altarpieces [and] limited knowledge of child nudes,” while the second, in a rare move, has shifted over to the mother.  The limited point of view in Emilia Pardo Bazán’s novels is almost always male – the priest, the lunkhead nobleman, and throughout the climax of the novel, an eight year-old boy who sees everything the reader needs to round off the novel, including a murder.  The baby features prominently; the climatic chapter actually ends with a struggle for the soft bun.

A page after the passage I quoted, the baby pees on the priest – “What an event!”  Other parts of the novel describe childbirth and nursing in ways that would be unlikely in Victorian novels, which are not allowed to get too earthy.  Zola was insistent on the importance of first-hand knowledge, of research.  Perhaps I see here a writer with her own expertise.

There is an outstanding baby, I should mention, in The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, the otherwise nearly unreadable Charles Dickens Christmas novella of 1848.

Let’s see, what else does Pardo Bazán write about?  It’s not all babies.  She’s good with a kind of parody Gothic:

In the shadows of this almost underground place, among the clutter of old junk left to the rats, the leg of a table sketched a mummified arm, the sphere of a clock became the white face of a corpse, and a pair of riding boots that stuck out among rags and papers and was eaten away by insect evoked the fantasy of a man assassinated and hidden there.  (Ch. 20)

Maybe a tiny bit of foreshadowing there.

Pardo Bazán’s vocabulary can be surprising.  The first thing the translator does is apologize – don’t blame me, he says.  A long ride on a horse “had disjointed every one of his sacroiliac bones” (Ch. 1).  The dinner after a hunt is “the time for cynegetic anecdotes, and most of all for lies” (Ch. 21).  The word “cynegetic” (“of or relating to hunting”) shows up three times.  Pardo Bazán’s language creates an ironic distance.  She and her educated audience are in Madrid, studying the curious folkways of the Galician rustics.

A couple of chapters about local politics move too far away from the important characters.  They should have been told from the point of view of the priest, or the nobleman, neither of whom would have understood what the heck was going on, which is my point.  That would have made for better comedy.  Once that episode is over, the novel wraps up in a satisfying way – see above, eight year-old, witnesses a murder, etc.

Thanks to Ricardo and Stu for Spanish Literature Month!


  1. "How many babies are there in 19th century fiction?" Interesting question. the only one that comes immediately to mind is Anna Karenina's illegitimate baby, that makes even her dry-as-dust husband break out into a smile. But really, given how common babies were - and still are, I believe - you'd think there would have been more, wouldn't you? But even the lady writers of the 19th century - Austen-Brontes-Gaskell-Eliot - seem lacking on this front.

  2. Gaskell must have some good baby stuff somewhere, but not in any of the books I've read. Maybe in Ruth or something. And she is a truly feminine writer, concerned with female friendships, domestic work, and so on.

    Anna's baby, that's a good one, and I think there is a pretty good scene with Kitty, Levin ,and their baby - or am I misremembering?

    Ah, so forgetful! Pardo Bazán wrote a book that is credited with introducing Spanish readers to Russian literature. There is a scene in this novel with the naive priest wandering, pacing, fretting, and praying while the mistress of the house is delivering that baby. Pardo Bazán must have known the equivalent scene with Levin in Anna Karenina.

    Unless I have the chronology all wrong.

  3. "...this soft bun that still seemed to retain the gelatinous texture of the protoplasm…"

    Outstanding. I'm reminded of Vikram Seth's description, in The Golden Gate, of "blubbering blobs...unequipped with volume knobs."

    The Scarlet Letter has a baby.

  4. There's Celia's baby in Middlemarch, "that unconscious centre and poise of the world, who had the most remarkable fists all complete even to the nails, and hair enough, really, when you took his cap off, to make -- you didn't know what: -- in short, he was Bouddha in a Western form."

  5. Yes. the Middlemarch baby, that's a good one. It would be hard to attribute that description to anyone but Eliot.

    I like Seth's description, too.

    Hawthorne's baby, eh, she's okay. Now, once she grows up just a little, look out, there is a character for you. Hawthorne is great with children. There are chunks of his journal in which he just writes down everything his children do for some period of time, like he is Jane Goodall.

  6. Plenty of babies in Chekhov. Usually unhappy, of course, and neglected or sick.

    1. That sounds like the general condition of 19th century literature children.

  7. Sure, that's what you need to notice babies - a woman, or a doctor.