Friday, February 02, 2018

Inside the Micaelas' with Fortunata

Being used to rising at nine or ten in the morning, it was excruciating for the sinner to get up at the crack of dawn every day in the convent. At five o'clock, Sor Antonia was already ringing her way into the dormitories with a bell that shattered the poor sleepers' eardrums. Rising early was one of the best disciplinary and educational methods the nuns used, and staying up late was a bad habit they fought vigorously, as if it were as noxious to the soul as it was to the body. Because of this, the night watch-nun patrolled the dormitories at different hours of the night, and if she caught any whispering, she dealt out extremely severe punishments.

The work varied in nature, and was sometimes rough. The religious teachers took special care to subdue vice-ridden types or fiery tempers by exhausting them, thus mortifying the flesh and ennobling the spirit. Delicate tasks, such as sewing and embroidery (for which there was a special workroom), were the least appealing to Fortunata, who was hardly fond of needlework and whose fingers were very clumsy. She was happier when she was ordered to wash, polish the tile floors, clean the windowpanes, or do other jobs suited to scrub maids. She was bored to death when they had her sit and sew nametags on clothes. Another duty she liked was being kitchenmaid for the nun who was cook; it was amazing to see how she scrubbed and polished all the copper and crockery — better and faster than two or three of the most diligent inmates.

Considerable vigor and vigilance characterized the nuns' handling of the inmates' relationships, regardless of whether they were Filomenas or Josefinas. The nuns were sharp sentries when it came to supervising budding friendships and couples that formed as a result of mutual fondness. The veteran inmates whose submissiveness was known were instructed to accompany those new inmates who were considered suspect. There were some who were not allowed to speak to their companions except in the main group during recess.

In spite of the severity exercised in preventing intimate couples or groups, there were always sly violations of the rule. It was impossible in a group of forty or fifty women to prevent two or three of them from getting together to talk when they were able to meet during their duties. One Saturday morning Sor Natividad, who was the mother superior (alias the withered-looking one), ordered Fortunata to polish the tile floor of the visiting room. Sor Natividad was from a northern province and was extremely zealous about the care of the convent; she always kept it as clean as a whistle, and if she saw a speck of dust or any other kind of dirt, she became frenetic and shrieked for all she was worth, as if a great calamity had befallen the world or original sin had been committed anew. Whoever obeyed her fanatical doctrine of cleanliness she pampered and favored, whereas she hurled awful curses at whoever prevaricated, even venially, in that closed morality of hers.

(from Benito Pérez Galdós, Fortunata y Jacinta (1886 - 1887) trans. Agnes Moncy Gullón.)


The point about Sor Natividad coming from a northern province is that, in Spain as elsewhere in Europe, the north is associated with high standards and work ethic, contrasting with a poorer and dirtier, but often happier, south.

Fortunata has agreed to enter the convent as one of the "Filomenas". These are fallen women seeking to reform their lives. The "Josefinas", on the other hand, are well-born girls sent for finishing education -- often by their step-parents as a pretext for getting them out of the home. Naturally the two groups aren't allowed to meet each other.

This perhaps is a common-or-garden page of Fortunata, but it shows a lot of what makes Galdós so excellent; his good nature, his unflagging capacity to describe things as they are.  What stands out here is the way his account of the convent unfolds, compellingly yet casually, through a process of switching to and fro; for example between needlework and cleaning and needlework and cleaning; or between the topics of manual work and the nuns' discipline. The interleaving, combined with unobvious paragraph-breaks, generates a mimesis of life and movement.  This particular habit is unlike either Dickens or Zola, it's all his own. A kind of conversational art. Galdós gives us the whole working convent all at once; a more carefully ordered presentation would give it us piece by piece, treating each topic fully before moving on to the next. But Galdós leaves his juggling balls hanging in mid-air, and when he switches away from a topic we're never sure if he's finished with it or not. Usually, he hasn't. (The material about keeping the Filomenas from chatting with each other is a preparation for the shattering incursion of Mauricia La Dura into Fortunata's convent existence.)

What does come from Dickens (and Balzac too, maybe) is the slight larger-than-life quality of Sor Natividad. Galdós's masterpiece still has tints of the good-natured, somewhat old-fashioned quality of Trafalgar and its followers. Her over-reaction to a speck of dust ("as if original sin had been committed anew") is possibly a Galdosian invention and possibly a Spanish proverbialism; it's often hard for an outsider to tell. But wherever it came from this is not just a joke, it's a beautifully searching idea about the obsession with cleanliness.

But behind every page of Fortunata, even this one, is a feeling of pain, as it slowly unfolds its tragedy of an uneducated working girl.



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