A nobleman in his slippers wearing a light linen jacket over his pink cotton shirt sits in the library of his manor house, he is scratching his head with his quill looking down forlornly at the sheet of foolscap paper in front of him. His name is Goncalo Mendes Ramires, heir to the most distinguished noble family in Portugal, older than the line of the King of Portugal and Portugal itself. At a table stacked with thick volumes of genealogical history, Bluteau’s Portuguese and Latin Vocabulary and the medieval romances of Walter Scott, Goncalo is attempting to write a historical novel inspired by his glorious ancestors.
He is the last of his line, a line that includes crusaders and conquistadors, warriors who invaded Castile, a vagabond who topped a gambler’s life with the command of a pirate ship, and countless companions and confidantes of the Kings of Portugal. In more recent generations Ramires’ men had been patrons of the arts and vying for ministerial positions, Goncalo’s own father is described as ‘wearing out his shoe leather going up and down the steps of various ministries and of the Mortgage Bank’, until finally a minister had appointed him the Governor of Oliveira, not due to his talent we are told, but because that particular minister found his favourite mistress was rather keen on Goncalo’s father.
Our Goncalo in his time at university has been failing his exams but developing his literary ambitions, partly inspired by another student Castanheiro who has founded a patriotic journal with the aim of reawakening a sense of the ‘beauty, grandeur and glory of Portugal’. Submitting his first literary effort to the Patriot’s Club he is hailed by his small peer group as ‘our Walter Scott’. As he toasts his friends over glasses of wine, he announces a far more ambitious literary work, a two-part historical epic inspired by his own family lore.
After Castanheiro’s graduation the Patriot’s club dwindles, and Goncalo in grieving for his recently deceased father has lost much of his flamboyance and concern for grand political matters. Upon graduation Goncalo heads for Lisbon to settle a number of mortgages on family estates and to make the acquaintances of important political figures. Meeting Castanheiro after a long separation he finds the poetic patriot still as passionate as ever. He enquires after the mooted two- volume novel Goncalo had planned and on hearing the lack of progression, assumes his friend has lost heart. Fired afresh by this meeting Goncalo returns to his hotel and vows to return to the family homestead and accomplish something towards his literary and political ambitions, even if now he sets himself the far more manageable goal of writing a novella. Making the task far less troubling for the indolent and ease-loving side of Goncalo’s temperament an uncle had previously completed a thoroughly researched poem on the Ramires’ family. Using the poem as his reference point, he can build a literary career and bolster his political ambitions, just when a patriotic advocate from an exulted and distinguished family is most needed.
So we meet the thirty year old aristocratic bachelor trying, dawdling, failing, procrastinating and plagiarising his way towards the writing of a work that can’t possibly fulfil all his quixotic desires. Struggling to write, more indebted than his ancestors, reluctant to pursue a proper relationship with any interested women, stung by local gossips, and even facing the humiliating assaults of a fair-haired local farmer who delights in tormenting him, there is a strong sense about Goncalo’s life, about his family’s status, that the best days are in the past. When one factors in that Goncalo is in part a personification of Portugal itself, one sees that Eca de Queiroz’s sympathetic portrait of the likeable, but weak Goncalo overshadowed by a family past he can’t possibly live up to, or even keep going, is a commentary upon a country that is struggling to cope with its diminished status.
The contrast between Goncalo and the warlike ancestors who appear in his uncle’s poem and his novella could not be more striking. Aristocracy is of course a sense of distinction and greater worth predicated on descent from an exulted past ancestor. Something of its innate silliness can be gaged by considering that if many modern aristocrats could actually meet their most famous ancient ancestors, they would most likely find them uncivilised, bellicose and vulgar, little different from their underlings in terms of culture, and raised above them chiefly by might. The warriors of the medieval period would not only be radically different from their descendants, they would most likely think their descendants pitiful weaklings. Furthermore, the utterly alien nature of the past and its priorities can cause discomfort, there is a natural desire to soften the rough edges, and place the great feats of the past within a narrative framework that naturally leads to us and all we value in the present and hope to perpetuate. That people from previous generations had the same naive views of the past and the present is rarely considered.
Despite being no great intellectual Goncalo is sufficiently aware of these ironies. And part of the reason he becomes such a likeable character is that he has such straightforward desires for his life and his failings have little harmful effect on anyone but himself. He is a good friend who is well liked by his peers, he is generous and full of genuine warm feeling to those who work on his estates, he loves his sister and is upset at gossips who are saying she has been unfaithful with a man far more dashing than her husband, and he is unwilling to abandon his beliefs to achieve political advancement. He would simply like to be a worthy figure in his family line, sitting proudly in the glow of a romanticised past, in a proud and confident nation.
Of all the prolific great nineteenth century novelists none have had quite the baffling neglect in the English-speaking world as Eca de Queiroz. Perhaps his extensive stay in England as Portuguese consul and the frequent cynicism and ironic humour at the expense of his host nation may have played some part, but in all of his writings on England their runs a vein of humour and grudging appreciation – describing the country as probably the foremost thinking nation, praising the tradition of Christmas stories for children – to his observations that is far from the much stronger streak of self-depreciation that Orwell was later to remark as running through the English intellectual class. And for all his criticism he spent fifteen years in the country and wrote many of his greatest masterpieces here, including his most celebrated work, The Maias, in Bristol. Perhaps sometimes the best inspirations are also the sharpest provocations.
Whatever his writings on England, I think the best way to make the case for Queiroz is to let a contemporary of his speak for him, and who better than Emile Zola, who said ‘Queiroz is far greater than my own dear master, Flaubert.’