Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1673
Considering the immense amount of critical attention that Benito Pérez Galdós’s writing has attracted, it is surprising that so little is known about his life. Pérez Galdós was a man of the written word, not of the spoken word. His reticence is legendary. Modest and reserved, Pérez Galdós spoke little...
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Considering the immense amount of critical attention that Benito Pérez Galdós’s writing has attracted, it is surprising that so little is known about his life. Pérez Galdós was a man of the written word, not of the spoken word. His reticence is legendary. Modest and reserved, Pérez Galdós spoke little about himself and left few memoirs. In a group he was an attentive listener, not an avid participant. He appears to have confided little to his friends because they have been able to provide biographers with a minimum of significant information. His writing is not a reliable source of biographical material, either, since he sought to maintain a distance between himself and the characters and situations he depicted.
Pérez Galdós was born in the Canary Islands, a fact that is often cited to explain his fascination with life on the peninsula. H. Chonon Berkowitz, a major Pérez Galdós scholar, writes that if the author had been born on the mainland, he might not have become such a meticulous observer of Spanish traits.
Pérez Galdós’s father was a military officer. His mother, the daughter of a former secretary of the Inquisition in the Canary Islands, was a devout Christian. Pérez Galdós was educated in an English school until he was thirteen and later traveled in England. He had a good knowledge of English literature, and critics have often pointed out similarities between Pérez Galdós’s novels and those of nineteenth century English writers, especially Charles Dickens. Pérez Galdós received his bachillerato, or secondary school degree, from the Colegio de San Agustín, where he excelled in literature. He also studied music and painting, interests that are reflected in his writing. His own illustrations appear in several volumes of his Episodios nacionales, and he painted many of the watercolors in his summer home in Santander.
Pérez Galdós’s interest in theater dates from his secondary school days. In the 1840’s, a dramatic society had been formed in Las Palmas. The group had both artistic and social functions, and the most prominent families in the area participated. By 1844, a cultural center with a small theater and areas for literary and other activities had been constructed. When he was still a student at the Colegio de San Agustín, Pérez Galdós wrote his first article for a student newspaper. Given the importance that theater occupied in the province, it is not surprising that this was a review of a performance by a zarzuela and opera group.
After he left Las Palmas, Pérez Galdós studied law in Madrid, although he felt little enthusiasm for the profession. He did finish the course, but seems to have spent most of his time acquainting himself with the capital, attending the theater, and participating in literary discussions at the cafés. Although he had already written for newspapers in Las Palmas, his career actually began in Madrid, in 1865, with the publication of a series of articles on the arts that appeared in La nación. Journalism was not Pérez Galdós’s primary interest, however, even though he continued to write articles as a source of income. He had his heart set on becoming a dramatist, and in 1865 he wrote “La expulsión de los moriscos,” a Romantic drama in verse (which eventually was lost). Neither this work nor Pérez Galdós’s second Romantic play, El hombre fuerte, was ever produced.
For many years it was thought that Pérez Galdós turned to writing novels in 1868, after a recent trip to Paris. The author himself affirms that in the French capital he became fascinated with Honoré de Balzac and decided to attempt his first novel, which was completed during a second visit to France that same year. In his Memorias (1930), Pérez Galdós writes that in the period between these two trips to Paris, he became disillusioned with his attempts to write good theater: “I pulled my plays and dramas out of a drawer and found them turned to dust; what I mean is, they seemed ridiculous to me, they seemed worthy of being burned.” Critic Rodolfo Cardona has shown, however, that Pérez Galdós had actually read at least fifteen of Balzac’s novels before going to France and that his first novel was not The Golden Fountain Café, the work completed in Paris in 1868, as previously thought, but La sombra, probably written in 1865. Pérez Galdós’s decision to abandon the theater and to write novels had nothing to do with his trip to France or his discovery of Balzac, argues Cardona, but rather with an inner struggle between his Romantic tendencies, manifested in his plays, and his desire to observe and accurately describe his world, manifested in his novels. According to Cardona, Pérez Galdós was profoundly influenced by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister novels, which constitute a repudiation of the Romantic concept of life. Pérez Galdós, torn between Romanticism and realism, opted for the latter and, as a result, began to cultivate the realistic novel.
One of the most important events in Pérez Galdós’s life occurred immediately after his second trip to France. In 1868, on his way back to Spain, Pérez Galdós passed through Barcelona, where he witnessed the Revolution of September. The event appears to have affected him deeply, sparking a reflection on national problems that was enriched in later years by his contacts with important political and literary figures.
In 1869, Pérez Galdós joined the staff of Las cortes. He also contributed to Revista de España and later became editor of El debate. Through his work as a journalist, Pérez Galdós met many prominent statesmen and artists, but in 1873—now author of three novels—he broke off relationships with his friends and entered into a period of isolation and intense creative activity. During this year, he wrote the first four of his forty-six historical novels, known as Episodios nacionales. In 1874, he wrote five, and the following year he wrote three. In 1876, he produced not only three historical novels but also one contemporary novel, Doña Perfecta (1876; English translation, 1880). Thereafter, Pérez Galdós continued to keep up this pace until 1879, when he finished the second series of Episodios nacionales. During the following years, he wrote contemporary novels, until, in 1898, he began the third series of Episodios nacionales.
In spite of his amazing prolificacy, Pérez Galdós found time to travel. In 1883 he went to London—the first of many trips to England—where he visited the locations immortalized by Dickens in his novels. He also traveled to other European countries and throughout Spain. Never having married, he was free to jaunt about as he wished. Often he went third-class, stopping at rural inns, where he came into contact with all kinds of people. With his keen eye and unobtrusive manner, he gleaned a wealth of detail that would enrich his novels.
Roughly twenty-five years after his first modest attempts at writing drama, Pérez Galdós turned once again to the theater. During the interim, he had not lost interest in drama entirely. The element of dialogue in his novels had increased in importance, while the narrative element had decreased, until the author finally developed a new form called the novela dialogada. An example is the novel Realidad (Reality, 1992), published in 1889.
Pérez Galdós’s reasons for returning to the theater are not completely clear, but in 1912 he stated in an interview that the dramatic genre had been his first love and had always attracted him. By the time he wrote the play Realidad in 1892, he was a well-known novelist. Rodolfo Cardona points out that in late nineteenth century Spain, the novel was flourishing, but the drama was languishing. He suggests that Pérez Galdós wished to regenerate the Spanish theater, imbuing it with a sense of realism and immediacy. According to Cardona, Pérez Galdós was motivated by a personal need and a sense of social mission; he wanted to indoctrinate his audiences in the truth at the same time that he hoped to revitalize a moribund genre. Whatever the impetus for Pérez Galdós’s return to drama, however, his new plays were entirely different from his early attempts. Rather than Romantic fantasies, the works of this later period are realistic and anticonventional.
Realidad was immediately followed by seven other plays. Then, between La fiera (1896) and Electra (1901), Pérez Galdós temporarily abandoned the theater and concentrated on the historical novel. Berkowitz has suggested that in this period, during which Spain was involved in the Spanish-American War and the writers of the Generation of 1898 were engaging in intense analysis of the national psyche, Pérez Galdós did not feel free to comment on contemporary events. At any rate, when Pérez Galdós did return to the stage, it was to produce a flow of plays nearly uninterrupted until his death.
Pérez Galdós was elected to the Royal Spanish Academy in 1889, and he took his seat in 1897. He was recommended for a Nobel Prize in Literature (which he did not receive). It has been suggested that the Nobel Prize committee feared giving offense to a Catholic country by conferring a distinction on a rabid anti-Catholic. Pérez Galdós also became active in politics, and in 1907 he was elected deputy of the republican party in Madrid.
Toward the end of his life, Pérez Galdós began to lose his sight. He went completely blind in 1912, yet continued his literary activities until his death, dictating his works to others. His persistence was caused by economic necessity, for, in spite of being the most widely read writer of his generation, he was impoverished during his old age, the victim of poor management and unscrupulous business partners. He died on January 4, 1920.