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...
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