The nineteenth century Spanish novelists prior to Pérez Galdós were mostly regionalists or costumbristas, writers who described the picturesque and folkloric elements of life. Pérez Galdós, who was a practicing journalist, revolutionized the novel by using his gift for observation, his political acumen, and his knowledge of history to create a narrative that penetrates deep into the national psyche. Although Pérez Galdós is usually classified as a realist, his characters are sometimes caricatures, exaggerating traits associated with particular social types. All Pérez Galdós’ works are an attempt to understand Spanish society—how it is, and how it became that way. Pérez Galdós’ first novel, La fontana de oro (1868), contained both costumbrista and historical elements, and each succeeding work was a new attempt to comprehend the interelation between history and personal experience.
In 1873, with the publication of Trafalgar (English translation, 1884), Pérez Galdós began the first series of his “national episodes,” or historical novels. Three years later, he published Dona Perfecta (1876; English translation, 1880), the first of his “Spanish contemporary novels.” Although Pérez Galdós appeared to be moving in opposite directions at once, the historical and contemporary sequences were actually complementary. The first represented an effort to comprehend contemporary Spain by following the course of history from the past to the present. The second allowed the author to construct archetypes in order to reach a deeper comprehension of contemporary Spanish society.
Dona Perfecta was followed by Gloria (1876-1877; English translation, 1879) and Marianela (1878; English translation, 1883). All three depicted the intolerance of the inhabitants of the small towns of rural Spain. With La desheredada (1881; The Disinherited Lady, 1957), Pérez Galdós created the city novel and entered a new period in which he depicted the perverse commitment to material wealth and social climbing at the time of the Bourbon Restoration (1874). Our Friend Manso forms part of the second period of “Spanish contemporary novels.” In it, Pérez Galdós continues to examine the distortion of values of the new Spain that was emerging during the second part of the nineteenth century. While its predecessor explores the determinism imposed by history and heredity, Our Friend Manso attempts to introduce an element of free will into the narrative. That Pérez Galdós does not completely succeed does not diminish the significance of the novel. Our Friend Manso, although not Pérez Galdós’ best work, is a step toward the creation of his masterpieces, Fortunata y Jacinta (1886-1887; Fortunata and Jacinta: Two Stories of Married Women, 1973) and his four-volume Torquemada series (1889-1895), in which he reaches a synthesis of the historical and the individual, of the deterministic and the independent.