The Mysteries of Madrid

Posted by cdelano on October 18, 2011 in Cristina Delano tagged with

Spain’s transition from the antiguo régimen to modern nationhood reads like a Gothic novel. From the stock characters (malevolent nobility and clergy) to the intrigues, obsessions, suspicions, and anxieties that plagued political life, it is little wonder that much of the popular fiction of the nineteenth century possessed a Gothic tenor.

Spain saw three civil wars during nineteenth century. Spain’s First Carlist War (1833-1839) began as a succession dispute. When it became clear that Fernando VII would have no male issue, he revoked the Salic law and made his daughter, Isabel, his heir. Fernando’s brother, Don Carlos, objected, and after Fernando’s death he found support for his claim among the conservative sectors of society, principally the Church, who feared that liberalism was poised to destroy civilization. The Carlist movement became a struggle against secularizing urban bourgeois hegemony (Aróstegui 16). It was also an anti-national movement; for the Carlists, the concept of the nation was tantamount to atheism, for it denied the legitimacy of a sovereign monarch ordained by divine will (Álvarez Junco).

Spanish liberals struggled throughout the nineteenth century to articulate a national narrative that could combat the theocentric model of authority. This effort was complicated by internal division among the liberals. The moderate liberals, supported by the alta burgesía, favored limited enfranchisement and a parliamentary monarchy. The more radical progressives had a broader conception of suffrage rights and believed sovereignty belonged to the nation (García-Nieto 23-27).

Juan Martínez Villergas’s Los misterios de Madrid (1844-1845) narrates the tensions of the tumultuous 1830s through the use of several Gothic tales. While these tales aim to tantalize the reader, they also convey the political agenda of Villergas, a progressive liberal, against the threats to the fledgling liberal revolution. The novel begins with a seemingly typical Gothic plot: the malevolent Marqués de Calabaza murders the father of the beautiful Laura in order to seduce her and steal her fortune. The hero of the novel, Miguel Ángel, sets out to save Laura from the clutches of the Marqués. He soon learns that the Marqués is involved in a Carlist conspiracy with the evil Jesuit Don Toribio to place the pretender on the throne. Villergas uses the Gothic to construct a narrative that supports the hegemony of the progressive liberals as the only means to secure modern nationhood.  Villergas begins by Gothicizing the most obvious enemy, the conservative Carlists, but he soon turns to the internal other, the moderate liberals, as posits them as the lurking danger within. The principal way Villergas marks the moderates as abject is through the trope of contamination.

Miguel Ángel learns of the Carlists’ plan to divide the liberals by influencing the moderates. Villergas believed the moderate liberals were too conciliatory to the Church and the nobility, and were thus vulnerable to corruption. Don Toribio describes their plan thusly:

They will become each other’s enemies just as they are our enemies today.[…]The day will come when the moderates trust us more than the progressives. […] Nothing can stop the superhuman power of the Jesuits. When this blow strikes we will rule the roost. We will reinstate absolutism; on every street we will place gallows and a convent; we will cut the necks of both moderates and progressives. (Villergas, I: 256-257) [Translations are my own]

Don Toribio paints a frightful image to the liberal reader: a return to the dark days of religious and political absolutism and the destruction of liberalism. Villergas connects the Carlist threat to the division among liberals and thus posits the progressives as the only viable path to preserve and continue the liberal revolution.

When the Carlists are defeated, the Marqués switches to the side of the moderate liberals. The Jesuit then plots to imprison and murder the Marqués in order to obtain his fortune and further the Jesuit’s anti-liberal agenda. The Jesuit infects a dog with rabies to kill Marqués. In the nineteenth-century imagination, rabies signified a return to a primitive state, a loss of domestication (McKenchie 4). Rabies was especially fearsome because of its ability to spread to humans, making them animal-like, irrational creatures. McKenchie argues that the rabies trope of nineteenth-century Gothic fiction is a manifestation of anxieties about human degeneration and racial and biological contamination (3, 9). In Villergas’s misterio, I would argue that rabies signifies the corruption, superstition, and irrationality the progressives ascribed to the Church.

In an attempt to escape, the Marqués attacks Don Toribio with a knife. In the midst of the chaos, the rabid dog escapes, biting both men. The dog runs out into the street, and is eventually killed by a “courageous official”, a subtle reference to the progressives who control the government at this point in the novel. The moderates have been contaminated, and it is only the progressives who can restore order.

Later in the novel, the Marqués, still the Jesuit’s prisoner, has succumbed to infection. He catches his reflection in a mirror, and he is horrified by what he sees:

He saw his haggard face and his frozen eyes, and he turned away frightened, let out a scream much like the sinister howl of the dog that bit him. He remained terrified, confused, horrified. (Villergas III: 201)

The Marqués escapes his prison, fully infected with rabies; he is foaming at the mouth, and tries to tear apart everything he sees with his hands and teeth. The Marqués has transformed into a violent animal, and is now a threat to the public. Miguel Ángel, the representative of progressive resilience against contaminating clerics, subdues the Marqués and takes him to a hospital. There the Jesuit and the Marqués die side by side, “both of them looking at the other, with their eyes full of blood and nearly out of their sockets” (III: 303). Miguel Ángel inherits the Marqués’s wealth (did I mention Miguel Ángel is also the Marqués’s long-lost son?); here Villergas plays a game of Gothic wish-fulfillment fantasy, where the Church and the moderates annihilate each other, leaving the progressive as the heir to Spain’s political future.

The progressives did not remain in power for long. In 1844, the moderates took control of the government and took drastic measures to wipe out any progressive resistance. The moderates shut down all periodicals that opposed them and removed all progressives from municipal governments. The army quelled uprisings that occurred throughout Spain, and the moderates reinstated many of the aristocratic ideas of government (Marichal 267-268, 270). For Villergas, these developments represented the undoing of the progressives’ egalitarian agenda. This also affected the publication of Los misterios de Madrid, as Villergas explains in the epilogue:

I had planned to extend this work to four volumes, which according to my calculations was the space I needed to cover and reveal the mysteries of Spain’s capital from one end to another […] but this work has been written in a sad era for Spain…If the freedom of the press had suffered fewer attacks from the powers that be, I would have attempted to reveal my political and moral theories.(III: 313)

Villergas promises to reveal more mysteries when “we recover the right to freely print our ideas” (III: 316). Villergas never wrote the fourth volume of Los misterios de Madrid, and while his silence is due to political concerns, it recalls one of the fundamental characteristics of Gothic narrative: the missing or interrupted text.

Many thanks to Claire for sharing her wonderful article on Gothic dogs.

Works Cited

Álvarez Junco, José. Mater Dolorosa: La idea de España en el siglo XIX. Madrid:Taurus, 2001. Kindle Edition, no pag.

Aróstegui, Julio, Jordi Canal and Eduardo C. Calleja. Las guerras carlistas. Hechos, hombres e ideas. Madrid: La Esfera de los Libros, 2003.

García-Nieto, María Carmen. “Introducción: La España isabelina.” Moderados y progresistas, 1833-1868. Ed. María Carmen García-Nieto, et.al.  Madrid: Guaidana, 1971.

McKenchie, Claire Charlotte. “Man’s Best Friend: Evolution, Rabies, and the Gothic Dog.” Nineteenth-Century Prose 40 (1): 2013. 1-26. Forthcoming.

Marichal, Carlos. La revolución liberal y los primeros partidos políticos en España, 1834-1844. Madrid: Cátedra, 1980.

Martínez Villergas, Juan. Los misterios de Madrid: Miscelánea de costumbres buenas y malas. Madrid : Manini y Comp., 1844-1845. 3 volumes.

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