January 13, 2015

Don Julián: A Nineteenth-Century Positive Depiction of—Homosexuality?

On Emilia Pardo Bazán’s The House of Ulloa (“Los pazos de Ulloa”)

As the reader of Charlotte Brontë’s unforgettable masterpiece Jane Eyre can remember, this is the story of a young, not particularly nice-looking governess who enters the Gothic, intimidating universe of Thornfield Hall, a place where she will have to face the darkest secrets of her rough but eventually captivating master.

In this 19th century Spanish novel (first published in 1886), Doña Marcelina “Nucha” Pardo, a weak, homely, sweet-tempered damsel, marries her cousin, Don Pedro de Moscoso, a coarse but seductive marquis from the countryside. After the wedding, he takes Nucha to live in his beat-up, shady manor. There, she will progressively realize the true nature of her husband, as well as his troublesome life before meeting her. In this case, there is a bastard son. The mother, you ask? Not a madwoman locked in the attic, but the Marquis’ maid, who happens to be his wild, cunning steward’s daughter.[1]

Up to this point, you are probably missing a very recurrent element the 19th century Spanish authors used to introduce in their works every now and then—a priest, of course! Let me introduce him: He answers to the name of Don Julián Álvarez, and this young, mild-mannered clergyman is quite a particular case in this literary period.

Don Julián is presented as an idealistic—at the border of ingeniousness—inexperienced young man. He is also described as a tactful person—a noteworthy feature in a decadent world of crude, abrupt, aggressive, short-tempered people. His delicacy is understood as effeminacy in such a context.[2] The old abbot calls him Mariquitas (“sissy”) because of his cleanliness. During the partridge hunting scenes—the perfect moment to show one’s manliness—this faint-hearted priest makes a fool of himself due to his clumsy technique.

Nevertheless, he is not portrayed in vicious terms (remember Don Fermín de Pas—the master priest—and the whole pack of clergymen presented in Leopoldo Alas’s La Regenta), and his faith does not mean an obstacle at all—contrary to the love story between the lady and the seminarian depicted in Juan Valera’s Pepita Jiménez. Moreover, we can even say that Don Julián comes to be the true hero of the novel, rising up as the (ineffective) protector of the traditional values of civilization in a barbarian environment.[3] In other words, he is just a good man in the lion’s den.

Portrait of Emilia Pardo Bazán
Don Julián loves Nucha, but this love lacks of any sort of carnal aspect. He appreciates so much her fine moral virtues—on such a bleak spot—that he even compares Nucha to Virgin Mary. Then, an effeminate man whose feelings for a woman are merely platonic—is homosexual? Not necessarily. However, we can find an evidence of Don Julián’s arguable homosexuality in the morbid description of Don Pedro’s body, with special regard to his bare chest, detailing the fine hair around his nipples. (Note the story is mainly told from Julián’s point of view.) Even his admiration for the cherubic beauty of the Marquis’ son could imply a repressed pedophilia. Don Julián seems to have a problem with sexuality: he is not proud of his own body, and feels awkward every time the maid shows invitingly her shapely figure every time she drops in his room without knocking—

Whatever Don Julián’s sexual orientation is, he acts as the heroine’s perfect gay friend—as we should say regarding our contemporary chick-lit trend—during his stay there: Julián is Nucha’s closest, intimate confidant, feels sorry for her after confirming the suspicion of the Marquis’ cruelty to his feeble wife, and even tries to save her from tears hiding (as much as he can) the bastard secret.

His precipitous exit from Ulloa is the result of a misunderstanding: the Marquis scented Julián and Nucha were having an affair. This event will trigger Nucha’s tragic ending. Well, at least she could benefit for a while from the joys of having a gay friend Madonna has always devoted herself to praise.[4]

[1] This novel has countless connections to not only Jane Eyre, but also Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. The same can be said on its second part, La madre naturaleza (“Mother Nature”.) The similarities are really impressive in both cases.
[2] I would like to point out here the affected, sensitive, subtly ironic performance by the formidable actor José Luis Gómez in the role of Don Julián, in the 1985 TV mini-series adaptation directed by Gonzalo Suárez, one of the most personal, avant-garde Spanish filmmakers ever.
[3] Emilia Pardo Bazán (La Coruña, 1851 - Madrid, 1921) was a countess, and a devoted Christian believer. She used to represent the aristocracy favorably in her work, an abject idea in intellectual liberalists’ eyes. Note that Don Pedro, the harsh, bullying husband, is a fake marquis, as he makes illegitimate use of the title; and his wife—who shares the same family name with the author—embodies the traditional virtues of a true lady: devotion and faithfulness. Anyway, the most negative portraits are among the Marquis’ serving staff: the steward, Primitivo–quite a descriptive name—and his daughter Sabel. They are depicted as devious, Machiavellian villains.
Furthermore, one of the most important aspects of Naturalism is Determinism, while Doña Emilia, as a Catholic, believed in the possibility of choosing the right path. These conservative attitudes did not help her win the sympathies of other naturalist novelists, such as Clarín or Émile Zola, whose progressive philosophy is reflected in their literature.
[4] In La madre naturaleza we can find Don Julián back in Ulloa as the old, reserved parish priest. Almost a hermit, he is a faithful devotee to the memory of his late beloved friend. He rejects the presence of any woman in his house, so he lives only in the company of his servant Goros, who is depicted as a man with special skill with traditional feminine house work. Pardo Bazán even states this couple is a compatible same-sex match. 

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