Benito Pérez Galdós was born on 10th May 1843 in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria and died on 4th January 1920 aged 76 in Madrid. He was a prolific writer and is widely considered to be Spain’s greatest novelist after Cervantes. He published over thirty novels, twenty-three plays, forty-six Episodios Nacionales (National Episodes) as well as a large body of journalism and other works.
He was the tenth child of an army colonel. His mother was originally from Guipuzkoa, in the Basque Country. During his childhood, his father told him stories of his time as a soldier in Spain’s War of Independence, the period covered by the first series of the National Episodes. He was educated in the Canary Islands and showed an early talent for drawing and was renowned for an excellent visual and literary memory. He also wrote articles and satirical verses for the local press.
In 1862 he moved to Madrid to read law at university but spent much of this time at the theatre and associating with writers. In 1865 and 1866 he witnessed the unrest in Madrid during the rebellion of Juan Prim and which led to the abdication of Queen Isabel II in 1868. In 1867 he made his first trip abroad to Paris where he became familiar with the works of Balzac and Dickens, both of whom would be important influences on his own novel writing. In 1868 his translation of The Pickwick Papers (from a French edition) appeared in instalments in the Nación newspaper.
In the same year he gave up university and devoted himself to journalism and writing. His first novel La Fontana de Oro (The Golden Fountain) was published in 1870. Two further novels appeared before the publication of Trafalgar, the first of The National Episodes, in 1873. The National Episodes would become the lifetime achievement of Galdós (almost literally since the last of them was published in 1912) and among his most popular works. They chronicle the history of Spain from 1805 until about 1880 through fictional characters appearing in historical events and interacting with historical persons.
His greatest works include Doña Perfecta (1876), a novel attacking religious bigotry in Spain, Fortunata y Jacinta (1886-87), the story of a bourgeois marriage and class relationships in contemporary Madrid, and Miau (1888), the tale of an honest civil servant who is a victim of others less scrupulous than him. These and others of his novels can stand with the best of European nineteenth century fiction. From 1891 with the publication of Ángel Guerra he moved away from the influence of realism to that of spiritualism, after having read and admired Tolstoy. During this period he published a series of novels including Tristana (1892), the inspiration for Luis Buñuel’s film of the same name, and Misericordia (Pity), a novel about true charity and poverty.
In 1886 Galdós entered the Cortes as a deputy for Guayama in Puerto Rico for the Liberal party but his natural shyness meant that he did not speak often. In 1897, despite opposition from conservative elements, he was elected to the Spanish Royal Academy.
His final years were marked by financial problems (he had a costly legal case against his first publisher), and by progressive blindness. He became completely blind in 1912. In 1919 a statue of him by Victorio Macho was erected in the Retiro Park in Madrid by public subscription. He asked to be lifted up so he could feel the statue and wept with joy at feeling how well the sculptor had captured him. A year later he was dead and over 30,000 people attended his funeral.
Galdós never married and he lived for a number of years with two sisters and then a nephew. He had a daughter in 1891 with Lorenza Cobián and probably had close relationships with a number of women. Certainly, there are many women protagonists in his work who are skillfully and sensitively drawn.
Galdós wrote throughout his working life, and he spent much time in researching his novels, travelling extensively, consulting historical records and visiting locales. His care in describing the settings of his novels is matched by an acute insight into human emotion and character, and the ability to tell a story and handle large casts of characters. He wrote in an easy, vigorous, often humorous style which continues to attract many readers almost a century after his death.
The National Episodes
Galdós wrote forty-six historical novels which form The National Episodes. They are in five series, the first four consisting of ten novels each and the fifth series, which remained incomplete at his death, comprising six published novels and a sketch of one more. It is generally accepted that the first two series are of better quality than the last three series, where the impetus for their creation was probably more financial than purely artistic.
The two novels translated in this book are Trafalgar, the first novel in the first series, and the last novel in the first series, La batalla de los Arapiles (I have given it the title The Battle of Salamanca as this is the name the battle is known by in the English speaking world).
The first series was published between 1873 and 1875 and follows the adventures of Gabriel Araceli, an orphan from Cadiz, during the War of Independence from 1805 until 1812.
The titles of the ten novels in the first series with their year of first publication are: Trafalgar, 1873; La Corte de Carlos IV (The Court of Charles IV), 1873; El 19 de marzo y el 2 de mayo (The nineteenth of March and the second of May), 1873; Bailén, 1873; Napoleón en Chamartín (Napoleon at Chamartín), 1874; Zaragoza, 1874; Gerona, 1874; Cádiz, 1874; Juan Martín el Empecinado (Juan Martin the Undaunted), 1874 and La Batalla de los Arapiles (The Battle of Salamanca), 1875.
The second series, published between 1875 and 1879, covers the period from 1814 until 1833.
The third series, published from 1898 until 1900, covers the period of the First Carlist War and the Regency of María-Cristina (1833-1843).
The fourth series, published between 1902 and 1907, covers the reign of Isabel II from her accession to power in 1843 until her deposition in 1868.
The six novels of the fifth series were published from 1907 until 1912. They deal with the “Glorious Revolution” that overthrew Isabel II, the reign of Amadeo I (1870-1873) and the short-lived First Republic (1873-1874), and finish in 1880 with the birth of the Infanta María de las Mercedes.
The care Galdós took in ensuring the National Episodes were historically accurate is shown by an incident he describes in his memoirs. In the summer of 1872 after he had acquired a history book of the battle of Trafalgar in Madrid, he moved to Santander on the Cantabrian coast to prepare Trafalgar. A friend there mentioned to him that the last survivor of the battle of Trafalgar, now aged 83, lived there and much to Galdós’s joy he was introduced the following day to a former ship’s boy on the Santísima Trinidad, the Spanish flagship. He was able to give Galdós a wealth of detail about life on board, which is used extensively in Trafalgar. Indeed, the hero Gabriel Araceli is on board the same ship in the battle.
Although each novel in the first series can be read on its own, it is better to read them in sequence. Because The Battle of Salamanca is the last of the series I have set out a summary of events in the novels between Trafalgar and The Battle of Salamanca. This will I hope, make it easier to understand the references to past events in The Battle of Salamanca.
These translations are based on the texts in the first illustrated editions. The illustrated edition of Trafalgar was published in 1881 with illustrations by the brothers Enrique and Arturo Mélida. The illustrated edition of The Battle of Salamanca appeared in 1883 with illustrations by four artists, Arturo Mélida, Lizcano, Ferriz and Pellicer.