The model for Guillermina Pacheco is the historical persona of Doña Ernestina Manuel de Villena (1830-86). Galdós himself praised the charity work and character of Ernestina shortly after her death. He considered her a true saint of the modern world. Fervently Catholic and tenacious of spirit, she built an asylum for orphans in Madrid brick by brick, using up her inheritance and energetically soliciting donations from everyone else. It took her twenty years. She was also committed to other charity projects, including a soup kitchen, workshops and schooling for the asylum orphans, and home relief. An aristocrat by birth, Ernestina was representative of “a new, active type of Christian charity.” …
It is important to place Ernestina—and hence Guillermina Pacheco and Galdós’s novel by extension—within the larger context of the Catholic Revival in relation to the development of philanthropy in Spain and to the larger, more visible role women played in both the revival and philanthropy. Ernestina’s personality fascinated her contemporaries. Her motives for dedicating herself to the poor were the subject of endless speculation. With her memorable reincarnation in Fortunata y Jacinta, one might be tempted to see her as an isolated figure of Catholic benevolence and religiosity in late nineteenth-century Spain. Consider, however, that Ernestina’s youth and early adulthood coincided with a midcentury revival of piety and evangelism and her mature years with yet another wave of devotionalism, centering above all upon the mystery of the Eucharist as well as the Sacred Heart, Mary, and the Holy Family, during the Restoration period.
- Valis, Noel (2010). Sacred Realism: Religion and the Imagination in Modern Spanish Narrative. Yale University Press, pages 129 – 132.
I plan to have a separate post on the principal female characters of Volume Two, but I wanted to go into those details about Guillermina since there is an underlying question of charity that runs through many of the Galdós novels I’ve read and have lined up to read. The question usually revolves around the benefits realized, if any, of charity and who the charity benefits. Guillermina proves to be the one character that solely acts out of sympathy for the poor. Jacinta often shows compassion, most of the time for truly selfless reasons, but her motives during the Pitusian novel in Volume One are more than a little suspect. While there are several variations about “the vastness of the kingdom of poverty,” Maxi’s comment that “Half the dishonor you see in life isn’t anything but poverty” (II, 2, 8) seems to capture a major tenet of Galdós’ outlook. The bigger question, left unanswered, is how to deal with the poverty.
Torquemada at the Stake humorously explores charity on a cost/benefit relationship for someone trying to “bribe” religion in order to realize selfish wishes. In Volume Three, Doña Lupe calculates that acting charitably in front of Guillermina will provide opportunities for her to mingle with the wealthy and aristocratic society in Madrid, a legitimizing step for her in the tenuous middle-class position she finds herself in with her new riches.
As I discussed in the previous post, there is a legitimacy of a different type going on with Fortunata’s stay at the Micaelas. In this case it is a whitewashing of her past, allowing her to be presentable in society (at least at Maxi’s level). Unfortunately she and Mauricia turn out to be less than notable alumni of the convent, or at least notable in a positive manner. In both cases passion, not poverty, turns out to be the issue in their subsequent dishonor. The Micaelas’ purpose was to tame (or sublimate) these passions. Evidently it worked for some of the women (hence the convent’s reputation and the attempt at transformation) but not for Fortuanta or Mauricia.
The related topic of why people perform charity surfaces often and the benefit usually accrues more to those giving. People give to Guillermina to stop her harassment as well as publicly show their good works. Charity turns out to be one of the lesser reasons for Fortunata’s visit to the Micaelas—the Rubín family assumes their reputation relies on her successful stay since Maxi is determined to marry her. There will be many more examples of charity in the novel in Parts Three and Four and I find it interesting to analyze the motivation of the giver and who really benefits from the gift. Galdós doesn't provide easy answers for the complicated problems he raises…scratch that, he usually doesn't provide any answers, but the trends we'll see in the second half of the novel provide hints in the direction he believes Spanish society should head.