Thursday, November 22, 2012

Our Friend Manso: female characters and the education of women

All quotes are from the 1987 Columbia University Press edition, translation by Robert Russell.

The author of Our Friend Manso told his character Manso that he wanted to write a novel “dealing with the great subject matter of Education.” There is a lot of education and teaching that goes on in the novel, both formally in a classroom or private room and informally through Manso and the author. Galdós includes some thoughts on women’s education in this mix while providing (once again) some strong female characters.

Manso assumes responsibility for providing books to Irene, an acquaintance’s niece. Later he finds out she has gone to Normal School (the Women's Central Normal School) and earned a teacher’s certificate. (Note in this chapter of Catherine Jagoe’s book Ambiguous Angels: Gender in the Novels of Galdós highlights the important difference between the Women's Central Normal School and the more rigorous School for Governesses during the setting of the novel.) Irene becomes the governess of Manso’s nieces and nephew and she shares with Manso a similar view on women’s education: there should be a certain level to avoid ignorance and superstition but not become “full-fledged professionals, exercising the callings proper only to men.” The secret here, as elsewhere, “is in finding a golden mean.” (pages 64, 65) That fits in nicely with Manso’s other maxims that seek a conservative, middle-of-the-road approach on everything. The widow in Manso’s building, Doña Javiera, prefers the old-fashioned approach: “I don’t like people with book-learning. A woman with a degree—how disgusting! Book-learning is for the men; wits, for the women.” (page 239)

Near the end of the novel Irene confesses that she hates books, teaching, and anything else associated with education. While this is the opposite of everything Manso believes in for himself and men, it’s difficult to tell just how he, the implied author, and Galdós feel education for women. The conclusion at the end of the chapter linked above by Catherine Jagoe summarizes the ambivalence well:
The implied author is deliberately ambivalent on the issue of women's education. The narrative seems to be progressive but undermines the bases of that progressiveness, as if disclaiming the position it seems to take. The self-referential elements of the novel, not integrated into the central body of the narrative but contained instead in a metafictional frame at the beginning and end, nevertheless have the effect of creating a mocking elusiveness, warning us not to extrapolate the author's position on women's education. The narrator tells us that the whole affair is a creation of the author's mind, a "trabajillo de poco aliento" (a trivial bit of work) and not the ultimate masterpiece on education which he had been planning… .Nonetheless, it is an undeniable and telling cultural coincidence that in the very year that Albareda's educational reforms raised in an unprecedented way the issue of women's right to secondary and higher education in her own right and not just as a future mother or wife, Galdós should create a narrative featuring a woman [Irene] given all the educational opportunities of the time, who confesses that her career bores her and turns thankfully back to wifedom, and motherhood.

Another reading of it, although probably a more modern interpretation, is that Irene has the freedom to choose what she wants to do. The novel’s ambiguity is compounded because Manso is mistaken about many things throughout the novel, most importantly his understanding of Irene. His mistakes don’t mean that all his beliefs are undermined but they do cast doubt on their suitability.

Irene is an unreal character for most of the book because Manso doesn’t understand her, describing her in ideal form until his education takes hold (more detail in the planned next post). Other female characters are much fuller developed. Irene’s aunt, Señora de Garcia Grande (Doña Cándida), starts out as a sadly amusing leech, cadging Manso for funds before attaching herself to his brother’s family. After Doña Cándida’s husband dies, the “sort of man who wearies neither posterity nor fame,” the widow continues her spendthrift nature trying to emulate the aristocracy/upper classes without the means. Manso warns his brother’s family on the nature of Doña Cándida:

“Nothing is enough for her: the more she has the more she wants. Her hunger has been satisfied and now she longs for certain comforts she didn’t have before. Give her those comforts and she’ll want luxuries next. Give her luxury, and she’ll be after opulence. She’s insatiable.” (page 109-10)

This common theme in Galdós of the middle-class going broke while striving to emulate the upper classes isn’t limited to Doña Cándida in the novel. Manuel, Manso’s student, has been courting the Pez sisters but he quickly sours on them. He sees their unappeasable appetites for things leading to larger damaging outcomes:

“People talk about young men and how corrupted they are, and how alienated they are from their families; they say that we have antidomestic tendencies because we’ve been students frequented cafés and casinos. But, what about the girls? The maidens of our Latin countries are so frivolous and spoiled and enamored of false refinement that they can hardly be counted on to shape the families of the future. What’s going to come of it? The destruction of the family, a society based on atomistic individualism, a wild pluralism without harmony or unit, the power of the nation in the hands of women…?” (page 88, ellipsis in original)

Manuel’s forecast may seem exaggerated at the moment but later in the novel Doña Cándida all but prostitutes Irene to Manso’s brother in order to secure better living conditions. [Aside: Doña Cándida is a character in The Spendthrifts (La de Bringas) published two years after Our Friend Manso. Another spendthrift, Doña Milagros, the Marquesa de Tellería, has a cameo in this novel but will have a more substantial role in the later novel.]

Manso’s sister-in-law Lica turns out to be a disaster of a different sort. Brought back from Cuba by Manso’s brother, her household devolves into anarchy as the parents avoid responsibility. Manso recommends Irene as the children’s governess which helps bring some order in the household. After the birth of a child, Lica chooses to bring in a wet nurse instead of breastfeed the baby herself. This choice leads to a similar outcome as the earlier anarchy resulting from abdication of responsibility in disciplining the children—control of the household passes to the wet nurse. It also leads to a depressingly hilarious chapter (Chapter 33) as Manso attempts to find a wet nurse for the family, inspecting the the “mammiferous squadron” being examined for certification at the Provincial Government Building.

From the older generation there is one balanced female: the widow Doña Javiera. Manso’s neighbor, she asks the professor to instruct her son. It’s clear she knows a lot about Manso but he assumes she has no amorous intentions toward him. Like so much else in the novel it’s difficult to if he’s correct in his evaluation. Doña Javiera manages her husband’s butcher shop expertly after his death (of an intestinal blockage at the age of 50…I couldn’t help but think Galdós meant that as a gag). Her devotion to her son isn’t completely selfless—she expects great things for him and that she will benefit as well. Part of the humor at the end comes from the lingering class consciousness (detailed in the previous post) she and Doña Cándida display at the planned marriage between Manuel and Irene. Doña Javiera believes marrying a governess limits what her son will achieve. Doña Cándida reconciles that Manuel comes from a butcher’s family but thinks she is too good for Doña Javiera.

What leads me to believe Manso's error in his evaluation of Doña Javiera’s intentions toward him (besides her changing clothes in front of him) is his ability to sway her to accepting Irene. It wouldn’t be the only time Manso is incorrect. For a novel on education, it turns out the narrator has the most to learn…

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