The prolific Spanish author Benito Pérez Galdós wrote his short novel, Tristana, during the closing years of the nineteenth century, a time when very few options were available to women of limited financial means who did not want a husband. Tristana desires independence and freedom, and she possesses the intelligence and ambition to pursue it were it not for circumstances and misfortunes that conspire in forcing her to bend to the expectations of her time.

The novel is built upon a love triangle—the twenty-one year old Tristana; her lover, the young painter Horacio; and Don Lope, Tristana’s benefactor who takes her in, alone and penniless, following the death of her parents. Although Tristana’s growing self-awareness and consequent actions propel the course of the story Tristana is an exceptional novel because of the enigmatic Don Lope.

Don Lope is fifty-seven years old, a life-long bachelor, and a notorious rake. Gentleman seducers in literature are plentiful, and Don Lope is that but also much more. Galdós’s creation feels original, not simply a typical “Don Juan” to whom virtuous women fall victim. Don Lope is a consummate gentleman who upholds old-world chivalry, honor, and decorum to the highest degree. When it comes to satisfying his sexual appetites, however, a different code of conduct applies, but one that, to Don Lope’s mind, is still wholly appropriate. Don Lope’s conquests are many and famously include nuns and women of otherwise inviolable virtue. The innocent Tristana becomes one more victim, and Don Lope feels no guilt, no discomfort in being both “father” and “husband” to Tristana. Don Lope’s understanding of respectable conduct is not ambiguous, but rather patently contradictory, and in Don Lope these contradictions cohabitate peacefully. While maintaining his chivalrous demeanor he feels justified in considering Tristana his chattel, compensation for his promise to her mother that he will be her guardian.

His extraordinary beliefs extend to behaviors that would seem at cross-purposes: he is jealous of Tristana’s feelings for Horacio and simultaneously develops a true and lasting friendship with Horacio; he is extremely vain but he spends what little money he can gather not on new clothes but on paints, music instruction and other things to facilitate Tristana’s vocations; he admires Tristana’s intelligence and ambition and denigrates her desires as childish. Don Lope is an example of what the twentieth century writer and memoirist Sergio Pitol described as Galdós’s gift for showing that “. . . the quotidian and the delirious, the tragic and the grotesque, do not have to be different sides of a coin, rather they are able to be a single fully integrated entity.” (The Art of Flight, trans. George Henson, Deep Vellum 2015).

Beyond domesticity, Tristana’s choices, so limited at the outset, are further circumscribed by fate. Like Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina before her Tristana gets caught up in the colliding forces of early feminist ambition and old-world strictures. While this conflict is present in many works of nineteenth century literature Galdós looks beyond the opposing forces to reveal the practical, that is the accommodations that disallow the ideal but make space for living the life that you are dealt.

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By Benito Pérez Galdós
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Reviewed by Lori Feathers
192 pages, paperback
ISBN: 9781590177655
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