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Early Spanish feminist urged equity through works she wrote for stage, professor says

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

LAWRENCE – The famous writer turns her pen on the men of her native land, saying an old boys’ network has caused grievous harm to the nation and women must be accorded greater respect.

Sounds torn from today’s headlines, right? And yet it describes the theatrical works of Emilia Pardo Bazán (1851-1921) more than a century ago in Spain, according to a new book by a University of Kansas professor.

Margot Versteeg, professor of Spanish in the School of Languages, Literatures & Cultures and director of KU's Humanities Program, makes the case for the author as an early feminist in “Propuestas para (Re)Construir una Nación,” which translates as “Proposals to (Re)Build a Nation” (Purdue University Press, 2019).

While Versteeg calls Pardo Bazán “the most important female novelist of the 19th century in Spain,” the new book illuminates her lesser-known, later-career works for the stage.

“She wrote something like 600 stories and dozens of novels,” Versteeg said. “But she also wrote plays, although those plays were not very successful. That's exactly what I'm looking at. Why were they not successful? Actually, it's really interesting what she does. She was a feminist. And she had a lot of suggestions for restructuring Spain after its colonial losses in 1898 and making it a much friendlier society for women.”

Versteeg said that between 1898 and 1909, Pardo Bazán wrote about 20 plays, of which only five were staged and three more were published. Versteeg was able to utilize certain recently digitized records in the National Library of Spain in her research and visited the Casa Museo Pardo Bazán, the writer’s museum/home in A Coruña, where the staff was extremely helpful and guided her to manuscripts and initial sketches of plays.

Versteeg credits Pardo Bazán as having introduced the literary concept of naturalism from French writer Émile Zola into Spain.

“It's a literary current in the end of the 19th century that pays a lot of attention to the lower classes,” Versteeg said, “but the Spaniards felt that it was kind of dirty. That stuff should not be in novels.”

However, Pardo Bazán's brand of naturalism did not include determinism, since the author believed in the individual's free will. According to Versteeg, this makes perfect sense: “Think about it, if our moral choices are completely determined by previously existing causes, the men could always say, ‘It’s not my fault!. And Pardo Bazán did not want to give them a chance to use that as an excuse.”

Pardo Bazán’s writing was so controversial that her husband gave her an ultimatum: stop writing, or he would leave. Despite being a devout Catholic, Pardo Bazán and her husband separated, and she arranged for her mother to mind their three children while she continued writing full-time.

Pardo Bazán’s legacy as a novelist and short-story writer is secure, Versteeg said.

“One of her stories, ‘The Red Stockings,’ is read by many high school students in Advanced Placement classes,” she said. “Her novels are also still widely read. But the theatrical work is not. It's overlooked.”

For one thing, the plays were commercial and critical failures.

“I think she tried to accomplish too much,” Versteeg said. “The plays were sophisticated, and the public was used to lighter, less complicated plays. They went to the theater to entertain themselves.”

With plots that included incidents of domestic violence – one opens with a murder on stage – Pardo Bazán tried to show how Spanish men were oppressing their sisters to their own national detriment.

“She was blaming the Spanish males for all the faults of society,” Versteeg said. “It is always, in every single thing, the man who messes up … because the structure of society is an old boys’ network, and she feels that women are not allowed a place in it.”

Keep in mind, Versteeg said, that Pardo Bazán was writing in the aftermath of Spain having lost its New World colonies.

“When Spain lost its last colonies, people start thinking, ‘What did we do wrong?’ And the author has her ideas: It's the men who screw everything up. Society should leave more initiatives to its women. Women are better organizers. They work harder. They are more inclusive, instead of only protecting each other.”

Versteeg found that in essays that echoed her literary works, Pardo Bazán argued for women’s education and job training to build up the nation. And she lived out a liberated example, the KU researcher said, championing practical fashions for women like divided skirts and becoming one of Spain’s first female automobile owners.

Critics have dismissed Pardo Bazán as an imitator of French ideas, but Versteeg rejected that.

“She went beyond everything,” Versteeg said with a laugh. “That was her intention. She's an interesting woman and full of contradictions. But, you know, it's coherent. And for me, this was a very nice project because it was the first time that I worked on a female author. My previous books are all about men, and this was much easier, which was kind of fun.”

Photo: KU Professor of Spanish Margot Versteeg holds a copy of her new book. Credit: Rick Hellman / KU News Service