Spoilers for Eça de Queiroz’ short-story “The Wet Nurse.” Does anyone actually care, though?
Eça de Queiroz passed away in 1900 but, like the poet Fernando Pessoa after him, he managed to have more books published posthumously than in his lifetime: his collection of short-stories, Contos (1902), Letters from England (1905), the novel To the Capital and the novellas O Conde de Abranhos and Alves & Co. (all in 1925), his coverage of the inauguration of the Suez Canal that became the book O Egipto (1926), another novel, The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers (1987), and more. Many of these books were not left prepared by him for publication; they’re the result of a growing industry that has coalesced around a writer who, if not the most important, is probably the most beloved of all Portuguese writers. Still in the hurry to churn out more books by Eça, his editors have not always done him a good turn. Case in point is the short-story “The Wet Nurse”, included in Dedalus’ recent release of Alves & Co. and other stories (1). This book collects the title’s novella, which is an exceptional tale about adultery, and a handful of short-stories culled from Contos, a book edited by Luís de Magalhães. Although Magalhães did a valuable service putting all of Eça’s short fiction together, he didn’t adhere to the most rigorous editorial criteria, and, in the case of “The Wet Nurse”, he deliberately altered the original text, giving it a meaning that it was never meant to have. “The Wet Nurse”, in fact, did not start as a short-story but as a newspaper article.
“The Wet Nurse” is a ridiculous story, and, given Eça’s commitment to the schools of realism and naturalism, it would have been a very idiosyncratic text in his oeuvre if he had meant it to be taken seriously. The text is a very forgettable thing: somewhere in India, a young king is killed in battle, leaving his queen and baby vulnerable to his rapacious uncle, who wants to become king. The royal baby is cared for by a loyal wet nurse, who keeps her son in the same room. One night the evil uncle attacks the castle. The wet nurse, sensing what is happening, doesn’t hesitate to swap her own son with the royal baby. The marauders kill him, and in turn they’re killed by the guards. As the queen cries over her baby’s empty cot, the loyal wet nurse reveals that the royal baby is still alive. Thrilled, the queen rewards her by letting her choose whatever item she wants from the royal treasury. The ending, the best part, ends in this hilarious note of excessive sentimentality:
She reached out her hand, and from a stool piled high with splendid weapons, she chose an emerald-encrusted dagger. It had once belonged to a king and was worth a whole province.
She picked up the dagger and gripping it firmly in her hand, pointed up to the heavens, where the first rays of sun were just appearing. Then, turning to face the queen and the crowd, she cried:
'I saved my prince and now I am going to suckle my son!'
And with that, she drove the dagger through her heart. (2)
Now, even when I was a novice making my first incursions into Eça’s work, there was something about this text that just didn’t click with me. This wasn’t Eça, it couldn’t be Eça. The Eça who wrote about a ruthless man who hands a newborn over to a child killer in order to save himself from public scandal? The Eça who wrote about a hedonist who ruins a happy marriage just to sate his pleasures? The Eça who wrote about a man who sold fake holy relics to Lisbon’s bourgeoisie? No, no, no.
Still it wasn’t until a few years ago that I started unveiling the truth. During a conversation with a friend, for some reason we started talking about Eça, and he told me that all editions of Contos were wrong, that there was a part of “The Wet Nurse” missing, that there was only one edition that kept the original text intact. This was an amazing revelation! What secrets did those excised passages hide? I did some literary sleuthing, but my attempts at finding out more proved fruitless at first. I perused several editions on the market, and there must be some twenty, and I could never find this fabled edition he spoke of. I searched for information on the internet, and there was nothing. Could my friend be having fun at my expense? Could he have hallucinated this apocryphal text? (3).
I decided to have another look at my own edition of Contos; I discovered a possible lead: in the notes at the back it was written that “The Wet Nurse” had been originally published in Rio de Janeiro’s newspaper Gazeta de Notícias, April 2, 1893. Eça had written extensively for this newspaper between 1880 and 1897, the articles that constitute Letters from England, for instance, were all published here first. I followed this lead, feeling like Casaubon, indifferent if it led me to my destruction.
What I discovered were two articles: “Temas para versos I” (Themes for verses I) and “Temas para versos II” (Themes for verses II). What could this all be about? Since Eça never dabbled in poetry, I found it strange that he had ventured to write about such topic. But no, the articles were pure Eça, from start to finish, half invective against sentimental poetry and half arts poetica explaining his own aesthetics principles. Eça taking pot shots at Romanticism? I was in cloud nine.
The first article starts:
A friend of mine, who after being, for some years, a bad poet, reformed himself and became a good critic, usually advises, with his authority of old seafarer experienced in reefs and shipwrecks, young poets to search the themes and motives of their poems outside their own narrow hearts, and the two or three palpitations that perpetually repeat themselves in them. I belong to the school of this wise man and I also think that this poetry, called “subjective”, that lives nestled in Elvira’s skirts, and that coos without stopping, in newspapers and in books, its garrulous and ostentatious love confidences (or rather dating), needs to be replaced by a stronger, healthier poetry, more human, that abandons the crumpled skirts of its eternal dame, and sets forth flying freely through the world and life.
Romanticism was on its death throes by then: the revolution of Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud was coming, even if most hadn’t noticed it. Eça, however, wasn’t raging against Wordsworth, Coleridge or Keats, mind you, who found new ways of expressing human feelings. He was against lyrical poetry as a fossilised formula. Poets no longer wrote of love and feelings out of conviction but of habit. It should also be noted that in Portugal there was an actual movement called Ultra-Romanticism. Think of the worst excesses of Romanticism, if you dare, then turn it up to eleven. I’m talking about the most morbid, melancholy, miserable, emotionally masochistic, madness-obsessed, crime-extolling, werewolves and vampires-loving, sonnets-to-my-dead-beloved type of poetry ever written under the flickering flame of an oil lantern dangling from the branch of a cypress tree looming over the moss-filled fissures of a derelict crypt illuminated by the sickly pallor of full moon. On Walpurgis Night. This was Ultra-Romanticism.
Eça had bones to pick with these poets. But he didn’t object to sentimental poetry per se, provided it had literary merit:
But unless the poet has found in himself a way of feeling that is deliciously new; or has managed to express, with a graphic clarity, some subtle state of the soul until then inexpressible, he should (at least until this century sated by sentimental lyricism lasts) keep the verses about his love in the intimate paper that he jotted them down on, next to the dead flowers, the hair locks, the photographs stained by kissing and all other relics of youth, which are thrown into the fire at the age of thirty.
Next he explains what poetry should be about:
Poetry wasn’t invented to sing Love – which anyway didn’t yet exist when the first men sang. It was born from the necessity of celebrating magnificently the gods, and of keeping, through memory, through the seduction of rhythm, the laws of the tribe. Adoration, or the captivation of divinity, and social stability, were then the two main and only human cares: and Poetry has tended and will always tend to constantly resume in the purest, most beautiful, and most concise of concepts, the ideas that interest and lead men.
Love, however, has lost much of its value, and no longer speaks to people. No one believes in Romeos and Juliets, nor are those intense loves possible anymore; we’re now living in the age of small, unrequited loves, of the Bovaries. Poetry no longer interests people because it no longer speaks about real things, nor is it a proper vehicle to express the important ideas of the era. This is best left to novelists such as Zola:
The glory of Zola comes above all from the universality and modernity of his themes – land, money, business, politics, war, religion, the big industries, and science – which are today the supreme facts that interest educated men.
Hm, I don’t know, I think people will always be interested in love. Please, let us keep love. I see where Eça is coming from. His exaggerated reaction is the result of the hegemony of sentimental poetry in the 19th century. But there’s always exaggeration when it’s necessary to dethrone something in lieu of something else, to blacken the opponent to better justify the replacement. It reminds me of the early modernists who ones almost imagines foaming at the mouth like rabid dogs whenever they railed against the evilness of plot (it gives me considerable joy to think that Virginia Woolf turns, squirms, twists and writhes in her damp grave every time someone reads an H.G. Wells short-story nowadays). And there were great love poets in the 20th century: Pablo Neruda, Jaroslav Seifert, Paul Éluard. But, yes, it was time for poetry to rejuvenate itself with some new ideas, new forms, a new type of language.
Next day Eça published “Temas para versos II”, to give a better idea of just what he meant when he said lyrical sentimentality. He provides a nameless tale which he offers to whatever poet wishes to turn it into a poem. After telling this tale “aimed only at the soul,” he finishes the article with this paragraph:
This is my story. Or rather, this is the crude draft of a marvellous legend of the soul. So beautiful, it seemed to me it could only worthily be sung to the sound of a lyre. I offer it to the poets. And he who tries to have a go at it, if he doesn’t make a work of art, he will at least make a work of justice popularizing that poor Indian servant girl so ignored and so sublime. (4)
The tale didn’t even have a title; it was Luís de Magalhães who called it “The Wet Nurse.” When he included it in Contos, he excised the frame paragraphs, giving the impression that Eça had written it as a sober literary effort. And that’s how an anecdote created to poke fun at the sentimental tendencies of the 19th century became a genuine Eça de Queiroz short-story that many in Portugal still take seriously. Eça, alas, had history against him. As José Saramago once wrote, Portuguese literature is characterised by “melancholy lyricism,” and if poor Eça did try to teach his countrymen a thing or two about irony and satire, it’s a fact that his lessons fell on deaf ears. In a way, “The Wet Nurse” is the most intrinsically Portuguese work of fiction Eça ever wrote, God help us!
1 Translated by the great Margaret Jull Costa.
2 A big thank you to Tony from Tony’s Reading List for having e-mailed me these lines in English.
3 No, he didn’t. This edition came out in 1989, but it’s been long since out of print.
4 Whoever can read Portuguese, this online essay has the full texts. It was a very useful source of information so it deserves a mention.