Eça de Queiroz was born on November 25, 1845, in a small village called Póvoa de Varzim. His birth coincides with a period when Portugal was seeking normalcy and rebuilding itself: in 1834 a civil war between two royal brothers had ended with the victory of a constitutional monarchy over an absolutist one; the Inquisition had only been dismantled in 1821. The country had economic difficulties, political instability, with governments lasting only months sometimes, huge emigration rates, and deficient education: by 1878, illiteracy surpassed 80%.
Eça’s grandfather, Joaquim, had been a magistrate in the court of King D. João VI in Brazil, to where he had fled during the Napoleonic invasions of the Iberian Peninsula. Eça’s father, born in Brazil in 1820, was one of 6 children Joaquim fathered with an illiterate maid, Teodora, whom he later married to legitimize his offspring. Eça had his own problems of legitimacy: in his birth certificate his mother’s name doesn’t show up, although we know she was called Carolina Augusta Pereira d’Eça. According to the known facts, his parents dated and intended to marry, but the child was born out of wedlock and Carolina, who apparently had a capricious personality, feared for her public reputation and broke off the engagement. She only married Teixeira because that was her dying mother’s last wish. This grandmother, Ana Clementina, would die just six days before their marriage, which didn’t take place until 1849. Since neither father nor mother showed great interest in having him, Eça grew up under the care of a Brazilian wet nurse. Eça’s fiction, by the way, is filled with protagonists who lose parents at an early age and are reared by relatives, which has lead several scholars to see this as a trauma Eça never got over.
Until the age of 21 Eça didn’t live with his father and brothers: after his wet nurse’s death, he lived at Joaquim and Teodora’s house; there Mateus, a black Brazilian servant, entertained him by telling him tales he read from dime novels, a reminiscence Eça would later evoke in a newspaper article about his literary career. When his grandfathers also passed away Eça was sent to Colégio da Lapa, a college in Porto. Here he met Ramalho Ortigão (1836-1915), nine years his senior, with whom he’d have a long friendship and a productive journalistic and literary collaboration. Little else is known about this period from his life, save that discipline was rigid and students were subjected to severe punishments, the usual in Victorian times. Here, however, he initiated his contact with French Literature. “I almost learned how to read from Hugo’s oeuvres,” wrote Eça in 1885 when he penned the French writer’s obituary. He studied there between 1856-61. When he left the college he enrolled at the University of Coimbra, Portugal’s oldest and most prestigious, finding there the same despotism that had made his life miserable in Porto. The University even had a private jail for unruly students.
As expected, he studied Law: his father had been an assistant to the royal attorney and later become a judge. The author of unsuccessful, forgotten historical novels, Teixeira seemed more fitted to uphold justice. Although Eça did not have the benefit of spending his childhood with him, something of Teixeira’s ethical character resurfaced in him. Writing to the king in 1860 to contest interference in a sentence, he wrote: “I don’t know if justice in this country is the same for everyone. I don’t think so. Indeed I dare say it’s not, because I have seen the scale of justice bent with the gold of the new Croesuses, the autonomy of judges bowing before the influence of the mighty, the conscience of magistrates humiliated at the sight of glistening decorated uniforms, of newly-made noblemen. (...) I as judge, Sire, do not know neither poor nor rich noblemen, neither powerful nor ragged plebeians. In my court, accusers or accused, they have neither names nor titles. They’re called defendants or plaintiffs.” As it is, Eça would later also denounce and chastise corruption in the judicial branch.
But in spite of the family’s tradition in jurisprudence, in Coimbra Eça did not apply himself, studying only enough not to flunk. Instead he continued to mature into a writer and to make friendships that would influence him forever; there he met Ramalho Ortigão again and started taking a liking to meetings where art, politics and revolutionary ideas were discussed. He also joined the University’s theatrical company and even performed in a play written by Teófilo Braga, later Portugal’s president. Eça belonged to the first generation, after the country spent centuries isolated because of the Inquisition, to know Europe in almost real time. An important innovation that helped build Eça’s character was the creation of a national railway network, which by 1863 already connected Portugal to Spain. Geographically, Portugal had always remained distant from Europe and news travelled slowly. In the past that was exacerbated by frequent wars with Spain, which cut Portugal off from the continent. Portugal’s Golden Age, in the 16th century, in fact started when both monarchies ceased hostilities by intermarrying, allowing scholars to travel to Italy and France and return with the ideals of the Renaissance. Although Eça was far from living in a new Golden Age, literarily speaking he belonged to the second richest age of Portuguese Literature, and the country’s opening itself to Europe had a lot to do with that. Eça would later recognize the importance of the railway: “Coimbra then lived in a great bustle, or rather in a great mental tumult. Through the railways that had opened the Peninsula up, each day, coming down from France and Germany (through France), erupted a torrent of new things, ideas, systems, aesthetics, forms, feelings, humanitarian interests… Each morning brought its revelation, like a new Sun. It was Michelet who appeared, and Hegel, and Vico, and Proudhon: and Hugo turned prophet and scourge of kings; and Balzac, with his languid and perverse world; and Goethe, vast like the universe, and Poe, and Heine, and I think already Darwin, and so many more! Into that nervous generation, sensitive and pale like Musset’s (because like his it was conceived during civil wars), they fell like fuel in a fire, generating a vast crackling and a vast smoke!” What distinguished Eça and his coevals, nicknamed the Generation of ’70, is that they were painfully aware of Europe: they knew it, they revered it, they compared Portugal to it, and lived almost in embarrassment and with an inferiority complex in relation to nations like France, Germany and England.
The “coryphée,” like Eça called him, of this group was the poet Antero de Quental (1842-1891). When Eça enrolled he was already in the fourth year. This is how he described their first meeting, or rather rapture: walking across a square, he heard him improvise a speech captivating a crowd of students around him. “So before this Heaven where slaves were more gloriously received than doctors, I removed my cape, sat down on a step too, almost by Antero’s feet, listening to his improvisation in awe, like a disciple. And in this condition I forever remained in life,” he wrote in 1896 in a text in memory of Antero. Later they’d meet again in Lisbon, inadvertently throwing down a government in the process. Antero was an unusual, precocious thinker: circa 1861 he had founded a secret student society, the Lightning Bolt Society, to put into practice ideals that would renovate, improve society, although I don’t know further details about its actions.
|Antero de Quental|
But in Coimbra Antero became notorious, or infamous, depending on the perspective, after a literary tiff called the Coimbra Issue. It began in 1865 when an old, blind, venerated but outdated ultra-Romantic poet called António Feliciano de Castilho wrote a prologue for a poetry book, Poema da Mocidade, by Pinheiro Chagas, his protégée, and used it to attack the poetical innovations of Antero and Teófilo, describing their technical and thematic audacities as “a slippery slope that that descends into a lair of evildoers, and I’m not Saint Anthony to try the miracle of converting thieves, arsonists and murderers. Let posterity hang them, and oblivion bury them.” According to the scholar Alexandre Cabral, Castilho “held an intolerable pontificate over Portuguese Letters. Firmly burrowed at the center of a vast network of interests, it was he who distributed the benedictions and authenticated talents.” With his preface, Castilho aimed to secure a teaching job for his protégée. At the time (nowadays), Portuguese literature was complacent, lyrical, servile, and above all a tool to open doors into political life, an attitude that Eça mocked oftentimes. In a literature that up until 1821 had required the Inquisition’s imprimatur, it was still common for authors to dedicate their works to powerful figures or to appeal to their protection. This effectively turned writers into amanuensis who wrote to please, not to cause waves, who connived with the regime instead of shaking it up. Antero, the voice of a new anxiety, inaugurated a rupture with this behavior, forcing a reevaluation of the role of the writer and paving the way for a revolution in aesthetics. For him, Castilho was waging a war against “the irreverent independence of writers, who prefer to build for themselves their own path, not by asking permission to masters, but by probing their own work and consciousness.” Antero saw Castilho opposing him solely because of “the wounded vanity of masters and pontiffs; it’s the spirit of routine violently incommoded by rude and inconvenient hands; it’s the banality that wants to sleep peacefully in its bed of bagatelles.” The Coimbra poets [i.e. Antero and Teófilo] were attacked for “being independent and thinking with their own heads.” More importantly, they were attacked for daring to innovate. “Innovating is saying to the prophets, to the card-carrying revealers: ‘There’s something you ignore, something you never cogitated or spoke; there’s a world beyond the circle seen through your opera glasses; there’s more world than your systems, more profound than your feuilletons; there’s a universe a bit larger and above all pleasanter than your books and speeches.’ Now that’s indeed intolerable!” Antero’s verbal verve must have benefitted from the ire of having to waste his time with simpletons beneath him. “They repeat what was said a thousand years ago, and they make us doubt if the human spirit is a sterile and constant banality. They’re the decorators of shiny baubles. They’re the literary idols of the barely literate crowd. They’re the philosophers dear to the mob that never cogitated.” I could, I should print the entire invectives, but we must go on. The issue lasted months, Teófilo also attacked the old poet; Camilo Castelo Branco (1825-1890) the major novelists at the time, took the side of his friend Castilho; Ramalho, trying to adopt a neutral stance, managed to offend both sides and Antero, accused of cowardice, ended up challenging him for a sword duel. Antero won the duel, by the way, and was accused of treachery for he claimed not to know how to swordfight, “and on the field he proved himself an adept master of the weapon.” Eça, by then a 4th year student, did not get involved; but Antero’s conception of the artist as an independent soul, of art as a moral force that must criticize and change society, continue to guide Eça until his death.
While he finished his final year in Coimbra, in May 1866 Eça started writing articles for the Gazeta de Portugal, thanks to his father who knew the editor. They were considered an “extravagant and burlesque novelty;” strange enough to pique Camilo’s attention, who mentions reading them in a letter to Castilho. Eça then lived under Romantic influences, with lots of Hugo, Poet, Guinoud and others thrown into the mix. Lyrical, fantastic, morbid, excessive, these short pieces – sometimes journalism, sometimes fiction – did not promise a revolutionary Naturalist novelist. He was still looking for his own voice, it’s uncertain if he ever fully abandoned these. Luís Magalhães, a friend of Eça’s, in 1903 gathered these texts and named them Prosas Bárbaras.
After graduating, Eça moved to Lisbon. There he met old friends, made new ones, discovered Baudelaire, and took part in a group called the Cenacle, where Antero presided: they discussed arts, abhorred politicians, revered Europe, pined for a new Portugal, and were itching to do something, to shake the nation up. The major names that would give the Generation of ’70 its cohesiveness were there: Eça, Antero, the historian Oliveira Martins, Jaime Batalha Reis, who outlived them all and left important memoirs, and Ramalho; older than the others, he was introduced in the group via Eça, but he was always an ambiguous figure in that milieu, lacking their recalcitrance and zeal for revolution. From these meetings two crucial events would result: first the invention of Fradique Mendes, a satanic poet whom some scholars consider marks the birth of modernism in Portugal; and the 1871 Casino Conferences, where Eça defended Realism in literature and evoked Madame Bovary (at least since 1866 he was familiar with Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô).
However, before jumping into the fray for contemporary literature, he had to start earning a living. So between January and August 1867 he edited a regional newspaper called Distrito de Évora. This newspaper contained 3 pages for text and 1 for advertisements: Eça’s job was to write content for the 3 pages singlehandedly, under several pseudonyms. The first number came out on January 6. Thanks to the railway system, Eça received the capital’s superior newspapers daily, using them to enrich his own. What he wrote doesn’t have much a lot of value, but it’s worth mentioning that he translated and published excerpts of Voyage en Italie, a book by Taine, one of his spiritual mentors. Given Eça’s combative spirit, his liberal-minded newspaper in no time caught the attention of a conservative newspaper, A Folha do Sul, belonging to the opposition. When it dismissed it as a “rag,” it initiated a feud with Eça that lasted months. The scholar João C. Reis, who has performed the valuable task of collating every polemic Eça had with somebody in 5 volumes, considers this the first of many polemics he’d have throughout his life. Eça also used his newspaper to promote himself as a lawyer; in total he’s known to have defended two cases, having lost both.
Back in Lisbon he continued to hang at the Cenacle. Then in August in 1869 the Revolução de Setembro magazine published the poems of Fradique Mendes, convincing Lisboners that he was a real poet. Antero would publish more poems by him in December. Eça must have liked Fradique because he reused him two more times in his fiction. However, before starting his literary career, in October Eça and his friend, the Count of Resende (whose sister Eça would marry fifteen years later), left for Egypt as members of the Portuguese delegation that would participate in the Suez Canal inauguration. After performing this official duty, the two friends would also visit the Holy Land: Jaffa, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Jordan, Beirut, places and experiences that would show up in fictions like The Mystery of the Sintra Road, The Relic and The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes. On the whole they stayed two months abroad. In 1926 O Egipto was published, a travel book cobbled together from notes Eça left for a book he never wrote and that one of his sons composed. But a more rigorous and interesting book on Eça’s relationship with Egypt exists: Eça de Queirós e o Egipto Faraónico, by Luís Manuel de Araújo, a book that educates as much about Eça as about the land of the pharaohs.
Eça didn’t travel past south of Memphis, didn’t visit Luxor, didn’t see Karnak: he remained within the Cairo region, where he visited the Old Kingdom’s funerary monuments: Giza and Saqqara. He stayed at the Shepheard’s Hotel, where he met the French novelist Teóphile Gautier, and had a drogman called Jonas Ali. He had a good knowledge of Egypt and the Middle East, he had read Gerard de Nerval’s Voyage en Orient (1851) and Gautier’s bestsellers (Constantinople, 1855; Le Roman de la Momie, 1858). It is believed that the Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius was the model for Topsius, the German archeologist who befriends Raposo in The Relic. When Eça stayed at Cairo (a city founded by the Arabs, something I didn’t even know), it had 200,000 inhabitants and was in the process of becoming cosmopolitan under the reign of Mohamed Ali. At that time, however, the pharaonic past was neglected. Many buildings in Cairo, according to Manuel de Araújo, have as foundation stones blocks removed from the pyramids. Mohamed Ali’s son, Ibrahim Pasha, also razed temples to build factories; artisans used the stones in limekilns. Mohamed Ali, however, had a policy for fostering archeological investigation in search for relics; entire families lived off discovering pieces and artifacts. But at the same time he had a lax policy protecting findings from leaving Egypt. Champollion, the decipherer of the Rosetta Stone, had already warned against the smuggling of art works, and in 1834 a small museum was founded in Cairo and run by Yusef Zia. Unfortunately the pashas considered the discoveries their private property and liked to give them away to foreign sovereigns. Egypt at the time was desperate to modernize itself and was a giant free souvenir shop. In 1885 there were only five obelisks in Egypt, against 15 outside it. In 1855 the Archduke Maximilian of Austria visited Egypt and a pasha offered him the entire collection from Zia’s museum. In 1869 this tragedy was almost repeated: Empress Eugénie, Napoleon III’s wife, was in Cairo to inaugurate the 8KM road that connects the city to Giza. In 1867 the Boulaq Museum, from Cairo, had exhibited its collection in Paris; the empress had visited it, and now in Cairo asked the pasha to offer it to her. Fortunately Auguste Mariette took a stand and objected to it. Mariette (1821-1881) is a figure I greatly enjoyed discovering while researching Eça. A Frenchman, the Louvre sent him to Egypt to find, gather and ship home Coptic documents; but after early successes the monks wisely began to put objections to the documents leaving their control. Therefore, Mariette started investigating the pharaonic past and made tremendous discoveries. More importantly: commissioned to pillage, he became a defender of Egypt’s treasures fighting for measures to impede cultural heritage from leaving the country. In 1863 he became the director of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, in Boulaq, and continued to work there for nearly two decades. More curiously, he wrote the libretto for Aida, Verdi’s opera (premiered in December 1871 at the Cairo Opera House). Eça met him during his stay in Egypt.
When Eça returned from his trip, in January 1870 he wrote an article for the Diário de Notícias. The article was built around the two notes that continued to dominate his view of the Middle East: a blasé attitude (common in Eça) about its ancient and revered past, and a great compassion for its wretched people. About the Suez’ past, its history, Eça doesn’t seem very impressed and even has some pleasure in not showing awe at its ruins. At the same time he speaks of its modernization with melancholy:
Suez is a dark, miserable, decrepit city; it’s the beginning of new regions; it’s almost already Asia and India. It has a moribund look: cholera and the plague indeed show up there frequently.
In some ruined, almost debilitated, neighborhoods, however, it preserves in its smashed constructions a notable aspect from the old and pure Arab architecture. Other than that, European civilization begins to show itself in Suez in dancing halls and Marseilles gourgandines.
Eça’s pen brightens when he speaks of the people, especially of the modern benefits the Suez brought to this desert community: “Until recently the Suez has had an incomplete life because of water shortage. In Suez water was kept in iron boxes, brought from Cairo. The water from the Fountain of Moses, which is three leagues away, can only be drunk by camels. During the rainy season, besides Cairo there was some potable water seven leagues away. During the heat thirst was a disease: water markets existed, where prices were extraordinary, horrible. The rich drank salty water. The poor drank the camels’ water, or died from thirst. In Suez there wasn’t (and there isn’t yet) a tree, a flower, a blade of grass. There were people who having lived there all their lives had no idea what vegetation was. It’s told that some Suez Arabs, going to Cairo for the first time, fled from the trees as if from unknown monsters. This made the race hard, harsh, hostile. The fresh water channel has changed this aspect. The water is free and abundant. The day water arrived in Suez it was vertiginous. The poor Arabs couldn’t believe it: they plunged into it, drank until they got sick, stretched over the channel banks they gave mad shouts. Some were terrified and taken aback at the waste of so much wealth.”
Eça would become a fan of Egypt forever. In 1882, when England and France bombed Alexandria, he penned several articles taking up the side of Egypt and dismantling the imperialistic ambitions behind the attack. In fact Eça usually remained critical of imperialistic rhetoric and tended to side with its victims, even if like his coevals he accepted that empires played an important role in spreading progress and prosperity across the world.
Eça returned to Portugal in January 1870, where he continued to live a regular, ordinary life without memorable incidents until the events of May 1871, when he helped bring down a government.