I do not know how women do it,

Dear Júlia,

In A falência (1901, “The bankruptcy”, not translated yet), I could not help but feel you were constantly hiding something in plain sight, in-between the lines.

 

The novel takes place during the First Brazilian Republic (República Velha, or ‘Old Republic’ – the period from 1889 to 1930) – more precisely, during the Encilhamento, an economic bubble that burst in the late 1880s and early 1890s, in Brazil. The story revolves around Francisco Teodoro, a Portuguese immigrant who grew rich working as a coffee merchant in Rio de Janeiro.

Francisco owns a coffee exporting warehouse and lives in a mansion in the neighbourhood of Botafogo, in the company of his wife Camila, their four children, and Camila’s niece, Nina, who was abandoned by her father. Francisco and Camila’s marriage had been one of convenience, as Camila came from a genteel but poor family. From the beginning, we sense that something is amiss between them.

When the novel opens, Francisco and Camila’s daily life is driven by excesses and ostentation: more often than not, they waste money on expensive dinners and social gatherings, and seem to be constantly worrying about what people think of them. Francisco, in particular, is obsessed with his business rival, Gama Torres, and longs to be seen as the best coffee merchant in town. Camila, on the other hand, revels in being seen as a rich and sophisticated woman.

From the beginning, we have the feeling that this family’s life is permeated by a certain moral failure – something which the book’s title in Portuguese, A falência, also hints at. Francisco wastes high amounts of money to satisfy Camila’s whims –alas, not as a proof of love or devotion, but rather as a show of power and control. The couple’s eldest son, Mário, is a bohemian 17th-year-old boy who emulates his father’s wastefulness by keeping a courtesan in town. Nina, his cousin, suffers from an unrequited love for Mario, but is treated by him – and by the rest of the family – as a servant. To make matters worse, feeling let down by Francisco’s adulterous escapades, Camila embarks on a love affair with the family doctor, Gervasio.

In a sense, Camila lets herself to be built into what her lover longs her to be – a blank canvas. He is a cultured, reserved man who seems to have chosen medicine out of a lack of talent for pursuing his dream of being an artist. When he meets Camila, she is an inexperienced woman with no refinement. Having married young to help her family, she had not had any experience of love – and, given the limitations in what was considered proper for her education, she was led to deposit all her expectations into marriage. Frustrated by Francisco’s extramarital affairs, and fascinated by the promise of sophistication brought over by the family doctor, Camila could not help but to fall in love – not only with Gervasio, but with the glamorous woman he wanted her to be.

Like Pygmalion, Gervasio slowly moulds her into his ideal lover, and changes her surroundings, her preferences, and her habits, as if she were his work of art – or, as if she were a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, a woman built into something that betrays her better self, only to be betrayed later by her creator. One of the most interesting aspects of your novel is the way you portray Camila’s transformation, her downfall, and later her rise back into self-respect.

We also have an interesting assortment of secondary characters, gravitating around Camila and Francisco: Ruth, their sensitive, imaginative daughter, who is a skilled violinist; the twins Raquel and Lia, their youngest daughters; Noca, the family servant, a superstitious woman with a gift for storytelling; Camilla’s aunts, Itelvina – a mean, miserly, resentful spinster – and Joana – a devout but hypocritical Christian spinster; Sancha, a former slave who works for Camila’s aunts and suffers all kinds of abuse in the hands of Itevilna; Rino, a shy sea captain who is also in love with Camila; his sister Catarina, a proud spinster; and a whole group of minor characters, formed by acquaintances, co-workers, and servants.

As we already expect from the book’s title (whose literal meaning is ‘bankruptcy’), this family will suffer a financial downfall: tempted by the siren song of false friends and malicious speculators, and envious of Gama Torres’ rapid success, Francisco gets carried away by the promise of easy profits, and invests a considerable amount of money in high risk transactions.

The bankruptcy’s outcome, however, has a subtly different flavour than expected: while Francisco is consumed by what is ultimately a result of his extreme vanity, the women in the novel receive an impulse toward an unexpected form of freedom. To the extent that their former social privileges had also been a cage, by losing their social stand, those women also achieve a strange form of autonomy: they are now socially allowed to fend for themselves. This might not have been a freedom they wanted, but it is nonetheless a kind of freedom.

In partnership with the other women in the family, Camila begins a new life: her niece becomes a seamstress; her eldest daughter goes on to work as a violin teacher; and Camila herself assumes the task of tutoring her twins. Instead of drowning in self-pity and disillusionment, Camila chooses the path of self-respect and takes over the reins of her life, dedicating herself with greater commitment to her family. Furthermore, the bankruptcy and its aftermath do not bring the narrative to a close, as would be expected. Rather, they open it up to possibilities that had gone on unacknowledged: from this moment on, the various women in the novel start to play a more prominent role in the plot and in their lives. Adversity will bring new opportunities; death will bring a form of rebirth. Here, it will be the women who will work, while the men will find rescue in nothing less than a marriage of convenience; while men will deceive and judge, women will collaborate and accept.

I particularly enjoyed the fact that you shy away from judging Camila’s adultery. Instead, you break the traditional dichotomy of angel and demon in representing female characters in 19th-century novels, and create a heroine who is both – and unapologetically so. You seem to be more interested in opening up the reader’s eyes to the complexity of the relationships between your characters, than in pontificating about their behaviour.

Another highlight of the book is your writing style: you use short sentences and precise description, with good attention to rhythm. Some scenes have a cinematic feel, as if we were watching a movie. The novel’s realism is also punctuated by modernist elements: like in an impressionist narrative, in each chapter, we pass through one character’s point of view – only to come to an open ending… It’s not quite the technique of stream of consciousness yet, but – particularly in Ruth and Nina – it is something close to it.

Interestingly, there is one scene in the novel where Gervasio recommends a book to Camila, saying that “it portrays a love like theirs”. She immediately dismisses it, and says she is not going to read it, because male authors “always blame the female characters for everything”. I could not help but think in Madame Bovary (1856), by Gustave Flaubert (an author you admired): in a sense, your book sheds a critical light on the way female adultery was portrayed in literature; and you subtly shift the expectations, by placing suicide at a slightly different corner than in Flaubert’s book.

Although the narrative seems, at first sight, to revolve around Francisco’s bankruptcy, it is the women of his house who dominate the story with their personal dramas – most of which go unnoticed by him. You explore the different – and, at times, contradictory – codes of conduct for women and men, as well as women’s vulnerability as a result of such contradictions. For instance, in the book, adultery is considered acceptable (and even encouraged) when perpetrated by men (in the characters of Francisco and Gervasio, for example); the same code, however, does not apply to female characters – and to murder an adulterous woman is even considered morally acceptable (in the character of Catarina’s mother, for example). “Male honesty is a black coat, while that of the ladies is a white dress“: the duplicity of moral codes for men and women is, ultimately, one of the main causes of the moral failure implicit in the novel’s title.

You also portray many aspects of Brazilian 19th-century society: in Itelvina, we have the violence and racism that existed at the time just after the abolition of slavery in Brazil (the last place in the Americas to abolish slavery, which only happened in 1888); in Joana, we have the religious intolerance and hypocrisy of a predominantly Catholic country; in Nina, the precarious situation of single and financially dependent young women with little chance of professional autonomy; in Sancha, we have the lack of perspective of former slaves in the country, as well as the similarity of their newly acquired freedom and labour relations to de facto slavery; in Mario, the personification of a patriarchal order trying to reassert its power; in Catarina, the possibility of self-sufficiency for women; in Camila, the lack of opportunities that leads to moral demise; and, finally, in Ruth, we have a new perspective of autonomy for women, through imagination, compassion, art, education, and hard work.

By exploring the topic of bankruptcy during the Encilhamento, you are also extrapolating on what was considered proper for a woman to write about at the time: instead of focusing on the domestic sphere, you decided to feature the public sphere of business, and to highlight how both, public and private, are intertwined. In a certain sense, the plot here presents features which were not common in novels written by 19th-century women writers in Brazil: betrayal (in the form of adultery and financial collapse) is the main topic in the book – not love. Betrayed not only by all the men in her life, but also by a way of life that did not prepare her for (nor allowed her) any kind of independence, Camila turns to her community of women, to be able to live in a completely different way.

In every aspect of the story, we can see a small subversion: differently from the novels of the time, here, the friendships between women are marked by collaboration and acceptance, while the ones between male characters are marked by competition and deceit; here, the women are the ones who are able to take sensible decisions and to fend for themselves.

Never pontificating nor adopting a didactic tone, you manage to portray the diversity of ideas about the “woman question” at the time, while making clear the importance of access to education for women: your female characters are faced with financial difficulties, only because they had submitted their individualities (and, ultimately, their destinies) to marriage. You seem to be saying that the safest harbour for women does not lie in marriage or domestic life, but in education. In this sense, the bankruptcy in the title does not mean only financial demise or moral failure, but also refers to a certain moral crisis in the society of the time – and, ultimately, to the failure of a model where women are faced with no other options in life but to get married.

Yours truly,

J.


Jan van Beers, Porträt einer jungen Dame

“Suppose, for example, that our honesty is a black coat and that of the ladies is a white dress. Both are clothes, both have the same function, but how different their features are, and their responsibilities! So, our coat, now we wear it on one side, now on the other, disguising the small stains. The cloth is thick, with a good brush all the dust of filth flies away, and we become decent again. Honesty, in the ladies, is a white, unlined satin gown. A little sweat, if it is hot, stains it; the simple act of brushing against a wall, looking for some kind shade, stains it; a pin-prick to hold a fragrant violet, takes unpleasant proportions in that vast candor… Indeed, it must be very difficult to defend a white satin dress that can never be taken out of the body. I do not know how women do it, and frankly, it does not seem to me that life deserves such luxury.”- Júlia Lopes de Almeida, A falencia, my translation


About the book

  • Penguin-Companhia, Companhia das Letras, 2019, 304 p. Goodreads
  • Original: 1901
  • My rating: 4 stars
  • The book is in public domain and can be read here (in Portuguese)
  • I wrote this post as contribution to Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month

 

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