[Published in The Times Literary Supplement, March 13, 2020]

Emilia Pardo Bazán ranks among Spain’s – and Europe’s – most remarkable women of letters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A prolific author, critic and pivotal figure in the development of the Spanish realist novel, she achieved great success in her lifetime with works such as Los pazos de Ulloa (1886; The House of Ulloa), La madre naturaleza (1887; Mother Nature) and La Tribuna (1883; The Rostrum). Her non-fiction includes a biography of St Francis of Assisi, a number of high-profile public talks later published in essay form, and various decades’ worth of cultural journalism. Roundly cosmopolitan in her outlook, she was instrumental in the Spanish reception of French naturalism and modern Russian literature. Her work was also widely read in Latin America and translated into other European languages. Her articulate espousal of feminist causes, including the full extension of political rights to women, is of particular interest today, as are her efforts to marry her outlook with a firm Catholic faith and traditionalist political views. Equally remarkable is the way in which Pardo Bazán’s status as a successful female author tested the boundaries set by cultural arbiters of the period: it emerged most dramatically in the much-discussed rejection of her candidacy for membership of the Spanish Royal Academy on the basis of her gender.

This monumental biography does full justice to an extraordinary talent. Isabel Burdiel pays rigorous attention to the complexity of her subject’s aesthetics, politics, private life and public persona. She also charts the reactions they prompted from many of Pardo Bazán’s contemporaries, including major figures such as Benito Pérez Galdós, Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo, Francisco Giner de los Ríos and Leopoldo Alas. Burdiel thus exposes the ways in which la Pardo Bazán, as she was known, sought to escape existing moulds of female literary celebrity. The comparisons drawn at various points with the cases of Madame de Staël, George Eliot, George Sand, Virginia Woolf, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, Concepción Arenal and Carmen de Burgos are particularly insightful. Burdiel argues that Pardo Bazán’s social anchoring as wealthy and aristocratic – though she was not a member of the grandest circles – allowed her to fashion herself as a different kind of female Catholic writer. She emerges from these pages as self-aware, ambitious and proactive in the development of her literary career, buoyed by the conviction that she – and, by extension, any woman of talent – deserved a place in the public sphere.

A question that runs throughout the book is whether Pardo Bazán’s ambition was resented by some of her male contemporaries because of how overt it was or because a woman was not expected to display such a desire for notoriety. Burdiel also ventures beyond the ways in which Pardo Bazán served as a crucible for the gender politics of her time: the relationship between her cosmopolitanism, her Spanish nationalism and her Galician roots receives attention, as does her support for Carlism, the nineteenth-century traditionalist cause par excellence in Spain. Burdiel argues that this allegiance, which has become a bone of contention in appraisals of Pardo Bazán, was both significant and driven – at least in part – by her perception of the limits of nineteenth-century liberalism. Yet Pardo Bazán did not settle for easy answers, and nor does her biographer. In the same way in which her subject redefined female literary celebrity, Burdiel argues that she refused to be placed within various binary axes that marked the politics and culture of her time: liberalism vs illiberalism, cosmopolitanism vs nationalism and Catholicism vs anticlericalism.

Highly respected as a historian, Isabel Burdiel writes in a scholarly register. Several chapters feature substantial reflections on Life-writing and questions including the study of private correspondence. This can be demanding for non-scholars, yet it also provides a depth of analysis that is rare in biographies pitched at a general readership. And, crucially, it does not prevent Pardo Bazán from shining through as an exceptional individual who can teach us a great deal about the culture and politics of her time, even as she worked so hard to redefine them. Not a clear-cut heroine, perhaps, but a remarkable figure nonetheless.

David Jiménez Torres’s most recent novel is Cambridge en mitad de la noche, 2018.