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Narrative Cross-Dressing: Emilia Pardo Bazán in Memorias de un sesentón

Beth Wietelmann Bauer


Brown University

Abstract: Memorias de un solterón is one of several novels in which Emilia Pardo Bazán narrates through the voice of a fully developed male character. In this text the gender confusion created by the act of narrative cross-dressing complements a thematic concern with new roles for men and women, a notion that is further inscribed in the novel through the semiotics of dress. Pardo Bazán uses her narrator both to assert and question masculine authority, and to direct readers’ fantasies toward an uncommon object of desire. In Memorias, the male narrator is not a symptom of the discomfort that feminist criticism has often attributed to the nineteenth-century woman writer. Narrative cross-dressing is a strategy employed in the service of new models for male/female relationships.





Key Words: Pardo Bazán (Emilia), Spanish literature, 19th century, women’s writing, gender, narrative technique, Memorias de un solterón.







Unlike many other women writers of the nineteenth century, Emilia Pardo Bazán did not choose to publish her novels under a male pseudonym. Nor did she, like her countrywoman Concepción Arenal, don masculine attire in order to pass unnoticed in university lecture halls where women were not allowed. Instead, Pardo Bazán enjoyed from her earliest days the unconditional support of a father who nurtured her penchant for reading and writing, and whom she later considered unsurpassed in his advocacy of women’s rights (Clémessy 227-28). With feminism in her blood, and the legendary boldness that allowed her to take on the Academia Española in her hapless bid for membership in the all-male society, Pardo Bazán cuts a strong figure, one that suggests a relative immunity to the anxiety of authorship that Gilbert and Gubar have attributed to nineteenth-century women writers (Madwoman 45-92). Yet while she did not, to my knowledge, put on pants to go to the theater like George Sand, or to visit slaughterhouses like the painter Rosa Bonheur, Pardo Bazán did follow the lead of George Eliot (The Lifted Veil 1859) and Charlotte (alias Currer) Brontë (The Professor 1846, pub. 1857) by regularly slipping into metaphorical trousers and narrating in the persona of a man.

Curiously, three of the many novels in which Pardo Bazán speaks through the voice of a male character/narrator1 -Una cristiana-La prueba (1890), Doña Milagros (1894), and Memorias de un solterón (1896)- were written during what was for Doña Emilia a period of intense, feminist activity in which she published a series of articles on Spanish women (La mujer española, 1889), mounted her campaign against the exclusionist policies of the Real Academia, attended an international conference on women and education, and began her Biblioteca de la Mujer, in which she planned to publish Spanish editions of works by foreign proponents of women’s rights (Clémessy 229-31). These novels are also precisely those in which she explicitly deals with the theme of the mujer nueva. Although all three of these texts constitute fertile grounds for the examination of inversion and subversions of traditional gender definitions, Memorias de un solterón is the novel which most clearly traces a blueprint for the modern woman and for enlightened marriage between equals.2In this novel, the gender confusion implicit in the female author’s use of a male voice is highlighted by references to the sign system of dress, to the unconventional garb of both the narrator and the rebellious female protagonist, Feíta Neira.

Elizabeth Ordóñez has enumerated Feíta’s «masculine» traits (energy, frankness, intelligence, rebelliousness), and their incorporation into a physical portrait of charming vigor that poses a contrast to both conventional heroines and stereotypical notions of the marimacho or the mujer intelectual (154-56). She sees Mauro Pareja, the narrator, as a man outside of patriarchy in the sense that he is devoid of paternal desire and avoids marriage in part because he does not wish to subjugate or domesticate a woman (152). The androgynous aspects of both the hero and heroine, however, are further marked through the powerful language of dress, in itself a semiotic system that reinscribes age, class, and particularly gender.3 While Mauro and Feíta’s infractions against standard dress codes are rather tame, they are seconded within the framework of the novel by the act of imaginative cross-dressing undertaken by Pardo Bazán cum Mauro Pareja, and by the novel’s many reversals of gender roles. As Marjorie Garber has suggested, the uncanny figure of the cross-dresser has traditionally marked and overdetermined a «crisis of categories, a space of anxiety about fixed and changing identities» (32). The issue of clothing and its intersection with gender is also highlighted in Memorias through the contrasting presentation of Feíta’s sister Rosa, whose name and obsessive trapomanía are highly reminiscent of Galdós’s Rosalia de Bringas.

The fictional cross-dressing of Pardo Bazán’s narrators has its real-life counterpart in Clarín’s view of her expressed in his well-known essay «Pardo Bazán en sus últimas obras», published in his seventh Folleto Literario in 1890. Often cited for its negative assessments of Insolación (1889) and Morriña (1889), this essay is also a vivid reminder of the rigidity of nineteenth-century gender ideology. In addition, it distinctly creates the image of Pardo Bazán as a cross-dresser. Alas begins with a disclaimer, declaring himself unqualified to judge a woman: «Yo soy del mismo siglo, del mismo pueblo, de la misma generación que doña Emilia Pardo, pero no soy del mismo sexo; no juzgo extraño nada humano, pero sí todo lo femenino» (52, emphasis mine). Thus, after neatly excluding the feminine from the broader ranks of «lo humano» Alas proceeds to affirm his acceptance of women writers who produce «como hembras». In contrast to these appropriately womanly writers, Alas finds that, «el caso de Mme. Staël y el de nuestra crítica gallega es otro; éstas son mujeres que en el arte y las ciencias producen como hombres... algo afeminados» (55).

This blurred image of the masculine but effeminate woman writer crosses gender boundaries twice, and Clarín feels compelled to clarify:

Es claro que cuando se dice que una mujer escribe como un hombre, no se ha de entender que pierde todas las cualidades del sexo: como una mujer vestida de hombre no deja de parecer mujer; pero es así como ésta a los hombres a que más se parece es a los que se parecen a las mujeres, así la escritora varonil... semeja a los literatos afeminados. Y cualquier persona de gusto sabe que lo afeminado y lo femenino son cosas muy diferentes.


(58, emphasis mine)                


The author’s attitude is quite explicit. For Clarín, Pardo Bazán is a woman dressed as a man, an impostor who is neither female nor male but a vexing and tasteless blend. She is also, therefore, a real-life permutation of Clarin’s own gender-mixed, fictional characters such as Celedonio and Doña Paula in La Regenta (1885) and Bonifacio Reyes and Emma Valcárcel in Su único hijo (1892). While these Clarinian characters undoubtedly underscore their author’s preoccupation with the theme of decadence, as Valis has suggested4, they nonetheless betray a fascination with gender inversion. The essay also indicates that this curiosity was mixed with a strong dose of revulsion, which allowed Alas to distance himself from his characters and declare: «Yo, ni siquiera en mis funciones de crítico, aunque indigno, no puedo ser, ni quiero ser, andrógino» (55).

Clarin’s rejection of androgyny is consonant with the extreme sexual polarization that typifies nineteenth-century gender ideology, as it was inscribed in the complementary discourses of conduct manuals, women’s periodicals, and popular fiction. These discourses verbally confined woman to the realm of the passive and self-sacrificing even as they glorified her as the ángel del hogar.5Yet as Alas’s novels indicate, literary representations of sexual roles are not always so clearly fixed. In her work on androgyny, Carolyn Heilbrun cites as examples of more fluid and forgiving attitudes toward gender the texts of Euripedes and Aristophanes and the numerous examples of cross-dressing found in Renaissance theater (9-34).6 More recently, as Gilbert and Gubar have stressed, the twentieth century has seen both male and female writers who deal with androgyny and transvestism, often in order to break down conventional definitions of gender («Cross-dressing»).7 In nineteenth-century Spanish realism, Galdós and Pereda use female narrators in fairly limited ways: Jenara de Baraona -the woman who recounts the events of Galdós’s Los cien mil hijos de San Luis (1877)- concentrates on plot and reveals little about her psyche except for what Brian Dendle has called her «unbalanced» love for Salvador Monsalud.8 In La Montálvez (1888), Pereda intersperses third-person narration with segments of the diary of Verónica Montálvez, a pecadora escarmentada whose moral conversion distances her from her younger self, and whose preaching tone is easily confused with that of her co-narrator (Montesinos 193).

Pardo Bazán stands out among nineteenth-century Spanish realist writers for the consistency with which she writes through a fully developed persona of the opposite sex, a fact perhaps too easily explained by the possibility that she wanted to avoid writing what George Eliot called «silly novels by women novelists» and instead empowered her fiction with the greater degree of seriousness typically attributed to the male voice. As Madeleine Kahn observes in her study of narrative cross-dressing, «the question, what does a woman have to gain from using a man’s voice? turns out not to be symmetrical to, what does a male author have to gain from using a woman’s? Women are borrowing the voice of authority; men are seemingly abdicating it» (3). Kahn models a study of the structure of narrative cross-dressing on medical definitions related to psychoanalysis.9 She uses the psychoanalytical metaphor of transvestism in narrative voice to furnish «helpful analogies to the structure that governs an essentially literary masquerade, and... directs our attention to the [textual] dialect of display and concealment... [and] to the complex negotiation between self and other» (11). Although Kahn excludes women writers from her study, the analogies she proposes are pertinent to texts authored by women who adopt male voices, since they «play out in the metaphorical body of the text, the ambiguous possibilities of identity and gender» (Kahn 6).

It is also important to reconsider Kahn’s assumption that women who write novels using a first person male persona simply do so in order to acquire male authority. The male narrators of Memorias de un solterón, Doña Milagros, and Una cristiana-La prueba, are all endowed with foibles that quietly subvert the reliability, power, and dignity of their respective voices: Mauro Pareja is a confirmed bachelor and dandy, who ends up falling in love despite himself, Benicio Neira is passive and unable to govern his family, and Salustio is a young anticlerical liberal who nonetheless grows to adore his uncle’s wife precisely because she is a model of long-suffering Christian virtue. Thus if Pardo Bazán authorizes her voice through the male persona, she also finds ways to deauthorize the male voice and undermine the mystique of male superiority.

Maurice Hemingway has traced Pardo Bazán’s use of first-person narration from the picaresque Pascual López (1879) to later novels in which it functions to «make of the novel the narrator’s own process of self-discovery» (71). Of these latter novels he singles out the first, Una cristiana-La prueba, in which he finds the narrator unconvincing partly because his youth is incompatible with the maturity of his vision and the breadth of his knowledge. Another problem, Hemingway asserts, is the character’s sex: «Salustio is a man yet he notices and comments on things which one would expect to interest only a woman», including women’s clothing and jewelry, perfume, flower arrangements, and male beauty (72). In Memorias de un solterón however, in which the narrator Mauro Pareja not only exhibits a far greater familiarity with female fashion but also describes the porcelains, tapestries, and watercolors that decorate his room, Hemingway finds that Mauro’s interests coincide with Pardo Bazán’s and she thus «can give him a voice similar to her own without his becoming inconsistent in the way Salustio does in Una cristiana-La prueba» (136).

Though the criteria Hemingway uses to judge the success with which Pardo Bazán adopts the male voice are rather nebulous, Hemingway follows the path of Ian Watt and other critics who, for example, criticize Moll Flanders for being an unconvincing woman. But as Kahn reminds us, «Moll isn’t a woman: she is a male writer’s narrative device and her ‘unfeminine’ traits are important not because they destroy the illusion of the female narrator but because they draw attention to it» (9-10). The real question, Kahn asserts, is not how well a writer succeeds in passing as a member of the opposite sex. A more fruitful line of inquiry is suggested by the question, what does a writer have to gain by accessing a voice on the other side of the structural divide between genders? The use of a male narrator in Memorias functions as a strategy through which Pardo Bazán effects a destabilization of gender roles by means of the simultaneous adoption and subversion of male authority. In this light, Mauro Pareja’s regular verbal incursions into the conventionally female world of fashion and the dressing room are insistent signs of his connection with the feminine and reminders of the basic gender masquerade, like that which Clarín found in Pardo Bazán, in the text. Although limited, the acts of cross-dressing attributed to the protagonists of Memorias also merge genders and highlight the interplay between the material body and the garb that covers it, between essences and appearances, between biological sex and the roles and outward trappings of gender.

Mauro Pareja, confirmed bachelor and avid observer of human nature, is an aesthete and also something of a dandy. In his initial self-introduction, Mauro reveals his penchant for fashion and finery:

He formado costumbre de vestir con esmero y según los decretos de la moda; mas no por eso se crea que soy de los que andan cazando la última forma de solapa...Así y todo, mi indumentaria suele llamar la atención en Marineda, y se charló bastante de unos botines blancos míos.


(519)                


Not only does his sartorial inclination authorize later comments on female dress, but it also complements other signs of difference. Pareja’s white boots are perhaps the most showy among a number of things that distinguish him from the provincial norms of his fictitious Galician town of Marineda: his French blood, his reading habits, and his negative attitude toward marriage, an opinion founded on the many examples of mismatches, and personal and economic misery that he has observed, including that of Benicio Neira. Mauro’s comments to the reader reflect the defensive posture of one accustomed to justifying his strange ways:

No crean, señores, que me acicalo por afeminación. Es que practico...el culto de mi persona, y creo que esta persona, para mí archiestimable, merece no andar envuelta en talegos o en prendas raídas...Me atrae todo lo que es confort, bienestar, pulcritud, decoro. Como que de estas condiciones externas pende y se deriva, en muchos casos, la paz del espíritu y la armonía del carácter.


(519).                


Pareja’s philosophical explanation for his elegance, a rationale based on moderation and enlightened self-interest, is also a denial, an attempt to erase «lo feminino». As deconstruction has shown, such a rhetorical erasure is never complete. Even as he rejects effeminacy, Pareja is marked by its negation, and his maleness is further confused by his status as the imaginary creation of a woman writer, by the reader’s awareness, particularly during textual forays into the domestic and vestiary realms, that there may be a woman’s voice behind the words of this man.

While Pareja eventually bears the brunt of the author’s textual irony and implicit lessons on self-delusion when he is converted to marriage by the unconventional person of Feíta Neira, Pardo Bazán does not paint her male protagonist as an outcast or fool. She makes it clear that, though the townspeople may deride his renegade view of marriage, he is appreciated by many of his fellow citizens. His flirtations with young women are marked by respect for both real and apparent honor; in his friendships with men he is loyal and frank. Nor is he a mere fop. This latter role is reserved in Memorias for the young music teacher with long curls and a caricaturesque moniker, Leoncito Cabello, whose presence in the text -along with Don Benicio as father-figure, Primo Cova as town gossip and both Baltasar Sobrado and Luís Mejía as seducers- serves to define Mauro Pareja as something else beyond traditional labels, types, and categories: not a pansy, not a dullard buey suelto, not a Don Juan, not a family man10. Interestingly, it is again with reference to issues of clothing that Mauro makes some of his clearest comments on stereotypes about male behavior and on his own non-conformity:

Aunque es fama que los hombres no entienden de trapos, he creído siempre que eso es como lo de las casas desordenadas que, en opinión del vulgo, deben tener los solteros; y me confirmo en que no es privativo del sexo femenino entender de trapos, cuando noto que los árbitros de la moda son los señores modistos. Declaro, pues, y vengan cuchufletas, que entiendo de trapos, y sé perfectamente cuándo, cómo y por qué va bien ataviada una señora.


(537)                


On the one hand, Pareja’s narratorial aside anticipates the objections of readers who might protest that his sartorial savoir faire is not appropriate to his sex. On the other, his expertise stands out as another sign of difference. While Mauro accepts transgressions against gender norms in himself (readers may be inclined to ignore these differences precisely because of his justifications), he initially cannot tolerate them in Feíta, and he is scandalized by her unladylike appearance and demeanor. In an attempt to dismiss the discomfort provoked by her proximity, Mauro convinces himself that no one would believe that he could be attracted to «una chica que gasta calzado de hombre y lleva el pelo hecho un bardal» (561). The relationship between Feíta’s sturdy men’s shoes and Mauro’s botines blancos is a cross-over that underscores the androgynous elements in each of these characters, their ability to fit into new roles as easily as they might exchange shoes.

As Ordóñez mentions, one of the novel’s many inversions of traditional gender roles concerns the library, where Feíta displays a single-minded concentration that wounds Mauro’s masculine pride (157-58). A closer examination of this scene reveals the extent to which the text’s concern with androgyny, with new models for male and female behavior, is articulated through the language of fashion and dress. The very words, for example, that Pareja uses to describe his feelings are significant: «Chafaba... mi amor propio masculino que tabique por medio se encontrase una mujer dedicada a un serio trabajo, a una labor intelectual, sin acordarse de mí más que de la primera camisa que vistió» (560, emphasis mine). It is Mauro who is relegated here to the realm of trapos, the superficial camisa that contrasts with the depth of Feíta’s intellectual endeavor. What is more, Mauro protests that Feíta normally studies precisely during the time he devotes to his «faenas de tocador» (561). Again, while this coincidence results in comical discomfort and forces Mauro to «escupir con más cuidadito cuando me enjuagaba los dientes...» (561), it situates him in the domestic, private world most often associated with women, a reversal that his use of the diminutive» «cuidadito» reinforces.

Pareja soon crosses back over into a more sexually conventional role. When he bursts in upon Feíta in the library and finds her perched precariously on a ladder, he confesses to typically masculine expectations. He would have wanted to witness, he confides, that «delicioso espectáculo, ese surgir del menudo pie, como flor de entre la hojarasca, envuelto en la espuma de los bajos limpios, ricos y orlados de encaje, que es uno de los encantos mayores de la mujer civilizada y pulida». Mauro’s hackneyed words accentuate the conventional nature of his mental scenario and Feíta, of course, disrupts his fantasy: «Con Feíta valía más no mirar, por no encontrarse las botazas y las faldas de paño, análogas a los masculinos pantalones» (562). Feíta, however, blushes and lets out a scream in response to Mauro’s surprise visit, behavior that underscores her modesty. This «movimiento esencialmente femenil» thus softens the harshness of Feíta’s bloomers, reasserting, in good nineteenth-century positivist fashion, an essential or biological femaleness that remains unchanged by new garb and new roles for women. In fact, it is apt to consider the dynamics of the entire novel in the light of Feíta’s balancing act. Like Feíta, Memorias itself wavers between transgression and tradition. It is also a text that attempts to «pass», that poses as a standard romance even as it blurs the distinctions between hero and heroine and underscores the arbitrariness of social law and custom. Memorias de un solterón concludes stereo-typically, with the impending marriage of Mauro and Feíta. Yet from the beginning, the predictability of the novel’s ending is belied by crossings, by the erosion of gender boundaries, by masquerades and inverted signs.

Pardo Bazán’s creation of a socially acceptable blend of characteristics in her model of «la mujer nueva» is further apparent in the library scene when Mauro notices that Feíta’s appearance has improved noticeably. She responds to Pareja’s mute admiration with her customary directness: «¿Me encuentra usted mejor, más sana?... La libertad, amiguito... la santa y requetebenditísima libertad» (563). Not only is she healthier and happier since she decided to go for long walks and work as a tutor, but she no longer feels the need to rebel against oppressive routines by being «rara y mal criada». But she rejects Mauro’s suggestion that she should dress tastefully «por coquetería» and responds: «por higiene, por decoro, por respeto a nuestros semejantes; por coquetería, niquis. Con esos principios, vamos derechitas a Rosa y a sus... a sus...» (565). A case of what Pareja calls an «invasión total de la enfermedad trapera» (536), Rosa, the sister who sells herself in exchange for purchasing power at the local boutique, is a reworking of Galdós’s Rosalla de Bringas. In Memorias, however, Rosa is reduced to the status of second-string player and portrayed through the eyes of Pareja, who stresses the link between her «rostro vacío» and the state of her brain (57), and who later sums up her caricaturesque identity by referring to her as an «extremo... vicioso» (565). Thus, while Memorias reinscribes the type of the vain, superficial, and luxury-loving woman, it relegates her to the realm of exceptional cases and marshals her uselessness to reinforce the appeal of Feíta’s new attitudes toward dress, values which go hand in hand with her advocacy of work and female independence. Rosa is, in other words, a foil that sharpens the thrust of the protagonists’ views. Through her, Pareja details the «magnífica... expresión de antipatía and desdén» (585) with which Feíta condemns both female vanity and the social conditions that encourage women to enhance and market their physical appeal.

Feíta, therefore, eventually acknowledges and accepts the social importance of clothing and appearance despite her condemnation of her sister’s obsessive concern with dress. The protagonist’s insistence upon dressing well not to please men, but instead «por higiene, por decoro, por respeto a nuestros semejantes» echoes Pareja’s earlier avowal of his attraction to «todo lo que es confort, bienestar, pulcritud, decoro», a merging of voices that recalls the presence of one voice-Pardo Bazán’s through which characters and «normal» characteristics of two sexes are fused. When Pareja protests that the well-dressed woman is a tribute to advanced civilization, Feíta accepts his statement with the proviso that it must be extended to men:

Ese mismo gusto que ustedes pueden hallar en vernos artísticamente arregladas, lo hallaríamos nosotras en verles a ustedes menos ridículos de lo que andan con el traje de ahora... Ustedes dicen que visten así por comodidad y por higiene. Pues nosotras, con atender a la higiene y a la comodidad... despachadas. ¿Qué obligación tenemos nosotras de recrearles a ustedes la vista?».


(565)                


What Feíta suggests here implies a radical revision of woman as art object and above all as object of male desire. Through her protagonist, Pardo Bazán also insists upon woman as subject and upon the existence of female desire («Ese mismo gusto... lo hallaríamos nosotras»).

Of course Feíta soon becomes the object of Mauro’s desire, a phenomenon that in itself entails a ground-breaking redirection of masculine fantasies. In her series of essays entitled La mala mujer española (1890), Pardo Bazán had written that whatever defects might be attributed to Spanish women should also be blamed upon Man, who in nineteenth-century Spanish society is the one who «modela y esculpe el alma femenina» (18). In Memorias de un solterón, the Galician writer takes on the traditionally male role of Pygmalion and fashions a new image of woman, one whom she dresses in sturdy shoes and bloomers. She also constructs a man, a male narrator through whom she reinforces the desirability of her new, androgynous woman. Not only is Mauro a lens through which Pardo Bazán can distance herself from the text and review the microcosm of middle-class female society found in the Neira family, but he is an incarnation of both male authority and desire. As he gradually accepts challenges to his authority and casts aside received notions about gender, Pareja steadily directs the admiring gaze of his readers, both male and female, away from stereotypical heroines and toward the unconventional Feíta. In Memorias, Pardo Bazán’s male disguise is not what Gilbert and Gubar have called a «strategy born of fear and disease», but a tactic artfully employed in the service of a new sexual imaginary.


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