Looking to download a book entitled “Spanish Galicia”, by an Englishman called Aubrey Bell, I happened upon another of his works, “The Magic of Spain”. I’ve spent a couple of hours preparing the chapter on “The Spanish Character” for posting to my Galicia web page tomorrow but tonight I offer you AB’s Intro and his fascinating Preface, written fractionally under a hundred years ago. Some of what the Preface contains could not be said now but some of it could. I leave each reader with experience of living in Spain to decide where this balance lies. . . .
This is rather a collection of stray notes on Spain than a connected study — of notes from many pleasant hours of Spanish literature and travel, but perhaps too individual an interest to appear without some apology.
It is not easy in a few words to account for the strange Oriental spell that Spain has exercised over many minds nor to explain the potency of its attraction. For indeed the great Peninsula possesses a special spice and flavour. It has not the immemorial culture of Italy, nor the pleasant smiling landscapes of France with her green meadows and crystal streams. The old Iberia, that dura tellus, has a peculiar raciness. Its colour is often harsh and crude ; many of its districts are barren and discomfortable. The bleak and rocky uplands and the ragged sierra ridges cut the country into sharp divisions and cause it to be thinly and variously populated. On those uplands the breath of the wind is often icy and the sun strikes with a biting force.
Great parched and desolate plains extend treeless and unprotected two thousand feet above the sea. The villages at distant intervals are of the colour of the soil, and scarcely to be distinguished from a mass of yellow-brown rocks. Morning and evening a string of mules may be seen outlined on the horizon, for the peasants set out in bands to till their distant fields; or a shepherd with his flock of sheep, or goats, relieves the strange monotony of this dust-laden windy desert. Nothing could be sadder or less harmonious than the peasants’ harsh and strident singing, the very peculiarity of which has, however, a piquancy and charm. Hard too is their language, with its clean gutturals, far rougher and manlier than the musical sister-tongue of Italy. All points to a like conclusion, that this is no country of comfort and soft languorous delight, but of a quaint and forcible originality, where the most jaded mind may be braced and inspirited and find a fresher and more stirring life.
In Spain the sharpness of contrasts precludes any feeling of weariness or satiety. There are regions of luxuriant growth and African sun bounded by mountains of eternal snow. Through the plain a river glides among orange groves and grey olives ; in the shaded patios of the city silver fountains keep the air cool and fresh, and on the coldest night in winter the temperature is still some degrees above the freezing point. Yet here, in the most fiery heat of summer, we may lift up our eyes to the hills and look on the snowy sierra against the deep blue of the sky; and if a shower, in this region of little rain, falls upon the low-lying districts, it adds but another coat of whiteness to the neighbouring range.
It is indeed a strange and fascinating land, a Land voll Sonnenschein and fierce blinding light, yet a land of shrill, piercing blasts and icy air, a land of many various elements both of climate and population. It is no wonder that its inhabitants are of a character strongly individual and preserve the original Iberian strain. A racy pithiness of speech is theirs. In no country are proverbs more common, and a string of them can indeed form a peasant’s conversation, pungent as the rosaries of red pimentos that hang on the balconies of farms.
It was in Spain that the rogue-story, the novela de picaros, originated, and the Spanish novelists of the last thirty years have given free rein to the local types of various parts of Spain. Nowhere has provincialism continued to be so clearly marked. In other countries better communications have corrupted the local manners into a conformity of excellence. In Spain the nature of the country, with its rough mountain barriers and turbulent un-navigable rivers, still protects originality and keeps the character of the provinces distinct, and the native of Andalucia continues to despise the native of Galicia and to be ridiculed by the native of Castile.
This does not make for material prosperity, but it constitutes a country of the picturesque and unexpected, a country where imagination is not dead, and where the artist and poet find their true home. Not the least attraction to them perhaps is the Spanish improvidence and absence of method, and the gay living from hand to mouth. An unwary traveller in the wilder districts may easily find himself half-perishing from scarcity of food, and lost in an intricate labyrinth of ways between far-distant villages. “A bad thing, sirs, it is to have a lack of bread,” sang the poet of the twelfth-century Poema del Cid. The hardy peasant of the poorer regions lives scantily from day to day on the product of the niggard soil, won by patient labour. The peasant in more fertile parts does not necessarily fare better, but he labours magnificently less. The deliberate method of prosperity and success is held in small esteem.
The mighty Empire of Spain was in fact the affair of a generation only. From the time of Philip II onwards the Spanish Empire might aptly be compared with the Cid’s corpse, for, though by its prestige and the favour of heaven it might continue to reap fresh victories, it was nevertheless irrevocably dead and awaiting dissolution. And it is the improvidence of Spain that has charmed the foreigner. For, eager as he is to admire its poetic aspects, in his inmost soul he often regards himself as incomparably superior, and hurries home to civilization with a sheaf of curious details negligently gleaned. The courteous Spaniard conceals his contempt for the foreigner, but were he privileged to read the numerous sketches, scenes, and saunterings published yearly of Spain, he would have some scope for legitimate amusement.
A faint remonstrance has indeed been heard in the Peninsula against the idea of Spanish grandees lying in wait at dark corners to rob a French journalist of his fortune. But mostly they are content to let the foreigner continue in his ignorance. For stern and melancholy Spain retains her secret, and is not to be won from her Oriental impenetrable mystery by any wiles. Unchanging and impassive, her cities seem to mock the stranger, and the roughness of the intervening wildernesses discourages him. But he returns again and again to this remote and mediaeval country, that in his practical eyes should be so rich and is so poor. The repulses he receives whet his curiosity and increase his ardour. Yet Spain is not, in spite of its many tourists, a country of foreign colonies. To the Englishman this fact brings a striking novelty, for he may visit Switzerland and Italy and France and scarcely leave the atmosphere of England, but in Spain he will find no difficulty in following Bacon’s advice to the traveller in foreign countries to “sequester himself from the company of his countrymen.
Of course, these days the “courteous Spaniard” can attain “legitimate amusement” by reading on the web “the numerous sketches, scenes, and saunterings published yearly of Spain”. As can the discourteous Spaniard, of course.
And, sadly, it’s no longer true to say there are no colonies of Englishmen in Spain.
Finally . . . I leave you with a sampler from the chapter on the Spanish character:- Any attempt to generalize concerning Spanish character would seem a vain and foolish task, since Spain is the country of Europe which has most stringently preserved its local differences of race and language, . . . But a few qualities may perhaps be attributed to the whole of Spain as in some measure common to her various peoples.
More on these tomorrow.