Considered to be Portugal’s greatest 19th century author, Eça de Queiros spent 15 years in England where he created some of his greatest works. The London Observer newspaper ranked his realist novels alongside Dickens, Balzac and Tolstoy and today they are read in 20 different languages.
From 1874 to 1879, Queiros was the Portuguese Consul in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. This was a prolific period of his life; he attended to his diplomatic duties, wrote a monthly newspaper column, Letters from England published in Brazil, whilst simultaneously creating outspoken novels that shocked the Portuguese public.
Using biting wit and caustic sharpness, he exposed what he thought of as the evils and absurdities of the traditional conservative social order. A typical example – O Primo Basílio (Cousin Bazilio), written when he was living in Newcastle, – results in tragic consequences when the romantic ideal of passion fails to live up to expectations.
In 2002, a plaque was unveiled by the Portuguese Ambassador beside the residence at 53, Grey Street where Queiros and his family lived. When they arrived, Grey Street was considered to be one of the finest streets in the country and Newcastle-upon-Tyne was a large and elegant city. Described as the power house of the Industrial Revolution, a great deal of wealth had been generated by ship building and heavy engineering.
A high-level bridge carried road and rail traffic across the Tyne Gorge and Queen Victoria had opened the magnificent Newcastle Central Station. The North Eastern Railway built more grand principal stations than any other railway company in the country.
Providing Queiros with easy access as far north as Edinburgh and south to London, his travels featured in his newspaper column. Other current topics were drawn to his readers’ attention such as the British attitude to Empire, the patronizing of so-called backward nations, the Irish problem and the rising tide of anti-semitic persecution in Germany.
Despite his comfortable living conditions, Queiros was unhappy with his surroundings. Concerned by the inequalities he saw around him – especially the circumstances of the poor –, he was puzzled by the oddities of the English people and depressed by the dreadful weather. He remarked: “Everything about this society is disagreeable to me – from its limited way of thinking to its indecent manner of cooking vegetables.”
By letter, Queiros kept in contact with a group of rebellious Portuguese intellectuals, The Generation of the 70s. Like them he was committed to social reform and this ambition frequently came across in his newspaper column. Following a railway journey to London he wrote, “….selfishness (which) is particularly English and which allows three hundred people round a lake in Hyde Park, in London’s most elegant quarter, to watch a poor child drown while no one can be bothered to take the cigar from his mouth and hold out a plank to him to save his life!” This probably was not a literal account, but it illustrates his desire to change the attitudes of society through his writing.
His criticisms of the English upper classes did not apply to those he considered to have artistic and literary talent. He was widely read in English literature and Wordsworth’s poem based upon the true story of the poor little heroine, Grace Darling, must have appealed to him. Coming from a lowly background she was the north east of England’s most famous child. Her bravery at sea rescuing nine shipwrecked sailors touched the nation.
Queen Victoria wrote to Darling praising her conduct and awarding her £50. Visitors came from all across the country travelling by train from Newcastle to Chathill and onto Bamburgh where she was buried. Postcards, trinkets, tea-caddies and chocolate boxes carried her image and the graveyard in Bamburgh became a shrine. It is almost certain Queiros would have made the journey, if not to see her tomb, then to visit the famous Norman Castle located by the sea.
Reporting in his newspaper column, he describes the contents of a typical English castle. “A staff of 70 servants, artistic masterpieces accumulated over generations, suites of furniture worth two hundred contos and banners taken to Agincourt and Poitiers – or if the worthy ancestors never invaded France bought in the antique shop round the corner.”
Forever finding fault with the English upper classes he was posted from Newcastle to Bristol where his views did not improve. As a self-confessed Francophile, it must have been a great relief when in 1888 he was appointed as Portuguese consul-general in Paris.
A Series by Carolyn Kain
Photos: PETER KAIN