Considered to be Portugal’s greatest 19th century novelist, Eça de Queirós spent 15 years in England where he created some of his greatest works whilst living as Portuguese Consul in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Today his address in the city centre is marked by a plaque attesting to his stay there being one of the most prolific periods of his life. The London Observer newspaper was to rank Eça de Queirós alongside Dickens, Balzac and Tolstoy and today his novels are read in 20 different languages.
During his time in Newcastle, he wrote the novel for which he is best remembered, O Crime do Padre Amaro (1875; The Sin of Father Amaro). The story highlights what he believed to be the double standards of the Catholic Church, the abuse of power and the destructive effects of celibacy. Set in a provincial Portuguese town where the clergy are lascivious liars, he intended that it should shock his readers and bring about social change by exposing the hypocrisy of polite society.
From his earliest years, Queirós was never fearful of being outspoken. The illegitimate son of a prominent magistrate, he was born in Póvoa de Varzim in Northern Portugal. Brought up by his paternal grandparents, his father kept a watchful eye on the young man encouraging him to qualify as a lawyer.
After achieving a law degree from Coimbra University, he branched out in his own preferred direction, firstly as a writer of prose-poetry published in popular magazines and later as a journalist.
In an early assignment, aged just 24, he travelled to Egypt and reported on the opening of the Suez Canal where the port of Alexandria came under his critical gaze. He described with disgust the recently arrived Europeans and their desire for music halls, gambling dens, seedy brothels and cafes. He highlighted their shallow thinking and disdain for the Arabs, “a noble race, to which civilization owes so much”. He considered that the influence brought by the invading Europeans was a matter of serious regret, fearing that Arab values might disappear like “the white ibis from the River Nile”.
Recognising the Suez Canal as an element of Britain’s great dream, -that is “absolute possession of the route to her empire in the East” – he lists Gibraltar as Britain’s invincible rock and the islands of Malta and Cyprus as her colossal war depots.
Five years later in 1874, when he found himself living in Newcastle, he complained: “I detest England, but this does not stop me from declaring that, as a thinking nation, she is probably the foremost.”
By now he was employed by the Portuguese consular service, a job that gave him time for his personal writing. He and his wife and young family had just spent two years in Havana, Cuba, encouraging trade and friendship between the two countries. The job was low-key but when he was posted to the north-east of England, he found himself caught up in a period of social change.
The demands of factory workers were causing governments concern. Strikes that began in the textile mills of Lancashire began to spread to Western Europe. Queirós reported back to the government in Lisbon dispatching facts and figures about developments in the coalfields of Northumberland and Durham. The miners there had secured for themselves a weekly coal allowance, free housing and far better wages than similar workers in South Wales.
He was excited to find himself at the centre of radical transformations brought about by the trade union movement. In Durham, the Miners Gala was already well established and Queirós was able to listen to the vast numbers of notable socialist and communist speakers attracted to the annual rally.
Taking advantage of the North Eastern Railway service that operated efficiently throughout the region, Queirós travelled widely. Carefully observing the differences between the lifestyles of the poor and well-to-do, he recognised patterns that reminded him of Portugal.
Alongside his consular duties, he continued to write novels – O Primo Basílio (1876; Cousin Bazilio) – and he supplemented his small diplomatic income by writing a regular column published in Gazeta de Notícias, a Brazilian periodical. In this, he frequently expressed his negative views about European factory owners and the privileged upper classes. Entitled Letters from England, the English aristocracy – the so-called “cream” – was frequently subjected to his scrutiny both at home and abroad.
The domestic scene of the nouveau riche was also put under his magnifying glass. He ridiculed their inability to appreciate a visit to the Continent: “The Englishman spends most of his pleasure trip cursing (to himself, for neither the Bible nor his respectability allows him to curse aloud). He does not understand foreign languages; he finds the food strange; everything which is foreign – customs, clothes, ways of thinking – everything shocks him; he suspects that he is being robbed; he has the vague belief that the bed-linen in the hotel is never clean and if he loses a cane, or the train is not on time, he will compose a letter (of complaint) to the Times.”
To showcase the hypocrisy of these people, he concluded: “Their labour as tourists is compensated when they return to England and can tell their friends how they were here and there and they climbed Mont Blanc, and dined at a hotel in Rome!”
Transferring from Newcastle to Bristol, he did not grow to like England any better, although he did confess it acted as a constant source of stimulation. More of this will be revealed in a future article.
By Carolyn Kain
Photos by: PETER KAIN