My rating: 3 stars
A Morgadinha dos Canaviais is a Portuguese classic from the 19th century written by Júlio Dinis, whose works have not yet been translated into English. Although this is a romance novel, other themes are also addressed, such as the healing power of the countryside, religious fundamentalism and the games played by the politicians of the time.
The first character to be introduced is Henrique de Souselas, who left Lisbon to visit his aunt in the countryside of Minho, a region in the North of Portugal. His doctor had advised him to travel in order to overcome his hypochondria. When arriving to his aunt’s house, he reveals to her to feel sad and sick, not having the desire to see or speak to anyone. He is a victim of melancholia. After his long journey, all the natural scenery around him is nothing more than an embodiment of desolation. However, when he wakes up on the following day, he sees the place in a completely different light and becomes eager to discover it.
During his excursion around the village he keeps hearing about a woman whom the inhabitants call “Morgadinha dos Canaviais”. When Henrique is finally introduced to her, he is astonished at how different she is from what he had imagined. Throughout their conversation he doesn’t hide his amazement and awe of her, not sparing gallantries either. Madalena (the real name of the “Morgadinha”), on the other hand, uses a sarcastic tone, seems quite sure of herself and is not easily impressed. Along the novel, I also found her to be generous and well-intentioned.
After following Henrique’s steps, the focus changes to other characters. The narrator directly addresses the readers to notify them of that change, as if we were really walking alongside the characters. We are then introduced to Augusto, an aspiring teacher who refused to follow a religious life, although that was the only condition for him to receive a bequest from a deceased rich woman. It’s through Augusto that the reader is introduced to other characters who inhabit the village.
Early on in the novel a kind of love triangle is established. Madalena notices that her cousin, Cristina, became quite impressed by Henrique and promises to help her by discovering more about his personality. She gets the chance to study him better during a stroll to a chapel at the top of a mountain in the company of Cristina and Augusto. This episode stands out for its witty dialogue, arising suspicions about the feelings of some of the characters, which continue to be unveiled until the end of the novel. In fact, the dialogue between the characters is the most attention-grabbing asset of the book.
On the other hand, the narration becomes almost unbearable along the novel, although at first the writing-style has quite an enjoyable ironic tone. The exaggerated number of times the narrator directly addresses the reader cuts the flow of the story. It feels like the reader is being treated like an idiot who can’t understand a change of setting or the intentions of the characters. Moreover, the way the narrator reinforces various times the role of women as mothers and caregivers for their husbands annoyed me, despite it being a common belief in the 19th century.
There are some interesting social comments along the novel, however. Madalena’s father, who is a counsellor in Lisbon, is used to criticise the politicians who lose their convictions and play the game of offering favours in exchange for votes and support. The punitive and fundamentalist strand of religion and the people who blindly follow catholic preachers are also criticised.
My reading enjoyment decreased as the story progressed, since the events around the main characters are predictable and the narration becomes quite exasperating at times. Nevertheless, some interesting points are made and the characters’ dialogue is sometimes quite gripping, making this a low 3 stars-book for me.