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Book review: La Hermana San Sulpicio [in Spanish], by Armando Palacio Valdes

This novel was first published in 1889 but it remains surprisingly fresh in tone today. It is cast as a first-person narrative by Ceferino Sanjurjo, a young man who falls in love with a nineteen-year-old nun and wants to marry her. She is Andalusian, from Seville; he is from Galicia, in north-west Spain, and this difference in background is a recurrent theme in the story. Galicians had the reputation of being rural and unsophisticated, not to say boorish; Sanjurjo is sensitive about his origin and tries to de-emphasise it as much as possible.

In fact, Sanjurjo's father, who is a pharmacist, is quite well off and provides a good allowance to his son. Sanjurjo has trained as a doctor but doesn't want to practise and has literary ambitions, which he is pursuing in Madrid. He fails as a dramatist but enjoys some success as a descriptive poet. When his over-indulgent lifestyle leads to stomach problems he goes to a health spa at Marmolejo, in the Andalusian province of Jaén. Here he meets Sister San Sulpicio, who is also taking the waters together with her cousin, likewise a nun, and a Mother Superior.

Sanjurjo quickly falls in love with the beautiful and very lively Sister San Sulpicio, and when the nuns return to Seville he follows, intending to marry her. This is not as out of the question as it might seem; she has not yet taken her final vows and says she plans to leave the convent when the time for renewal comes up, as it will shortly.

Soon after returning to Seville she does indeed leave and goes back to her home, where she talks to Sanjurjo at night at the reja (the window with an iron grill traditionally used by courting couples). She admits that she is as much in love with him as he is with her. But all is by no means plain sailing from this point; Gloria, as she is now known, has a difficult and eccentric widowed mother who shares her house—on exactly what terms isn't clear—with a strange and rather intimidating man who controls her completely. Matters are made more complicated by the fact that Gloria is an heiress who will bring a large dowry with her when she marries. Her mother's companion is well aware of this and so is Sanjurjo, in spite of his protestations of indifference.

In the end, of course, all ends happily. But there are numerous twists and turns in the plot along the way, and we also get a vivid picture of life in Seville at the end of the nineteenth century. The two main characters are explored in some depth and subtlety and there are plenty of interesting minor characters and subplots as well. There is also comedy, mostly occasioned by Sanjurjo's encounters with the unfamiliar Andalusian ways and customs, which he finds almost as seductive as Gloria herself. Andalusian speech is rendered phonetically to enhance the effect.


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