Camilo Castelo Branco

“Mysteries of Lisbon” (1854) by Camilo Branco | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a historian and lecturer based in Leeds, United Kingdom, whose research focuses on the works of George W.M. Reynolds, Eugene Sue, and Victor Hugo.


One cannot study nineteenth-century popular fiction without encountering and engaging with Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris (1842—43) and George W.M. Reynolds’s Mysteries of London (1844—48) and his later Mysteries of the Court of London (1849—56). These two novels contributed to what Richard Maxwell and Berry Chevasco have called the ‘mysterymania’ in London and Paris literary world of the 1840s.[1]

Yet the ‘mysteries’ genre was a truly international one and from the beginning of its history this genre was exported from Paris to England and, through a process of translation,[2] adaptation, appeared in the United States, Germany, India, Brazil, and Portugal.

A Brazilian-Portuguese Misterios novel

It is the Portuguese-language Misterios de Lisboa (hereafter called Mysteries of Lisbon) which I’d like to draw your attention to today, which might be more appropriately named Mysteries of the Court of Lisbon.

Camilo Branco in later life

Camilo Castelo Branco

Camilo Castelo Branco is one of Portugal’s most famous nineteenth century novelists and enjoys a posthumous fame in Portugal that is comparable to that enjoyed by Charles Dickens in England.

Born in Lisbon in 1825 to a middle-class family, Branco attended briefly attended the University of Coimbra and studied medicine. His passion for literature, however, soon saw him eschew the life of a medical man and take up writing instead, and he went on to write over 50 novels and romances.

Branco’s politics seem hard to place, at least for English readers seeking to make a comparison between the politics of the Portuguese nation in the nineteenth century and Britain at the same time. Some English-language biographies have called Branco a ‘conservative and Catholic traditionalist’.

Yet he also seems to have been something of a radical; he took part in the Revolution of Maria da Fonte in 1846 while his religious principles must have been, shall we say, ‘adaptable’. He was twice imprisoned for adultery, and he must have been something of a philanderer for in later life he went blind because he contracted syphilis.

Maria da Fonte Revolution (1846)

As to the politics of Mysteries of Lisbon, what we can say is that the aristocracy do not come off well in it. So perhaps ‘anti-establishment’ is the best description we can apply to it.

Be that as it may, The Mysteries of Lisbon, published in three volumes in 1854, was his second novel, which is perhaps why he chose to capitalize on the European-wide mysterymania.

As a young novelist, his initial hesitation on writing a mysteries novel was revealed in the book’s preface, where he confessed that

If I was tempted to write about the hidden life of Lisbon, I wouldn’t be able to write two good chapters. What I know of Lisbon are the reliefs, which stand out in the pictures of all the populations, with the status of cities and towns. This is not worth the honour of the novel. If I had the resources of imagination, I would not come here to consume them in an inglorious task. And without these resources, it has always seemed impossible to me to write the mysteries of a land that has none, and, invented, nobody believes them. I was wrong. It is because I did not know Lisbon, or not able to calculate the power of a man’s imagination. I thought that the horizons of the fantastic world are set in the Pyrenees, and that one could not be a romanticist without having been born Cooper or Sue. I have never been saddened by this persuasion. I rather fancied I was born in the land of real men, because, I beg to believe, novels are a string of lies, from the famous Astrêa of Urfê, to Lamartine’s whining Jocelyn. [3]

Could anyone truly emulate Eugene Sue? Did Portugal even have enough mysteries to write about? Was he up to the task of writing about those mysteries? These are some of the questions with which Branco grappled. Yet in spite of his hesitation, Branco pressed on and, in the process, produced one of the greatest Portuguese-language novels of the nineteenth century.

Title page to the 4th edition of Branco’s work

Misterios de Lisboa

The mystery genre today is usually synonymous with crime or detective fiction. Some foul deed occurs and it is up to a sharp-witted detective to find out ‘whodunnit’. However, in the nineteenth century, the mystery genre meant something a little different according to Stephen Knight:

[Nineteenth-century mysteries novels] deploy a multiple narrative in the context of social and urban change, taking note of new challenges in class and gender and enduring threats from the past. It creates a new story to analyse a new world, retaining a strong link to journalism.[4]

I would add a third dimension to Knight’s definition: The nineteenth-century mysteries novel is usually concerned with unveiling or uncovering social injustices, much as Reynolds’s Mysteries of London and Sue’s Mysteries of Paris do. The genre is therefore wider than mere crime fiction, a fact proved by Sue’s later multivolume Mysteries of the People (1848–54) novel, which traced the trials and tribulations of the Brenn family and its descendants throughout the ages.

Knight’s statement that the mysteries genre retains ‘a strong link to journalism’ are connected to the fact that most mystery novels tended to be serialised in magazines before being published in book form, although Branco’s Misterios broke with tradition in this respect because it was a three-volume novel.

However, Branco’s Misterios de Lisboa follows other mystery novels because at its heart it is an ‘unveiling’ of the injustices perpetrated, and experienced by, Portugal’s upper classes during the Liberal Revolution of 1820.

The means through which the mysteries unfold vary throughout. Initially the novel is narrated in the first person, from the perspective of a young boy in an orphanage. Branco then switches the perspective to the main character Father Dinis, while also including letters and diaries.[5]

The Portuguese Cortes during the Liberal Revolution of 1820

Father Dinish: Social Avenger

The novel does not start in the year 1820 but during the Peninsula War, and the first mystery the reader is introduced to is young João, who does not know his own identity:

Era eu um rapaz de quatorze annos, e não sabia quem era… [I was a boy of 14 and I did not know who I was…][6]

João, who does not have a surname, lives in an orphanage run by Father Dinis. When João falls ill, the secret of his birth is finally revealed: He is the illegitimate son of Ângela and Pedro da Silva, an impoverished nobleman. Ângela wanted to marry Pedro when she was young but her father disapproved of the match. Dinis soon reunites the mother and child and helps Angela to escape from her abusive husband.

Realising that his daughter was pregnant, Angela’s father sent her away into the country to give birth in secret. The father also hired an assassin named the ‘Knife Eater’ to abduct and kill the baby (João) after she had given birth, but Dinis intervened to save the child by paying the brute assassin enough money to spare the child and set himself up as a gentleman, and baby João was removed to Dinis’s orphanage.

It is in the character of Dinis that readers find the influence of Eugene Sue’s character of Rodolphe. Rodolphe in The Mysteries of Paris adopts multiple disguises, and moves between the underworld and the world of the court, which enables him to correct social injustices and save people’s lives.

A famous example of Rodolphe dispensing justice, of course, is in his dealings with the underworld villain named the Schoolmaster.

So it is with Father Dinis, who through the course of the novel adopts several identities that enable him to right the injustices of the past.

As arbiter of justice in the aristocratic world of nineteenth-century Portugal, Dinis, much like Rodolphe in Mysteries of Paris, also determines when to dispense mercy. For example, during the Peninsula War, when Napoleon had invaded Spain and Portugal and a guerilla war between Spanish and Portuguese rebels on the one hand, and French forces on the other, ensued, Dinis saves a young French soldier from a firing squad by hiding him from the rebels.

Modern edition of the Mysteries of Lisbon


Branco’s three-volume Mysteries of Lisbon did not focus on the lives of the lower classes but on the travails of the aristocracy. This, along with the fact that it was published as a three-volume novel, illustrates that Branco did not servilely imitate Eugene Sue and G.W.M. Reynolds but took his own path. In fact, while criminal acts such as attempted murders do occur in the novel, the novel does not sit as easily into the genre of crime fiction like Mysteries of Paris and Mysteries of London do, and the novel’s existence certainly provides a challenge to all those scholars who reduce the mysteries novels to being a mere subset of crime literature.

Branco’s novel has not yet been translated into English; that, in fact, is a task that I am taking on myself, along with the translation of Juana Manso’s Misterios del Plata (1852).


[1] Richard Maxwell, The Mysteries of Paris and London (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1992), p. ix.

[2] See Berry Palmer Chevasco, Mysterymania: The Reception of Eugène Sue in Britain 1838-1860 (Bern: Peter Lang, 2003).

[3] Camilo Castelo Branco, ‘Provenções’, in Mistérios de Lisboa, ed. by Alexandre Cabral, 3 vols, Obras Escholhidas de Camilo Castelo Branco (Lisbon: Circulo de Leitores, 1999), I, p. 9. Se eu me visse assaltado pela tentaçao de escrever a vida oculta de Lisboa, não era capaz de alinhavar dois capitulos com jeito. O que eu conheço de Lisboa são os relevos, que se destacam nos quadros de todas as populações, com foro de cidades e de vilas. Isso não vale a honra do romance. Recursos de imaginação, se os eu tivera, não viria consumi-los aqui numa tarefa inglória. E, sem esses recursos, pereceu-me sempre impossivel escrever os misterios de uma terra que não tem nenhuns, e, inventados, ninguém os crê. Enganei-me. É que não conhecia Lisboa, ou não capaz de calcular a potência da imaginação de um homem. Cuidei que os horizontes do mundo fantástico se fevacham nos Pirenéus, e que não podia ser-se romanticista sem ter nascido Cooper ou Sue. Nunca me contristei desta persuasão. Antes eu gostava gustava muito de ter nascido na terra dos homens verdadeiros, porque, peço me acreditem, que os romances são uma enfiada de mentiras, desde a famosa Astrêa de Urfê, até ao choramingas Jocelyn de Lamartine’. Translation my own.

[4] Stephen Knight, The Mysteries of the Cities: Urban Crime Fiction in the Nineteenth Century (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2012), p. 184.

[5] Branco, Misterios de Lisboa, p. 183.

[6] Branco, Misterios de Lisboa, p.1. Translation my own.