19th Century

Camilo Castelo Branco’s ‘Mysteries of Lisbon’ (1854): Chapter One | [Trans. Stephen Basdeo]

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.

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.

Title page to an undated late nineteenth century copy of Misterios de Lisboa (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

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.[1]

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.

The novel has never before been translated into English and what is presented below is the first chapter of Castelo Branco’s novel, translated by Stephen Basdeo.

Camilo Castelo Branco’s Mistérios de Lisboa (1854)

Chapter One

I was a boy of fourteen, and I did not know who I was.

I lived in the company of a priest, of a lady who, it was said, was the priest’s sister, and of twenty boys who were my co-disciples. Some of these boys, who must have been more cultivated than I in the knowledge of the world, often asked me if I was the priest’s son, and I did not know how to respond to them.

Now this priest seemed to be a very virtuous man, though it wouldn’t greatly surprise me if I was his son. After all, I never heard him sing sacred songs on the harp—but surely one can be as good a player as King David without being a skilled harpist. Many times I felt a need to say ‘Master, they ask me if you are my father; should I answer “no,” for my father left me?’

But I never did this because I understood that knowledge of who one’s father was is not one of life’s great necessities. Instead I was inclined to higher contemplations; raising my eyes to heaven, I saw, many times, birds flying. I used to say to myself: ‘Do such of God’s creatures ask who their father was? What freedom they have! What independence they enjoy! My spirit is like that swallow! The world would be mine if I could fly like them! If I could be as near to God as they are, even then I would not meet my father … This earth seems too small for me.’

Such thoughts may seem chilling for a child, but when alone in my bed these are the sentiments that occupied my mind. These thoughts, centred on God, were the cradle in which I rocked myself to sleep. They comforted me, and compensated me for the affection that I had never received at the foot of my bed.

What oftentimes worried me in these idle fantasies was the priest. I hated Latin, logic, science books. The swallow was my model and swallows did not learn Latin. ‘What’s the use’, I would say to my bored self, leafing through a volume of Titus Livius’s History, ‘of spending half my existence, pretentiously consuming these sterile words, to no end at all, and never growing as a person, without discovering the sixth sense of human feeling?’

I do not claim that these were my verbatim thoughts; society has taught me many words since (not all of which I’m thankful for), but those were my general ideas.

But the priest had other ideas: He forced me into specialist study with my fellow students. If affection was a sign of paternity, never would I excite any suspicion of being his son. I did not have holidays or trips out. I never received praise of prizes. To the world, to my absent father, and even to the priest in some ways, I was an outcast: a bastard.

The priest’s poor sister told me, however, that I was my master’s favourite pupil. She explained to me her own, somewhat odd, theory of love and concluded that the knowledge of my patrimony would be much better communicated to me by the priest, and my patience would be rewarded.

With the scant knowledge of my heritage communicated to me by the priest’s sister, I could only conclude that I was a pauper. I didn’t like the idea, but perhaps that brought me closer to the swallow who goes abroad in the world, without clothes on its back, and goes to bed not worrying about how to get its next meal.

These sentiments, which I communicated to the good Dona Antonia—for such was the name of the priest’s sister—made the overly-sensitive old woman cry. She cried over anything, in fact, yet neither knew nor pretended to know the ways of the world. But the swallow could not remedy all of my anxieties and curiosities.

I wanted to know who I was.

I fantasized about being a high-born man when I brooded on my family secrets, despite having no allowance, no praise from any quarter, and not even a mysterious benefactor. Maybe my grand heritage was simply disguised in a cheap coat!

Or perhaps I was indeed of low birth which, given my cheap coat, marked me out as bearing all the trappings of indigence. If so, I would romanticise the fact of my birth in sad poetry which was the natural child of my pensive nature. Perhaps I was the son of a shoemaker? Maybe I was a foundling that the priest bought from a street seller, in the same way as one would buy a cat? Maybe I was even the son of a condemned felon whom the priest accompanied to the gallows?

Such questions pierced my heart. I wanted answers to them: Was I the son of a shoemaker? Was I a foundling raised from the gutter by charity’s benevolent hand? Perhaps I was indeed the son of a thief, but I must never talk about it because the executioner who hanged my father was still living—one cannot assume the name of a notorious thief and not be gossiped about by others in the public square where the gallows were situated. I would often become quite fatigued with these painful conjectures but to comfort myself I would remind myself that a son without a father can become world-famous. [Even if I was a shoemaker’s son, a thief’s son, or a foundling, I could still make something of myself of course]. It seemed to me that the son of a shoemaker can be a prime minister; the foundling could become an affectionate father; and the thief’s son could become an implacable judge who passes severe sentences upon all such rogues.

These meditations descended on me frequently and were occasioned by the consideration of quite unremarkable things. For example, each of my fellow pupils had maybe four or five surnames, maybe even six. I was João. A single name.

And to my name my companions gave playful intonations. They would call me chato, or ‘boring’, or they might give a ridiculous emphasis to each syllable. I laughed at such trifles publicly while I sometimes inwardly wept. Many times I complained to the priest about their taunts in secret, for which he rebuked, not the bullies, but myself. The priest called me vain and overly proud. Perhaps he was being cruel to be kind, like when a surgeon has to cut through expensive clothes to heal a wound. To such incisions would the priest add a variety of grand and sententious metaphors, to which were appended ill-applied Biblical passages.

Usually I received sound instruction from the priest but, on the above occasion, my spirit did not receive the blessed grain among the thorns, which made me regard my master and fellow pupils with contempt.

The priest’s sister was visited from far and wide by two old ladies. With them came a new one, to whom I devote a few lines, because it was she who, from my appearance, first found in me indications of a high birth.

I was alone and hidden among the beech trees that shaded the bottom of the yard. The old woman and the new woman came up to me. She looked at me with interest, and said to D. Antonia that ‘This boy seems very sad!’

I got up from my stone bench and curtsied to her in my childlike manner.

‘He is certainly a good little servant!’ said one of the old women, patting my head in a condescending manner.

‘Doesn’t he go to see his family on a Sunday?’

‘I don’t have any family,’ I answered with a firm sadness that surprised me.

I was cold with them because they broached that topic which, cultivated with bitterness, dominated my thoughts.

‘Well, doesn’t the boy have a family?’ asked the new woman.

I fell silent as my eyes were welling up with tears; but at that at that moment a little bird twittered among the beech trees, and I felt consoled. It reminded me of the swallow.

And the old woman continued: ‘Dona Antonia hadn’t told us this…’

‘It’s true!’ said the others in chorus.

‘I couldn’t tell you any more than he did … His birth is as much a secret to me as it is to him’ replied D. Antonia, stammering.

This little fact satisfied her guest’s initial curiosity.

The woman surveyed me thoughtfully. She scanned my hands and feet as if to decipher the enigma of my birth according to palmistry. Then, turning to her aunts, she said brightly ‘Look at what a tiny hand and foot!’

‘It’s true!’ all the old ladies, except D. Antonia, exclaimed, who was trying to distract her friends from further inquiry.

‘This boy’, said the young lady, ‘is not from a lower class!’

‘And why do you say that?’ asked the priest’s sister, astonishment covering her face.

‘Look at the hands and feet. The children of the rabble don’t come into the world like that’.

‘You’re always speaking unkindly about the rabble, little Elizabeth’, said her mother, or aunt, ‘for all are children of God and all of God’s children have hands and feet’.

‘I don’t deny it,’ said the gentle aristocrat, with less acrimony, ‘but what I do know is that I know a good person by his hands and feet. A tailor may travel in a fine carriage, but it is the hands and feet that will betray his profession’.

‘That seems too much to me’, replied her aunt in the best possible faith…

I don’t know why I sympathized with little Isabel’s pride but I liked to listen to her, and I wanted her to find in me some more evidence of my nobility.

If you think such thoughts betray feelings of sinful pride, I ask you to forgive a child like me who, before aspiring to be born behind a heraldic curtain, would have been content with either a shoemaker or a bandit for a father.

The family withdrew. And I kept on looking at my foot and my hand.


[1] 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.