19th Century

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

Stephen Basdeo is a historian and lecturer based in Leeds, United Kingdom, who has published biographies of George W.M. Reynolds and Joseph Ritson.

Camilo Castelo Branco (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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.[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 second chapter of Castelo Branco’s novel, translated by Stephen Basdeo. For those wishing to read the first instalment please click here.

The Mysteries of Lisbon: Chapter Three

The danger of brain congestion had passed but my convalescence was slow and risky.

Father Dinis comforted me in his own peculiar way. To others, his affection would seem like indifference but, to his credit, I confess that his careful precautions for my recovery were effective.

Sometimes I asked about the supposed Dona Maria but Dona Antonia was always evaded the subject.

Sometimes, I was told that Dona Maria was very busy and could not visit here often. At other times, she contradicted herself, saying that she had come to see me when my fever would not let me see her.

D. Antonia was always truthful, and only a great embarrassment could have forced her into an innocent lie. The whole affair [concerning me] had taken place in secret, which my fourteen year old self should have guessed.[1]

I rose from my bed, where I had suffered three months, and where more than once I had been sentenced to death by the surgeon. Unfortunately, the doctor’s forecasts could not compete with the designs of Providence. I lived when I should have died.

And yet my position was already different in the little society I knew. A new lease of life was given to me—a new freedom—more attention was shown to me—I was even placed in a new room! What was all this for? Why wouldn’t D. Antonia, whom I asked with childish idiocy, tell me wherefore? The priest didn’t tell me, but then I wouldn’t have the audacity to ask him.

My fellow pupils seemed to have forgotten my unfortunate name and the boy who had pulled my ear was expelled from the college a few days after our disastrous fight.

I began to savour books, which had been so bitter to me. I acquired the habit of studying spontaneously and carefully. I felt happy with a joy that I couldn’t express. And I began to see something in the world that persuaded me of the great good that life was.

My metamorphosis took place in the eyes of the priest, who always tried hard to give me a taste for science. I saw him rejoice in my newfound love for learning but I did not hear a word from him to explain the remote cause of my transformation.

Locked in my room, I was studying late at night when there was a knock at the door. I opened it. A woman in a disguise entered. As soon as she had entered, the cloak fell from her shoulders and I felt myself pressed to her bosom by an impetuous embrace.

It was the woman of that fevered night. I knew her well. Those dark, luminous eyes were hers. Those pale, thin cheeks were hers. No one else could have been her, with that delicate form, and at the same time robust, nervous vigour that seemed like a newly galvanised body.

Clasping me in her arms, she spoke to me only through her tears. Words, if she had any, came out of her lips in sighs. The mystery became clearer. My heart beat with a new pulse. A dark cloud tore through my understanding. I felt a strange chill, a jolt of inspiration, an inward impulse that made me kneel to that woman. And I could not overcome myself.

My knees bowed. In this flight of ecstatic adoration, I heard a word: ‘My…’, and as I instinctively stuck my lips to that woman’s hand, the phrase came fully from her lips… ‘My son!’

Do not ask me to explain what I felt then. The silence, the words which I cannot decipher even now. I was in a mute, sobbing rapture. This impromptu appearance of a mother to her estranged son, who feels in his heart a heart whose existence he did not know—such a surprise brings with it a holy terror, which owes its pre-existence to the presence of God.

I wanted to say the word ‘mother’ and I felt embarrassed. I could not.

‘Won’t you tell me anything, my son?’ murmured my mother, as if she feared being overheard. And rising from the painful position in which she had clasped me, she sat down on a chair, pressed me to her breast, and laid her burning cheek against my shoulder.

‘Do you remember seeing me?’ she said, smiling and crying.

‘I remember every instant; I could never forget either your words or your features’.

‘And you saw me only once?’

‘Only once; but I know you were near me.’

‘What do you feel in your heart now, my son?’

‘I don’t know what I feel: it reminds me that I used to have these dreams when I was ill’.

‘Can you be a friend of … can you be my friend?’

‘Friend of…’

‘…of your mother?’

The eagerness of her kisses made me delirious. I remember that in her face there was a movement, a vibration of gestures, a trembling running through her whole body that frightened me.

I had never had anyone embrace me, much less a woman who, on seeing a son she thought was lost forever, exclaimed ‘This is my son!’

‘I must hear you!’ she said with passionate energy, ‘I need you to speak, to pronounce my name often … You seem to doubt that I am your mother? Doesn’t your heart tell you that I am? Answer me, my son!’

I babbled inarticulate sounds. It was an invincible fear, a disgust that burned in my cheeks, an undefined compulsion, similar to any other, and the only one, that I had ever felt in my life! My heart told me that she was my mother; and my convulsed and indecisive lips seemed to refuse to utter a name that had not been written there, in childhood, by the lips of our fathers.

With my eyes fixed on my mother’s lap, and with a sort of resentment, which my silence simulated, one would have thought I was a son rebuking the disaffection of this mother, who had abandoned him as a little child, and had come to seek him as an adult and say ‘I have a right to your love, your affections, and your respect, because I have given you existence’.

But such a thought, such vengeance, was not proper to my age; if it were, the filial cry would shout louder, the exclamation dammed up for a long time in a heart darkened by orphanhood.

Yet my mother thought that my silence was a complaint. She saw in my supposed inertia a providential accusation, a punishment from heaven whose instrument was my innocence.

And she wept with grief. You could read her spirit’s torment on her troubled face. How sublime was that woman’s agony, struggling with remorse, and staring at me in terror!

It was then that her eyes sparkled with that sinister glow of madness. Her cheeks seemed ploughed and parched by a breath of fire. Her lips quivered with nervous twitching!

Her hair, moistened by the sweat of her forehead, was flung in desperate disarray behind her ears.

I knew not until then that the expression of hatred is manifested more grudgingly than it was then in my mother the expression of love!

But that was not the emotion that, in that trance, gave her appearance a fearful colouring.

While her lips kissed me in fervent commotion, the viper of hatred bit her breast, and poured a diabolical poison into her arteries. This hatred was a seizure, a syncope, a fit of hydrophobia, which almost made her possessed!

But don’t ask me now for the history of this hatred, the lugubrious picture of this exceptional type in bitterness. It is still too early; tears are the continuous living of some lives, and, if they were not taken into account, one by one, then the biography of these existences would be monotonous and cold.

I tried to awaken my mother from that sort of shattering somnambulism; but the attack no longer yielded to my timid efforts, it had to pass through some crises, to struggle in impetuous convulsions, to weaken in spasmodic tremors, and to end by the deadly atony of the muscles.

Fortunately the chair, on which she had sat, was close to my bed. My mother, fainting, hung her head on the bed. I wiped a cold sweat from her face. I thought her dead. When this overwhelming suspicion entered my heart, I ran to the door, opened it, called D. Antonia, and asked her with raised hands to send for a doctor for my mother.

The poor lady, stunned by the frightful state of her visit, ran to call her brother. The priest, less flustered, but with visible terror in his features, took the fainted woman’s pulse and shuddered. He took a mirror, put it over her lips, looked at it, and, seeing it fogged up, defiantly exclaimed ‘She is alive!’

And then a signal was heard at the door, and a voice from outside said ‘A quarter of an hour has passed’.

At that moment my mother opened her eyes. She sat up. She sat down and looked at me. She gestured for D. Anotonia, who was holding her in her arms, to withdraw.

Antonia was about to retire when the priest repeated the words that seemed to wake her up: ‘A quarter of an hour has passed’.

‘It has!’ exclaimed my mother.

And taking her cloak from the floor, without even saying goodbye to me, she disappeared, as if fleeing the dishonour of that room. Then I heard the rapid whirring of a cart.


[1] Direct translation of second part of sentence: ‘…if my fourteen years of age included fifteen days of today’s society’. Unclear what it means.