19th Century

Camilo Castelo Branco’s ‘Mysteries of Lisbon’ (1854): Chapter Five | [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.

Birthplace of Camilo Branco (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

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. The success of The Mysteries of Lisbon and the popularity of its principal character, Father Dinis, reached such great heights that Branco followed it up with a sequel titled Livro Negro de Padre Dinis, in which the priest moves through Lisbon’s high life and low life righting wrongs.

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 second instalment is here; and the third chapter can be found by visiting here. Finally, the fourth chapter can be found by visiting here.

Camilo Branco in 1852 (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

The Mysteries of Lisbon: Chapter Four

My soul was covered in a veil of perpetual sadness in the moment in which I read my mother’s letter. Yet I will not, as Job did, date the hour of the commencement of my misfortunes since the time of my birth. Truly unhappy, I know now that I was the child of a woman who called me her son; the child of that woman whose misfortunes drew tears from the priest—tears which were even more justified after I finished reading this letter.

Every morning, after the ritual of greeting my master, I would ask after my mother; and, over a period of three months, I obtained no news either good or bad. The priest had no more intelligence of the wretched woman; and he answered that he was not surprised at this, because it would not be a new thing to lose all contact with her for even eight years.

And I remembered what my mother had written during her eight years’ confinement. This torture seemed unbearable to me; although I asked the priest what that cause of this barbarous punishment was, he simply responded that he would not exceed my mother’s orders in respect to the details of her life.

Dona Antonia pretended to know little more than myself. The secret appeared all the priest’s own and the priest was a like the seven scrolls that could only be prized from his dead hand, as he told me, thinking that it was better to be cruel to be kind, and pouring poison on my spiritual wounds that would have preferred a balm. For what reason did my angelic mother briefly appear to wipe the tears from my orphaned eyes? To substitute my youthful sadness with the knowledge of her mysterious tortures, and not giving me the means of helping or saving her, without being able to give her hope for the future was torture itself!

My spirit began very early to withdraw into dolorous meditations improper to my age. I knew not the joy of youth’s vigour, nor the sweet dreamlike adventures of that period of innocence. Reality hit me from an early age because there is no lofty poetry, nor elevated and heavenly ecstasies, when a boy steps on thorns where flowers should bloom.

Thus, I could not distract myself from caring about my afflicted mother’s life. The sadness became an illness which, I felt, irritated my whole life and exhausted my resolve to wait for the remedy. There are silent pains which instil respect in us when those that suffer do not ask for our compassion—my pain was thus!

At the end of three months I knew my mother lived; but a few lines revealing that she lived were hers. The father read me the epistle because I did not know all the words contained therein:

This man suspected the servant Bernardo and dismissed him. I was deprived of this good servant who was my hope, and so much it cost me to move him in my favour. I have not been able to find a means of writing to him. I wrote these same lines shaking because I do not know if they will fall into the hands of count. This barbarian invented whims of malice to torture me. I feel a diabolical desire to kill myself. Not if he decides to kill me first! … Would it be cowardice? Would it the pleasure of seeing me suffer? And of my son—do you speak to him of me? I have him so impressed in the imagination! … If I didn’t feel this mother’s love, how my heart would be scorched, the reflection of love, of longing, would be enough … oh my lord! Of the longing for an angel, that was of this world, bequeathing me the inheritance of tears, which soon will be bequeathed to my unhappy son! Father Dinis, out of charity do not spare affection to this boy! Be to him his father out of love, of religion, out of piety, and out of the good heart that God gave you.

The priest, leaving the reading of this ticket incomplete, embraced me with extraordinary effort and sobbed with me.

On the day following D. Antonia told me that a liveried servant was searching for me but that without the permission of her brother she could not consent to allow him to speak with me. The servant assured D. Antonia that he was not the person suspected but the timid lady would not transgress her brother’s precepts. Now her brother was out and it was not certain what hour he would return.

When I saw Mrs Antonia distracted, I ran to the servant, whom I didn’t know. He asked me my name, because he didn’t know me either. He checked up on me, asking me if I was sure that I had been sought out by a lady who claimed to be my mother.

This question made me hesitate to answer, because I don’t know how I imagined that this man was an envoy of my mother’s executioner.

The servant, seeing me in no similar embarrassment to the decision with which I had come to speak to him, told me not to be afraid of telling the truth, because he was my mother’s confidant at the time she had come to see me.

Then he suddenly reminded me of the writing he had heard me read the day before, and the name of the servant my mother was sorry to have lost.

‘What’s your name?’ said I to him.


‘Ah, then surely he’s my friend!’ And, taking me in his arms, into which I had thrown myself with joy, the poor man squeezed me and sobbed out I don’t know what words, which I could tell were coming from his heart.

‘My dear lady’s son!’ he exclaimed, ‘The son of that saint who is guarded from this world so heavy with sorrow!’

‘So you know about my mother’s life?’ I asked anxiously, ‘Tell me—tell me everything you know because I’ve been crying a lot—I know she’s very unfortunate, but neither she nor the priest, nor D. Antonia, can tell me the cause of her suffering’.

‘The cause of her suffering?’ he said, wiping his face, where tears were flowing copiously. ‘So the boy doesn’t know the cause of that poor Countess’s sufferings?’

‘Countess?’ I exclaimed, ‘because my mother is a countess! Ah! — yes, yes… I know why she’s a countess…’

And then I remembered the beginning of the first letter I’d seen written to the priest. There was talk of a count, but my upbringing, so far removed from the most trivial uses of society, didn’t immediately tell me that my mother was necessarily a countess because she was the victim, the wife, or the slave of this count.

‘Your mother, there’s no doubt about it, is the Countess of Santa Bárbara, because she’s married to this man, who has no one in the world to match him in wickedness. He’s a tiger, boy—that’s what he is! God forbid that Your Excellency should see his eyes when the blood rushes to them!’

‘I’ve seen him, and I was scared!’

‘I thought so! Not that he really is a man that God sent into this world to punish mankind. I suffered him for two years, because if it hadn’t been for me, your mother would have died of thirst sometimes…’

‘Dying of thirst!’ I exclaimed, when I began to realise the limits of true misfortune. ‘But why? What harm did my mother do to that man?’

‘Nothing. On the contrary, it seemed as if she was always on her knees, trying to divine his wishes’.

‘But just like that…’

‘To tell you the truth, my little nobleman, I don’t know how to tell you the whole story, because nobody in the house knew why your mother was so martyred; but, in any case, the main cause of it all was—the boy’.

‘Me! What harm did I do to that man?

‘These are other things, which I don’t want to tell you, even though I know them, because you are too young and don’t understand. There will come a time when everything will be known’.

‘But tell me, Bernardo, did you know my father?’

‘No, I did not’.

‘But do you know who he was?’

‘No. I didn’t ask anyone about that either, because it wasn’t my place’.

‘But I already know that he died…’

‘He could have died, but not as far as I know. The one who can tell you everything is the priest here, who has known the Countess’s life since you were born’.

‘Since I was born?’

‘Well! I think the boy—you—have been here since you were born, or at least it’s the master-priest who has always looked after your education’.

‘But I’ve only recently learnt that I have a mother’.

‘That’s not surprising, because your mother has been locked up for eight years without seeing the sun or the moon…’

‘Why is that?’

‘As far as I’m concerned, it’s because the Count was told that the Countess had a son. That is, I don’t say, but it seems to me that your mother once, when she was delirious, said something along those lines’.

At that moment, against my wishes, the priest appeared. I asked Bernardo not to say what he had told me.

The priest treated him affably; he praised him for taking the trouble to come and see me, and I tenderly urged him to come every day if he could.


[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.