Journal of Anglo-Hispanic Romanticism

Vargas : A Tale of Spain for a Post-Peninsular War England

Veronica Mayer

Yale University


This essay conducts a close reading of the novel Vargas in juxtaposition with its source story, the Enlightenment novel of Inquisition Cornelia Bororquia, o La víctima de la Inquisición [Cornelia Bororquia, or The Victim of the Inquisition] published anonymously in Paris, 1801. Cornelia Bororquia is about an innocent girl kidnapped by the lecherous Archbishop of Seville and imprisoned in the Inquisition, and ultimately burned at the stake, when she rejects the Archbishop's advances. I want to show how Vargas adapts this grim, late-Enlightenment roman à thèse to revive interest in Spain for a late Romanticism English public, ignorant and dismissive of Spain after the Peninsular War.



Imagine for a moment – this shouldn't be very difficult, given our conference theme – an Englishman who has traveled around Spain for ten years, observing French atrocities and Spanish sufferings in the Peninsular War, communicating with the Spanish troops and civilians, and the British troops who in the process has learned in deepest intimacy Spanish traditions, culture, and history. Now again, imagine this Englishman forced to retire to England after the War, expecting to share his experiences with his fellow veterans and peers; and instead he finds that after years in Spain, they know and care nothing about Spain's language, culture, history, or people:

Proud, and justly proud of their political preponderance and of their great moral and intellectual advancement, they turn at once from a state of civilization which appears to them to be inferior to their own, and have not the patience to examine it more closely. (9)


Even in England, they "injudiciously deprive themselves of many opportunities of information" by ignoring the perspectives of foreigners "amongst whom they reside" in London (9) . . . . And, they do so, "what is worse, without being ashamed of their ignorance" (10). The Hispanophile from our scenario finds this proud ignorance unpardonable, and, on the suggestion of a brilliant Spanish noble friend, sets out to rectify this abominable ignorance.


This Englishman is "Cornelius Villiers," and this scenario is the frame story of Vargas: A Tale of Spain, which is published, as we saw with Prof. Durán yesterday, anonymously (by Baldwin, Craddock, and Joy) in London in 1822. As with much of the literature we have been discussing, Vargas occupies a peculiar place in literary history: published in London, in English, for an Anglophone audience, it is historical fiction about Spain, filled with sayings and songs translated from the Spanish. Even in Britain Vargas was not widely read, only going through one edition. Since Blanco White has become part of the Spanish literary canon, this novel's very bridging of Spanish and English cultures, as well as autobiographical details, has convinced some of the most eminent Blanco White scholars (Murphy, Garnica Silva, Benítez, earlier Mendez Bejarano) to analyze Vargas as a work of Blanco White's. And yet, as Fernando Durán has effectively (and excitingly!) proved fewer than two years ago, the novel was not written by Blanco White but the Anglican reverend, Alexander Dallas.


Rather than discussing the question of "real-world" authorship, I'd like to conduct a close reading of the novel in juxtaposition with its source story, the Enlightenment novel of Inquisition Cornelia Bororquia, o La víctima de la Inquisición [Cornelia Bororquia, or The Victim of the Inquisition; published anonymously in Paris, 1801). Cornelia Bororquia is about an innocent girl kidnapped by the lecherous Archbishop of Seville and imprisoned in the Inquisition, and ultimately burned at the stake, when she rejects the Archbishop's advances. I want to show how Vargas adapts this grim, late-Enlightenment roman à thèse to revive interest in Spain for a late Romanticism English public, ignorant and dismissive of Spain after the Peninsular War.


Just as Cornelius considers a serious study of the Spanish nation necessary for post-Peninsular War Britons to understand that foreign culture, I consider a study of the changes that the factual author, Dallas, makes to the Cornelia Bororquia story, to be the key for a 21st -century audience to understand this somewhat old-fashioned, hodgepodge of a novel. As a historical novel in the line of Scott's Waverley, set in 1591 Spain, Vargas creates a Spanish world by expanding the structure, the plots, and the characterization in the original Cornelia Bororquia story. It adds the Cornelius Villiers frame, adds another major plot (the Aragon-Antonio Perez plot) and expands the original plot with multiple subplots, and finally, populates the novel with Spanish characters of all levels of goodness and social class. By weaving together various characters in several subplots within the larger frame, Dallas shows how the Spanish are capable of great and petty wickedness, largely because of religious and political oppression. Yet he also shows that they're a people of great promise, stemming from their rich cultural and political heritage, which ultimately can lead them to a greater level of modernity, what Dallas' peers—and perhaps we—would perceive to be civilization.

[Cervantine?] Framing


Vargas first departs both from the historical fiction of Waverley and from the epistolary novel Cornelia Bororquia in its use of a frame. In what some scholars have recognized as a Cervantine device, the structure is as follows:

the factual anonymous author, presumably Dallas, pretends to be merely an editor, instead attributing the novel to his double, Cornelius Villiers. This is somewhat like how Cervantes attributes Don Quijote to Cide Hamete Benengeli. Yet there is one more layer that scholars have not discussed: Villiers's friend and correspondent, Don Juan de Beamonte, the Spanish nobleman. Like Cervantes in the Prologue to Don Quijote, Villiers reproduces his conversation with this friend, attributing the idea of the novel to this Spaniard and not to himself. It is speaking that the novel is itself a product of a friendship between Spaniard and Englishman.


A word more about these two author-characters who bridge the Spain-England divide: as we saw, Villiers is a typical, relatable British traveler in Spain, but one with particular empathy and interest for the Spanish—significantly, he does not return to England "until he had the satisfaction of seeing the French armies driven entirely out of the Peninsula" (Preface ix), and even once in England he feels like a bird with clipped wings, and "would fain fly" over the Pyrenees to be in Spain (4-5)—as if Spain is the country of freedom. His connection to Spain is further described as organic when he says that he is "Transplanted" to English soil (5). Finally, Villiers' Christian name is "Cornelius," the male version of Cornelia, the Spanish female protagonist coming from a Spanish novel about the Inquisition—the English author is Cornelia's tocayo, her double in name.


Spanish nobleman and Villiers's friend Don Juan de Beamonte as I said, is the source of the idea behind this book—Antonio Perez's story adapted to historical fiction, with various subplots. If not the author, Beamonte is at least the literary engineer:

give the rein to your imagination, and interweave the fictitious underplots of the secondary characters upon the real adventures of the heroes; this will afford you an opportunity of painting our manners and character in various points of view, . . . conveying information concerning us, as well as exciting interest for us. (15)

collect[ ] the sense from that most abominably printed, and worse spelt edition, published at Geneva, which, thanks to the defunct Inquisition, is the best, if not the only one, of [Antonio] Perez's works, wretched as it is: surely his story must interest every body (16).

Note that mention of the absence of the Inquisition. This is not incidental! The period of 1822 is particularly good to write about Spain because now there are new intellectual, literary, religious freedoms! For Beamonte, freedom from Inquisition allows both political freedom and better cultural understanding.

Plot Development


The second major change from any source text is the complicated weaving of texts that Beamonte suggests. Vargas consists of two main, interweaved plots (and several subplots):

the story of Cornelia and her beloved Vargas, whose paths diverge then link back up, taken from the literary source,the novel Cornelia, and the story of Antonio Perez, taken from a presumably historical source, Perez's own Relations (published in Spanish in Geneva in 1644). Vargas makes a parallel between the violations of Cornelia in Cornelia Bororquia and the violations of the Aragonese people in the Antonio Perez case: in both, the Inquisition violates the law with a kidnapping—in Aragon, by Philip II's orchestrating Antonio Perez being kidnapping from the prison of Manifestacion, and in the Cornelia-Vargas plot, by the Archbishop orchestrating Cornelia's kidnapping from her home. The plots join up in the end when Cornelia, Vargas and their friends, and Antonio Perez flee to Berne, France, and Cornelia and Vargas thence to England. (I will return to the further plot developments later).

Panorama of Spanish Characters


As Beamonte suggests, the novel presents a broad range of Spanish characters, almost all of whom are fictional:

As you can see, we have the all-good heroes and heroine, who include the people of Zaragoza: the villains, who range from just villain in the old sense—rustic petty criminals (innkeeper) to decent people who are capable of murder—marchioness frays, etc.—to the all-out arch-villains, the Archbishop and Philip II. But even the Archbishop is comic relief. And finally, there are wildcards—characters who can be wicked or good based on their own independent reasons, like the gitanos, or depending on what they are told from above, like the villagers. The heroes Cornelia and Vargas are extremely well-educated, despite having been born in Spain. Vargas undergoes a passionate conversion to Protestantism in Spain that only is completed when he visits England, and it is the high-quality "habit of reasoning," learned from the "Romish education" that attracts both Cornelia and Vargas to the truths of Protestantism (I, 226). So this is certainly a grey vision of Spain on moral, socioeconomic, and cultural levels.

Plot Resolution


Ultimately, the conclusions of the plots both show the merits and weaknesses of Spanish civilization. Let's return to our original plot map:

First, the Antonio Perez plot, significantly, occurs in Zaragoza—the people of Zaragoza rise up to defend the right of minister Antonio Perez to have safety in a Manifestacion prison—does the rising up of the Zaragozan people against tyranny sound familiar, given our discussion of the Peninsular War? Vargas waxes eloquent on the Tradition of rights and constitution in Aragon, to the point that the English reader would feel that Aragon must be an organic, Spanish Albion:

particularly jealous of their chartered and long preserved liberties and privileges. The Inquisitors knew how slightly their baneful Upas tree had taken root in the free, and yet uncontaminated soil of Aragon, where there had been little preparation from the iron hand of despotism to fit it for the nourishment of such a plant . . . in violating the sacred prison of the Manifestacion, they were destroying the very bulwark of the liberty of Aragon—the only security for her freedom. (I, 22)


The implication is that the Zaragozans only rise up because they are provoked—just as we heard that Wellington said. We could say Aragon in the novel is a model for the Spain of the future. The problem is that in 1591, Philip II quashes the revolt and the leaders are executed—nevertheless, I think that Vargas suggests that Aragon could be taken as a homegrown, admirable Mayer 8 model for 1822 Spanish constitutionalism. And in the end, Antonio Perez does survive, and joins with Cornelia and Vargas.

Comedic Punishment, the Spanish via media


The comedic end of the CorneliaVargas plot is, in my view, somewhat drawn from Cervantes, and so suggesting that Spain also has a rich culture that can aid it. One character declares, "there is no safety from the Inquisition on the soil of Spain; let us try her waters" (I, 247). Significantly, the protagonists must conduct their escape and abduction of the Archbishop by water, a space of freedom where Spain has traditionally had the most military success. In a country with political and religious oppression, successfully executing a moderate retributive justice requires unofficial alternatives, coming from the Spanish literary tradition that this novel prizes.


After trying and failing to use official routes to save Cornelia, the protagonists end up turning the Archbishop's own crime on him, kidnapping him as they kidnap Cornelia from the Inquisition, and therefore achieving the rescue in literature that the Zaragozans couldn't achieve in history. Yet instead of torturing the Archbishop physically like he had done to Cornelia, they torture him by convincing innocent villagers to house him as a lunatic, not a real Archbishop. Therefore, all the Archbishop's pride looks like lunacy: "all His Excellency's rhetoric would pass for most excellent madness" (III, 165). Although one Spaniard wants revenge, he devises this in order to save the Inquisition "from the necessity of inflicting punishment, or at least imprisonment, where restraint only may be sufficient" (III, 173-74). This comedic confusion of madness sounds very much the tale of "the madman of Seville" at the beginning of part II of Don Quixote. Ultimately, the Archbishop dies disillusioned not only with himself but also with the Inquisition, dying from bursting his blood vessel in anger—his own flaws destroy him—thus the Spanish literary protagonists Cornelia and Vargas perfect comedic justice in a more forgiving type of punishment and pave the way for their freedom, fleeing to France with Antonio Perez. This justice through measured comedic action, which leads to success in Spain, is not the same route that might be tried in a well-organized country like Britain, in Dallas's view.

Literary Conclusions via media


While Villiers' purpose may be only to inform, Dallas' is to prepare the ground for conversion and liberation. For the factual author, Dallas, Vargas is as a much a tale about Spain's interest for the English as it is in Spain's best interests. The novel shows how Spain's religious and political tyranny is not only unjust but illegitimate from the perspective of the Spaniards themselves, and therefore must be removed. The Aragon uprising in favor of Antonio Perez's rights, and the conversions of Cornelia and Vargas, suggest that the Spanish people inherently prize their political and religious liberties: the British felt this in the Peninsular War. Yet the largely-comedic conclusion of Vargas shows that neither pure revolution nor pure education can work to free the Spanish people: they must use their own via media. Now that the Inquisition is defunct (in 1822), as Beamonte reminds Villiers, they can freely learn like Cornelia and Vargas about the political and religious ideas that the British and the French learned generations before. Nonetheless, while Dallas might want British political and religious intervention —especially, as Fernando Durán pointed out, in his later evangelical period—we know, as was seen in Alicia Laspra's presentation, that even diplomatic intervention in Spain is not viable. The Spanish must be the agents of their own freedom, must use their own literary and political traditions, and benevolent nature, to implement justice and modernize their own nation.

Biographical Notice

Veronica Mayer is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Yale University.

End Notes