The House of Ulloa

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The House of Ulloa

by Emilia Pardo Bazán


A novel set in the countryside of Galicia (in northwest Spain) on the eve of the liberal revolution of 1868; published in Spain (as Los pazos de Ulloa) in 1886, in English (as The Son of the Bondwoman) in 1907.


A young priest educated in the small city of Santiago is appointed to the decaying house of the marquis of Ulloa, where he struggles against the forces of nature and the moral decay, brutality, and ignorance of the countryside.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Born in La Coruña in northwest Spain in 1852, the countess Emilia Pardo Bazán is one of the main exponents of the nineteenth-century Spanish narrative. Her father’s political activism gave Pardo Bazán the opportunity to acquire firsthand knowledge of the Spanish political arena from a very young age. In 1869 José Pardo Bazán was elected representative to the parliament, and the family moved to Madrid in central Spain, spending winters in the capital and summers in their home province. The grown Emilia Pardo Bazán led an unconventional private life for her era. At 16, she married José Quiroga Pérez Pinal, a young aristocrat. The couple had three children, but the marriage proved unhappy and Pardo Bazán took several lovers. The publication of her letters to another renowned Spanish writer, Pérez Galdós (see Fortunata and Jacinta , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times), reveals their passionate romance. Pardo Bazán meanwhile continued her professional pursuits. Over the years, she spent considerable time traveling outside Spain to other European countries, such as France, where she became acquainted with current philosophical and literary theories. Particularly impressed by Emile Zola’s use of naturalism, she published La cuestión palpitante (The Burning Question), a book of essays that shared her views on the movement as applied to Spain.

Altogether, her writings would include 19 novels, numerous short stories, and nonfiction works on French and Russian literature. For two years (1891–1893) Pardo Bazán published her own magazine, El nuevo teatro crítico, which included historical sketches as well as stories, essays, and literary criticism. Her contemporaries viewed her with some skepticism because of her gender, but most of them regarded Pardo Bazán with respect, as evidenced by the fact that she became the first woman admitted into the male-dominated intellectual scene of the time. Through her fiction, she portrayed slices of Spanish life. Pardo Bazán laced her best-known work, House of Ulloa, with rural characters and customs typical of rural Galacia, pitting what she portrays as an overpowering natural environment against civilized morality in late 1860s Spain.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Carlist Wars and Isabel the II

For much of the nineteenth century, Spain suffered great instability. Continuous wars, levantamientos (uprisings), and revolutions created a scene of chaos and uncertainty that diminished citizens’ faith in and respect for whatever government happened to be in power. In 1833 the Bourbon king Ferdinand VII, whose reign was marked by tyranny and brutality, died without a male descendent. Before his death, in order to ensure that his only daughter would succeed him as monarch, the king abrogated the Ley Sálica, a 1715 Bourbon law forbidding female inheritance of the throne. When Ferdinand died, his daughter Isabel was duly proclaimed queen, but since she was still a minor, her mother, María Cristina, ruled as regent. Discord quickly erupted under her rule. Challenging the legitimacy of Isabel’s succession was Ferdinand’s brother, Don Carlos, who was also proclaimed reigning monarch and was supported by the conservative provincial upper classes. The dynastic quarrel resulted in three civil wars (1833–40, 1846–48, and 1872–76). All three were lost by the Carlists (supporters of Don Carlos). At stake was far more than just who controlled the throne. More than a dispute over succession, Carlism has been described as a counterrevolutionary movement bent on perpetuating the privileges of the Catholic Church and rural upper class.

Unsurprisingly, in view of the controversy over the ascension to the throne, not only María Cristina’s regency but also Isabel’s later reign was marked by instability and political decay. Isabel aggravated the situation by leading a scandalous personal life that exacerbated the instability and damaged her reputation as queen. In a 45-year period, Spain experienced 15 levantamientos, and six constitutions. The final reaction to all this chaos was a liberal revolution in 1868 that forced the queen into exile in France.

Pardo Bazán had very close contact with the Carlists. Her husband was a fervent militant of the party, and for a while she sympathized with its cause, until her ideology became more liberal—though it never did become democratic. In 1888, during a trip to Italy, she met Don Carlos himself in his palace in Venice, then wrote a chronicle about this meeting for the newspaper El Imperial. Carlism surfaces as well in her novel The House of Ulloa, when a main character, the marquis Don Pedro Moscoso, loses his bid for office as a Carlist candidate opposed to the liberals who are in power.

The “Gloriosa” and the First Republic

The House of Ulloa takes place on the eve of Isabel II’s overthrow by the 1868 liberal revolution, an event known as La Gloriosa (The Glorious). Orchestrated by the Progressive Party, the revolution was, according to some historians, led by a couple of smooth-talking “politicians”—General Francisco Serrano and Don Juan Prim. Serrano and Prim, argue these historians, invoked an extremely liberal discourse just to gain popular support; they had no plans to implement radical changes. In any case, there was a notable change in electoral rights: the new provisional government, headed by Serrano, established universal suffrage for males over 25 years old.

On June 6, 1869, Serrano and Prim took charge of the new government, which inherited a number of problems. An agricultural crisis, aggravated by a very dry season, blighted the economy, and unemployment soared, creating unrest among the lower classes. (The agricultural crisis stemmed from a liberal attempt to transfer ownership of the land to those who worked it; the attempt backfired, ending in the peasants having to pay rent to a different landlord.) At the same time, insurrections in the colonies of Puerto Rico and Cuba demanded the new government’s immediate attention in the forms of manpower and funds. Also during the summer of 1869, Carlists from Catalonia, in northeast Spain, led a minor uprising. All of these problems, along with the government’s inability to satisfy two popular requests—the abolition of military service and of the puestas y consumos (tax on commerce)—caused unrest among the lower classes.

In 1870 the Cortes (parliament) approved the candidacy of Amadeo of Savoy, from the Italian royal family, as the new king of Spain. The decision caused fresh uprisings by the Carlists, who naturally felt Carlos, not Amadeo, should have been chosen. Only two years into Amadeo’s reign, the newly appointed king resigned, overwhelmed by the complicated political scene: Prim had been murdered the day of the new king’s arrival; the Carlists continued to pose a threat; the Cuban conflict had not been resolved by the prior government; various liberal factions perpetuated the political friction in Spain, and the Republican party was demanding more power.

In 1873, upon Amadeo’s resignation, the Cortes established the first Spanish republic (on February 12, 1873), but it did not last long, due in part to internal friction in the Republican Party. Within two years, the republic had four liberal presidents. Anarchic revolts became so common that in 1874, General Manuel Pavía proclaimed a dictatorship in order to restore the monarchy, making Isabel II’s son, Alfonso XII, the king.

Many critics consider Pardo Bazán a liberal writer, especially in her defense of women’s rights. Politically, however, she welcomed neither the revolution of 1868 nor the republic, since she did not believe that the lower classes, largely illiterate at the time, were ready for a social revolution. Actually her outlook did not differ from that of many liberals at the time; it was quite common for liberals of her day to be politically moderate.

In the nineteenth century, Galicia’s population was mainly rural and, again, illiterate. By 1887 more than 85 percent of Galicians lived and worked in small agricultural holdings, usually limited to supplying the family’s needs, and rented from landowners. Literacy statistics for the region and era are difficult to ascertain, but even 50 years later, in 1927, as much as 98 percent of the women and 65 percent of the men in Galicia could not read and write (Romero, p. 396). Modernization had not reached late nineteenth-century Galicia either; in fact the region’s agricultural equipment had improved very little since the Middle Ages. Industrial and financial developments were likewise inadequate. Though in the eighteenth century Galicia’s manufacturing production was similar to that of the rest of Spain, by the end of the nineteenth century, it had fallen drastically behind. This situation was due, in part, to the late arrival of the railroad to the region.

Those with some measure of power in Galicia at the time were hidalgos (noblemen), divided into three categories:

  • Educated professionals such as doctors or attorneys
  • Abbots and bishops (usually born into noble families)
  • Heirs of houses and states with noble titles, who usually depended on an administrator or majordomo to manage the land and deal with the peasants that had rented it

All of them suffered the consequences of backwardness in Galicia’s economy. Meanwhile, the small bourgeoisie in Galician cities were gaining some power in the countryside. Since they owned the little commerce there was in the region, they had the means by which to buy up available lands.


The word cacique, which referred originally to an Indian chief, stems from an indigenous American language. In Spanish, the word retains its connotation of social and political power, referring to the system in which local representatives of the central political parties coerce citizens into voting for those parties. This system reached its peak in the nineteenth century, with an elaborate network of caciques at different levels. Despite the constitution, an oligarchy of individuals from different political parties controlled government. These politicians had representatives, or caciques, in every province, who controlled lesser, local caciques, usually men with money, social prestige, or power.

The caciques coerced citizens to give their vote to a certain political party in exchange for protection or other benefits. Those who did not cooperate might be jailed, blamed for a crime they did not commit, or impoverished by arbitrary taxes or fees imposed by local authorities. Driven by a desire for material acquisition and power and privileges, the lesser caciques followed no political ideology. It became common for them to switch parties, in deference to who was in office at the time and what benefits he had to offer.

Many nineteenth-century Spanish writers criticized the abuses exercised by caciques as proof of the inefficiency of a constitutional system that failed to implement the law. In a story called El cacique, Leopoldo Alas (Clarín), one of the most important Spanish realist writers and a contemporary of Pardo Bazán, ridicules the protagonist who has reached an important position in Madrid through the exercise of caciquismo in his own hometown (see Clarín’s La Regenta , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times). Another formidable personage of the day, journalist, sketch artist, writer, and politician Alfonso Rodríguez Castelao, launched a lifelong attack on the system, analyzing and criticizing it in writings and caricatures. Pardo Bazán herself dedicated considerable attention to the topic. In the article “La España de ayer y de hoy,” (The Spain of Yesterday and Today) she describes it as follows: “It is a machine with many wheels, which catch us up in their cogs; the machine is set in motion in Madrid; the spring is in the minister’s office and its action affects every single Spaniard who, although certainly unaware of the mechanism, finds himself forced to vote and act just as the omnipotent cacique, the name given to the little tyrants of local politics, bids him” (Pardo Bazán in Henn, The Early Pardo Bazán, p. 131). The dynamic described above is clearly portrayed in the second half of The House of Ulloa. When Moscoso, the marquis, runs for political office, the reader witnesses the actions of the two local caciques: Barbacana (the Carlist party) and Trampeta (the Liberal party). The abuses range from fraud, to ballot tampering, to murder when supporters of Barbacana kill Moscoso’s head servant, Primitivo, for having betrayed them. In real life, this system of political corruption did not subside until the twentieth century, when it finally disappeared during the period leading up to the Civil War of 1936 and Franco’s subsequent dictatorship.

Social status of women

In The House of Ulloa, Pedro Moscoso shows a strong preference for having a son rather than a daughter, showing the same prejudice that society in his day did towards women. In the nineteenth century all women were considered second-class citizens. They had no right to vote and their access to higher education was limited. By 1870 only 9 percent of the female population could read, in contrast to about 40 percent of the male population (Rodríguez, p. 39).

The social class into which women were born determined their role in society. Whether rural or urban, lower-class women generally enjoyed the most freedom, since they were expected to go out into the world to contribute to the family income. Their participation in the workforce implied a certain economic independence and mobility that wealthier women lacked. At the same time, these lower-class women were relegated to the worst jobs for only menial salaries. Those who failed to find work in the farmfields or the new urban industries usually resorted to becoming servants, a position that made them vulnerable to physical and/or sexual abuse by the house master.

Meanwhile, females in noble and rich bourgeoisie families had to settle for spending time on frivolous activities. Unless self-taught, like Pardo Bazán, the average woman acquired an education only in a few “ornamental” skills—a smattering of French, some piano playing, and needlework. Her main worries were reduced to fashion, gossip, or daily outings, while her main aspiration, in accord with societal precepts of the day, consisted of finding a husband.

Middle-class young women found themselves in the worst position. Their fortunes were not large enough to allow for the frivolous living appropriate to the upper class, yet society conditioned them to pretend they did not have to work, and they learned the lesson well, for many of them would rather starve or live in misery than do so. Their only objective was to attract a man from a higher class, who could ease their economic stress and improve the family fortune. Since marriages were arranged by the bride’s parents, whose interests lay more in financial stability than in their daughter’s happiness, it was common for both parties to have love affairs on the side. Sometimes parents failed to find their daughter a suitable husband, the most unenviable of all positions. Far from gaining freedom, such women had no choice but to remain under their father’s or a brother’s protection.

Much of the analysis and testimony concerning the status of women in this period was voiced by intellectuals. Emilia Pardo Bazán distinguished herself as one of the strongest feminist voices of her time, and certainly the one who commanded the most authority among her male peers. She knew of and sympathized with the ideas of earlier authors who had denounced the repression of women, not just in Spain but also in other countries. Two such authors were the eighteenth-century Spanish writers Benito Jerón-imo Feijóo and Leandro Fernández de Moratín (see Essay on Woman and The Maiden’s Consent , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times). Another writer who impressed Pardo Bazán was the nineteenth-century feminist Conceptión Arenal (an activist too, Are-nal became one of the few females of the era to serve in an official capacity, as inspector of women’s prisons in Galicia in 1868, the very year that House of Ulloa takes place). Pardo Bazán also read the British writer John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869; La Esclavitud Femenina) and immediately had it translated into Spanish.

Pardo Bazán’s own writings on the topic of feminism are numerous. Probably the most elaborate is a study entitled The Women in Spain published in 1889, in which she affirms that women enjoyed better conditions before the eighteenth century because they at least had more access to education. In fact, she believed that educating women would correct most of the errors connected to their social status. They would become more moral because by knowing the real world they would not be easily misled by men. And education could lead to economic independence, which would free women from so strong a need for husbands that they entered inappropriate marriages.

In her lifetime, Pardo Bazán had the fortune to witness advances in women’s rights to education. The major one was brought about by the Institución Libre de Enseñanza (Free Institution of Teaching), a lay school found in 1876 by Francisco Giner de los Ríos and based on pedagogical techniques espoused by the Germans Karl Kristian Friedrich Krause (1781–1832) and Henry Ahrens (1808–74). The school, which educated most of the intellectuals of the next few generations, opened its doors to women, giving them the same opportunity as men.

Through her fiction, Pardo Bazán explores the social status of women of every class. In The House of Ulloa, Sabel, the marquis’s servant and mistress, represents the lower rural class. Of a strong and healthy physical nature, Sabel’s character contrasts with that of the weak and sensitive Nucha, the marquis’s cousin from the city of Santiago who becomes his wife. Although she belongs to a noble family, Nucha and her three sisters suffer conditions similar to those of the middle class, due to the economic decay of the nobility. Aware of their need to marry a good “catch,” their father resolves not to let his nephew, the marquis, leave the city until he has married one of the four cousins. Nucha’s sisters meanwhile spend their afternoon outings trying to attract the notice of young men of their class.

Aside from detailing women’s role and prospects in society, the novel denounces the violence and abuse perpetrated against them. It likewise calls attention to their potential to change the situation and the intimidation felt by males when women step out of their traditional role.

In a period when feminist movements in Europe and the United States were gaining strength, Pardo Bazán did not demand the right to vote but worked to legitimize her position as an intellectual in a society that still resented intelligent women. She broke new ground for women, joining the Ateneo, the cultural center of Spain where intellectuals of the time met to debate, inform, teach and share the current philosophical and intellectual tendencies. In her own words “my work to open the doors to feminism has only been of a personal nature; giving an example of doing everything I can of what is forbidden to women. I have had the pleasure of being the first member of the Ateneo; the first president of the literature section; the first and only woman that has been a professor of the Escuela de Estudios Superiores, right at the Ateneo; the first member of the Real Sociedad Económica Matritense de los Ami-gos del País and other appointments. There is no doubt, that if many women followed my example, feminism in Spain would be a fact” (Pardo Bazán in Clemessy, p. 591). Despite her activism, the Spanish writer encountered numerous obstacles. Many critics believe that one of Pardo Bazán’s main regrets was not being accepted as a member of the Real Academia de la Lengua Española (Royal Academy of the Spanish Language), the institution created in the eighteenth century as the highest authority on issues related to the Spanish language. She also had to contend with overt criticism whenever she introduced a new intellectual tendency or idea in her writing.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

A young man rides a horse through the countryside of Orense, a province in Galicia, on his way to the House of Ulloa. The weak, feminized ways of the young rider contrast sharply with the harsh landscape and its inhabitants. Asking for directions from locals, he receives ambiguous answers that introduce him to an inhospitable environment, whose residents are resistant to foreigners.

The reader learns the identity of the mysterious traveler when he encounters three other men returning from a hunting expedition. The hunters are Pedro Moscoso (marquis of Ulloa), a strong man about 30 years of age, his majordomo Prim-itivo, and the old abbot of Ulloa. The traveler is Julián Álvarez, a recently ordained priest sent from the city of Santiago by the marquis’s uncle to help with the administration of the marquis’s house and to look after the soul of his nephew.

The very night of his arrival at the House of Ulloa, the chaplain Julián witnesses several incidents that shock his innocent sensibilities. The three men seem very fond of wine and to Julián’s surprise, the abbot does not leave until he has become quite drunk, a condition that will impede him from conducting mass the next day. Furthermore, in an attempt to ridicule the young chaplain’s intolerance for alcohol (he can’t handle his liquor), the hosts ply the three-year-old son of the house servant Sabel with wine until he passes out.

It does not take Julián long to perceive the dangerously decaying economic and moral conditions of the house. All of the family archives and written records are stored in a humid, dirty, unorganized room, many already destroyed and others very hard to decipher or classify. Don Pedro Moscoso, the marquis, seems unconcerned about his lack of control of the house’s finances; in fact, he confesses to Julián that he has become completely dependent upon Primitivo’s fraudulent administration of his estate, and even though he is aware of the fact that his majordomo embezzles the manor’s income, Primitivo’s power among the local folk is such that the marquis has no recourse against him. Spiritual life seems nonexistent in the area; hunting represents the main concern of both the nobles and clergymen.

Julián’s unconventional personality, so alien to the area, earns him some enemies. First, the ever-hostile Primitivo, who does not welcome the chaplain’s meddling in the house’s records, tries without success to have his daughter seduce the newcomer. Second, Julián’s fellow clergymen, accustomed to enjoying lively pleasures such as eating, hunting, and gossiping, resent his criticisms and take offense at his quiet shyness. For his part, the moment Julián discovers from a neighboring priest what everyone in the area already knows: that Sabel, Primitivo’s daughter, is not only mistress to the marquis but also the mother of his illegitimate son, Perucho, Julián decides to leave the house.

Upon the chaplain’s announcement of his departure, a new opportunity for salvation arises. Julián proposes that the marquis accompany him to visit the marquis’s uncle and cousins in Santiago. Moscoso, the marquis, agrees to the trip and even contemplates the possibility of finding


“Men, who from the moment they can walk and talk go to primary schools, and then continue their education without interruption right through to the Academy or the University have no idea how difficult it is for a woman to acquire culture and fill in the blanks of her education on her own. … Men become familiar with words and ideas that, generally speaking, are never handled by women, just as women do not handle the fencer’s foil or the craftsman’s tools. One day they might be attending the lectures of an eminent and famous professor, the next taking a degree, or a public examination, like a boxer flexing and showing off his muscles before entering the ring. In short, for men there are nothing but advantages, while for women there are nothing but obstacles.”

From “Notes Towards an Autobiography,” published as a prologue to the second edition of The House of Ulloa

(Pardo Bazán, House of Ulloa, p. 13)

a wife in the city. Needless to say, the idea does not thrill Primitivo who, on the day of the departure, does everything in his power to obstruct it. He injures the horse and the donkeys, refuses to guide the couple on foot, and is later discovered by the marquis pointing his pistol at Julián from a hiding place on the trail. Clearly Primitivo is a menace to anyone who dares challenge his status in the House of Ulloa.

In Santiago, Moscoso encounters a welcoming uncle and four young cousins: Rita, the oldest and prettiest, is outgoing and flirtatious; Manolita is also attractive and outgoing; Carmen, has a more melancholic nature; and Nucha, the youngest and most serious, is excessively thin and cross-eyed. Moscoso immediately feels attracted to Rita, but has doubts about her purity due to her playful character. According to his criterion, only a clean and pure woman deserves to be the mother of his heir. Following Julián’s advice, and to everyone’s surprise, Moscoso decides to ask for Nucha’s hand, willing to forfeit beauty for purity.

After a few months, the newly married couple travels to the Ulloa manor. On the way, Nucha announces that she is pregnant. Moscoso does not hide his excitement about the upcoming birth of an heir; he treats his wife with love and care during the months of pregnancy. Nucha endures a long, hard labor, and after more than two days of agonizing pain, gives birth, to her husband’s dismay, to a girl. From this moment, life reverts to the way it was before the marquis’s trip to Santiago: Sabel resumes her position as the master’s mistress, and Moscoso spends most of his time hunting. He completely ignores his wife and daughter.

It takes Nucha several months to regain some strength. Her life revolves around her daughter, but she feels more and more intimidated by the House of Ulloa and its inhabitants, especially as her suspicions about Perucho’s real father grow stronger. Julián, who has become very close to Nucha, fears for his friend’s life, suffering such severe emotional imbalance that he hallucinates:

He noticed her air of dejection, the black rings around her eyes, her frequent sighs … and he drew the obvious conclusion. There were other symptoms also, which set his imagination running and gave him great cause of concern.

(House of Ulloa, p. 221)

Primitivo and Barbacana, a local cacique, convince the marquis to run for the Carlist party in the upcoming elections. He accepts not because of his political ideology, but because he feels flattered by the attention he receives. In order to finance the campaign, Moscoso must borrow money from Primitivo, who ironically amassed it by stealing from the manor’s income. After many irregularities in the election, Trampeta, the other cacique, and his liberal party win, thanks, in part, to Primitivo, who has betrayed his master to gain control of his possessions as a form of repaying the loan. Before he can enjoy his triumph, however, Primitivo is brutally murdered by Barba-cana’s supporters.

After he loses the election, the marquis grows more ill tempered and physically abuses his wife. Nucha cannot take the abuse any longer, especially because she fears for her daughter’s life, so she asks Julián to help her flee to her father’s. As they plan the escape in church, Moscoso, alerted by his son, Perucho, under the instructions of Primitivo, catches them. Julián is accused of having an affair with Nucha, forced to leave the manor, and sent to a mountain village for ten years. Six months after he has been in this isolated area, he receives the announcement of Nucha’s death.

After ten years in exile, Julián is again appointed to the House of Ulloa. Nothing has changed in the manor, but the last scene features a curious sight: a young girl in rags and a young man well dressed—Manolita (Nucha’s daughter) and Perucho.

Countryside vs. city

The first scene of The House of Ulloa portrays a young man traveling through an inhospitable countryside to which he is not accustomed. Throughout the novel the opposition between countryside (where the manor is located) and city is blatant. The novel portrays rural characters as undisciplined people in a primitive state, heeding their natural instincts to the point that their rudeness and backwardness likens them to an animal. The introduction of Perucho in the novel offers an excellent example:

As if the dogs also understood their right to be served before anyone else, they rose from their dark corner and began to sniff, wag their tails and yawn hungrily. At first Julián thought there was one dog more than before, but as they came into the light around the fire he realized that what he had at first taken for another dog was in fact a three- or four-year-old boy whose long brown jacket and white burlap breeches resembled at a distance the patched coats of the dogs—with which the child seemed to live in perfect harmony and fraternity.

(House of Ulloa, p. 33)

Their health, though, is much better than that of city people. On occasions, the novel contrasts the strong Sabel to the weak Nucha, and the hearty marquis to Julián’s sensitivity. The city—as suggested by such comparisons—promotes progress, hygiene, self-restraint, and civilization in general, but does not allow a person to cultivate his or her body.

This contrast mimics the actual political and social scene of the second half of the nineteenth century. The feudal-like system that had persisted in Galicia’s rural areas was shaken by political and economic forces. Traditionally, a noble landowner, such as the marquis of the novel, rented land to the peasants in exchange for money or a part of the crops. The lord of the land exercised power over his tenants, who respected and feared him. As the nobles suffered economic decay, their power decreased considerably. This situation worsened with the de-samortización (disentailment) laws promulgated in Spain by the liberal party; these laws confiscated land and buildings owned by the church and the municipalities and sold them in public auctions in order to collect money to finance different conflicts such as the Carlists and the Cuban uprisings. The lands were purchased by economically stable families, mostly members of the growing bourgeoisie, who by now mingled with Spain’s nobility. Money began to take priority over tradition and the inheritance of a title; many noble families were forced to swallow their pride and marry their daughters into bourgeois families in order to remain solvent. In order to preserve tradition and class distinctions, the conservative Carlist party aimed to abolish the de-sarmortización laws. The Carlists therefore became identified with provincial and rural Spain.

The city, open to new liberal ideas, threatened the stability of the countryside. In fact, the laws changing landownership in Spain had been dictated from its capital city, Madrid. The liberals considered the country antiquated and frozen in time, full of inhabitants that failed to keep pace with the progress made in other European countries. At best, the differences created tensions between residents of cities and the countryside in mid-to-late nineteenth-century Spain. In The House of Ulloa, Moscoso feels uncomfortable and intimidated when he visits the city of Santiago; the same happens when Nucha and Julián enter the alien environment of rural Orense.

Sources and literary context

Most critics see The House of Ulloa as the finest example of Pardo Bazán’s naturalist techniques. In 1883, three years before its appearance, her series of essays La cuestión palpitante (1882–83; The Burning Questión) revealed her reaction to the French novelist Émile Zola’s naturalism (the movement in literature based on the notion that all human behavior results from one’s heredity and environment). The main fault Pardo Bazán sees in Zola’s philosophy is that his variety of naturalism presumes the absence of free will, thereby denying a basic premise of Catholicism. The Spanish naturalism defended in La cuestión palpitante modifies Zola’s insistently scientific approach, positing that human spirit can overpower heredity and environment.

Pardo Bazan’s discussion of naturalism comes in a period of transition in Spanish literature. Most authors had already stepped away from the Romanticism of the beginning of the century and into realism in order to serve as objective witnesses to life in their time. Zola’s theories and use of the scientific and experimental novel opened the door to new narrative techniques in Spain. Spanish writers focused more directly on lower-class characters and settings than ever before, portraying human misery and lowly instincts in graphic fashion. In fact, some authors were already incorporating some of those techniques in their works. The commotion caused by La cuestión palpitante responds probably more to the fact that the author is a woman than to the nature and innovation of the discussion. In any event, upon the publication of Pardo Bazán’s ideas about naturalism, the Spanish intellectual community engaged in vigorous debate. On the other end of the spectrum, her primary opponent, the novelist Juan Valera, argues that literature should not aspire to disclose any truth but rather to simply entertain.

There is no doubt that many naturalistic traits appear in some of Pardo Bazán’s novels, especially in The House of Ulloa. Her reputation as the main exponent of Spanish naturalism and one of the finest Spanish writers of the nineteenth century rests not on these traits, however. Rather, it is the debate stirred by her writings and by the social issues they address that has helped canonize her in these ways.

Apart from the influence of Zola’s naturalistic techniques, there are no recognized sources for the novel other than the author’s own personal experience. In the Autobiographical Sketches published as a preface to the second edition of the novel, Pardo Bazán mentions many other readings that have influenced her; however, none of them had a direct tangible effect on the novel. It is clear that the action takes place in the region of Carballido, where the author used to spend considerable time. She therefore had firsthand knowledge of the landscape and inhabitants. There is in fact a manor in Galicia with the name of Pazo de Ulloa.

Pardo Bazán had explored similar topics in her portrayal of a decaying rural noble house in the short novel Bucólica in 1884. She herself has discussed the importance of this novel as a writing exercise prior to the composition of The House of Ulloa. It, in turn, would be followed up by a sequel, La madre naturaleza (Mother Nature), published the following year and based on the lives of Perucho and Manolita 15 years after the ending of the first novel.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Restoration (Alfonso XII and XIII)

In 1874, in light of the failure of the first republic and after General Pavia’s levantamiento (uprising), Alfonso XII, son of Queen Isabel, was brought back from exile in France and proclaimed king of Spain.

Upon his arrival, the new king tried to solve the nation’s major problems. He joined his troops against the Carlists and they finally triumphed in 1876, forcing Carlos Maria, grandson of the original Carlist contender, into exile in France. Now released to attend to other problems, Spanish troops were sent to Cuba to calm the revolts there.

Alfonso XII ruled with more stability than his predecessors until 1885, when he died of tuberculosis before turning 30. Maria Cristina, his pregnant wife, became the regent and the next year she gave birth to a male, Alfonso XIII. Politically this period became known as the Turno Pacifico, an allusion to the peaceful alternation of power between the liberals and conservatives.

The strategy resulted in free rein for the caciques, who did not need to fear political accountability and therefore could exercise their power as they wished. No doubt the tumultuous year Spain was experiencing when The House of Ulloa was written, with the death of one king and birth of another, reminded Pardo Bazán of the period of uncertainty in which the novel takes place, that of the 1868 revolution. By incorporating local caciques in the novel, she manages to criticize their actions in the past and present.


The publication of a second edition, containing the autobiographic prologue Apuntes auto-biográficos, of The House of Ulloa only a few months after its initial release proves its tremendous success. Most of the criticism was also favorable. The contemporary author José María de Pereda, for instance, in a letter to Benito Pérez Galdós, author of Fortunata and jacinta (also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times), says “I find The House of Ulloa to be the best novel of Pardo Bazán, with chapters of unquestionable beauty” (Pereda in Clemessy, p. 241).

In the same letter, Pereda expresses his satisfaction at not having found any traces of naturalism in the novel. Clarín, author of La Regenta (also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times), agrees with Pereda in his praise of the novel. However, Clarín disagrees about the absence of naturalism, even comparing Julián to the abbot Mouret, one of Zola’s characters.

House of Ulloa has been reedited continuously since it first appeared and translated into more than ten languages. The two most recent English translations, of Paul O’Prey and Lucia Graves (1990) and Roser Caminals-Heath (1992) received highly positive reviews. The critics celebrated not only the excellence of the translations, but also their inclusion of the Autobiographical Sketches published in the second edition of the novel but absent in recent Spanish editions.

—María P. Tajes

For More Information

Bretz, Mary Lee. “Masculine and Feminine Chronotopes in Los pazos de Ulloa.” Letras Peninsulares 2 (spring 1989): 45–54.

______. Voices, Silences and Echoes: A Theory of the Essay and the Critical Reception of Naturalism in Spain. London: Tamesis, 1992.

Clemessy, Nelly. Emilia Pardo Bazán como novelista. Trans. Irene Gambra. Madrid: Fundación Universitaria Española, 1981.

Fowler Brown, Donald. The Catholic Naturalism of Pardo Bazán. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1957.

Henn, David. “A Priest in the Land of Wolves.” Times Literary Supplement, 18 January 1991, 12.

______. The Early Pardo Bazán. Trowbridge: Redwood Burn, 1988.

Pardo Bazán, Emilia. The House of Ulloa. Trans. Paul O’Prey and Lucia Graves. London: Penguin, 1990.

______. Obras completas. Madrid: Aguilar, 1973.

Pierson, Peter. The History of Spain. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Pozzi, G. Review of The House of Ulloa. Choice 30, no. 1 (spring 1992): 122.

Ramos Oliveira, A. Politics, Economics and Men of Modern Spain 1808–1946. London: Victor Gollancz, 1946.

Rodríguez, Adna Rosa. La cuestión feminista en los ensayos de Emilia Pardo Bazán. Sada: Ediciós do Castro, 1991.

Romero Masiá, Ana. Galicia. CC.SS. Xeografia e historia. La Coruñia: Bahia, 1997.

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The House of Ulloa

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