Arenal, Concepción (1820–1893)

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Arenal, Concepción (1820–1893)

Spanish poet and essayist who worked for prison reform. Name variations: Concepcion. Born on January 30, 1820, in El Ferrol, Galicia, Spain; died in 1893 in Vigo; married Fernando Garcia Carrasco (editor of La Iberia), in 1848; children: daughter (b. around 1848 and died in infancy); sons Fernando (b. 1850) and Ramón (b. 1852).

Selected works:

474 articles for the magazine La voz de la caridad; Fábulas en verso (Fables in Verse, 1854).

Though the Arenals had once been an affluent and distinguished family in Spain, by the time Concepción Arenal's father, a law student, had taken part in the rebellion against the rule of King Ferdinand VII, they were elite in name only. Imprisoned for his rebellion, her father died in jail in 1829. Concepción, with her two sisters and her mother, moved to Armaño Liábana in the Asturias mountains, where they lived with her paternal grandmother. Arenal left when she was 15 to begin studies in Madrid. Enrolled at a prestigious school for girls, which taught the feminine virtues, she had to under-take more academic studies such as Italian and French on her own.

Despite her mother's fear that she would ruin the family honor and her chances for marriage, Arenal was determined to attend university and study law. In the fall of 1842, she began to audit courses at the Central University of Madrid. Since women were not allowed to officially enroll, nor were they to be seen in public without a parent or servant, it is believed that Arenal began to disguise herself as a man. When her gender was discovered, the dean demanded that she present herself for academic testing. Her intelligence and learning proved to be on par with or above her male counterparts. She was allowed to resume her attendance, provided that she continue to dress as a man.

At the university, Arenal met Fernando Garcia Carrasco, a student 12 years her senior, and in 1948 they were married. Fernando was a vocal liberal, which endangered his safety, so they briefly sought refuge back in Asturias. They returned to Madrid when Fernando was made editor of the liberal newspaper La Iberia. Arenal had three children within the first four years of marriage. The first, a daughter, was hydro-cephalic and died at age two. Sons Fernando and Ramón were born in 1850 and 1852, respectively. Ramón's birth left Arenal in poor health. While bedridden, she took up writing, beginning with a series of poems, "Anales de la virtus" (Annals of Virtue). She also wrote several plays, and in 1854 her Fábulas en verso (Fables in Verse) was published.

As Arenal returned to health, Fernando fell ill with tuberculosis. While she cared for him, she continued his work at La Iberia, including writing articles that the paper published under his name. When Fernando died in 1855, Arenal accepted a salary of half that of Fernando's to continue her writing without a byline. Later that year, a law was passed requiring that articles carry an author credit. La Iberia proudly revealed Arenal's identity. Though she continued to write, Arenal retired from the paper, took her children back to Asturias, and contributed most of her energy to ministering to the poor.

At the age of 43, Arenal took the post of inspector of the women's prisons in Galicia and moved to La Coruña. There she met the Countess Espoz y Mina , who began to fund the publication of Arenal's writings. A great deal of Arenal's work focused on the position of women in Spanish society, particularly in relation to prison re-form. In 1864, Arenal founded Las Magdalenas, an organization to assist women during imprisonment and after their release. Las Magdalenas volunteers visited prisoners, read to and helped educate them, and provided a safe haven when they left the prison. Arenal served as inspector until 1873, when the position was terminated.

With the assistance of the countess, in 1870 Arenal established the magazine La voz de la caridad, a frequent forum for her work. Two years later, the countess died, and Arenal fell ill. By the time her health improved, the Carlist war had begun, and Arenal organized a Red Cross corp, serving for five months in a military hospital. When she emerged from service, Arenal saw a wave of liberalism sweep through the country. Many of the ideals for which she had campaigned, most notably prison reform, began to be instituted. In 1875, Arenal and her son Fernando moved to Gijon.

La Voz continued publication until its demise in 1884 due to lack of funding. That same year, Arenal's son Ramón died. Moving to Vigo in 1889, Arenal undertook the revision and compilation of her complete works. In 1893, after burning her correspondence and destroying all but one photograph of herself, Concepción Arenal died of chronic bronchitis. Upon publication, her complete works constituted 23 volumes.

Crista Martin , Boston, Massachusetts