Review: The House of Ulloa

The House of Ulloa“Gothic” is a descriptor that’s thrown about a lot in relation to Emilia Pardo Bazan’s The House of Ulloa, but I’m not sure I agree that the novel’s truly Gothic in sensibility. First published in Spain in 1886, the novel follows the young priest Julian Alvarez on the first posting of his career, as chaplain to the debauched marquis of Ulloa, Don Pedro. The narrative focuses on Julian’s attempts to reform Don Pedro’s character and rescue his estate from the disarray Julian’s predecessor left it in – as well as from the control of Don Pedro’s majordomo Primitivo, who seems to have his fingers in a number of pies.

There are unmistakably Gothic elements to the tale: the crumbling family mansion, the debauched and degenerate noble house which recalls Edgar Allen Poe’s House of Usher, the wild, Brontean landscapes; later on, Don Pedro marries a sweet, naive young woman who pines away in the confinement of his house. But Bazan is primarily a realist; there is never any true suggestion of the supernatural or of the Gothic unknowable in her novel. In fact the horrors here are almost too knowable: one of the first things we see of the House of Ulloa is a group of grown men force-feeding wine to a toddler. In a Gothic novel such as, for instance, Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, or Wuthering Heights, whose landscapes Bazan’s so resemble, this kind of cruelty would remain subtextual, a narrative void generating the atmosphere of mystery, anxiety and suspense that characterises the Gothic as a genre. Here, in Bazan’s novel, there is no mystery: we’re told, right from the beginning, exactly how bad Don Pedro is. The question that the plot asks is not “How evil can a person be?” but “Is it possible for good to triumph over evil?” Can Julian save Don Pedro’s soul, or at least the earthly existence of his wife? Can his good Christian influence help regenerate the House of Ulloa?

Bazan’s conclusion, like those of many realist writers, is rather depressing; and I think on the whole I do prefer Gothic anxiety, Gothic excess, to the plain-spoken straightforwardness on display in The House of Ulloa. Which isn’t the book’s fault, of course; just a quirk of readerly preference.

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