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Jorge Marchant Lazcano: La joven de blanco [The Girl in White]

Three interesting events occurred in Chile in the 1860s. Firstly, in Santiago, the Church of the Company of Jesus burned down, killing over 2000 people, nearly all women. Then, in 1866, the painter James McNeill Whistler told his friends and family that he was leaving London to go the United States (his home country) and, instead, went off to Valparaíso, Chile, where he spent a few months. We still do not know why but we do know that he painted several pictures while there, including Crepuscule in Flesh Color and Green: Valparaiso. While Whistler was there, the Spanish who were at war with Chile, bombarded Valparaíso. Whistler observed this bombardment and painted a picture of the Chilean fleet the night before and one of the morning after. Marchant has taken these three events and created a wonderful novel out of them (not, of course, available in English), in particular, speculating on what Whistler did in Valparaíso besides paint.

While in London, Whistler had an affair with his model, Joanna Hiffernan (his mother broke it up) and painted a famous picture of her in white. This picture is the cover of the book. It was called Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl but Whistler claimed The White Girl was a title given by his gallery, in tribute to the Wilkie Collins‘ novel The Woman in White, very much in vogue in London at that time and also influential, as regards the white dress, on London fashion. Whistler did not approve of the title nor had he read the book. In the novel, Whistler decides to take a train journey to Santiago. The journey is six hours long (the railway line no longer exists) and on the journey he meets a young woman. He shows her a daguerreotype of Joanna Heffernan and she insists that it is her sister. He agrees to lend her the daguerreotype in exchange for a copy of a manuscript, called The Daughters of Mary, that she has (in Spanish), which she says will explain a bit more about her and the fire at the Church of the Company, about which Whistler has become curious.

Much of the novel is the text of the manuscript, which Whistler reads in bits during the course of the novel, sometimes following up by contacting (not always successfully) the young woman he met on the train and sometimes carrying out further investigations. The manuscript tells the story of a young peasant woman, Antonia Parga. Her mother is dead and she works with her father on their smallholding, owned by a rich family that lives in Santiago. She and other young women are asked by the family steward if they would like to go and work for the family in Santiago. The other women do not want to but Antonia wants the chance to go to Santiago. Moreover, her aunt, of whom she is fond, also works there. She is taken to Santiago but everything seems gloomy in the house of the Bezanilla Urízars. She asks to see her aunt but does not get a straight answer. We (and she) soon learn that this is shortly after the Company of Jesus fire. Antonia’s aunt (without any authorisation) had regularly taken Amalia, the younger daughter, to this church, a meeting of women devoted to the Virgin Mary, very much frowned on by the rich, particularly Amalia’s father, but to which many serving and working women went and to which also young women of rich families went. During the fire, Antonia’s aunt had died but Amalia has survived but was very badly burnt. The family (and some of the servants) blame Antonia’s aunt for taking Amalia there without permission. The father is highly critical of the organisation and the aunt, the mother prays continually, the younger son, a seminarist, is nominally in agreement with his father but actually sympathetic to the cult, and the older daughter, Carolina is, of course, in a state of shock but can, at least function. Antonia, to her horror, finds that her job is to look after Amalia, bathing her in a soothing lotion and feeding her morphine while, essentially, waiting for her to die.

Whistler, of course, assumes that the woman he met on the train is Carolina but investigations show that there is no such family as the Bezanilla Urízars. Also the name the woman gave – Thomson – is difficult to track down. However, she did leave a poste restante address and he writes to her. She eventually agrees to meet him and they start what looks like an affair. He finds out where she lives and continues his researches on the fire (Marchant gives a lot of details.) But Marchant is not going to make this easy. There are twists and more twists, both with the Bezanilla Urízars and Whistler and the woman on the train. It is a very fine story and one, I sure, would do well were it to be translated in to English. But it probably won’t be so here is one more reason to learn Spanish.

Publishing history

First published in 2004 by Alfaguara
No English translation