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Llorenç Villalonga: Mort de dama [Death of a Lady]

This was Villalonga’s first novel and gained something of a reputation, as it is a satire on pretty well everyone in Mallorca, though particularly the upper classes (to which Villalonga belonged).

The eponymous lady is Obdulia de Monteada, a grande dame of Mallorcan society. Though we know she is going to die, both from the title and because we are told that she is going to die at the beginning of the book, she takes her time.

We learn that the town (presumably Palma) is divided into two. The part where Obdulia lives is where the aristocrats, priests and cats live. It is quiet (they live in a perpetual siesta) and cut off from the rest of the town, which consists of tourists, artists and ladies who smoke. As far as she is concerned, the Mallorcan nobility is the major nobility in the world and she is the most important among the Mallorcan nobility. We later learn that while this may be the case as regards her father, her mother was not of noble family but had a relation who was a minstrel and another one who traipsed around music halls. She never knew her mother, who died giving birth to her.

At the start of the book Obdulia, who is eighty-four, realises that she is dying. Indeed, just before, we are told that she has already died and we are told of the consequences of her death – primarily who inherited and who did not but also one of many criticisms Villalonga levels against the invasion of Mallorca by foreigners – North America and Albion will continue to bring in their perverse customs and North America and Albion do not want to conquer Mallorca violently. Satan uses more cunning methods these days.

She now takes to her bed, prepared to die, though she refuses both a doctor and priest. She is cared for – and has been for some time – by Remedios (in the Spanish – Remei in the Catalan) Huguet, her assistant. She is described as not young nor has she ever been. Remedios – referred to by the author as the obligatory parasite of every great house – holds the keys to everything, though seems a very gentle, caring person. However, she knows, we know and some of the characters suspect that she is going to inherit the bulk of Obdulia’s fortune.

As the news spreads, friends and relations turn up en masse. They turn up for two reasons. The first is those who are hoping for an inheritance and wondering what they might be getting. First and foremost of these is Obdulia’s niece, María Antonia, Baroness of Bearn, who hopes to inherit the lot but, in particular, the family house, claims that she does not really care about the inheritance (she does) and will be disappointed. María Gradolí hopes she will get some money to pay for the dowries of her two not very attractive daughters. She, too, will be disappointed.

The others are there for the gossip. Deaths and funerals seem to be one of the main sources of pleasure for the Mallorcan aristocracy as the parties of the olden days have gone away. Obdulia, in particular, enjoyed them. Indeed, we follow a considerable amount of gossiping.

Though she is dying, Obdulia is still receiving visits and seems able to chat in some detail about her life to the various visitors. For example, there is an English writer, Miss Carlota Nell, who comes to talk to her. Her reaction (given in English) is Oh, old Spain… Passion and mysticism… Spanish duennas… Lady’s death.

This leads on to a discussion about how foreign writers have written about Mallorca. For example, George Sand’s Un hiver à Majorque is somewhat criticised because Sand says the winters are cold. What can you expect from an adulterous woman who travels with a musician? says the local newspaper editor.

Though we are following all of this, we also go back in time. In particular we learn about the Marquis of Collera who died in a house of ill repute (his father had died in the bed of a woman of ill repute) and how this was covered up. Remedios said he was a saint. Obdulia, whom she thought was asleep, wakes up to bitterly condemn him. We also meet the lady poet, Aina Cohén, who could not rhyme two words but seems to have had some success as a poet and literary intellectual, though she is mocked by Villalonga.

Obdulia has rejected both her confessor and the doctor, telling the latter she does not need his help to die. Her niece, however, is worried that she will die in a state of mortal sin. However, a viaticum is prepared. Despite this, Obdulia seems to be still going strong. She finds time to condemn modern women as not being real women but having only broomstick figures.

The ladies in the waiting room are talking about how you cannot get good staff these days, while María Antonia is telling the priest that it is his duty to tell Obdulia to leave her the money, as she will use it to do good works.In the end, Obdulia leaves her money to a more distant cousin, one who we only learn of towards the end of the book and a lady who did not have a good moral reputation. Doña María Antonia Bearn, Doña María Gradolí and Remedios Huguet all thought the same: we lost out because we were moral.

Villalonga clearly had great fun writing this and, no doubt, some of the characters would have been based on real people and probably recognisable to his peers. However, we do not need to know who they are to appreciate his scathing wit. Indeed, the gossiping, the eagerness to be named as heirs, the backbiting and the criticisms of all and sundry could just as easily be applied to many other societies.

First published by Grafiques Mallorca in 1931
No English translation
First published in Spanish as Muerte de Dama by Brisas in 1939; later as Muerte de una Dama by Dima in 1967
Translated by Jaume Vidal Alcover