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Agustina Bessa-Luís: Fanny Owen [Fanny Owen]

Though this book is a work of fiction, it does feature a historical character, a writer well-known in Portugal though barely known outside Portugal. He is Camilo Castelo Branco. A couple of his works have been translated into English.

The book opens in the mid-ninenteenth century. We meet José Augusto de Magalhães who, in turn, meets Camilo Castelo Branco in a Lisbon saloon. Camilo, who had studied medicine, law and theology, thought José something of a country bumpkin. However when they meet again in Porto, Camilo has changed his opinion.Camilo has had his problems. He received only a small inheritance, his studies were interrupted, his marriage of convenience did not work out, he was sent to prison for abduction and more. He was a Miguelist (a supporter of the legitimacy of the king Miguel I of Portugal and his descendants), which was the losing side and was beaten up for his satirical verse. He took drugs and even attempted suicide. However in Porto, he meets José and they become friends and Camilo stays at José Augusto’s not very luxurious house.
As a fellow horse lover, José Augusto is friendly with Hugh Owen, son of Colonel Hugh Owen. When José meets Hugh Owen’s sister he is immediately smitten. The book says only Miss Owen but we soon learn that it is Maria Owen referred to.

José Augusto has something of an inferiority complex as regards the local barons but he gives a ball where some of the great and good attend, including theOwen sisters. Camilo is there but claims he cannot dance while José Augusto focusses his attention on Maria. As will happen in much of the book, his relationship with her is decidedly ambiguous. At one point he addresses her as sister, his way, he tells Camilo, of showing that that he is not interested in her romantically. Meanwhile he introduces Camilo to his cousin, who has buck teeth, a sign of good breeding, José Augusto says.
While José Augusto has an ambiguous relationship with Maria, his relationship with Camilo is also ambiguous. Camilo admired José he wasn’t sure why. He felt fear mixed with admiration but he felt little by little he was facing some sinister message from hell. José Augusto says of Maria that he doesn’t love her and wondered why she has not got the pride to despise him and to replace him with some other man even the most ridiculous.

At this point Camilo has not met either of the Owen sisters but José Augusto promises to take him to a ball where he will meet the three most beautiful women of Porto, the third being Raquel, a rich widow with whom José Augusto has been having an on and off relationship. His ambiguous behaviour continues when he says that he detests Maria and leaves Porto as it has a monopoly on fleas and masked balls. Meanwhile Camilo has met Rita, the Brazilian mother of the Owen sisters, who lives apart from her husband, Hugh, a colonel. He then meets the sisters, preferring Maria as she is prettier but less noble. Fanny, who has not met either of the two men before, asks Camilo who José Augusto is. A doomed man who has no soul, he replies. She says that she thought they were friends. He paid my debts and saved my life. That doesn’t mean he is my friend is the reply.

José Augusto is now back wih Raquel. Porto was particularly indulgent towards unfaithful women if they were intelligent enough to not prefer their lover to their social obligations..

At this point we learn that Camilo, as happened in real life, has various issues. He is thinking of becoming a priest but has to drop out as he does not pursue his studies well. He is called before the authorities for his satirical work. He loses touch with José Augusto but does rent a house near the Owens. He meets Fanny again and now things get a bit more serious. Camilo is seeing Fanny while José Augusto is seeing Maria. The two men meet regularly but never alone, only at the Owens. However when Maria goes away for a while, José Augusto seems to become more interested in Fanny. José Augusto ask Camilo if he loves Fanny and he says he does not, but he knows what he is missing out on.

Camilo now decides to move away amd gets involved in politics, as there is an ongoing civil war in Portugal but, as frequently seems to be the case, things go wrong for Camilo. He is very ill and a very good friend kills himself. Camilo tries suicide and is rescued, of course , by José Augusto.

José Augusto seems to have lost interest in Maria so much so that her father writes to him and asks what his intentions are. José Augusto admits to Camilo that he loves Fanny. However if he declares his love for Fanny, Maria is going to feel very hurt. José Augusto considers abducting Fanny and she seems to agree. However she tells her father she likes José Augusto only as a brother but her mother intercepts a letter from Fanny to José Augusto and berates her saying that José Augusto is a libertine. Inevitably none of it goes well, though we know, historically, that Camilo more or less survives, albeit with serious health and financial problems.

Though published in 1979, this is in many ways a Victorian novel. It is set in the middle of the nineteenth century and, like many novels of the Victorian era, it is concerned with the ways of love and money. Bessa-Luís mocks Porto society but also our five main characters – José Augusto, Camilo, Fanny, Maria and their mother Rita as well as some of the lesser characters. Bessa-Luís also shows how the men behave badly and are allowed to do so while the women are more constrained. Even if a rich widow like Raquel can get away with various things, an unmarried woman or, indeed, a married woman, is very much limited in what she can and cannot do and is still very under the control of her parents (for an unmarried woman) or her husband. Breaking the social conventions is by far the greatest crime and it will normally be the woman who pays the highest price for doing so.

Publishing history

First published in 1979 by Guimarães
No English translation
First published in French as Fanny Owen in 1987 by Actes Sud
Translated by Françoise Debecker-Bardin
First published in German as Fanny Owen in 1993 by Suhrkamp
Translated by Lieselotte Kolanoske and Georg Rudolf Lind
First published in Italian as Fanny Owen in 2016 by Besa, Nardo
Translated by Marcello Sacco
First published in Spanish as Fanny Owen in 1998 by Grijalbo
Translated by Basilio Losada