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Agustina Bessa-Luís: A Sibila [The Sibyl]

Portuguese literature is one of those literatures that, with a few notable exceptions, tends to get relatively few works translated into English. Agustina Bessa-Luís is a case in point.She was a respected writer in Portugal, taking a feminist perspective when that was not yet fashionable in Portugal and, as you can see below, has been translated into several other languages.

We mainly follow one woman – Quina, short for Joaquina. Bessa-Luís takes us back to her parents’ early life. Her father, Francisco Teixeira was a notorious womaniser. He has a brief fling with Isidra. a headstrong, fiery young woman whose mother had long since died. It seemed to be based on pure lust as neither liked the other one too much. To escape from Isidra, Francisco takes up with the hard-working, more conventional Maria. Isidra moved on, though leaving a baby behind, whom Francisco saw. After his marriage he did not stop his philandering. Maria had three miscarriages and then produced three girls, Justina, Joaquina, Augusta and then three boys (who play a much smaller role in this book than their two older sisters).

From an early age Maria preferred the more indolent but easy-going Justina (known as Estina), though Francisco tended to favour the hard-working and determined Quina.

Francisco had not mended his ways and wasted money on his pleasures, usually involving women, and did not manage his property well. Meanwhile his children are growing up. Estina is interested in getting married, Quina less so, while the boys did little to help the family. Quina was close to here aunt/godmother and resembled her in many ways – both lacked refinement and education (Estina had had the better education), both could be quarrelsome and both were determined to get their own way.

Things started to go wrong when there was a dispute over water rights. Maria wanted to fight while Quina preferred studying the law and using lawyers. The costs soon mounted and then, in the midst of the battle, Francisco died. One of the consequences of this battle was that there was no money for a dowry. Encisa was hardest hit, losing the man she had set her mind on. Quina lost hers too but she was not as nearly disappointed as her sister. At this timeQuina became very ill and nearly died but managed to pull through, suddenly getting better. This showed what a determined woman she was, as we shall see in the rest of the book. One effect of the illness on her was that she developed the skills of clairvoyance, seeing the spiritual side of things. She was not really aware herself of these things but others were, hence her nickname of the Sibyl.

With Francisco now dead, the women take over with Maria and Quina in particular doing the necessary hard work. while the brothers contribute little. Estina does find a husband but it is not a happy marriage. Quina remains resolutely single.

We follow the developments in the household with Quina becoming effectively the mistress, rather than her mother. We follow all the household details such as the death of Estina and then, later, Maria, the marriage of younger brother João, who marries a rich but ugly woman.

Quina becomes friends with the Countess of Monteros. She had been married at the age of fourteen (one of her cousins had been married at the age of twelve). The two women become very close, withthe Countess being aware of Quina’s reputation for sage advice. The Countess gets numerous proposals, including from Quina’s brother, Abel, and rejects them all, realising like Quina, a woman is generally better off without a man. She had reached the supreme state of liberty which consists of wanting to imitate nobody and expecting nothing from anybody.

Quina does have problems with her brothers who expect to receive some income from the farm, though they have contributed nothing. However, Quina is tougher than they are and prevails.
At the beginning of the book, after Quina’s death, we meet Germa, Quina’s nicece. Aunt and niece become very close for a while though, as Germa grows up she has her own life. Nevertheless, in some ways, she is the daughter Quina never had. In addition to the daughter she never had there is also Custódio, the son she never had. He is a young orphan she essentially adopts and he grows up under her tutelage and in her house. His presence causes some controversy among the relatives, fearful that she will leave all her assets to him when she dies. It is not helped by the fact that he falls in with a bad crowd as he grows older and seems to do relatively little work on the farm.

There is no doubt that this is a feminist work. Most of the men come out badly – lazy, debauched, dishonest and neither good husbands or fathers even though clearly some of the women are attracted to them. As for the women, there a few such as Quina and the Countess who manage very well without husbands and, indeed, manage better than the men. Quina advises her niece afainst marriage: it is the worst thing that can happen to a woman. We very much see that. Bessa-Luís gives us a telling description of the women of the area: This hoard of women beaten exploited, suffering, accepted the philosophy of misfortune with a few tears and a lot of blasphemy. In short virtually all the married women suffer one way or another in their marriage(s) with the possible exception of one woman who seems to poison her husbands when they get too difficult. She is not condemned.

Sadly this book is not available in English as it is a very fine feminist novel, though it is available in several other languages.

Publishing history

First published in 1953 by Guimarães
No English translation
First published in French as La sibylle in 1982 by Gallimard
Translated by Françoise Debecker-Bardin
First published in German as Die Sibylle in 1987 by Suhrkamp
Translated by Georg Rudolf Lind
First published in Spanish as La sibila in 1981 by Alfaguara
Translated by Isaac Alonso Estravís
Also translated into Romanian