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Maria Judite de Carvalho: Os Armários Vazios (Empty Wardrobes)

Our narrator is Manuela, though we do not learn her name till well over half way through the book. We will learn that she was married but left her husband for another man, Ernesto Laje. However, the focus of he novel is not on her but on Dora Rosário.

Dora married young. Given that her only child, a daughter called Lisa, was born when she was nineteen and presumably in wedlock, she must have married when she was eighteen. Her husband is Duarte Rosário, the adored only child of the formidable and well-off Ana. However, even Ana admits that Duarte is completely without ambition. I’m not the kind of man who wants to rise in the world at the expense of others, or indeed of myself. He studied engineering but abandoned it as it clearly was not for him. He ended up as a pen-pusher in some company that made soap, finally making his mother realise he was not going to to change the world. He earned little but would not let Dora work so they were not well off. Nevertheless Dora loved him dearly. She loved him more than anything in the world. More than she loved her parents (who, by then, were dead), more than her seven-year-old daughter, more than herself.

Duarte got ill and died. Dora was now destitute. He had no life insurance and no savings. She begged and borrowed from various friends but, gradually, they virtually all abandoned her. She had few skills so was unable to find a job. Her mother-in-law was happy to feed her granddaughter but not finance her daughter-in-law so Lisa ended up with Ana. For Dora there were two kinds of people in the world – those for her and the enemies. Virtually everyone was in the latter category.

Finally a job turned up. She was to manage an antique shop. She knew nothing about the subject but soon learned and was able to bring up Lisa properly, even with special tuition in languages.

Ten years passed and Lisa was now a demanding teenager. She wanted to be an air hostess and see the world – no university for her. Dora continued in the shop and continued to look dowdy. The aforementioned Ernesto Laje described her as the Salvation Army lady as she never took any care of her appearance. In short, she was till devoted to Duarte and his memory. She still thought of most people as enemies, the exceptions being, of course herself and Lisa as as well as the friend who helped her get the job and Aunt Júlia de Duarte, the somewhat batty sister of Ana. She still wore black, long skirts and sensible shoes. Manuela says she looked like an off-duty nun.

And then it all changed. It was Lisa’s seventeenth birthday party. Ana and Júlia come. They drink too much so Júlia has one of her turns. Ana and Dora are left alone and Ana takes advantage of this to tell Dora something that will change her completely. From one day to the next the dowdy Dora disappears and she starts dressing well, wearing make-up and having her hair done. Ernesto Laje, who is furnishing his new house in Sintra and looking for interesting items, visits her shops and is overwhelmed. Ernesto, though in a relationship with Manuela, is not faithful. He takes her out and then invites her to his new house.

Dora’s mistake is to remain so devoted to the image of the saintly Duarte. For her he was a good man, a pure man, untouched by the surrounding malice and greed. He remained uncontaminated. She will carry this feeling for the ten years after his death. Yet she knows he is a weak man. He refuses to let his wife work, cannot properly provide for her in his lifetime and leaves no provision for her after his death. She remains so devoted that she will continue to frequent his mother, Ana, a woman who dominates and bullies her. Because of this, she will remain pure, looking like a Salvation Army lady, paying no attention to her looks. She is considered old ten years after her husband’s death but is only thirty-six.

De Carvalho contrasts her with other women. She is compared to her daughter, who frequently mentions that her generation do things differently and clearly is not keen on the idea of marriage (there is a young man, Jaime, interested in her; she does not reciprocate). Lisa wants to be free, to travel and see the world, enjoy a life of glamour. She is not prepared to go to university but is prepared to learn languages (English and German) to help with her career.

Dora is obviously very different from her mother-in-law, who is a strong, tough woman, used to getting her own way. Compared to Júlia she seems better off. She was married and had a daughter. Júlia had had a lover and had had a son by him. He left and the son died aged two. Manuela comments who,fortunately, had died very young. While not a very nice thing to say, clearly an unmarried mother in Portugal at that time (1960s) would not have had an easy life. Júlia now has fits and talks to the lover in these fits.

Dora must also be compared to Manuela. She had left her husband for Ernesto but he has never proposed to her, is regularly unfaithful and is happy to drop her when someone better turns up. In short, the men in this book do not come out well, being either unpleasant and selfish (Ernesto) or useless Duarte, Jaime and Jose, Ana’s husband).

The title of the book implies that de Carvalho sees Dora as merely a piece of furniture with nothing to her and, indeed, for much of the book that is how she lives. She brings up her daughter but has few friends and fewer activities. She is under the control of her mother-in-law, does not really understand her daughter and is barely noticed by anyone. De Carvalho’s portrait of her and, indeed, of the other women in her life, is superb. We must hope that the situation for Portuguese women is better than it seems to have been then.

Publishing history

First published in 1966 by Portugália
First English translation in 2021 by Two Lines Press
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa