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Espido Freire: Soria Moria

Though this novel is set in Tenerife, largest of the Canary Islands, it is mainly concerned with the British community who were living there at the beginning of the last century and exploiting the island for agriculture. The story follows well-to-do British families on the island. The Hamiltons are typical of these families. Major Hamilton married Cecily when she was fifteen. By the time she is thirty-three, when this novel starts, she has two married daughters, one of whom is pregnant. The novel is mainly concerned, however, with her youngest daughter, Dolores (Lola) who is thirteen at the start of the novel. Candelaria (Candela), the second daughter, has recently got married and she and her husband have gone to Sierra Leone. Cecily had had a fourth daughter (before Dolores) but she was still-born.

Dolores is essentially looked after by a governess. The governess is called Marie and is from Normandy but everyone calls her Mademoiselle. She is strict and humourless. Dolores is not particularly fond of her. When Dolores contracts typhoid, it is Mademoiselle who looks after her, as Cecily says that she herself would not be a good nurse. Indeed, Cecily is generally too busy to be much of a mother. Mademoiselle is ruthless in her treatment of Dolores, shaving her hair, treating her head with vinegar, forcing her to eat. Dolores is quite bitter about this treatment but reluctantly accepts that it saved her life, as many locals did die in the epidemic.

The Hamiltons are on good terms with the de Betancourts, though Cecily does look up to Ann de Betancourt. Dolores is friendly with Isabella, who is about the same age as her and, once she fully recovers, goes to visit Isabella. She finds her with Lucía Berriel, another girl of their age but whom neither Dolores and Isabella particularly like. When discussing summer plans, Dolores invites the two girls to their summer home in Fuerteventura. Isabella points out that her English cousin Scott and his friend Thomas, who has left Cuba with his mother, since the Spanish-American War, will be visiting shortly. Dolores invites them as well. (Note on names. Scott, as a first name, would almost certainly not have existed in England at that time and is even quite rare today, as it is primarily used as a first name in the US. He later signs himself Scott E Hawkins. No Englishman of the period (and relatively few today) would signed with his middle initial, another US construct.)

Cecily is happy for the others to come as it means that Dolores will be occupied. It is her intention to spend as little time as possible with her children. (Candela and her husband will also be visiting from Sierra Leone.) Inevitably, when they get there, Isabella and Dolores pair off and the boys initially do boy things, though Lucía and Thomas soon becomes friends. Dolores has a habit of playing practical jokes that are generally tolerated, if they are mild, but when she and Isabella steal Candela’s letters from the postbox before Candela has seen them, it is decided that this has gone too far and the two girls are threatened with being sent back home to Mademoiselle (who never comes to Fuerteventura).

Lucía feels left out of the relationship and the girls pretend to try and include her, though both agree that they do not particularly like her. They plan a trick on her and Lucía, eager to win their favour falls for it. Unfortunately, it ends in tragedy.

They all return to Tenerife, where the girls, initially, keep to themselves and the boys also keep to themselves. However, the mothers decide for what we later learn are somewhat devious reasons, that they should spend more time together and this is arranged. It is at that this point that the four become involved in Soria Moria. Soria Moria is a Norwegian fairy-tale and Scott, when younger, had read Theodor Kittelsen‘s illustrated version of it. They adapt the story for the four of them and become dukes and duchesses. They tell each other tales around the story and Scott writes it all down. Inevitably, there is a romantic/sexual context and both the girls fall for Scott but not for Thomas.

This naturally leads to complications. The two girls become jealous of one another, as each thinks that she is the favourite but there is no real evidence for this. More worryingly for Dolores is her mother’s reaction when Dolores tells her of her love. Scott is not well-off and is therefore totally unsuitable as a potential husband. Indeed, Cecily has learned that Thomas comes from a far more successful family and would be a far more appropriate husband for her daughter. Her concerns are exacerbated when Dolores’ sister Linda has informed them that her husband has run off with another woman and she is getting a divorce. However, we are well aware of a more pressing concern as it is now summer 1914 and Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated. We know that Scott will be involved in World War I as the novel starts with a letter from Scott (the one he signs Scott E Hawkins) to Isabella describing the horrors of the war.

I did not think that his was as good a novel as her previous ones. I found the Soria Moria episode, which, judging from the title, Freire considers key to the novel, to be unconvincing. Would fourteen-fifteen year olds of that era have indulged what seems to be something of a childish pursuit? Of course, we are well aware that many other children have done this – famously the Brontë sisters, though they started when Emily was nine. While they did continue it till they were older, it was just between sisters, they lived some seventy-eighty years before these four and they were very isolated from others. I find it hard to believe that these four, with impending war and the horror of a tragedy hanging over them, would be indulging in such childish games but maybe I am judging by 21st century standards.

The basis of the story, of course, is the loss of innocence as children grow up, in this case caused by a tragedy and then war, a not unusual theme in the novel. That they lose their innocence is clear but that loss is almost incidental to the story, as we read Scott’s letter and there is a short epilogue set after the war, which adds little. I feel that Freire had found Soria Moria and wanted to shoehorn it into a story and did not fully succeed. However, the portrait of the English in Tenerife as told by a Spaniard is an interesting idea.

Publishing history

First published in 2007 by Algaida
No English translation