The Spanish novelist and dramatist Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920) is best known for his masterly treatment of the vast panorama of Spanish society in a series of historical and contemporary novels.
Benito Pérez Galdós was born on May 10, 1843, in Las Palmas, Canary Islands. Due to a rigid upbringing he developed into a shy, quick-witted boy, interested in music, drama, and painting. He learned English from an American woman whose illegitimate daughter, Sisita, was his first cousin and childhood love. One of Galdós's most enduring remembrances concerned his affection for Sisita and the brusque intervention of his mother, who sent him away to Madrid in 1862 to study law.
In Madrid, Galdós felt irresistibly drawn to the turmoil of city life and soon abandoned his university courses for cafés, opera, theater, and long strolls through the streets. Intent upon understanding all classes and types of Spanish society, he frequented outlying districts, open-air markets, taverns, and tenement houses. By 1865 he had begun newspaper work. His articles on parliamentary sessions in Las Cortes made that newspaper famous.
Although Galdós was a perspicacious journalist, his ultimate aim was to give Spaniards not only a coherent picture of their daily lives but also a vision of a new Spain, reborn spiritually, culturally, and economically. He believed the novel best suited this purpose. In 1867 Galdós went to Paris, rediscovered the novels of Honoré de Balzac, and once back in Spain finished his first novel, La sombra (1870), and began a second, La fontana de oro (1867-1868).
Henceforth, except for his advocacy of liberal politics, Galdós lived immersed in literary activity. He wrote almost a hundred novels and plays, which may be classified into three groups. The first group includes his 46 Episodios nacionales, historical novels beginning with Trafalgar (1873) and ending with Canovás (1912). They retell in story form stirring episodes of 19th-century Spanish history and embody Galdós's conviction that the key to Spain's present and future betterment resides in a critical examination of the past.
The second group includes Galdós's realistic social novels, which divide into two subgroups. The first comprises the Novelas de la primera época (1867-1878). Among them are Doña Perfecta (1876) and Gloria (1876-1877), which boldly depict Spain's provincial hypocrisy and religious fanaticism. The second is made up of the 24 Novelas españolas contemporáneas, (1880-1915), which mark the maturity of Galdós's art. In such works as La de Bringas (1884), his four-volume masterpiece Fortunata y Jacinta (1886-1887), and Misericordia (1897), Galdós harmonized his passion for reform with the art of creating the illusion of reality. While treating many problems of Spanish life, he did not sacrifice character freedom to any social or moral teaching. Today, as then, his novels offer a compelling imagen de la vida.
The third group is made up of Galdós's plays. After writing novels for 20 years, Galdós turned to the theater. In 1891 he recast his novel Realidad into dialogue, staging it successfully the following year. He produced 22 plays, of which La loca de la casa (1893) and El abuelo (1904) are considered his best. The premiere of Electra (1901) unleashed a storm of controversy, earning Galdós the hatred of Spain's clergy and conservative class. Galdós was an authentic revolutionary of the Spanish theater. Reacting against José Echegaray's outmoded romantic melodrama, he confronted audiences with a frank portrayal of social conflicts. His plays anticipated the innovations of modern Spanish drama.
In 1897 Galdós was elected to the Spanish Academy, and by 1912 he had become totally blind. Beset by financial difficulties, he continued to write, although his health was failing. He died on Jan. 4, 1920, in Madrid.
The definitive biography in English of Galdós is Hyman Chonon Berkowitz, Pérez Galdós: Spanish Liberal Crusader (1948). Critical studies in English of his work include Walter T. Pattison, Benito Pérez Galdós and the Creative Process (1954); Sherman H. Eoff, The Novels of Pérez Galdós (1954); Alfred Rodriguez, An Introduction to the Episodios Nacionales of Galdós (1967); and Michael Nimetz, Humor in Galdós: A Study of the Novelas Contemporáneas (1968).