An attempt will be made to distinguish between the facts and myths of the Inés tradition, tracing its development over two centuries or so of Portuguese history. The tragic story has been a favourite in Portuguese as well as in later English and Continental literature, and it is not hard to see why. As will be shown, the characters of Inés and of the King, and the interplay between State demands and personal love and loyalty, with alternating bursts of joy and of foreboding, ending with a brutal murder and Pedro’s oath of revenge, provide all the requirements of a powerful drama. Ferreira was the first to put it on the stage, and more successful than any contemporary or later imitators. In fact, the intellectual courage and inventiveness of Ferreira need to be stressed, in staging a play not only based on Portuguese history, rather than on the Bible or a Classical theme, but also written in Portuguese, a language as yet untried for high drama.
I was tempted to head this blog post “Much ado about nothing”, since I’ve ended up doing an enormous amount of reading and researching to, in the end, very little purpose. However, since reading and researching are two of my favourite things, and since I always like accumulating strange factoids, I’m not sorry I undertook this particular project, even if the final pay-off was something in the nature of a damp squib.
The third piece of fiction published in 1688 by Aphra Behn was Agnes de Castro; or, The Force Of Generous Love. As it turns out, this was not an original work, but a translation of a piece of French fiction, Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise. Although this publication was presented on its title page as being by “Mlle. ******” (which Aphra evidently believed, asserting it to be “By a Lady of Quality” in her translation), it was the work of one Jean-Baptiste de Brilhac.
Curiously, Aphra’s was only one of two simultaneous translations into English: May of 1688 also saw Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise released as The Fatal Beauty Of Agnes de Castro; Taken Out Of The History Of Portugal, one of two renderings of French works into English comprising a short book titled simply Two Novels. This particular translation was by a Frenchman, Peter Belon.
It took me a while to sort all this out. After some initial confusion, I realised that there were in fact two different versions of this work in English, rather than Aphra having translated a work in French by Peter Belon, which is what I thought at first. Furthermore, it appeared that the original work was based upon a true story, which meant that it fitted thematically with Aphra Behn’s other prose works of 1688. Finally, in a completely unexpected touch, it turned out that the original text of Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise was available on Google Books. All this being the case, I decided to look first into the story on which these works were based, and then to compare the two translations, to see which if either was “better”.
The first part of this plan led me to the remarkable history of Inés de Castro, a real figure from 14th century Portuguese history. (And before you ask, no, I don’t know why Inés was called Agnes in the later works; although the two names are essentially variants of one another, both meaning “lamb of God”.) It also led me into an experience both fascinating and frustrating as hell, the pursuit of yet another work on the subject called The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro, which turned out to be something entirely different from what I anticipated. It was while I was waiting for this particular interlibrary loan that I remarked, in an earlier post, that if I didn’t achieve my year’s ambition of escaping from 1688, “It will only be because I’ve chosen to make the final step in this journey far more complicated than there is any real need for it to be.”
I was expecting The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro to be a non-fiction work, which would provide me with the background knowledge I needed. It turned out to be a 16th century Portuguese play on the subject by the poet and dramatist António Ferreira, who (I now know) was the first important literary figure both to write in Portuguese rather than Latin, and to use local stories as the basis for much of his work, rather than classical themes.
I was surprised in the first place that the Australian National University held a copy of The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro. I was even more surprised when the item arrived: apparently a published thesis by one John R. C. Martyn, issued by the University of Coimbra in Portugal (where António Ferreira studied law) in 1987; one, moreover, which was not only printed on low-quality paper, but still had its pages uncut. I was, evidently, the first person in twenty-five years to access this particular item, and in order to read it I had to use a small knife to carefully slice open the top and/or side of most of the leaves in it. You can just imagine the looks that got me on the train. And having done so, I discovered inside the Portuguese text of the play, The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro, an English translation (the first, evidently, since an extremely poor one in 1825), and a lengthy biography of António Ferreira that told me a great deal more than I wanted to know about his life, writings, and influences, as well as the the history and politics of Portugal in the 14th and 16th centuries. What it did NOT tell me was what I wanted to know about Inés, offering instead oblique allusions that nearly drove me to screaming point.
But to begin at the beginning—
In 1340, Prince Pedro, the heir to King Afonso IV of Portugal, married Constança of Castile. When Constança came to Lisbon, she was accompanied by a train of ladies-in-waiting, including the beautiful, golden-haired Inés de Castro. Much to the outrage of all concerned, Pedro and Inés quickly became lovers, defying all attempts to separate them. Constança, cunningly, had Inés named godmother to her first child, which technically made the relationship between her and Pedro incestuous. When that didn’t work, Afonso sent Inés back to Castile. Pedro journeyed repeatedly to visit her until 1345, when Constança died shortly after the birth of her son, Fernando, after which he brought her back. Pedro and Inés continued to live together more or less openly, with Inés bearing four children, of which three survived. Meanwhile, Pedro ignored his father’s attempts to arrange another political marriage for him, raising the spectre of his marriage to Inés.
Both in religious and secular terms, Inés de Castro represented a threat to the Portuguese throne. She was illegitimate, albeit of noble origin; she was a blood relation of Pedro to an extent that would have made a papal dispensation necessary for their marriage; and, as godmother to the deceased infant prince, she was persona non grata. Furthermore, upon her return from Castile, Pedro installed her in a minor royal palace bequeathed to a convent by Queen Isabel (aka Elizabeth of Aragon), Pedro’s grandmother, who was regarded in her lifetime as a saintly peacemaker and who was in fact canonised after her death as Saint Elizabeth. (She was the one who turned bread into roses.) In many people’s eyes, the relationship between Pedro and Inés was not just immoral, but sacriligious.
More pragmatically, Inés was Castilian. Her brothers had befriended Pedro, and he responded by gifting them positions at court. Many people near the throne feared the Castilian influence, and what would happen when Pedro succeeded his father. Particularly they feared that Portugal would end up embroiled in the endless politic turmoil of Castile. What triggered the belated final crisis we do not know, but in 1355 King Afonso and his counsellors tried Inés in absentia and found her guilty of treason. She was sentenced to summary execution, and decapitated in her own home – in front of her children.
Inés was not the only one “in absentia”: Afonso and his court waited until Pedro was away on a hunting-trip to make their move against Inés. When Pedro heard of her death, he responded with nothing less than an open rebellion, raising an army (many of his troops Castilian) and waging war against his father’s forces for some eighteen months, until a peace was finally brokered. In 1357, Afonso died, and Pedro took the throne.
And then things got weird…although how weird depends on who you listen to.
When Pedro became king, the three men responsible for Inés’ execution understandably fled the country. One got away; the other two were captured in Castile (which seems a stupid place for them to go). Pedro staged a hostage exchange with his counterpart, Peter of Castile, and then, in a tableau worthy of Vlad Tepes, had his prisoners executed by having their hearts cut out of their bodies while they were still alive, as he ate breakfast and enjoyed the show. These men, Pedro explained, had torn out his heart by killing Inés, so their fate was only fair.
Then, in 1361, Pedro announced that he and Inés had in fact been secretly married in 1354, and she was therefore his queen. (No solid evidence one way or the other has ever been uncovered.) He followed this declaration by having her body exhumed from its grave near her home and placed in an elaborately sculpted tomb, on which she was depicted wearing a crown. Pedro had a matching tomb carved for himself, and placed it nearby; both now lie within the Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Alcobaça. On the evidence of at least one more illegitimate child, Pedro did have other relationships after Inés’ death, but he never remarried. He died and was succeeded in 1367 by Fernando, his son by Constança.
So that’s Version #1, and as much as we know for certain – which naturally doesn’t stop people telling Version #2, an even better story. The outline is the same, but instead of merely declaring Inés his queen, after exhuming her body Pedro holds a coronation ceremony for her – in which he crowns her, and then makes all the members of his court kiss the corpse’s hand and swear fealty to her.
There seems (she said, regretfully) no evidence that this actually happened, although many people clearly believe that it did and tell the story as fact, which of course propagates it even further. It’s also an obvious case of “print the legend”. Personally, I reject the tale on the basis of its logistics: Inés was, after all, decapitated…
The story of Inés de Castro has never lost its appeal for the artistic community, and an extraordinary number of people, Portuguese and otherwise, have told or depicted her life and death in plays, novels, films, poems, paintings and operas; particularly operas, of which there are at least twenty devoted to her story. Inevitably, the vast majority of these works include the macabre coronation; artists tend to depict a shrivelled corpse with its head mysteriously back on its shoulders. I suppose what I was hoping for in the background text provided by John Martyn as a preface to his translation of The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro was an indication of when this twist to the story first appeared, and who might have been responsible for it. Instead, most exasperatingly, Martyn contents himself with pointing out a few people who did not tell it that way. This omission was all the more annoying considering his declared intention (quoted above) of, Distinguish[ing] between the facts and myths of the Inés tradition.
Anyway, among this high-minded group who stuck to Version #1 we find António Ferreira. Granted, his dramatic approach to the story would hardly allow for Version #2. Ferreira walks a finely judged line in his play about Inés, writing in Portuguese and telling a story from Portuguese history, but otherwise following the rules of classical drama by offering a five-act tragedy in which all violence is kept strictly off-stage. A chorus offers an ongoing commentary on the actions and contradictions of the characters.
The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro opens with Inés happy to the point of being fey, since Pedro has finally promised to marry her. This joyful opening is balanced by Inés suffering a foreboding dream in which she finds herself threatened by lions, but is then torn apart by wolves. This dream comes true when King Afonso is persuaded by his counsellors that Inés must die. The men confront her together, but the king, already reluctant, is swayed by Inés’ beauty and innocence and commutes her sentence. However, as soon as they have him away from Inés’ influence, the counsellors resume their arguments and succeed in bringing the weak Afonso back to his original judgement. He refuses to have anything to do with it, however, effectively washing his hands of the business. The counsellors return to Inés (off-stage) and run her through with their swords. No sooner has he given his tacit permission for Inés’ death than Afonso regrets it, but by then it is too late. Meanwhile, word of the execution is carried to Pedro, who swears bloody vengeance against his father.
Two things about The Tragedy Of Inés de Castro struck me as particularly interesting. The first point, internally, is the text’s insistence upon Inés’ innocence: the love between herself and Pedro is presented as being blessed by God if not by man. It is her innocence that prompts Afonso to spare her life, while the counsellors agree that she must die in spite of it, presenting her as a martyr to Portugal’s good. The second point, externally, is that the play was written under royal patronage and first staged in the mid-1550s before the then-heir to the throne, Prince John. Evidently the Portuguese monarchy insisted on a lot less sucking up from its artists than most, since this story hardly shows royalty in a flattering light.
So! – after all that, I returned to the original point of the exercise (you remember that, right?), and read the two translations of Jean-Baptiste de Brilhac’s Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise. You can imagine my surprise, and indeed my dismay, when it turned out that de Brilhac had offered the world a version of Inés’ story that was whitewashed to the point of unrecognisability.
Not that my French is brilliant, but as far as I could tell from a comparison of the texts of Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise and The Fatal Beauty Of Agnes de Castro; Taken Out Of The History Of Portugal Peter Belon’s translation is basically literal: I identified a number of paragraphs that were translated word for word, so I’m prepared to assume that the majority of it was so. In this version, which bears so little resemblance to reality as to be inadvertently amusing, Pedro marries Constantia (Constança), but falls in love with Agnes (Inés). Instead of immediately pursuing and seducing her, he struggles against his feelings and manfully keeps his secret for a number of years. Constantia is in love with Pedro, but she is painfully aware that he does not love her. Her one consolation in her unhappiness is the friendship of Agnes.
The villains of the piece are two invented characters, Don Alvares de Goncales and his sister, Elvira. The latter had hopes of Pedro before his marriage to Constantia, the former is in love with Agnes. Elvira, a born schemer and plotter, discovers Pedro’s secret and tries to get rid of Agnes by revealing it to Constantia. Constantia is as shattered as Elvira could wish, but believes both Agnes’ protestations of complete innocence, and Pedro’s assertion that, although he does love Agnes, he has never breathed a word of it to her. Meanwhile, Don Alvares, a professional sycophant, lets King Alfonse (Afonso) know of Pedro’s secret passion. The outraged king, who blames Agnes, wants to banish the girl, but Constantia refuses to part with her, defending both her and Pedro to Alfonse. The king is exasperated, and only too glad to offer his assistance when Don Alvares asks permission to court Agnes – to court her in the first instance, anyway: should the girl persist in her scornful refusals, Don Alvares has Alfonse’s permission to see what force will achieve.
So things stay for some time, until Elvira provokes a crisis: she forges a letter, supposedly from Agnes, that convinces Constantia that she and Pedro are lovers, and that it is Agnes who has overcome Pedro’s scruples, rather than the other way around. This ploy is rather more successful than Elvira intended or desired: Constantia collapses and becomes dangerously ill. Initially shunning Agnes, as she feels death approaching she admits the girl to her bedchamber and is convinced by her that the letter is a forgery. At the last, Constantia blesses both Pedro and Agnes and tells them that she hopes they will marry. The widowed Pedro soon declares himself, but Agnes rejects him. Nevertheless, she begins to realise that she does care for him. A maddened Don Alvares finally has Agnes abducted, but his men encounter Pedro on the road and flee. This rescue breaks down Agnes’ defences and she admits she loves Pedro; he persuades her into a secret marriage.
From here The Fatal Beauty Of Agnes de Castro bears at least a passing likeness to the truth. Suspicions arise of the relationship between Pedro and Agnes, and finally Don Alvares discovers the truth. He runs with it to Alfonse, and not only persuades him to have Agnes assassinated, but volunteers for the job. They wait for a day when Pedro is away hunting, and then Don Alvares invades the couple’s home and murders Agnes in her bed. The shock of Agnes’ death nearly deprives Pedro of both his life and his reason, but he slowly recovers. His first act then is to to swear vengeance against her murderers, and to cut a bloody swathe across Portugal.
Thus was the end of the unfortunate Amours of Don Pedro of Portugal, and of the beautiful Agnes de Castro, concludes The Fatal Beauty, whose memory the Prince did faithfully preserve on his Throne, on which he set by Birth-right after the Death of Don Alfonse. And we realise that we have been offered a version of the story lacking ALL of reality’s highlights.
What, then, of Aphra Behn’s Agnes de Castro; or, The Force Of Generous Love? Sadly, not much. I was hoping Aphra might have done a number on the original text and turned it into something more her own, but in fact the two translations are very close. To my taste, Aphra’s is the better one: it’s slightly shorter, having had some bits of repetition and unnecessary verbiage pruned away, while there are spots where Aphra’s choice of an English word or phrase is more apt. Beyond that, however, there is little to distinguish the two.
One thing that Aphra’s Agnes de Castro does offer us, however, is another of her intriguing dedications. Its official target is Sir Roger Puleston, a late-converted Royalist, but its main interest lies in the tone of its text. This is one of Aphra’s defences of her art, but a far cry in attitude from most of her earlier ones, many of which declared in essence that she’d write like a man if she damn well felt like it. Here, she not only objects to the crudeness of much of the prevailing literature, but offers hints that she may finally have given up on trying to win the patronage of the Stuarts. It is the cry of a woman very near the end of her tether:
Virgil and Horace had a better Age; Augustus favoured the Muses, and the whole Court was Complaisant to the Humor of their Caesar. He was a great Judge, and a great Patron: But our Age, degenerated into dull Lewdness, can relish nothing but abusive Satyr, and obscene Lampoons; and he is the most admir’d Poet who can most vilely traduce Innocent Beauty, Women of Quality, and Great Men. Our deprav’d Nature can relish nothing but Scandal in Verse, and from Noble and Heroick Songs, we are debauch’d into Scurrilous and Sawcy Libels; and every Man’s a Wit, who can but Rail. In our Age the Noble Roman Poets wou’d have Starv’d…
And to conclude this exceedingly rambling post, we should take note of one subtle point of difference that does exist between Agnes de Castro; or, The Force Of Generous Love and The Fatal Beauty Of Agnes de Castro. By the end of 1688, the word “novel” was being used more widely and more frequently to describe prose writing. We find it here in both the original work – which translates directly as Agnes de Castro: A Portuguese Novel – and as a reference to Peter Belon’s translation, released as one of Two Novels. Aphra, however, avoids the word: both Oroonoko and The Fair Jilt use instead the word “history” in their subtitles, and when Aphra’s prose work of 1688 was collected together and reissued, it was under the title Three Histories. It seems to me that the distinction was quite intentional. We have spent much time and energy debating the truth quotient of both Oroonoko and The Fair Jilt, while we know that Agnes de Castro was based upon a true story – even if, ironically, there’s less actual truth in it than in either of the two. In calling her prose “history”, at a time when the word was becoming unfashionable, Aphra Behn was telling her readers something about the nature of her work, and the artistic choices that lay behind it.