Book Notes: Carmen Laforet’s The New Woman

I was taught in college that the famous Spanish author Carmen Laforet wrote nothing after the publication of her mega-bestseller Nothing in 1944. Then I found out that she actually wrote a lot, and it was really good. But what she wrote didn’t conform to the expectations of what the critics and professors thought she should be writing, so it was ignored and consigned to the trash bin of history.

Nothing was written when Laforet was only 23. It’s full of silences and avoidances because she was very young and had no idea what she wanted to say. This allowed critics to read whatever they felt like into those silences. And what they wanted was the standard ultra-progressive stuff. Then it turned out that Laforet wasn’t progressive but a very religious conservative.

This created a huge cognitive dissonance. She’s talented, so she has to be liberal, right? To preserve the illusion, some people ignored everything she wrote after 1944 while others tried to explain it away with the tried and true “what she really wanted to say must have been the exact opposite of what she did say.”

The biggest embarrassment to the believers in the liberal Laforet was her novel The New Woman published in 1955 of which the author was very proud. In the novel, a vain, selfish and immature woman called Paulina has an affair where she cheats on her husband with a relative who’s married to a dying woman. Paulina leaves her husband and child and goes to live on her own while she waits for her lover’s wife to die of leukemia. So far so good. The plot sounds like a regular laudatory piece about women’s liberation in The Atlantic. This could only get more liberal if Paulina left her husband for a woman or decided to become a man.

Instead, Paulina experiences a religious conversion, starts going to church, and slowly and painfully realizes that personal growth can’t consist of jumping from bed to bed. The description of her conversion and attempts to live a Christian life are based on the author’s own conversion to Catholicism. Paulina is a complicated person, and her maturation isn’t easy or quick. You’d think, finally, there’s a female character who experiences growth, yay! But she doesn’t grow in the only approved direction, so the novel and the character had to be forgotten.

I don’t know what’s funnier, seeing the critics try to figure out what Paulina’s conversion must really mean or observing their attempts to “queer” the novel’s author who supposedly managed to be a covert lesbian between giving birth to five children and going to Mass daily. The simple possibility that Paulina really experienced a moment of grace and Laforet was really a sincere Catholic simply doesn’t occur.

Leaving aside all the preconceived garbage and all the inane beliefs in how liberating it must be for all women on the planet to want the exact same thing, the novel offers a pretty profound perspective on what love, marriage, and personal growth mean.

Thankfully, 70 years after the novel’s publication, people seem to be ready to read The New Woman on its own terms. Yesterday, I read an article by a young professor of literature who analyzed the novel without scoffing at religious faith and dismissing marriage and family as horribly oppressive. Not only did he understand the novel, he connected it to its literary and religious sources in St Teresa and St John of the Cross.

I wish I had known about this novel when I wrote about the female Bildungsroman. The New Woman is a very rare example of a successful female Bildung in literature where a woman actually does grow. Usually, these novels are about frustrated development where the female characters end up crushed, dead, or crazy at the end. And here we have somebody who has an intense inner life and manages to mold her life according to her own judgment.