We are still following the young Gabriel de Araceli. He now lives in Madrid and serves an actress, Pepita González. His life is much calmer now, with his actions on the Trafalgar Battle well in the past. He has given up on being an adventurer, and is no longer a child. This leads to a stark contrast between the first Episode and this one. While the former was an adventure novel with a bittersweet ending, this one is more subtle and focuses on Court politics and schemes. I enjoyed both of them equally, but I've learned not to expect a consistent style through the Episodes.
The first half of the novel is just an excuse to introduce Inés, a young seamstress who has stolen Gabriel's heart, and to explore what the Spanish theatre scene was like in 1806. The Maidens' Consent, by Leandro Fernández de Moratín, premiered that year, and marked the start of a revolution in stage plays, which went from convoluted melodramatic soap operas set in a romanticised past to much more relatable and straightforward plays. These new plays were also critical of the contemporary society and clashed with the religious powers of the time. On top of that, The Maidens' Consent was extremely important in changing the views on marriage and female roles back in nineteenth-century Spain. Obviously, not everyone was on board with this, and criticised Moratín as being too French-friendly and anti-Spanish. There were several attempts to undermine the popularity of Moratín's plays, planting public who were paid or volunteered to boo the play. Pérez Galdós uses Gabriel de Araceli to show us one of these attempts, and it is a delightfully funny and skillfully-handed episode.
The status of Gabriel's mistress, Pepita, as a renowned actress, puts him in contact with some members of the nobility, who offer him to go serve at the Royal Site, El Escorial. In the second half of The Court of Charles IV, Gabriel can witness El Escorial Plot (or Conspiracy), which was an attempted coup d'état led by Prince Ferdinand against his own father, King Charles IV, and his Minister, Manuel Godoy. The coup was motivated by the increased collaboration of Godoy with Napoleon Bonaparte and by the defeat in Trafalgar at the hands of the English, but it was discovered before any real harm could be done. Of course, the Prince was acquitted, but many conspirators didn't have such luck. Gabriel, as a courier of one of the Queen's ladies, is privy to all the secrets of the Court and can thus introduce us in the Conspiracy as it develops. Even knowing the events beforehand, it was like reading a mystery. Pérez Galdós mastered pace - the Episodes are as entertaining as they are informative.
At the same time, another conspiracy is happening between Pepita and some of the actors and noblemen, albeit a much less important one than that of El Escorial. Paralleling Othello, the play which Pepita directs in a private performance for a noble family, there is a story of love and jealousy involving Pepita, another actor, a Countess, a married Duchess and her lover. This subplot adds some much-needed comedic scenes to the grave second half of the novel. The references to Othello and the entanglement with the real Conspiracy are extremely intelligent, as well as funny, and they help advance the story of Gabriel even more than his services at El Escorial.
This second book is decidedly more fun than the first one, and the pace was also faster. However, the characterisation has gone backwards - endearing characters like Gabriel or Inés are little more than plot devices. Here's hoping that the third book will have both the masterful characterisation of the first novel and the thrilling pace of the second.
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