I am not going to be able to do this book justice. The introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition quotes Warner herself:
[… [A] parable if you like the word, or an allegory … of the political chemistry of the Spanish war, with the Don Juan […] developing as the Fascist of the piece.
I know woefully little about the Spanish Civil War, despite having read Anthony Beevor’s history thereof: I promptly forgot the contents. So I am not going to be able to discuss that aspect of the novel, arguably the most important.
I also found the plot very difficult to follow once past the very beginning: there are many characters and many plot threads. But Warner’s prose is as clear and precise as always, and conveys such a wonderful sense of place, that I enjoyed reading it nonetheless.
The death–or rather, the disappearance–of Don Juan de Tenorio took place in the seventh decade of the eighteenth century. It happened under curious circumstances. Don Juan, a renowned libertine, was paying court to Doña Ana de San Bolso y Mexia, a young lady who was already promised in marriage elsewhere. (She was motherless, and only child and a considerable heiress.) Her father, a retired Army man, had expressed his unequivocal disapproval of Don Juan, Doña Ana too averred most steadfastly that his advances were odious to her.
It is here that I think the allegorical tone is established: it is clear that the narrator is speaking some time after the events took place, and yet deliberately archaic language is employed. The narrator does not place us immediately in the middle of the action but instead hints at what will happen later in the story: the concept of the narrative present is thoroughly disrupted.
We learn that, as an indirect consequence of Don Juan’s attempting to “make love” to Doña Ana, his manservant Leporello reports that at supper:
[T]he floor opened, devils appeared, and Don Juan was dragged down into the pit.
Doña Ana decides that she must inform Don Juan’s parents of this happening, and that there must be “masses to be said for the repose of his soul.” And so she, her betrothed and Leporello embark on a journey to the estate of Don Saturno, the father of Don Juan. According to Leporello:
There indeed was a rural paradise. Purling streams, linen bleaching on the green meadows like a flock of swans, majestic groves of fine timber, three mills, no less, a fine modern church and presbytery, erected by Don Saturno’s great-great-grandfather, neat cottages, sheep fat as maggots, smooth pigs, splendid poultry, oliveyards, vineyards, silk-worms, shepherdesses […]
Here the description moves from the specific and the generic-described-unusually, back to the generic idea of a rural paradise, as if there was such an overwhelming number of things to describe that the speaker grew bored.
The village in actuality is not as Leporello had described; “it was pretty much as Ottavio had expected it to be.” The cupola of the church:
…had slipped awry, like an old woman’s head-dress. Between the church and the castle stranggled the village, an array of lime-washed hovels. The olive-trees in their cultivated earth looked like the spots on a leopard’s skin, the vineyards were few and poor.”
I enjoyed the character of Doña Pilar, apparently a maidservant or companion of Doña Ana (it is not made entirely clear): for most of the novel she is embroidering
a petticoat against the time when Doña Ana should consent to put off her mourning attire, a sprig design of grey pansies shaded with silver and black. […] These light sprigs were monotonous to perform, and the result, to her eyes, looked insignificant. French taste.
The monotony of this task is revisited at several points throughout the novel, and in the end Doña Ana wishes to wear the petticoat even though the embroidery is not finished. I think this is a good illustration of the Marxist concept of alienated labour, one with which Warner (who was a communist) would have been familiar: in the end, Doña Pilar does not even get the satisfaction of seeing the completion of her hard work.
Another favourite character was Celestina, who aspires to become a nun but who is not averse to a certain amount of strategic dishonesty towards this aim:
Before she reached the mill she stopped, wrapped up the money in a dock-leaf so that it should not clink, and slipped the clammy packet between her breasts. With such a prayer going on, it would be silly to waste money on a mass.
Later, her ambitions are described in more detail, and they are thoroughly worldly:
Slow and cold and inarticulate, like some sluggish water her ambition percolated towards the convent. […] There would be the large clean rooms and the smell of beeswax and the sun defeated behind shuttered windows; and there no robbers would come, and no suitors, and no beggars; and there would be no scrubbing and no trudging, for lay-sisters would see to that[.]
Eventually Celestina does bury enough money beneath the floorboards to escape from her father and his obsession with his ailing silkworms.
I have left much out here, but in revisiting the parts of the novel that I remembered well, it is now clear to me why I enjoyed it despite not comprehending it fully: the prose is richly descriptive, full of sensory information and surprising imagery: enough to sustain interest in the moment. I think I would profit from rereading it in the near future.