Courtship in Granada

GERALD BRENYA is an Englishman who settled in the south of Spain shortly after the First World War. He took with him a great many books and a little money, and for a considerable period he lived in the primitive mountain village of Yegen. from which vantage point he wrote his first two hooks, The Face of Spain and The Literature of the Spanish People from Roman Times to the Present Day. From Mr. Brenan’s new hook, South from Granada, which is to be published by Farrar, Straus & Cudahy in the autumn, we have selected this intimate picture of an ancient mode of Spanish life.



GRANADA, with its cypresses and its poplar trees, its running water and its airy situation, seems designed like Florence to be a city where the arts of poetry and painting and music take root and flourish. Yet in fact this has never, except for a short spell before the Civil War, been the case. Till 1571 it was a Moorish town, not altogether unlike Tetuan today, and after that it was eclipsed by Seville, to which the trade with the Indies had drawn all the life and wealth in the country outside Madrid. The Golden Age of Spanish culture therefore passed without Granada’s being able to claim any painter or sculptor of importance, except Alonso Cano, or any writers other than the aristocrat Diego Hurtado de Mendoza and the preacher Luis de Granada. Later the nineteenth century gave it a political thinker in Angel Ganivet, but one cannot speak of great figures or of a society mature enough to nourish a vigorous art before the 1920s. Then two names stand out, the composer Manuel de Falla and the poet Federico García Lorca.

The twenties were a period of economic prosperity following on a decade or two of civic improvement and renovation. The electric tram was in its first glory, sailing like a swan along the streets with far less creaking and shrieking than it makes today. Of the same age was the electric light, which of all the inventions of the nineteenth century was perhaps the only one to be really welcomed by the Spaniards, because it enabled them to do something they had always longed to do — turn night into day.

Yet though Granada had all the outward aspect of an up-to-date city, it continued to belong spiritually and by force of inertia to the past. Children still played their round games in the squares, water sellers hawked their water from the Fuente del Avellano, the goats climbed the staircases to be milked, the pastelerías had not yet learned to make French pastries, the ice-cream makers continued to fetch their snow on muleback from the summits of the sierra just as they had been doing since Arab times. From morning to night the Plaza Bibarrambla, which is today so dead, was filled with peasants in black corduroy suits and black and purple dresses and head handkerchiefs. This was the sober, all-the-year-round costume of the country people, which contrasted with the melodramatic cloaks faced with scarlet silk which the men of the middle classes wore during the winter months. And who were t he young men one saw when darkness fell, pressed like moths against the bars of the ground-floor windows? They were the novios discoursing on love and marriage to their novias within.

One of the things that had least changed in Granada was the manner of courting. It went back to the eighteenth century and was a more interesting thing than its picturesque aspects suggest, just as the bullfight is more than the costumes of the toreros and the ceremonial parade. To understand how it worked, one must start off from the idea that the sexes were rigidly separated. A girl could not be seen out of doors with a young man, even if she was properly chaperoned, without creating a scandal, while she could searcely expect to meet and talk to one in a private house, unless he was the brother of a school friend, because except on very rare occasions there were no dances, no parties, and no entertaining. She was, however, allowed to exchange passing words or glances with one in the street during the afternoon promenade and, on taking a novio, to spend every evening up to midnight talking with him at the reja or iron grille of her window.

The words novio and novia mean, of course, boy friend and girl friend. A girl could change her novio several times, though she might lose some reputation by doing so, because a noviazgo, as the relation between the two is called, only became an engagement when the parents formally gave their consent and the date of the wedding was fixed not too far ahead. When this happened, the novio was invited into the house, made friends with the girl’s brothers, and was treated (except perhaps by the father, who might not soften till the wedding day) as a full member of the family, whereas until this time he had been a potential enemy to be kept beyond the bars of the street window. A girl’s male relations, as they came into and out of the house, were expected to pretend not to notice him.

This system of courtship had its advantages. To begin with, no introductions were necessary. A young man could make the acquaintance of any girl he caught sight of in the street simply by staring at her as he passed, following her to her house, and walking up and down in front of it; then, if she was free and liked the look of him, she would make him a sign and appear that evening at the reja of her window. If his conversation pleased her, he could become her novio, and after that he would be the only man outside her own family whom she could dance with or even, if she took a strict view of her obligations, look at. Novios also had their duties. They must arrive every evening just as it was getting dusk at their girls’ windows and remain there, with a short interval for dinner, till midnight or later. This was known as pelando la pava, “plucking the turkey.” It was not for nothing that among the working classes the act of asking a girl to become one’s novia was known as pidiendo la conversación — requesting conversation — since the whole life of two novios lay in talking endlessly together.

Under these circumstances the girl who had a window on the ground floor at her disposal was obviously in a fortunate position. If she lived on one of the upper stories, she tried to arrange for the use of that of the family downstairs or of some neighbor or relative in whom her family had confidence. Failing that, her novio had to stand in the street and shout up two or even three stories. Till laxer customs came in during the thirties and young people were allowed to go to the cinema together, high blocks of flats could not be built, because no one would have rented them. A girl living on one of their upper floors could never have got married.

Andalusia is often regarded as a land of romantic attitudes, but it is also, like Ireland, a land of absurdities. Thus the classic picture of the girl seated at her barred and embrasured window with the gallant standing cloaked and stiff-hatted outside can be paralleled by a very different spectacle. In the street doors of most old houses in Spanish cities there is or used to be a small hole cut close to the ground for the use of eats. (Convents are especially given to them, and at the Encarnación at Avila, where St. Teresa spent so large a part of her life, there was one which opened into the door of her three-roomed flatlet or cell.) These gateras, as they are called, were in some districts used by novios in the place of windows. The man lay or crouched on the pavement or cobbles, and the girl took up a similar position inside, but — this was the point of the arrangement — invisible to passers-by and thus protected from glances which might have hurt her modesty.

I have seen this method of courtship in use in the Albaicín of Granada, but its real home was in certain large pueblos of the provinces of Cadiz and Seville, where old-fashioned habits lingered late. Here on any night of the year one could see in one of those long, empty streets of the country towns, dazzlingly white by moonlight, a row of cloaked and prostrate figures discoursing in whispers to their novias within.


I CAN speak of the rite of courting at rejas from my own experience. Once in the late twenties I was staying at a small pension at Almeria, and feeling, as I often did in that beautiful city, a little bored, I decided to go for a walk. Returning through dusty lanes an hour or two later, at that disturbing hour when the sky above turns crimson and the whole street seems to be melting and dissolving in the dusk, I became aware of a pair of dark eyes looking at me through the bars of a window. I made a circle and walked past again. The eyes were still there, a pale Byzantine nose and mouth appeared beneath them, a smile drifted over them, and after another turn or two I found myself fixed to the spot and even holding on to the reja. The girl was called Carmen, and before I knew what had happened I was her novio.

My hours of duty were from seven to nine thirty and from ten to twelve. I gulped down my dinner and had to cut out my usual coffee. There she would be, framed against the darkness of the room behind her but with the lights of the street catching her face, and a sweet but rather formal smile stamped on it. And then I would take up once again the task of making conversation through the bars of a window with a girt to whom I had absolutely nothing to say.

As a person Carmen did not make a clear impression on me, because her feelings were always masked by the role she was playing. In much of what she said she seemed to be carrying out a ritual. I never, for example, arrived at her window without her exclaiming, “How late you are!” or left without her asking, “Why are you in such a hurry to leave?” ‘These phrases and many others seemed to be part of the formal-language of novioship: we were playing at being lovers just as people when they paid an official call played at conversation. And finally when, at the stroke of twelve, half-dropping with fatigue, I tore myself away, she would smile and say in what was, I suppose, meant, to be a roguish tone, “Now, mind you don’t go off to one of those naughty places.” It seemed as though the convention required that I should have been so worked up by these hours of tête-à-tête at the reja that I should be unable to resist that sort of vicarious satisfaction.

Carmen’s parents kept a grocer’s shop specializing in hams, garlic sausages, and dried cod, which hung in gray, rather uninviting rows from the ceiling. In her family there was an uncle who had once been a bullfighter and several brothers who were aficionados, and she made a point of representing them as fierce and touchy people, full to the brim of pride and pundonor. Had they, she declared, the least idea that an unknown man was talking to their sister at her window, why then— “What?” “Oh, I can’t imagine what they would do.” If. seemed that I was meant to get a picture of seven brothers ready to defend some very strict notion of her honor, although in fact I knew enough of Spanish things to feel sure that her family were well aware of my courtship and were probably at that moment considering— though of course in the most gentlemanly way —how many thousands of reals or duros I might be worth as a son-in-law. But to Carmen, with her old-fashioned ideas (she had learned to play the guitar instead of the piano and could sing in cante jondo), the convention of the gallant in the role of a burglar, which gave such a zest to courting, had to be kept up as long as possible.

My nmiazgo came to an end in an abrupt and painful manner. I had been courting Carmen patiently and with circumspection for a couple of weeks and had got to the point where I was allowed to hold one of her fingers in my hand, when the crude Anglo-Saxon idea came to me that it was time to take another step forward and give her a kiss through the bars of the cage. But when I attempted to do this there was an immediate reaction. Drawing back several feet into the room, she declared, though with a smile to soften the harshness of her refusal, that no man’s lips had ever touched hers, nor would they be allowed to do so until her husband bestowed his on her upon their bridal night. Then, seeing that these words had a chilling effect upon me, she made an offer. She would meet me on the following afternoon at a certain place in the public gardens accompanied by her younger sister, and we would walk up and down a little. Only I must understand that this was an extraordinary concession which she would never have agreed to if I had not been a foreigner, accustomed to greater freedom than Spaniards in these matters.

The hour came and I approached the rendezvous. And there, at the end of the alley, I saw two girls dressed in black shiny silk, standing with their hands folded in front of them under a white-flowered trumpet tree. One of them was young, a mere child, while the other, who might have been twenty-four, was short and squat, almost a dwarf. She had the face of Carmen — it was a handsome and distinguished face and by no means a stupid one — but oh, that body! In an access of panic I turned and fled, unable to face the ordeal of meeting her and pretending that nothing had happened, when in fact her shortness had made my tallness seem a deformity.

After this the situation was naturally beyond explanation. That night I had several drinks before I could summon up the courage to confront her at her window. As I came up to it I could see her strongly boned white face and dark, heavily arched eyes looking out through the bars. She had not changed out of her unbecoming black dress, but her lips were more thickly made up than ever and she had put a red lily in place of a carnation in her hair. There was a stronger smell than usual of jasmine water, and she seemed, I could not exactly see how, to have grown tall and slim again. Hurriedly I gave her the box of chocolates I had bought and, without mentioning my failure in the afternoon, told her that I had had a telegram saying that my mother was ill and that I was leaving next morning for England. She offered her condolences

-pretending was what she was good at — and I promised to write. Gently and as if believing me, she smiled. But that facial cast, severe and melancholy as of a lady-in-waiting at the court of the Paleologues, did not exist for nothing, and I knew that she was proud and incredulous underneath. Then I said good-by. As I bent to kiss her hand a door opened behind letting in some light, and I saw that she was standing on a low wooden platform. No, I had not been mistaken.


THIS story of my brief noviazgo is naturally little more than a caricature of a Spaniard’s relations with his girl. But one thing about it may be observed. Since in those days there was no future for Spanish women who did not get married, and since by the time they had reached the age of twenty-five it was generally too late, they often became quite desperate to find a husband. What was the best way? Beauty, charm, position, money, all counted, but with some men a reputation for reserve and modesty counted more. A girl who was suspected of having been a little free with her novio — for example, of having given him a kiss — might find it difficult to acquire another one if she lost him. Then among the small shopkeepers and peasant farmers there were men who demanded a standard of intangibility in their future wives that was almost Oriental. In their view a girl who was known to have danced with a man or to have had a novio on even the most distant terms had put herself out of the running. These ideas were especially current at Granada, and to cater to them a class of severe and recluse-like girls arose who boasted that they never looked out of the window or lingered on the balcony, and even that they did not take part in the afternoon paseos or promenades. The only day in the year on which one could be sure of seeing them was the feast of Corpus Christi, when they all came out and walked about in their new dresses. And they were not necessarily plain. One of them, who was pointed out to me on that day and who had the reputation of being unapproachable by men, was one of the most beautiful girls I have ever seen. She was the daughter of a well-to-do farmer, never went out except to early mass, and had five brothers to guard her.

Cases of this sort, however, were exceptional. Most girls were intensely and actively concerned in the capture of a husband. This was where the balcony came in. Till a novio turned up and had been brought to the bars of the reja, a balcony on the first floor of a rather old-fashioned house offered a girl her best chance of finding one. Here, raised just sufficiently above the street, framed by pot plants and green window blinds, holding a piece of sewing in her hand, she looked more easy and natural than she thought it safe to look down below. The young man who stared up at her as he passed felt that he had caught a glimpse of her as she was in the intimacy of her family, as she could someday, if only he chose to speak the word, be in his. For the girl, on the other hand, the balcony was a breathing hole, a looking-out point on the world, from which she could see and be seen by everyone who passed without the risk of being compromised.


SUCH a pattern of sex relations was a development of the classic pattern of the Mediterranean peoples. It was based on the very ancient assumption that the two sexes are possessed of entirely different magical powers and aptitudes and that their roles in society must be kept distinct from one another. To make sure that this happened, there were certain severe taboos which prevented men from doing women’s work and women from doing men’s, even at the cost of great, inconvenience. Anyone who broke one of these taboos would suffer a loss of selfesteem, because from childhood men were taught, to put their pride in being as manly as possible, and women to put theirs in being womanly, and to feel that any dabbling in the affairs of the opposite sex would lead to a sort of contamination.

The next step came when these two halves of society had to be brought into relation with one another. There was no sexual apartheid as in Arab countries, because the young men and women, though separated by physical barriers, were given ample opportunities for seeing and speaking to one another in privacy. Indeed, the bars of the reja were so far from being a real obstacle that it might be said that they actually increased the strength of the forces that played across them in much the same way as a barrage increases the strength of the current in a river. Love was generated, as it always is by difficulties, while the fact that the two novios could never be together on the same side of the fence allowed them a naturalness in conversation that was unknown to our Victorian ancestors.

We may thus say that what distinguished the pattern of sexual relations in southern Spain from that of northern Europe was that, it raised a strict physical barrier between the young men and the girls, but at the same time made it easy for them to see one another both in public and in private. The streets took the place of the ballrooms of other countries, the girls appearing in them combed and scented with their hair freshly set, their high heels giving them a slow, deliberate gait, and their heads and torsos held back as though they did not know what their legs were doing. Much of their parents’ savings had gone to produce this result, because the man must be dazzled, allured, fascinated, if he was to be got to the point of declaring himself and so renouncing the advantages that lay in continuing a bachelor.

But if we consider the already married, we shall find that the situation was entirely different. Here men and women did not, could not, must not meet. The jealousy of husbands lay like a cloud in the air. The respectability of wives saw in even the most unlikely males a risk to their chastity. With one accord the neighbors put the worst interpretation on the most innocent things. For Eros was powerful, Eros was strong, and had besides an absolutely limitless appetite, and no sense whatever of discrimination. All men and women were capable of rushing into one another’s arms at a moment’s notice, so that whenever any two were present alone together great risks and dangers would be run.

Yet that did not at all mean, as such writers as D. H. Lawrence have supposed, that the sexual life of these, peoples — using the word here in its narrower sense — was stronger or more free from guilt than that of the Anglo-Saxons. If anything, the contrary was the case. Young Spaniards approach love in a romantic and puritanical spirit which allows very little scope to sensuality. Even after marriage the women often remain cold, having been brought up through the influence of Catholicism to regard the sexual act as something unseemly which they must submit to patiently for the sake of keeping their husbands attached to them and of having children. And then these arrive. Almost at once the wife begins to dress in dark clothes like an older person, leaves the house less and less, and turns, to her husband’s deep satisfaction, into a motherfigure. This is what he has always wanted, this is what he has married for. The happy home of his childhood has been created again, and he is at the same time his own father and the eldest of his children, bound by a law that does not admit of divorce to a mother-wife. The curse has been lifted off sex, and under the grand matriarchal system of the country his children grow up to carry on the same tradition. He himself, without much feeling of disloyalty to his wife, can look about for real sexual adventure and satisfaction outside his home.

If, however, one wishes to consider the attitude of Spanish women to physical love from some other angle, one can look outside marriage. As one would expect, there are always a good many surreptitious affairs going on in the cities. These take place between men of a certain class and women who as a rule, though by no means invariably, come from a lower one. Excluding Madrid, where there is all the variety of a metropolis, one may say that in nearly every one of these cases the women, however respectable they are in other ways, give themselves for money. As a Spanish friend of mine put it, a Don Juan always has a few hundred peseta notes in his pocket. A woman who gives herself to a man who is not her husband is sacrificing an asset that, whatever may be thought of it today in England, is still highly regarded in Spain — her honor. Even though she may privately attach no importance to it herself or treat it as a matter that concerns only her reputation, she will expect to get something in return for giving it, and not only her purse but her sense of her own value will suffer if she does not.

The suggestion a modern Englishwoman might make that she was being paid in fun and pleasure would seem to her utterly inadmissible, because it contradicts the Spanish belief that on these occasions it is always the woman who gives more than the man. Even the Civil Code sanctions this view by making the adultery of the wife a justification for divorce, but not the adultery of the husband unless it is public and scandalous. But what if the woman is in love? Then, of course, she will refuse all material recompense, and the only thing that needs to be said about such cases is that in the provincial towns and cities they are rare. Here the opportunities for getting to know married persons of the opposite sex are so few that real love affairs are scarcely possible.


ONE must bear in mind in any study of sexual relations in the south of Spain the influence of the Church. It is itself a sort of mother-figure. It envelops all except the working classes, who have broken loose, yet often it seems to be the private society of the middle-class women, providing them with a magic which enables them to hold their own in their passive struggle with their men. For everyone who knows Spain will be aware of the frequency of the marriage in which the wife is deeply pious and the husband is irreligious. This is indeed a fairly normal situation. The man’s sense of honra or self-esteem conflicts sharply with the teachings of the Church, especially in the sexual field, while he is irritated by its many small, fussy rules and regulations which treat him, he feels, as it he were a child. Except in Ireland, where drink and violence take the place of sex and sexual pride, Catholicism produces anticlericalism by an almost chemical reaction. Yet in ordinary times one need not attach too much importance to this division in families because at bottom the husband nearly always approves of his wife’s devoutness, is aware that he is only playing truant and that, after a life spent in attacking or shrugging his shoulders at the Church, he will return to it in time to receive its last sacraments.

This playing truant is such a characteristic of the Spanish male that one may, without too much exaggeration, explain many of his activities by it. It accounts for the persistent Don Juanism of all those middle-aged or elderly men who can afford to pay cash for their conquests. It accounts for his absurd, usually revolutionary politics which end either in fiascos or disasters. It accounts for his lack of a sense of social responsibility. He is a spoiled child — all boys are spoiled in Spain — who sees life as an adventure story in which he, of course, plays the leading role. On the other hand the strong framework of Spanish cultural life, which holds this otherwise anarchic society together, is the work of the women. After the revolution is over, their unchanging conservatism will bring the country back to its centuries-old mode of living and make the men’s speeches and manifestations seem little more than a froth on the surface.

It is just here that the influence of the Church came in. As its hold on the men weakened, it began to pay more attention to the women. The bishops thundered against immorality, by which they meant short sleeves and low dresses, modern bathing suits, and sometimes even ballroom dancing. Through their Church sewing parties and social gatherings the women took this up, and their naturally strong reserve and modesty were strengthened. “Do you know why,” a Spaniard once said to me, “so many Castilians in the Middle Ages married Jewesses? It was because they were sensual. Our women never give themselves, either to their husbands or to anyone else.” Yet there can be no doubt that, in spite of or even because of this deep reserve and pride in the wives, a great many marriages in Spain are happy. This, a Spaniard will say, is because they are not built on amor — that is, passion — but on cariño, which is a strong and tender affection: that is to say, on the amicitia recommended by St. Thomas Aquinas. If later the husband, in search of a little excitement, takes to adventures, his wife, should she suspect it, will usually console herself with the thought that that is how men are made and that, though it is very disagreeable, one must put up with it. Unless her marriage has been a failure from the first, she will have no temptation to imitate him.

The Spaniards, then, have not been affected by the formal galanterie of the French, nor by the casual looseness of the English. In the eighteenth century the Italian system of the authorized lover or cicisbeo was taken up for a short time in court circles, but did not survive the Peninsular War. All their feeling and thinking about love has been focused on the courtship of two young people who, if all goes well, will bring their romance to a happy conclusion by getting married. Long ago this courtship became fixed in ritual forms such as the lover’s watch below his novia’s balcony, the midnight serenade, and, most important of all, the nightly conversation at the reja. With the help of a fine climate these things gave a sharpness and an edge to life because they provided love-making, which is essentially a private thing, with an element of drama and display. Then in the thirties, or a little before, the atmosphere began to change. New ideas about the independence of women seeped in from abroad, and with the proclamation of the Republic the political tension began to rise. The Civil War came, and by the time it was over, nothing was left of the rite of courtship through windows. And it has not been revived. The nevio of today takes his novia openly and unchaperoned to the cinema or to a chic bar or café. Yet underneath, it would seem that very little has changed. The iron chastity of Spanish girls has been strengthened by the religious revival, so that while the two young people sit in the darkened cinema or walk home by secluded alleys, the ghost of the window bars falls between them. And it may be noted that it is precisely the girls of the uppermiddle classes, those who are most likely to be under the influence of the Church, who are allowed most liberty. In working-class families they will have less, because there the parents will expect their daughters’ suitors to seize any opportunity that presents itself to seduce them. If they do not, these young men will run the risk of appearing soft, for in this formal Spanish world where everything is organized so as to produce and maintain tension, the man has the obligation to press forward and the girl that of resisting him. If she fails to do this, she is ruined, for then her norio will despise her for not preserving her chastity, and refuse to marry her.

I had finished writing these pages on Andalusian customs in courting and taking mistresses when a Spanish friend with whom I was discussing them put forward an ingenious idea on a subject that, I admit, had not occurred to me before — the connection between love and polities. With the help of a glass or two of wine this idea grew between us till it had acquired a certain consistency and verisimilitude. I will give it, more or less in his words, for what it is worth. Polities, according to my friend, is the primary and fundamental passion of all Spaniards, the frame into which they pour their unconscious aggressive energies. Love is quite unable to compete with it, and in fact has never done so in any age of Spanish history. Thus one may say that the real Don Juan was a man who went about breaking voting urns and that that famous Renaissance novel, La Celestina, is an allegory showing how a notorious boss or cacique encouraged the beginnings of a starry-eyed left-wing party but was destroyed together with it when the gunmen were refused the wages they had asked for. It is for this reason that the ages for love in Spain have always been the ages of political stagnation or repression. Every dictatorship is born under the sign of Venus, and those winged patentleather hats of the Civil Guard that shine so brightly in the sun are, as any sixteenth-century poet would have seen, las alas de Cupido.

How does this happen? One morning the pronunciamiento is made, and at once the era of parliamentary debales and of nicely worded insults and of bombs going off and of churches being burned comes to an end in a depressing silence. The newspapers become too boring to read. The speeches of the sole victorious party are even more insufferable. Except on the days of bullfights — and since Manolete’s death even they have been bad — life seems too tedious to be endured. And then one fine spring afternoon, just as the first ice-cream kiosks are coming out in the parks, the men wake up to the fact that there is another sex in the world, known as las mujeres or, to use our less demonstrative English word, “women.” What a delightful discovery! How is it that we have never noticed them in all these years? Surely they are the most beautiful and best-natured and the liveliest and the most seductive in the whole world! And they are not, oh no, like the hares or partridges of the sierras, to be walked after and stalked for hours on end: on the contrary, they are all around one, everywhere, with their high-heeled shoes and their eyes like acetylene bicycle lamps and their hair like the aurora borealis. Each evening paseo is a mannequin parade, where one goes to admire and choose, not the dress, but the girl inside it.

For large sections of society, dictatorships are periods of compulsory happiness when homo hispanicus is forced to turn away from the pursuit of power and the aggrandizement of his self-esteem, to which his nature spontaneously inclines, to the cultivation of pleasure, which he rates low. Love and staring and keeping one’s shoes polished become the order of the day, so that for many people utopia would have already arrived if it were not that to provide for these things more money has become necessary.

“Such,” said my friend, making a sign to the waiter, “is Spanish history. Say what you like about it, but anyhow it has the rhythm of life. Do you really think that can be said of your system?