The Infanta Eulalia of Spain is a disappointment: another girl to add to the royal nursery, rather than the longed-for second son to secure the family line. But she is, nevertheless, a princess and such a child must be raised in state. Officials searching for a wet nurse find and hire Amalia, a woman from Burgos with a bouncing, healthy baby boy of her own, christened Tomás. Amalia is offered a small fortune to come to Madrid to serve at the palace, with one free day each month to meet her husband. Her decision to accept is the point from which several different stories spiral outward, affecting the lives of those involved far into the future. Chantel Acevedo’s novel resurrects, on captivating form, a very real Spanish princess (1864-1958) who questioned convention, who loved and lost and travelled, who wrote with a fierceness and freedom that none of her predecessors had dared, and who sought to broaden the boundaries of her own stifling world.
Amalia’s life in the palace is a small life, but one lived on the borders of great things. Even in the nursery, where she cares for the infant Eulalia and her own dear Tomás, and where she forms warm relationships with the other royal daughters Paz and Pilar, Amalia hears rumbles and rumours from beyond. She hears that Queen Isabel’s children are not the children of her colourless, uncharismatic husband, but the offspring of her numerous and notorious lovers. She deduces that Eulalia herself is the child of the royal secretary, Tenorio, whose precarious position wins her sympathy. And she learns that the court, for all its secret scandals, still presents a face as cold and strict and hidebound as in the days of Philip II. Sheltered from the full impact of this world, Amalia tries to focus on her chief task: to make sure the little princess grows up robust and healthy. And, for a while, in the fantastical setting of the nursery with its neighbouring aviary, rich with birdsong and populated by peacocks, Amalia succeeds. She becomes loved but, as she soon discovers, it is impossible for a wet-nurse to become indispensable.
Decades later, Amalia’s son Tomás is trying to find his path in life. His father is dead, his mother weighed down with some old sadness, and he himself longs to become a writer, perhaps in the manner of his beloved Jules Verne. For Tomás, Verne offers a picture of a future full of daring and light, so different from his own constricted life. A job as the manager of a local bookshop sets him on a new and hopeful path, making him believe that he can scrub out his family’s history as servants and peasants, and gain respect for his own talents. It’s around this time that the Infanta Eulalia returns to his life, during one of her regular visits to his mother, whom she still remembers and loves. Eulalia comes to visit Tomás with a startling proposition. She has written her memoirs, a book that promises to shake up Spanish society and expose the hypocrisy of the royal family. Will Tomás see if he can get it published? Tomás promises to do what he can, knowing that such a manuscript is dangerous – but little realising how this new link with Eulalia, his old milk-sister and first friend, their childhood long forgotten, will change him.
Acevedo writes beautifully, contrasting two lives which seem so different and which are yet both constrained. Tomás is free because he is a man, but he is hemmed in by the strictly hierarchical structure of Spanish society, and by his own modest status. Eulalia is allegedly free because she enjoys wealth and status, but she is pinned down by the centuries-old traditions of her royal lineage, condemned to suffocate in silence as a princess and, more bitterly, as a woman. Her book seems to be her only means of escape, to get her own voice heard: ‘It wasn’t a book, not at first. Just a thing I did to pass the time, to try to rid my mind of memories that seemed too heavy, holding me down when what I wanted to do most was float.’ It is her determination and strength of character that captivate Tomás, who believes that their shared infancy has created a special link between them: a harbinger, perhaps, a possibility of something more. He and Eulalia have both suffered; both of them have lived lives dogged, unknowingly or otherwise, by family secrets. Neither of them have lived the lives they dreamed of, and neither of them seems to have a way out. But could their new association set them on new paths? (‘Our miseries can be braided together, can’t they? Together, can’t they make two broken, meandering lives whole?’) This is a book about hope, about the way that it is nursed and cherished and formed into something which seems to have greater power than it does. And it’s a book about the clashing of worlds, in many different ways.
We see here the clash of castes, between the princess and a modest bookseller, who took their first steps together but otherwise might as well be from different planets. We also see a clash between old and new: between the hidebound conventions of royal Spain, where princesses’ tombs lie waiting for them in the gloomy darkness of the Escorial, and the frenetic bright joy of the new world, embodied in the movement towards revolution in Cuba and the technological marvels of the Chicago World’s Fair. And, increasingly, it’s about the clash between men and women, whose opportunities are governed by their sex, with women being expected always to sacrifice their own ambitions if they risk inconvenience to men. Yet, despite the clashes, there are similarities – most notably the open-mindedness of both Eulalia and Tomás, embodied in their shared love of Verne. It’s from Verne, in fact, that the title has been taken. For him, ‘the Living Infinite’ was the sea. Acevedo suggests other potential variations: remembrance, or children, both of which allow someone to endure beyond the course of their natural life. And Eulalia so wishes to endure. She may never have written an autobiography quite like this, but she did write her memoirs at the end of her life, and also published works on feminism and women’s rights. If (the fictional) Tomás dreams of writing, Eulalia triumphantly attains it:
‘So will I write letters. Many of them. And they will come together and shake the foundations of Spain so that women in my country will feel the tremors of it and grow bold.‘
An engaging and moving tribute to a woman who tried to live beyond the limits that her age, status and family would allow.