Love and syphilis: The marriage of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer

Nicolas Roberto Robles
Diego Peral 

Caceres, Spain

 

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. a man with curly hair and short mustache and beard
Figure 1. Portrait of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. Valeriano Domínguez Bécquer. Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla. Via Wikimedia. Public domain.

¡Cuánta nota dormía en sus cuerdas,
como el pájaro duerme en las ramas,
esperando la mano de nieve
que sabe arrancarlas!

How many notes sleep in its cords,
like the bird that sleeps in the branches,
waiting for a snowy white hand
that can awaken them!

– Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer,
Rhymes and Legends

 

Born in Seville in 1836, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer was a prominent post-Romantic poet popular for his Rhymes and Legends, a collection of poems and stories. His real family names were Domínguez Bastida, but like his father, a painter, he signed his writings with Bécquer, the surname of his Dutch ancestors. Orphaned at age ten, he studied humanities and painting in his native Seville. In 1854, he moved to Madrid with the intention of pursuing a literary career but was not successful.

In 1858, he was bedridden in Seville for nine months, probably from tuberculosis, although some biographers believe it was syphilis. Bécquer had indeed gone around 1858 to the office of Dr. Francisco Esteban, a doctor of venereal diseases, in Madrid. There he met Casta Esteban, the doctor’s daughter, and three years later, they surprisingly married. Or, as Bécquer’s friend said, “they married him,” as the two had already engaged in a love affair. It is surprising that the father, knowing about Bécquer’s venereal disease, blessed him to marry his daughter. But apparently Casta had another suitor with whom she had flirted as a teenager: “The Rubio,” a man of bad character from a respectable family. Some believe that she was already pregnant when she married Bécquer, though the dates do not line up.

Man using a lever to open a stone casket in artwork by brother of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer

Figure 2. Sepulcher of the founders of the monastery of Veruela. Valeriano Domínguez Bécquer. La Ilustración Católica (23):270. 1883. Via Wikimedia. Public domain.

The marriage was not a happy one. Casta was beautiful but unfriendly. Her face had something tragic and unpleasant in it, and she belonged to a rich but stingy family. They had three children, of whom only the first two were Bécquer’s biological children. The third was probably fathered by “The Rubio” and resulted in their divorce.

In 1863, Bécquer suffered a serious relapse in his illness. To recover, he moved with his brother Valeriano to live in the monastery of Veruela (Zaragoza), located in the foothills of Moncayo Mountain, whose pure air was regarded as beneficial in the treatment of tuberculosis. Despite a short stay of less than a year, this stage proved to be a fundamental part of the artistic development of Bécquer and his brother.

In December 1870, a few weeks before he died, Bécquer traveled from Madrid to his home in Claudio Coello on the topmost level of a horse streetcar during a freezing winter. He became seriously ill and died in Madrid on December 22, 1870 at age thirty-four, ultimately from tuberculosis, perhaps in addition to liver disease.

Casta remarried in 1872 to a tax collector. It was a brief marriage as this husband was murdered, perhaps by “The Rubio.” Widowed for the second time and left impoverished with three children, she tried unsuccessfully to start a literary career. Casta died in Madrid at the 1885, aged forty-three, of chronic encephalitis, according to the death certificate. No autopsy was performed, but it is suspected that she died from the longstanding complications of syphilis contracted by her first husband.

 

Asomaba a sus ojos una lágrima
y a mi labio una frase de perdón;
habló el orgullo y se enjugó su llanto,
y la frase en mis labios expiró.

A tear appeared in her eyes
and I started to say I was sorry;
her pride spoke and her tears dried up,
and the words died on my lips.

– Bécquer,
Rhymes and Legends

 


 

NICOLAS ROBERTO ROBLES is professor of Nephrology at the University of Extremadura.

DIEGO PERAL is professor of the History of Medicine.

 

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