GIL BLAS, THE BOOK

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The English edition of 1761

What's it all about?

Like many novels of its period The History of Gil Blas of Santillana purports to be an autobiography, in this case of a young man born in Oviedo in northern Spain in the later years of the sixteenth century who sets out as a raw teenager to make his fortune, whose innocence gets him into no end of trouble, who gradually wises up, learns to deal with the wiles of both men and women, eventually gravitates into the service of the most powerful men in his native Spain, and is finally ennobled for his services to the King and retires to his country estate, healthy, wealthy and wise.

Ascendant Career Path

In the course of his adventures after initial misfortunes Gil Blas is first employed as a valet to an elderly canon before becoming an assistant to a charlatan doctor of medicine. Both these experiences end badly but bring him to Madrid where he is engaged as a manservant to a man-about-town, then to a young rake, as valet to an actress, then to an elderly aristocratic soldier, to this soldier’s daughter and then after an adventure in Salamanca to the daughter’s father-in-law, and then as major-domo to a duchess who hosts a literary salon. After a new series of upsets, he becomes the steward managing a landowner’s estates, secretary to the Archbishop of Grenada, steward to a Sicilian aristocrat with a fixation for a pet monkey, an assistant to the first minister’s man of business, and then assistant to the first minister himself, the Count of Lerma, and on his disgrace assistant and then secretary to the Count-Duke of Olivares, his replacement.

Entertaining Distractions

Gil Blas was written when the European novel was still developing as a narrative form. Stories were usually told as a series of episodes that were not necessarily or only barely linked together, as in Don Quixote, The Decameron or The Thousand and One Nights. Lesage is one of the first to link his episodes together: the narrative of Gil Blas is continuous. But he was unable to resist the temptation, common at the time, of regularly interrupting the advancing storyline with distractions he thought (or thought his readers would find) entertaining. These include several subsidiary autobiographies like The Story of Dona Mencia de Mosquera or The Story of the Apprentice Barber or a mock chivalresque romance Betrayal, Marriage and Revenge: A Sicilian Tragedy.
histoire de Gil Blas

Little Chivalry, Moderate Sex

Through it all emerges a portrait of a world from which chivalry has disappeared but some of its values still persist, a world filled with charlatans, swindlers and tricksters, robbers and pirates, libertines and courtesans, in which love is noble but sex is both necessary, frequent and entertaining.

Lengthy Gestation, More Realism

The story also bears the traces of the fact that it was written in three instalments over a twenty-year period. The Gil Blas of the first instalment is not the Gil Blas of the last. The novel starts as an entertainment for a younger audience but as the hero matures so does the storytelling and the latter sections which include historical characters is an attempt to switch from the earlier fantasy to a ground-breaking form of realism that was far in advance of its time.

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