There is a remarkable beauty to the scene that begins with the above quote. The situation is this. The Marquesa, an increasingly confused old woman (in part because of alcoholism she uses to blunt the pain she feels at the cruelty of her daughter), attended a theatrical performance in which the greatest performer in Peru acted and sang. The Marquesa was so taken at the beauty of the actress, the quality of her voice, and the pathos of the play, she was oblivious to the fact that the actress, Camila, had added songs between scenes of a satirical nature. These satirical songs took many verbal jabs at the Marquesa, mocking her age, her looks, etc., to the great amusement of the audience, until finally the Marquesa’s serving-girl convinced her to leave (with the Marquesa remaining blissfully oblivious that she was the target of the laughter). The Viceroy, a powerful man who wants to stay on the good side of the Marquesa’s son-in-law, decides he cannot allow a middle-class actress to take such liberties with the noblewoman, and orders her to go to the Marquesa, dressed in black, to apologize.
This is where Wilder creates a scene that is almost philosophical. Camila, the actress, is indignant—she cannot believe that she must humble herself to go apologize to this strange, ugly old woman who is a joke to virtually everyone in town. But when she comes to the Marquesa, she finds a woman strangely serene—serene, of course, because the Marquesa is still unaware that Camila had been mocking her from the stage. In fact, the Marquesa is extraordinarily kind to Camila, praising her talent, assuring her of how much she enjoys her performances. This behavior fills Camila with shame, with real humility, at the graciousness of this elderly woman who will not so much as allude to the offensive way she had been treated. And so as the scene unfolds, Camila expresses her repentance with the sweetest sincerity and the most genuine regret to a woman who does not understand it, while the Marquesa offers a benevolent forgiveness without even knowing it. This ought to be humorous, as I describe it, and yet it isn’t—it feels like deep truth. There is something real and honest about the idea that we often forgive more than we know; that we regret offenses that have offended no one. I found the scene very moving in a way I’m struggling to articulate here.
And the whole of the Marquesa’s story affects me in this way. I don’t have time to dig into this whole section of the book, but the relationship of the Marquesa to her serving-girl (a novice from a convent who is being trained by an Abbess who is wise to the world’s ways), and their respective relationships to the women they care about (the Marquesa’s daughter and the Abbess, respectively) as expressed through letters, are really wonderful to read. And even though I’ve known from the first sentence of the novel that the bridge falls, the end of this section, with its simple conclusion that “while crossing the bridge of San Luis Rey the accident which we know befell them,” hit me with a sadness I’ve only felt once or twice in the Pulitzer journey thus far. The only problem with Wilder’s approach, of course, is that all of the characters I’ve grown attached to are now either dead or irrelevant, as we move on to the next victims of the bridge’s collapse—I’m not sure he can sustain my emotional connection to the novel. But if he can, this is shaping up to be a very solid reading experience and a book worth recommending to others.