In fiction, as in life, we don’t immediately know everything about a person. We may only slowly learn more about past experiences which affect motivations and actions. Over the course of a novel, we often see characters changing as they adapt or do something to alter the direction of what is happening. Sometimes, though, the author only slowly reveals what has been part of the character all along, until finally the true self is unmasked.
In my novel, The Lines Between Us, part of which takes place in seventeenth-century Spain, Sebastián is an example of this. He is the the brother of Ana, and the father of Juliana, two of the main characters. Although he is a secondary character, it is Sebastián’s actions that set the main conflict of the plot in motion. At the beginning of the novel, he is the loving father and brother. He is the widower who, his daughter believes, was so devastated by the death of his wife, when Juliana was a baby, that he will allow no one to speak her name. In the first part of the novel, Sebastián monitors Juliana’s understanding of the contemporary plays that he has assigned to her to study. In her diary, she records her father’s reactions, which become ever more extreme on the theme of the overriding importance of honor.
This focus serves to prepare the reader for the transformation of Sebastián from loving to vengeful father. Following the story arc of the plays Juliana has read, when she is raped, Sebastián secretly kills her attacker, and then vows to do the same to his daughter. She remains as the symbol of his besmirched honor, and this stain must be wiped clean.
As Juliana does what she must to escape and survive, the reader sees Sebastián only in Juliana’s reflections about him. She is heartbroken that her father would value her life so little, and she is also bitter to have been so betrayed by the father she thought loved her, and who should have been the one to protect her. Over the years, she struggles with her conflicting feelings about Sebastián, hating his treachery, but longing to dream of him, fearing that she is losing the image of the father she once loved.
Toward the end of the book, some twenty-five years after Juliana fled Spain, she receives a letter from her Aunt Ana, explaining not only what became of Sebastián in the intervening years, but also what had been the true cause of the death of Juliana’s mother, Margarita. Ana explains that Margarita had been taken by the Inquisition and accused of practicing the Jewish faith of her ancestors. Margarita was innocent of the charge, but it was true that she was of Jewish blood, and that her family had concealed that from Sebastián. Feeling betrayed, he did nothing to help her, abandoning her to the Inquisition, and proclaiming that he did so to defend his honor. It was not his sorrow over the loss of his beloved wife, but his anger and his shame that caused him to try to extinguish her name and memory.
Ana explains in her letter to Juliana her understanding of why, for Sebastián, honor was paramount, so that he placed it above even the life of his daughter. She believes that if he compromised on that principal, he would have had to question whether it was actually honor, or in fact his fear, that had kept him from attempting to help his wife when she was taken by the Inquisition. He had used honor as a shield, and he dared not forsake it.
Sebastián’s character is further revealed by the fact that, after his futile search for Juliana, his mind betrayed him, and he finally had to be put away. He did not live for long, and in his madness, he called out the name of the wife he had forsaken all those years ago. It is only at this point, having learned of Sebastián’s past, and how it affected his decisions and even his sanity, that the reader most fully understands Sebastián, in all of his complex humanity.
Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her next novel, The Map Colorist, comes out in September, 2023.