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Miguel de Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes
Four generations had laughed over "Don Quixote" before it occurred to anyone to ask,
who and what manner of man was this Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra whose name is on
the title-page; and it was too late for a satisfactory answer to the question when it was
proposed to add a life of the author to the London edition published at Lord Carteret's
instance in 1738. All traces of the personality of Cervantes had by that time disappeared.
Any floating traditions that may once have existed, transmitted from men who had known
him, had long since died out, and of other record there was none; for the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries were incurious as to "the men of the time," a reproach against
which the nineteenth has, at any rate, secured itself, if it has produced no Shakespeare or
Cervantes. All that Mayans y Siscar, to whom the task was entrusted, or any of those who
followed him, Rios, Pellicer, or Navarrete, could do was to eke out the few allusions
Cervantes makes to himself in his various prefaces with such pieces of documentary
evidence bearing upon his life as they could find.
This, however, has been done by the last-named biographer to such good purpose that he
has superseded all predecessors. Thoroughness is the chief characteristic of Navarrete's
work. Besides sifting, testing, and methodising with rare patience and judgment what had
been previously brought to light, he left, as the saying is, no stone unturned under which
anything to illustrate his subject might possibly be found. Navarrete has done all that
industry and acumen could do, and it is no fault of his if he has not given us what we
want. What Hallam says of Shakespeare may be applied to the almost parallel case of
Cervantes: "It is not the register of his baptism, or the draft of his will, or the orthography
of his name that we seek; no letter of his writing, no record of his conversation, no
character of him drawn ... by a contemporary has been produced."
It is only natural, therefore, that the biographers of Cervantes, forced to make brick
without straw, should have recourse largely to conjecture, and that conjecture should in
some instances come by degrees to take the place of established fact. All that I propose to
do here is to separate what is matter of fact from what is matter of conjecture, and leave it
to the reader's judgment to decide whether the data justify the inference or not.
The men whose names by common consent stand in the front rank of Spanish literature,
Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Quevedo, Calderon, Garcilaso de la Vega, the Mendozas,
Gongora, were all men of ancient families, and, curiously, all, except the last, of families
that traced their origin to the same mountain district in the North of Spain. The family of
Cervantes is commonly said to have been of Galician origin, and unquestionably it was in
possession of lands in Galicia at a very early date; but I think the balance of the evidence
tends to show that the "solar," the original site of the family, was at Cervatos in the north-
west corner of Old Castile, close to the junction of Castile, Leon, and the Asturias. As it
happens, there is a complete history of the Cervantes family from the tenth century down
to the seventeenth extant under the title of "Illustrious Ancestry, Glorious Deeds, and