In 2017 at the Gramercy Arts Theater, a 300-year-old play got its US premier. It was Ana Caro de Mallen’s Courage, Betrayal, and a Woman Scorned. In November of 2020, it received a livestream reading by Red Bull Theater in Los Angeles, under the title The Courage to Right a Woman’s Wrongs.
Who was this woman and why is there interest in her work only now? As has happened in many countries over time, the writings of women were discounted and forgotten. Caro lived during Spain’s Golden Age, which extended from the late sixteenth to the late seventeenth centuries. We have long studied the works of men of the period, the most famous being Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, even popularized in the musical The Man of La Mancha. Until relatively recently, however, little was known about the women writers of the period.
During the 1980s and 1990s, feminist scholars in many fields began resurrecting the work of female writers. In a list compiled by the National Library of Spain, there are now over five hundred women writers for the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries alone. Some of these authors directly address the injustices faced by women. A recent exhibition by the Centro Virtual Cervantes titled, “Wise and Valiant, Women and Writing in the Spanish Golden Age,” sheds a light on some of these authors, poets and playwrights.
It is noteworthy that a majority of these writers were members of a religious order. It seems that convent walls gave women the opportunity to write, freed from the duties of marriage and children which were the fate of the majority of women.
The most famous of the literary nuns was Teresa of Ávila. Best known for her mystical poetry, she also wrote essays and defended her dignity as a woman, her independence, and her intellectual capacity. Like so many in her time and place, she was admonished by the Inquisition, which commanded that her library be destroyed, along with the manuscript of her autobiography. She secreted a copy of it, however, and it was published posthumously.
Courage, Betrayal, and a Woman Scorned
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was also a nun who was known in her own time. Although she was born and lived in Mexico, she is often included in a list of famous Spanish writers of the period. Sor Juana wrote philosophical essays in which she defended the right of women to be educated and to be involved with intellectual pursuits. She also wrote poetry, and in one of her most famous poems, “Foolish Men,” she writes that men are the cause of the very fault they find in women.
You foolish men who accuse women without reasons,
Not seeing you are the cause of the very thing you blame.
If you invite their disdain with incomparable desire
Why do you want them to behave well if you incite to evil?
In Ana Caro’s play, she also takes up the defense of women. Recognized in her own time, she was perhaps the first female writer to be paid for her work in all of Europe. In addition to plays, she wrote poetry and studies on cultural activities.
In Courage, Betrayal, and a Woman Scorned, Caro turns the narrative of the typical “honor play” on its head. In these plays of seventeenth-century Spain, women are the symbols of a man’s honor. Even if the woman has been raped, her death is presented as the means to cleanse the stain. In Ana Caro’s play, Leonor takes it upon herself to restore her honor. After being seduced and abandoned by Don Juan, she travels in search of him, and, like some Shakespearean heroines, dresses like a man in her pursuit of justice. We see her determination in this speech:
Revenge, revenge, for heaven’s sake!
I want the world to whisper
That, despite the common opinions,
They see in my courage
The most illustrious resolution
That the globe has ever seen…
Caro’s Leonor finds a happy ending, rewarding her efforts to control her destiny.
One of Caro de Mallén’s fans was contemporary Maria de Zayas, a celebrated author admired by many, including the famous playwright Lope de Vega. Zayas, a constant defender of women’s intellectual capacity, was perhaps the best-known Spanish female writer in her time. In her two collections of novellas, Amorous and Exemplary Novels, and Disenchantments of Love, Zayas challenges both the prevalent idea of the inherent inferiority of women, and the acceptance of physical and psychological violence against women. One female character voices the injustices: “Why vain legislators of the world, do you tie our hands so that we cannot take vengeance? Because of your mistaken ideas about us, you render us powerless and deny us access to pen and sword. Isn’t our soul the same as a man’s soul?” Zayas then drives her point of injustice home, as the woman suffers for her outburst, being beaten by her incensed husband.
If there were in fact hundreds of women writing, why is it only recently that we are learning about them? Many of the reasons are the same as for women writers from any country being ignored or forgotten. Women used a pseudonym to avoid public scorn, their poetry could only appear in contests, or as tributes in someone else’s book. Sometimes a male member of the family claimed authorship of a woman’s work, as was the case with Oliva Sabuco’s New Philosophy of the Nature of Man. At times women, especially nuns, undercut their own writing by emphasizing their humility, and even their mediocrity, in order to win the acceptance of readers.
Of course, there was one impediment that was peculiar to Spain and its colonies: the presence of the Inquisition. As we have seen with Teresa de Ávila, women writers were the subject of close scrutiny by the Inquisition. Sometimes the suppression was more subtle, such as with playwright Lope de Vega’s natural daughter, Marcela de San Félix. Marcela lived in a convent, and wrote extensively. Upon the advice of her personal confessor, five volumes of her writing were burned. Even so, some forty pieces survived, including six plays.
Even with all of these obstacles, hundreds of women managed to write in this period of Spanish artistic achievement, and many sought to get their work before readers. Their subject matter ranged from the religious to the secular, from contemplation of communion with the divine, to criticisms of the treatment of women, defenses against the attacks on women’s intelligence, and the interpretation of marriage as an institution that served only the needs of men. They wrote, even though for women, the mere taking up of the quill was a subversive act.
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.