gender and sexuality
love and marriage
imagined worlds
places and spaces
danger: love
writing and fame
la querelle femmes

Imagined Worlds
Allison Hutt

Since the beginning of time, men and women have been using their imagination to create worlds for their own amusement or escape or for the betterment of others. The women writing in the seventeenth century are not exceptions to this human trend. Christine de Pizan, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Margaret Lucas Cavendish, and María de Zayas are some of the noteworthy women who employed imagined spaces in their written works. The topic of imagined worlds is by definition a broad one, as it is limited only by the bounds of human imagination, but it can be parsed into three questions to focus the discussion. The overarching queries will serve to highlight points of comparison and differentiation among the authors. It is of paramount importance to ask with respect to each woman and her oeuvre "How does she create this world?", "Who has access to it?", and "What is the world's role in the character's development?" By following these three themes on a journey through the relevant works of Pizan, Sor Juana, Cavendish, and Zayas, one can begin to understand and appreciate the beauty and ingenuity employed by the Tenth Muses in the creation of imagined worlds.

Before beginning this journey, it is necessary to define the somewhat vague phrase "imaginary world." Are not all of the places in a work of fiction "imagined" by the author herself? In this essay, the term will mean a place that one of the characters creates, either in the "real" world that is the book's setting or in her mind. In instances where it applies, the creator may be closely associated with the authoress, though it goes without saying that all of the examples are necessarily created by the Tenth Muses. Restricting the analysis to only those examples that satisfy this definition will allow for relevant comparisons. As a final point before embarking, I note that the essay will be grouped into sections according to the three aforementioned themes, but separated by author in order to facilitate the drawing of parallels between the authors. With that explanation in place, the tour through the imagined worlds of the Tenth Muses can commence.

                     How does she create this world?
Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies (1403-04) contains a most fascinating description of the creation of the City of Ladies. It can be read on both the allegorical and the literal levels. Despite the fact that the book was written as a first-person account by Pizan herself, the idea to create the City does not originate with her parallel character, Christine. One of the salient things about the manner in which she creates the world, therefore, is that she does it with much help: even Divine help. The protagonist of the story is visited by three allegorical women who are sent by Divine Will to assist her in the construction of the City. This lends a lot of credibility to the City; after all, one cannot dispute something that was commissioned by G-d! The female protagonist is something of an ingénue, asking many questions at the beginning and being heavily guided by the three heavenly ladies. A major point of distinction between this world and others is not that the impetus to build the city comes directly from the protagonist, but that the protagonist actually assists in the execution of the project.

The construction of the City is described in vivid terms as a literal, architectural undertaking. The ladies refer, among other features, to buildings, temples, high walls, and roofs. It is easy to picture this, therefore, as a physical, walled city. The tools that the women use to excavate the City, though, have both literal and allegorical meanings. The ruler, wielded by Lady Reason, measures the line between right and wrong while also measuring the materials for the edifice. Along similar lines, the character Christine is instructed to use the "pick of [her] understanding" to clear dirt out of the site while trying to better understand the role of women and their critics (Pizan 16). In this way, the imagined world is portrayed as an exterior space while also being figurative.

One interesting, somewhat unique element of Pizan's City is the notion of permanence connected to it. The divine women assure their helper that, though it will be attacked and stormed (note the physical verbs employed), the City will endure forever. Though Reason describes it as "extremely beautiful," most of the adjectives connected to it convey its durability and strength rather than its aesthetic appeal. In many of the other imagined places, the space exists only fleetingly, but here it is fortified enough to survive any attack. The implication of adversity sets up the imagined city as a controversial, possibly subversive space, yet one that will endure as a bastion for virtuous women.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

In Sor Juana's poem, "First Dream" (1691), one can easily become tangled in the language, which is alternately metaphorical, scientific, or philosophical, but always deeply poetic. There is a type of world-making present, though, by the personified sleeper's soul. Since Sor Juana always uses female pronouns to describe the soul, it is not unreasonable to compare "her" to the other female protagonists who have created imagined places. The soul is free to imagine only while her corresponding body is deep in sleep, in what is referred to as a death-like state of inactivity. Since Sor Juana emphasizes the removal of the physical from this otherworldly exploration, it is fair to say that her imagined space is mental, not a physical. The world that the soul creates, then, is inherantly personal.

Can one really say that the soul creates this world, though? Whereas the women in the City of Ladies were consciously constructing their City, the soul seems to find herself there without designing and building it. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that she accesses the world. This is a minute point, but a salient one since the topic at hand is how she creates the world. The world that she accesses is described vividly and stands in contrast to the ordered, linear reality of night and day.

In her dream, the soul suddenly finds herself atop a colossal mountain that is indescribably tall (though Sor Juana does attempt to convey its magnitude with several extreme metaphors). The Divine role in the world, as seen in the metaphor of the pyramid, is highlighted in the lines, "the one First Cause, the center toward which the straight line tends, if not indeed the circumference containing every essence ad infinitum" (Trueblood 181). Like Pizan, Sor Juana attributes at least partial responsibility for the structure of the imagined world to the Divine.

However, there is a drastic contrast in this world to Pizan's: the aspect of permanence. In "First Dream," the world the soul enters is utterly dissipated when faced with the battle between Night and Day. This world, therefore, seems far more tenuous; it reminds the reader of the fleeting quality of dreams.

Margaret Lucas Cavendish

Cavendish was fascinated with the theme of world making, and many of her works contain pertinent examples. For the sake of uniformity, and since each single work contains ample material, I will only examine one of Cavendish's works here: her play, The Convent of Pleasure (1668). Interested readers may wish to explore The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World for further examples of imagined worlds in her repertoire.

In The Convent of Pleasure, Lady Happy founds the Convent in order to avoid men and the masculine-driven society in which she lives. She approaches encloisterment nonchalantly, saying, "retiredness bars the life from nothing else but Men" (Cavendish 99). She does not at first feel that the world will be much different from her current one. As Lady Happy's plans evolve, however, she loses herself in the amassing of all things pleasing to women; besides lavishly furnished interior spaces, Madam Mediator relates that there are lovely groves, ponds, and orchards within the walls of the convent.

Upon reading the play, it may surprise the reader that the convent seemingly appears out of thin air immediately after Lady Happy designs it in her mind; there is no reference to its physical construction in the text. Lady Happy does mention on many occasions that she instructed "them" to build it according to various specifications. It is unclear whether the builders were male, female, or even divine, but the important point is that Lady Happy has the idea for its creation entirely on her own. Though the "how" is left ambiguous, taking the initiative to erect this safe space for women shows a degree of agency on the part of the female protagonist that is not found in either Pizan's or Sor Juana's examples.

From its architecture, it is apparent that the Convent was meant to be a self-sufficient haven for women that would continue for a long time. By describing in detail the decorations for the different seasons, Lady Happy implies that the Convent will not be merely a passing phase. More directly, she says, "so that what with the several Seasons, and the Varieties of every Season, it will take up a whole life's time" (Cavendish 107). With its yard-thick walls and its lack of gates and entrances, the Convent is clearly intended to endure without interaction with the outside world.

María de Zayas

In the frame story of The Disenchantments of Love (1647), the protagonist, Lisis, creates a physical, actualized "imagined world" meant to exist for a fixed amount of time. She is compelled to make a world where she and her friends can defend women, but the space is also supposed to provide a form of entertainment for the guests in the days before Lisis's wedding. Since the second set of soirees is Lisis's idea, she determines the appearance of the affair and also the mood. She creates a world where beauty pardons all; throughout the book, the author comments on the disarming physical beauty of the women who are telling the disenchantments, even saying that the men were lulled into accepting the ladies's criticism because their loveliness was so overwhelming.

One way in which this space differs from the Convent of Pleasure is that all activities within the world focus on one thing: telling stories. Surely, though, Zayas is not the first to use the technique of frame story- frame tale. The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, as well as Marguerite de Navarre's Heptameron all employ this literary form. What makes the world in The Disenchantments of Love unique? For one thing, in this story-telling setting only women tell stories, which must be true. Additionally, all the stories center on the issue of women becoming undeceived by men. The specificity of the uses of the soiree-world makes it different from the other examples of physical spaces for women.

The world, as prescribed by Lisis, provides delights for all the senses. Somewhat akin to the Convent, the story-telling hall is aesthetically pleasing, with beautiful furniture, elegant wall hangings, and candles. It is replete with savory smells and food, and the musical entertainment leaves nothing to be desired. The beauty of the room is ironic given the harrowing themes of many of the "disenchantments," but the hostess has designed the space to please women as the forum there will seek to counsel them.

Who has access to it?

Christine de Pizan

The "City of Ladies" is somewhat of a misnomer; as in many of the imagined worlds, the City is not meant for all members of the female sex, but only for the special ones. The three divine ladies set the rules for who may enter the City, allowing "all the holy ladies who have lived, who are living, and who will live" (Pizan 254), and absolutely excluding the women with mala fama (those with bad reputations). These "evil, dissolute and perverted women" (Pizan 254)-represented by black, dirty, and uneven stones-are systematically removed from the site early on in the construction process.

Though women from all sectors, time periods, and even varying degrees of reality (mythological or Biblical figures will be welcome) are to inhabit the City, it does contain a hierarchy. Namely, the holy ladies say that they will be providing a Queen. The Queen, whom Christine later reveals to be the Virgin Mary, serves as a reminder to the citizens of the way they should behave. While she does not seem to have governing power, she is a figure of didacticism as well as the veritable prototype of a dweller of the City of Ladies.

The way in which the women who "love glory, virtue, and praise" acquire this City is noteworthy. They have not asked for it, per se, but are presented with it as an inheritance: a gift and prize for their virtuous comportment. The presentation of the City to the holy women accompanies a great deal of sermon-like advice from the protagonist. She feels the need to counsel them to behave well and not misuse the gift they&'ve received. In this way, the protagonist is placing herself above them. For the most part, though, the City is for all deserving women to find sanction and refuge.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

The question of accession is difficult to answer in respect to "First Dream". On one hand, the nature of the world as a dream world would imply that it is only accessible to the specific soul in the poem. Somehow, though, this mental, personal space takes on a universal valence throughout the work. Perhaps the fact that Sor Juana does not speak of the soul actively designing the world allows for the thought that this world is somehow available to anyone who can reach it.

The poem posits that sleep affects the pope, peasant, emperor, and rustic alike; during the time of night when the souls retreat from the physical world, all are essentially equalized. This would imply that the ability to enter the dream space is not restricted to only one type of person. There is very little direct mention of gender, so there is no reason to assume that women are preferred in the dream space, which contrasts with many of the other messages in the examples. The poem even goes as far as to say that, as dangerous as the journey is, "no punishment can deter the spirit bent upon a fresh attempt," (Trueblood 191); it seems that every ambitious soul will attempt to access this imagined world.

Margaret Lucas Cavendish

According to its founder, Lady Happy, the residents of the Convent of Pleasure need to satisfy four qualifications. She will accept "Noble Persons of my own Sex . . . whose Births are greater than their Fortunes, and are resolv&'d to live a single life, and vow Virginity" (Cavendish 101). Some of these characteristics deal more with attitude than with predetermined circumstances (the male cross-dressers who infiltrate the convent prove sex to be an obstacle easily overcome). However, the convent is still an aristocratic and hierarchal space. The author mentions that girls are brought into the convent to be servants; all women are not equal. Lady Happy deems herself the Confessor so that she can grant whichever pardons are necessary to solidify the hierarchy within the already-stratified society.

The women who enter the Convent to live (something unique in the worlds mentioned thus far) form a community that resembles the one they are leaving; they take on the positions of physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries. To the delight of the "Princess" (actually a Prince who enters the Convent disguised as a woman and ultimately marries Lady Happy), the women in the Convent even dress as men at times. This brings up the interesting question of the presence of men in the Convent; though specifically designed to be impenetrable by the male sex (note the double entendre), the Convent proves to be quite permeable.

María de Zayas

In The Disenchantments of Love, Lisis creates an odd atmosphere. Men and women are allowed to be present, but the men good-naturedly accept the onslaught of verbal abuse that their sex will receive during the evening's tales. In this way, Zayas (and through her, Lisis) is placing men in the submissive position that she feels women usually occupy.

The story-tellers comprise the heart of the world, but the party includes many invited and uninvited spectators with varying opinions. The author suggests that many attend either to marvel at the women's great beauty or for the novelty of the soirees. Some guests, however, are critical. The Disenchantments of Love contains the only space so far that has had people within it who do not fully support its purpose. The dynamic of the event is no doubt hierarchal; Zayas describes Lisis as an angel, a goddess, and the president. The author reminds the readers that, though Lisis planned the event and is therefore the natural leader, her beauty, intellect, and spirit commend her to the role as well.

While the people in attendance play a central role in the progression of the story, the women being defended are certainly "present" in the space as well. To repeat a common theme throughout many of the works, the "disenchantments" are meant to defend only "real" women. As the author says, "I don&'t call the fickle, false, loose woman who has lost her reputation a woman, but instead a wild beast" (Zayas 38). The creator of this world, like many of the other Tenth Muses, distances her sex from its negative members in order to strengthen her case in defense of women.

What is the world's role in the character's development?

Christine de Pizan

We find a striking difference between the confused, inquisitive Christine at the beginning of the narrative and the self-assured, advising Christine at the end, a change contingent upon the experience of building the City. She has a forum to pose questions to the three holy women, and the answers she hears lead her to a greater understanding of the questions with which she had been wrestling. She goes from being the student to being the teacher after she participates in creating the City. Interestingly, the change occurs without her ever having lived in the City; the act of building it is enough to show her this newfound knowledge. Thus the space of this imagined world has more impact, at least in the time frame of the story, during its construction than after its completion.

The construction acts as a vehicle for Christine to unearth satisfactory answers to the ever-vexing questions that would come to characterize the querelle des femmes regarding men's censure of women, the true nature of the female sex, and the ways to defend women. These discussions of women, however, take place while the four women are digging, measuring materials, and raising buildings: activities which are stereotypically "male". Thus, Pizan shows the power of women, as if to say that not only can they reason brilliantly around the difficult querelle puzzles, but that they can build a city with their hands.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

During the dream, which takes place during a single night and seems to exist outside the realm of time, the soul goes through many stages of development. At first, when confronted with the world, it overreaches and tries in vain to understand all that its senses perceive. Chaos, confusion, and the dizziness that one experiences after being temporarily blinded by a bright light quickly ensue. The soul then rapidly realizes her own limits of comprehension, and she undergoes her first reformation by resolving to only focus on one thing at a time. The experience afforded to her from the "imagined" world is, therefore, a powerful teacher.

The dream also serves to promote closeness to a higher state of consciousness, which is ironic because sleep is often identified by a lack of consciousness. The result is a personal change in contrast to the collective change seen in Pizan's work and that of others. Souls who do access this world, however, are portrayed as transgressive, as the author warns: "for broadcasting makes the wickedness / of the greatest crime all the greater till it threatens a widespread epidemic" (Trueblood 191). Here embarking on the quest for this world is compared with a crime. Though all creatures, one might assume, are apt to take this journey, it is not necessarily one that leads to positive development.

Margaret Lucas Cavendish

When she first conceives of the Convent of Pleasure, Lady Happy is perfectly resolved in her decision to withdraw from the controlling patriarchal system to this preferable world. After the Convent becomes a reality and the women move in, Madam Mediator continues to report to the outsiders that the women are content and living according to the original plan. The disturbing change, however, comes when Lady Happy discovers that her intimate friend is, in fact, a man. Immediately, she reverts back to the outside system, allowing the Prince[ss] to answer for her and abandoning her women and all the Convent stands for.

Why this about-face in the main character's mentality? Were her convictions so unstable that they could be swayed by the first intrusion of a man into the space? What does this say about the effectiveness of the Convent itself? These questions are not easily answered. One outside detail that may reconcile the seemingly disjointed facets of Lady Happy is that the play was written, to a degree, by two different authors. Though authorship is attributed to Margaret Cavendish, certain portions of the latter part of the play were written by her husband, "Lord Duke". It may not be a coincidence that during Margaret's portion the female is a strong-willed, active person who seeks to subvert the male society in which she has lived, while the same female in Lord Duke's section becomes an obedient wife who sees the error of her ways and returns to the outside world.

The future of the Convent of Pleasure is unclear at the conclusion of the story. Lady Happy seems to lose interest in it entirely, and it is the Prince, who was responsible for its downfall, who takes control of it. He mentions that he may turn it into a refuge for widows and virgins, but his vision of it seems to be different than Lady Happy's original idea. In this way the play is more negative with respect to women in its ultimate message. Despite the strong sentiments expressed in the beginning of the play-especially during the anti-masque-the act of creating and inhabiting this special female-friendly space seems to have had no greater effect on Lady Happy than to drive her back into the arms of heterosexual marriage.

María de Zayas

The evolution of the character Lisis is one of the most controversial aspects of Zayas's book. Significantly, Lisis's transformation is due entirely to the time that she spends in the imaginary world of stories and storytelling. When she originally designs the events, she is in good spirits and, while she hopes to stress the didactic nature of the disenchantments, she also believes it will be a form of high brow amusement for her and her wedding guests. Indeed, Lisis is not the only character who undergoes a transformation within the world; her maid, Zelima, is utterly reborn as doña Isabel, a feat that, arguably, could only have been achieved in this parallel reality.

Lisis assumes the paradoxical position of being both the teacher and the student. When she organizes the world, she knows that she wants to educate women about the deceit suffered by other members of their sex in an attempt to "disenchant" them with men in general (one might wonder why she chose this as the forerunner to her wedding). , Nevertheless, throughout the nights of storytelling, her thinking is altered the most by the tales. At the conclusion of the volume, Lisis addresses the women in a City of Ladies-like fashion, but here she is relating what she has learned from the women storytellers rather than trying to teach them. In many ways we find here the complete opposite of the plot in "The Convent of Pleasure," where the female world-builder was set against marriage but eventually ends up succumbing to marriage.


As this journey through the works of Christine de Pizan, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Margaret Lucas Cavendish, and María de Zayas has shown, there is not one, definitive way in which the Tenth Muses utilized imagined worlds. The fine web of similarities and differences, rather, is what makes the topic such an exciting one. While the authors of these works have been dead for hundreds of years, it speaks to their talents that the characters and worlds they created can still inspire the twenty-first century reader, perhaps to journey to her own "imagined world".


- Cavendish, Margaret Newcastle. Paper Bodies: a Margaret Cavendish Reader. Ed. Sylvia
- Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson. Canada: Broadview Press Ltd., 2000.
- Pizan, Christine de. The Book of the City of Ladies. Trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards. New York: Persea Books, 1982.
- Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sor. "First Dream." Ed. and trans. Alan S. Trueblood. A Sor Juana Anthology. Boston: Harvard, 2001. 205-243.
Zayas y Sotomayor, María de. The Disenchantments of Love. Ed. and trans. H. Patsy Boyer. New York: State University of New York Press, 1997.

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