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

Stephanie Merrim

T he Book of the Tenth Muse derives from the final projects of a course in Comparative Literature  at Brown University entitled "The Tenth Muse Phenomenon."  I offered the seminar for the first time as an advanced undergraduate course in the Spring of 2003, and in modified form as a graduate course in the fall of 2005. In the course, we seek to form a cross-cultural picture of women's writings and issues during the early modern period--especially the seventeenth century--in Spain, Latin America, North America, England, and France. We center our work on writers published and celebrated in their times. An ancillary goal of the course is to compile this online book, intended to complement the superb collection of texts and secondary contextual materials provided by the Women Writers Project at Brown University ( The Women Writers Project deals with early modern women's writing in English. Our Book of the Tenth Muse, which Women Writers Project coordinator Julia Flanders generously agreed to post as a link on the WWP website, purports to supplement in a small way the offerings of the WWP with essays on (mostly) seventeenth-century women's writing in Spanish and French, as well as English.

As the reader will see in more detail in the Course Syllabus, authors and works under study in the course and thus in this book, include:

  • Anne Bradstreet, British writing in North America (1612-72), selections of her work found in Electa Arenal's play, "This life within me won't keep still." In Reinventing the Americas: Comparative Studies of the Literature of the United States and Spanish America, eds. Bell Gale Chevigny and Gari Laguardia (NY, London: Cambridge University Press, 1986) 158-202.
  • Margaret Lucas Cavendish (1623-73), British, The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World (1666); The Convent of Pleasure (1668).
  • Catalina de Erauso, (1585?-1650?), Spanish, Vida i sucesos de la Monja Alférez (c. 1625). In English: Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World, trans. Michele Stepto and Gabriel Stepto (Boston: Beacon, 1996).
  • Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648?-95), Mexican, selections of her work including the "Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz" (1691 and the "Primero sueño" (1692). In English: "Reply to Sor Philothea," "First Dream." In Alan S. Trueblood, ed. A Sor Juana Anthology (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1988).
  • Marie-Madeleine de Lafayette (1634-93), French, La Princesse de Clèves. In English: The Princess of Clèves, ed. and trans. John D. Lyons, Norton Critical Edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.: 1994)..
  • Marguerite de Navarre, 1492-1549, French, L'Heptaméron (1558). In English: The Heptameron, ed. and trans. Paul A. Chilton (London: Penguin, 1984).
  • Christine de Pizan (1364?-1431?) French, Livre de la Cité des Dames (1403-04). In English: The Book of the City of Ladies, ed. and trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards (New York: Persea, 1982).
  • María de Zayas y Sotomayor (1590-1669?), Spanish, Novelas amorosas y ejemplares (1637) and Desengaños amorosos (1647). In English: The Enchantments of Love: Amorous and Exemplary Novels, trans. and intro H. Patsy Boyer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990) and The Disenchantments of Love, trans. and intro H. Patsy Boyer (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997).

Both the present book and the course revolve around an array of overarching themes relevant and crucial to most of the writers under consideration: Education and learning; Religion; Self-fashioning; The querelle des femmes, gender, and sexuality; Love and marriage; Imagined worlds; Places and spaces; 'Ex-centricity' (eccentricity, the bizarre or shocking, margins vs. center); Writing and fame. Each student has chosen one of the themes as the subject of her final paper. Their essays constitute the body of the Book of the Tenth Muse, and are available for you to visit one by one.

Finally, as mentioned above, the course carries the title that gives this book its name: "The Tenth Muse Phenomenon." The "Tenth Muse Phenomenon," while my own coinage, clearly refers to the Greek poet Sappho (c. 613 B.C.-570 B.C.), whom Plato considered the human counterpart to the nine muses of classical mythology. "Tenth Muse" became a classical epithet of praise for great poets. Seventeenth-century Europe and its colonies in the New World also applied the epithet to women writers who had achieved the heights of learning and whose works had entered the public sphere through publication. Seventeenth-century women designated "Tenth Muses" include: María de Zayas y Sotomayor, Anne Bradstreet, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, and Ana Maria van Schurman. Now, what happens when, unlike the nine muses of classical mythology, the tenth muse is neither divine nor necessarily virginal, when she does her job not in heaven but in profoundly patriarchal societies?

As the question suggests, the women writers' incursion into the public sphere remained deeply problematic. Indeed, the "Tenth Muses" focused tensions of the times regarding women at large--whence the "Tenth Muse Phenomenon." Seventeenth-century learned women, especially published women writers, defied the generally conservative, largely misogynist climate of their respective crisis-ridden countries, each of which had witnessed a retrenchment from the relatively liberal climate of the sixteenth-century Renaissance vis-à-vis women. In achieving publication and fame, often as an icon of their cultures and of Culture in general, the seventeenth-century "Tenth Muses" were a useful commodity and a dangerous. As I note in my Early Modern Women's Writing and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Vanderbilt University Press, 1999 [30-31]), when it behooved the patriarchy to celebrate a female writer, the epithet "Tenth Muse" allowed for an uneasy acceptance of the learned woman into the public sphere, as well as for her containment in a circumscribed space. For their part, the "Tenth Muses" themselves all display sharp awareness of the ambiguity of their position, of its precarious and problematic nature. They see themselves as both celebrities and orphans or pariahs, alone of all their sex; they represent themselves as exceptional, as oddities, as transgressive. In short, the seventeenth-century "Tenth Muse" bears the full weight of being a supplement to the nine consecrated muses.

Not all of the writers whom the Book of the Tenth Muse treats received the designation of "Tenth Muse." For example, the cross-dressing Catalina de Erauso, and the flamboyantly eccentric Margaret Lucas Cavendish, hardly fit the public "Tenth Muse" mold. Yet they too entered the public sphere, gaining fame or notoriety. Their works, like those of the designated "Tenth Muses," focus the tensions of the times regarding women. They provide important counterpoints as well as kinships to the "Tenth Muses" per se.

Jody Caldwell, Mariah Garnett, Elizabeth Giancola, Samantha Gorman, Ariane Helou, Allison Hutt, Ashlee Morgan-Piper, Nora Peterson, Kerry Smith, Courtney Wilson, and I hope that you enjoy making your way through our contribution to a comparatist's understanding of seventeenth-century women's writing in Europe and the New World.

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