Gender and Sexuality
he writing of a woman who is called-or effectively is-a Tenth Muse stands, like the author herself, on the periphery of her society. From this remarkable vantage point the authoress can see, with an omniscient accuracy, the inner mechanisms of the community-the secrets, the desires, the power structure-and another, imagined world, where the conventions and standards are set by her, the writer, and where a thoughtful commentary can be imbedded within the art. It is a safe, dynamic, and welcoming space.
Among the most crucial social threads woven into the fiction of the Tenth Muses is that which is most binding in their sixteenth and seventeenth century lives-the category of gender and its manifestation in sexuality. The narrative form provides the modern reader with a window into the authoress's perception of her womanhood and its limitations and privileges, facilitating an exploration of expressions of sexuality and desire in that space.
In deciphering the roles of gender and sexuality in the work of the Tenth Muses, it is useful to examine both fictional and non-fictional pieces, to demonstrate the interconnectedness of the author's imaginative and creative aspect with the traditional world. The Princess of Clèves (1668) by Marie-Madeleine de Lafayette and The Disenchantments of Love (1647) by María de Zayas serve as fictional representations, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz's "Reply to Sor Philotea" (1691) and Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World (c. 1625) by Catalina de Erauso are the counterpoints of the memoir of real life.
Each piece is informed by similar explorations of gender and the sexual. Each of the four writings displays a heroine who is instructed in womanhood followed by either an accepting embrace of the traditional feminine role, or a rebellion toward a new lifestyle. A performance of gender is a central aspect, and it can take the entire length of a narrative for the enacting of the life decision to occur. The pieces also describe an intrigue of sexuality which demonstrates the heroine's chosen role in womanhood, or is part of the deciding factor therein. This sexuality can be produced in two ways, both of which are assumed as the release of sexual urge: through traditional sexual means or desires or through conquest (whether intellectual or physical). Each writer makes her own way with the construction of gender and sexuality, but the choice made to artistically convey the struggle is a remarkable gift that these spectacular female intellectual pioneers share.
Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World
ieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World (c. 1625) is an autobiographical account of a woman famous in her own time for living as a man, both in dress and in her participation in the performance of the masculine code of the seventeenth century. Important as a character that refuses to follow her prescribed social script, Erauso found a way to literally break free and take up a new part as a new person. She completes this transition safely and successfully, producing a level of legendary celebrity endorsed by both church and state.
Catalina de Erauso follows the gender-sexuality blueprint of the Tenth Muse. She is inducted into womanhood by way of a predetermined role. At the age of four, Erauso is removed from her home in San Sebastian, Spain, to live in a Dominican convent. She writes that she would live there "until the age of fifteen, in training for the day when I would profess myself a nun" (3). Locked into her fate at such a young age, Erauso clearly had no choice in the way her life moved. Each convent contains several of the writer's aunts, and it can be surmised that enlisting a daughter to the religious order serves as the pious gift of a wealthy family. She describes the hardship of her days as a young novitiate in the extremely hierarchical convent, and the stinging physical violence imbued upon her by her elders.
Erauso is now aware of what her role in society will be-that of a cloistered nun-and perhaps how that compares to the lives of her brothers, who have been given the money and freedom to find their own way and their own lives. This instruction complete, Erauso sees a way out of her prison and decides to take action in the form of rebellion. She steals keys and opens the door to her cage, but it is no enough to merely walk far away and start over as a woman in a new and far off land. Erauso rebels completely against the feminine directions she has been given. She sews new clothes from her old gown and she "cut [her] hair and threw it away" (Erauso 4). Along with it, she throws away all appearances of the woman called Catalina and begins to live as a man.
In 1600, Erauso changes herself visually, and instantly exalts in the freedom and privilege of a man that exists at her fingertips. After her metamorphosis, she lives not as a nun, but as "a well-dressed young bachelor" (Erauso 7). She repeatedly describes the comfort of her situation, with an obvious pleasure in having moved from an emotionally and physically closed convent landscape to a sensual lifestyle in which she finds herself "well-fed and well-clothed" (Erauso 6). Rather than being restricted to the woman's domestic life, she now walks free. Erauso exalts in her change, writing that she "let [her] self be carried off like a feather in the wind" (7).
Discontent eventually plagues Erauso after her rebellion and transformation to manhood, and she falls into a habit of agitation and easy trouble. Erauso's restlessness propels her to uproot from various luxurious positions of a young, independent man and she sets sail to America on an uncle's ship, incognito, in 1603. From there, Erauso easily takes up the life of a rogue. Increasingly, "trouble lay just around the corner" (Erauso 11). There are fights, jail sentences, and even murder. It is arguable that Erauso uses physical activity as a release of sexual energy. She places herself, numerous times, in situations where she could have easily had sex with men or women. Each of these times, she steps back and embraces not sex but violence, such as when she becomes involved, for complex reasons, with her employer's mistress, whom she is intended to marry. The heroine recalls her reaction to an evening with the mistress, writing that "finally one night, she locked me in and declared that come hell or high water I was going to sleep with her-pushing and pleading so much that I had to smack her one and slip out of there" (13). Rather than take advantage of a sexual situation or reject her in the coy manner of someone avoiding suspicion while enacting such a grand deception, Erauso chooses to hurt the woman. This situation repeats over and over.
ventually, Erauso takes refuge in a church and confesses her true identity and actions to a bishop. She informs him that she has "traveled here and there, embarked, disembarked, hustled, killed, maimed, wreaked havoc, and roamed about, until coming to a stop in this very instant . . ." (Erauso 66). Erauso convinces the bishop of her faith and shows physical evidence that, despite all of her debauchery, she is "an intact virgin, as on the day [she] came into the world" (Erauso 66). These facts demonstrate that throughout her rogue existence, she has been un-sexual, channeling all physicality into masculine, warlike action.
It is of course possible that Erauso lacks in sexual desire, but it is not probable. One of the negative aspects of a memoir is that the author may pick and choose what to portray in her work, and may tweak the events to appeal to the widest audience. By removing all traces of desire, Erauso would validate her sponsorship by the crown and the church. But even if this is true, it is doubtless that Erauso uses violence as her major release of unbridled energy and emotion. The final evidence concludes her narrative with the description of an encounter with two prostitutes on a street in Naples. They recognize the notorious character and begin a conversation:
She has moved from the male sex to "male" violence-and speaks with a mouth to match.
"Reply to Sor Philotea"
atalina de Erauso's counterpart in the early modern personal narrative is the "Phoenix of Mexico," "America's Tenth Muse, the nun and scholar Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Her "Reply to Sor Philotea" (1691) responds to a scathing letter from the Bishop of Puebla, thinly disguised as a note from a fellow nun. Sor Juana's letter works as a self-affirmation and an autobiographical account of a mind that grew beyond her convent, beyond convention, and a daring, understanding eye. It relates the story of a woman who seemingly had no other choice but to become a nun, if she wanted to continue her education and not, as the court would have it, marry a suitable match and fulfill the role of the good wife. In becoming a nun, Sor Juana enacts her own form of socially acceptable rebellion.
She begins her career as a Tenth Muse with a childhood full of "sewing skills and needlework that women learn" (Juana Inés de la Cruz 211). But it is also filled with some extraordinary things. Sor Juana demonstrates a decided talent for learning in her youth, which dictates her being taught to read. She works toward it sneakily, referring to it as "[her] little trick" (211). Later in life, even though she could not study at a university "where the different branches of learning could be studied" (Juana Inés de la Cruz 211), Sor Juana challenges the notion that women should not be allowed to study by incessantly examining the world around her.
Though Sor Juana's abilities gave her a different direction, her early mental training in traditional feminine roles is so keen that even her writing about her passion for learning bears the mark of a deferential, minimizing nature-even if she does not truly believe what she writes, it at least appears that she thinks of herself as unexceptional, that every bit of learning and talent in writing she possesses accidentally and inconsequentially, contrary to the woman's way. Sor Juana's discussion of her talent utilizes demeaning phrases of taking part in "[her] poor studies" (218) with the burden of her "weak mind" (231). But she defends herself simultaneously, culling evidence that validates her learning, or at least what she has chosen to learn. This is one part of her rebellion. She writes, "I am not so bold as to teach-it would be the height of presumption in my case. Writing requires greater talent than I possess and a great deal of thought" (236). Sor Juana wonders, against those who accuse her of misconduct, "what is there so criminal, considering that I refrain even from what is legitimate for women . . . ?" (236).
The other element of Sor Juana's rebellion is her choice to live in a socially responsible form of revolt. Rather than marry and move in the traditional directive of the court, Sor Juana decides to become a nun:
Like Catalina de Erauso, she decides to make her own way, albeit through a less radical path. She admits to her moderation, but still speaks boldly by admitting that a major factor in her choice comes from a desire for a lifestyle that will facilitate unstructured hours of study and quietude.
Sor Juana also seems to displace sexual desire onto the form of scholarly pursuits and poetry with erotic undertones. As a nun, she takes a vow of chastity, forfeiting an active and accepted physicality in marriage. Her poetry and other writing, however calculated in their nuances, reverberate with great passion. The "Reply to Sor Philotea," Sor Juana's only autobiographical work, contains descriptions of herself, which employ the same enthusiasm and evidence of sensuality as her fiction. She writes, "Oh, if it had only been for the love of God, which would have been the sound way, what merit would have been mine" (Juana Inés de la Cruz 212). She uses language that makes her love of learning superbly full of desire and correlated to the life of Christ, to the lives of the great poets of history. She demonstrates that, as with sexual desire, she has no choice in the matter of being a learned, outspoken, writing woman; for why would she choose a path so berated? It is a product of passion.
Sor Juana, like her fellow Tenth Muses, made her way through the splintery, sensitive land of gender and sexuality, negotiating the painful and rough spots and making, through stunning intellectual decisions, a softer landscape that allows for personal creativity and extraordinary production that would not normally be available to a female of the day.
The Princess of Clèves
he Princess of Clèves (1678) exemplifies the Tenth Muse gender-sexuality plan at work in a fictional narrative. Lafayette presents the tale of a neophyte in the French court of the sixteenth century, whose beginnings embody the most supreme form of female instruction; she is taught in private by her mother, Madame de Chartres:
With no outside influences on her education, the Princess's mind forms completely from her mother's will. Though love of virtue-widely considered to be just and pious-marks the Princess's character, Madame de Chartres also programs her daughter in certain other ways; especially in an attitude toward men, marriage, and the workings of the court. This education might be construed as heavy-handed:
Thus, the eventual Princess of Clèves is taught by her mother to follow the path of the virtuous woman: although other women in the court to whom she will be introduced will be unfaithful and conniving, she should look to a higher purpose, and shine through as the virtuous woman she is instructed to be.
The Princess of Clèves does at first adhere to her gender script. She goes into high society, where she is "exposed to all the temptations of the court" (Lafayette 16). The Princess sees that this is a world different from that of her mother's breast. This is a place where the king has a mistress and everyone knows it; where everyone has a lover-and where it is expected that everyone will have a lover in addition to a spouse; where power dynamics rise from sensuality. The court functions as the major sexual body within the work, pulsing and stewing with emotion and desire, thrusting its unsavory anti-morality out into the people who inhabit it, normalizing the bawdy behavior. Still, despite these circumstances, and despite her passion for the dashing Duke of Nemours, the Princess remains faithful to her husband, the Prince of Clèves.
he Princess does, however, participate in the sexuality of objects, and of the gaze, which therefore places her in the category of the passionate Tenth Muses who displace their sexual feelings in typically unisexual things and activities. Her most sexual moment in the tale takes place while she decorates an Indian cane in the country, where she and her husband are taking respite from the court. The Duke of Nemours takes this opportunity to spy upon her:
The scene displays sexuality on two levels. First, the Princess garnishes an object that represents Monsieur de Nemours in color and by virtue of being his possession. She does so with an eye on his portrait, making it very clear that she intends her action to be worshipful of him. The worship takes place through the conduit of an object indicative of the male sexual organ. The scene shows the reader the Princess's sexual desire for Nemours, but also demonstrates that her devotion to virtue will only allow her to play out her emotion through the safety of objects. The second element of sexuality manifests itself in the gaze of Monsieur de Nemours. His eyes envelop the scene and become the sexual organ; staring at her, secretly, he is performing his part in the only sexual encounter they will have.
Though it takes the course of the entire novel, the Princess of Clèves does eventually rebel against her prescribed female script. Upon the death of her husband, she chooses not to turn to the Duke of Nemours, as society would have her do-to join forces with her paramour would be the perfect ending to the court's style of fairy tale. But she does not. Instead, the Princess
The Princess of Clèves does make a decision informed by what her mother taught her. However, that decision differs distinctly from the social script appropriate for a woman of her class, in the court. It is, in the end, a rebellious decision which disappoints those around her but leaves her with a life remembered as virtuous.
The Disenchantments of Love
he frame story of María de Zayas's The Disenchantments of Love befits the blueprint of the Tenth Muse in gender and sexuality. Lisis throws grand parties-or has them thrown in her honor. An aristocrat, Lisis plans to marry the man most complimentary to her lifestyle and social script, don Diego. Lisis even fights her own cousin, Lisarda, for the honor of the match. Don Diego realizes his good fortune in snagging someone who appears so perfect; Zayas writes that the man "felt truly lucky to have merited such good fortune because of the beautiful lady's many fine qualities" (35). The history of Lisis's female education does t appear in the novel, but her class indicated that such an education would be bent toward the traditional. She follows the order of doctors to "convalesce" for the better part of a year when she falls ill.
Though an adored aristocratic woman, it becomes clear when Lisis has a party that, despite appearances, she possesses a strong rebellious nature. Lisis sets up the rules of the telling. Rather than be deferential to the alpha male of the group, in taking charge of and deciding how her party will be run, Lisis reverses the sex roles. Lisis's goal in The Disenchantments is to "defend women's good name (so denigrated and defamed by men's bad opinion that there is scarcely anyone who speaks well of them)" (Zayas 37). Since the stories are fictional, the air crackles with the ability to say anything, to be completely and safely indiscreet, as in the bedroom, where such things are intended to be kept private.
Lisis&' rebellion comes to fruition by the end of the storytelling and the end of the frame stories. She decides to break completely from her gendered script. In doing so, she chooses not to marry don Diego. Instead, like the Princess of Clèves and Sor Juana, Lisis decides to join a convent and live toward a higher purpose. The rules are unfair to women in Lisis&' world, so much so that women are being completely vilified. She tries to change things for a while by hosting such parties and setting up the rules of the storytelling so that women might be shown in true virtue. Her final pronouncement to the party foretells her future:
With this parting, Lisis is ready to make an example of herself and anyone who will join her. She makes a choice that will change her life, that will leave her subject only to her own, solitary will and what might come to her from the divine unprejudiced God in whom she believes. The narrator's postscript on the story of Lisis might well be said of all the Tenth Muses: "This end is not tragic but rather the happiest one you can imagine for, although courted and desired by many, she did not subject herself to anyone" (Zayas 405).
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