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

Love and Marriage
Kerry Smith

Seeing as seventeenth-century social rules obligated women to either marry a man or enter a convent, it is understandable that the "Tenth Muses" devote much of their texts to exploring the theme of love and marriage. Each seventeenth-century women writer presents unique instances of this theme, but many base their reactions to love and marriage on Neo-Platonic philosophy, especially strong in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Though the lives of "Tenth Muses" Sor Juana Inès de la Cruz, María de Zayas, Margaret Lucas Cavendish, and Marie-Madeline de Lafayette span four countries and two continents, all four women adopt Platonic ideals of love. Neoplatonism defines love as an inherent spiritual connection between two individuals that cannot be pretended or forced. Many characters in the aforementioned Muses&' texts are pressured to marry for social or monetary gain rather than for what the writer sees as true love. Instances of untainted Platonic love are always present in the texts of these "Muses," but each writer consistently insinuates that true love is rare-if not impossible-within the confines of socially-sanctioned marriage. Marriage seems to end, rather than perpetuate, true love. Platonic love and spiritual gratification seem to exist only outside the bounds of legal matrimony.

Sor Juana Inès de la Cruz

Sor Juana Inès de la Cruz seems an unlikely author with whom to begin the discussion of love and marriage in early modern women's writing. It would seem that Sor Juana shuns love in retreating from mainstream society and becoming a nun. Nonetheless, while it is true that Sor Juana never had a traditional man-wife marriage, she by no means lived a cold, solitary life. In fact, in an unconventional sort of way, Sor Juana lived more consumed by pure love than most traditionally-married women of her day.

The first matter that should be addressed is why an intelligent woman who was, by all accounts, feminine and beautiful would shun marriage. If Sor Juana had two choices-marriage or convent-why would she choose the convent? What it boils down to is that Sor Juana was basically too smart for marriage.

Sor Juana was born with an innate desire to learn. In her "Reply to Sor Philotea" (1691), she recalls that her "urge to learn was stronger than [her] wish to eat" (Juana Inès de la Cruz 211). She is so completely devoted to, in love with, and even "married" to knowledge and the pursuit of wisdom that marriage to a man is impossible. As Sor Juana, a perfectionist, knows: "much bodily practice is required to develop a skill, [and] one who spreads herself out over a number of exercises will never acquire any one skill perfectly" (215). Instead of "spreading" her efforts between contributing to a successful marriage and studying, knowing that she will be only moderately successful in both endeavors, Sor Juana ultimately chooses to devote to learning the effort that most other women devote to their husbands and raising families. However, remaining unmarried and out in the world was not an option either: "anyone who stands out-or whom God singles out . . . is viewed as everyone's enemy" (Juana Inès de la Cruz 219). Again, society's indissoluble rules required a woman to either marry a man or God. To continue her love affair with knowledge, Sor Juana chooses God.

In Romance #56, Sor Juana observes, "When love is placed in God, nothing else can intervene" (Trueblood 87), but her intentions in taking the veil are not entirely pious: "given my total disinclination to marriage, [becoming a nun] was the least unreasonable and most becoming choice I could make to assure my ardently desired salvation" (Trueblood 212). In hiding in the convent from secular marriage rules, Sor Juana is free from society's distractions and censures and is thus able to indulge in her love of reading and study. Sor Juana was not against marriage per se; rather, she was an advocate of true Platonic love. Sor Juana's true love was knowledge. Becoming a nun made it possible for her to follow her natural inclination towards learning. Sor Juana would not sell herself out and let someone else own her body; after all, "Whoever is his own model / has no other rule than self" (Romance #48, Trueblood 29). In the convent, Sor Juana can "own my very soul as if it were not mine" (Endecha #79, Trueblood 49) and love freely: herself and knowledge.

While Sor Juana's primary love was learning, she also valued and set an example of spiritual love for future writers. Like Divine love, true love should be Platonic, non-bodily and ungendered: "Of one thing I&'m sure: that my body . . . serves only to house the soul- / you might call it neuter or abstract" (Romance 38, Trueblood 31). In other words, love must be spiritual. In Romance nineteen, the epistolary poem to Phyllis subtitled "A pure love, however distant, eschewing all unseemliness, may feel whatever the most profane might feel"(Trueblood 37); Sor Juana not only excuses but idealizes woman-to-woman love. She writes, "For the soul, as you well know, / distance and sex don&'t count. / How could I fail to love you, / once I found you divine?" (Trueblood 39) It is not the body that loves, but the soul. Unconsummated woman-to-woman love is ideal because it is not stained by the impurities of societal sanction. Woman-to-woman love does not necessarily indicate a lesbian orgy and, though it may initially seem radical for a seventeenth-century nun to be promoting woman-to-woman relationships, she is actually advocating acceptable, Platonic love.

Margaret Lucas Cavendish

Margaret Lucas Cavendish (1624?-1674) also realizes the daunting necessity of marriage:

Marriage is a Curse we find,

Especially to Women kind:

From the Cobler's Wife we see,

To Ladies, they unhappie be. (117)

Marriage should be a mutually beneficial relationship, but it is not. Cavendish knows well that patriarchal society expects each woman marry and serve her husband: "For we are not born for ourselves but for others" (130). In Cavendish's play, The Convent of Pleasure (1668), when Lady Happy's father dies and leaves Lady Happy a large inheritance, Lady Happy is at once the most sought-after woman. The men of the court immediately begin to "spend all [their] wealth in fine Clothes, Coaches, and Lackies, to set out our Wooing hopes" (Cavendish 97). The suitors clearly think that rich fineries will win Lady Happy's love and would sooner marry Happy for money and political gain than they would because they actually love her spiritually. Lady Happy decides that she does not want to enter into a loveless, stifling marriage to one of the greedy men and instead chooses to gain freedom by entering a walled convent, very similar to Sor Juana's seemingly paradoxical decision.

Lady Happy and Sor Juana decide to enter convents for fundamentally similar reasons, but Cavendish and Sor Juana explain their decisions distinctively. Sor Juana discusses evasion of marriage furtively, but in The Convent of Pleasureit is discussed openly and often: marriage is the main issue. Cavendish is more open and scathing in her condemnation of marriage and men: "And since there is so much folly, vanity and falsehood in Men, why should Women trouble and vex themselves for their sake" (99). "What profit or pleasure can it be to the gods to have Men or Women wear coarse Linnen or rough Wollen, or to [flay] their skin with Hair-cloth?" (Cavendish 99) The clothing that Cavendish discusses here is both figurative and literal. Fashionable vestments for men and women surely included scratchy materials, but to maintain a marriage solely for the sake of appearances also requires one to wear an uncomfortable "cloak" of pretended happiness. Constantly pretending one is happy and in love eventually has the same chafing effect of rough "Hair-cloth" (Cavendish 99). Like Sor Juana, Lady Happy and other women in Cavendish's play refuse to wear the figurative uncomfortable clothing and decide that marriage is not worth the trouble. Without Platonic love, marriage is a prison and there is "no occasion for Men" (Cavendish 104). Lady Happy intends to "incloister [herself] from the incumbred cares and vexations, troubles and perturbance of the world" (Cavendish 100), but her troubles are never far away.

In the unperturbed sanctuary of the convent, Lady Happy claims that "the mind is more free" (Cavendish 100), but this does not mean that the body is free from its innate sexual needs. In the convent, the women have time to create plays and masques which problematize the positives and negatives of love and physical and spiritual unions. Cavendish carefully intertwines the fictional masques in with the actual storyline of The Convent of Pleasure, making it difficult to determine where reality ends and fantasy begins, thus emphasizing that this exploration of love goes beyond the fictional Convent. Both the play and the plays within the play are fiction, but masques put on by the women of the convent summarize their (and Cavendish's) thoughts on marriage possibilities of marriage and love in real life.

Though masques are traditionally comical, brutal events saturate the masques in the fictional convent, especially with regard to male-female marriages. In the first masque, one woman fears a beating by her husband who squanders all of his family's money in a local tavern "whilst [her] children cry for bread" (Cavendish 112), another is dying from the constant cycles of pregnancy, and still another frantically mourns the loss of her child (Cavendish 112-14). Men initiate all suffering and the women subsequently see marriage as a chain of miseries. While the masques&' characters suffer, though, the women consistently offer each other advice and comfort. This woman-to-woman comforting reflects Cavendish's position that the most pure relationships are obviously those which are Platonic and have no pressure of physical contact or reproduction. The women of Cavendish's Convent may go to the Convent because they do not believe that pure love can exist in a customary marriage, societally sanctioned marriages, but this does not mean that Platonic love is absent altogether.

While in the convent, Lady Happy falls in love with another woman, the "Princess." The "Princess" eventually turns out to be a man dressed as a woman (one of the men who want desperately to infiltrate and destroy the convent), but the love between the two "women" is still pure. Although woman-to-woman love was not acceptable to society's standards, Happy and the "princess" still maintain their relations. Unaccustomed to the feelings associated with Platonic love, Lady Happy questions the unusual relationship: "But why may not I love a Woman with the same affection I could a Man? No, no, Nature is Nature, and still will be / The same she was from all Eternity" (118). Lady Happy discovers that she cannot deny her unnatural and strange feelings and concludes, "more innocent Lovers never can there be, Then my most Princely Lover, that's a She" (Cavendish 111). Importantly, these questions arise before the two lovers passionately kiss and consummate any physical feelings for one another. Platonic love must begin with the soul: "to embrace and kiss, so mingle souls together" (Cavendish 118). Physical lust and bodily gratification are products-not causes-of spiritual love. The "Princess" and Lady Happy's spiritual love was present before any sort of bodily contact and endures even though they recognize that their relationship will be frowned upon by just about everyone outside the convent.

When the "Princess" turns out to be a Prince and the Happy marries him anyway, it seems like Cavendish is selling out. She is not. Again, Cavendish was not against marriage; she was in favor of Platonic love. That the love of the Prince and Princess initiates when the relationship appears to be homosexual and endures when it is obviously heterosexual shows that Cavendish thought that Platonic love was possible in same-sex relationships and in traditional marriages. This is not selling out-it is refreshingly hopeful. "The truth is, We are all stuft with Hopes, as Cushions are with Feathers" (Cavendish 103). Sor Juana abdicates the hope for a symbiotic relationship in entering the convent, but Cavendish's Lady Happy uses the convent to discover the pleasures of true love without the constraints and requirements of society. This is certainly a positive development.

María de Zayas

María de Zayas may keep moving forward in setting the standard and definition of true love, but she takes a step away from hope. "Love" is again the point of focus for all relationships and thoughts and spiritual love is as idealized here as it is in Cavendish's Convent of Pleasure, but in Zayas's novellas, true love (and marriages based on true love) is all but impossible to find.

Particularly in María de Zayas's The Disenchantments of Love (1647), love is an emotion for masochists. In the first installment of the frame story, the slave Zelima sings of the rage she felt after her lover leaves her. Her eyes burn with rage and she prays that her tears will extinguish the flames:

The fire in which I burn/

Is a fire of flaming pitch;

The more tears I shed

The fiercer burn the flames.

Some people say that jealousy

Is like ice to love

But in me it is

All the flames of Etna


Look, Salicio is mine,

In him I live and for him I die

And taking him for me

Tears my soul from its sad (Zayas 40-41)

Zelima is ruined. Because her lover (not the Salicio of the poem) was Zelima's whole reason for happiness, he becomes her whole reason for misery. Having been jilted, she feels condemned to live in a state of eternal hell-fire where even water and the "tears I shed" (Zayas 40), cannot cool the stinging. Love inevitably ends in pain, but the characters of The Disenchantmentscannot resist its quixotic allure. The whole soiree system of the text's frame story is constructed to convey the instances when women have been led on by men who feigned love, but really acted on lust a desire for conquest. In "Too Late Undeceived," marriage is again something that everyone must do and Zayas uses this story to make the point that the kind of love society advocates is superficial. Marriage for the benefit of one's lust or to gain political power in society, is not real and will not endure.

Before he decides to starve his lover and treat her like a dog, don Jaime has an uncommon relationship with a woman in his town. Every night a man blindfolds don Jaime and takes him on horseback to the secret location of the woman who desires him. Don Jaime is never told where he is and is never allowed to remove his blindfold or to be told where he is; she "never did she allow me to look at her. When I would beg her for a glimpse she&'d reply that it wasn&'t fitting, that to see her meant to lose her" (Zayas 150). When don Baltasar and don Jaime find the house where of don Jaime's secret lover, the woman immediately ends the love affair. Don Jaime is warned: "Misguided youth, leave the city this instant! Your life is in danger and tonight you are to be killed by the command of one who loves you dearly" (Zayas 154). It is not that the woman does not love don Jaime, but once lovers see each other, what was spiritual, Platonic love inevitably becomes lust. Again, the only kind of love that is real and functional is the kind that is spiritual and unconsummated.

In another "disenchantment," "Love for the Sake of Conquest," the high standards of true love are defined, but, as the title suggests, the only kind of "love" to be found is based on the need for subjugation. Don Esteban falls in love with Laurela before he even speaks to her: "He fell in love so madly (if that's the right way to put it) that he lost his wits and his reason" (Zayas 206). He knows that his social standing is not high enough to be able to marry a woman as noble as Laurela, but he feels that he must have her at any cost. Don Esteban decides that the only way to get close to Laurela is to dress as a woman and become her maid. This further complicates the situation and allows Zayas to set up a forum for discussion of true love and yet again prove that what society sees as "love" often is not.

When don Esteban cross-dresses and becomes "Estefanía," he suddenly becomes very attractive to Laurela's father. And when Estefanía sees Laurela naked she finds "Laurela far more beautiful undressed than dressed, she fell even more in love than ever before" (Zayas 217). In both of these instances "love" is based on clothes or the lack thereof. Zayas is saying that sometimes people fall in love with someone when that person puts on more or different clothes and sometimes when that person takes his or her clothes off. This love is obviously not spiritual or blind; one's soul does not change simply because a person is wearing different clothes.

Because don Esteban is now Estefanía, he is allowed to listen in and even join in on the women's discussion of true love, which is remarkably similar to the paradigms set by both Sor Juana and Margaret Lucas Cavendish. Zayas reaffirms what she first stated in "Too Late Undeceived": love should be spiritual and not based on bodily needs, desires, or appearances. Woman-to-woman love is

"true love, for loving without reward is the purest kind . . . since the soul is the same in male and female, it matters not whether I&'m a man or a woman. Souls aren&'t male or female and true love dwells in the soul, not in the body."
(Zayas 224)

Therefore, if Estefanía's love were in fact spiritual, it would be the most commendable type of love possible. However, Estefanía's love is not pure. It is for the "sake of conquest" of Laurela and to satisfy don Esteban's physical desire. This does not bode well for the Estefanía and Laurela's potential relationship:

One who loves the body only with the body cannot truly say that that is love; it's lust, which brings only repentance after physical satisfaction because that love wasn&'t in the soul. The body, being mortal, tires of its food, while the soul, being spirit, never tires of its nourishment. (Zayas 224)

She continues,

True love is the very substance of the soul and so long as the soul doesn&'t die, love won&'t die. Since the soul is immortal, so love will be also. But in loving only with the body, if they don&'t enjoy the body, they&'ll soon desist and forget and go seek satisfaction elsewhere. If they do attain their ends, surfeited, they move on to seek more of the same elsewhere. (Zayas 235)

We can see why don Esteban leaves Laurela within minutes after sleeping with her. Once don Esteban "attains [his] ends" (Zayas 235) and gets his desired physical satisfaction from Laurela, all he wants to do is "move on to seek more of the same" (Zayas 235). He leaves Laurela unmarriageable and forever depressed: "She lived a dreary and disconsolate life . . . She never laughed or sang as she used to" (Zayas 235).

The Disenchantments of Loveare basically María de Zayas's drawn-out way of saying, "every day, as surely the world draws to its end, things go from bad to worse"(Zayas 402). Lisis goes to convent to save herself "from the deceptions of men" (Zayas 402) because there is no hope for pure love in the mortal world. Zayas defines and idealizes true, spiritual love, but then says that, as great as this unadulterated love sounds, it is not out there. You can dream all you want about love, but you might as well give up and hide in a convent.

Marie-Madeline de Lafayette

The idea that love is often a matter of conquest continues in The Princess of Clèves(1679) by Marie-Madeline de Lafayette. However, Lafayette re-works the conclusions of María de Zayas in a less overt, less controversial, more readable manner. Instead of situations like that of "Love for the Sake of Conquest," where don Esteban maliciously ruins Laurela's honor and leaves her unmarriageable and damned, here we find that marriage is all about political gain and love is all in the pursuit. The pressures associated with love and matrimony frequently overshadow relationships and dominate courtly discussions, but Platonic lovers remain Platonic lovers only while they are apart. Lafayette seems to argue that, without the figurative thrill of the hunt, societally acceptable marriages are too easy and doomed to failure.

The many illicit love affairs between married men and women accentuate the argument that acceptable marriages are more political than Platonic and bound to dissolution. It was common practice among noblemen for one to select and negotiate the most politically and financially beneficial marriage. The men and women who marry the spouse selected by their parents-including the Princess de Clèves-quickly become dissatisfied with their marriages and, allured by the excitement and danger of pursuit, seek fulfillment elsewhere. Though the Princess yearns for spiritual fulfillment in her unconsummated love for Nemours, other members of the court seek physical satisfaction. The danger and constant feeling of pursuit excites even the most noble men and women and drives them to seek fulfillment outside of their marriages. Those who enter adulterous relationships fulfill their sexual needs and provide gossip for the court, but, but there is no Platonic love behind these trysts. No matter what kind of pleasure the characters need, Lafayette concludes that there is no kind of satisfaction to be found in marriage; most if not all of the characters look outside their marriages for gratification. Unlike Zayas and Cavendish, though, Lafayette portrays an instance where Platonic love does exist and endure.

The one example of spiritual love that does endure above all others, for better or worse, is that of mother and daughter. This novel calls into question the way we define marriage. Can we consider a mother and daughter's relationship marriage? The Princess of Clèves absorbs her mother's advice and puts it into practice so literally that the Princess becomes figuratively married to her mother. The products of this motherly union overshadow all others. The love between the Mme de Chartres and the Princess of Clèves is unromantic, unbodily, innocent, and therefore spiritual: the most commendable and pure form of love. However, it is irresolvable whether this relationship is actually a marriage or whether the relationship is positive. Since the Madame's husband has died, she devotes all her time to the Princess's education. Out of concern for the Princess's well-being, the Madame does not shield her daughter from what she sees as the truth:

Madame de Chartres, who had already taken such pains to fill her daughter with a love of virtue, did not spare them . . . and bad examples were frequent. Ambition and gallantry were the sole occupation of the court, busying men and women alike . . . love was always mingled with politics, and politics with love. (Lafayette 11)

The Madame de Chartres does not pretend that the world is a totally happy place or that love is pure. Chartres teaches her daughter that "love" is synonymous with "politics" and marriage is often based on "ambition and gallantry." The Madame de Chartres teaches her daughter, through the "bad examples," that men are evil and the only way for one to sustain herself is to adhere to a strict sense of duty and code of virtue.

In this case, mother does know best; politics do get mixed in with love and marriage is more about social advancement than love. When the Princess comes of age, everyone wants to marry her for a different reason. The Princess's marriage is more like an election than a marriage, with the Mme de Chartres as the campaign manager. The mother does all the behind the scenes work, playing "her cards so cleverly" (Lafayette 12) to ensure her beloved daughter the most beneficial marriage possible. Each of the suitors shows off his wealth and talents so that he will be the one chosen as the best husband. Significantly enough, the woman at the center of the "election"-the Princess-has no vote; her mother votes for her. The Princess of Clèves has "no special feelings for [Monsieur de Clèves]" (Lafayette 14), but the mother decides that the Prince of Clèves will be the best husband; Chartres is the one who ultimately accepts the Prince de Clèves's marriage proposal. For the daughter, the marriage is just another duty.

The Princess of Clèves loves Nemours, not Clèves, but having lost all hope in sustaining a marriage rooted in love, the Princess takes comfort in being a slave to the rigid moral code defined by her mother. On her death-bed, Chartres warns her daughter not to consummate a relationship with Nemours:

You are on the edge of a precipice: a great effort, a violent struggle, alone can save you. Think of what you owe your husband, think of what you owe yourself, and remember that you are in danger of losing that reputation which you have acquired and which I have so ardently desired for you. Take strength and courage, my daughter: withdraw from the court . . . Do not be afraid to make a difficult decision . . . if this misfortune must come to you, I welcome death that I may not see it. (Lafayette 28)

The Princess knows that she loves Nemours more than Clèves; Nemours is "a man . . . for whom she felt a passion so violent that . . . duty and virtue could not restrain her emotions; every obstacle vanished; and of all her past she remembered nothing but her love of the Monsieur de Nemours and his for her" (Lafayette 99). It is clear that marriages are not about love but appearances; Chartres would rather have her daughter remain in a loveless marriage with the respectable Prince of Clèves than go with Nemours, whom she really loves. Chartres 'guilt-trips&' her daughter into staying with a man she does not love because it will look bad if she leaves.

In her article, "A Mother's Will: The Princess de Clèves," Peggy Kamuf cites Chartres's education as the sole reason for her daughter to avoid Nemours and impose on herself a "law which virtue and reason could not impose" (Lafayette 105). While it is true that the rigid moral code the Mme imparts on the Princess keeps the Princess from carrying out a relationship with Nemours, the Mme's love does have positive consequences. By listening to her mother, the Princess learns that "her only chance of success lay in avoiding the prince" (Lafayette 40). As seen with so many of the other courtly marriages, the Princess knows that once a couple is married, love dies: if "Monsieur de Clèves was perhaps the only man in the world capable of keeping his love after marriage" (Lafayette 103) why risk losing her love by marrying Nemours? Dreaming about love is better and more fulfilling than actually acting on it. The Princess goes to a convent like so many of her predecessors because she is smart and "educated" enough to know that the cloister is the only place that what she perceives as her spiritual love and connection with Nemours can remain untainted.

Among all the uncertainties of The Princess of ClèvesLafayette makes clear that the love and marriages advocated by society are only for political reasons and based on appearances. These relationships, then, are doomed to failure. The mother-daughter spiritual love allows the daughter to continue her non-bodily love with Nemours, again lionizing Platonic relationships.


All four women-Sor Juana, Margaret Lucas Cavendish, María de Zayas, and Marie-Madeline de Lafayette-problematize the themes and implications of love and marriage and come to similar conclusions. The marriages that are seen as acceptable to society are not based on true love, but on appearances and sexual needs. Socially-sanctioned marriage is seen as a distraction from true spiritual love. Although the four women lived in completely separate countries, all idealize non-bodily Platonic love and collectively make the point that pure love is nearly impossible to find unless you want to marry God or your mother. This may not be the most uplifting of conclusions, but Sor Juana, Cavendish, Zayas, and Lafayette all make important observations on society and contributions to exposing the fallacies and hypocrisy behind society's expectations.


- Cavendish, Margaret Lucas. The Convent of Pleasure in Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader. Ed. and introduction by Sylvia Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson. Toronto: Broadview Press Ltd, 2000.
- Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sister. A Sor Juana Anthology. Trans. Alan S. Trueblood. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 2001.
- Kamuf, Peggy. "A Mother's Will: The Princess de Clèves."  The Princess of Clèves.
- Ed. and trans. John D. Lyons. Norton Critical Edition. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994. 206-230.
- Lafayette, Marie-Madeleine de. The Princess of Clèves. Ed. and trans. John D. Lyons. New York: Norton, 1994
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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