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

Self Fashioning
Mariah Garnett

Given that writing was a somewhat taboo occupation for women in the seventeenth century, the Tenth Muses, or published women authors of that time period, often struggled to create for themselves an image that explained their actions. They achieved this either directly or obliquely. Some female authors directly addressed the reader or offered autobiographical accounts that explained their drive to write. Others refigured patriarchal norms to create spaces that allowed their female protagonists to be driven towards traditionally masculine pursuits, such as writing, studying, or violent action. This second option often involved giving the female protagonist a marginal or fantasy space unto herself in which she could pursue the activities that she chose unhindered by the watchful eye of man. Literary self-fashioning was very important, since the ways in which these female authors constructed themselves and women as a whole, were crucial to the reception of these works and their female authors by the public. The construction of self often served a carefully disguised purpose that lay outside the narrative of the work and in the socio-political climate of the author. Thus, at least as I construe and enact it here, the term "self-fashioning" not only applies to the ways in which the Tenth Muses constructed their own authorly personae, but also to the ways in which they constructed the identities of their female characters, who often times served as foils for the authors themselves.

Catalina de Erauso

In her autobiography, Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World (c. 1625), Catalina de Erauso outlines her gender transformation from female to male. The style in which she writes is spare and terse. There is very little speculation, emotion, or inner monologue in this first-person narrative; the author spends a lot of time cataloguing events and objects, but gives the reader very little of her emotional life. Perhaps this was her natural voice, or the voice of a third party scribe, but it is also likely that Erauso used this style of storytelling to further construct her gender as quintessentially "masculine," increasing her celebrity and legitimating her chosen lifestyle.

Following the discovery of the physical fact of her female sex, Erauso was vaulted into celebrity, accepted by the Spanish monarchy and the Catholic Church, and named the "Marvel of Peru." Rather than suffering reproach for her behavior, which was the more likely at the time, Erauso found herself transformed into an eccentric object in the eyes of the public and of the rule-makers. This could not have been entirely by chance; the way in which she constructed her identity as a "marvel" afforded her certain freedoms that were not available to most women at the time. Written in the first quarter of the seventeenth century, it was not until 1829 that this book was published and available to the public (Stepto xlv). However, the ways in which she constructed her identity to avoid reproach at the time are embedded in this text.

Erauso begins her autobiography with a brief history of her life in the convent and outlines the events that directly precede her escape. In this short section she presents herself as a victim. On the first page she is abused by another nun: "She was a big, robust woman, I was but a girl - and when she beat me, I felt it" (Erauso 2). She portrays herself as unprotected, weak, and at the mercy of others. Erauso has not yet come into herself, and she insinuates that this is due to the confines of the convent. She describes the space of the convent as constricting and pervaded with death. The psalms sung by the nuns are described as "mournful," and to get away Erauso tells her aunt that she is sick (2). As she leaves the convent, she encounters a long series of locked doors. Such initial accounts of the convent describe the state of a pre-subjective woman. She is beaten, sickly and confined. Once outside the walls, however, Erauso sheds the material vestiges of her cloistered life and transforms her physical appearance into that of a man. At this moment of metamorphosis in the text, Erauso comes into herself. Spaces and clothing-material and concrete things-play heavily into her fashioning of self and the construction of her identity.

As the picaresque narrative of her life unfolds, Erauso maintains her stress on exterior, concrete factors. She constantly relates to the reader the number of miles she travels, the clothing she acquires and the spaces she inhabits. They become the indices of her life. Other than anger, very little explicit or irrational emotion can be found in the text, as was expected of a woman's writing. In this way, she writes her own character as a man. She uses a masculine voice to describe the events that occur during her life as a man, thus validating the fact that she cross-dresses. Erauso essentially becomes a man as soon as she puts on men's clothing. Following her flight from the convent on the second page of the text, her character is read as a man. There are no feminine longings or urges as occur in Shakespeare's female transvestite characters, and she passes, not only to the seventeenth-century world in which she operates but also to the reader, as a man.

Another significant element of Erauso's emerging subjectivity and self-sculpting is the stage on which events unfold. Erauso writes herself as a marginal, bizarre character in order to escape the social norms that applied to conventional citizens at the time. The New World factors heavily into her self-portrayal: it is not until she reaches Peru that Erauso begins to drink, gamble and fight. She evolves from weak and pathetic girl in the convent; to rootless, cunning pageboy in Spain; to fully self-sufficient man in the New World. Peru's marginality mirrors Erauso's own eccentricity, and the space and person become conflated, thus rendering her a product of this bizarre and wondrous world. Moreover, only when she reaches the New World does Erauso become embroiled in criminal behavior and let her anger and violence show. Vengeful anger is the strongest emotion associated with Erauso in the text, and it is tied up in her "masculinity." Episodes at bars or in the streets in which she fights and kills men who question or ridicule her manhood can be found throughout the text. Her machismo is overwhelming:

We began to play and the game was going along smoothly, when a small misunderstanding came up and my companion, with plenty of people around to hear it, told me I lied like a cuckold. I drew out my dagger and ran it into his chest. (Erauso 22)

Erauso's bildungsroman is subtle, as she does not present her autobiography as a tale of growth or self-discovery, but as a factual account of her extra-ordinary life. Her emerging subjectivity exists, however, embedded subtly in the text and framed by the spaces she inhabits and the clothes she wears so as to ease the reader into accepting her as a legitimate anomaly and not merely a transgressor. Erauso uses characteristically masculine tactics to cleverly construct an image of herself that is difficult to reproach and that sets her well outside convention.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Erauso does not fall squarely under the Tenth Muse aegis because she did not publish in her lifetime. Unlike Erauso, whose transgressions reside in her actions, Sor Juana's transgression is in the very act of writing. Sor Juana is a more familiar figure in the discourse about women's writing. Sor Juana, a nun in seventeenth-century Mexico City, had to defend her right to write and study. This self-defense resulted in Sor Juana's construction of a multifaceted public persona; she presents different versions of herself in her various writings, according to her agenda. She continually describes her insatiable appetite for learning and knowledge in her poetry and in her letters, though the ways in which she describes this appetite differ depending on her audience. When defending herself, Sor Juana's mind becomes an alleged burden, but when writing poetry, it is rapturous. Though Sor Juana's work is not strictly autobiographical like Erauso's, much of her writing contains autobiographical elements, particularly her "First Dream" (1692) and her "Reply to Sor Philothea" (1691). In the latter text, Sor Juana constructs herself as unable to stop learning, as driven by her very nature to read and study, thus challenging the paradigm that science and letters were an unnatural pursuit for women. She situates herself outside this paradigm, thus-similar to Erauso-presenting herself as an almost saintly anomaly. She claims to be driven to the books by a higher force than herself-a fact that tortures her, but she must obey the will of God.

In her "Reply to Sor Philothea," Sor Juana responds to an admonishment that she received for dabbling in theology. She is chided by "Sor Philothea," whom she actually knew to be the Bishop of Puebla, for straying too far from her naturally subordinate position as a woman through her writings and for not focusing heavily enough on the Bible. Sor Juana provides a lengthy autobiographical response to these accusations, explaining her reasons for reading and writing and their origins. It is the most deliberate and extensive piece of self-fashioning of all her writings.

Sor Juana presents herself as plagued by an inborn ability to learn and write, claims that she hates to do it, and only does so when forced by others. Living in a highly religious culture, and in a nunnery, Sor Juana uses God as a justification for her writings:

I will not deny . . . that from my first glimmers of reason, my inclination to letters was of such power and vehemence, that neither the reprimands of others . . . nor my own considerations . . . have succeeded in making me abandon this natural impulse which God has implanted in me-only His Majesty knows why and wherefore and His Majesty also knows that I have prayed to Him to extinguish the light of my mind. . . . I have tried to inter my name along with my mind and sacrifice it to Him alone who gave it to me; and this was precisely my motivation for taking the veil. (Trueblood 210)

Sor Juana presents herself in this section as powerless against her own mind. She claims to try to rid herself of this "natural impulse," but, as it is God-given and inborn, she must live with it. She sets herself up as a martyr, and places herself in a long tradition of scholarly saints, such as Saint Theresa. Thus Sor Juana transforms a transgressive act-writing as a woman-into a pious and holy one, as she claims to be God's puppet in this matter. In so doing, she reformulates the censure on her intellectual passion by rendering it a sin to not write, as writing becomes a gift and a burden that God has bestowed upon her.

In the "Reply to Sor Philothea," Sor Juana constructs a tortured and haggard at the hand of God self-image; a portrait of a woman who wants nothing more than to follow the straight and narrow path, but is pre-destined by God's will to engage in activities thought unfit for women at the time. This is a very different picture of herself than the one she paints in her "First Dream," where she describes the ecstasy experienced in the flight of the mind. The soul, protagonist of the poem and ultimately identified with a female "I" can easily be seen as a stand-in for Sor Juana herself. The sleeping woman, to whom the soul belongs, pursues her love of knowledge in dreams. First, Sor Juana envisions a night world, full of transgressive female figures from Greek mythology. She refigures the world as a marginalized utopia, where the sleeping woman in the poem can commit her own transgressive act-attempting to learn. Space in this poem is as important to self-fashioning as it is in Erauso's autobiography. Against this backdrop, the sleeping woman's pleasurable yet prohibited cerebral wanderings occur, thus reflecting the woman's own marginality.

After setting the stage, Sor Juana continues by describing the mental journey taken by the soul and writes it as a spiritual quest:

Meanwhile, the latter [the soul], all intent

on her immaterial being,

was contemplating that most lovely spark,

that portion of highest being

in whose likeness in herself she took delight.

She felt herself almost loosed

from that bodily chain that always blocks her path. (Trueblood 178-179)

Sor Juana gives the soul an identity, thus rooting it as the essence of self, which is gendered female. Although this can be attributed to the translation of the word "soul" from Spanish-a word of female gender-another analysis is possible and relevant. It is noteworthy that Alan S. Trueblood chooses to name the soul "she" in the English translation. The soul is referred to as "she," "intent on her immaterial being." Souls, thought to be androgynous, are here claimed for the female sex, and are shown to be the purest form of identity, capable of communing with God. In this poem, Sor Juana celebrates the very same knowledge and inquisitiveness which she defends in her "Reply to Sor Philothea," and constructs her selfhood as residing outside her female body, although it is distinctly feminine. Although the protagonist in the poem is not necessarily Sor Juana herself, Sor Juana constructs an obvious foil for herself through whom she can justify and explain the pleasure that she takes in using her mind.

Margaret Lucas Cavendish

Margaret Lucas Cavendish's play, The Convent of Pleasure (1668), and other of the author's works, set up fantastical worlds where the identities of characters constantly change. She often achieves this effect of constant flux through her use of the masque, or a play within a play. Originally, masques were plays put on by the nobility to praise the monarchs, but Cavendish has reformulated the genre to use them as a means of producing literal masks of the various characters. The characters play out different fantasies, all of which can, in many ways, be read as the author's own, often through the use of the masque. Cavendish herself was painfully introverted and suffered from various physical ailments, many of them self-inflicted. In their creation of vibrant and fantastical worlds and characters, her works provided an exit from the body that seemed to fail her in life. She creates multiple versions of herself and in so doing "gains a measure of control over her body . . . she produces surrogate 'paper bodies' that speak elegantly and wisely in public" (Bowerbank & Mendelson 14).

In her Female Orations, Cavendish presents the reader with seven different female opinions on the relations between men and women. It is difficult to situate Cavendish's true opinion on the subject. Her wry sense of humor hovers around these seemingly serious diatribes and indicates both Cavendish's playfulness and her advocation of dialogical identities. The voices in Female Orations do not fully agree on the subject. At the same time, all can be read as versions of the author herself. Several of the women lament their miserable state attributable to men; others defend men and claim that women are weak by nature; others advocate imitating men to elevate their status, and the final orator suggests playfully that women are simply better than men and that men's behavior proves it. The playfulness of the final orator reveals Cavendish's unwillingness to subscribe to a singular idea, and suggests the absurdity with which she treats the bounds of identity. Cavendish does not validate any of these opinions, and the reader is left with a picture of disparate elements.

The strategy of unraveling the structure of a genre is prevalent in her works. Cavendish's writings often dissolve towards the end and leave the reader hanging. This act is not a mark of flawed writing, however, but a calculated refusal to provide a satisfying and concrete definition of anything, and, in itself, a method of self-fashioning. Cavendish makes clear her belief in plurality, the coexistence of disparate elements within the individual, and conveniently avoids labels. She sets up her own identity as in constant flux through the ever-changing elements of her works and characters. In The Convent of Pleasure, for example, the reader struggles through radical changes in scenery and temporality as Cavendish rapidly shifts her focus in a non-linear fashion throughout the entire body of the work. The protagonist, Lady Happy, is a defiant character. Rather than settle on the conventional path of marriage, Lady Happy removes herself from patriarchal society and establishes a convent devoted to the pleasure of women. Identity games involving elaborate costumes often serve as the markers of said pleasure. Even the setting, in which these transformations occur, is not fixed. Immediately after having established the convent, Lady Happy outlines four rotating seasonal designs for the women's chambers. Cavendish establishes early on that the convent is a space where change is celebrated and encouraged. Over the course of the narrative, Lady Happy performs masculine duties, dresses as a shepherdess, a sea-goddess, and finally as a bride.

Cavendish provides the reader with a love story. However, it too is corrupted by the author's convictions about plurality. The identities of the characters involved in the love story are masked and they are not whom they initially seem to be. Lady Happy falls in love with a Prince whom she believes to be a woman and distresses much about her forbidden, yet Platonic love for a woman. As this narrative-which would conventionally drive the play-unfolds and comes to a head, it simultaneously unravels. The reader is left with the knowledge that Lady Happy marries the Prince; however, Cavendish writes this marriage as no more real than the masques and performances that occur earlier on in the play. Instead of providing a resolution to the tension she established by revealing whether Lady Happy is indeed happy in her marriage, Cavendish suddenly shifts the focus to the Mimick, who comes out of nowhere to recite the epilogue to the play. Mimick's speech provides an illustration of the play's refusal to subscribe to any constraints:

I have it, I have it; No faith, I have it not; I lie, I have it, I say, I have it not; Fie Mimick, will you lie? Yes, Mimick, I will lie, if it be my pleasure. But I say, it is gone; What is gone? The Epilogue ...How can you speak it, and never had it? I marry, that's the question; but words are nothing and the Epilogue is nothing, and so I may speak nothing; Then nothing be my Speech.
(Bowerbank & Mendelson 133-134)

Cavendish ends the play in this way. She dismantles its very structure. Cavendish sets up vibrant and explosive descriptions, characters and narratives, but refuses to ascribe to them a singular definition, or privilege her story with a concrete ending. The overall impression is of the plurality of her fantasy worlds and the tenuousness of identity. Cavendish celebrates shifting identities through her characters and structure and writes her own authorly persona through these ever shifting elements as pluralistic and dynamic.

Marie-Madeleine de Lafayette

The plot line of The Princess of Clèves is all about self-fashioning, though the author's presence is masked by the fact that the novel was published anonymously. Unlike Cavendish, whose characters overtly function as various masks of herself, Lafayette chose not to put her name on the work. Her decision serves a dual purpose. It removes the author from the work, thus rendering it a universal statement about self-fashioning, and eventually reinserts the author back into the story. As the author is not read into the story, the Princess's struggles become an exemplary tale of identity construction, which then is reflected back onto the reader and onto Lafayette herself.

Lafayette uses a model for the construction of self, based on Jansenism. The theory behind Jansenism, a religious group in seventeenth-century France, is that the self was fundamentally weak and at constant battle with passion. In order to ballast the Jansenist self, one needed to rely on external supports: in order to maintain the self, one had to deny oneself passion, and rein in a weak and unruly human nature. The beginning of the novel sets up the Princess as the most beautiful and virtuous woman at court. The tension between this initial virtue and the temptation of her passion for Monsieur Nemours drives the novel. The princess relies on her mother and her husband to keep her in check, and when her supports die away, she somewhat ambivalently turns to the Church, becomes a lay nun and dies a premature death. Throughout the novel the Princess battles her desires for Monsieur Nemours and constantly questions her own identity:

She thought it almost impossible that she could ever be satisfied by his love. "But if I could be," she asked herself, "what could I do with it? Do I wish it? Could I return it? Do I wish to begin a love affair? Do I wish to expose myself to the cruel repentance and mortal anguish that are inseparable from love? I am overwhelmed by an affection which carries me away in spite of myself. (Lafayette 64)

Incessant introspection and self-questioning play an integral part in her construction of self. She constantly weighs the consequences of her desires. Lafayette presents romantic love as antithetical to self-love in this novel, and the Princess's adolescent journey of self-fashioning relies on denial of it.

Lafayette gave her readership a tale of fortitude in the face of the passions and intrigue of the French court. By establishing the Princess as a heroine, Lafayette created a model of feminine virtue, and by publishing anonymously, she allowed the story and character to circulate as emblems of a universal truth. Her authorly anonymity was not, however complete. This is unmistakably a woman's novel. It centers on a female perspective, uses love as a powerful force in politics, and rewrites history along the lines of female figures, such as Queen Elizabeth. The men in the novel function largely as props and parabolic warnings against the loss of self. Thus, though the novel was published anonymously it is inscribed in a feminine discourse. Lafayette used her anonymity ostensibly to de-gender her highly gendered tale. Thus it ceases to be a woman's novel, and becomes accessible to all, while still maintaining a strong emphasis on the feminine. Lafayette constructs herself as an amorphous voice&-;an act at once humble and megalomaniacal. Anonymity allowed her, in many senses, to play God. Her disembodiment renders Lafayette omnipotent and unbiased, seemingly allowing her readers to make what they will of the text, while subliminally inserting her own opinions into it. Lafayette holds the Princess up as an example to women, and her authorial anonymity aligns her with the protagonist, rendering her at once female and omnipotent. Lafayette becomes the inimitable ghost of virtue that the Princess leaves behind in her death.


Self-fashioning was a large concern for women writers in the seventeenth century. As it was considered a violation of feminine nature to write or engage in other "masculine" behavior, they had to carefully construct their identities in a way that would not jeopardize them further. Many of these authors use their fictional characters as masks of themselves, thus justifying through fiction opinions that they held in reality. Another common tactic was the use of setting. Creating worlds, or choosing fantastical places to stage their works often served to remove the works from the authors while still effectively reflecting their views. By removing themselves from the norm either through setting, voice, structure or anonymity, these authors created forums for their ideas. Much more than authors' musings, each author's works function as markers of her identity.


- 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.
- Erauso, Catalina de. Lieutenant Nun: Memoirs of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. Trans. Michele Stepto and Gabriel Stepto. Boston: Beacon, 1996.
- Lafayette, Marie-Madeleine de. The Princess of Clèves. Ed. and trans. John D. Lyons. New York: Norton, 1994.
- Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sor. A Sor Juana Anthology. Ed. and trans. Alan S. Trueblood. Boston: Harvard, 2001.

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