Cloistered novices, nymphs, goddesses and Creole females
Edgardo and I have a small jewel in our library with the stamp of the “Patronato de Misiones Pedagógicas” (a team of professionals with cultural and educational interests, who traveled the length and breadth of Spain teaching and entertaining people with little or no education at all) created during the II Spanish Republic. I am talking about the play titled “Don Juan Tenorio” by Don José Zorrilla. As it is stated at the beginning of this piece of writing “this drama has been officially approved by the Kingdom theatres censorship board on the 4 of June, 1849, for being performed in a theatre”. In the next page there is a dedicatory, “To Mr. Don Francisco Luis de Vallejo as a token of good memory. His best friend, José Zorrilla. Madrid, March, 1844”. And immediately after introducing the characters the action takes place in Seville around the year 1545. The book is and looks quite old. I found it more than two years ago after walking the paved streets of Pedraza, in the province of Segovia, Spain, getting up the stairs of one its decked shops and searching through the second hand books arranged in several libraries without rhyme or reason. I touched the spine of several volumes and the title of many classics turning, from time to time, their yellowish pages. However, when I caught sight of the stamp mentioned above I could not avert my eyes from his purple letters. I blinked, smiled and felt excited with emotion. I closed and opened the book twice or three times more, showed it to my companions, went to the cash register, paid for it, wrapped it at home, put it in my backpack, took it to the plane and placed it in Edgardo’s hands two months later.
Some time before, he had got a fantastic English book, illustrated by Giovanni Caelli and written by North American Thomas Bulfinch, known as “The Illustrated Bulfich’s Mythology”. The work consists of three volumes “The Age of Fable”, “The Age of Chivalry” y “Legends of Charlemagne”. The Age of Fable was first published in 1855 and gathers myths and legends of ancient Greek and Roman heroes and heroines, along with those of fierce Nordic warriors, Celtic sages and sun worshippers, and Egyptian pharaons, the Phoenix, the Unicorn and other monsters, and the divine triad of the Hindus, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Edgardo also felt elated with his finding, for it reminded him of his readings while he was a child and the photographs of Renaissance pictures and sculptures his retina felt in love with during his teens.
Just one month ago, we gave us as a gift “Mujeres en la Sociedad Argentina. Una historia de cinco siglos” (Women in Argentinean Society. A history five centuries old) by Argentinean sociologist Dora Barrancos. Through her paragraphs we have covered five centuries of women history in this country and reviewed several clichés and a number of fallacies about their place and role in this part of the world.
This is how those three books came to our hands and through the structure woven by their authors along those many pages we found the paths walked by their main male characters and knew the different walls that hid the steps of their female protagonists.
In Part I, Act III, Scene 1 of “Don Juan Tenorio” the action takes place in the cell of Dña. Inés. The abbess is telling the novice that his father, Don Gonzalo de Ulloa, Calatrava Commander, has decided to leave her in the convent forever, instead of allowing her to marry Don Juan Tenorio, whom he regards as a wretch.
(I’m so sorry, but translating a piece of Spanish poetry into English is far beyond my skills, so the next lines are intended to give you just an idea of the words said by the Abbess in order to convince Dña. Inés that she will be really very happy living together with other nuns in the convent)
The abbess explains the novice, for example, that she is young, kind and good and does not need to prove nothing else in order to remain tied with sacred votes to the cloister since she has lived in it hitherto. In addition, she tries to make Dña. Inés believe that she must be very happy for not having known the outside world she will neither have to fear nor to remember it. The abbess goes on telling her that since she is something like a little dove that has learnt to eat from God’s hands and has never come out of his protective net, she will neither wish to take wings and fly away. Dña. Inés will hear all sorts of “good” reasons for her staying in the convent. In the end the abbess says that she can conceal her envy of Dña. Inés, who has the virtue of knowing nothing thanks to her innocent life.
In “The Age of Fable”, in chapter III, the story of Apollo and Daphne tells how Cupid, answering Apollo’s challenge -who said to him “What have you to do with warlike weapons, saucy boy? Leave them for hands worthy of them”-, advises him, “Your arrows may strike all things else, Apollo, but mine shall strike you”. The legend goes on: “So saying, he took his stand on a rock of Parnassus, and drew from his quiver two arrows of different workmanship, one to excite love, the other to repel it. (...) With the leaden shaft he struck the nymph Daphne, the daughter of the river god Peneus, and with the golden one Apollo, through the heart. Forthwith the god was seized with love for the maiden, and she abhorred the thought of loving”. Apollo longed to obtain the maiden and followed her but she fled. He grew impatient to find his wooing thrown away, and gained upon her in the race. She called upon her father, the river god: “Help me Peneus! Open the earth to enclose me, or change my form, which has brought me into this danger!” Immediately after she has spoken stiffness seized all her limbs and was turned into a plant. Then Apollo touched the stem and embraced her branches and said: “Since you cannot be my wife, you shall assuredly be my tree. I will wear you for my crown; I will decorate with you my harp and my quiver; and when the great Roman conquerors lead up the triumphal pomp to the Capitol, you shall be woven into wreaths for their brows. And, as eternal youth is mine, you also shall be always green, and your leaves know no decay”. This way Daphne was change into a Laurel tree.
In the same volume, in chapter VII, we can read the story of Proserpine, Ceres’ daughter. “Proserpine was playing with her companions, gathering lilies and violets, and filling her basket and her apron with them when Pluto saw her; loved her; and carried her off”. Proserpine became a queen, “the queen of Erebus, the powerful bride of the monarch of the realms of the dead”. Ceres sought her daughter all the world over and hearing this from the fountain Arethusa “implored Jupiter to interfere to procure the restitution of her daughter”. Jupiter consented on the condition that Proserpine “should not during her stay in the lower world have taken any food”. Mercury was sent by Jupiter to demand Proserpine of Pluto but the maiden has taken a pomegranate which Pluto offered her. This prevented her complete release and Proserpine was to pass half the time with her mother; and the rest with her husband Pluto.
In chapter III of Barranco’s work, in the paragraphs regarding the Argentinean Civil Law of 1869 and women’s lack of ability or skill, the authors explains “the vicissitudes of Amalia Pelliza Pueyrredón’s life caused by being holed up in her home by her husband, the renowned doctor Carlos Durand. Their marriage took place the same year the Law was approved. Durand was much older that she and probably, Amalia, according to the customs, should respect her family will and marry him, since the physician, though in his fifties while she was only 15, had the charm of his considerable fortune. He was the obstetrician of the most important families in Buenos Aires and nobody knows what led him to conceal Amalia in the big house where he lived. She brought the case to court but was not awarded separation, what, probably, made Dr. Durant more furious. He tightened her imprisonment, but, at the same time, facing her complaints, he humiliated her by renting an awful horse-drawn carriage –since having an exaggerated carriage was a distinction feature- and forcing her to travel on it for hours without stopping. Durand fell ill and Amalia took off the years of imprisonment and could go out, entertain herself with companions and take part in social gatherings (...) However, once the doctor had made a complete recovery, the imprisonment sentence became too painful and Amalia fled. Some years later the doctor died and donated an important part of his assets to build a hospital, the one named after him. The rest of his fortune –probably as a lesson- was given, following his instructions, to relatives and servants, all of them women. Happily, Amalia could get part of the joint assets and throw money away as it was expected from someone stolen so many years of joy. This case is emblematic of the circumstances of female defenselessness in the first Civil Law. Certainly, it does not mean that all husbands should imprison their wives; however, all of them were entitled by the Law to have legal authority over his wife and her possessions”.
Behind the walls of a convent or a house, under the bark of a tree or the earth’s crust, we have seen several examples of women being seized by those who thought –and human and divine Law stated it firmly- they owned them, and chained them to their realms in order to preserve their honor, their pride, their strength, their power and their reputation. Having a look at the legends of classical mythology, the theatre during Romanticism period and the first Argentinean Civil Law we can observe that both literature and the whole system of rules maintain women’s comparative incapacity and the fact that, to all intents and purposes, their legal representatives were always their father or their husband.
In the present XXI century equity laws and ministries are approved and created respectively, however, there are still innumerable barriers, extremely high walls and very thick crust limiting the rights and freedoms of many people, women and men alike, worldwide. Only by acknowledging those obstacles we will be able to overcome, to jump over and to bore through them. They are in our books and lives: let’s read the former and write the latter together