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María de Zayas y Sotomayor, Spanish author, ca. 1590–1660

By Yolanda Gamboa Tusquets

María de Zayas y Sotomayor is the most popular woman writer of seventeenth-Century Spain. She wrote a play, La traición en la amistad [Friendship Betrayed], around 1632; she composed poetry, some of which she included in her novels; and she is best known for her two collections of short novels, each comprised of 10 novels within a narrative frame, Novelas amorosas y ejemplares [Amorous and Exemplary Novels](1637), the first volume, and Desengaños amorosos [The Disenchantments of Love] (1647). Details from her chosen genre, subject matter, as well as from her life reveal her as a proto-feminist, and a learned woman, an engaged intellectual of her day, who paved the road for women writers as well as for women in general.

The “novella” (as it is known in the Italian tradition), or short novel, be it within a frame like Bocaccio’s Decameron, or without, like Miguel de Cervantes’s Novelas amorosas y ejemplares (1613), was a very popular genre among Zayas’s contemporaries like Alonso de Castillo Solórzano, or Juan Pérez de Montalbán. Zayas’s novellas were widely read and regarded as modern day soap-operas. Her labyrinthine style, which includes the use of allusive language, diverse voices, and conflicting views, allowed her to follow literary and societal norms and at the same time be extremely critical of her times without fear of repercussions. For example, in the frame narrative of the first volume, Lisis, the main character, organizes a gathering where women and men tell 10 different stories, and she is also pursued by a suitor. Lisis’s story continues in the frame of the second volume. Disillusioned about love, she decides that in this new gathering the audience will be mixed, but the storytellers will be only women telling tales of their disillusions with men. Many of these stories are very erotic or gruesome, revealing women’s victimization at the hands of men, and have captured the interest of contemporary scholars. At the end of the gathering, several storytellers decide to leave the world of disillusion and join a convent. Is the ending a literal appeal for women to join a convent? Is it an appeal to find a space away from men, or rather, away from the conventions and social restrictions of her times? Is it a personal story? This ending is open, as well as others, leaving readers to form their own conclusions.

Throughout her two collections María de Zayas claims for the need for women’s education. Not only is she a woman who speaks publicly, uncommon in her days, in the “Prologue” she also requests that readers buy her novels, possibly an ironic statement since women commonly did not earn money outside marriage or the convent. In an often-quoted passage, she complains about the little access to education available to women:

The real reason why women are not learned is not a defect in intelligence but a lack of opportunity. When our parents bring us up if, instead of putting cambric on our sewing cushions and patterns in our embroidery frames, they gave us books and teachers, we would be as fit as men for any job or university professorship. We might even be sharper because we’re of a colder humor and intelligence partakes of the damp humor. (Trans. Boyer Enchantments 1-2).

The style and subject matter of Zayas’s novels connects her writing to that of the “querelle des femmes”, making her a Spanish early modern feminist. This style would be continued in Latin America by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. It is likely that Zayas became familiar with the writings of Italian proto-feminists such as Moderata Fonte during her stay in Naples in her youth. She might also have participated in the “Accademia Degli Occiosi,” the litery group that gathered in Naples around Pedro Fernández de Castro, the seventh count of Lemos, patron of the arts, promoter of the Accademia degli Occiosi, and Naples viceroy from 1610-1616. Other topics that appear in her novels, though not as blatantly as the “querelle,” include: the rise of violence; the conditions of the poor and the status of prostitution; the social and spatial divisions of her time; the creation of women’s jails; the effects of the colonies; normalization; the improper female body; and, above all, the dangers of idleness. All of these are issues that were of interest to the moralists of Zayas’s days, and since those topics were discussed in the literary gatherings or academies, Zayas’s constant discussions reveal an awareness of, if not direct participation in those circles. Zayas’s diatribes against “ociosidad” [idleness] throughout her novels, may be an indication of her relation to Lupercio Leonardo de Argensola, secretary to the Count of Lemos, who, together with his brother Bartolomé, was active in his Academia degli Occiosi, and who was one of the lead voices in the moral debate against idleness which started at the “Academia Pítima contra la Ociosidad” in Zaragoza in 1608. Zayas’s novels were soon translated (or rather adapted) into French shortly after their publication by Scarron with publisher Quinet. However, despite the popularity of Zayas’s stories, the limited information about her personal life has given rise to many speculations. Be as it may, several details and allusions in her writings, as well as those of her contemporaries, help us place her more clearly within the Spanish literary and political scene.

She was born in Madrid (1590-1661?). Her mother was María Catalina de Barassa and her father Fernando de Zayas, infantry Captain who eventually earned a knighthood in the elite military-religious order of Santiago, and served king Philip IV in a variety of posts, including the viceroyalty of Naples, accompanying the Count of Lemos. Zayas thus belonged to the lower nobility and was educated at home as was customary, probably by her mother. Her later education came from her participation in the literary circles. She competed in “certámenes,” poetry contests, together with her friend and well known poet and playwright Ana Caro de Mallén. She was praised by famous playwright Félix Lope de Vega in the preface to El laurel de Apolo [Apollo’s Laurel] (1630), and by Alonso de Castillo Solórzano; and she participated in events in homage to Lope de Vega in 1636 and Juan Pérez de Montalbán in 1639. She also participated in literary academies, together with her male counterparts, at least in the academy of Saint Thomas Aquinas, led by Catalan writer Francesc de Fontanella in Barcelona, and the academy of Medrano (1617-1622) and later Mendoza (1623-1637) in Madrid. Further research into these literary meetings may provide more details about her public life. In any case, we must keep in mind that the handfuls of learned women we know as “letradas,” were not the norm. The public display of talent and speech of the learned women was not positively seen by society, as it amounted to being “public women.”

Even though her talent was often praised, the only physical description we have of Zayas appears in Fontanella’s Vexamen, a satirical document detailing the participants in a literary gathering. Unlike other female participants, praised for their talent as well as their beauty, in Zayas’s description there is an ironic allusion to her sword, hidden among her “sayas,” a word play on skirt and Zayas, and alluding to her masculine appearance, which has given rise to a lot of speculation. We do not have other details about her public life after 1639, when she published a poem in homage of Juan Pérez de Montalban’s death, aside from a new edition of her work in 1660, in which she likely participated. Thus, her disappearance has been attributed to the ending of the Mendoza literary academy in 1637, to a distancing relationship with fellow writers, to her death, or to her move away from Madrid.

Zayas’s novels retained their popularity during the 18th century, but their success declined during the 19th century. They have been reevaluated in the 20th century, especially from the perspective of gender, and have been the subject of much research. Zayas’s work has passed the test of time and continues to be read. It continues to be appealing to a wide variety of readers, but particularly women.


Selected Bibliography

  • Bosse, Monika, et al. La creatividad femenina en el mundo barroco hispánico. Vol 1. Ed. & Intro. Monika Bosse et al. Kassel: Edition Reichenberger, 1999.
  • Boyer, H. Patsy, Trans. The Enchantments of Love. Amorous and Exemplary Novels. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.
  • ---. Trans. The Disenchantments of Love: A Translation of the Desengaños amorosos. New York: State U of New York P, 1997.
  • Brownlee, Marina S. The Cultural Labyrinth of María de Zayas. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2000.
  • Gamboa Tusquets, Yolanda. Cartografía social en la narrativa de María de Zayas. Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva, 2009.
  • Greer, Margaret R. María de Zayas Tells Baroque Tales of Love and the Cruelty of Men. University Park: The Pennsylvania State UP, 2000.
  • ---. and Elizabeth Rhodes. Ed. and Trans. Exemplary Tales of Love and Tales of Disillusion. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 2009.
  • Montesa Peydró, Santiago. Texto y contexto en la narrativa de María de Zayas. Madrid: Dirección General de la Juventud y Promoción Sociocultural, 1981.
  • Vollendorf, Lisa. Reclaiming the Body: María de Zayas’s Early Modern Feminism. Durham: U of North Carolina P, 2001.
  • Williamsen, Amy, and Judith Whitenack. María de Zayas: The Dynamics of Discourse. Teaneck: Farleigh Dickinson UP, 1995.
  • Zayas, María de. Novelas amorosas y ejemplares. Ed. Julián Olivares. Madrid: Cátedra, 2000.
  • ---. Desengaños amorosos. Ed. Alicia Yllera. Madrid: Cátedra, 1983.
  • ---. “La traición en la amistad.” Women’s Acts. Plays by Women Dramatists of Spain’s Golden Age. Ed. and Intro. Teresa Scott Soufas. Lexington: The UP of Kentucky, 1997. 277-308.
  • ---. La traición en la Amistad/Friendship Betrayed. Ed. Valerie Hegstrom. Trans.Catherine Larson. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1999.

AsK April 2011

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