María de Zayas, the Golden Age’s best kept secret

When I was thinking about doing a PhD in Spanish literature, I knew I wanted to study the Golden Age but was also looking for something a little different. I wanted to stay away from towering giants like Cervantes, Calderón de la Barca, Lope de Vega, Quevedo, and so on. Not because I don’t like them – I think they are wonderful – but because I found the idea of reading up on them simply overwhelming. And I had no idea what I could possibly contribute.

As it happened, my directora de tesis was an art historian who worked on Juan de Pareja, an Afro-Spanish Golden Age painter. I thought I might do something similar but in literature, and found an Afro-Spanish writer and professor at the university of Granada – in sixteenth-century in Spain: how cool is that? – called Juan Latino. Unfortunately for me, as his name suggests, he wrote in Latin. Still, I was intrigued and I read a study about Black Africans in Renaissance Europe.

novelas amorosas maria de zayasAnd there she was, in a footnote somewhere, hidden away in a throw-away remark about inter-race sexploitation. It said that this happens in one of the novellas of a certain María de Zayas y Sotomayor. It did not say which novella. So, I bought her first collection, the Novelas amorosas y ejemplares, first published in 1637, and began to read. The episode in question occurs in the fourth tale, in which Fadrique follows Beatriz to a stable where she brings some food to Antonio, a stable boy who is dying from sexual exhaustion. He berates her wanton behaviour – her “viciosa condición” and “viciosos apetitos” – and urges her to leave him alone and find herself a husband.

THERE ALWAYS COMES THE RECKONINGBy the time I got to this story, I was hooked. Zayas has a way of drawing the reader in. In the very first novella, for example, a girl called Jacinta dreams of a handsome stranger, whom she meets in a dark forest (very Freudian). His face is hidden by a slip of his mantle, and when she lifts it up, she is stabbed in the heart and wakes up screaming. A few days later she meets the man from her dreams and gives herself over to him body and soul. Another story starts with a gentleman walking down the streets of Valladolid one cold winter’s night. All of the sudden a door flies open and a large white bundle is tossed onto the street. He walks up to the squirming bundle, opens it and finds a naked woman, who proceeds to tell her story, which involves her murdering her brother-in-law, who had crept into her bed and made love to her pretending to be her husband. Another woman likewise takes revenge on her treacherous lover and his bisexual girlfriend by stabbing them to death in their bed.

Zayas’ tales not only contain female revenge stories but also abound in cross-dressing, rape and wife-murder or uxoricide, to give it its posh name. In addition, there are references to gay sex and lesbian desire. In one story, a boy called Esteban dresses up as Estefanía and for a whole year courts his beloved Laurela as a woman, throwing jealous hissy-fits and everything.

The aspect of the novellas that intrigued me most, but about which had been written the least (most scholarship understandably focuses on gender issues), was the supernatural. In twelve out of her twenty novellas something happens that can be classified as miraculous, marvellous (not the same thing, btw) or fantastic in the sense of uncanny, giving you the heebie jeebies.

AN-INNOCENT-PUNISHED-1-C32264(1)In one story, a man is so in love with the beautiful Inés that he enlists the help of a Moorish necromancer (magician), who fashions a waxen statuette. By lighting a candle on its head, Inés will be inexorably drawn to her suitor (rapist) so he can have his wicked way with her, which is what happens for about a month. Until one night her brother catches her sleepwalking in the street, follows her, learns what has been going on and walls her up. Then there is the episode of the man who enters a basement to gain access to the house of four lascivious Portuguese sisters. He hears a voice telling him not to proceed. When he stumbles around, he finds an iron hook sticking out of the sand. He pulls on it only to find the detached head of a fresh corpse. In yet another story, a young man is on his way to his beloved, whom he courts in secret, and is likewise warned by a disembodied voice. When he enters her room, the windows inexplicably crash open and her dead body is illuminated by an unnatural light, while the blood is still flowing from her wounds even though she has been dead for nine hours.

And that is what I ended up doing my PhD on: the supernatural in María de Zayas. But who was this María de Zayas y Sotomayor? And how did she get away with these stories? The truth is, we don’t know much about her. All we know for certain is that she was born in 1590 in Madrid and was active in literary circles in the same city and possibly also in Barcelona. In all likelihood she spent her late teens and early twenties in Naples, where her father worked for the Viceroy (Naples was ruled by the Spanish crown in those days).

Her novellas were very successful and she sold many copies. There were also pirated editions of her tales. Her work was adapted by foreign writers, among them the Frenchman Scarron, and sometimes passed off as having been written by Cervantes. She wrote one play that we know of, some poetry and two collections of novellas: one published in 1637, the other, much darker in tone, in 1647.

After that she disappears from the records without a trace. In the time she was writing her oeuvre, the novella was an enormously popular genre. Like many others, Zayas recycled old plots – in this sense she was no different from Shakespeare, for example – but invariably complicated them and made them more sensationalist, often adding a supernatural element. She also made her stories fit her outspoken feminist agenda. And we know she was a feminist because in her prologue she makes a point of saying that women are just as able as men, if not more so. All they need are good teachers and books. And she rails against injustices and violence perpetrated on women.

But how did she get away with these racy stories? The answer is twofold, I think. One, the Inquisition was only interested in matters concerning the Catholic Faith, and so long as you did not doubt the Immaculate Conception or the Divinity of Christ or some such, you were relatively safe. The Holy Office was also remarkably lenient when it came to magic and witchcraft, much more so than its reputation would suggest; they largely saw it as superstition and something fraudsters engaged in.

The second part of the explanation lies in the title of the collection. These stories were meant to be exemplary, to offer a lesson on morality, even if that was probably just a hackneyed excuse. Moreover, Zayas plays a clever game with her readers. For every story in which witchcraft is supposedly true, there is another in which it is a hoax. And although most women are innocent victims, there are also some evil ones. In a literary trompe-l’oeil we never know where we stand, or Zayas for that matter. That makes her work very Baroque.

After her death, she was still read but no longer admired by other writers. Her sensationalist stories had become a kind of early modern pulp fiction and were published without the feminist passages. It was not until the end of the twentieth century that she was rediscovered. And about time too! There are some translations out there, so maybe it is time you discovered this hidden treasure of the Golden Age too.

BAS editor Dr Sander Berg