restricted access The Value of Female Friendship in Seventeenth-Century Spain
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The Value of Female Friendship in Seventeenth-Century Spain

The topic of women's friendship in the early modern period has proved elusive for literary critics. Male-authored literature abounds with examples of female characters who ally themselves with sisters, maids, and friends; yet female friendship tends to be subsumed by the marriage plots that structure much of the theater and prose fiction. In the Spanishcontext, this problem is compounded by the image of a masculinist, honor-crazed society projected by travel literature, theater, and historiography. Many canonical works portray women as victims of the honor code, but relatively few female characters stand out for their remarkable strength and characterization.1

Dozens of early modern Spanish women writers are known to us today, and scholarship on their texts and lives should help enrich our understanding of European literature and women's history. In addition to writing convent and closet drama, for example, women in Spain wrote plays that probably were destined for the public stage. Moreover, feminist history has much to learn from the Spanish example. Although critics often look to late seventeenth-century English writers for the roots of modern feminist thinking, in 1637 María de Zayas published bestselling texts that denounced "the vain legislators of the world" for rendering women "powerless and deny(ing) us access to pen and sword."2 Female dramatists' texts and the proto-feminism of Zayas's prose are representative of the fascinating writings and life stories that have been scrutinized in recent decades. As a result of such research, figures as diverse as the crossdressed adventurer Catalina de Erauso, the missionary Luisa de Carvajal, the professional writer Ana Caro, and the nun/playwright Sor Marcela de San Félix have been added to a list that used to include only Saint Teresa as a major female figure.3

Writing for public consumption and/or from within convent walls, these and other women brought different perspectives to bear on the dominant literary genres of the period. One of the principal themes shared by their writing is that of female homosociality. Regardless of [End Page 425] genre or intended audience, the texts explore a wide spectrum of possible relationships that women might have with each other. Ranging from competition and betrayal to intimacy and homoeroticism, homosociality occupies a central place in most of the female-authored texts of the period. The following overview of women's self-representation in writing produced for popular consumption and that produced by religious women intramuros presents a sampling of seemingly disparate writers who nonetheless valorize the time women spend with each other,refuse to capitulate to a strictly heteroerotic focus, and depict female homosociality as a legitimate—and sometimes lasting—option for women. The choice of writers here is purposefully eclectic, as it is meant to provide insight into a pattern that emerges when we take a thematic approach to women's texts of the period: in the hands of many early modern women from the Iberian Peninsula, the heterocentricism of canonical literature acquires nuance and complexity, as men are pushed to the margins and concerns about female sexuality, friendship, and well-being take center stage.4

I. Women and the Book Market

In spite of stylistic and ideological differences, many connections can be made among the seventeenth-century authors María de Zayas (1590–?), Ana Caro (c.1600–?), and Mariana de Carvajal (1610–?). All three published during a time when few women are known to have enjoyed success in such a venture. By 1637, with the publication of Zayas's Novelas amorosas y ejemplares (The Enchantments of Love) and the previous commission of Caro's poems for royal festivities, both Zayas and Caro had begun to pave the way for other women's entry into the publishing world. Widely recognized by their contemporaries as talented authors in their own right, Zayas and Caro apparently sought each other out, as they were reported to be seen together in Madrid.5 Mariana de Carvajal wrote under trying circumstances. When her husband died in 1656, Carvajal was left with little money to support her and her nine children. While it is unclear whether she turned to writing to...