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Writing Teresa: The Saint from Ávila at the fin-de-siglo by Denise DuPont (review)

From: Revista de Estudios Hispánicos
Tomo XLVII, Número 2, Junio 2013
pp. 346-349 | 10.1353/rvs.2013.0033

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An invaluable scholarly work, Writing Teresa is one of those unexpected books that, once discovered, become indispensable. Recognizing that Saint Teresa de Jesús’s life and writings thread their way through many essays and much fiction of the fin-de-siglo period, Denise DuPont demonstrates how this thread forms patterns that intersect, conflict, and contradict each other in different writers. An on-going dialogue with Teresa, author and saint, informs much of the writing of five major authors spanning the period from 1880 to 1930: Leopoldo Alas, Emilia Pardo Bazán, Miguel de Unamuno, José Martínez Ruíz, and Blanca de los Ríos. DuPont performs nuanced close readings of multiple texts by all five authors over the fifty years of what she terms “the Teresa boom,” a phenomenon enmeshed in the national preoccupation with degeneration and regeneration. The tricentennial of the Saint’s death in 1882 marks the beginning of the half-century boom which also embraces the 1922 tricentennial of her canonization.

DuPont’s intelligently perceptive book demonstrates how her authors appropriate Teresa through their readings and reconfigure her in their writings. Each dialogues with the Saint in different ways and at different periods, and each assesses her legacy and relevance in their own terms. From the outset DuPont acknowledges the complexity and contradictions inherent in her project with its juxtaposition of texts by different authors that yields revelatory insights and even surprises. At once broadly inclusive and yet at the same time limited to the ever-shifting interpretations of Teresa, DuPont’s impressive study enriches the intellectual panorama of the early decades of the new century and teases out the continuation, with countless variations, of central themes and preoccupations regarding the construction of Spain. While this is not the first study to compare some or all of DuPont’s authors, none, that I know of, illuminates so convincingly the centrality of the Saint to the thinking of these authors over their lifetime. Each grapples with shared preoccupations: the need to write, the self as writer, the space of writing, as well as the place and capabilities of women, mysticism, the nation, and the meaning of Teresa in the construction of Spain, its culture, and its language. The resultant “Santa Teresas” exemplify the intellectual rewards each author reaps from reading saints’ stories “against orthodoxy” (270).

Maximizing the potential of her voluminous primary and secondary documentation, DuPont imposes a lucid structure on her study, tracing her authors’ meditations on the Saint chronologically, which allows her to assess the shifting assumptions and foci of each author’s concerns. She pithily observes that Teresa has always been “dismantled, deconstructed, and politicized,” just as her body was morcellated into relics when she died (29). Citing the examples of Calderón and Cervantes, DuPont reminds her readers that scholars “package and promote their national writer-heroes” (13). In the fin de siglo, leading intellectuals aspired to become cultural heroes when “much of the life of the mind was grounded in spirituality” (265). For male writers who “have broken with the Church,” Teresa is especially fertile terrain for analysis, while women authors can “reconcile with Teresa by coming to terms with her in an uncharted territory” freed from cultural expectations regarding their gender (270). Much of this redeployment of the Saint serves to redefine the Spanish nation, as well as produce a “more sophisticated articulation of feminism” (266).

Building on connections showcased by chronology, DuPont argues that Pardo Bazán’s “configuration of aesthetic sainthood is . . . yet another subtle defiance” of her former mentor, Clarín (118). Revealingly, DuPont labels “this unlikely pair,” Clarín and Pardo Bazán, the “father and mother of the fin-de-siglo Teresa boom” (121). In mid-career, Pardo Bazán’s writings call for “more Santa Teresas in the ranks of women writers, as a means of legitimating contemporary female scholars’ efforts” (92). Reversing her gaze from the construction of the Saint from Ávila to that of her authors, DuPont contends that for Pardo Bazán, Blanca de los Ríos becomes “a turn-of-the-century Teresa” possessing the “accomplishments and intellectual potential of the woman martyred by her own body” (234). Most tellingly...

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