- Autobiographical Writing by Early Modern Hispanic Women by Elizabeth Teresa Howe
Elizabeth Teresa Howe, Hilaire Kallendorf, women's autobiography, early modern period, Spain, Portugal, Mexico
This timely study encompassing li(f)e-writing by women in Spain, Portugal, and Mexico during the 300 years from roughly 1395 to 1695 is long overdue. It offers a panoramic view of both religious and nonreligious female writers whose literary production spanned a variety of genres including memoir, diary, notarial document, relación de servicio, and letter or epistle. The introductory chapter is a profound meditation on what counts as autobiographical writing, along with a shrewd analysis of the paradoxes inherent in any attempt to write the story of one's own life. The five chapters that follow include three devoted to a single figure each (Santa Teresa de Jesús, Catalina de Erauso, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz), along with two other chapters covering two or more women. The grand total is nine women, although the inclusion of one of these (Ana de Jesús) is dubious, since she never actually produced any writing that could be called autobiographical. Nevertheless, Professor Howe considers her crucial to the Carmelite Reform as one of the heirs to the mantle of Santa Teresa.
Perhaps it is a testament to the towering figure of Santa Teresa that her influence proves inescapable for more than half of the autobiographers covered in this book. In fact, it would almost be possible to dismiss the writings of her followers highlighted in chapter 4 ("In the Footsteps of Santa Teresa") as merely derivative, pale imitations, as it were, of the saint's penetrating radiance. This is the book's murkiest chapter, given the similarities between these nuns' names and—to some degree—their profiles, and it would have benefited from some organization by way of section titles. Nonetheless, these women are important if for no other reason than that they had so few peers. Statistics for this period indicate that for every five literate men there was only one literate woman, let alone one who might have the leisure or motivation to set pen to paper. The fact that seven out of nine of these female autobiographers were nuns (eight out of nine, actually, if you count Catalina de Erauso, who escaped from a convent) demonstrates overwhelmingly the overall religious tenor of early modern life in Spain, its empire, and its colonies.
The most fascinating chapter for most readers may be the second, "Court and Convent," a comparative study of the two earliest figures treated here, namely Leonor López de Córdoba and Sor Teresa de Cartagena. Leonor López (ca. 1360–1412) was chief lady-in-waiting to Queen Catalina de Lancaster, widow of King Enrique III of Spain. Although her autobiographical text is only nine pages long, and was actually composed not by herself, but by a notary, still Professor Howe considers this relación (defined as "a petition addressed to the crown seeking recognition for privileges due the petitioner and his or her family" ) to be the [End Page 230] first autobiographical text produced in Spain by anyone, male or female. The literary production of Sor Teresa de Cartagena was more substantial. As a deaf person of documented converso origens (her Jewish grandfather had converted to Christianity in anticipation of an anti-Jewish pogrom), she was doubly marginalized. Professor Howe eloquently describes how her handicap would have borne with it an even greater stigma in late medieval society because of the tendency to associate illness or disability with sin. Her Arboleda de los enfermos (Grove of the Infirm) is described in poignant terms as first and foremost a document of "isolation and interiority" (45). Even so, she was apparently not isolated enough to escape criticism of her work, which she felt the need to refute in a second book titled Admiraçion operum Dey (Wonder at the Works of God), namely the "miracle" of a lowly woman who was capable enough to write.
Santa Teresa de Jesús's life story...