Independent women in the 17th Century?

quijote-pastoramarcela

Published in 1615, the novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes is proving to be a surprising work. I’ve been listening to the audiobook for a couple of weeks now.

I was expecting old-worldly language and sentence structure that would have me ruminating for hours trying to decipher just what the author was trying to say, but it is turning out to be really easy to understand. That being said, I feel I must insert a disclaimer here: I’m reading an English translation so I realise my impression might be different if I were to read it in the original language it was written in (Spanish).

The story is a comical tale of an eccentric gentleman who is looking for adventures under the delusion of being a knight errand. So far, it has been entertaining and charming but also, I think, ahead of its time.

There is a speech in Part 1, chapter 14 made by a young woman which struck me as incredibly forthright, sensible and modern. I’m not a scholar on women’s rights but I do remember learning that women’s suffrage didn’t come on the scene until the late 19th century, so reading how the male author of Don Quixote wrote such a dignified speech for one of the female characters in his book was an encouraging surprise. It provided a little bit of evidence to something I have often suspected, that throughout history there have been thugs and there have been gentlemen, men who respected women and men who mistreated them. No doubt, this would have been true of women’s views of men, except of course society’s bias no doubt made it harder to be a woman than a man.

All that aside, have a read of this extract and let me know what you think:

On the summit of the rock… there appeared the shepherdess Marcela, so beautiful that her beauty exceeded its reputation. Those who had never till then beheld her gazed upon her in wonder and silence, and those who were accustomed to see her were not less amazed than those who had never seen her before.

But the instant Ambrosio saw her he addressed her with manifest indignation, “Art thou come by chance cruel basillisk of these mountains to see if in thy presence blood will flow from the wounds of this retched being thy cruelty has robbed of life? … Tell us quickly for what thou art come, or what it is thou wouldst have, for, as I know the thoughts of Chrysostom never failed to obey thee in life, I will make all these who call themselves his friends obey thee, though he be dead.”

“I come not, Ambrosia for any of the purposes thou hast named,”replied Marcela, “but to defend myself and to prove how unreasonable are all those who blame me for their sorrow and for Chrysostom’s death; and therefore I ask all of you that are here to give me your attention, for will not take much time or many words to bring the truth home to persons of sense.

Heaven has made me, so you say, beautiful, and so much so that in spite of yourselves my beauty leads you to love me; and for the love you show me you say, and even urge, that I am bound to love you. By that natural understanding which God has given me I know that everything beautiful attracts love, but I cannot see how, by reason of being loved, that which is loved for its beauty is bound to love that which loves it; besides, it may happen that the lover of that whichis beautiful may be ugly, and ugliness being detestable, it is very absurd to say, “I love thee because thou art beautiful, thou must love me though I be ugly.”

But supposing the beauty equal on both sides, it does not follow that the inclinations must be therefore alike, for it is not every beauty that excites love, some but pleasing the eye without winning the affection; and if every sort of beauty excited love and won the heart, the will would wander vaguely to and fro unable to make choice of any; for as there is an infinity of beautiful objects there must be an infinity of inclinations, and true love, I have heard it said, is indivisible, and must be voluntary and not compelled. If this be so, as I believe it to be, why do you desire me to bend my will by force, for no other reason but that you say you love me?

Nay—tell me—had Heaven made me ugly, as it has made me beautiful, could I with justice complain of you for not loving me? Moreover, you must remember that the beauty I possess was no choice of mine, for, be it what it may, Heaven of its bounty gave it me without my asking or choosing it; and as the viper, though it kills with it, does not deserve to be blamed for the poison it carries, as it is a gift of nature, neither do I deserve reproach for being beautiful; for beauty in a modest woman is like fire at a distance or a sharp sword; the one does not burn, the other does not cut, those who do not come too near.

Honour and virtue are the ornaments of the mind, without which the body, though it be so, has no right to pass for beautiful; but if modesty is one of the virtues that specially lend a grace and charm to mind and body, why should she who is loved for her beauty part with it to gratify one who for his pleasure alone strives with all his might and energy to rob her of it?

I was born free, and that I might live in freedom I chose the solitude of the fields; in the trees of the mountains I find society, the clear waters of the brooks are my mirrors, and to the trees and waters I make known my thoughts and charms.

I am a fire afar off, a sword laid aside. Those whom I have inspired with love by letting them see me, I have by words undeceived, and if their longings live on hope—and I have given none to Chrysostom or to any other—it cannot justly be said that the death of any is my doing, for it was rather his own obstinacy than my cruelty that killed him; and if it be made a charge against me that his wishes were honourable, and that therefore I was bound to yield to them, I answer that when on this very spot where now his grave is made he declared to me his purity of purpose, I told him that mine was to live in perpetual solitude, and that the earth alone should enjoy the fruits of my retirement and the spoils of my beauty; and if, after this open avowal, he chose to persist against hope and steer against the wind, what wonder is it that he should sink in the depths of his infatuation?

If I had encouraged him, I should be false; if I had gratified him, I should have acted against my own better resolution and purpose. He was persistent in spite of warning, he despaired without being hated.

Bethink you now if it be reasonable that his suffering should be laid to my charge. Let him who has been deceived complain, let him give way to despair whose encouraged hopes have proved vain, let him flatter himself whom I shall entice, let him boast whom I shall receive; but let not him call me cruel or homicide to whom I make no promise, upon whom I practise no deception, whom I neither entice nor receive.

It has not been so far the will of Heaven that I should love by fate, and to expect me to love by choice is idle.

Let this general declaration serve for each of my suitors on his own account, and let it be understood from this time forth that if anyone dies for me it is not of jealousy or misery he dies, for she who loves no one can give no cause for jealousy to any, and candour is not to be confounded with scorn.

Let him who calls me wild beast and basilisk, leave me alone as something noxious and evil; let him who calls me ungrateful, withhold his service; who calls me wayward, seek not my acquaintance; who calls me cruel, pursue me not; for this wild beast, this basilisk, this ungrateful, cruel, wayward being has no kind of desire to seek, serve, know, or follow them.

If Chrysostom’s impatience and violent passion killed him, why should my modest behaviour and circumspection be blamed? If I preserve my purity in the society of the trees, why should he who would have me preserve it among men, seek to rob me of it?

I have, as you know, wealth of my own, and I covet not that of others; my taste is for freedom, and I have no relish for constraint; I neither love nor hate anyone; I do not deceive this one or court that, or trifle with one or play with another.

The modest converse of the shepherd girls of these hamlets and the care of my goats are my recreations; my desires are bounded by these mountains, and if they ever wander hence it is to contemplate the beauty of the heavens, steps by which the soul travels to its primeval abode.”

With these words, and not waiting to hear a reply, she turned and passed into the thickest part of a wood that was hard by, leaving all who were there lost in admiration as much of her good sense as of her beauty.

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