Sor Juana's Second Dream: A Novel available in Paperback
- Pub. Date:
- University of New Mexico Press
This bold novel unravels the mystery and complexity of the woman Carlos Fuentes calls "the first great Latin American poet." Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695), poet, playwright, rhetorician, and musician, is often equated with Sappho, the lesbian poet whom Plato baptized the "Tenth Muse."
The Mexican nun has fascinated readers around the world for centuries as scholars have attempted to understand her brilliance, her feminism, the affairs of her heart, her decision to enter a convent at the beginning of her luminous intellectual career.
Juana Ramírez de Asbaje, an illegitimate criolla, is sixteen when word of her self-taught erudition travels to the palace in Mexico City and she becomes an attendant to Doña Leonor Carreto, Marquesa de Mancera. Wanting only to study, confused by her love for la Marquesa, and loathe to marry, in five years Juana becomes Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in the Convent of Santa Paula of the Order of San Jerónimo. There, her quill becomes her salvation and damnation as her notoriety mounts with each new artistic commission. Popular with court and clergy, she receives a stream of guests at the convent, among them la Condesa de Paredes, who becomes Sor Juana's intimate friend. More than two decades later, after brilliantly defending her right to think, teach, and write, Sor Juana appears before the Inquisition and abruptly withdraws from the spotlight.
Mixing fiction with Sor Juana's own words, and drawing on the most recent Sor Juana scholarship, Alicia Gaspar de Alba creates the most full-bodied portrait of Mexico's Tenth Muse to date. This remarkable novel about a remarkable woman will enlighten a new generation of readers, and stoke the interest of devotees who already are captivated by the inspiring Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.
"An adventuresome exploration into the lyrical and historical vision of an extraordinary woman, written by an extraordinary novelist who has given us a new possibility to dream and invent Sor Juana Inés all over again."--Marjorie Agosín, Wellesley College
"Beautifully written, without doubt the best book I have read this year. A masterpiece."--Greg Sarris, author of Watermelon Nights
|Publisher:||University of New Mexico Press|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Alicia Gaspar de Alba is professor of Chicano studies and English, University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders.
Read an Excerpt
Uncle John glowered at them over his chicken leg, his icy gaze directed first at his wife, then at Juana Inés. His jaws popped as he crunched the cartilage at the tip of the bone. Aunt Mary's eyes blinked like butterflies. Juana Inés kept hers steady on her uncle's face.
"Where were you two today?" he asked. The bone cracked between his teeth.
"We went to Mass, Husband," Aunt Mary interjected before Juana Inés volunteered an answer. "And then we stopped at the apothecary's to pick up the herbals for your infusions."
He ground the bone to the marrow, spit the shards on the floor, then took a sip of wine. "Nowhere else?" He rubbed his tongue over his teeth, sucking bits of flesh and bone out of the gaps.
Aunt Mary lowered her eyes and shook her head.
"They're lying to you, Father," broke in Nico, the elder of their two boys. "I saw them at the hanging."
"I saw them, too," said the youngest, Fernando. "And Juanilla was using Mamá's funny spectacles, the ones she uses when she goes to the theater."
The color in Aunt Mary's cheeks matched the carmine of the roses on the table.
"María, look at me." He waited for her to meet his gaze before continuing. "Are these boys telling the truth? Did you two go to the execution?"
"Yes, Uncle, we were there," said Juana Inés, unable to tolerate her aunt's humiliation any longer. "The whole city was there. It was a public spectacle, not a clandestineceremony."
"I don't care what it was, Doña Insolencia. I remember distinctly telling you last night that I didn't want either of you anywhere near the Plaza Mayor today. Hidalgos' wives and nieces don't attend hangings."
"It was difficult to avoid, Husband," said Aunt Mary, raising her voice to him. "We had marketing to do after Mass, and the apothecary's shop is right in the arcade."
Uncle John slapped Aunt Mary's face with the back of his hand. "Fine example you set!" Dark dregs of bone marrow flew from his mouth to the tablecloth. "That's why this marisabia has grown so insolent." He turned his frown on Juana Inés again, but she held his stare, challenging his authority with her eyes. It was the look that always provoked him to slap her. He got to his feet and reached across the table, arm in the air, but the kitchen maid's voice stopped him before he could strike.
"Excuse me, Señor.
"What do you want?"
"A message, Sir. He says it's from the palace."
"Who says? For Christ's sake, woman, show the man in."
Uncle John straightened his back and removed the dinner napkin from his collar, clearing his throat as the doors to the dining room opened. Juana Inés expected to see a liveried page standing there, but instead it was a small boy, a mulato from the streets, holding a scroll bearing the blue seal of the palace.
"Who are you?" asked Uncle John. The boy presented him the scroll and left his hand open for a tip. Uncle John waved the boy away, transfixed suddenly by the letter and the seal. "Give him something to eat," he said offhandedly, and Aunt Mary promptly got to her feet and escorted the boy out of the dining room.
"Open it, Uncle." Juana Inés couldn't keep herself from goading him.
"Open it, Uncle," her cousin, Gloria, mimicked her, kicking her ankle under the table. Juana Inés felt her eyes cloud over with the pain, but she didn't say anything or kick back, just sat there waiting for Uncle John to stop fussing with the letter.
"Look, it's addressed to me, Don Juan de Mata, presente," he read aloud, showing the handwriting to his sons. "My first summons from the palace. I knew this day would come."
"How do you know it's a summons, Uncle?"
"What else could it be, you imbecile? The palace doesn't send missives to inquire after one's health." Uncle John took his knife and tried to lift up the seal without breaking it, but it crumbled into waxy pieces over his plate. He threw the knife down and gingerly opened the letter, his eyes sliding back and forth across the page.
"I don't believe it!" he said.
"What does it say, Papá?" asked Gloria.
"María!" he bellowed, his voice echoing in the rafters. "María! Juana Inés has been summoned to the palace!"
Aunt Mary ran back into the room, her chest heaving. "What does it say?"
"'Esteemed don Juan de Mata,'" he read aloud, "'... her Majesty, the Vicereine, la Marquesa de Mancera, requests the honor of making your niece's acquaintance. The court is anxious to meet the girl scholar who is stirring the talk of Mexico City. We look forward to an audience with her next Thursday after vespers.' Signed, the Viceroy of Mexico."
"God help us!" said Aunt Mary, crossing herself quickly.
Juana Inés did not dare to breathe or look up from her lap. She kept hearing that phrase, girl scholar who is stirring the talk of Mexico City, and a sudden panic welled up that her uncle would refuse the Viceroy's summons. Marisabia, he was always calling hermarí for girl, sabia for scholar, as if the terms were mutually exclusivein disdain of all her hard work with her studies. Who ever heard of a girl scholar? he would shout. Are you trying to catch the eye of the Inquisition?
It was true that Juana Inés had been reading since she was three, that she had taught herself the rudiments of rhetoric, geometry, and astronomy, and that she knew something of Greek philosophy and Roman law; it was also true that she had learned Latin in twenty lessons, but she did not consider herself a scholar, much less a prodigy as some chose to call her, to the utter horror of her guardians, who daily expected the Inquisition to accuse them of harboring a heretic in their midst. But the gossip flowed from the servants, and the city buzzed with the novelty of a girl who could read the constellations as easily as music.
"It's unnatural for a girl to know as much as you do, Juana Inés," her aunt had often admonished her. "You should learn how to embroider, how to crochet, like your cousin, Gloria. Those are safe things for girls to know. The Inquisition cannot fault you for good needlework."
Juana Inés did not argue with her aunt; in fact, she felt sorry for the poor woman who had the vocabulary and penmanship of a child, but she knew that her wits would not be threaded through the eye of a needle. She knew that her mind was the very pattern that the needle and thread tried to follow, the very fabric without which the pattern would be useless.
"May I go, Uncle? I would so like to see the palace."
"May I go, Uncle?" her cousin Gloria mimicked her again. "Weasel!"
"She deserves a good whack on the head for being such a show-off," said Nico.
Fernando threw a piece of bread at her. "Show-off!" he said.
"Stop it, boys," said Aunt Mary. "That's very unchivalrous."
"I don't know, Juanita," said her uncle, stroking the beard on his chin and gazing out at the twilit patio through the open dining room doors. "First I must find out what this is about. It could be beneficial to us, but then, again, you may have gotten this family into trouble. And then, of course, there's the issue of your punishment for disobeying me and going to the execution when I forbade you to be there."
"Told you she's becoming a nuisance," Nico said to his father, his black eyes glittering under the dark ledge of his eyebrows. "All the students are talking about her, saying she's really a boy in disguise."
"I knew it," said Aunt Mary, framing her face with her hands. "It's impossible to trust the servants. Who knows what stories they may be telling. This could be the end of you, Juanita."
Don't be a fool! she wanted to yell at her aunt, but the fear that her uncle would disallow the Vicereine's request checked her exasperation. She needed another approach, one that would appeal to the only logic her uncle understood.
"Not many hidalgos get an audience with the Vicereine, Uncle," she said quietly. Gloria kicked her ankle under the table again, smiling innocently so as not to draw her mother's rebuke. Juana Inés reached over and pinched her thigh as hard as she could, daring her with her eyes to make a sound.
"There is also the possibility that I may be offered a position at the palace," she added.
"Doing what?" snapped her aunt. "You're as useless as these boys around the house. What could you do for the lady Marquesa?"
"Read to her, I guess, that's all she knows how to do," said Fernando, and he buried his nose in the make-believe book of his two hands.
"The girl does have a point, Mary," said her uncle, taking a garlicky olive from his plate and popping it into his mouth. "If she were to be accused in any way, I doubt the Vicereine would want to make her acquaintance. Those matters are for the Inquisition to decide." His eyes gleamed like sapphires at the prospect of having a relative in the royal retinue. Juana Inés knew that she had baited him, but he had still to give his consent. She gave her cousins one of her haughtiest looks.
"She always gets her own way," moaned Gloria, rubbing her thigh under the table. "Even when she misbehaves and disobeys. Why doesn't the Vicereine want to see me? I'm the one who's the daughter of an hidalgo."
Juana Inés couldn't contain herself. "Because the court probably doesn't need another buffoon."
Gloria's dimples vanished into a scowl.
"Juanita!" said her aunt.
Fernando laughed. "Maybe they need a book rat!"
"Children, please, all of you are being totally insufferable. This is a grave situation," said Aunt Mary.
Uncle John sucked on the olive pit between his teeth. "This could be very good for us, María. Lend a little more weight to that coat of arms I'm still paying for."
Juana Inés jumped in. "I'd be happy to give you whatever they pay me, Uncle. If they pay,"
"I hope they pay," said Nico.
Uncle John drained his cup and stood up. "Well, I think I shall sleep on it, María. I have to decide if Juana Inés is even worthy of this honor. Tonight I fear she isn't."
"Juanita, I said I shall sleep on it. We have some time before next Thursday."
"Yes, but Uncle, you wouldn't want to offend the Vicereine."
"There she goes again," said Nico. "She's hopeless. She'd argue with the devil if she could."
"Quiet, Son," Uncle John snapped. "That kind of talk is precisely what the servants like to repeat. Now, Juanita, I will make some inquiries, and when I am satisfied that I know what the Vicereine's intentions are, I shall inform you of what we will do. Buenas noches."
For a week Juana Inés wandered aimlessly through the house, not able to concentrate on any of her studies, listless at Mass, so quiet at mealtimes she felt entirely absent from her body. Every day she !it a candle to Saint Jude, patron of impossible tasks, in the Cathedral and prayed fervently to all of the saints for their intercession. Then she would spend hours at Don Lázaro's bookshop perusing the shelves, but she was not really focusing on what she was doing, just biding her time and silently questioning her uncle's authority to determine what she could and could not do. By Thursday morning Uncle John had still not given his consent and Juana Inés was certain that he had decided against the visit. She was standing in front of a newly displayed shipment of diaries and writing boxes when the bookseller's wife approached her. "Congratulations, Doña Ramírez," she said. Juana Inés scowled.
"Don't tell me you haven't heard. We've recently been told that the Viceroy intends to offer you a position. How lucky you are, a young lady of your station at the palace."
"Señora! Are you quite sure?"
"Well, we could call it a rumor, I suppose. But we did hear it from a reliable source."
Impulsively, Juana Inés reached out and hugged the woman.
Don Lázaro was so impressed he offered to put a writing box on lay-away for her, just in case the rumor proved to be true and she could afford the twelve pesos for the box and its hundred pages of parchment.
Juana Inés thanked them both, then hitched her dress up over her ankles and nearly ran the five blocks to her uncle's house, pausing only to buy a Catherine-wheel medal from a vendor in front of the Cathedral. As the patron saint of students and universities, Saint Catherine seemed a more logical saint to invoke than Saint Jude. Juana Inés was sixteen. She had survived the ridicule and stupidity of the Matas for eight years. The idea of living at court, even if just to scrub the floors of the palace, seemed like a miracle to her. Surely there would be a library of exceptional quality at the court. Surely the Viceroy would not fear the Inquisition.
"Where's Uncle's carriage? Has he left?" she gasped at the mestiza who was sweeping the vestibule.
"Your uncle's gone to the palace, Mistress. Your tía is waiting for you in the sewing room."
Juana Inés flew up the stairs.
Her aunt was altering one of her own silk dresses for her, and Gloria had hastily packed a trunk with all of her cousin's things just in case the Vicereine asked Juana Inés to remain at the palace.
"Why didn't you tell me, Aunt Mary! You know I've had my soul on a string for a week."
"Your uncle was very upset that you weren't here for breakfast. He wanted to announce it to you himself. It could have been your last meal with the family."
"I went to early Mass. I didn't know. Oh, Tía, do you really think they'll want to keep me?"
"According to your uncle's informants, that is the plan. If they decide they like you, of course. If you prove useful. Here, slip this on. I hope you don't end up wearing this dress to your auto de fe, Juanita." Her aunt mumbled through the pins she was holding between her lips. "What will I tell your mother if you're branded a heretic? She'll think it was my fault for being too lenient with you."
"Would they really do that, Mamá?" asked Gloria, eyes glittering. "Would they really drag Juana Inés through the city in a sanbenito and make her eat ashes in public?"
"Listen to me, both of you," said Juana Inés. "There's not going to be any auto de fe. There may be no position for me either, so don't think you can get rid of me so easily, Gloria. But don't worry. I'll do my best to impress the Vicereine."
That evening, after a tearful farewell from her aunt Mary, her uncle escorted Juana Inés to the court in his finest carriage. She had not gone anywhere alone with her uncle since the day he had brought her from her mother's house in Panoayán, eight years ago. The memory disturbed her, and she blinked hard to dispel it. He wouldn't try anything now, she told herself, but just the same she moved over as close to the window as she could.
"Your aunt's dress becomes you, Juanita," said her uncle.
"Thank you, Uncle," she said. She crossed her hands in her lap and stared out the window until they arrived at the main entrance to the palace. A footman in a green velvet coat and cap helped her out of the carriage. They were led past a large patio with a turreted gazebo in the center of a rose garden to a waiting room with long benches lining the walls. She and her uncle were the only ones waiting.
"I expect you to behave as befits the niece of an hidalgo," said her uncle, pacing the length of the hall.
"I have made all the necessary arrangements. Now it is up to you, Juanita."
"I know that, Uncle."
"Don't be belligerent!"
Juana Inés checked her tongue and concentrated on the diamond pattern of the lace cuffs on the sleeves of her dress; trapezoids, they were called, a geometrical pattern that was easier to draw than to create with a crochet needle. Her uncle continued to pace, rehearsing in a loud mumble the introductions he was going to make. Just before they were admitted into the reception hall, Juana Inés took out her Catherine-wheel medal and wore it over her collar. In the huge salon the royal couple were seated on great gold armchairs, dwarfed against the backdrop of an enormous fireplace. On either side of them stood lords and ladies of the court, all dressed in dazzling velvets and silks, and behind them the last coral light of the sunset arched across the marble walls.
Juana Inés did not hear the initial presentations. She had glued her gaze to the Vicereine's eyes and pleaded silently to be taken in, to be saved from the ignorance of the Matas. The Viceroy, Don Antonio Sebastian de Toledo, Marqués de Mancera, twirled the end of his thin mustache, his eyebrows raised as he studied Juana Inés's face.
"You say she taught herself Latin?" the Viceroy asked her uncle.
"Well, she did have the help of a tutor for some time, Excellency, but in the main, she was the one who did most of the tutoring. She knows many other subjects as well; you see, Juanita is a most studious girl. She impresses all of our friends with her conversation. Of course, we don't really understand why ..."
"Does she play any musical instruments?" the Viceroy interrupted.
"Oh, she's quite a musician, Your Eminence. She's an expert on the mandolin and the vihuela. She loves to cook, but she doesn't know much about sewing ..."
Juana Inés's fingers had turned to wood. She knew what was coming next.
"We must have a demonstration," the Viceroy said, and snapped his fingers to a page.
"Bring a mandolin from the music room; the Viceroy ordered. "Quickly."
The page bowed and scurried from the hall. Her uncle continued to extol her virtues as a musician, but Juana Inés hardly heard him. She was trying to decide on the most appropriate thing to play. The piece had to be both modest and original, but it needed to live up to her uncle's praises, and so had to be ... what was the best way to describe it? ... haunting. She had to play the most haunting, most delicate piece she had ever written.
The Vicereine smiled at Juana Inés, leisurely fanning herself with a Chinese dragon.
"What will you play for us, Doña Ramírez de Asbaje?" the Viceroy asked Juana Inés.
"I would like to play one of my own compositions, if your majesties have no objection." The meekness in her own voice surprised her.
"No objections at all, my dear. That would be lovely," the Vicereine spoke at last. "Does your composition have a name?"
The page scurried back into the hall.
"Hand it to the young lady," the Viceroy instructed the page. Juana Inés took the mandolin and fit the mahogany- and spruce-striped belly of the instrument to her body. Inhaling the scent of the virgin wood, she tuned the strings, aware of the significance of this performance, aware of the Vicereine's eyes, of the jeweled buckles on the Viceroy's shoes, of her uncle's nervous breathing.
"Juanita, the Marquesa asked you the name of the composition," her uncle said.
Juana Inés raised her head and looked at the Vicereine. "I call it 'The Cell,' my lady. That's the name of the room where I was born in my grandfather's hacienda."
"How very bizarre," said the Vicereine.
Juana Inés filled her lungs with air. With her left hand she clasped the neck of the mandolin. With the plectrum in her right she started to play. She had written the piece in the dark morning of her fifteenth birthday, upon awakening from a dream. Her grandfather was standing on a riverbank in a circle of light, leaning against a bishop's crook. To reach him, Juana Inés had to float across the river on her back, arms over her head, but when she reached the light it was a womannot her mother or either of her sistersa strange woman waiting on the riverbank, holding a black shawl. "Where's my abuelo?" Juana Inés asked. The woman said, "Don't be afraid. You're safe now." When she awakened from the dream, she could hear this music in her head. The notes carried the delicacy of baptism and the mystery of death, and so she had called it "The Cell." Her mother had given birth to her in that room, and eight years later her grandfather had died there.
Juana Inés plucked the last few notes, then set the instrument down on her lap and kept her eyes on the Vicereine's face.
"Excelentisimo!" said the Viceroy, tapping the fingers of one hand against the palm of the other. Beside him, the Vicereine stared at Juana Inés in a way that she could not decipher, a way that made her heart beat with a question for which she had no words.
"We have heard that you are quite a conversationalist," the Viceroy spoke to her directly, "that you can talk about any subject put to you. !s that true, Doña Ramírez?"
Juana Inés said to the Viceroy, "I doubt I know as much as you, Señor Marqués. I am a girl, after all, and have not had the benefit of a formal education. I have read a number of books. I have a good memory."
"If this girl had her choice between eating and reading, she would he a skeleton by now," said her uncle. "Why, she even renounced cheese ..."
"She will not have to make that choice here," the Viceroy replied, smiling at Juana Inés under the tails of his mustache. "Would you like to stay at the palace, Doña Ramírez, and be a lady-in-waiting to la Marquesa?"
"Sir, I would be a slave to la Marquesa," Juana Inés answered, the relief in her voice thick as powder.
"Well, Señora Marquesa," the Viceroy turned to his wife, "do you have an opinion to offer?"
"I believe, Husband, that you have made a wise decision," said the Vicereine, closing her fan and tilting her head to one side as if to study Juana Inés from a different angle. "I am sure Juana Inés will be quite an inspiration to me."
Juana Inés looked down and tried to keep her chin from shaking, but she could not control the tears of gratitude that streaked her face and slipped through the strings of the mandolin.
"And I believe the girl is baptizing the mandolin," said the Viceroy, chuckling. Juana Inés jumped up and tried to dry the instrument with her silk sleeve.
"Never mind," the Viceroy told her. "It's yours, to continue enchanting la Marquesa." To her uncle, he said, "Can she begin immediately?"
"This very evening, if you wish, Excellency."
"Excellent! I like a fellow who thinks ahead. Welcome to the palace, Doña Ramírez."
Juana Inés threw herself at the Vicereine's feet and kissed the brocaded hem of her dress over and over. "Thank you, Lady! Thank you!" was all she could say.
The Vicereine's hand came near her, and for an instant Juana Inés held her breath, but she was only reaching down to look at her medal. "What a fascinating image," said la Marquesa, holding the silver medal against her palm. "Tell us what it means, Juana Inés."
"It's Saint Catherine of Alexandria's wheel, Señora, on which the Roman emperor was going to torture her for refusing to marry him. It's the symbol of her resistance to his will."
"Very original," said la Marquesa, "but really, I insist you get up from the floor."
Juana Inés obeyed, smoothing the wrinkles at the back of her dress.
"Aren't you going to bid your uncle farewell, child?"
Out of the corner of her eye, Juana Inés saw that the Viceroy and her uncle were walking slowly toward the door of the great hall, going over the terms of her service, no doubt.
"Good-bye, Uncle," she called out, for the Vicereine's sake, though deep in her heart she wanted to wish him a good riddance.
"Tell me, Juana Inés," said la Marquesa, "do you play dominoes and cards? None of my ladies seems to have the same passion for the gaming tables that I do." Juana Inés heard the titter of ladies' laughter on the edge of her awareness. "I shall expect you to be my partner from time to time."
"For you, Lady," said Juana Inés, "I will learn to speak Latin in reverse."
"A language game! Excellent idea," said the Vicereine. She clapped her hands at her retinue. "Ladies! It shall be a contest of tongue-twisters tonight. But, first, take the new Lady Juana to your dormitory and get her settled. I shall wait for you in my salon, Juana Inés, for a private supper."
Suddenly Juana Inés was enveloped in a blur of skirts and fans. She felt herself being half-pushed, half-carried from the hall.
"We've been here all this time," she heard someone grumble, "and she's never asked us to a private supper."
Table of Contents
|Fianchetto: June 1693||1|
|The Middlegame: 1672-1680||81|
|The Onyx Queen: 1681-1688||177|
|The Endgame: 1689-1692||325|
|Check: January-August 1693||393|
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If anything, I think this book elucidates that the figure of Sor Juana, both historical and fictional, cannot be pigeonholed into one description: poet, lesbian, nun. She is all of those and yet much more. Her intellect and bravey in a sea of persecution is very admirable; some of her actions are human, and therefore not so admirable. Quite fascinating.
The story of Mexico's Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695) is one of the great thinkers and poets of the 17th century and an iconic figure in women's history. In this intelligent, thoroughly researched novel, Gaspar de Alba goes beyond the established facts and paints a fictionalized, sometimes controversial portrait. Sor Juana, a prodigy of erudition from an early age, chose the veil, not because she felt a calling, but because marriage was even more unthinkable. Defying the Inquisition and the profoundly patriarchal world she lived in, she wrote and read prolifically and publicly until she was threatened into silence by the Church hierarchy. She then renounced her 'worldly' ways and completely surrendered to religion, ceasing all writing and communication with the outside world. As Gaspar de Alba tells it, Sor Juana was a lesbian. She makes a convincing case by juxtaposing the nun's own poetry with actual events and fictional journal entries. Commendably, Sor Juana's flaws are not glossed over she is portrayed as vain, prejudiced, and difficult. This work of fine scholarship and vision should increase awareness of a compelling historical figure. Brilliantly written, is a must for any lesbian reader.