Why read the stories of María de Zayas y Sotomayor? That’s easy to answer. She wrote page-turning stories of desire, love, and disillusion; and published them in Spain nearly 400 years ago, when men dominated the literary world. Her two volumes, Novelas amorosas y ejemplares (1637) and Desengaños amorosos (1647) found a ready market then and are finding a new audience today. Her stories were regularly republished, circulating in Spanish and in versions in French, Italian, English, German, and Dutch.
Her authorial preface “To the Reader” in the Novelas amorosas challenges readers: “Who doubts . . . that you will be amazed that a woman has the audacity not only to write a book, but to send it for printing . . . Who doubts that there will be many who attribute to madness this virtuous daring to bring my scribblings to light, being a woman, which in the opinion of some fools, is the same as an incapable thing.” She asserts that men and women are made of the same materials, that souls are neither male nor female, and railed against men for giving women embroidery hoops instead of books and teachers. In Desengaños, she wrote that restricting women so much was making them like the eunuchs used to guard harems. Men did so out of fear, she said, lest educated women take over their professions.
In the stories that follow, her alternating male and female narrators tell tales of adventures covering the breadth of the Spanish Empire and beyond, to Italy and North Africa. Some of the tales in Zayas’s first volume are comic, turning the tables on men with laughter; for example, in “Just Desserts,” a would-be lover of a married woman gets stuck in a small window when her husband arrives and has to flee, frame and all. The heroines in this volume usually marry, if not with their first beloved. In her second volume, however, with the Spanish Empire in crisis in the 1640’s, the few women who survive male violence take refuge in convents, though only a few become nuns.
Answering the question of how to read Zayas is trickier. Her narrators claim their stories are the absolute truth and are original, not invented or copied from some other writer. Some of them resemble tales told by Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca or other writers of her era, but shaped differently, from a woman’s perspective. Was she a feminist, or perhaps at most a proto-feminist? She wields her spirited defense of women primarily for noblewomen, while classing others as beasts. Yet the protagonist of her last tale seduces her adopted sister’s husband and is only saved from his sword by the self-sacrifice of a black maid. I think María was caught between championing women as a group and defending her status as a middling member of an urban aristocracy, and she closed her eyes to how the patriarchy that sustained her class repressed women. The richness of María’s tales sustains multiple interpretations; I invite readers to explore them in my latest study, María de Zayas and her Tales of Desire, Death and Disillusion.
 Elizabeth Rhodes and Margaret R. Greer, Exemplary Tales of Love and Tales of Disillusion (2000).
This guest post was written by MARGARET R. GREER, who is Emeritus Professor of Romance Studies at Duke University.