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Women in the Arts and Letters in Navarre (19). Epistolary writing in the feminine hand


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Diario de Navarra

Cristina Tabernero

Professor of language Spanish

Diario de Navarra, in partnership with the Chair of Heritage and Navarrese Art of the University of Navarra, addresses, monthly, with the help of specialists from various universities and institutions, aspects on the relationship of women with the arts and literature in Navarra.

Anonymous Female Voices in the Modern Age (XVII-XVIII centuries)

degree scroll Do not mislead the reader about the purpose of these lines, which, far from recalling Navarrese women who exercised their pen with literary zeal, want to bring to mind anonymous female voices that, centuries ago, took advantage of the opportunity offered by writing as a form of communication. Most of them chose one of the few corners that, because of their sex, they were allowed to frequent, a dialogic space from which to beg financial aid, ask for a favor and, above all, share news, emotions or feelings: the letter. Even the clumsiest hands clung to it, transforming it into a window that opened to women the possibility of leaving the domestic world in which they were confined.

Epistolary writing

Since antiquity, writing was official document necessary to develop in public forums and, therefore, unrelated to a feminine world lacking, it was said at the time, the precise capacity for the tasks of the intellect. It was widely accepted that feminine spaces should be limited to the private sphere, in which skill was of no use. The social change that began with the Modern Age, however, meant that writing necessarily became a common good, of progressive popularization, through which to maintain links in the distance, near or far: from Artajona to Andosilla, from Estella to Zaragoza or from Sorlada to Pamplona, the same as from San Sebastian to Venezuela.

The epistolary genre gradually gained prominence as a channel between absent persons thanks to the confluence of multiple factors that favored the expansion of its use to the so-called "common people". Letters, which already had a long tradition at the dawn of the 16th century, became the only way to maintain a relationship in cases where parental authority prohibited courtship or when a whole ocean interrupted the contact with those who emigrated to the New World. If we add to this recent reality a gradual, albeit slow, expansion of literacy and a substantial improvement in the organization of the mail, we can understand why the Modern Age is often described as an "epistolary society".

Writing missives thus became a commonplace internship , especially present, for example, in the relationship between lovers, as part of the courtship, sometimes secret and hidden in the closest intimacy of the lovers; others, despite the privacy of the addressee, a public way of confirming the word given. It was precisely this genre that was the means, almost the only one and certainly the most general, that allowed the women of those times to speak from writing. The epistolary manuals, which proliferated from the 16th century onwards, and literary texts created a climate of epistolary culture that ended up infecting popular uses and configuring a series of models from which women who were socioculturally less favored immediately imbibed. At the beginning, it is true, it was the socially more privileged women who began to write epistolary letters; in the framework of the very scarce female literacy, they were the first to have access to this subject of instruction by the hand of private tutors. However, as it happens with any trend, this epistolary fashion would later extend to the less elevated sectors.

Navarre women who wrote letters

Through the study of the preserved female correspondence, generally that of the royal and noble houses, we have learned that the mediating role of women was essential in the web of clientelistic networks that characterized the society and politics of those periods. But we have also been able to access, from cultural history, the small world of many other women and enter the intimacy of their homes, their customs or the daily life of their villages.

It was in this context that many women from Navarre wrote letters in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They are texts of anonymous women to which we hardly have access today. The anonymity of their writers and their historical unimportance have facilitated their disappearance, unless these letters had result vital, for example, for the fulfillment of a promise. This is the case of the letters recovered by J.M. Usunáriz, Full Professor of Modern History of the University of Navarra, among the processes for the rupture of marital contracts preserved in the file Diocesan of Pamplona. The writers of these missives are women from Navarre and Guipuzcoa who, in some cases, most of them, demanded their fiancés the commitment acquired and, in others, were the object of denunciation for the same reason.

Among the Navarrese women, Isabel de Errazquin (Estella, 1672), Francisca de Baigorritegui (Andosilla, 1717), María Rosa Donado (Urroz Villa, 1718), Juana María de Idoy (Pamplona, 1724), María Agustina de Ustáriz (1730, Elizondo), Martina de Irigoyen (1737, Huarte), Narcisa de Haro (1758, Estella), María Miguel de Berango (1765, Tafalla), Juana Antonia Chavarría (1766, Sorlada-Arróniz), María Bautista de Berro (1766, Sorlada), Josefa de Espuche (1772, Areso) or Ignacia de Olóriz (1783, Falces) are the hands that sign most of these missives. It is true that some of them came from well-to-do houses or from families of high nobility, but in no case did they belong to the high nobility but to that intermediate social group that grouped the members of the clergy and of the leave nobility, mainly rural, or of the urban bourgeoisie (bachelors, graduates, doctors, merchants, teachers, etc.).

Isabel de Errazquin is a 27-year-old professed nun, whom her lover and first cousin supposedly helped to flee from the convent of Santa Clara de Estella. María Agustina, engaged to Juan Francisco de Arizcun, is the daughter of the owners of a palace of an armory corporal, who manifests the instruction she had received by writing her missives in clear and well segmented handwriting. Although we know little in other cases about the origin of these women, the good calligraphy, the historical capitals and the correct separation of words lead us to think that some of them, for example, the tafallesa María de Berango, would have received a good Education and would be part of a well placed family. Those belonging to the urban bourgeoisie, on the other hand, as soon give sample of the neatness of writing that learning provides as, between crooked lines, they declare with rhetorical humility their scarce skill escriptoria: "pero encargo a Vmd enseñe esta a nadie porque lo sentiré en el alma, pues solo por Vmd ubiera ubiera tomaro la pluma, pues no he echo otro tanto en mi bida" (Narcisa de Haro, September 17, 1757).

The popularization of epistolary writing

Apart from a few representatives of these groups, most of these women were servants or "widows without wealth", whose families were usually officially recognized as poor, which did not necessarily imply a lack of knowledge of reading and writing. Alongside those who barely knew how to handle writing, both in its materiality and in the construction of a coherent text in accordance with the conventions of epistolary rhetoric, there are those who move with relative ease and show signs of a certain skill: they separate words correctly or know the abbreviations used in letters - Vm, Sª, Q.S.M.B . ("May his hand kiss"), Nro. Sr le Ge Ms As ("May our Lord keep you many years"). Having enjoyed at an earlier time a better economic and social status , the free elementary school for the "poor of solemnity" or the interest of the ladies for their maids to have some instruction -reading, writing and counting-, necessary to help in the government of the house, are some of the reasons why, contrary to what one might expect, these women possess skill written; on the other hand, it is the gender that determines that, on the contrary, the good position does not assure the literacy of their women and the consequent skill in the handling of writing. This possibility is all the more pronounced the further back in time we go, since the considerable increase in literacy levels represented by the 18th century also affected the female sex, always, however, with considerably lower values than in the case of men.

Although in those centuries the circulation of the epistolary manuals mentioned above was common, it was not in their pages where these Navarrese women of medium or low socio-cultural level learned the epistolary essay . It was precisely the letters that were the models on which they were instructed in writing and it was through popular transmission that they learned the formulas for greetings and farewells or the appropriate way to begin or end a missive. However, except for the most experienced in the use of writing (for example, our Agustina de Ustáriz), the rest limited themselves to repeating a list of learned epistolary formulas, with little variation; the body of the letter was responsible for showing the limited instruction of these women, who wrote according to the molds of conversation: "estarás con Bicente y le dirás que una carta que te inbié por el coreo, que si la ha recebido y lo enbiarás a decir. And here there is no need but there is a lot of sickness in the place" (Antonia Chavarría, 1766, Sorlada-Arróniz). These women lacked the freedom granted by the dominion of this skill to those who, more educated, could afford the licence to alter the formulas without fear of making a mistake: noble women or a good part of the men of the same condition.

Female writing?

The fact is that because of this feminine cultivation of the genre, the "superiority of women's epistolary talent" has been repeated as an incontestable truth, thinking that the letter is the ideal place for prototypically feminine manifestations, such as courtesy or the expression of affection. It is clear that men and women wrote letters; if they did so in different ways, it was mainly due to the distance that separated their worlds for a long time and, therefore, to the social image that was expected of each gender.

It is difficult to say whether the way these women wrote their letters differed from those of men of the same status, who were often the recipients of their missives. As sample of a natural or learned character, the letters of Isabel, Agustina or María are more polite, they entertain more in the narration of the events, they provide the information with more detail or often ratify the own speech with the authority of the general experience of sentences and proverbs. In any case, there is one element that stands out above all the rest: a language more typical of conversation than of writing as a product of a more limited written skill in the case of the female hand, which, above other factors, can be attributed mainly to the different level of literacy.

Beyond these differences, what matters is that these women, from their educational levels, were aware of what the act of writing an epistolary letter meant, of agreement with the role that, according to their gender, had been attributed to them by birth. The very assumption of a role is what leads them to behave according to the established norms and to express the expected repression of their feelings in a formulaic manner: "I, who am a woman, it is not right for me to send flowers to those whom I love well and esteem well" (María Josefa de Suescun, 1741). Despite their linguistic clumsiness, it was clear that they had learned to handle the codes of politeness and to use the resources that language offered them to communicate their emotions through writing.