Every Spanish schoolchild is now familiar with Doña Maria, Marquesa de Montemayor; since her death, her letters have become “one of the monuments of Spanish literature,” and many people have studied her life. However, her biographers have created an unfaithful portrait by falsely improving her image and creating a flawless character to match the beauty and wit of her letters. In his own research just after her death, Brother Juniper makes the opposite mistake, judging her too harshly.
The huge discrepancy between Doña María’s life and her work questions the stereotype that art is necessarily an exact reflection of the artist. Rather, the novel will argue that a person’s art can diverge from their character or experiences while also providing a profound lens through which to examine that reality.
Doña María is born to a wealthy Limean merchant. As a child, her ugliness and her persistent stutter make her unhappy; her mother constantly berates her and tries to “improve” the girl’s appearance. Doña María resists marriage for a long time, but eventually she marries a poor nobleman in order to get away from her mother.
Doña María’s bad relationship with her own mother is interesting, given that she will also have a dysfunctional relationship with her own daughter. The novel will ascribe Doña María’s behavior as a mother chiefly to her own character flaws, but it implicitly suggests that she is unable to be a good parent because she herself suffered a traumatic upbringing.
When Doña María gives birth to her own daughter, Clara, she “fastened upon her with an idolatrous love.” However, Clara responds to her mother’s love with “astonishment and repulsion,” and tries to avoid her mother as much as possible. When it’s time for her own marriage, Doña Clara purposefully chooses a Spanish husband so that she can leave the country. She unemotionally leaves Lima and her mother behind, while Doña María openly weeps at the harbor.
While Doña María is clearly an exasperating mother, Doña Clara also appears as a profoundly indifferent child. It’s important to keep in mind not just Doña María’s erratic behavior but also Clara’s failings as a daughter.
Now that she’s alone again, Doña María’s dress becomes even shabbier than normal and her habits more erratic. She talks to herself on the street, constantly playing out imaginary scenes in which she and Doña Clara lovingly reconcile. Because of her mental anguish, she prematurely ages into an old woman. People make fun of her in the streets; she’s even denounced before the Inquisition, and only her son-in-law’s high social position in Spain saves her.
Doña María’s obsession with her daughter isn’t just inconvenient for Doña Clara—it profoundly affects her own ability to live a meaningful life. While Doña María’s case is clearly extreme, she reflects the ability of romantic or platonic fixations to overtake one’s entire worldview.
Four years after Doña Clara’s marriage, Doña María visits Spain. Both women vow to behave well, and both fail; the visit is punctuated by angry scenes and slamming doors. One day, Doña María packs up early and returns to Peru without saying goodbye.
The two women’s inability to exist in close proximity is tragic. On the other hand, the necessity of conducting their relationship across a large distance inspires the letters that prove to be Doña María’s greatest accomplishment.
From this point on, Doña María confines her love to the letters she writes Doña Clara. Even though she’s strange and awkward in person, Doña María’s letters are miraculously beautiful. The narrator says that her “genius” springs from her fervent desire to “attract the attention, perhaps the admiration” of her daughter. Doña María forces herself to venture into society in order to collect witty anecdotes to relate; she becomes well-versed in the literature of her time and rewrites her letters every night. Now, scholars know that Doña Clara barely read the letters, and it was her husband (Conde Vicente d’Abuirre) who preserved them for future study.
Even though Doña María’s obsession with her daughter is presented as a character flaw directly responsible for her deep unhappiness, it also spurs her to great artistic heights. It’s also interesting that her personality as a writer contrasts so starkly with her character in real life. This contrast doesn’t make her letters less genuine or valuable; rather, it allows the reader to gain a deeper understanding of her personality.
Many modern critics have accused Doña María of “keeping one eye to posterity” while writing the letters, but in fact Doña María was completely focused on Doña Clara’s approval and would have been astonished to find herself so famous.
Even though Doña María is sometimes arrogant and demanding in her behavior towards her daughter, as an artist she is very humble.
Moreover, although the letters are lighthearted and funny, in fact Doña María is sad most of the time. She even wonders if the “constant pain in her heart” is related to some physical growth. One day, she includes this musing in a letter, and Doña Clara replies harshly that she is “making a cult of sorrow.”
Because of her constant exasperation with her mother, Doña Clara is a notably harsh daughter. Doña María’s parenting has brought out the worst of her daughter’s character traits.
Doña María’s knowledge that Clara will never return her love makes her a deep skeptic. She doesn’t believe in God, because she doesn’t think He would create a world where daughters don’t love their mothers. Moreover, she becomes convinced that, besides herself, no one in the world truly loves anyone. In her opinion, families behave affectionately to each other simply to preserve customs, while secretly they are obsessed with themselves. Even as she has these thoughts, Doña María knows that her own love is “not without a shade of tyranny.” She wants to improve herself, but she doesn’t know how.
Doña María’s obsessive love does imbue her with some self-knowledge—she understands that she is not entirely free of self-interest, even though she can’t do anything about this. However, her love also makes her worldview completely selfish and unsympathetic towards other people. Although obsessive love is ostensibly an outward fixation, it actually prompts people to focus exclusively on themselves and prevents meaningful connection with others.
The narrator then paraphrases one of Doña María’s letters to Doña Clara. In it, she writes of a gold chain that she’s enclosing as a present to her daughter’s friend. She fantastically imagines that in order to get it, she walks into a Velazquez portrait in a Limean church, whose subject wears a similar chain, saying that “the painter himself came forward to lift me into the pigment.”
Doña María’s transparently self-pitying worldview contrasts wonderfully with her inventive and fanciful language as a writer. Although her writing is a reflection of her desires in real life, it also helps her transcend her actual flaws.
Doña María then reports that the Viceroy of Lima is sick with gout, which incapacitates him most of the time. Recently, he tried to attend an official ceremony but couldn’t even make it out of his palace. Instead, he returned inside, smoked a cigar, and sent for his favorite actress to entertain him. Doña María continues to include passages critical of powerful figures, even though Doña Clara warns her that the letters are probably opened during the sea journey.
One of Doña María’s endearing qualities is her fearless eccentricities—she doesn’t care what people think of her, even when it might imperil her social position. This habit underlines her daughter’s rigid adherence to social norms.
Finally, Doña María writes that she and her maid, Pepita, are planning on going to the theater to see Perichole perform. Everyone in Lima is obsessed with this famous actress, although Doña María says she’s aging and no longer attractive (the narrator interjects that Doña María was simply trying to flatter Doña Clara, and that in fact the actress is very beautiful). She concludes by noting that the actress is always accompanied by a strange man named Uncle Pio; no one knows if he is “her father, her lover, or her son.”
Here, Doña María names several other characters who will become central to the narrative. By portraying characters who encounter each other only tangentially, the novel builds a prevailing sense of coincidence and causes the reader to doubt that there is a divine plan guiding their lives.
That night, Doña María does indeed bring Pepita to the theater. However, in her absent-mindedness she doesn’t pay much attention to the play. Between the acts, Camila Perichole customarily comes onstage to sing humorous songs. Seeing the Marquesa in the audience, she begins to improvise nasty verses about her strange appearance and her strained relationship with her daughter. Everyone understands whom she’s alluding to and laughs, but Doña María doesn’t even notice what’s going on. It’s only Pepita who eventually shepherds her mistress out of the theater. Doña María remains content with her evening, since she can report on the play to her daughter.
The Perichole’s songs are cutting and humiliating. However, her artistry isn’t actually that different from Doña María’s habit of skewering public figures in her letters. The novel frequently demonstrates that while art can be profound, moving, and valuable, it’s not necessarily kind or gracious.
When the Viceroy learns that “one of his aristocrats had been openly baited in the theater,” he forces Camila Perichole to apologize to her personally. He doesn’t care much about Doña María, but he wants everyone to respect and fear the provincial aristocracy of which he is the head. Moreover, the Perichole is the Viceroy’s mistress but he suspects her of cheating on him with a matador, so he wants to humiliate her.
The Viceroy’s actions, almost always entirely self-centered, demonstrate the corruption and hypocrisy that undergirds Limean society. This in turn casts doubt on institutions like the church, which is both a bulwark and chief beneficiary of this society.
Doña María is not only surprised by Camila Perichole’s visit, she’s also drunk. At first, Doña María drank a local liquor, chicha, just to help her sleep at night; now she’s drunk most of the time, except when she writes her fabulous letters. Pepita wakes up her mistress and tries to make her presentable by dressing her in a fur cloak and veil.
Pepita’s quiet goodwill contrasts with the self-absorption of her mistress and the actress who has humiliated her. Although the novel elevates art itself, its most virtuous characters are rarely artists.
Seeing her victim up close, Camila Perichole is surprised by her dignity. She softly says that she hopes Doña María didn’t “misunderstand” anything she said at the theater. Doña María has no idea what’s happening, because she didn’t hear the Perichole’s insults; she praises the actress’s beauty and talent, and then starts talking about her own daughter’s virtues. Thinking that the older woman is simply being kind out of magnanimity, the Perichole is humbled and ashamed by the time she leaves.
Even though this interaction is founded on misunderstandings (Doña María doesn’t understand why the actress is apologizing, while the Perichole doesn’t grasp that the older woman is drunk and barely functional), it’s moving and profound all the same. This is similar to the ability of art to be meaningful even though it doesn’t exactly reflect real life.
It’s Pepita who bears the brunt of Doña María’s eccentricities. She’s an orphan, brought up under the care of the Abbess Madre María del Pilar. One day Doña María had visited the convent to ask for a young girl to work as her companion, and the Abbess chose Pepita both to give her more understanding of the world, and to “bend the old woman to her own interests.”
Even though the Abbess is a generous and idealistic woman, she’s also canny and pragmatic (unlike her colleague, Brother Juniper). The novel shows that good works can’t flourish without an ability to understand, and work within, the constraints of the flawed world.
The Abbess, one of the “great women of Peru,” has “fallen in love with an idea several centuries before its appointed appearance in the history of civilization”—namely, she wants society to give more respect to women and more aid to the sick and poor. At night, she dreams of a future age in which the desperately poor women she helps can have dignity and prosperity. During the day, she has to contend with the fact that all the women around her believe that their misfortunes stem from not attracting a man, and that a man’s love is worth “all the misery in the world.”
While the novel skewers many of Lima’s public figures, like the Viceroy and the Archbishop, it champions the Abbess’s good character. It’s notable that her ideals and convictions spring from her religious devotion. Even though religion can justify abuses of power or absurd speculations, it also leads to progressive, even revolutionary, thinking.
The Abbess exercises her idealism by running her abbey in addition to hospitals and orphanages throughout the city, but she also has to use considerable shrewdness and pragmatism to extract funds from officials who are indifferent to the work she’s doing. For example, the Archbishop of Lima openly hates her and “counted the cessation of her visits among the compensations for dying.”
The extreme contrast between the Abbess’s altruism and the Archbishop’s greedy laziness emphasizes the paradoxical ability of the church to bring out the best and worst of its different officials.
As the Abbess gets older, she begins to fear for the continuation of her work. None of the nuns around her seem capable or committed enough to take over the abbey. However, Pepita is very bright and kind, so the Abbess decides to groom the girl to be her successor. In order to prepare and educate her, the Abbess assigns Pepita the most difficult tasks and takes her on her own errands. Pepita’s work for Doña María is simply the latest of these tests. Pepita doesn’t like caring for the difficult woman, but she accepts her new assignment without question.
The Abbess’s desire to see her work continue is altruistic—she doesn’t want the poor to be abandoned when she dies. However, it’s also a mark of personal ambition, since her hospitals are like an extension of herself, and she wants her legacy to outlast her actual life.
Pepita’s life as Doña María’s servant is very difficult. She’s isolated from the other servants, who all steal from their mistress constantly. Sometimes, she accompanies Doña María to church and the old woman slips away, forcing Pepita to track her down for hours. Sometimes Doña María treats Pepita warmly, but when she becomes preoccupied with her letters and her daughter, she becomes cold and reserved, which is hurtful to Pepita. She only remains with Doña María out of her loyalty to the Abbess.
While Doña María is obsessed with the imperfection of her familial relations, Pepita meekly accepts her complete lack of family. The older woman’s inability to look beyond herself prevents her from being a good guardian to her companion, and even prevents her from benefiting as much from Pepita’s presence as she might have if she truly welcomed and paid attention to her.
One day, Doña Clara writes that she is pregnant, hoping to forestall her mother’s worry and advice by announcing it casually. Despite her daughter’s efforts, Doña María goes into a frenzy. She consults every doctor and old woman in the city for advice, sending her daughter strange talismans and observing superstitions practices in her hope for a safe birth.
By turning to both religious and superstitious means to help her daughter, Doña María implicitly accepts the existence of some sort of deity governing human affairs. Even though she ostensibly doesn’t believe in God, she’s unable to behave as if God doesn’t exist.
In the midst of her worries, Doña María is often struck by the fear that “God is indifferent” and “nothing in man’s power can alter the course of law.” However, she never submits to these thoughts long enough to stop writing letters and seeking advice.
Throughout the novel, the truly frightening possibility is not that God doesn’t exist, but that God doesn’t care about human misery, or even purposely inflicts it.
At last, Doña María decides to fulfill an old Peruvian tradition and make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Santa María de Cluxambuqua in order to pray for Doña Clara’s safe delivery. She travels across the famous bridge of San Luis Rey in her sedan chair and goes up into the beautiful and rustic hills. Leaving Pepita at the hotel, Doña María goes immediately to the church and begins to pray. A new sense of tranquility comes over her, and she reflects that maybe “she would learn in time to permit both her daughter and her gods to govern their own affairs.” None of the other people in the church distract her, and she spends hours in calm reflection.
While churches often represent the abuses of power perpetrated by those who control them, they are also locations of important moments of epiphany and revelation. The novel suggests that while the clerical institutions often work to society’s detriment, this does not preclude individuals from having transformative religious experiences.
As Doña María is leaving the church, a message boy runs up to her bearing a letter from her Doña Clara. The letter is “full of wounding remarks rather brilliantly said,” but the mother simply reads it and then gently folds it away.
Doña María’s epiphany enables her to accept her daughter as she is, rather than constantly trying to change her (as, indeed, her own mother did to her).
Meanwhile, Pepita prepares their rooms in the hotel and tells the cooks how to make Doña Maria’s special porridge. Then she begins writing a letter to the Abbess, whom she remembers lovingly and respectfully. The narrator says that by treating Pepita as a mature adult and her equal, the Abbess had “abused” her power and acted unwisely. In fact, Pepita doesn’t know she’s being groomed for an important role, and she’s troubled by her long and difficult solitude.
Pepita’s relationship with the Abbess is the opposite of selfish love—rather than using the other woman to satisfy her own desires, she submits herself to her guardian completely. However, this relationship has its own detriments: Pepita’s lack of concern for herself leads her to be lonely and unhappy.
When Pepita goes downstairs to look after the dinner, Doña María arrives at the hotel, sees the unfinished letter, and reads it. The letter hints at Pepita’s dissatisfaction and loneliness, but also reiterates her willingness to do whatever the Abbess wants. She’s struck by the humility and devotion Pepita expresses, and wishes that she were able to “command another’s soul as completely as this nun was able to do.”
Doña María’s reaction is partly selfish—she wants to possess Pepita’s love just as she wants to possess her daughter’s—but it also builds on her earlier epiphany by allowing her to be more concerned about other people’s affairs and look for new ways to connect to others.
When Pepita returns, Doña María invites her to share the meal. When Pepita politely declines, the older woman feels rejected. She tries to manipulate Pepita by asking if she has any letters to send with the next post, and even admits that she knows Pepita has been writing to the Abbess. Blushing, Pepita says that the letter wasn’t “brave” and that she doesn’t want to send it; she takes the letter into her own room and tears it up.
Even though both women want a stronger relationship with the other, they lack the mutual understanding to bridge the divide of character and circumstances between them.
Sitting alone, Doña María reflects that she had “never brought courage to either life or love.” She decides that, starting tomorrow, she will change her behavior and “begin a new life.” She begins a new letter to Doña Clara, in which she is more generous and less demanding than ever before. By the time she finishes, it’s almost dawn. Doña María looks in at Pepita as she sleeps, then prays for the courage to change her ways. Two days later, both women are killed in the bridge collapse as they travel back to Lima.
The tragedy here lies not just in Doña María’s death, but in the fact that this death occurs just as she is about to effect a character transformation. If, as Brother Juniper will argue, God is judging her for her self-interest, it’s not very fair of him to punish her just as she’s about to improve herself. The timing of her death posits either that God is active in human affairs but not benevolent, or that no deity exists who understands and acts upon individual human character.