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Discussion: Letters of a Peruvian Woman

Below are some questions for you to consider after reading our second book, Letters of a Peruvian Woman. Please do share your thoughts in the comments below!

What did you like most (and least) about the book?

What do we gain from hearing the story told through letters?

How does Graffigny show that Zilia is a foreigner in a strange land?

What is Graffigny’s attitude to other cultures in this book?

How does Graffigny present the Inca? How does French society compare?

If you could hear the same story written through letters by another character, who would you choose?

How much power or agency would you ascribe to Zilia as a heroine?

What surprised you most about this book?

How did you feel about the ending?

If you could write one more chapter to finish the book, what would you write?

7 comments on “Discussion: Letters of a Peruvian Woman

  1. Lesley H

    I’m only half way thru’ reading so these opinions/comments may change.
    Q1.What do you like most and least about the book?
    I’m enjoying the author’s sense of humour. The descriptions of a boat, mirror, carriage as seen through the eyes of someone who has never encountered them before were very entertaining.It took me right back to creative writing exercises in school i.e describe a clothes peg to an alien etc.
    I found the forlorn yearning of Zilia for Aza a little all consuming of the narrative at first, however, on reflection I think it was there to show the contrast between her two worlds.
    The only other book I have read where the narrator comments on a different culture in the way Zilia does is Gulliver Travels. When Gulliver visits the Country of the Houyhnhnms he starts to make value judgements on what he sees. I’ve enjoyed the way Griffigny shows how Zilia’s opinions of Europeans changes as she gets to observe them more closely. I think this is one of the plus points of having the text written in letters. Each letter can show a shift of opinion, a moment of realisation which does not need to link with the previous observation.
    Looking forward to hearing what other people think.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Finished the book and enjoyed it on several levels . The love story was engrossing with Aza but even more so with Deterville although not quite the ending most readers will have wanted ! The social commentary was scathing on many subjects particularly the treatment of women and frivolous lifestyles. The gentle humour was very entertaining and would love to hear it read as a monologue.

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  3. Two things really struck me while I was reading this lovely book. The first was the sheer feat of imagination required to write Zilia’s voice. De Graffigny took a description of an entirely different, totally alien culture, flipped it around, and used it to explore her own culture. To me, this makes her vivid descriptions of Peru and Peruvian culture really vibrant.

    The second thing that struck me about this book was Zilia’s refusal to capitulate to Deterville’s feelings. It is not until you read a book in which determined pursuit (or persistent pining in Deterville’s case) does not result in ‘getting the girl’ that you notice how very common this trope is in Western literature.

    Clearly this upset contemporary audiences, as the edition of the text that I bought included various sequels to de Graffigny’s text in which Zilia eventually loses her resolve in the face of Deterville’s feelings. In fact, it is still an idea that we struggle with – I know too many young women who have been ‘pursued’ (harassed) by determined young men convinced of their eventual success. This was another great text that I would never have read without your suggestion. Thank you Emotions Book Club!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Susan Margaret Parkinson

    Sorry I can’t be at the meeting tomorrow (as you already know) but I have read Letters from a Peruvian Woman and actually rather enjoyed it. 18C novels can sometimes be heavy going (and long….) but this was refreshingly short and accessible, I thought.
    It was an interesting critique of French society, the dominance of court custom and manners, and the position of women. The criticism of outward show and lack of genuine sentiment came over well; the subtlety of an ingenue’s perspective was much more effective than more strident proselytising.
    By the end I quite understood why she preferred to be in charge of her own destiny rather than succumbing to the unrelenting and altogether too needy Deterville, and she had come to realise that Aza was not the perfect being she had supposed. The one thing she maintained was a feeling of the natural values of her own culture, though she had also begun to appreciate some of the better aspects of French society. She approached her new milieu with more discernment than those born within it.
    I agree that the impulse to find a neat ‘happy ending’ reveals just how much this still influences our enjoyment, but for me the enjoyment ultimately was that she had acquired a new strength and independence that was not conditional on the love and support of a man.
    See you next month!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Another really interesting book I’d never come across before. I was glad to have a bit of the context of other epistolary novels and some of Graffigny’s own views but it stood on its own.

    Zilia’s personality shines through the letters and Graffigny must have worked hard to think through all the elements of French culture that she would find strange. I loved how certain she was allowed to be of her own culture and her own heart and I was so glad she kept that independence in the end.

    (a little bit of me wanted her to be proved right and of the additional endings in my copy the one where Aza realises his mistake… in the end the real ending is the best though)

    I actually finished reading this a couple of days ago and went straight into Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters from Sweden and it’s been fascinating going from 18th century fictional letters to real ones. It’s a strong reminder not to underestimate women in the past, whatever their situation or how much they seem in control of their own destinies.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I haven’t quite decided how I feel about this book, despite having finished it a few weeks ago… On the one hand, I am in awe of Graffigny’s fantastic stubbornness and early feminism; on the other, I was frustrated with the protagonist, Zilia, throughout the book.

    To clarify, I think the character of Zilia worked very well to convey Graffigny’s points relating to the role of contemporary women, the need for more education and political empowerment, and critiquing societal norms of the time (many of which still hold a lot of relevance (unfortunately)). Considering the book’s Peru and Inca society were largely based on Graffigny’s imagination (and secondary sources of course), it is no small feat painting such a vivid world – and indeed, a mindset and worldview that was quite at odds with mainstream French at the time. The letter-format is also very effective in showing Zilia’s developing reflections on herself and the society around her, allowing us to see personal development in a first-person narrative that is also undeniably self-edited. I also really appreciated the contextualising preface and related text, as it helped me in my reading too (especially learning about Graffigny’s own difficult life made me want to learn much more about the real author behind Zilia!)

    However, as mentioned, I was also frustrated by aspects of the book. In the first instance, it is of course depressing to note that many of Zilia’s observations of 17th Century Europe still stands, making the book still relevant. But as for Zilia, her passionate, relentless love for Aza was, well, idealising, and I couldn’t help feeling, a bit simplistic in its character. Of course, her kidnapping from Peru and the ensuing trauma make an idealised, rosy image of her past life perhaps unsurprising. But taking a step out of the narrative, it reminded me also of the paradoxical colonial romanticization-subjugation of indigenous peoples. The way in which Graffigny describes Zilia seems both, at times, childlike and ‘silly’, and somehow more morally advanced; just like she wrote it ‘in her time’, I found it hard not to read it in my own, feeling troubled by the racial and colonial undertones.

    To answer briefly some of the above suggested questions, I would have loved to read Aza’s take on the events – not his love for Zilia, as the anonymous author tried adding at the time, but about how a ‘prince’ negotiates a wholly new and unfamiliar power dynamic, colonialism, and perhaps attempt to re-establish own agency on a new continent (as well as possibly falling in love with a Spanish woman, who knows! Zilia’s love for him and their few exchanged words might not have been interpreted the same way by him).

    As for the ending, I think this was possibly what I liked the most about the book,where Zilia finally stands up as an independent human being. Although she by then has been for a long time, it is only here she realises herself that she is complete without Aza. Her friendship, and friendly love, for Deterville is in many ways far more powerful than her idealisation of an Aza that may never have been much more than a figure of her mind. Reading the two add-on endings offered by anonymous authors at the time only drove the point home that this was, in many ways, a radical novel. Graffigny’s own added chapters did stand out, not fitting in with Zilia’s narration of events – instead being explicit ‘steps outside’ the plot-line to comment on society. While they did not quite ‘fit’ the story, they were nevertheless great texts that left no room for misinterpretation – romantic fiction aside, this was in the end a highly political and original publication. I am glad to have read it – but will spend a bit longer deciding on what exactly I feel about it myself…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I adored this book! Zilia’s untainted (relatively) aboriginal emotional perceptions and verbal descriptions were utterly delightful. The contrast against and rather scathing social critique of French society made me proud of my own aboriginal roots. But mostly I was touched by Zilia’s (de Graffigny’s) emotional intelligence! Might have been fun to read Aza’s letters in sequence for contrast we well. Great read thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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