The pleasure of being, this pleasure which has been forgotten, is not even known by so many people in their blindness; this thought which is so sweet, this delight so pure at saying to one-self, I am, I love, I exist, is alone enough to bring happiness, if we were to remember it, if we were to enjoy it, if we knew its true worth.
Françoise de Graffigny’s heroine Zilia closes Letters of a Peruvian Woman with this rallying cry about living for oneself. Over the course of the book, Zilia is kidnapped from Peru by the Spanish, rescued by the French, and taken to live in Paris. She is forcefully separated from her intended Peruvian husband Aza, who subsequently converts to Christianity in Spain, leaving him unable to marry her as they are too closely related. Zilia is left heartbroken. She receives an offer of marriage from her French guardian Déterville, with whom she has become friendly. However she rejects this, choosing instead to live alone.
When our book group met at Mycenae House on Friday 23 February, we focused on this passage as the central message of the book: Zilia may have lost the love of Aza, but she exists, and that is enough. Her life does not turn out as she expected, but she is never cynical, and is content simply to live by herself and remain independent.
Zilia does not compromise and marry her suitor Déterville, because she never viewed him as more than a friend, and was determined to honour her oath to Aza. In Graffigny’s novel, women are not passive rewards or wish fulfilment for male characters, but have the power to determine their own fate. Many readers in both our physical and virtual book groups found the ending refreshing, as a contrast to the prevailing narrative of love stories in Western culture (see for example recent critiques of Love Actually). As one reader commented on our blog, ‘It is not until you read a book in which determined pursuit (or persistent pining in Déterville’s case) does not result in “getting the girl” that you notice how very common this trope is in Western literature’.
Our group debated how much power and autonomy Zilia really has. On the one hand, she is violently taken from the Temple of the Sun in Peru. She lives in Déterville’s house throughout most of the book, and is sheltered from society, at one point being shut in a convent by his mother. She has very limited life experiences, and ends the book as she begins it – as a Virgin of the Sun. On the other hand, she closes the novel by achieving autonomy and choosing to live alone. She rejects Déterville’s continued advances ‘which offend me, in short, which I shall never approve’.
Readers enjoyed the contrast Graffigny creates between Peruvian and European society, recognising the merits and shortcomings of different cultures and their belief systems. In Graffigny’s account, the Peruvians are a virtuous and moral people with great integrity: they say what they mean, and do not lie. In contrast, the French are haughty and insincere, and obsessed with wealth and gratuitous luxury (one of the defining issues of the Enlightenment). However, Zilia comes to appreciate some of the qualities of French society and notes her desire to learn the sciences and the arts. In the end, the status of women in France – as childlike ‘ornaments’ – is not unlike the ‘state of ignorance’ to which women are ‘condemned’ in Peru. Readers felt we still had lessons to learn today in terms of the status of women in society, and appreciating the values of other cultures.
Déterville was described as insipid, overly needy, and a cipher, with readers pointing out that we don’t know that much about him. They thought it was no wonder Zilia didn’t respect him as he was such a doormat, even bringing Aza and Zilia together in his own house. At the same time, his model of chivalry and honour reflects the ideal of courtly love: his love is unrequited, and he performs acts of service and devotion for an ultimately unattainable woman. As Zilia writes, ‘far from treating me as his slave, he seems to be mine’.
Some readers felt that Zilia was overly naïve in failing to comprehend Déterville’s love, or understanding how mirrors worked (the Oxford World’s Classics edition points out that Incas did utilise mirrors made from burnished copper). Yet her unknowing character also enabled Graffigny’s sharp critique of French society as an outsider, from a position of youthful innocence. Some wondered how the story would have differed if told by an older and more mature Peruvian woman. Others enjoyed the humour inherent in explaining a book, a mirror, a boat, a carriage or a firework to someone who has never encountered one before.
All of our readers finished the book, although many found it difficult to get into initially, since it is so dominated by Zilia’s crying and pining. We discussed how Graffigny presents Zilia as a typical creature of sensibility, as she is deeply emotionally sensitive and in touch with her feelings. Before she learns French, Zilia and Céline (Déterville’s sister) are able to communicate using the ‘universal language of sympathetic hearts’, showing that they are moral and virtuous individuals.
We hope all our virtual readers enjoyed the book, and thanks to all who shared their thoughts on this blog. After Easter, we will introduce our next book, Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic novel A Sicilian Romance (1790)