Unearthing Brazil’s Women Writers

     Unearthing Brazil's Women 
Writers

    The book Brazilian
    Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century
    runs to almost one thousand pages, and represents a true labor
    of literary archeology. No fewer than 52 unknown women
    authors were uncovered. They wrote from letters and diaries,
    albums and notebooks to novels, poems, essays and criticism.
    by: Cecília
    Prada

    Brazzil
Picture

    In 1928, the English writer Virginia Woolf received a prestigious invitation:
    she was to lecture on women in English literature, at one of the most prestigious
    and traditional British universities, Cambridge.

    An average writer would
    open a history of English literature, and from it would extract some of her
    predecessors, such as Jane Austen and George Eliot, and would make her lecture
    brilliant with only a little effort, striving to demonstrate that, "after
    all, we were always here (it was just that no one noticed)".

    Hers would have been one
    more of those pathetic presentations that the representatives of various minorities
    are accustomed to making to assure their "presence" in the picture—which
    never required this sort of demonstration—of the traditional masculine,
    white, well-born, Christian, heterosexual society.

    The audience would have
    listened politely, would have applauded the "brilliant lecturer",
    who would receive a bouquet of flowers and everyone would move into the salon
    of the famous temple of wisdom to take five o’clock tea. As we know, in Brazil
    everything ends with pizza, while in England everything ends with tea.

    But Mrs. Woolf decided
    that, in her 46 years of life, she had already had a sufficient quantity of
    tea and crumpets. She produced a deep and original reflection on what had
    been (or not been) the "presence" of women in the literature of
    her country; on the circumstances that surrounded and impeded, through time,
    the expression of feminine writing; on the contradiction, the hypocrisy of
    the essentially macho world of culture—beginning with the universities
    themselves, access to which had always been forbidden to women.

    According to Virginia,
    this system prevailed up until her epoch. Speaking ironically, she uses the
    term Oxbridge, which refers to Oxford and Cambridge, to designate a "very
    famous university" in whose domain she herself, as a woman, could only
    enter if accompanied by a member of the faculty; and in whose library she
    would not have been able to do research, since it also was "for gentlemen
    only".

    Transformed into a book
    (Todo Seu published by Nova Fronteira), the famous lecture by Virginia
    and other writings of hers on the topic, collected in Three Guineas (1938),
    are considered classics of the genre, fundamental to study of literature and
    the feminine condition. We do not have information on the repercussions of
    the lecture at Cambridge by the brilliant Englishwoman, but it is not difficult
    to imagine the reaction of the guardians of the establishment, in defense
    of its privileges.

    A contemporary detail
    can give us an idea: even today the most serious and reputable of encyclopedias,
    the famous Encyclopedia Britannica, in consecrating Virginia Woolf for "her
    original contribution to the form of the novel" and "as one of the
    most prominent critics of her time", not only ignores her feminist position
    but also simply omits from her bibliography precisely the two works cited.

    Virginia thus becomes
    at least a partial victim of the suppression that she had denounced.

    Here in Brazil

    Meanwhile, on the other
    side of the world… and in quite a distant epoch, a group of women doing
    research in the area of Brazilian literature from various points in the country,
    led by Dr. Rita Terezinha Schmidt, Dr. Eliane Vasconcellos and Dr. Zahidé
    Lupinacci Muzart, were, over the last 15 years, working to recover the work
    of all the women writers of the nineteenth century who had been completely
    eliminated from literary histories and from many dictionaries.

    The book which records
    the results of this research, Escritoras Brasileiras do Século XIX
    (Brazilian Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century), organized by Zahidé
    Muzart and launched in 2000 by Editora Mulheres, of Florianópolis,
    in partnership with Edunisc, runs to almost one thousand pages, and represents
    a true labor of literary archeology—in which they uncovered up until
    now no fewer than 52 women authors who, according to the organizer, "wrote
    much and addressed all genres: from letters and diaries, albums and notebooks
    to novels, poems, crônicas and stories, dramas and comedies,
    revues, operettas, essays and literary criticism.

    Many of these women did
    not even dare to admit publicly their authorship of these texts. They lived
    confined in their domestic environment and produced in secret. It is significant
    that the anthology begins with an "anonymous" woman from Bahia who
    wrote and published in 1887 a feminist booklet, As Mulheres (Women)—her
    identity has still not been discovered, but through the text we can see that
    she was from high society, had married well, had been very well educated,
    and knew various languages, including Latin.

    We also know that the
    fiction writer Júlia Lopes de Almeida was obliged, when she was a girl,
    in the second half of the 19th century, to hide her literary activity
    from her father (the same had happened to the Brontë sisters, in the
    first half of the century). A note: an adaptation, with the actress Marília
    Pêra, of the magnificent story by Júlia Lopes de Almeida—"A
    Caolha" (The Cross-Eyed Woman) was broadcast recently on television
    in São Paulo. The strength of her literary talent, very little known
    until today, was shown to be incontestable.

    Nevertheless, in spite
    of the fact that all over the world, especially in the university setting,
    the archeological rediscovery of the cultural contribution of women in various
    fields of knowledge and the arts is going onwards, in Brazil, as is the case
    elsewhere, prejudicial attitudes continue to prevail.

    Some critics have doubted
    that so much effort on the part of the organizers of Escritoras Brasileiras
    do Século XIX was worth it—after all, "the majority of
    the recovered texts are mediocre, and those women who were suppressed did
    not produce any famous works…"

    This observation in itself
    merits close criticism: it was precisely in the name of a predefinition of
    intellectual "mediocrity" and of the continuous and violent restriction
    to the domestic sphere and to the functions defined as "the only ones
    worthy" of the feminine sex (marriage and maternity), that women were
    pushed away from the world of knowledge and kept ignorant, illiterate or only
    given a social polish of education, learning a little French, embroider, etiquette.
    And much religion, of course.

    As Pedro Nava says in
    his memoirs, "the course [in a school run by nuns] was entirely light-weight,
    each student attending whichever class she wished"; when asked what year
    they were in school, the girls could answer "I really don’t know…now
    I am learning pyrography, the mountains of Africa, and about Easter lilies".

    Thus, in the first place,
    women are obliged to be exceptional, as are the representatives of various
    minorities, always. The passport to recognition, even if it is simply in a
    historical listing, is, for these, by necessity, extraordinary talent, genius,
    heroism or an "iron force of character", a "resistance"
    maintained in spite of all unfavorable circumstances. A woman, or any member
    of a minority, bears the onus of proof never demanded of the mere normality
    of the privileged being.

    And even the very few
    women who managed, in spite of history, to demonstrate a talent which could
    stand up to the worst circumstances, had continually imposed upon them a powerful
    masculine pact of silence, which included (and includes until today) systematic
    ignorance, a crushing critical effort, and even the physical destruction of
    books and documentation.

    The organizer of the anthology
    cited describes the details of the work necessary to disinter even fragments
    of texts by some writers whose bibliography was recorded in writings of the
    period, but whose works were not found.

    For example: those by
    the almost mythical Rita Joana de Sousa (1696-1718), who is supposed to have
    written 21 works, but of whom not a line is extant. Another case is that of
    the gaúcha Maria Josefa Barreto, born around 1786/88 and died
    in 1837, poet cited in 14 articles or entries of her period, from whom, however,
    only one poem was found.

    Thus, the "official"
    history of Brazilian literature has transmitted until now an erroneous idea
    of the feminine presence (or rather, "absence") in the culture of
    the country—as we can note with a pleasant surprise in the census done
    by Zahidé Muzart’s team.

    It is interesting to note
    that even a critic such as Viveiros de Castro (cited by Zahidé Muzart),
    who in 1895 set himself to prove that the "influence of women in the
    intellectual panorama of the country was zero", recognized the reason
    for the feminine absence in the literary field: "those women, who breaking
    with such a hostile medium, are bold enough to cultivate letters, becoming
    writers, must soon resign themselves to the most pungent sarcasm and the crudest
    taunts".

    And he further said: "They
    dispute their talent and spew the most vile calumnies about their honor as
    women. They rarely receive an encouraging word, and if someone greets them,
    he is immediately suspected of being their lover."

    It is not difficult to
    imagine, then, how these writers had to struggle for their (minuscule) cultural
    space, and how the intolerance sanctioned by society must have done everything,
    in fact, to destroy their legacy physically and spiritually.

    Very few of these women
    managed to breach the barrier of the macho establishment—those who were
    remembered by critics and historians of literature can be counted on the fingers
    of one hand. : in the

    História Concisa
    da Literatura Brasileira, by Alfredo Bosi—the most widely used in
    schools at present—there are only four names cited, all poets, Francisca
    Júlia, Gilka Machado, Auta de Sousa e Narcisa Amália, for which
    only the first merited a biography and special note, the mere mention of their
    name being sufficient for the others, in the midst of various poets of their
    epochs.

    For the historians of
    the nineteenth century women really did not exist—none appears in the
    histories of literature by Sílvio Romero and by José Veríssimo,
    although the former had written encomiastic prefaces for books of some of
    them…

    The Enciclopédia
    da Literatura Brasileira, by Raimundo de Menezes, which in its last edition
    lists a reasonable number of women writers, relates them in general to a man,
    for whom they were spouses or lovers. In biographies of women, the public
    and the private are always perforce intertwined—spouses, number and names
    of children are mentioned, a family relationship well established, or "spurious"
    loves and lovers. These elements are of little importance in biographies of
    men.

    For a writer like Carmen
    Dolores (pseudonym of Emília Moncorvo Bandeira de Mello), one of the
    most important women writers of the nineteenth century, a journalist and writer
    of fiction, Raimundo does not forget to say that "she entered the press
    through the hand of the very famous politician Alcindo Guanabara".

    And about Cecília
    Bandeira de Mello de Vasconcellos, Emília’s daughter, and also a writer
    and journalist (she used the pseudonym of Madame Chrysanthème), Raimundo
    does not forget to say that she "was a late and ardent passion"
    of the same Alcindo Guanabara, and that she also entered the press through
    his hand…just that, if there was a hand in question, this time it must have
    been that of her own mother, who had become the assiduous and famous writer
    of crônicas for O País.

    Demi-rebels

    The interdiction on feminine
    literature always took two forms: the generic—"women should not
    write", or study, or have a profession, etc.; and the specific—"women
    should not write on particular topics, or in such and such a way".

    The idealized definition
    of "woman" as an ethereal being, "superior" (a little
    foolish…), virtuous, delicate, naïve—a romantic being, outside
    the vile reality of the world, protected in the shelter of the home, endowed
    with the sublime (exclusive) mission of maternity, etc.—was imposed by
    the masculine ideology over the course of centuries, and principally in the
    19th century, the apogee of the bourgeois patriarchal society.

    And thus, even the women
    who managed to break with the first interdiction ("women should not write")
    and struggled arduously for a position in the literary world were not capable,
    in the majority of cases, of eliminating the barriers of their own unconscious
    and transgressing the limits of a certain well-behaved literature, formal,
    strictly faithful to the literary canons of genre and form imposed by the
    (masculine) conventions of "writing well". Even in their rebellion,
    they bend before the macho restrictions or sought to be "as good as"
    men.

    The eighteenth and nineteenth
    centuries saw the explosion both here and there, in Europe as in Brazil, and
    even in the United States, of semi-rebels and halfway feminists who only raised
    (and that is already a lot) the problems of the feminine condition, or expressed
    fearfully, under a pseudonym, and as if they were asking to be forgiven, their
    sexuality and their true feelings.

    It is sufficient to recall
    that one of the greatest English writers, Mary Ann Evans (1819-80) only managed
    to penetrate the literary circuit and have success through maintaining the
    masculine pseudonym that made her famous, George Eliot. The same thing happened
    with the French writer Amandine Aurore Dupin, baronesa Dudevant, who entered
    history as George Sand (1804-76).

    In an article on the education
    of women in Brazil in the nineteenth century (the journal "Tempo &
    Memória" nº 1, Aug/Dec 2003, from Unimarco Editora), Alzira
    Lobo de Arruda Campos examines how in addition to the repression of the macho
    system itself, which confined women to the domestic sphere, were added prejudices
    coming from the European educational system, which considered a temperate
    climate the only proper one for the moral training of its female charges.

    And if the mademoiselles
    from good families were sent to schools that inexorably reflected "various
    colonizations of the body and of the spirit", making them dependent on
    at least three factors, i.e., on man, Europe, and science (which defined them
    decidedly as "less intelligent"), evidently for slave and proletarian
    women this picture was added to with racial and class discrimination, and
    they were kept in the most complete ignorance.

    Taking all this into consideration,
    it is worthy of admiration that in all of Brazil, from north to south, there
    arose even at the beginning of the nineteenth century as many as 19 women
    journalists and writers aware of these injustices, and who struggled for the
    rights of women to education and the vote.

    In the middle of that
    century there already existed a "women’s press"—magazines and
    other publications with staffs consisting, often, exclusively of women, and
    intended for women. The first of these was O Jornal das Senhoras (The
    Women’s Journal), founded in 1852 in Rio de Janeiro and published initially
    by the Argentinean Joana Paula Manso de Noronha and then by the Bahian
    Violante de Bivar.

    But all these organs of
    the press did not go past certain boundaries and propagandized in favor of
    bourgeois values, that is, fighting for the education of women, they supported
    this necessity so that she might "better educate her children, future
    citizens" and "reign in her own home", "as loyal and worthy
    companion of her husband".

    Some Highlights

    One of the most important
    women writers of the nineteenth century was Dionísia Gonçalves
    Pinto, born in Rio Grande do Norte in 1810, died in Rouen (France) in 1885—known
    under the pseudonym of Nísia Floresta. She was one of the first women
    to publish stories, poetry, novels and essays in the so-called grand press
    of the period, in Rio de Janeiro, beginning already in 1830—note that
    the Brazilian press only existed from 1817 onwards.

    She was the precursor
    of feminism in Brazil, and even in Latin America, and had a significant political,
    social and literary presence in that period—not only in Brazil, but in
    Europe as well, where she moved for good in 1849, sick of the profound mediocrity
    of Brazil, having spent the last 28 years of her life writing and traveling.

    Nísia founded in
    1838 a school for girls, in Rio de Janeiro, the Colégio Augusto,
    the curriculum of which was bitterly criticized, since it emphasized instruction
    in languages and sciences, to the detriment of the manual arts. Over her lifetime,
    she published twenty works, in Portuguese, French and Italian—but although
    her books were well-received in Europe (where she had ties with the most important
    writers, such as Victor Hugo, Alessandro Manzoni, Augusto Comte, George Sand,
    Alphonse de Lamartine e Alexandre Herculano), she received not even a mention
    from any of the critics and historians in Brazil.

    Gilberto Freyre is one
    of the rare Brazilian writers who was aware of the existence and importance
    of Nísia Floresta. In Sobrados e Mocambos (The Mansions and
    the Shanties), he presents her as "a scandalous exception":
    "Among men who dominated solely all extradomestic activities, with even
    baronesses and viscountesses barely being able to read, the finest ladies
    lettering out only devotional books and novels which were almost fairy stories,
    it astounds us to see a figure such as Nísia".

    The master of Apipucos
    does not avoid, however, a certain machismo, in using a loaded adjective to
    classify Nísia as a "truly masculine woman among the swooning
    mademoiselles of the middle of the nineteenth century.

    Even without her other
    works, which are little by little being rediscovered by contemporary feminist
    criticism, Nísia would have deserved to be the object of study by our
    literary history for at least one thing: a contemporary of the romantic and
    Indianist poets, she was also the precursor of a more "modern" vision
    of the problem of the indigenous population.

    As Constância Lima
    Duarte says, in the work we are examining, "the
    poem brings us not a vision of the heroic Indian and his struggle, which is
    present in most of the known Indianist texts, but rather the point of view
    of the defeated, of the vanquished Indian, aware and unaccepting of the oppression
    of his race by the white invader."

    Another important name:
    Josefina Álvares de Azevedo (1851-?), who some biographers believe
    was an illegitimate sister of the Paulista poet Manuel Antônio
    Álvares de Azevedo, and others believe was his cousin. Even her place
    of birth is uncertain—some list it as Itaboraí, state of Rio de
    Janeiro, others as Recife, in Pernambuco state.

    What is certain is that
    she was a great battler for the feminine cause, and founded the newspaper
    A Família (The Family) in São Paulo in 1888 (it moved
    to Rio de Janeiro six months later), which welcomed exclusively contributions
    from women, which continued to publish for about a decade.

    Her principal cause was
    the struggle for the right to vote for women. She left at least five books,
    and a play that was staged, titled O Voto Feminino (The Feminine Vote).
    More information about her life and work can be found in Valéria Andrade
    Souto-Maior’s master’s thesis, O Florete e a Máscara (The Foil
    and the Mask), published in 2001 by Editora Mulheres.

    The journalistic activities
    of women during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not restricted
    to the domestic or feminine sphere. For example, in the output of a woman
    born in 1855 in Jaboatão, Pernambuco state, Francisca Izidora Gonçalves
    da Rocha—who was also a teacher, lecturer, poet, writer of crônicas,
    novelist and translator—it is surprising to see the range of topics that
    she addressed in the various organs of the press in Pernambuco.

    She dealt with politics
    and current event, both in Brazil and abroad, such as the assassination of
    the Empress of Austria, or the discovery of originals of Bento Teixeira by
    Oliveira Lima. She wrote reviews of important books, such as Páginas
    de Estética (Pages on Esthetics), by João Ribeiro.

    Even without leaving the
    state of her birth, she wove commentaries that took in all of the Brazilian
    reality, denouncing the "feudalism" which the capital of the Republic
    exercised over the other states, or foreseeing, in 1910, future problems,
    such as the "excess of material activity in the struggle for industrialization,
    to the detriment of our artistic and literary culture".

    Among the Paulistas,
    we cannot forget Maria Paes de Barros (1851-1952), who at 81 years old wrote
    a História do Brasil (History of Brazil) and at 94 a treasure—No
    Tempo de Dantes—her memoirs, published in 1946 by Monteiro Lobato,
    with a preface by Caio Prado Júnior, and republished by Paz e Terra
    in 1998.

    It is an extremely well
    written work, considered to be of great historical and sociological value,
    since it depicts the ambiguity of the Brazilian society in the second half
    of the nineteenth century, divided between tradition and political liberalism.

    Angels or Demons

    Woman in Brazilian
    literature: absent or mischaracterized

    A look at Brazilian literary
    history makes evident the absence not only of women writers, but also of strong,
    authentic, well delineated female characters, until the beginnings of the
    twentieth century. During the colonial period, Brazil saw descriptive reports
    of the land, an incipient historiography of a primarily Jesuitical character,
    lyric or satiric poets, the Arcadian poetical movement—from all these
    the lasting impression is one of a "land without women", where some
    enlightened men (with a classical education coming primarily from the University
    of Coimbra) entertained each other by composing verses, sacred works, or panegyrics
    to governors.

    When she appeared, a woman
    was—like Marília de Dirceu [the object of an extensive poem by
    Tomás Antônio Gonzaga (TM)] not created as a person and reduced
    to the condition of an object of desire. An object, never a subject.

    This characteristic persisted
    throughout the entire romantic period—in the extensive gallery of female
    characters of our first novelist, Joaquim Manuel de Macedo, the most famous
    of which being Moreninha, the protagonist of the work by this name,
    what is notable is the superficiality, the necessity of romantic idealization
    in a literature made for the entertainment of the ladies of society.

    We detect the same "irreality"
    in the close to 20 novels of one of our greatest writers, José de Alencar—who
    entered history as the "writer of feminine profiles", a label he
    gave himself. He describes the mechanism of money as the moving force in life
    in the high social stratum in which he lived, gave a detailed portrait of
    the Brazil of his time, with social and historical references, taking pleasure
    in details of clothing, furniture, architecture.

    Nevertheless, his "feminine
    profiles" are always colored by a romantic idealization which verges
    on stereotype—he is a specialist in blond and pallid damsels, virtuous
    and very elegant, or when he goes to the other extreme to describe "sinners"
    (principally in Lucíola), he allows the force of prejudice to
    decharacterize them entirely as persons, and they end up as the old cliché
    of the "whore with a heart of gold", beautiful, generous, victims
    of destiny, etc.

    And yet, in the end, punished—Lucíola,
    a "fallen" woman, 19 years old, and who sacrificed her virginity
    for her family, cannot have a happy ending. When she loves and is loved by
    a youth from "good society", she is unable to attain the privileged
    status of married woman, and must die of tuberculosis—a Brazilian dame
    aux camelias.

    We know that Alencar wrote
    to please his readers—principally women, that is women from his social
    milieu who, like the television audience for the novelas of TV Globo
    in 2004, managed to interfere in the unfolding of the plot, and in the denouement,
    with their prejudices.

    He was basically, then,
    a writer of "entertainment reading", but who in the field of expression
    and of language created a true literary fiction, something which had been
    practically non-existent in Brazil up to that point.

    Senhora, his last
    novel (1875), seems at first to situate itself as a "realist" work,
    since it presents the character of Aurélia as a "different"
    woman, intelligent, revolting against the money-grubbing mentality of her
    milieu. Upon discovering that her suitor Seixas wants to marry her for financial
    reasons, she plots revenge, reducing her husband to a bought object and emptying
    her marriage of any sexual and affective relationship. Just that, unhappily,
    the novelist undoes his own work by making her repent. The happy ending guaranteed
    that the publication would sell.

    The discharacterization
    of the real woman reaches the verge of the ridiculous in an author like Bernardo
    Guimarães. In his famous novel A Escrava Isaura, in which he
    intends to denounces the stains of slavery, he whitens the character, in order
    to beautify her:

    "Her complexion is
    like the ivory of the keyboard, a white that does not shine, misted with a
    delicate nuance, so that you would not be able to say if it was a light pallor
    or a faded pink".

    In order to conclude such
    a brief look into such a rich subject, we recall the naughty American proverb
    "Good girls go to Heaven; bad girls go everywhere"—because,
    of all the heroines in the Brazilian literature of the nineteenth century,
    we are only able to remember as "real" certain "bad girls"
    of flesh and blood—some figures from O Cortiço, by Aluísio
    de Azevedo; the masculinized Luzia-Homem (Luzia-Man) (1903), of Domingos
    Olímpio; and the homicidal Dona Guidinha do Poço, still
    very little-known, since the novel, written by Manuel de Oliveira Paiva in
    1891, was only published after having been discovered by Lúcia Miguel
    Pereira, in 1951.

    Very much of flesh and
    blood, and enduring, is the mysterious bad girl of Machado de Assis, Capitu,
    with hung-over eyes—but who was born already on the brink of the twentieth
    century, in 1899. A century in which, beginning in the twenties and thirties,
    women writers finally were able, and by fits and starts, to begin to present
    themselves in literature and other fields.


    Cecília Prada is a well-known Brazilian journalist, fiction-writer
    and playwright. Her book O Caos na Sala de Jantar, (Chaos in the Dining-room),
    published in 1978, has been awarded three literary prizes. She is considered
    a stylist and several of her short stories have been published also in Italy,
    Germany, Switzerland and Sweden, in anthologies. Her career as a playwright
    began in the 60’s, in New York City, where she worked with Joe Chaikin’s
    The Open Theater. In 1964, her play Central Park Bench Number
    33, Flight 207 was staged at the Judson Poets’ Theater in New
    York. She is also a former diplomat. She is divorced, has two married sons
    and three grandchildren and lives now in São Paulo, Brazil. You can
    email her at revistapb@sescsp.org.br.

    Translated from
    the Portuguese by Tom Moore. Moore has been fascinated by the language and
    culture of Brazil since 1994. He translates from Portuguese, Spanish, French,
    Italian and German, and is also active as a musician. He is the librarian
    for music, modern languages and media at The College of New Jersey. Comments
    welcome at mooret@tcnj.edu.

    This article appeared originally
    in Portuguese, in the magazine Problemas Brasileiros— http://www.sescsp.org.br/sesc/revistas/pb

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