Fame and glory, insatiable libertines,

Dear Délia,

I spent the past couple of weeks immersed in three of your recently rediscovered novels: Aurélia (1883), Lésbia (1890), and Celeste (1893). In all of them, your main topic is women: their lack of freedom, their lack of access to a proper education, their lack of financial autonomy. Your protagonists are bookish women who long for a mind of their own as much as they long for a room of their own. All three novels, in a way or another, centre on your heroines’ attempts to overcome the professional and even sexual limitations imposed on them by their society.


Aurélia (1883)

Aurélia, your third novel, was first published in 1883. When the story opens, Aurélia’s mother, Luiza, is on her deathbed. Luiza summons her husband and asks him to remain always on their daughter’s side, no matter what. Luiza also asks Aurélia to care for the education of Raul, the girl’s two-year-old brother. Desperate, Aurélia asks her mother for forgiveness. Thrown out of nowhere in this scene, we don’t know why she is asking for forgiveness, nor why Luiza is dying.

The narrative then takes a leap back in time, and we follow what happened until that moment and what, ultimately, led to Luiza’s death. We will discover that Luiza and her husband Joaquim, a lawyer, were an affectionate hard-working couple. Although they were not rich, they devoted themselves to the education of their daughter, Aurélia. At fifteen, the girl debuted in society, was courted by many suitors, but ended up falling in love with the wrong man, Gustavo Alvim.

Aurélia, a naive girl, completely ignorant about the facts of life, lets herself be seduced by Gustavo, and eventually gets pregnant. When she opens up to him about it, during a ball, Gustavo treats her with the utmost contempt, and refuses to marry her (mainly because she is not rich).

Aurélia then seeks help from her mother, and confesses to Luiza that she is pregnant and has been abandoned by the child’s father. Luiza offers her two options: either they ask Joaquim to force Gustavo to marry her; or they lie to Joaquim, and tell that Luiza is the mother of her grandson.

Even though she is still in love with Gustavo, Aurélia is determined not to marry him, despite the social marginalization this decision will most certainly bring her. We have here, then, the main ingredients of a fast-paced romantic drama, which also includes, among other picturesque elements: a jealous and slanderous character; two friends in love with the same man; a character who decides to separate from her husband while living at the same house but without physical contact; an incestuous love story; and even a courtesan who tries to seduce the good guy in the story.

The highlight of the novel, for me, is the fact that it is narrated in a fragmented, non-linear way: we start with Luiza’s death, then we take a leap into the past; later, we return to the moment after Luiza’s death; and finally we take another leap, this time into the future. Another highlight is the fact that the plot never really takes us exactly where we expect it will lead.

There is also a certain parallelism between Aurélia (1883) and a more well-known Brazilian novel of the same period, Senhora (1875), by José de Alencar: both heroines are called Aurélia, and both are relatively poor girls who fall prey of ambitious men – but there is a fundamental difference in the way the two protagonists decide to deal with their situation and the way the story will then unfold. While Alencar focuses on revenge, Bormann focuses on moral contempt and, eventually, redemption.

Another interesting aspect of the book is the sharp light you throw on the way marriage was treated as a business at the time, as well as the way you represent the tension between moral duty and social prejudice, and the way women of the time tried to negotiate that tension. And, finally, I liked the way you point to the complicity between women (be it between mother and daughter, or between two friends) as a means of overcoming the limitations to which women were socially subjected at the time.

About the book
  • Editora Mulheres, 2014, 176 p. Goodreads
  • My rating: 3 stars

*

Lésbia (1890)

Lésbia, your fifth novel, was published in 1890. The book charts the coming of age of a female writer, and her struggle for recognition, financial independence, emotional and erotic fulfillment.  Lesbia is the pseudonym that the protagonist of the novel will adopt as a writer – and it is a reference to the literary pseudonym used by Catullus to refer to his lover Clodia in his poems.

The novel takes place in Rio de Janeiro at the end of the 19th century, and we follow the protagonist Arabela, also called Bela. The only daughter of a middle-class couple, Bela made her debut in society shortly after graduating from high school, at the age of fifteen. A beautiful and intelligent young woman, she had plenty of suitors, but ended up falling in love with a man of dubious character.

Against her parents’ wishes, she decided to marry him. A few days after the wedding, however, she already starts to regret her decision: “She had started to hate this house, where she had entered full of excitement, crowned with orange blossoms: at this house, her illusions had been forever lost, leaving her wounded and annihilated; at this house, where everything reminded her of the collapse of her life ”.

She discovers that her husband is a jealous and rude man – and, worse still, a man who is constantly abusing her psychologically, ridiculing her in public with the utmost scorn. He simply cannot admit that his wife is intellectually superior to him. Initially, Bela takes refuge in books, feeling trapped by her marriage as if it were a fateful destiny, while at the same time having to play to society the role of a happy wife.

One day, however, she finds out that her husband had spread gossip and odious rumours against her. That is the last straw: “Until today, I have supported everything, stupidly, due to vain prejudice; but, since they have had the indignity to accuse me – it is over, my sacrifice was useless! (…) You all should know that I am a disgraced woman, and that, from now on, I don’t want to be disgraced anymore!

Bela kicks her husband out of the house, breaks up the relationship, and, even though divorce is not allowed by the Brazilian law at the time, she begins to live openly as a woman separated from her husband. After the separation, Bela starts to attend parties and balls, without caring much about what society thinks of her behaviour. She ends up falling in love with another man of dubious character. The man is a law graduate named Sérgio de Abreu, who has a special penchant for winning the love of innocent maidens only to abandon them later. Bela starts an intense love affair with him, but soon discovers that he is unfaithful to her.

Having suffered yet another blow, she decides never to fall in love again, and begins instead to write about her experiences. Through reading and writing, she not only recovers from her blow, but also manages to publish her first novel in a periodical, under the pseudonym Lesbia.

From then on, she never stops writing, and her novels become a success. However, as a woman who dares to write and publish, Lesbia becomes an easy target for prejudice and gossip: one by one, she loses all her illusions about people and society. She feels “she has the women themselves against her, driven by envy, jealousy or any kind of petty meanness; then, she also has all men against her, bitten by spite and indignant at the violation of their soi-disant right of supremacy, created for their exclusive benefit.

Bela answers to such criticisms against her and her books by saying that “spoiled palates reject the finest delicacies.” Any criticism against women who live by their pen is, according to her, “the opinion of some resistant heads which are incapable of vertigo“. When Bela’s husband dies, she sees herself free once again to remarry. By a stroke of luck, she also acquires a huge amount of money, which provides her with the financial independence necessary to be able to choose not to get married.

With the money, she buys a large house for herself and her parents, in which she finally is able to have her own office – a room of her own. However, some opportunists soon start to knock at her door – the so-called dowry hunters. In one comic scene, a “baron-viscount” proposes marriage to her by saying that, if she accepted to get married to him, she, “who already had intelligence, grace and beauty, would be crowned with the only thing she lacked – a title of nobility“. This scene should go down in history as one of the worst marriage proposals in literature…

Lesbian bursts out laughing and promptly mocks the marriage proposal: “For me, there is only one form of nobility – that of personal talent, and it is so strong, so alien to social change, so subjective, that it doesn’t have to fear revolutions, nor confiscation of property, neither ancestry nor posterity! […] The man I married, as long as he didn’t have a wit like mine, would only be known as Lesbia’s husband – which is a prerogative that will not be granted by me to anyone.”

Lesbia and Her Sparrow (Catullus 2), by Sir Edward John Poynter, 1907

Bela ends up meeting a man of value, a poet, erudite and modest, and of unblemished character, a man of sense and sensibility. The two immediately feel a deep intellectual affinity, and become partners in life – but they never marry. “And, little by little, the love she felt for him became one of those powerful affections, covered with gratitude, with the strength of habit and of real esteem; one of those affections that seem to resist time, intimacy and all human vicissitudes”. Lesbia starts to call him her Catullus: “I will be your Lesbia and you will be my Catullus! […] We will work together, we will complete each other, and the gods will envy us!

The two travel to Europe together and spend many years there. Shortly after returning to Rio de Janeiro, however, Lesbia falls in love with a boy twenty years her junior. She is then torn between her need for intellectual affinity and her longing for passion, between duty and will, and between knowledge and desire. Lesbia is torn by a conflict between opposites forces, and goes so far as to say that she is a divided woman: “one is the writer, the other the woman: in me these two entities are almost always in opposition.”

As in Aurélia (1883), this novel is also full of romantic drama, but it seems more bitter and disillusioned, even a little angry at times. The contemporary reader may find some difficulty with the fact that the text is full of quotations from various French and German authors, and with the fact that your writing style is peppered with adjectives and adverbs, twists of phrase, and a vocabulary that is not used anymore in Brazil. To make matters more difficult to the contemporary reader, your protagonist, Lesbia, is not the typical sweet good-mannered girl. Quite the opposite: she is bitter, angry, haughty, and arrogant. She doesn’t care a straw whether the reader will empathize with her.

What I liked most about the book was the way (angry and full of contempt) you approached the difficulties faced by women who decided to be writers in Brazil at that time – in particular, the intolerance against intellectual women, who were treated as anomalies or morally inferior people. You also criticized the Brazilian tendency to consider of lower quality its national writers – and to accept women writers only when they were foreigners. Other topics addressed by you are suicide, betrayal, mature love, marriage as a power relationship between genders, and the importance that women’s financial independence not be mediated by a male figure.

“Fame and glory, insatiable libertines, pet others as you have petted me! ” – Maria Benedita Bormann, Lesbia (1890)

About the book
  • Editora Mulheres, 1998, 263 p. Goodreads
  • My rating: 3 stars

*

Celeste (1893)

Celeste, your seventh novel, was published in 1893. The novel also employs the same non-linear narrative technique that you had employed in Aurélia (1883). When the story opens, the protagonist Celeste is in her bedroom with her husband Artur. They have been married for about four years now, and the marriage seems to be going down the drain. We soon discover that Arthur is a very jealous man:  in this initial scene, in the couple’s bedroom, he is blind with anger, thinking that Celeste is betraying him.

The discussion escalates to increasingly violent levels, and Arthur threatens to hit Celeste. This is the last straw for the protagonist: she is tired of her husband’s constant distrust, and finally decides to ask for a separation. Celeste goes back to her mother’s house, and the story then takes a leap into the past, to describe her life up to that moment.

We follow her from the time she was a child until her marriage to Arthur. And we find out that the relationship between Celeste’s parents is also marked by domestic abuse: Celeste’s mother, Cândida Reis, is physically and psychologically abused by her husband, Venâncio de Lima. Since very young, Celeste has witnessed these scenes of violence. Venâncio, for his part, had also become accustomed to seeing his own father mistreating his mother: a “poor creature, of narrow reach, a conscious and resigned victim, whose passivity led the son to see women as secondary beings destined to be the plaything either of the desire or of the wrath of men, the kings of creation”.

Despite all her suffering, Cândida refuses to face the hash judgment of society, which would ensue if she separated from her husband. She remains in this relationship, as in a marriage of appearances, submits to her husband’s daily aggression, and later starts to have an extramarital affair. To make matters worse, Cândida begins to be violent against her servant, Bá, who had been Celeste’s wet nurse.

Celeste grows up in this deeply toxic environment, and we follow her through adolescence, as she becomes the best student in her class, has a crush on a boy, suffers from unrequited love, and makes her debut in society. At sixteen, Celeste meets Artur Medeiros, at a ball, and the two fall in love. At this ball, however, we can already notice that Arthur suffers from a morbid form of jealousy: while he watches Celeste as she dances with other boys, he immediately starts to feel deeply uncomfortable and to think that their moves are too lustful and shouldn’t be allowed…

Celeste’s family is against their relationship, but she doesn’t listen to them, and continues to meet Arthur and exchange vows of everlasting love. Already during their courtship, Arthur’s paranoical jealousy begins to have harmful effects on Celeste: she stops dancing at parties, for fear that he would be disappointed with her; and she starts fantasizing about suicide. “She was afraid to speak, to smile, and felt the searching look of Arthur constantly weighing on her“.

The two get married shortly afterwards and you give us a detailed description of the wedding night: in which Celeste, completely ignorant of the so-called facts of life, has no clear idea of what to expect of her first night in bed with her husband. She ends inevitably disappointed by the fact that the wedding night is somewhat different from what she had read in the romantic novels of her youth. “She had dreamed for years about the delights of love; she had divinized them in the daydreams of her youth. She had made the dream come true… and then she had only had a distressing nightmare, which brutally materialized all the illusions of her romantic imagination”. Here you are at pains to make clear to your reader that girls should not be kept in ignorance about sex.

The honeymoon plays out as a martyrdom for Celeste, inspiring in her a deep compassion for all married women. After three days of failed honeymoon, Arthur returns to work and, after leaving home, leaves a book for his wife to read: “Physiology of Marriage” (1850), by Auguste Debay, a book that used to be given to married women so that they could finally learn about sex. That same book is mentioned in another Brazilian novel of the same period, A normalista (1893), by Adolfo Caminha, in a scene where a girl only discovers that she is pregnant after reading Debay’s book.

Your novel then takes a leap of some years into the future, when Celeste’s marriage has already been completely poisoned by Arthur’s jealousy. At first, she tries to resign herself, like her mother had done, and live a marriage of appearances, so as not to be negatively judged by society. Celeste abandons all forms of social life and seeks refuge in reading. She doesn’t love Artur anymore, but she longs for more: “Sometimes, late at night, alone, in her large bed, she wept with rage, feeling overwhelmed by crazy desires and pursued by the image of some random man; she resisted and fought against it, afraid of the downfall and its fatal consequences […]. Damn my flesh, damn my temper!” The whole situation gets worse and worse, until we return to the novel’s opening scene, in which the marriage will finally break down.

We then jump to the period after the separation, in which Celeste starts to attend dances and soirées again. She also begins to collect men, “changing lovers as she changed clothes”, and to have an increasingly conflicted relationship with her mother – who, at one scene, thinks of Celeste: “There goes Jezebel for some orgy!… She cannot be amended, because she is the faithful copy of her father! ‘And of her mother!’, her conscience quietly tells her, irritating her even more.” The situation reaches its limit when Cândida sees her daughter in the company of a much younger man.

The book deals very crudely with domestic abuse and the hypocrisy behind the institution of marriage as understood and regulated at that time in Brazil. The highlight of the novel, for me, is the way Celeste tries to act openly about the difficulties she encounters in her marriage, and the way she chooses freedom even at the price of social humiliation. Another highlight is the direct way in which the book addresses female desire and sexuality, and the way you approached the condition of a woman who decided to separate from her husband at the time: in particular, your sharp criticisms against the duplicity of moral standards applied to men and women when it came to sex.

Above all, what I want is never to depend on the miserable me who enjoy my company. It is a foolish pride, perhaps, but an ingrained one: it would cost me as much as a humiliation to owe some favour to people who have been , for the most part, so vile and despicable!” Maria Benedita Bormann, Celeste (1893)

About the book
  • Presença, 1988, 176 p. Goodreads
  • My rating: 3 stars

Your novels read as a strange mix of George Sand romantic nonsense and twentieth-century pulp, with a sprinkle of angry social commentary here and there. They are odd, and improper, and all-up-in-your-face. And, even when I write this, they make me smile.

Yours truly,

J.


Charles Courtney Curran. The Goldfish, 1911

 

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