When will thy sublime maxim pierce the human hearts,

Dear Maria Firmina,

Úrsula (c.1859) is a tale of two books. On the one hand, we have a doomed love story between the eponymous heroine and a wealthy bachelor, Tancredo; on the other, running underneath the romance, we have a passionate abolitionist message, and a sharp denunciation of the oppression of women by men.

As the story opens, Tancredo has just suffered an accident, falling off his horse. An enslaved man, Tulio, finds him on the road and takes him to the house of his mistress, Luisa B. Luisa is a widow and suffers from an undisclosed illness. She is nursed by her only daughter, Úrsula, who, upon Tancredo’s arrival, takes on the added burden of attending to his care, which she does with the faithful help of Tulio, who exerts himself in tending to the stranger.

Tancredo is delirious and keeps mentioning, in a broken-hearted way, a woman named Adelaide. When he gradually gets better, the story jumps back to the time before the accident, as he tells Ursula his tragic story – a tale dotted with Adelaide’s betrayal; a violent, heartless father; a meek mother; and hints at domestic abuse.

Needless to say, the virtuous Ursula and the honourable Tancredo fall madly in love with each other, but their union is threatened by the looming presence of the girl’s nasty uncle, commander Fernando P., who, to make matters worse, may have been responsible for the death of Ursula’s father. Fernando is passionately in love with his niece, and is willing to do anything to have her.

Ursula, Tancredo, and Tulio are in great danger, and are helped by an old enslaved woman, Susana. Enraged, Fernando locks Susana in a solitary cell, with barely enough food. No even the local priest is able to make Fernando come to his senses, and his hybris will eventually destroy everything he most cherishes.

You never spare the reader from gruesome details, and your characters are always driven to extremes: people will be shot, Úrsula will be covered in blood, and will eventually go mad. No one will be redeemed.

From a formal point of view, there are no great surprises: the plot is peppered with bold coincidences, the main characters are moved by extreme emotions and show no great psychological complexity. However, the book grows inside us, once we notice that the romance story you are telling in its surface actually works as a bait for the ideas that form the novel’s potent undercurrent.

The enslaved characters’ subplots are the novel’s highlight – particularly if we consider that slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, about 30 years after this ground-breaking book was written by a ground-breaking black woman.

In the first chapter and throughout the novel, you give voice to Túlio, who vents his heartfelt protest against slavery – its injustice, its unchristian nature, its violence: “Dear Lord! When will Thy sublime maxim pierce the human hearts – ‘thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ – and make them cease to oppress their fellow men with such disgraceful injustice! (…) And the poor man suffered; because he was a slave, and slavery had not stultified his soul; because the generous feelings, which God implanted in his heart, had remained intact, and as pure as his soul.” (My translation. Original: “Senhor Deus! Quando calará no peito do homem a tua sublime máxima – ama a teu próximo como a ti mesmo – e deixará de oprimir com tão repreensível injustiça ao seu semelhante! (…) E o mísero sofria; porque era escravo, e a escravidão não lhe embrutecera a alma; porque os sentimentos generosos, que Deus lhe implantou no coração, permaneciam intactos, e puros como sua alma.”)

In the character of old Antero, on the other hand, you explore the figure of the enslaved man who sides with his own oppressors. When Tulio is captured and locked up, Antero is the one who watches over him – and thereby enforces the white man’s rule. Never reconciled with his contemptible role, Antero loses himself in drinking as his sole means of escape.

Particularly in chapter IX – ‘A negra Susana’ (‘Susana, the black woman’), the collective tragedy of slavery takes centre stage in the book. Here you give unmediated voice to the old enslaved woman, as she tells us her heart-wrenching story: her happy life in her native village in Africa, as a free woman; then, her brutal capture by barbaric white men; and, finally, her appalling journey on a boat across the Atlantic. “In this grave, we spent thirty days of cruel torment and an absolute lack of everything necessary for life, until we approached the Brazilian coast. To fit in the hull as human cargo, we were tied upright, so that there would be no fear of revolt, and chained like ferocious animals taken away from our forest for the pleasure of Europe’s potentates”. (My translation. Original: “Trinta dias de cruéis tormentos, e de falta absoluta de tudo quanto é necessário à vida passamos nessa sepultura até que abordamos as praias brasileiras. Para caber a mercadoria humana no porão fomos amarrados em pé para que não houvesse receio de revolta, acorrentados como animais ferozes das nossas matas que se levam para recreio dos potentados da Europa.”)

It is interesting to notice that Susana’s account is positioned shortly after Tulio’s manumission, in a way that throws a critical light into a situation where one’s freedom has to be bought or conceded by others. It reads as if Susana were explaining to Tulio what freedom really is or should be: “’You! Free? Ah, do not be deceived!’, exclaimed the old African woman, opening her large eyes. (…) ‘Freedom… I enjoyed freedom in my youth!’, Suzana continued bitterly. ‘Túlio, my son, nobody enjoyed it more widely, there was no woman more blissful, than me’”. (My translation. Original: “Tu! tu livre? Ah não me iludas! – exclamou a velha africana abrindo uns grandes olhos. (…) Liberdade… eu gozei em minha mocidade! – continuou Suzana com amargura. Túlio, meu filho, ninguém a gozou mais ampla, não houve mulher alguma mais ditosa do que eu.”)

Susana’s voice, flowing gradually from a personal I to a collective We, is the book’s beating heart – a strong sea current, emerging from the margins of the story, transforming it into something else entirely, and carrying it forth to the other side.

Yours truly,

J.


Portrait of a Lady in a Red Dress, by Gabriël Metsu, c.1660

About the book

  • Penguin – Companhia das Letras, 2018, 224 p. Goodreads
  • Original: c. 1859. Recent research suggests that, while 1859 is the year printed on the title page of the book, the novel was actually reviewed as early as in 1857; and it started to circulate in 1860.
  • My rating: 4 stars
  • Projects: A Century of Books; #DiverseDecember, hosted by Naomi

2 thoughts on “When will thy sublime maxim pierce the human hearts,

  1. Hello Juliana,
    you are doing such a fantastic job drawing attention to these forgotten women writers from Latin America and translating important passages for us! It´s such a shame that there are hardly any translations available into English or German. I read and speak some Italian, but no Spanish or Portuguese.
    I like the statue of Maria Firmina dos Reis. Do you know anything more about it? She looks pensive and turned inward – an apt gesture for a writer – whilst also being tastfully feminine. What a contrast to the monstrous statue of Mary Wollstonecraft!
    Best wishes from Cologne
    Andrea

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Andrea! The statue was made by Flory Gama, based on a description of Firmina dos Reis that can be found in the biography “Maria Firmina – Fragmentos de uma vida” (1975), by José Nascimento Morais Filho.
      Ursula will be published by Tagus Press, translated by Cristina Ferreira Pinto Bailey and edited by Peggy Sharpe. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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