María de Zayas y Sotomayor (September 12, 1590–1661) wrote during Spain's Golden Age of literature. She is considered by a number of modern critics as one of the pioneers of modern literary feminism, while others consider her simply a well-accomplished baroque author. The female characters in de Zayas' stories were used as vehicles to enlighten readers about the plight of women in Spanish society, or to instruct them in proper ways to live their lives.
Born in Madrid, de Zayas was the daughter of infantry captain Fernando de Zayas y Sotomayor and María Catalina de Barrasa. So very little is known about her life that it is not even certain whether she was single or married during the time she wrote. What is known is that she was fortunate to belong to the aristocracy of Madrid, because despite earning the low salary typical of writers at the time, she lived well. In 1637, de Zayas published her first collection of novellas, Novelas Amorosas y Ejemplares (The Enchantments of Love) in Zaragoza, and ten years later, her second collection, Desengaños Amorosos (The Disenchantments of Love), was published. De Zayas also composed a play, La traicion en la Amistad, (Friendship Betrayed) as well as several poems. The author enjoyed the respect and admiration of some of the best male writers of her day. Among her many admirers were Lope de Vega, who dedicated some of his poetry to her, and Alonso de Castillo Solórzano, who named her the "Sibila de Madrid," (Sibyl of Madrid). Despite the enduring popularity of her works during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the nineteenth-century saw her works censured for their perceived vulgarity. As a result, they faded into obscurity, and would remain obscure until the late twentieth century. The exact day of her death remains a mystery. Death certificates bearing the name María de Zayas have been found in both 1661 and 1669, yet neither seems to belong to her.
De Zayas' most successful works are her Novelas Amorosas y ejemplares (Amorous and Exemplary Novels), published in 1637, and Desengaños Amorosos (Disenchantments of Love), published in 1647. They are known as the Spanish Decameron because they followed a structure used by the Italian writer Giovanni Bocaccio, which consisted of many framed novelle within one. These novellas, which were written in a complex style, were a very popular genre in all of Europe. De Zayas was strongly influenced by Miguel de Cervantes’ “Novelas ejemplares (Exemplary Novels) which were also written in the style of the Italian novella. Use of the genre allowed de Zayas the flexibility to share many stories and while developing several strong characters, and provided a great showcase for her range.
The two works feature the central character, Lisis, who has invited a group of her friends to her home to help her recover from an illness. In an attempt to lift her spirits, each of her friends narrates a story about a particular experience. Two stories are narrated per night for a total of five nights. While the first book describes violence and deception, the second one intensifies these themes. The second book is full of description which displays, without censure, the abuse of women. The female characters in both books are well developed, and their experience allows them to eloquently denounce their inferior role in society:
Why vain legislators of the world, do you tie our hands so that we cannot take vengeance? Because of your mistaken ideas about us, you render us powerless and deny us access to pen and sword. Isn’t our soul the same as a man’s soul?.... [Later the husband listens her laments and approaches Laura] moving closer to her and incesed in an infernal rage, (Diego) began to beat her with his hands, so much so that the white pearls of her teeth, bathed in the blood shed by his angry hand, quickly took on the form of red coral (tran. H. Patsy Boyer, The Enchantments of Love)
As recently as the early 1980s, scant attention was devoted to female writers of the Golden Age of Spain. Within a decade, this changed dramatically, as scholars began to turn their attention to close studies of the women writers of this era. Interest in "Gynocriticism," the study of women writers, grew considerably during the 1990s, and much of the interest focusing on de Zayas’ work, which depicted women as strong and intelligent individuals. Many of de Zayas' characters have been wronged by men, and they have embarked on a journey to regain their honour.
Emilia Pardo Bazán helped to bring Zayas' work once again to the forefront. Bazan described Zayas' stories of the aristocracy of Madrid.
In The Cultural Labyrinth of Maria de Zayas, Marina Brownlee argues that de Zayas’ novellas were greatly influenced by Baroque culture, and were represented by a series of paradoxes. Brownlee explains how de Zayas' women were themselves a paradox: the women were strong of character, but not strong enough to escape their particular negative situations. According to Brownlee, de Zayas' belief was that the source of violence was the family, which was in turn an extension of a bigger institution, the Inquisition. She also points out that de Zayas' women were atypical females who chose to fight for revenge and defy their roles toward gender, race, sexuality, and class.
Echoing Brownlee's commentaries, Lisa Vollendorf’s Reclaiming the Body: Maria de Zayas’ Early Modern Feminism argues that de Zayas used her prose to challenge the social view toward women. Vollendorf claims that de Zayas' use of vivid images were intended for this purpose. She also explores de Zayas’ strong belief in the convent as a haven for women’s independence. According to Vollendorf, de Zayas had little expectation for change to occur by itself, and she became a voice urging women to seek independence and men to educate themselves about violence.
De Zayas distinguished herself by writing about violence against women within the context of a “gender system” in Spain which was too universally accepted to change. She wrote within the confines of the Spanish Inquisition, during a time when women were closely monitored and kept from participating in any significant decision-making in the society. The paternalistic society of 17th century Spain dictated the confinement of the majority of the women to the home, the convent, or brothels, and it was fortunate for de Zayas that she was born into privilege and was able to avoid living this type of existence.
De Zayas' Desengaños amorosos became a literary milestone by presenting women as intelligent people who could present and defend arguments in the style of an "academia." The women are independent and show they don't need a male to discourse on intelligent topics, and they are more than capable of following the same practical ground rules and protocols as the men do. The general theme of the arguments is the mistreatment of women at the hands of men. This desire for female camaraderie and independence was contrary to most of the portrayals of women of the era, and was a unique way of portraying women in a world where the men of the society were looked to for guidance and leadership.
During the 20th century, the feminist literary canon in Spain was limited to one or two female writers. But de Zayas and other writers of the seventeenth century, including her fellow Spaniard Ana Caro and England's Aphra Behn, have been rediscovered by academics seeking to uncover or re-discover other first-rate works by unconventional voices.
Given the vision and excellence of her work, the public's desire to know more about the mysterious life of de Zayas is understandable. But it is this very lack of knowledge about her personal life which may prove advantageous to her legacy, because it places the reader’s attention solely on her work.