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- Most of the stance of this article comes from Octavio Paz’s book on her. After a truly staggering amount of research, he came to certain conclusions that are controversial in some circles: namely, that she was more secular than religious; and that while she was very spiritual, her primary reason for entering the convent was to pursue knowledge. Others disagree, but given the research available, this author sides with Paz’s viewpoint. Your mileage may vary. ↩
- Her birth name was likely Juana Ramirez. “Sor” is just Spanish for “sister,” an honorific given to nuns. The titles The Tenth Muse and the Phoenix of Mexico, while occasionally applied to her in life, mostly became known from the front cover of a posthumous compilation of her work, published in 1700. ↩
- Her father is unknown. It’s presumed that he might have been a priest. She had a number of sisters (most, if not all, were half- or step-), most of whom were in terrible marriages. ↩
- She was older when she asked to go to university, but I the cute visual got at how young she was when she started pursuing knowledge – she started sneaking into lessons at age 3, and could read by 6 or 7. ↩
- She taught herself math, mythology, history, philosophy, and the sciences. She mostly relied on her grandfather’s meager library, as she was quite poor growing up. ↩
- Paz nails her age at this inquisition at 15, others think it was closer to 17 or 18. ↩
- Paz finds it unlikely that this scenario actually occurred, or that it did as described – he notes that it veers very close to the account of Christ before the learned sages at the temple. Juana’s first biographer, who knew her in life, described the event with some detail, and even quoted the Viceroy himself, but it is entirely probable this was hyperbole. Nevertheless, it’s a key component of her legend, and I’d be remiss to not include it. Plus, it’s a great story. ↩
- This Vicereine was Leonor Carreto, who loved Juana dearly – some historians even suggest that she and Juana had a lesbian affair, although Paz finds that tremendously unlikely. She brought Juana to the court, where she went to many balls and parties. ↩
- To be clear – marriage wasn’t a real option at the court. First things first, Juana did not have the money for a dowry. Even when the Viceroy apparently offered up money for one, the men at the court were largely married, and engaging in affairs (similarly to Juana’s brothers-in-law). It’s entirely probable she did have a fling or two at court, but there’s no textual evidence for it, and she is not shy about remarking how little she thought of court life. ↩
- Part of the reason for this being so unthinkable was that she was gorgeous. Contemporary accounts were shocked, saying that she was far too pretty to become a nun. ↩
- She actually joined a much harsher order – the Carmelites – for a couple months first, but found them too restrictive and left. Afterwards, she joined the Hieronymites, with whom she was to stay the rest of her life. ↩
- The red circles on their chests are supposed to have elaborate frescos on them, but I just did not have the time to draw that on every single panel. ↩
- The nuns, from her description, were pretty gossipy and would constantly be barging in and interrupting her studies. She took it in good humor, but it did irk her. It’s hinted that some of the nuns conspired against her, out of jealousy at her ability, anger at her secularism, or just plain meanness. ↩
- Estimates peg her library at between 1500 and 4000 books, a truly astonishing number for the age. Moreover, her work was internationally acclaimed on the order of only a handful of other male writers. She was incredibly prolific and her work was well beloved. She accrued a fairly substantial amount of wealth and property while in the convent. ↩
- Her work clearly states that the soul has no gender, but for clarity’s sake, I made it look like her in this piece. ↩
- Okay, so this is long bit of political intrigue. Essentially, there was a political struggle going on between two priests – Manuel Fernandez de Santa Cruz, and Francisco de Aguiar y Seijas. She was allied with Fernandez, who basically contracted her to critique a 40-year-old sermon. The sermon was by one of Aguiar’s allies, and so a critique on it would be an attack on Aguiar. ↩
- Juana’s reasoning for doing this is a bit murky, but as best I can figure, it was because Aguiar was a real shitweasel, and his rise to prominence spelled bad things for her. He hated women – thanked god he was near-sighted so he didn’t have to see them, refused to be in the same room as them, and really didn’t like her work. She presumably thought that if she could knock him down a peg and get Fernandez in a seat of power, she’d be more secure. ↩
- The form this critique took was that of an ostensibly-private letter between Juana and “Sor Filotea,” another nun. In reality, Filotea was Fernandez hiding behind a pseudonym – which he’d continue to do even as this blew up, turning his back on her. While the official word was that the letter was not supposed to have been published, it clearly was, and Juana almost certainly knew it. ↩
- Part of the reason Aguiar won this power struggle was that a famine struck the town and he positioned himself to help the townfolk faster than anyone else – and so nobody could talk against him, and everyone turned their back on poor Juana. Otherwise, with various well-positioned benefactors behind her, Juana would likely have weathered the storm. ↩
- This was the “Response to Sor Filotea,” which you can read here. It’s a barnburner of a retort. It didn’t get published until after her death, but it circulated privately enough to let everyone know that she was not repentant, and it brought down more wrath on her. ↩
- Paz suggests that she likely defended herself to the last and that her renunciation of her work was due to strong-arming. Others see it as a genuine crisis of conscience. In any event, she stopped writing, likely in part to prevent further censure. ↩
- This signoff – “I, the worst of all” – was fairly common for writers of the time. Still packs a punch. It’s also the name of a movie about her! ↩
- It’s entirely probable she didn’t actually sign in her blood, although it would not have been out of the question. She said she did, in her own words, but the style of the time was pretty hyperbolic. ↩
- They sold her books, and she likely only retained a small handful. ↩
- Shortly thereafter, Mexico was hit by a plague, and she died taking care of her fellow nuns. ↩
- The Vicereine retained much of her works, but much of her writing was scattered across Mexico by the Mexican Revolution. ↩
- This is artistic shorthand for the rediscovery of her work. The man here is Octavio Paz, the hugely-respected Mexican poet and diplomat who was one of her biggest modern-day champions. Some of her work was rediscovered at antique booksellers, although not by Paz himself, I don’t think. ↩
- Again, shorthand: she came back to prominence, with her name gracing various buildings and her face on various denominations of peso. ↩
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Good god, this was artistically complex to do. I tried to be pretty obvious about the work, but just in case:
- White represents her writing and her soul. It starts out as her discarded hair, and then twists and turns into filigree, like her writing.
- Red is the fire and determination in her — it’s the talisman at her heart, the book that refuses to get lost, the fire that forms the wings of her “phoenix” aura.
- Purple and black are worldly gossip.
- The text disappears when she stops writing, mirroring her own silence, only to fade back in at the very end.
- The post-silence events portrayed are: her signing a document with “I, the Worst of All”; her books being confiscated and sold; her dying in a plague; and finally, her becoming a nationally prominent figure due to the efforts of scholars like Octavio Paz.
- Which is not to say she was totally forgotten – she was studied regularly from her death onward, but it was not until the past century or so that her story expanded beyond the bounds of higher academia, due to efforts of figures like Paz.
- Based off her writing, many modern scholars believe that Sor Juana was romantically interested in women, which would make her one of the most prominent LGBT figures in Mexican history. It’s a hotly-debated subject, and one that can’t be settled by this lone writer. As she focused more on her studies than her sexual identity, so too does this illustrated telling. For more information, click here and here.
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Thanks to Professor Jonathan Glenn Truitt at Central Michigan University for fielding my (many) questions about Sor Juana!
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Next Time on Rejected Princesses
There’s lions in Brittany?
(as I posted about here, the next two planned entries went on hold. Their hints were “Going in circles with Ussen” and “The Apache Judith to the Comanche Holofernes.”)
Sold into sexual slavery to Hernan Cortes, this maligned woman became his interpreter, and it was with her words that the Aztec Empire fell.
Chaste and virtuous woman spends life assuming she's better than her more sex-positive neighbor, and for this haughtiness becomes in death a demonic woman who lures wayward men to their death - a stunning indigenous inversion of the Madonna/whore complex.