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"Eighteenth-century women's lives in the archives".

Researching the life of the ilustrada Maria Lorenza de los Rios y Loyo, marquesa de Fuerte-Hijar (1761-1821), in Spanish archives with the historian Elisa Martin-Valdepenas Yague has made me aware of the importance of conducting primary research to verify biographical data about eighteenth-century women. Fitting together different facts about her life has been like working a puzzle, and I have learned that there are certain pieces that may forever remain hidden. Archival research has also shown me that different people read documents--even objective, historical records--in different ways. While historians had already studied records of the lives of Maria Lorenza de los Rios's two husbands, they did not focus on her life as a tale worth telling in its own right, and so the same records can yield different stories. "Tirando, tirando del hilo" as Elisa tells me, is how we unravel the mystery of a woman's life.

Maria Lorenza de los Rios was born into a prosperous commercial family in Cadiz in 1761 and was orphaned when she was five years old. When she was a wealthy twelve year old heiress, she married a distant cousin twenty-seven years her senior, Luis de los Rios. Her first husband's extensive unpublished correspondence with his mother, oldest brother and sister-in-law between 1769-1786, which we studied in the well-ordered Archivo Historico Provincial de Cantabria in Santander, revealed that the young bride suffered two miscarriages before the age of sixteen. Luis de los Rios died when she was twenty-five and she quickly remarried. She later joined the Junta de Damas in Madrid, purchased the title of Marques de Fuerte-Hijar for her second husband, and joined intellectual and cultural circles in Madrid (Jaffe and Martin-Valdepenas, "Sociabilidad").

The letters in the Archivo Historico Provincial de Cantabria reveal a great deal about the marquesa de Fuerte-Hijar's early marriage and what it meant to the couple, to their families, and to their relationship to society. In his weekly missives to his mother, Luis de los Rios alternately reveals and obscures his hopes and anxieties regarding his marriage to his twelve year old cousin, showing his sensitivity to its effect on his professional career, the resentment of his young bride's remaining family, his desire for an heir, and his management of her inheritance.

Archival work has proved that life and literary works are intertwined. For example, we recently discovered a possible motive for the story that forms the background of Fuerte-Hijar's play El Eugenio, most likely written around 1800-1803 (Jaffe and Martin-Valdepenas, "Gender, Translation"). A personal experience may have led Fuerte-Hijar to borrow plot elements from Beaumarchais's play EEugenie to rework in her own play. In her testament of 1812, found in the Archivo Historico de Protocolos de Madrid, the marquesa names a "niece," whose origins are mysterious, as her sole heir. In El Eugenio, the protagonist cannot marry the woman he loves because he does not know who his parents were. Finally, he discovers that his parents were married clandestinely due to family enmities, and that when he was born his maternal grandfather sent him away to be raised secretly by a servant. His mother died soon after and his father, stymied by the anger and intransigence of Eugenio's grandfather, remained ignorant of his son's whereabouts. Although the play has a happy ending, in real life the outcome was not as felicitous. Maria Lorenza de los Rios explains in her testament that her "niece" is really an illegitimate orphan who was taken to the Inclusa and later adopted by the marquesa and her husband.

Seeking to corroborate this story and perhaps to discover the identity of the child, in the Archivo Regional de la Comunidad de Madrid we recently found the record of when this orphan was taken to the Inclusa. A piece of paper had been glued over the entry record for that date in 1797. It said: "De esta nina, su entrada, salida, ni existencia, no se dara razon a persona alguna aunque sean interesados legitimos sin orden expresa de la Junta de Senoras." And under the attached piece of paper could be read a record of her date of birth. The register also records her departure from the Inclusa years later, although again with a scrap of paper pasted over the entry that denies information about the child to anyone "sin orden expresa de la Junta de Senoras." These extraordinary efforts to obscure the infant's origin were sobering evidence of the hardships faced by the desperate women who came to the Inclusa seeking help. The identity of this child is one of the last mysteries about Maria Lorenza's life that we suspect the archives might never divulge.

Working in Spanish archives has brought home to me the effacement of women in the history of the eighteenth century. It has made me realize that there is still a great deal to discover in the archives about women's lives, and that we need to uncover these stories in order to understand the role of feminism in the Spanish Enlightenment. I have learned that given the eccentricity of some archives, it helps to have a sense of humor, a great deal of patience, and infinite tact. Collaborating with a historian has been especially rewarding. And finally, I have learned to accept that some answers may simply and stubbornly remain elusive.


Jaffe, Catherine M., and Elisa Martin Valdepenas Yague. "Gender, Translation, and Eighteenth-Century Women Dramatists: Elizabeth Griffith's The School for Rakes (1769) and Maria Lorenza de los Rios y Loyo's El Eugenio (1801)." The Eighteenth-Century: Theory and Interpretation 56.1 (2015): 41-57.

--. "Sociabilidad, filantropia, y escritura: Maria Lorenza de los Rios y Loyo, Marquesa de Fuerte-Hijar (1761-1821)." Mujeres y culturas politicas en Espana, 1808-1845, ed. Ana Yetano Laguna. Barcelona: Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, 2013. 85-126.


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Author:Jaffe, Catherine
Publication:Dieciocho: Hispanic Enlightenment
Date:Sep 22, 2016
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