Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (1814–1873), a Cuban poet, playwright, and novelist, is considered one of the greatest female poets of the Western Hemisphere. A 19th-century Romantic whose passions and many loves influenced her writing, she was also an early advocate for women's rights and a critic of slavery.
Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda was born on March 23, 1814, in Puerto Príncipe, a city in central Cuba that is now known as Camagüey. Her father, Manuel Gómez de Avellaneda, was a Spanish naval officer from an aristocratic family, and her mother, Francisca de Arteaga y Betancourt, hailed from a wealthy Creole family. Benefiting, like her brother, from private tutors, Gómez de Avellaneda was unusually well educated for a girl of her time. After she showed an early interest in poetry and other literature, one of her teachers, the Cuban Romantic poet José María Heredia, encouraged her in her writing.
Gómez de Avellaneda's father died in 1823, when she was nine years old, and her mother soon remarried, to Don Isidoro de Escalada. Gómez de Avellaneda did not like her stepfather, who was also a Spanish naval officer, and it was at this point that she decided to make her own money and not be financially dependent on men. By marrying Francisca Avellaneda, Escalada took ownership of all the family's lands and the slaves who worked them. In 1836, amid concerns over possible slave uprisings, he sold these land and slaves and decided that the family should leave Cuba for Spain.
In April of 1836, 22-year-old Gómez de Avellaneda left Cuba with her brother, mother, and stepfather, albeit with mixed feelings. While she was eager to see Europe and wanted to experience life there, during her voyage across the Atlantic, she wrote the sonnet “Al partir” (“On Leaving”), expressing her sadness at saying goodbye to her homeland. “Pearl of the sea! Star of the Occident!” the poem begins (as excerpted in Hugh A. Harter's Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda). “Beautiful Cuba! Night's murky veil / Is drawn across the sky's refulgent trail, / And I succumb to sorrow's ravishment.”
After a visit to France and time spent with Escalada's family in northwestern Spain, Gómez de Avellaneda and her brother moved to Seville, in southern Spain. There, she began publishing her poems in several newspapers, using the pen name La Peregrina (“The Pilgrim”), and also hosted local writers at her home. Her first play, Leoncia, was completed at this time and would be produced, under her pen name, in 1840.
Gómez de Avellaneda was ambitious, and desired to further her reputation among literary society. To this end, she “learned to parlay her physical attractiveness, her exotic background, and an undeniable literary talent into useful connections with men of influence in the world of letters,” according to Scott in her introduction to Sab. In 1840, after receiving an inheritance from relatives on her father's side of the family, Gómez de Avellaneda moved to the Spanish capital of Madrid, where she met many of Spain's most famed literary figures.
During a gathering at the Lyceum, a cultural institution in Madrid, Spanish poet José Zorrilla agreed to read some of Gómez de Avellaneda's poems to the audience, which responded enthusiastically. Struck by her beauty and surprised by her talent, which he considered unusual in women, Zorrilla subsequently recorded his impressions of her. Gómez de Avellaneda “was a beautiful woman, very tall, with sculptured contours, well-turned arms, her head crowned with abundant chestnut curls that reached charmingly to her shoulders,” he wrote, as quoted by Scott. “The manly thoughts of those vigorous verses through which she revealed her talent showed a virile and strong dimension to the spirit enclosed in that voluptuous young phenomenon.”
In Madrid, Gómez de Avellaneda earned a living from her writing, an unusual feat for a woman at the time. She collected her first poems in 1841's Poesías líricas (“Lyrical Poems”). Influenced by the classical poet Manuel José Quintana, her work here showcased her unique romantic sensibility and her pessimistic viewpoint. Poesías líricas helped to establish Gómez de Avellaneda as a compelling voice in the Romantic literature of the 19th century. She “finds her fullest expression in those works where her temperament and emotions predominate,” wrote Harter in Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda. “The woman herself is an embodiment of romanticism,” Harter added, citing “her rebellious spirit from childhood on, her lack of conventionality and liberty of conduct…, [and] her independence and willfulness in a male-dominated social and literary world.”
Also in 1841, Gómez de Avellaneda completed her novel Sab, a love story that expressed her opposition to slavery. Sab, the protagonist and a romantic hero, is a mixed-race slave who is in love with Carlotta, a Cuban girl in a slave-holding family. While Carlotta is infatuated with a cold-hearted Englishman, Enrique Otway, Sab condemns slavery in the novel's first chapter. “It is a cruel spectacle, this scene of degraded humanity, of men turned into brutes, who carry on their brows the mark of slavery and in their soul the desperation of hell,” he tells Otway, as quoted by Harter.
Notable for its abolitionist message, Sab preceded Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, the most influential anti-slavery novel published in the United States, by over a decade. Scott, in the preface to her English translation of Sab, called it “a youthful, sometimes flawed, but always passionate work, in which a talented writer began to spread her literary wings and dared to articulate human feelings in a mulatto slave—and in a white woman—that in her native Cuba were literally unspeakable.”
Through the storyline in Sab, Gómez de Avellaneda equated marriage with slavery for women. In her second novel, Two Women, she went farther, writing with tolerance about an adulterous relationship and arguing that change is a law of nature that also applies to people's affection. She went on to write four more novels, including Guatimozín, about an Aztec emperor. First published in serial form in a Spanish newspaper in 1845, Guatimozín appeared in book form a year later and is viewed as a groundbreaking work because of its focus on indigenous people.
In the view of subsequent scholars, Gómez de Avellaneda's nonfiction writing made her the founder of modern Hispanic feminism. In 1845, for example, she published the essay “Capacidad de las mujeres para el gobierno” (“Capacity of Women for Government”), which scholars María C. Albin, Megan Corbin, and Raúl Marrero-Fente cited in Hispanic Issues On Line as “the first major manifesto of women's emancipation in the Americas and Spain.”
Gómez de Avellaneda's push for women's equality experienced a setback in 1853 when she applied to join the all-male Royal Spanish Academy. “One's sex does not deprive one of proper reward for legitimate merit,” she argued in a letter to the Academy that was quoted by Albin, Corbin, and Marrero-Fente. “If it really happens, as some academics fear, that an army of ladies comes to invade their chairs as soon as I am granted one … then the Academy and Spain ought to be congratulated for an event so without parallel or precedent in the world.” Although supporters rallied for her admission, a majority of the membership voted to uphold the Academy's ban on female members. More than just a prohibition on membership, the ban meant that Gómez de Avellaneda could not receive the financial payments that the Spanish government paid to male writers. Remembering this rejection years later, she attacked the academics in print for making their decision on the basis of gender rather than intellect.
Gómez de Avellaneda's love life, which often influenced her writing, was stormy, passionate, and often tragic. In 1844, at age 30, she began a love affair with Gabriel García Tassara, a poet and diplomat. When she became pregnant, Tassara abandoned her and refused to acknowledge that the baby, a girl named Brenhilde, was his. When the young child then became seriously ill, Gómez de Avellaneda wrote to Tassara and implored him to visit his daughter before she died, but he remained resolute in disowning the child. Brenhilde's death at nine months of age was tragic for Gómez de Avellaneda.
In 1846, Gómez de Avellaneda married Pedro Sabater, a friend who was terminally ill with cancer. After Sabater died four months later, she retired to a French convent and grieved for several months. In 1854, she broke off her 15-year correspondence with Cepeda, her first love, after learning that he was now married to another woman. The following April, despite her skepticism about matrimony, she married Colonel Domingo Verdugo at Spain's Royal Palace, with Queen Isabel II and her consort as witnesses.
Inspired by these romantic entanglements, in March of 1858, Gómez de Avellaneda debuted a new play, Los tres amors (“The Three Loves”). Opening night proved to be stormy, with hecklers disrupting the performance. (One heckler threw a live cat onstage to create further chaos.) Three weeks later, Verdugo got into a street fight with Antonio Ribera, the man reputed to have thrown the cat. Ribera stabbed Verdugo, resulting in a nearly fatal wound. Although Gómez de Avellaneda's husband survived, he never completely recovered his health.
Gómez de Avellaneda returned to Cuba in November of 1859, accompanying Verdugo, who had been named to the staff of Cuba's governor-general. By now famous in her homeland, she was honored and showered with awards during most of the five years she spent there. At an 1860 appearance in Havana, she was crowned with a wreath of gold laurel leaves.
While in Cuba, Gómez de Avellaneda continued writing novels and plays. She also founded and edited a women's magazine, the Album Cubano de lo bueno y lo bello (“The Cuban Album of the Good and the Beautiful”). In it, she promoted the emancipation of women by publishing a fourpart essay, “La mujer” (“The Woman”), focusing on women's roles in government, history, religion, and literary life.
In October of 1863, the 46-year-old Verdugo became ill with a fever and died. The following May, the widowed Gómez de Avellaneda left Cuba for the last time. She visited the United States and then returned to Spain, settling in Seville. Although she would write two more unproduced stage plays, she now focused on preparing and revising her existing novels, plays, and poems for republication.
Between 1869 and 1871, her collected writings were released in five volumes as Literary Works, although she did not include her earliest novels, Sab and Two Women. While one reason for the omission was that she had grown more conservative and religious over time, the other was that she hoped to sell Literary Works in her native Cuba. By now, both novels were banned there, Two Women because of its tolerant attitude toward adultery and Sab because it openly opposed slavery and questioned other accepted moral behavior.
At age 58, Gómez de Avellaneda died in Madrid, on February 1, 1873, of diabetes. Her work is still read and continues to be adapted into films and operas. Several modern novels feature her as a character, and she has been commemorated on postage stamps and in portraits in both Spain and Cuba.
Gómez de Avellaneda y Arteaga, Gertrudis, Sab [and] Autobiography, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Nina M. Scott, University of Texas Press, 1993.
Harter, Hugh A., Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, Twayne Publishers, 1981.
Hispanic Issues On Line, https://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/192190/hiol_18_00_albin_cobin_marrero_fente.pdf (December 13, 2017), María C. Albin, Megan Corbin, and Raúl Marrero-Fente, “Gertrudis the Great: First Abolitionist and Feminist in the Americas and Spain.”□