The temptation is strong, when reading the copious literary production by and about early modern nuns and beatas, to dismiss them with the old saw, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Closer examination, however, reveals numerous individual variations on a fairly standard repertory of themes. The Tesoro del Carmelo (Madrid, 1685), a spiritual autobiography by Isabel de Jesús (1611-1682), a Carmelite nun from Toledo, Spain, is no exception. It reproduces many of the standard motifs of the genre: youthful deliverance from sexual temptation; the dogged pursuit of sainthood in defiance of familial and other pressures to marry; frequent allusions to recurring illness; and explicit expression of the havoc wreaked by unsympathetic confessors. All the same, this text is unusual in at least two respects. Few early modern spiritual autobiographers commented so frankly and at such length on the act of writing itself. Fewer still linked the devil and nausea so directly to the precarious role of author.
The omnipresence of the devil and his minions is, of course, a prominent motif in the first-person works of major figures like St. Teresa and in the lives of lesser-known charismatics, such as Francisco Yepes, the brother of St. John of the Cross. The twist in Isabel’s narrative is the way the devil gives voice to Isabel’s anxieties about authorship. His making her (literally) sick to her stomach every time she tries to write about her spiritual experiences has little to do with the penitential refusal of food typical of “holy anorexia.” Instead, it is merely one in a “series of strategies manipulated to avoid various forms of control and domination.” Isabel’s resistance to her persecutor thus indirectly legitimates her intervention in public spheres, such as autobiographical writing, that are normally closed to women.
This is an interesting argument. One wonders, however, if it is strong enough to sustain an entire book. It is not helped by the self-contained nature of the analysis; the author’s attention centers relentlessly on the nun’s text. One result of taking Isabel at her own word is that external realities rarely intrude. Sherry Velasco says nothing of Isabel’s social background, her overall career as a nun, her confessors, or the convents in which she lived. One would surely like to know more about such matters. Another drawback is that for a host of interesting episodes, such as her interview with a local Inquisitor or the four trips she claims to have made to North Africa to visit prisoners, one has only her side of the story. A longer and more ambitious book, based on more extensive research and greater attention to context, might have offset these shortcomings.