The work of nineteenth-century women writers in Latin America has been a long neglected subject, and Adriana Méndez Rodenas’s Gender and Nationalism in Colonial Cuba: The Travels of Santa Cruzy Montalvo, Condesa de Merlin makes a significant contribution to this steadily growing field. This book, a study of the life and work of María de las Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo, known as the Condesa de Merlin, combines literary criticism and literary history with the goal of making a place for this largely overlooked and complex figure in the Latin American literary canon. The biographical details of her life illustrate Merlin’s status as a colonial “hybrid” and hence elucidate her unique authorial position, which Méndez Rodenas correctly asserts as imperative to understandings of her written work. Merlin, born in Cuba in 1789, emigrated to Spain with her family when she was 13 years old. The expulsion of the French from Spain in 1812 forced Merlin and her husband, a French count, to move to Paris, where she established a prominent literary salon. Following the death of her husband in 1839, which left her in precarious financial circumstances, she returned to Cuba, seeking to secure an inheritance from her father, who was a member of the Cuban sugar aristocracy. After mounting an unsuccessful legal battle against her brother over ownership of a sugar mill, Merlin pursued other means of earning money by publishing in French the three-volume La Havane and an abbreviated Spanish translation entitled Viaje a la Habana, which are the primary texts considered in Méndez Rodenas’s study.

Méndez Rodenas examines Merlin’s return to Cuba in the 1840’s and the critical reception of her writings in Havana’s literary circles. This book is of interest to historians as it focuses on an important and understudied facet of Havana’s history, the emergence of a creole literary movement in the 1830s and 1840s, which was organized around abolitionist and anticolonial politics. As Méndez Rodenas demonstrates, Merlin’s controversial and often contradictory status provides an interesting lens through which to view the complexity of political and economic allegiances among the creole oligarchy and their peninsular counterparts. Méndez Rodenas’s analytic strategies, informed by feminist historians such as Joan Scott and the postcolonial theories of Homi Bhabha, are premised on the centrality of Merlin’s ambivalent status as a woman and a colonial hybrid. Citing Scott, Méndez Rodenas characterizes her methodology as one that “emphasizes an exclusive focus on female agency and the causal role of women in history” (p. 8). Hence, while claiming to embrace a feminist position that accounts for “both nature and culture,” Méndez Rodenas’s employment of essentialized categories at times detracts from constructivist readings of the material. A notable example occurs in chapter 6, which examines Merlin’s controversial position on the illegal slave trade. Here Méndez Rodenas’s interpretation is premised on the idea that Merlin, by refusing either extreme in this polarized debate, assumed instead an ambivalent stance, which is a “byproduct of Merlin consciously adopting a feminine position of mediation between metropolis and colony” (p. 146). The assertion of gender as the primary analytic category in this instance is exemplary of the methodological strategy guiding the book, which attenuates the potential for more ambivalent understandings of this truly hybrid figure.