Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Author’s Portrait: Maria Firmina dos Reis

Already earlier this year I remarked that Brazil was a bit of a blank on my literary world map although the country is huge and counts millions of inhabitants. As a matter of fact, her literature receives little attention abroad. Maybe this is due to the fact that Brazil’s official language is the local variety of Portuguese and I noticed that translations from this language aren’t particularly present on the international book market. Despite all there are of course notable Brazilian writers apart from Paulo Coelho, contemporary as well as classic ones. There even was a nineteenth-century woman writer, moreover one with African roots, who enjoyed some renown in her time. Her name was Maria Firmina dos Reis and this portrait is dedicated to her.

Maria Firmina dos Reis was born on the island of São Luís in Maranhão, Brazil, on 11 October 1825, thus little more than two years after the country’s declaration of independence of the Kingdom of Portugal. Her parents were the Portuguese Leonor Felipe dos Reis and the African slave João Pedro Esteves. The fact that a white woman got involved with a black slave and had his child was highly unusual at the time and probably provoked quite a scandal in the community of Maranhão. Consequently marriage between her parents probably was completely out of the question and Maria grew up with the triple handicap of being a female, a mulatto and an illegitimate child.

When Maria Firmina dos Reis was five years old, she and her mother moved to Viamão in Vila de São José de Guimarães on the Brazilian mainland to join the family there. Living only with mother, grandmother, a sister and a female cousin in the house of a better-off aunt, which she seldom had reason or opportunity to leave, her childhood must have been rather isolated. As a girl she was also excluded from higher education at school. She certainly was taught the basics, but she had to rely on her own will and discipline to further her studies as an autodidact which she did remarkably well. In later years she was referred to as one of the most erudite women of Brazil.

Early in her life Maria Firmina dos Reis discovered her penchant for the letters which she shared with her cousin Sotero dos Reis who was a famous writer, grammarian and teacher. At the age of 22 she turned to teaching, one of very few professions where women were accepted at the time. In 1847 she secured a post as a teacher of primary education in Guimarães and worked in this profession until her retirement in 1881, thus for 34 years. During her last active year she founded a school for poor boys and girls which she had to close again little more than two years later because the concept of mixed schools was too much ahead of its time and protests against it wouldn’t stop.

While working as a teacher, Maria Firmina dos Reis also dedicated herself to writing which was another sufficiently accepted occupation for a woman of her time. For many years she collaborated with different local newspapers and literary journals where she regularly published poetry, chronicles and short stories, but also puzzles and charades. Seeing herself primarily as a teacher, it can be no surprise that she produced didactic-pedagogic material for schools as well. She even ventured at composing songs like Hino da libertação dos escravos (1888; Hymn of the Liberation of Slaves). Much of her prolific, but scattered œuvre has been rediscovered during the past fifty years.

The most notable fiction work of Maria Firmina dos Reis, although it too was forgotten until the early 1960s when Horácio de Almeida dug it up in Rio de Janeiro, is the romance Úrsula which appeared in 1859 under the penname Uma Maranhense (meaning “a Maranhão woman”). Undoubtedly it was one of the first novels written by a Brazilian woman. Although language, style and sentimental tone deeply root it in the tradition of European Romanticism, it also is considered today as the first abolitionist novel of Brazil (following the example of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and the works of French authors evoking the bon nègre or bon sauvage) and by some as the first Afro-Brazilian novel. In Brazil Úrsula has been reedited as a facsimile edition in 1975 and reprinted in 1988 and 2004.

Other literary works from the pen of Maria Firmina dos Reis which deserve being mentioned individually are the Indio romance Gupeva from 1861/62, a volume of lyrical as well as political poetry titled Cantos à beira-mar (1871; Songs at the Coast) and the short story A Escrava (1887; The Woman Slave). Between 1853 and 1903 the author also kept a diary which she called her Álbum and which the Brazilian writer Nascimento Morais Filho recovered in parts (apparently many manuscripts were stolen after the author’s death) and published together with some of her fiction as Maria Firmina dos Reis: fragmentos de uma vida (1975; Maria Firmina dos Reis: Fragments of a Life).

Apparently, Maria Firmina dos Reis never married, but she adopted altogether ten children calling them her filhos do coração (translated: “sons and daughters of the heart”). The ardent abolitionist lived to see the abolition of slavery in her country in 1888 as well as the proclamation of the Republic of Brazil in 1889. Reduced to poverty, blind and senile Maria Firmina dos Reis died in the city of Guimarães, Maranhão, Brazil, on 11 November 1917 at the age of 92. 

It goes without saying that almost a hundred years after the death of Maria Firmina dos Reis her entire œuvre is in the public domain, at least the original versions in Brazilian Portuguese. A few of her poems are available online at the Brazilian website Jornal de Poesia. Most other works still wait for digitisation… and translation into English since I couldn’t find any English editions of this author’s literary heritage. Maybe my post inspires somebody to make Maria Firmina dos Reis’s work accessible to non-Brazilian readers?

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  1. Hi. Just came across your blog post after extensively searching for an English translation of Ursula. Is it available anywhere? Can you help?

    1. I'm sorry, Glary, but I can't help you, either. I don't even know if "Ursula" has ever been translated into English (or any other languages as for that) in the past 160 years - lamentably few books are from Portuguese. However, I hope that you'll find a translation.


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