Josefina's Sin

A Novel

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About The Book

A thrilling and passionate debut about a sheltered landowner’s wife whose life is turned upside down when she visits the royal court in seventeenth-century Mexico.

When Josefina accepts an invitation from the Marquessa to come stay and socialize with the intellectual and cultural elite in her royal court, she is overwhelmed by the Court’s complicated world. She finds herself having to fight off aggressive advances from the Marquessa’s husband, but is ultimately unable to stay true to her marriage vows when she becomes involved in a secret affair with the local bishop that leaves her pregnant.

Amidst this drama, Josefina finds herself unexpectedly drawn to the intellectual nuns who study and write poetry at the risk of persecution by the Spanish Inquisition that is overtaking Mexico. One nun in particular, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, teaches Josefina about poetry, writing, critical thinking, the nature and consequences of love, and the threats of the Holy Office. She is Josefina’s mentor and lynchpin for her tumultuous passage from grounded wife and mother to woman of this treacherous, confusing, and ultimately physically and intellectually fulfilling world.

Excerpt

ONE

INTHESPRINGOF the year of Our Lord 1683, on the high and dusty plain of the City of Mexico, in the land of New Spain, I, Josefina María del Carmen Asturias, became Doña Josefina María del Carmen Asturias de Castillo. I knelt trembling before the Bishop, my eyes cast down in maidenly modesty, my new husband at my side. My lace mantilla covered my face, but I felt myself so conspicuously flushed that I imagined light gleaming through the lace and casting an intricate pattern on the altar cloth.

Don Manuel’s large hand covered mine. “I do take her to be my wife,” he said. The warmth of his hand traveled up my arm, reassured me.

“Yes,” I whispered when the Monsignor asked me to accept my vow. The beautiful words of the Mass were intoned, the Latin flowing over me. Though I had only, at that time, read simple psalms, and did not often write more than my Christian name, I was a quick learner of language. I knew and understood every word, including my vow to honor, cherish, and obey, keeping to him, and none other. Perhaps Don Manuel’s Latin was not as good as mine.

I had heard of romantic love through whispered poems read to me long before, but for myself, I held no such illusions of love. Marriage was the desired state for a woman, and to make a home and fill it with children was her duty and her highest goal. My father had concluded this most advantageous deal with Don Manuel. He had a nineteen-year-old daughter to marry off, one who was intelligent, serious, and, though not pretty, certainly virtuous. I had managed my father’s household since my mother had died in a late childbirth when I was fifteen, and I was capable and industrious. Manuel had land, and a need for sons. Though he could have chosen another, he and my father had reached an understanding quickly.

“Is she pure?” Don Manuel had asked. My father had not taken offense.

“Of course,” he had answered, “look at her.” He could have meant that my chastity glowed from my virgin brow. Or he could have meant that I was ugly. Given that I was already nineteen, if I had not been seduced yet, I had to be plain.

My virginity had been the deciding factor. Don Manuel’s lands were vast, and he did not want a false heir. We were married as soon as the banns had been posted.

MY HUSBAND GAVE Acharreada to celebrate our wedding. We rode from the church together, and arrived at the Coronado hacienda in the midday. I was shown to the room that would be mine forevermore. My family was given lodgings elsewhere in the hacienda, for though the distance from my home was but an hour, the fiesta would go long into the night.

My wedding dress had been my mother’s, and my two sisters had worn it as well. I had lengthened it a bit, as I was taller than they were, and slimmer as well. My curves had increased somewhat with time, but I was not lavishly gifted as my mother had been, or as my sisters were, and the alterations had taken the better part of two weeks. To cover where I had taken in the skirt, I had embroidered climbing roses in red and pink, and the vibrant colors were repeated where I had gathered the low neckline as well. The glow of my warm complexion and chestnut hair was deepened by the white blouse, and the lace mantilla now draped over my shoulders completed my ensemble.

The wedding feast was sumptuous. My husband’s home was large, and the entire front of the hacienda and the great room within had been decorated with flowers and bright cloths. There were tables set with food and drink, and there were many servants to attend to the guests. A small table in the center had been laid with plates for two, and there, side by side, he and I would sit and enjoy our first meal as man and wife. Though I had been horribly nervous before the ceremony, in terror that Don Manuel would somehow change his mind and leave me at the altar, I had no fear of my wedding night. I was a woman of the land. I was ravenous.

I sat beside my new husband and watched him eat. He cut into the soft green chile, and the filling of nuts and cream oozed out from within. He put some of the luscious cream on a tortilla, rolled it, and took a bite. Then he turned to me and offered me a taste. The bite of the chile played with the unctuous filling and the dry wrapping, and I licked my lips. He smiled at me, his green-brown eyes looking into my coffee-dark ones. I did not look away.

We went out to the back of the hacienda, where a great fence encircled a corral. There was a stable with horses, and beyond, sheds for cattle. Past the sheds lay fields for grazing, and my husband’s extensive landholdings. Our rancho at home, where I had always felt wealthy, was more modest in contrast.

Servants brought some tables from the feasting area and set them up around the corral. Men pulled riding pants over their wedding clothes; spurs were attached to boots, and horses brought out. The musicians struck up country tunes, lively and loud. More food was brought, and wine poured for the men.

My sisters and their children sat with me as the men saddled up. My father, advancing in years, smiled at me as he mounted his own horse. He would ride, but not with the young men. Other older rancheros joined him as they circled the corral.

Then I saw Manuel, my new master, ride out. He rode bareback, urging his horse all around the corral. As he passed before me he removed his hat and tossed it to me. I caught it, laughing, and placed it on my own head. Now hatless, he sped around the corral, as a bull calf, nearly grown, was released into the corral. The calf pranced and bucked wildly.

Everyone shouted and clapped as Manuel’s lasso whirled through the air once, twice, and landed squarely around the neck of the bull calf. Manuel quickly circled the calf, and, twisting his rope, brought it around the young animal, hobbling it. With another twist, he brought the calf to the ground. Cheers erupted, and Manuel, still riding with one hand, holding the lasso with the other, bowed to me.

Then he dismounted in a great jump and unbound the calf. With only the rope around the calf’s neck, Manuel led the now-docile animal back to the cattle pen.

I clapped and laughed, enjoying his skill. He was tall and strong, and his lands stretched forever.

Soon other men entered the corral. Some rode the bucking bulls, others roped steers. All were skilled and daring, but in my eyes none was more daring, more dashing than the newly wed Manuel.

Dusty and smiling, he joined me at the table, raising another glass of wine. I raised my glass as well, though after the first glass of wine, it had been filled with jamaica, the sweet-tart hibiscus water. “To my bride!” he called out. Light glinted off his silver-encrusted belt, and from his hazel-dark eyes, as he smiled down at me.

A wedding anticipates a deflowering. At the end of the feast, as the musicians shifted to the tender songs of Old Spain, the maid led me away from the party. The rest stayed to revel, but I was taken to my new room, where my belongings had already been placed. The maid, an Indian perhaps twenty years my senior named Cayetana, had been given charge of me, and she had laid out two basins of warm water and a thick towel.

“Wash yourself, señora,” Cayetana said, “all over.” I had done so before the wedding, but I complied. The water in the rinsing basin had been scented with geranium, and I liked the smell. I put on a soft white gown with flowing sleeves, and nothing underneath. I lay down on the soft blankets and Cayetana trimmed the wick on the lamp. “Are you scared?” she asked.

“No. I’m happy.”

Cayetana grinned at me. “Like an Indian,” she said, and left.

Though virginal, I was no stranger to the mating act. I had witnessed it enough on our small farm, and I knew enough from the Psalms to recognize desire. And there had been the visit from Father Alonso, when I was sixteen. He had come to console the family, give my father strength after my mother died. I had never seen a person with hair the color of fire, and at first I had trouble believing that he was a man of God, not of the Devil, but he made it his mission to disabuse me of my backward superstitions. He spent long hours praying with my father in our study, and longer hours with me. His visit had awakened in me a longing for something I couldn’t name, but I sensed, in my innocence, that it could only be filled by marriage.

Father Alonso had traveled the world. He had seen the pyramids of Egypt, and our own heathen pyramids in Teotihuacán. He had taken the waters in the land of the Teutons, and had dipped in the healing fountains outside Guadalajara. He read to me of faraway places, mythical beings, and the bloody sacrifices of our indigenous predecessors, and, most of all, he read to me of love. Though he was a priest, sworn to abjure the pleasures of the flesh, he had not recoiled from the bursting flora of the works of Calderón de la Barca, or the earthy delights of the villancicos, songs of the people, sung by slaves, Gypsies, and the Portuguese.

He was always slightly furtive in his readings. This gave both him and the poems he read an air of mystery and danger. There were powerful men within the Church who would punish anyone who strayed from the purity of Rome’s doctrine, he whispered, and our explorations had to be kept securely within our thick stone walls. Of course, it was God’s love he was talking about. I smiled at the memory. It was my one secret.

I lay in the broad bed in my new room, waiting in the golden light of the lamp until I heard the door open. I smelled him before I saw him, for I kept my eyes closed. I did not want to seem immodest. The leather of his jacket, the sweat from the long day, the aroma was as mouthwatering as the feast itself.

He stroked the side of my face and I opened my eyes. Again he smiled, and I felt any resistance melt. “I will be quick with the first time,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” I didn’t answer. That suited him, for he took off his jacket, his shirt, and his boots, and through barely open eyes I watched it all. Then he unbuckled his pants, letting the heavy silver-trimmed belt fall to the floor. That is the sound of my wedding night, and the nights thereafter. He lifted my gown. I shut my eyes tight.

After the first painful penetration I found my husband entirely to my liking: attentive, skilled, and passionate. More than the act of procreation, his attentions opened my eyes to the possible meanings of the Psalms. What words had hinted at, his hands conveyed. Under his demanding tutelage, I became as skilled and passionate as he.

Not surprisingly, our first son, Joaquín, was born ten months after our nuptials. He was, and remains, a large and healthy boy, as active and rambunctious as I could hope. His riding and roping, at a mere seven years old, presage the talents of a man, and his appetite is in keeping with his energies. Nonetheless, his birth left me unfit for connubial activity for quite some time.

The consequence, naturally, was that Don Manuel sought consolation elsewhere. This in and of itself was not disturbing to me, as I knew of my own father’s wanderings when my mother was recovering from childbed. No woman of any intelligence would ever expect a man to be faithful. A man’s needs are so great. As long as his dalliances were kept from my open eyes they did not trouble me. In some sense, I now realize, I welcomed the help, in that Joaquín’s birth not only tore me inside, but also was the occasion of my first complete love.

When I arose in the morning, it was to the sweet milky breath of my newborn son. I had placed his cradle near my bed, and so lay awake listening to him breathe until his hunger woke him. My days were filled with his gurgles and demands, and my nights, disturbed by his cries, were devoted to his care. I held him in my arms, rocking gently against my pillows, while his eager mouth clamped onto my engorged and tender nipples. The initial pain of the connection quickly merged into a rhythmic and joyful suckling. I watched my life-sustenance fill him, and I became my full self in my new role. I could look into his darkening eyes for hours. I could rock him, sing to him, dandle him without cease.

Poor Don Manuel had to take a second chair to the magnificence of his son. His own pride in his son was merely in his creation. He would grow in his love for this boy who was so much like him, but that was not until years to come. For now, Manuel accepted the tiny usurper, and his attentions were thus diverted.

Was that the beginning of his liaison with Angélica? Not in the actual sense, but rather, I think there were other ladies who were eager to warm his bed for a night, in exchange for, well, I wonder. In exchange for what?

Don Manuel, for all his tall, swarthy good looks, is no conversationalist. He is generous, of course, with both his money and his manly charms. He gave me a large allowance for my clothing, and our household did not need to be run on the last centavo. Though he was not extravagant, he expected that his lands would furnish a pleasant household, and I enjoyed fulfilling that expectation. One lovely woman who graced our table many a night, Doña Carolina, remarked that the quality of our evening meals made New Spain rival the finest that Paris or Vienna could offer.

Though I have never been to either place, I like to think that it was in part my careful management, along with my husband’s wealth, that allowed it to be so. Words could create pictures, and words could also inspire flavors, aromas, even a quality of light. When a fine dish was described, I somehow imagined the tastes, the smells, and the textures, and could translate the dream to the table. I remember a time that Doña Carolina told us of a French dish called a soufflé. “It’s a pouffed dish, dear,” she said, in that affected tone she took with me. “It seems the cheese is melted within, and the eggs grow up around it.”

I knew right away, somehow, that it would be the egg whites that made the dish light, and a bit of herb, our oregano, would bring the cheese to the fore. Manuel had favored me with his tender smile the night I served it to the two of us. “It’s a food for love,” he’d said, again covering my hand with his large brown one. The melting smoothness had proven to be as sensual as a caress, as golden as a sonnet. He had kissed me, there, at the table.

But again, Manuel could only offer his physical attributes. In conversation with men, he could talk land, horses, crops with the toughest of them. With the ladies, though, he merely smiled that unbearably irresistible smile and narrowed his eyes in concentration on their beauty. Our dinners, when we had guests at our table, gave Manuel beauties to gaze upon but filled my head with pictures and dreams that I never thought to give voice to.

Talk of foreign lands, the marvels of Seville or Salamanca, would wash over him as he gazed in rapt delight upon the speaker. Women, eager to keep his attention, would spin tales of such wonders that I would never have believed possible, but for my memories of Father Alonso. Ships on the water, crossing oceans for a month; works of sculpture in marble that almost looked alive; cathedrals with spires that touched the heavens—such fantasies they invented to amuse him. I, of course, had nothing to add to these visions, having traveled no further than my father’s hacienda, an hour’s ride. But I dreamed of them at night.

In truth, Manuel and I never talked more than a phrase or two, for me to satisfy him that all was running smoothly, or for him to answer a question that I had. But with the new challenges of wifedom, followed by the rich rewards of motherhood, I had little need for his words.

When my body was healed, he returned to my bed, adding refinements to our passions. I was happy he was back, and grateful that I did not immediately conceive again. It took a full year before I found myself with child a second time. This time my confinement was easier, and I was able to weather the birth of Ernesto Manuel with less damage to myself. My period of chastity was short, and Manuel eagerly resumed his marital duties.

It was around that time that Angélica came into my life. She did not come into Manuel’s bed then, but it was a progression that in retrospect I see was both inevitable and obvious.

It had long been the custom for cattle ranchers of high standing to be asked to stay in a hacienda where they had been conducting business. Before his death, Angélica’s husband had been a frequent visitor to Don Manuel’s, to their mutual profit. In their brief marriage, Angélica had accompanied her husband once before, and though they had stayed at a neighboring hacienda that time, she clearly had liked what she saw here. As the sales season approached, her note prettily asking for an invitation was met by Don Manuel, and hence by me, with approval.

I admired her pure northern Spanish blood, blood that gave her the golden hair and creamy skin that set my chestnut hair in shadow. I felt at a disadvantage with her somehow, even though I was entertaining her in my own home.

“Josefina, you can’t spend all your time doting on those boys. You’ve got to get out of this backwater, into the life!” Angélica said over our cups of hot chocolate one rainy afternoon. Angélica shook her pretty golden curls, and they danced on her widow’s black dress like jewelry. Her earrings glimmered in the firelight, and her eyes, auburn, if that were possible, reflected the flames wherever they burned.

I secretly thought that her wearing of diamond earrings so soon after being widowed was in terrible taste, but as she said, I was a girl of the backwater who doted on her sons, not a highborn lady of criollo nobility.

“Of course,” I mused, “it must be terrible for you. To be widowed when you are barely eighteen, with no sons to keep you company.” Two dots of red appeared on her cheeks. I am certain I regretted my words. I had not meant to gloat, only to express Christian pity. I begged her forgiveness.

Angélica’s face softened. My remorse was so genuine, the tears in my eyes a clear sign that my dart had been unintentional, that she had to forgive me.

Perhaps as penance for my cruel words, I invited her for the evening meal, knowing how much Manuel would like such a lively and charming addition to our table. This proved to be the case. She led the conversation through tales of her youth and brief marriage, her travels to Puebla, Xochimilco, and San Miguel.

“They are building a cathedral in San Miguel. The windows are as high as, well, twice the height of your ceiling,” she said, raising her golden eyes and stretching her lovely neck to look at the imaginary soaring of the arches. Manuel’s eyes followed her form, arching back, and not her glance. “The windows are outlined in lead and filled with colored glass. They show the passion of Christ in glowing colors in the sunlight.”

I closed my eyes, and for a moment I, too, could see the light coming through colored glass and painting a scene of Christ’s glory on the kneeling faithful. To see that would be a revelation.

I brought my attention back to the table, where Angélica had left the cathedral of San Miguel and was telling Manuel of her visits to the Marquesa de Condera’s Court, where she was a lady-in-waiting to the Marquesa herself.

“There was a reception held in the library,” Angélica was saying. “There were dozens in attendance, and the silks of the gowns made a fine contrast to the dusty hundreds of books lining the walls.”

I felt a swelling of desire, whether for the silks or the books, I did not know. And so it was that she issued her invitation that night at dinner.

“Come with me, Josefina, for the upcoming season. You will see things you never thought could exist!”

“Do you want to go to Court?” Manuel asked me then.

What could I say? To say no, that I wanted to stay with my darling sons, would seem ungrateful. But to see the Court, the highborn ladies, the finery, to listen to the educated talk of the priests who had seen the world, was a temptation that stirred me in the mysterious area of my soul that Manuel left untouched. To say yes would be to give in to temptation. To say no would be to lie. Like any good wife, I chose the lie.

“I need no more than your hacienda,” I said. “I would not wish to leave our sons,” I added softly, truthfully.

“Well, you would be a great success at Court,” he answered, his eyes never leaving Angélica. “There would be so much for you to learn.”

“Oh, you’ll love it!” Angélica cried. “The dresses are so beautiful, and the men, oh, well, of course you would not be interested in any of that. But there are parties, and the nuns who attend the Marquesa organize such lovely events, musical evenings, poetry readings. Surely you enjoy poetry?”

It was my turn to flush. She knew I was not widely read. I could do numbers, in my head and on paper, but my father had no literary interests, and his library had consisted of a Bible and a ledger book. My only adventures in literature had been read to me in secret by Father Alonso.

“I find the spiritual beauty of the Psalms uplifting,” I said. My mind filled with the memory of Father Alonso and I hoped not to blush.

“There is a great deal of poetry being read at the Court, and not all of it is holy!” Angélica said, with a twinkle at Manuel.

“Such distractions are unnecessary for a wife,” Manuel said, rescuing me. “She has all the wifely virtues and abilities I could desire.”

He and Angélica both laughed. I felt my face go crimson. I thought of our most recent exercise of some of those wifely abilities. How could he mention such private matters in front of our guest?

I failed to notice at the time that he had said more in that one evening than he would normally have said in a week of dinners.

THE FOLLOWING DAY WAS market day, and Cayetana and I lifted our skirts a bit to keep them out of the muddy road as we carried our baskets from the cart to the stalls. Angélica’s conversation had given me a longing for something spicy, something different to eat. I looked over the canela sticks, the cloves, the long, dark-green chiles. Spring was wonderful, and the fresh sprigs of herbs—epazote, chamomile, yerba buena—perfumed the air. Sapotes, dark and lush, were just coming into season, their sweet, fruity flesh perfect for a pudding. I put some in my basket and handed over a coin to the campesina tending the stall. She took it with a dry, wrinkled hand and smiled. Her four remaining teeth gleamed, giving her the look of a calavera sugar skull on All Souls’ Day.

We stopped while Cayetana admired the embroidery on a black shawl. “Look at this stitching,” she said to me. “How fine, how delicate.”

“You have the eye for it,” I answered. “I like its soft feel, too.”

“How much?” Cayetana asked the woman who sat cross-legged on the ground on a reed mat, embroidering her next ware.

“Two pesos,” she replied, her eyes teary from the close work.

“Not a very fair price,” Cayetana responded, letting the shawl drop back onto the mat. “Perhaps one peso, it may be worth that.”

I turned away. The shawl would easily command four or five pesos at the central market, but that was another day’s walk from here, and the embroidering woman could not afford to waste a day.

“A peso and fifty centavos,” she said, bending her head back to her work. I watched her sew. The tiny stitches were exactly the same size, precise and regular, and the colors were ethereal.

“What do you make your dyes from?” I asked. Cayetana shot me an exasperated look. Flattering the seller would keep her from lowering her price.

“Señora, I am so sorry,” she said, starting to rise. “I did not know it was for you. Forgive me.”

I shook my head no. “It is not for me, I was simply curious.” I stepped away, to let Cayetana conclude her negotiations without my interference.

I walked out from under the awnings into the warm spring sunlight. Trees were leafing, and the sun dappled the stones paving the center of the square and the benches that brought rest to weary feet. A large fountain marked the middle, with three steps leading up to a wall, reaching higher than my head, that formed the basin of the fountain. An obelisk in the center cascaded water from the top, into the stone cauldron. A man stood on the third step, leaning against the basin wall. He was holding a piece of foolscap similar, I saw, to one nailed on a tree near me. I went to the tree and read:

Who soars through air with being stricken
is a fly soon crushed in a net or prison;
and the ant raising its leg is a sign:

its doom is nigh, for an arrow will pierce him.
My songs, friend, sought to rise—
but fell to Hell like a stillborn child.


I shivered. I felt my destiny nailed to that tree, and turned away.

My path was blocked as a small crowd of people had gathered behind me, and they were pressing forward, nearing the man at the fountain. They seemed to gather force as people from the market joined them, forming a wall of humanity. I moved unwillingly with them. I was at the forefront, and soon was but five paces from the fountain and its strange occupant.

The man was not taller than most, nor was he thinner or fatter, but he looked like no one I had ever seen. His face was brown, but not like an Indian’s. It was the shade of the skin of an unpeeled almond, dull and lined. His eyes, a liquid brown, were huge, and his hair, black streaked with gray, fell in greasy ringlets past his shoulders. His beard, his most notable feature, was as long as his hair, and of the same color, but coarse and matted. His nose hooked over his full-lipped mouth. He wore a small hat, richly embroidered, and had wrapped an enormous, equally elaborate shawl around his narrow shoulders. He looked like a hawk with peacock’s plumage.

As the crowd neared, he pressed back against the fountain basin, but his eyes did not show fear. He kept his gaze steady, looking everyone over. At some internal signal of his own, he cleared his throat. “Señores and señoras,” he began, “I thank you from my heart, my beating heart, for your ears.” His Spanish was strangely flowery and bore an odd, lilting accent. I leaned forward to hear more.

“My words are just words, to bring you beauty and joy. Harken to me, and allow your souls to meld with mine, in grandeur. Some are my own words, some are of my ancestors, but they are my gift to you.

“In my lap—a doe,
and in her lap—a harp;
she plays it with her fingers,
and kills me with her heart.”


The crowd applauded. It was a beautiful image. I let the music of his voice play over me, and he began another. He was concluding, “Among the wise, however, love covers nearly all transgressions,” when a voice rang out from the back.

“Judío!”

Jew.

I turned, as the people did, to see who had shouted the epithet. “Judío!” hollered the voice, and I could see now that it came from a young man, well dressed, a stranger. He stood on one of the benches that lined the square. I looked back at the speaker. He seemed unimpressed. He cleared his throat and began again.

“She trapped me with temptation’s bread.” His voice was strong, but the crowd had begun to murmur and shift. “She held me,” he continued, but it was harder to hear.

A soft sapote splattered against the man’s breast. He clutched at his chest. Another fruit hit his shoulder. “Judío! Judío!” The crowd took up the chant. “Get the Jew!” My heart knew I should leave, but my mind urged me to stay. I wanted to hear the rest of the verse, and in some dark recess of my soul, I was in thrall to the building excitement.

I felt the people crowding in on me, pushing me toward the fountain, as the poet tried to slide around to the other side. I could not hear more than the shouting, and bodies were pushing me harder. I came to my senses, finally, and I tried to flee. I held my basket to my chest and struggled to keep my feet as we moved in a wave to the steps leading to the fountain. The basin loomed above me. I felt the stones of the basin against my hands, the basket shielding me, for the moment, from being crushed against the fountain.

When I could hold on no longer, I allowed the motion of the mob to push me sideways, in the same direction as the Jew, if such he was. I had no thought for his poetry now, but only for my safety. As I came around the side of the basin, I registered that though I was terrified, the Jew stood there, erect and proud. “Men!” he shouted. “Desist a moment! Hear my words of beauty!”

“Burn him!” the original voice said. But beside the Jew, our town priest had appeared, his long brown robe so unlike the strange and colorful garb of the poet. He held up his hand as in benediction.

“Brothers,” he said. I glanced quickly around. Indeed, I was the only woman visible in the crowd. I made myself as inconspicuous as possible. “Brothers. We are not savages. This is the New World, in a new time. We do not rush to kill a stranger in our midst. Wait, while I inquire of this man. He may be a Jew, or he may be a madman. Let us see.”

I shrank against the basin. I had never seen a Jew, though I knew of their existence. Some had come to the New World hidden in wine casks, with the explorers, and made their secret homelands in New Spain. Others had come from our trading with the Moors, in Madagascar, in Gibraltar, or so the history said. I also knew that the Inquisition, the Holy Office that kept our doctrines pure, had found them to be heretics of the worst sort, who deserved to die.

This man seemed more of a harmless poet. A man of beautiful words. Our priest, usually a simple, kindly, and unlearned man, gleamed with glory. For here, I could see, was a chance for him to show that he was more than just a town priest.

“Sir,” he said to the strange poet, “are you a Jew?”

A couple of men tittered. I held my breath, knowing that it was impossible to lie to a priest. “I am a man of the Lord,” the poet replied.

“So you say. But are you a Christian?”

“We are all descendants of David.”

“But do you believe in Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior?”

“Kill the Jew!” the shouts rang out. A sapote splattered above the poet’s head, dripping onto his face. I held my breath.

“Jesus Christ is a man of my people,” the poet replied.

I exhaled. “You see,” said the priest, “he is a person of Christ. A madman, perhaps, but not a Jew. Disperse,” he said, “go on. Go.”

I said a prayer under my breath to the sweet Virgin of Guadalupe, and I inched forward. With a trembling hand I took a cloth from my basket and handed it to the poet. He nodded, wiped his face, and handed back the cloth.

“Doña Josefina! What are you doing in this crowd?” asked the priest.

“I was at the market, and stopped in the square to rest. I was caught up in the crowd,” I added. I quelled the tremor in my voice, as my own mind marveled at my boldness.

“Well, you’d best be gone now, señora. It is safe now. And you, Jew,” he said, turning to the poet, “you had best be gone, too, before you are burned at the stake.”

The Jew bowed lightly to the priest. “You are a man of God.”

The priest shrugged. “I am who I am. Come, you will be safe walking with me to the edge of town.”

“Wait!” I cried. “Wait! Sir,” I said, not knowing how to address a Jew, “are you the writer of the poems you read?”

“No, madam,” he answered, his accent giving the words an exotic allure. “They are the words of poets of yore, of José, son of Eli, and of Moisés, son of Habib. They were learned men. They spoke truth, two hundred years ago.”

“How did you learn those words?”

“My people carried them in their hearts.”

“Señora, it is not seemly for you to be seen conversing with a Jew. And you, sir, have trod on this town’s soil too long. Come,” the priest said, motioning with his head. I realized he did not wish to touch the Jew. He had saved his life, but would not sully himself with his touch.

The Jew seemed not to mind. He bowed to me. “Señora, remember, please. Beyond the truth, our first duty is to survive.” He turned, rolled up the sheaf of papers he had in his hand, and followed the priest out of the square.

I looked for and saw the other paper, now torn, hanging from the tree. I reached up to take it. “Leave it, señora,” came Cayetana’s voice. “Do not bring such trials on our house.”

© 2011 Claudia Hagadus Long

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Josefina's Sin includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Claudia H. Long. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.



INTRODUCTION


 Josefina, a sheltered landowner’s wife living a quiet life in 17th century Mexico, receives an invitation from the Marquesa to act as a lady-in-waiting in the elite royal court. She is reluctant to leave her family, but the desire to move beyond her small sphere and expose herself to the intellectual and cultural pursuits she has always longed cannot be denied. Accompanied by the beautiful, cunning Angelica, Josefina finds herself stepping into a complicated world of political and personal rivalries and deceptive, licentious behavior.

Unexpectedly, Josefina finds kinship in the nuns who study the arts at the court, writing literature and poetry at the risk of persecution by the Spanish Inquisition. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz opens Josefina’s eyes to the evocative power of words and through them, the nature and consequences of love, and the dangerous threat of the Holy Office. Josefina begins a tumultuous journey, from a secure wife and loving mother, to a woman seeking to understand her desires and dreams, while trying to avoid the treacherous pitfalls of the court. Eventually, she triumphs, managing to find herself in the difficult, confusing, and ultimately fulfilling world.

 

TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION  
  1. The title of the novel is Josefina’s Sin. In the end, what did you feel Josefina’s sin truly was? Did you feel that what happened to her was just, or was she the victim of the sins of those around her?

  2. Josefina’s Sin has a cast of female characters who are strong and independent. However, each is motivated by her own ambitions to the point of betrayal. Do you feel these woman would have been stronger had they attempted to form real friendships—like Luz does—instead of turning on, or using each other?

  3. Think about all the different women who influence Josefina’s life. What does she learn from each of these women at various points throughout the novel?

  4. Early in the novel, there is a very powerful scene in which a Jewish poet recites a verse, the first poem that touches Josefina in a way she can’t understand. Discuss the juxtaposition of love and hate, clarity and uncertainty, art and religion, as evoked by this scene.

  5. Power, and the balance of power, play an important role in every relationship throughout the novel. Angelica’s power lies in her beauty and ability to dazzle. What do you think Josefina’s power was? Sor Juana’s? Discuss how each character, at one point or another, manipulates or abuses their power to achieve a particular end. In your opinion, do many of them succeed?

  6. How do you view the various examples of marriage, romance, and sexual relationships in this novel? Consider Josefina and Manuel, Josefina and Alonso, Juana and Alonso, the Marques and the Marquesa, and Angelica and Manuel. Based on your reading, what do you make of attitudes toward marriage during this time? What about attitudes regarding fidelity, sex, or love?

  7. What one adjective do you think best captures the character of Josefina? Were you surprised by how others in your group perceived her? What are her strengths and her weaknesses? How is your perception of Josefina altered throughout the story? How do you think she herself changed throughout the story?

  8. The novel is full of examples of blighted ambition and characters trapped by circumstance. Do you feel that unhappiness excuses the scheming behavior or betrayals of some of the more antagonistic characters (consider Angelica, the Marques, the Marquesa, Granada and Eustacia)? Or did you find them entirely unsympathetic?

  9. It might be said that Josefina’s take on religion is much simpler at the beginning of the novel than it is at the end. What did you think about the portrayals of religion versus spirituality and the relationship between passion and faith? Do you think that her exposure to the complexities of faith changed her for the better?

  10. The triangle of Juana, Alonso, and Josefina is one of the most intricate plot points of the novel. Do you believe that Alonso truly loved them both? What did you think of Juana’s final confession that, in a way, Josefina was no more than an instrument to complete the passion she and Alonso could never share? Do you feel that Josefina was unwittingly used, or did she willingly place herself in the middle of their passion?

  11. Josefina reflects “The Bishop was merely a shadow, and my love for him had been but a love for an idea of a man, not a man himself.” (394) Do you feel this realization is entirely true? Do you think it is possible to love someone for what they represent and what they have given you, without ever truly loving the actual person?

  12. Did Josefina’s decision to return to court surprise you? Why do you think she went back? Do you think it was the right choice?

  13. Josefina easily forgives Manuel’s relationship with Angelica. Do you feel she let the betrayal go too passively, or that she behaved in the only way she could, to keep her husband’s love? Do you think she would have been as forgiving had she not carried the guilt (and proof) of her own infidelity?

  14. At the end, Josefina is stunned by her realization that no one else understands Juana’s final poem except her. Do you believe that words only contain as much power as we project into them, based on our emotions and desires? Do you agree with Alonso who believes we only understand what we wish to understand, and that every poem contains a different meaning for each person who hears it?

  15. How did you react to Josefina’s vow at the conclusion of the novel: “I will read the whole poem before I leap into the stanza alive.” (p. 445) What do you think the words mean, to Josefina? What do they mean to you?

ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
  1. From cooling jamaica (hibiscus water), to soothing tamarind water, to green chiles with cream filling and buttered tortillas, the novel is filled with descriptions of food. Have everyone prepare a traditional Spanish or Mexican dish to bring to the meeting.
  2. Do some research on the real Sor Juana, and have every member present a fact or two. Are you surprised by what you learn? How does the real-life figure compare to her portrayal in the book?
  3. Compare this novel to other historical fiction depicting court life such as The Other Boleyn Girl or Captive Queen. How are they similar? How are they different? If Josefina’s Sin was made into a movie, whom would you cast?
  4. Poetry and the power of words are vital to the novel. Have each member read a favorite poem and compare interpretations. Or, discuss Sor Juana’s poems (both those in the book and others). Do you have a favorite?

A CONVERSATION WITH CLAUDIA LONG

Sor Juana was the focus of your thesis in college, and plays a very important role in the novel. What drew you to her in the first place?

The 1970’s were tumultuous years, and feminism in literature was a hot topic.  I loved Sor Juana’s Carta Atenagorica, in which she dared to challenge a Bishop and proclaim a woman’s right to study and learn.  She did this at great personal risk, and in the end she was forced to renounce her beliefs and sign her confession in her own blood.  These were powerful images in an undergraduate’s mind!

Though Juana’s words and actions greatly influence her life, this is very much Josefina’s story. What was your inspiration, not only in writing this tale, but in writing it from Josefina’s point of view?

I didn’t set out to write Sor Juana’s story, but rather the story of a woman whose life Sor Juana touched.  Like me, Josefina is drawn by the secret greatness and power of Sor Juana.  It was never clear historically why Sor Juana recanted the first time.  It was only as Josefina came to life on the page that I realized that Josefina would write Sor Juana’s first "recanting" of the Carta.  It was a way for me to be part of Sor Juana’s mystery. 

The title of the novel is such an interesting, provocative one. What does it mean to you?

Well, it was meant to catch your eye! And make you want to know what the sin is.  Then I lay it out on the first page, so you realize that there’s more to sin than the common, almost banal one of adultery.

The novel is rich in sense of place and atmosphere. Is a lot of this historical texture created through heavy research? Which characters, aside from Juana, are based on real-life figures? How did you make the determination whether or not an imagined event, dialogue, or action was authentic? Did you come across anything that surprised you while delving into the history of this time period?

Unlike many historical novelists, I am primarily a student of literature.  I get most of my historical sense of time and place from the plays and poetry of the time.  I am looking for texture and flavor, how people ate, dressed, traveled, married and mourned.  How was love expressed in a poem? Death or desire in a play?

I wasn’t looking for actual events. I even fictionalized the Marqués and the Marquesa de Condera, merging two families into one. There is no reason at all to think that the Marqués de Mancera or the Conde Paredes were as licencious as our Marqués, though if you look at a portrait of the Marqués de Mancera it isn’t hard to imagine him behaving reprehensively!

But the way the Viceroyal court functioned, the way that the Inquisition operated, were all historically researched.

You describe many of the lovely gowns worn at court in great detail. Do you have a particular interest in the fashions of the age in which Josefina lives? Was it fun writing about the details of the styles and fabrics of the time?

I’m more of a food person than a clothes person, but I looked at the art of the era for ideas about clothing.  Again, I did most of my research through the creative arts.  I looked at paintings to see how a woman dressed for a portrait if she was a landowner’s wife, or if she was a courtier.

Josefina struggles to master the art of turning her thoughts into poems in the novel. Describe your writing process. Are you also a poet? Or was Josefina’s poetry in this book your first venture?

I love poetry. I love to read it because it is the distillation of the most complex human emotions into a single, intense image.  The poet takes the enormity of the human experience and compresses it into a stanza of words bound together by energy.  The reader takes that tiny poem bundle and releases the explosion of force to re-create the multifaceted and overwhelming experience.  How great is that?!

As to writing poetry, every undergraduate writes poetry! So I have been writing poetry since the seventies, but I have never achieved that perfect intensity.  I prefer the full range of the novel.

Many authors find that their characters are extensions of themselves, in one way or another. Do you find that to be true? Which character do you identify with most? Do any of the characters in Josefina’s Sin carry a resemblance to people you know?

Every character in Josefina’s Sin has a small part of me, even the Marqués.  But they are all fictional creations.  Each owns a bit of my heart.  I did steal Angelica’s voice from a friend, because I most definitely can’t sing!

Do you plan to revisit Josefina’s world in your next novel? Or are you moving on to an entirely different time, place, and cast of characters?

In my next book we do return to Josefina’s world, twenty years later.  In 1711, Consuelo, the mayor’s daughter, is fighting for her family’s safety while the Inquisition, in its waning moments, seeks to expose her family secret. Josefina’s son Juan Carlos has grown into a very interesting young man with secrets of his own.

Who are your writing influences and what are you currently reading? Did you look to other popular historical novels such as The Other Boleyn Girl for guidance?

My absolute favorites are Arturo Perez-Reverte’s Captain Alatriste series, beginning with Purity of Blood. I read them in English and Spanish, some of them twice! I was also influenced by The Coffee Trader, by David Liss, and Lucrezia Borgia and the Mother of Poisons, by Roberta Gellis. They plunge you into the personal dramas of another world and provide you with an understanding of your own reality all at once.

About The Author

Photograph by Patrick Maus.

Claudia H. Long is a practicing attorney in Northern California. She wrote her senior thesis at Harvard University on the feminism of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and revived her passion for Sor Juana when she wrote Josefina's Sin. She is the mother of two children, and lives with her husband.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (August 9, 2011)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451610673

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Raves and Reviews

“An exotic, steamy world is brought vividly to life in Josefina's Sin. Josefina's journey from innocence to understanding of the complexities of court politics and her own heart is emotional and engaging. In life, nothing is simple and the contrary pulls of duty, love, lust, ambition and motherhood are set down boldly on the pages of this novel. Most of all, the story takes us along the path we must all tread. The getting of wisdom.” –Posie Graeme-Evans, international bestselling author of The Dressmaker

"Compelled by the life and writings of a renowned poetess doomed by the Inquisition, Josefina, a young, beautiful landowner's wife in 17th century Mexico attends the vice-royal court where she is caught up in a web of love, religion and torture. A powerful, cautionary tale told with beauty and precision, Josefina's Sin is a dazzling read." --Thomas Trebitsch Parker, O. Henry Prize winner and author of Anna Ann Annie

"Sensuous, sensual, and sensitive, Josefina's Sin speaks to the dreams, the guile & cruelty in us all. Part Molière, part Grand Guignol, inside an intricate, villainous plot--but so much more, for Claudia has grounded this tale in the real world and it speaks movingly of the passions, the treachery and anguish in the human equation." --Crosby Lewy, author of Amusings From a Life

"Josefina’s Sin is a beautifully written debut novel based on history. Set in the interesting milieu of the seventeenth century Mexican court, it follows the life of the gifted literary heroine and champion of women’s rights known to Mexico as “the Tenth Muse.” Josephina’s love affair as portrayed in the story made me think of The Thorn Birds. I found Josefina’s Sin an enlightening and wonderful read." ~ Sandra Worth, award-winning author of Pale Rose of England

"A sheltered young mother finds enlightenment and abuse at a decadent court in this superb debut set in colonial Mexico. A moving tale of women seeking to balance competing passions of the heart, body, and mind in the lavish setting of a 17th-century Mexican court." --Publishers Weekly

"Sensually spicy Josefina's Sin is a woman’s journey of personal discovery and pain that will beguile you with temptation and curiosity-truly unforgettable."--Historical Novels Review

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