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4. "The Spanish Nun."1- There are some narratives, which, though pure fictions from first to last, counterfeit so vividly the air of grave realities, that, if deliberately offered for such, they would for a time impose upon everybody. In the opposite scale there are other narratives, which, whilst rigorously true, move amongst characters and scenes so remote from our ordinary experience, and through a state of society so favorable to an adventurous cast of incidents, that they would everywhere pass for romances, if severed from the documents which attest their fidelity to facts. In the former class stand the admirable novels of De Foe; and, on a lower range, within the same category, the inimitable "Vicar of Wakefield; " upon which last novel, without at all designing it, I once became the author of the following instructive experiment. I had given a copy of this little novel to a beautiful girl of seventeen, the daughter of a statesman in Westmoreland, not designing any deception (nor so much as any concealment) with respect to the fictitious character of the incidents and of the actors in that famous tale. Mere accident it was that had intercepted those explanations as to the extent of fiction in these points which in this case it would have been so natural to make. Indeed, considering the exquisite verisimilitude of the work meeting with such absolute inexperience in the reader, it was almost a duty to have made them. This duty, however, something had caused me to forget; and when next I saw the young mountaineer, I forgot that I had forgotten it. Consequently, at first I was perplexed by the unfaltering gravity with which my fair young friend spoke of Dr. Primrose, of Sophia and her sister, of Squire Thornhill, &c., as real and probably living personages, who could sue and be sued. It appeared that this artless young rustic, who had never heard of novels and romances as a bare possibility amongst all the shameless devices of London swindlers, had read with religious fidelity every word of this tale, so thoroughly life-like, surrendering her perfect faith and her loving sympathy to the different persons in the tale, and the natural distresses in which they are involved, without suspecting, for a moment, that by so much as a breathing of exaggeration or of embellishment the pure gospel truth of the narrative could have been sullied. She listened, in a kind of breathless stupor, to my frank explanation that not part only, but the whole, of this natural tale was a pure invention. Scorn and indignation flashed from her eyes. She regarded herself
1 Published in "Narrative and Miscellaneous Essays."
as one who had been hoaxed and swindled; begged me to take back the book; and never again, to the end of her life, could endure to look into the book, or to be reminded of that criminal imposture which Dr. Oliver Goldsmith had practised upon her youthful credulity.
In that case, a book altogether fabulous, and not meaning to offer itself for anything else, had been read as genuine history. Here, on the other hand, the adventures of the Spanish Nun, which in every detail of time and place have since been sifted and authenticated, stood a good chance at one period of being classed as the most lawless of romances. It is, indeed, undeniable, and this arises as a natural result from the bold, adventurous character of the heroine, and from the unsettled state of society at that period in Spanish America, that a reader the most credulous would at times be startled with doubts upon what seems so unvarying a tenor of danger and lawless violence. But, on the other hand, it is also undeniable that a reader the most obstinately sceptical would be equally startled in the very opposite direction, on remarking that the incidents are far from being such as a romance-writer would have been likely to invent; since, if striking, tragic, and even appalling, they are at times repulsive. And it seems evident that, once putting himself to the cost of a wholesale fiction, the writer would have used his privilege more freely for his own advantage. Whereas the author of these memoirs clearly writes under the coërcion and restraint of a notorious reality, that would not suffer him to ignore or to modify the leading facts. Then, as to the objection that few people or none have an experience presenting such uniformity of perilous adventure, a little closer attention shows that the experience in this case is not uniform; and so far otherwise, that a period of several years in Kate's South American life is confessedly suppressed; and on no other ground whatever than that this long parenthesis is not adventurous, not essentially differing from the monotonous character of ordinary Spanish life.
Suppose the case, therefore, that Kate's memoirs had been thrown upon the world with no vouchers for their authenticity beyond such internal presumptions as would have occurred to thoughtful readers, when reviewing the entire succession of incidents, I am of opinion that the person best qualified by legal experience to judge of evidence would finally have pronounced a favorable award; since it is easy to understand that in a world so vast as the Peru, the Mexico, the Chili, of Spaniards during the first quarter of the seventeenth century, and
under the slender modification of Indian manners as yet effected by the Papal Christianization of these countries, and in the neighborhood of a river-system so awful, of a mountain-system so unheardof in Europe, there would probably, by blind, unconscious sympathy, grow up a tendency to lawless and gigantesque ideals of adventurous life; under which, united with the duelling code of Europe, many things would become trivial and commonplace experiences that to us home-bred English (“ qui musas colimus severiores") seem monstrous and revolting.
Left, therefore, to itself, my belief is, that the story of the Military Nun would have prevailed finally against the demurs of the sceptics. However, in the mean time, all such demurs were suddenly and officially silenced forever. Soon after the publication of Kate's memoirs, in what you may call an early stage of her literary career, though two centuries after her personal career had closed, a regular controversy arose upon the degree of credit due to these extraordinary confessions (such they may be called) of the poor conscience-haunted nun. Whether these in Kate's original MS. were entitled "Autobiographic Sketches," or "Selections Grave and Gay," from the military experiences of a Nun, or possibly "The Confessions of a Biscayan Fire-Eater," is more than I know. No matter confessions they were; and confessions that, when at length published, were absolutely mobbed and hustled by a gang of misbelieving (that is, miscreant) critics. And this fact is most remarkable, that the person who originally headed the incredulous party, namely, Senor de Ferrer, a learned Castilian, was the very same who finally authenticated, by documentary evidence, the extraordinary narrative in those parts which had most of all invited scepticism. The progress of the dispute threw the decision at length upon the archives of the Spanish Marine. Those for the southern ports of Spain had been transferred, I believe, from Cadiz and St. Lucar to Seville; chiefly, perhaps, through the confusions incident to the two French invasions of Spain in our own day [1st, that under Napoleon; 2dly, that under the Duc d'Angoulême]. Amongst these archives, subsequently amongst those of Cuzco, in South America; 3dly, amongst the records of some royal courts in Madrid; 4thly, by collateral proof from the Papal Chancery; 5thly, from Barcelona - have been drawn together ample attestations of all the incidents recorded by Kate. The elopement from St. Sebastian's, the doubling of Cape Horn, the shipwreck on the coast of Peru, the rescue of the royal banner from the Indians of Chili, the fatal duel in the dark, the astonishing passage of the Andes, the trag
ical scenes at Tucuman and Cuzco, the return to Spain in obedience to a royal and a papal summons, the visit to Rome and the interview with the Pope-finally, the return to South America, and the mysterious disappearance at Vera Cruz, upon which no light was ever thrown all these capital heads of the narrative have been established beyond the reach of scepticism: and, in consequence, the story was soon after adopted as historically established, and was reported at length by journals of the highest credit in Spain and Germany, and by a Parisian journal so cautious and so distinguished for its ability as the Revue des Deux Mondes.
I must not leave the impression upon my readers that this complex body of documentary evidences has been searched and appraised by myself. Frankly I acknowledge that, on the sole occasion when any opportunity offered itself for such a labor, I shrank from it as too fatiguing-and also as superfluous; since, if the proofs had satisfied the compatriots of Catalina, who came to the investigation with hostile feelings of partisanship, and not dissembling their incredulity, -armed also (and in Mr. de Ferrer's case conspicuously armed) with the appropriate learning for giving effect to this incredulity,—it could not become a stranger to suppose himself qualified for disturbing a judgment that had been so deliberately delivered. Such a tribunal of native Spaniards being satisfied, there was no further opening for demur. The ratification of poor Kate's memoirs is now therefore to be understood as absolute, and without reserve.
This being stated, namely, such an attestation from competent authorities to the truth of Kate's narrative as may save all readers from my fair Westmoreland friend's disaster, it remains to give such an answer, as without further research can be given, to a question pretty sure of arising in all reflective readers' thoughts—namely, does there anywhere survive a portrait of Kate? I answer- and it would be both mortifying and perplexing if I could not — - Yes. One such portrait there is confessedly; and seven years ago this was to be found at Aix-la-Chapelle, in the collection of Herr Sempeller. The name of the artist I am not able to report; neither can I say whether Herr Sempeller's collection still remains intact, and remains at Aixla-Chapelle.
But inevitably to most readers who review the circumstances of a case so extraordinary, it will occur that beyond a doubt many portraits of the adventurous nun must have been executed. To have affronted the wrath of the Inquisition, and to have survived such an audacity, would of itself be enough to found a title for the martial VOL. I. 2
nun to a national interest. It is true that Kate had not taken the veil; she had stopped short of the deadliest crime known to the Inquisition; but still her transgressions were such as to require a special indulgence; and this indulgence was granted by a Pope to the intercession of a king- the greatest then reigning. It was a favor that could not have been asked by any greater man in this world, nor granted by any less. Had no other distinction settled upon Kate, this would have been enough to fix the gaze of her own nation. But her whole life constituted Kate's supreme distinction. There can be no doubt, therefore, that, from the year 1624 (that is, the last year of our James I.), she became the object of an admiration in her own country that was almost idolatrous. And this admiration was not of a kind that rested upon any partisan-schism amongst her countrymen. So long as it was kept alive by her bodily presence amongst them, it was an admiration equally aristocratic and popular, - shared alike by the rich and the poor, by the lofty and the humble. Great, therefore, would be the demand for her portrait. There is a tradition that Velasquez, who had in 1623 executed a portrait of Charles I. (then Prince of Wales), was amongst those who in the three or four following years ministered to this demand. It is believed, also, that, in travelling from Genoa and Florence to Rome, she sat to various artists, in order to meet the interest about herself already rising amongst the cardinals and other dignitaries of the Romish church. It is probable, therefore, that numerous pictures of Kate are yet lurking both in Spain and Italy, but not known as such. For, as the public consideration granted to her had grown out of merits and qualities purely personal, and was kept alive by no local or family memorials rooted in the land, or surviving herself, it was inevitable that, as soon as she herself died, all identification of her portraits would perish and the portraits would thenceforwards be confounded with the similar memorials, past all numbering, which every year accumulates as the wrecks from household remembrances of generations that are passing or passed, that are fading or faded, that are dying or buried. It is well, therefore, amongst so many irrecoverable ruins, that, in the portrait at Aix-la-Chapelle, we still possess one undoubted representation (and therefore in some degree a means for identifying other representations) of a female so memorably adorned by nature; gifted with capacities so unparalleled both of doing and suffering; who lived a life so stormy, and perished by a fate so unsearchably mysterious.