Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa: Frasqueta Salero

The Knight of Toledo sat down and told us that he envied the Duke of Arcos a mistress like Frasqueta, that he had always loved brazen women and that she was the most brazen of them all.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 48
Sometimes in fiction you come across a character you know you shouldn't like, but secretly, guiltily, you like them anyway. That's how I feel about Frasqueta Salero. She's selfish, duplicitous, scheming, and unfaithful. In The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, when jealous husbands (the Conde de Rovellas, the Marqués de Val Florida) falsely accuse their virtuous wives of deceit and infidelity, they're afraid they're being cuckolded by someone like Frasqueta. She's awful, really, but she's such an exaggerated, farcical character, I can't help but find her funny.

As readers, we meet Frasqueta through the rascal Don Roque Busqueros. He's recounting to Lope Soarez how he continued a childhood taste for voyeurism into his adulthood in Madrid by finding some disreputable friends and a tall ladder. On poking his head through the open second-story window of a house, Busqueros saw a man awake in bed—and the man saw him. Shrieking in fear at what appeared to him to be a disembodied head, the man fled his bedroom.

Then the man's wife emerged from the bed. She calmly bolted the door through which her terrified husband had just exited and invited Busqueros to come in—only seeming surprised that he wasn't the man she expected to appear at her bedroom window. Busqueros explained that he meant no harm; he was just spying on her and her husband in their bedroom in the middle of the night.

Any decent person would have been appalled at such behavior, so of course Frasqueta took it completely in stride. Busqueros relates the conversation that followed:

   The lady seemed to pay close attention to what I said. Then she said, 'Señor, what you have just told me restores you completely to my esteem. You are quite right; there is nothing nicer in the world than to know what others are up to, and I have always shared your view of this. I cannot keep you here longer, but we will meet again.'
   'Señora,' I said, 'before you woke up, your husband did me the honour of taking my face for a ghastly head that had come to reproach him for an involuntary crime. Please do me the honour of informing me of the circumstances of all this.'
   'I approve of your curiousity,' said the lady. 'Come tomorrow at five o'clock in the evening to the public garden and you will find me there with one of my friends. But for this evening, farewell.'
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 35

Clearly these two people were made for each other.

When they meet later, Frasqueta tells how she first attracted the attention of the wealthy young Duke of Arcos, who was not at liberty to marry her, and the less desirable Señor Cornádez, who was. On her mother's advice, she married the financially stable Cornádez, while still holding open the possibility of a future relationship with the Duke of Arcos.

So the stage is set for a tale of cuckoldry. The humorous story about a clever wife cheating on a clueless husband was a classic comedic trope by Jan Potocki's time. "The Miller's Tale" in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (written sometime in the 1380s or 1390s) is all about a wife and her lover plotting against her husband, and cuckoldry is a major theme in many of the 100 stories told in The Decameron, written by 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio.

Professor David P. LaGuardia, in the introduction to his book Intertextual Masculinity in French Renaissance Literature, asks the question of why the cuckold was "so popular, and considered to be so funny by even the most erudite readers and writers of both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in the most varied of European cultural contexts?" He describes how much French vernacular literature was populated by characters transgressing sexual norms:

... husbands who try to seduce their chambermaids, who covet and possess their neighbors' wives, and who sneak into the beds of any woman who happens to be at hand; wayward wives who rush their husbands off to work, trap them in closets and clothing trunks, lock them out of the house, or simply run away, so that they can be with their lovers; priests, monks, and nuns who are not only gluttons and profligates, but who also indulge their prodigious sexual appetites whenever they have the chance, which often means that they have to run away from irate husbands and wives. 

Even within the context of a whole genre of cuckoldry stories, though, Potocki's story of Frasqueta, her husband Cornádez, and the Duke of Arcos is over the top. In a nutshell, Cornádez is convinced, first, that a passionate nobleman called the Conde de Peña Flor is trying to seduce his wife; then that he himself is an accidental accomplice in the murder of the Conde de Peña Flor; next, that the ghost of the Conde de Peña Flor is haunting him; and finally, that his soul is in danger of damnation because of the role he played in the murder.

In a moment of remarkable candor, Frasqueta explains to Busqueros her motivation for carrying out this elaborate plot, putting her husband through months of worry, terror, and remorse:

Once I became the wife of Señor Cornádez, I devoted all my time to making him happy. I succeeded rather too well. At the end of three months, I found him to be happier than I hoped, and what was worse, he believed that he made me perfectly happy. His smug expression did not suit his face. Moreover, it displeased and annoyed me. Happily, however, this state of beatitude did not last long.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 35

That's when she put her plan into motion to make his life a living hell. So, yeah, she's basically a sociopath.

Here's the other way in which Potocki takes the cuckoldry story to a new level: Frasqueta reveals to Busqueros that her friend who's with them in the public garden—her "devout and quite exemplary neighbor," whom Cornádez has trusted to act as his young wife's protector and chaperone—has been the Duke of Arcos all the time, dressed up in women's clothing.

...this neighbor was the duke himself, and here he is with us in women's clothing, which really suits him very well. I am still a faithful wife but I cannot bring myself to send away my dear Arcos, for I am not sure that I may not one day abandon my virtue, and if I decide to take a step down that road, I would like to have Arcos by me.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 35

In other words, she has the Duke of Arcos at her beck and call, running around disguised as a woman, and she's employing members of his household in her sadistic scheme against her husband, and she's not even having sex with him. She's just holding the Duke of Arcos in reserve, in case she decides she wants to have sex with him at some point.

That's what she tells Busqueros, anyway—in the Duke of Arco's presence. Whether we as readers believe her is another matter. But it appears she's been perfectly open and frank with Busqueros about all her other egomaniacal behavior, so I'm not sure why she would lie about this detail.

Frasqueta's behavior is just as self-centered and amoral as Busqueros's, but she doesn't evolve into a real villain like he does, mostly because she doesn't get as much time or character development in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa as her male counterpart. Instead she remains an outrageous two-dimensional character. While I can't sympathize with the Knight of Toledo's attraction to her, I do agree with him that she's "the most brazen of them all."

This character is introduced in Day 35.

Source: Introduction to Intertextual Masculinity in French Renaissance Literature: Rabelais, Brantôme, and the Cent nouvelles nouvelles, by David P. LaGuardia (Ashgate Publishing, 2008), 1–2.