The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and Their Worlds

Fernando Cervantes looks at a curious episode from the 16th century

Author: Merry Wiesner-Hanks
Publisher: Yale University Press
Reviewed by: Fernando Cervantes
Price (RRP): £18.99

This is a gripping reconstruction of the enigmatic lives of the daughters of Petrus Gonzales who moved in the 1540s from his native Tenerife to the French court of Henri II and Catherine de Medici, and then, in the 1590s, with his whole family to the Farnese court in Parma.

With their faces and bodies covered in hair, the Gonzales family aroused the imagination of their contemporaries as prodigies and portents. Seen as warnings about God’s judgement to many, they also served as reminders about the exotic wonders of the New World and as romantic evocations of wildness. Yet they curiously slipped out of sight soon after their deaths.

Wiesner-Hanks applies a range of methods – feminism, post-colonialism, disability and monster theories – in an attempt to make the experiences of these girls shed fresh light upon the relationship between beastliness, monstrosity and sex. The author’s range of interests is vast, so there are unavoidable generalisations: Aristotle’s view of women as monstrous, for instance, reinforced by Augustine’s view of sex as the result of the fall, allegedly endorsed by Aquinas, are taken for granted with little rigour or critical awareness.

Old myths are repeated with relish: that Isabel and Ferdinand were anti-Semitic; that Philip II was a bigot who drove his son to an early death. But the book nonetheless provides fascinating vistas and a fresh look at the religious conflicts and cultural complexities of the age in an imaginative effort to reconstruct an obscure episode of the courtly life of Europe. 

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