QUAINT #17 “The Doomswoman” by Gertrude Atherton

Gertrude Atherton

The Doomswoman was created by Gertrude Atherton and appeared in “The Doomswoman” (Lippincott’s, September, 1892, as a novel, 1900). Atherton (1857-1948) was a notable American novelist and won the Légion d’Honneur for her hospital work during WW1. The Doomswoman is a historical romance of Old California.

The Doomswoman is set in the days when America and Spanish-controlled Mexico vied for control of California. Doña Chonita Iturbi y Moncada is the daughter of an old Castilian family, one with long roots in Mexico and a great patriotic feeling for Mexico and Spain. But when she meets Don Diego Estenega, the scion of her house’s hated rival, it is love/hate at first sight. The Romeo and Juliet plot plays out amidst a backdrop of political intrigue.

Don Diego is a philanderer but grows increasingly obsessed with Doña Chonita, Doña Chonita wavers between pride and desire for Don Diego, and at the end of the novel Doña Chonita’s twin brother Reinaldo foils Don Diego’s schemes for power and then tries to prevent Don Diego from marrying Doña Chonita. Reinaldo and Don Diego fight, and Don Diego kills Reinaldo, thereby condemning himself to the execution block.

While The Doomswoman will never be mistaken for Atherton’s major work, it is an enjoyable light read. It is told in an appealingly laconic style which the overheated dialogue cannot spoil. As melodrama it is more than acceptable. Atherton’s research into early California is lightly but firmly carried, resulting in a real-feeling novel. And the titular character is an interesting variation on the Fatal Woman character type, similar to Holmes’ Elsie Venner. Doña Chonita is not sexually knowing, but her beauty and innocence, and her power and vengefulness, make her as dangerous as Gautier’s Clarimonde.

Doña Chonita is the Doomswoman. She is tall and blonde, “quite beautiful enough to plant thorns where she listed.” She is pale and fine featured in the way of Castilian beauties. She is high spirited, passionate, aristocratic, devoutly Catholic, and alternatively immature and old, depending on how high her temper is running. And “she had the power, as twin, to heal and curse, I had named her the Doomswoman, and by this name she was known far and wide.” She regularly has the peasants and natives, who think well of her, line up so that her touch can heal them. She also uses her father’s medicines, and to her credit she does not know which is more efficacious. She can also inflict curses. When a dark haired Mexican beauty presumes to flirt too seriously with Don Diego, Dona Chonita brings down a curse on the woman, causing her to fall into a raging fever and then for her hair to fall out. And she not only has prophetic dreams but even astrally projects during them.

About the Quest for Unusual & Adventurous International Notations & Tales (QUAINT).

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