Reading Women Writers #4: Isabel Allende – Daughter of Fortune

This is the fourth post in the Reading Women Writers series.

Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune tells the story of Eliza Sommers, an orphan that was left at the doorstep of an English brother and sister in Valparaiso, Chile. She is raised by Miss Rose Sommers — a “spinster” who lives with her emotionally cold brother Jeremy and whose brother John is a respected ship captain that travels the world — and by the Sommers’ servant, Mama Fresia:

Eliza grew up between Miss Rose’s sewing room and the back patios, speaking English in one part of the house and a mixture of Spanish and Mapuche, her nana’s native tongue, in the other, one day dressed and shod like a duchess and the next playing with hens and dogs, barefoot and barely covered by an orphan’s smock.

Eliza grows up between these two worlds. Miss Rose, who is “a woman with a past” whose “chances for making a good marriage were minimal” is determined to place Eliza in a good marriage. However, Eliza falls in love with a poor Chilean who ends up leaving her to sail for California in the gold rush, hoping to pull himself and his mother out of poverty. With the help of Mama Fresia and the Chinese sailor/doctor Tao Chi’en, she stows away on a ship to California, seeking her lost lover Joaquin.

In California with her new friend Tao Chi’en, she discovers a new world with more freedom and independence than she could have imagined. The contrasts of her and Tao Chi’en’s experiences in California with the societies of their youths — Chile and China — develop many key themes in the novel.

In both Chile and China, people’s destinies, attitudes, and freedom are determined by social constructs. Class, sex, race, wealth, reputation, birth order, and religion all constrain what people believe is possible or acceptable, with the two often being synonymous. The burdens of womanhood, poverty, and race exist both in Eliza’s Chile and Tao Chi’en’s China. When they find themselves in northern California in the early 1850s, most societal constructs had not yet developed. People, mostly men, swarmed to the area from various countries with only the desire to find gold and become rich. This California was raw and undeveloped. Eliza sees that the limits to freedom and individuality that she believed were inherent to life are in fact constructs. She realizes that there are possibilities that she once thought impossible; destiny is not immutable.

She fell in love with freedom. In the Sommers’ home she had lived shut up within four walls in a stagnant atmosphere where time moved in circles and where she could barely glimpse the horizon through distorted windowpanes. She had grown up clad in the impenetrable armor of good manners and conventions, trained from girlhood to please and serve, bound by corset, routines, social norms, and fear. Fear had been her companion: fear of God and his unpredictable justice, of authority, of her adoptive parents, of illness and evil tongues, of anything unknown or different; fear of leaving the protection of her home and facing the dangers outside; fear of her own fragility as a woman, of dishonor and truth. Hers had been a sugar-coated reality built on the unspoken, on courteous silences, well-guarded secrets, order, and discipline. She had aspired to virtue but now she questioned the meaning of the word.

Eliza sees California as “a blank page; here I can start life anew and become the person I want.” California’s society burgeons and new hierarchies and restrictions emerge, but both Eliza and Tao Chi’en see them for what they are and realize that they are capable of more than the destinies that society has constructed for them.