Billed as “the first Armenian feminist novel,” Mayda packs a wallop. Srpuhi Dussap’s book, beautifully written and surprising until its final pages, treats important political and social issues but never bores. Conventional by upbringing and somewhat weak-kneed by temperament, Mayda does a lot of growing up in Dussap’s 1883 epistolary novel. The chains that for so long bound women in all aspects of their lives at the time are eventually shattered as Mayda matures and follows the wise counsel of her older best friend and consort, Mme. Sira.
Mayda is born into a bourgeois Bolsetsi family and lives life with all the social advantages, discreet charms and privileges of the Armenian amira bourgeoisie — until her husband unexpectedly dies, leaving her penniless with a daughter, Hranush, to care for. Now Mayda must face the awful but undeniable fact that none of her society friends will acknowledge her anymore. For all practical purposes, she has been entirely stripped of any social standing.
Mme. Sira however will have none of her self-pity. She exhorts Mayda instead to be independent and to live her own life — not common for women of her social milieu at the time: “The past pampered you as a tender child. The present will make a woman out of you in the face of misfortune, giving you courage…Be as great as justice, as great as truth, as great as sacred love. Avoid darkness, avoid falsehood.“ Coincidentally this was basically the same advice that Dussap gave the great novelist Zabel Yessayan who visited her in her youth: namely, study, make something of yourself and then advocate for change in order to better women’s lot in society.
As the plot in Mayda twists and winds, Mme. Sira is not just a friend. She may be considered the conscience of both Mayda and Dussap as well, often railing against the unjust treatment of women under Ottoman law. The short-lived Ottoman Constitution of 1876 having done little to alleviate the harsh lot of minorities and woman, she declared, “What does the law do really?”
Mme. Sira writes Mayda in a long disquisition: “The law ties a noose around (a) woman’s neck that it tightens or loosens as need be. What is (a) woman before the laws of the most civilized nation in Europe if not the property of her husband?…Her lot is silence.” This seems obvious to us today, but at the time these words were quite remarkable. The illustrious Krikor Zohrab took great offense and condemned Dussap’s book.