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Letters of a Portuguese Nun:
Uncovering the Mystery Behind a 17th Century Forbidden Love

by Miriam Cyr


Book Review by Rob Hardy



They were an international bestseller when they were published, five love letters from a devastated woman who had been left by her lover as he went on to military duties. It does not matter that this was more than three hundred years ago; the theme is one that is immediate. The letters were so piercing that immediately a controversy arose over their authorship; no woman could have written them, it was said, because women generally didn’t write, never wrote well, and never felt love as deeply as men. The controversy has persisted, and will persist, because there is no proof on either side, but in Letters of a Portuguese Nun: Uncovering the Mystery Behind a 17th Century Forbidden Love (Miramax Books), Miriam Cyr argues the case for authorship by the nun herself. This is Cyr’s first book; she has had a successful career as an actress, and first heard of the letters when they were performed as a play. She determined to translate them herself (unaware that they were hugely famous and had been translated many times), and performed them on stage herself. She could not answer questions from those who heard her readings about the authenticity of the letters, but sympathized with a woman who told her the letters expressed her feelings during a painful breakup and was outraged that anyone thought they were fictional. Cyr, probably motivated by the same sort of feeling, did three years of research, and even though her conclusions are not watertight, her advocacy of the nun’s authorship is convincing. More importantly, she has brought the heartbreaking letters to a new audience and supplied them with sufficient context to understand their themes.

Mariana Alcoforado was born in 1640 in the picturesque town of Beja, Portugal. Her oldest sister Ana would marry, but Mariana and the other three daughters would all enter convent life. Perhaps Ana had the worst of it; under the strict Catholicism of that time and place, wives ate on the floor rather than at the husbands’ tables, were forbidden from walking on the streets alone, and could be imprisoned for offenses such as talking on the steps of the church. This was despite the madness of love which was the main subject of conversations and fashion. When Mariana entered the convent of Concieção at the age of ten, she was not removed from the amorous enthusiasms of the world. There was a fashion for falling in love with nuns, a form of love that since it was supposed to be spiritual and platonic, was considered to be ideal and worthy. Men who kept their wives incarcerated at home and uneducated would seek out erudite nuns for intimacy. Mariana, possibly because of the dowry given to the convent by her father when she entered, became the student of the abbess herself, learning Latin, Spanish, French, mathematics, science, and more. Young novitiates learned the art of serving tea, and they learned to make the pastries which were supposed to be the best in Portugal. They learned dancing and music. They sound something like geishas, and of course the men who came to see them were expected to help with the convent’s finances. The nuns learned to remain on the fine line that would encourage such support without encouraging physical lovemaking. The rules said that being alone with a man, even a church official, would condemn the nun to ten years of solitary confinement in the rat-infested prison of the convent’s cellar.

The Marquis of Chamilly was a Frenchman, a born soldier who was helping the Portuguese fight incursions from Spain. He was garrisoned in Beja in 1666, and the nuns looking out on the fields around them were entertained by the sight of officers exercising their horses. Mariana was captivated by Chamilly’s dash in such capers, and inevitably the officers were invited into the convent. As she often has to do, Cyr invites us to imagine details, such as their meeting and growing acquaintance; even in the letters there are few details about any courting. We also have to imagine how the pair eluded detection, or how Chamilly might have been able to sneak into Mariana’s quarters before she was locked inside for the night, and how he sneaked out again. Cyr summarizes, “Unsuspected and unseen, Chamilly and Mariana entered a world more intimate than a prayer and more ethereal than air.”

There was no dramatic discovery of the affair by authorities, but it ended when Chamilly was called back into the official service of his king, Louis XIV. He simply chose duty over love. He went on to a distinguished military career, an officer loved by his men because he was fair to them and had obvious courage. If he were told that enemy forces were coming closer, his reply would likely be, “All the better, this means they are closer to our swords.” He had a marriage of convenience which was entirely successful, but he probably never was in love again. His own feelings over leaving Mariana we can only guess at from her letters to him. The five letters are here given in full within the middle of Cyr’s book, and they are full of sweet regret and longing. “I had never known incessant praises before yours. It seemed to me, I owed you the charms and beauty you found in me and had me uncover. I heard good things said of you, everyone spoke in your favor, you did everything to inspire my love.” There is bitterness: “I am so angry at myself when I think of all I sacrificed for you: I have lost my reputation, I exposed myself to my family’s fury, to the severity of this country’s laws against nuns, moreover to your ingratitude, which seems to me to be the greatest of my woes.” And she writes in farewell, “It may be you will find greater beauty, but never will you find such love, and all the rest is nothing.”

These sentiments are unsurprising now, but when the letters were published in France, they were a sensation, at least partially because they addressed romantic injustice; women were supposed to keep quiet about men’s behavior toward them, however painful or unfair. How the letters came to be so widely known is full of mysteries. The dashing and victorious Chamilly may well have been invited to the evening salons of the marquise de Sablé, and may have circulated the letters himself, which would not have been seen at the time as a violation of privacy. The marquise had a fear of germs, and perhaps her doctor copied the writing out for her (as he did do for other documents) so she would not be contaminated by holding the originals. Perhaps the doctor sought out the worldly and beloved Guilleragues, a witty and well-educated man, to help translate Mariana’s colloquialisms. Indeed, many scholars attribute the authorship of the letters to him. With the publication of the letters, any love letter became known as “a Portuguese.” Counterfeit versions came out, and whether the letters were real or imaginary was a question that was argued then as now. It was all settled in the mind of Rousseau, who sniffed that “women in general do not like art... they cannot describe or feel love...I would bet everything in the world that the Portuguese letters were written by a man.” It is this sort of sentiment that has entered even into scholarly debate over the centuries. Cyr can’t prove her case for Marian’s authorship, but she still makes a good argument, reminding us that the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one. The resolution is only part of the book, which invites us to read the letters for ourselves, and to contemplate the dance of love performed in an exotic and distant locale.


Letters of a Portuguese Nun:
Uncovering the Mystery Behind a 17th Century Forbidden Love

(Miramax/Miramax; January 11, 2006; ISBN: 0786869119)
Available at: Amazon.com / Amazon UK

_______
© 2007 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.



About the Reviewer
Rob Hardy is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife, two terriers, five cats, and goldfish.

He reviews nonfiction for The Times of Acadiana, but has been reviewing books as a hobby for years before that.
Email: Rob Hardy



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