“In particular, the possibility of situating Soror Mariana Alcoforado and her celebrated love letters within a hypothetical genealogy of Portuguese women’s writing presents a fundamental difficulty that may be summed up as follows: the most acclaimed, both nationally and internationally (at least until mid-twentieth century), Portuguese woman writer was most likely neither Portuguese nor a woman.”
—Anna Klobucka (2000)
In one of its most recent incarnations, the 1996 edition attributed to Gabriel de Lavergne, Vicomte de Guilleragues, and translated by Guido Waldman, The Love-Letters Of Portuguese Nun contains only forty pages, including a foreword and five full-page reproductions of engravings. It has, in other words, less pages than it took me days to obtain a copy.
Strange to think that such a slender volume, a mere five letters, could cause such a sensation, and extert such a profound influence upon the development of the novel; and that today, nearly 350 years after their initial publication, they should have accumulated so much historical and cultural baggage, and been the focus of so much academic conflict, that it should have become almost impossible to examine them merely as a piece of writing.
In 1669, the French publisher Claude Brabin released an anonymous text, Lettres Portugaises Traduites En François, which purported to be a set of genuine letters written by a Portuguese nun to an officer in the French army, with whom she fell in love and had an affair, but who abandoned her and returned to France. Passionate, angry, imploring and reproachful in turns, the letters trace the evolution of the nun’s feelings as she tries to come to terms her situation. The letters were a stunning success across Europe, and ran through many editions, authorised and unauthorised, over the following decades. The first English edition, released under the title Five Love-Letters From A Nun To A Cavalier. Done Out Of The French Into English, was translated by Sir Roger L’Estrange and published in 1678. The volume became Love Without Affectation, In Five Letters From A Portuguese Nun, To A French Cavalier during its subsequent English editions, and then Letters From A Portuguese Nun To An Officer In the French Army, before settling down for a century as Letters From A Portuguese Nun. The book did not acquire the qualifier “Love” until published in America in 1890. Possibly it was considered that American audiences needed reassurance about the nature of the letters, and that they were not so dull (nor, for that matter, so religious) as you might expect the writings of a 17th-century nun to be.
The 1890 American edition is important for another reason: it explicitly declares who wrote the letters, and who they were written to. These two—well, what shall we call them?—assertions had come separately to the reading public, and each under odd circumstances. One of the earliest pirated editions of the Lettres Portugaises, published in Cologne in 1669, carried in its preface the statement that, “The name of him to whom they (the Letters) were written is the Chevalier de Chamilly, and the name of him who made the translation is Cuilleraque”. No indication is given of the source of this information. It was not until 1810 that an identity was claimed for the letters’ author, when the French scholar Jean-François Boissonade published a note claiming that he had found a copy of one of the 1669 French editions with a handwritten note inside stating, “The nun who wrote these letters was named Mariana Alcaforada. She was a nun living in Beja, between Estremadura and Andalusia. The gentleman to whom these letters were written was the Count of Chamilly, also called the Count of Saint-Léger.”
In 1888, it seemed that the matter had been settled once and for all, when the Portuguese author and historian Luciano Cordeiro published Soror Mariana, a freira portuguesa, which gave an account of the life of Mariana (or Marianna, or Mariane, or Maria Ana) Alcoforado and the circumstances surrounding the writing of the Lettres Portugaises. According to Cordeiro, Mariana, a native of Beja, had entered the Convento da Conceição, the Convent of the Conception, at the age of only eleven; she took her vows at sixteen. In 1666, at the time that the affair was supposed to have begun, she was twenty-six years old. Meanwhile, Noël de Bouton, Comte de Saint-Léger and Comte de Saint-Denis, later Marquis de Chamilly, was one of the irregular troops sent to Portugal by Louis XIV as part of his unofficial support of the Portuguese in their War of Restoration against the Spanish. Early in 1666, Chamilly and his fellows were stationed outside of Beja. The American edition of the Portugaises Lettres accepted these attributions, as did most of those interested in the issue.
Things changed in 1926, however, when a paper entitled, Who was the author of the “Lettres Portugaises”? was published in The Modern Language Review. Its author, F. C. Green, had examined the Privilège du Roi, the permission to publish, associated with the first printing of the Lettres Portugaises, and concluded that the “Cuilleraque” mentioned in the pirated Cologne edition was in fact a man called Guilleragues, who was not merely the work’s translator, but its author: that the letters were a work of fiction. Green stopped short with his attribution, but others did not hesitate to assert that this was Gabriel-Joseph de Lavergne, Vicomte de Guilleragues, a French diplomat and sometime author.
From this point onwards, scholarly opinion of the Lettres Portugaises began to shift, although it was never unanimous. And of course, it is not at all surprising that in the absence of concrete evidence one way or the other, debate upon the subject should refuse to die. Consider, after all, the scope for controversy inherent in this publication, which is either a set of real letters written by a Portuguese woman, a nun, or a work of fiction written by a Frenchman, an aristocrat.
The nationality of the respective putative authors has, naturally, been of most interest to Portuguese and French academics – although even most of the former seem these days to have given up the fight. The relative social position of Mariana and the Vicomte de Guilleragues comes to prominence only in arguments about whether Mariana could have written the letters: it is generally claimed that she received a “polite education” in the convent, and also held the position of scribe. The gender argument, meanwhile, is not merely alive, but thriving.
And speaking from recent personal experience, I have to say that it is extraordinarily hard to avoid considering the letters from a gender perspective – particularly when you read over the various attributions of their authorship to the Vicomte de Guilleragues and realise that most of the arguments amount to, well, they must have been written by a man, because they’re far too clever to have been written by a woman. Most notoriously, it was apropos of the Lettres Portugaises that Jean-Jacques Rousseau made his infamous declaration upon the subject of female authorship (among other things), dismissing not only Mariana, but her entire sex:
“…Women, in general, show neither appreciation nor proficiency nor genius in any part… They may show great wit but never any soul. They are a hundred times more reasonable than passionate. Women know neither how to describe nor experience love itself… I would bet everything I have that the Portuguese Letters were written by a man…”
The modern version of this viewpoint, at least with regard to the letters, began with Leo Spitzer, who in an influential essay published in 1954 asserted that they were written by a man, and one “who knew his business”. This stance was built upon by Frédéric Deloffre and Jacques Rougeot, who first reissued the letters in 1962 with attribution to the Vicomte de Guilleragues and some supporting arguments, and then in their rather smugly titled “definitive” edition of the letters, released in 1972, not only maintained their stance, but declared the subject closed once and for all.
The following thirty years must have taken these gentlemen rather by surprise…
[To be continued…]