“Stop, wretched Mariane, stop eating your heart out in vain, stop searching for a lover you will never see again; he has crossed the sea to escape you; he is in France, in the midst of dissipations and does not spare one moment’s thought for your sufferings…”
The 1970s onwards saw a growing wave of feminist literary scholarship, much of it devoted to re-establishing the reputation and standing of female authors critically acclaimed in their own time, but since passed over and ignored by academia. This time also saw a reawakening of interest in Mariana Alcoforado and the Lettres Portugaises. For the analysts of the time, it was often less a question of Mariana’s authorship per se, and more a matter of the way that her story illustrated the scholarly tactics too often used to undermine and trivialise women’s writing. In particular, there was strong exception taken to the gender assumptions upon which the previous several decades’ dismissal of Mariana were built. Most prominent in this new wave of scholarship were the feminist critics Peggy Kamuf and Nancy K. Miller, who started out butting heads in public over the question of Mariana’s authorship and how far it actually mattered whether she wrote the letters or not, and ended up as friends and collaborators.
One woman who chose, for the most part, to side-step the gender debate on the Lettres Portugaises was Anna Klobucka, whose book, The Portuguese Nun: Formation Of A National Myth makes it pretty clear where she stands on the question of Mariana – as inded does the book’s prologue, subtitled What Really Happened. Klobucka does not entirely negate the possibility of Mariana having written the letters, although she considers it unlikely. This, however, is an issue peripheral to the main thrust of her study, which examines the fluctuating reaction to Mariana in her native country over the centuries, and the way in which her acceptance as the author of the letters tended to coincide with times in which the struggle for a national identity was at its height, or conversely, when the character or the status of Portugal was most under threat from external forces. She shows also that acceptance did not necessarily mean celebration; and that Mariana herself has run the gamut from being almost deified as a great national heroine, to being denounced for her immorality, to undergoing psychoanalysis via the letters and being diagnosed as an hysteric, a narcissist, and a masochist.
Anna Klobucka’s book is wide-ranging, and examines a great deal of material, literary, historical and sociological, that, while fascinating and often amusing in its insight, travels far beyond the scope of this very amateur(ish) examination of the history of the letters. That said, when Klobucka does focus on the letters, she tends to put her finger with great acuteness upon the critical points in the debate. Most telling of all, perhaps, is her assessment of the crux of the conflict between the “Mariana-ists” and the “anti-Mariana-ists”:
“…the position of privileging and defending historical accuracy has been, naturally if somewhat ironically, assumed by those who claim the Lettres Portugaises to be a literary fake…while, on the other hand, the believers in the historically authentic origin of the letters have been forced, by the scarcity and unreliability of the evidence, to couch their convictions in terms of fictional discourse, rewriting the disjointed and occasionally self-contradictory record as a coherent narrative…”
You could hardly ask for a more accurate summation of Letters Of A Portuguese Nun: Uncovering The Mystery Behind A Seventeenth-Century Forbidden Love: A Historical Mystery, by Myriam Cyr, who is best known as a stage and screen actress (and who I know best for Ken Russell’s Gothic). As she tells us in her introduction, Cyr came across the letters in Montreal, when they were being presented in the form of a play. She was captivated, and set about doing her own translation of them – not knowing, as she confesses, their history, or the extent of the controversy surrounding them. (I know how she feels!) Cyr won’t hear of them being written by anyone other than Mariana; and to bolster her argument, she surrounds her own versions of the letters with an account of the lives and careers of Mariana and Noël de Bouton. She tells her story well and persuasively…but it is just a story. Therein lies its danger.
We notice, too, that in her translation of the letters, Cyr is careful to smooth over some famous points of contention, such as the famous opening cry of the first letter, given by her as, “Love, consider well your lack of foresight”, and by Guido Waldman, in comparison, as, “Only consider, my love, how you have carried your lack of foresight to the point of exaggeration” – thus leaving open the possibility that Mariana is addressing not her absent lover, but her own feelings. Many critics have also pointed to a reference to Mariana’s mother, who had been dead for some years before the supposed time of that remark. It has been argued (and quite reasonably, when you examine the context) that this was a reference not to Mariana’s own mother, but to her Mother Superior – which Cyr makes explicit.
Cyr provides an extensive bibliography, but makes very few direct attributions. Even when we follow one of her rare endnotes, it generally leads from one unfounded assertion to another. Her pages abound with words and phrases such as “perhaps” and “it may well be” and “in all probability” and even “legend has it”, making it quite clear where the weak spots are in the tale she tells; yet the mere fact that she does weave historical fact through her imaginary account gives it a verisimilitude that the actual historical accounts of these events, so full of unvoidable holes, is quite lacking.
Myriam Cyr is not alone in her efforts to, as it were, write Mariana into existence. Anna Klobucka also draws attention to two more contemporary works: Mariana, by the American writer Katherine Vaz; and Cartas de Amor, the most recent “retranslation” of the letters, from French into Portuguese, by the Brazilian author Marilene Felinto. Like Cyr’s book, both of these works assume the reality of both Mariana’s existence and her authorship; unlike Cyr’s, neither of them so much as acknowledges the existence of the Vicomte de Guilleragues. To this, the latest generation of Mariana-ists, Guilleragues has become merely an inconvenience, if not an irrelevance; someone to be pushed aside and consigned to the ranks of the “dead white males”.
[To be continued…]