The Love-Letters Of A Portuguese Nun (Part 3)


“You have known the depth of my heart and of my tenderness, and yet you could bring yourself to leave me forever and to expose me to the dread I must feel that you will no longer remember me unless it be to sacrifice me to a new love. I see well enough that I love you to the point of madness…”
— (?)








And now, m’lud – the case for the defence.

To be perfectly honest, midway through Myriam Cyr’s romanticised telling of the lives of Mariana and Noël de Bouton – which really did strike me as a case of the lady protesting too much – I was quite ready to pull a 1066, and declare the Mariana-ists Wrong but Wromantic, and the anti-Mariana-ists Right but Repulsive. (And yes, I am looking at you, Jean-Jacques Rousseau!) Let’s face it, Mariana-as-author makes for a much better story; and this, clearly, has influenced many analysts of the letters more than it should. However—

To me, the value of Cyr’s work lies not in its story-telling, or even in its translation of the letters, but in the final section of the book that highlights certain research which refutes the arguments made by Frédéric Deloffre and Jacques Rougeot to support the notion of Guilleragues being the author of the Lettres Portugaises. Cyr quotes the work of Alain Viala, who in his book Naissance de l’écrivain addresses the publishing practices of late 17th-century France, and contends that the fact that Guilleragues’ name was on Claude Brabin’s Privilège du Roi means very little—and certainly not that he was the author of the letters.

We learn that when the letters were published, French law insisted upon the name of an author being supplied; and further, that an anthology of work by various writers could, and often was, be published under the name of just one author—or even, not under the name of any of its actual authors, but of that of the person who collected the writings. It has also been shown that many other similar author attributions from the same period were later proved to be incorrect. In this case, however, the use of Guilleragues’ name may have been more accurate than  usual: Claude Brabin’s permission covered not merely the five now-famous letters, but a second set of letters as well, along with “valentines, epigrams and madrigals”, all supposedly by Guilleragues. All of these works were cleared for publication—but when Brabin went to press, he published the five letters alone. Possibly, recognising that he had something special on his hands, he had always intended to do so.

There was a second bar to the letters’ publication besides that (supposing them to be genuine) of Brabin not knowing their author’s name: if the letters were real, they were also extremely dangerous. Real letters written by a real nun describing a real affair with a real French officer— That was dynamite. The political sensitivity overseeing the censorship of the time would never have allowed the publication of such letters, even had Mariana’s name then been known. The only way that Claude Brabin could get them into print was by submitting them in the guise of a work of fiction.

How, then, did Guilleragues get involved? As Deloffre and Rougeot show, even as they support the notion of his authorship, Guilleragues, although an aristocrat, was a “fringe-dweller”, always in debt, always trying to get a foot in the door of the inner circles of polite society. He had tried, and failed, to earn money by writing. He may have been willing enough to lend his name to Brabin, particularly if Brabin promised him in exchange to publish his earlier literary efforts.

There are practical objections to Guilleragues having written the letters, some social, some scholarly. Guilleragues was, as has been admitted, desperate for admission to the higher regions of French society—and yet even when the Lettres Portugaises became a stunning success, he never drew attention to himself by claiming to be more than their translator. Those who support Guilleragues as the author of the letters tend to disparage the notion that Mariana, a “simple, unwordly nun”, could have written them. At the same time, they seem unable to explain why the letters are so completely different, in tone, content and, yes, quality from anything else that Guilleragues’ name is attached to; or why, if he was capable of writing like this, he never did it again. This is an objection made by Myriam Cyr, as it is also by Charles R. Lefcourt, who in 1976 published in the journal Hispania a paper titled, Did Guilleragues write “The Portuguese Letters”?, in which he also highlights a number of errors contained within F. C. Green’s epoch-making article.

There is another possibility. As mentioned, the bundle of writing submitted by Claude Brabin contained not one, but two sets of letters. Given the circumstances of Brabin’s application for the Privilège du Roi, it is feasible that the second set, consisting of seven letters, were actually written by Guilleragues, although again he never claimed authorship, as conversely he did of the “valentines, epigrams and madrigals” submitted with them. Initially withheld from publication, the second set of letters was later released bundled with the original Lettres Portugaises. These seven letters form, as it were, a “prequel” to the other five, and bear very little stylistic resemblance to them. They have since been severed from their infinitely more famous companion-pieces, and have fallen into obscurity, while the others went through countless editions. I’m not aware of any serious attempt to claim that they were written by Mariana. Rather (proving that really is nothing new under the sun), they were written as an attempt to “cash in” on the originals, and they were not the only one: there was even a spurious set of “replies” written in response to the Lettres Portugaises, published anonymously in England, entitled, Five love-letters written by a cavalier, in answer to the Five love-letters written to him by a nun. Such follow-ups to popular successes were common at the time, although they were rarely accompanied by any pretense of a genuine connection with the original document.

One thing that does strike me about the circumstances of the Lettres Portugaises‘ publication is how swiftly the name of Noël de Bouton became associated with them. The fact that this detail became public linked not with Claude Brabin’s first edition, but with the first pirated edition, is also suggestive. As we have seen, Brabin had his own reasons for promoting the letters as a work of fiction. At the same time, no-one would have known better than he that letters, particularly love-letters, sold much better if they were believed to be real. The immediate association of de Bouton’s name with the Lettres Portugaises suggests that either his involvement was already publicly known, or that Brabin knew the truth and had a quiet word with someone. Illegal publication was rife at the time, granted, but just the same I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Brabin was secretly involved with the Cologne edition, which appeared so rapidly on the heels of the original.

These days, it can be very difficult to grasp the fact that in the 17th and 18th centuries, there was hardly any such thing as “a private letter”: that letters were passed around, read aloud, dissected and discussed for entertainment. From a modern perspective, we might be inclined to think that the Lettres Portugaises must be a work of fiction, because no such real letters would have been published, at least not in the lifetime of their author and recipient—but the contrary is true. Assuming the letters to be genuine, the question is not how they came into Claude Brabin’s hands, but how they left Noël de Bouton’s.

For what it’s worth, de Bouton never denied being the man to whom the letters were addressed, nor did he make any attempt to recall or suppress them. Perhaps he enjoyed the celebrity they brought him. Seducing and abandoning a nun may have been a dangerous act politically, but socially it was the kind of thing that, despite the obvious lies and broken promises involved, might win a man the reputation of being a “romantic” and “a great lover”—rather than that of being a nasty piece of work. The notion of “honour”, in this respect, has always been strangely mutable. It is clear from the Lettres Portugaises themselves that there was, at some point, an attempt made by the nun’s lover to excuse his desertion of her on the grounds of “duty”—duty to his king, his country, his family. Mariana is, to put it mildly, unimpressed.

The other outstanding question about the letters is what language they were written in. Pondering this, it occurred to me that it was actually much more likely that they were written in French than in Portuguese. French was, after all, the “polite language”, the language of the European courts; the common ground on which strangers of different nationalities communicated. It was a standard component of a good education. Even girls, who were taught precious little else, were taught French. If Mariana did receive an education in the convent, it is likely that French lessons were an aspect of it.

On the other hand, it strikes me as unlikely that Noël de Bouton learned Portuguese. He may have picked up enough Portuguese during his time in the country to understand and speak it, but would he really, between battles and love affairs, have gone to the time and the trouble to learn to read it? – and particularly if the Portuguese officers with whom he associated (one of whom was Mariana’s brother, Balthazar, who supposedly introduced them) knew French. If Mariana wanted to be sure her lover understood the letters that she sent after him, it seems to me probable that she would have written them in French. Consequently, the fact that the Lettres Portugaises specifically promoted themselves as having been translated from Portuguese into French made it, to me, more and not less likely that they were faked.

I had barely even begun preening myself upon this particular brilliant deduction when my reading brought it forcibly home to me that I was not exactly the first person to make it. (Is there anything more deflating than having what you think is a clever idea, then finding out that it’s old hat??) As it turns out, arguments over the language of the text of the Lettres Portugaises are almost as old as arguments over their authorship. One early reaction (a quote that I have been unable to re-find, sorry!) was to grumble, “They are a translation, and a bad one.” Some scholars, accepting this, have gone to some lengths to translate them “back” into Portuguese. Others have found within the French text indications of Portuguese rhythms and idioms, and used this to support Mariana’s authorship. More recent examination of the text builds upon this suggestion, as Myriam Cyr’s book also brings to light, with the first, French edition of the letters offered as an example of textural plurilinguilism—which is to say, that they were written in French by someone thinking in Portuguese.

But if so – why “Traduites En François“? Perhaps to keep a sense of romance and exoticism about the letters; tales of shocking goings-on in foreign lands (and at a safe distance from home) were popular. Or perhaps as an indirect acknowledgement of their connection with Noël de Bouton, while the safe façade of a work of fiction was maintained. Alternatively, if de Bouton was involved with their publication, he may have kept the originals and given Brabin a copy of them—which Brabin may have assumed was a translation.

So where does this leave Guilleragues? He could hardly have been the letters’ translator if they didn’t need translating in the first place. On this subject, I may say that I have found no evidence of his own ability to read and write Portuguese, which such a task presupposes, nor even a suggestion of how and when he might have acquired such knowledge. (Of course, my own research is hardly exhaustive; Deloffre and Rougeot may examine this point.) Perhaps he acted as go-between for de Bouton and Brabin? Quite a number of those who dispute Guilleragues’ authorship and/or his role as translator – and who are prepared to admit he had anything to do with the letters, beyond letting Claude Brabin use his name – suggest that he may have been given the task of “cleaning them up” somewhat for publication, making Mariana’s informal language and expressions more acceptable to the reading public for whom the letters were intended.

And after all this, what do I think about the letters? I honestly don’t know—although it does occur to me that if the Vicomte de Guilleragues did “overwrite” Mariana’s text, that is, if the letters were in effect written by a man and a woman, it might go some way towards explaining how they seem to have managed to be all things to all people. I’m not convinced that Mariana Alcoforado wrote the Lettres Portugaises…but on the other hand, I see no reason to believe that Guilleragues did. If these are my only choices, then I choose Mariana.

[To be continued…]


8 Comments to “The Love-Letters Of A Portuguese Nun (Part 3)”

  1. Possibly i’m getting a little lost among the various names, but are you discounting the possibility that the letters were written – as a work of fiction – by someone else who was not willing to attach his/her name to their publication?

    I find utterly fascinating the 18th-century evolution from early story-telling techniques – in which the author absolutely cannot admit to making something up, so we get Malory and his “old French boke”, Swift and his “diary of Gulliver”, Chaucer and the pilgrims’ stories, and all those mediaeval texts that start “I lay down to sleep and had a dream” – and the more modern approach in which a work can simply be labelled as “fiction” without in-band justification. Considering that and the era when these were published, it seems to me that the claim of Guilleragues to be the translator of the letters would be exactly in keeping with an author’s required denial of having done any original work – and the people of the time would presumably have known that, just as nobody asked Malory “just which French book is this that you got all these stories from”..

  2. Hey, you know that feeling when you’re at the beach, and you’re wading, and the water’s up to your knees, and everything’s really nice, and then you take a step forward and go off the edge of a sandbar and suddenly you’re in over your head?


    I absolutely cannot say for certainty a third, anonymous party wasn’t responsible for the letters. I can only say that as far as I’ve been able to determine (reading neither French nor Portuguese), no third party has ever been suggested. Of course, at the time the letters were published there was very little interest in authorship, unless it was in connection with somebody already famous, so the critical moment for disclosure may simply have come and gone. But – I’m inclined to think they were real, for reasons I’ll get into in Part 4 (yes, heaven help us, there will be a Part 4!).

    Opinions of Guilleragues as a person don’t seem very high. There’s a definite feeling out there that if he could have made mileage from the letters, he would have done so.

    The slow shift to open authorship is one of the things I hope to be examining/blogging about. The turning point, I think, was in the wake of Pamela, for which – as late as 1740 – Samuel Richardson was still pretending only to be the letters’ “editor”, not their author. This left it open for other people to claim that they had some other of Pamela’s letters which they were also “editing”: there were at least two spurious sequels before Richardson lost his temper and blew his own cover.

    As you say, I guess it just came down to a feeling that fiction was dishonest – lying, basically. It took a long time for the idea that you could tell a story and yet tell essential truths to sink in. I don’t know if you read my piece on Lennard J. Davis’s “Factual Fictions”? – the analysis of Defoe in that book really nails the psychology of the time.

  3. (Yes, I caught up on the whole set of postings so far before I started commenting.)

    It’s the idea that he didn’t take advantage of the fame of the things that I find the most convincing argument against Guilleragues as composer – but it’s also an argument against him as translator or editor of a real work, while we know that he was involved in some way. (Of course there was the “sequel”, as you point out, and possibly that was a straight cash-in attempt.) However, my “Mariane, or someone, as author of known-fiction” theory, while perhaps overcomplicated, does account for the stylistic differences between the original and the sequel (the original writer having gone off and done something else, forcing Guilleragues to fill in with pastiche) without making the – to me untenable – claim that the letters are what they purport to be.

    My girlfriend, primarily a mediaevalist, makes a distinction between “fact” and “truth” that I consider useful if hard to define. When in the Finnsburgh fragment we see:

    “Ne þis ne dagað ēastan, ne hēr draca ne flēogeð,
    “ne hēr þisse healle hornas ne byrnað,

    (“This is not the eastern dawn, nor is a dragon flying here, nor are this hall’s gables burning” – no, it’s actually the light glancing off the enemy’s shields) the idea that a light in the distance could be a dragon is simply something that might be true. Or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (translation from Gutenberg:):

    A.D. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery, dragons flying across the firmament.

    This is truth, even though it is not fact. It does seem to have been utterly required to claim that one’s story was truth, though the justification was often entirely transparent; what I don’t know, and I’d like to find out, is whether the necessity for a claim of truth declined at the same time as the necessity to disavow authorship. Certainly by the end of the century (The Monk, 1796) we have novels – well, romances, in the style of the time – that are overtly untrue, and overtly made up by a single person; this suggests to me that the two changes did at least move in reasonably close parallel.

  4. The shift over time was from truth vs falsehood to moral vs immoral – which, when you think about it, is quite a subtle point of contention. It at least became accepted that a book could be morally true without being literally true – but having demanded “truth”, a lot of critics got very angry when they were given it, particularly with respect to novels written and read by women. My cut-off point for my proposed “evolution of the novel” study is currently 1750; it seems to me that by then everyone was fairly certain what a novel “was”, and the terms of reference for the debate were re-cast.

    Of course, the other joke in this is that the novels hailed at the time as great “moral” works strike most modern readers as horribly immoral! Tempora mutantur.

    The view we’re given of Guilleragues is of course horribly biased, but while I can picture him doing hack-work for Brabin to earn a crust, I can’t see him going public with being nothing more than a book’s translator or editor – not very glamourous!

    It sounds like you have an interesting girlfriend. 🙂

  5. Certainly it seems that a great deal of amatory fiction was condemned as thoroughly immoral (while being read with enthusiasm). After all, the characters in it have affairs and don’t always come to bad ends!

    With my modern sensibility I am inclined to regard “improving” or “moral” works as being overcome by their message: what I want from fiction is plot and character, not a lecture. But this does seem to be a relatively recent innovation in mainstream fiction, say late-Victorian to a first approximation.

    When I read older works, though, I tend to take on the sensibility of the era rather than looking at everything through a modern set of ethics. (Doing the latter would make Beowulf incomprehensible! And as for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight…) So I don’t really “get” the “immoral by modern standards” thing except as an intellectual exercise.

  6. There are ways and ways of doing anything – and certainly there were a lot of very bad writers who obviously felt that if they were “moral” enough, the badness didn’t matter; a lot of religious novels are like that. On the other hand, there are plenty of novels that make their moral point without hitting you over the head. My favourites, though, are the ones that think they’re moral and actually really aren’t, again usually because of bad writing.

    You can’t translate the mores of one era to another, but sometimes the reactions are interesting. By about 1750, everyone was sure that the English novel had been “fixed”. The amatory novel was gone, and it had been replaced by novels where “the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily”. Now, two novels that were always held up at that time as examples of the new, improved English novel were Tom Jones and, particularly, Pamela – which Richardson himself promoted as THE great, moral, improving, reading experience, of course – and a lot of people bought it. But get people to read them now— Most (including young men, I’m happy to say) are pretty dismayed by Tom proving his love for Sophia by having sex with every single other woman who crosses his path (particularly in those pre-condom and penicillin days!). Pamela is the big one, though: I know no reader of it who has reacted with anything less than horror at the notion of a girl being “rewarded” with marriage to her would-be rapist – and then having to be grateful for it!

    At the same time, I’m pretty sure the same readers wouldn’t bat an eyelid over any of Eliza Haywood’s “immoral” works. It’s interesting to me what provokes a reaction these days.

  7. “Tom proving his love for Sophia by having sex with every single other woman who crosses his path”

    …How is that even theoretically supposed to work?

  8. Well, I guess that isn’t the declared intention. 🙂

    Although….there are moments that pretty much amount to, “I love Sophia so much, I just have to have sex with this chambermaid!” Essentially, Tom and Sophia are separated by circumstances, and part after swearing eternal love and fidelity, and then, yeah… Of course, it’s all supposed to be very natural, and just a man being a man, and nothing that Sophia (who eventually busts him) really needs to get upset about.

    There’s a certain morbid corner of my mind where I’ve always had a clear picture of Sophia rotting away from about six simultaneous venereal diseases, all contracted from her adoring husband.

    Fielding outdoes himself in Amelia, where the protagonist raves on for an hour about how he has the most beautiful, wonderful, perfect wife a man could ever have and how much he loves her – and then immediately has sex with another woman.

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