“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 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…]