The Love-Letters Of A Portuguese Nun (Part 4)

“I want nothing more from you. I am mad to keep saying the same things over again, I must leave you and not spare you another thought…”
— (?)

The fact that it has taken me three full posts on the subject to even begin talking about the Lettres Portugaises themselves is an indicator of just how much cultural and scholarly baggage they have managed to acquire over the centuries – a case of not being able to see the letters for the words.

In a way I feel I should apologise for the way this series of posts has gone. I picked The Love-Letters Of a Portuguese Nun to kick off this blog because it was a famous work I’d never read, and because I knew it was considered to be a strong influence upon the subsequent development of the novel. I was aware that there was some controversy over its authorship (“some” – how naive I was back then! – last week), but if I’d had a more accurate idea of just how much, I probably would have done things differently. As it turned out, before I realised it I was, well, I was in Mariana, stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.

(Hmm… I hope the operative word in that paragraph isn’t “tedious”.)

Anyway – while I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this journey on my own account, it does strike me as being rather unfair on you, O loyal, uh, reader. (You know who you are!) All I can say now is that I’ll try in the future not to get quite so carried away, and that I promise this will be my last post on this particular subject.

Although I don’t promise it will be short.

Having examined what we might call the external history of the Lettres Portugaises, and the arguments pro and con resulting from it, what I want to do now is examine the text, and see if there are clues in there as to the work’s reality as fiction or non-fiction.

Naturally enough, many people reject the idea of a nun having a love affair! – although not so much that she would as that she could. However, I think it has been adequately demonstrated that the prevailing political and social conditions of the time might have made it possible. Spain had succeeded in forcing Rome to cut its ties with Portugal, which meant that to a large extent the convents were left to their own management, without too much oversight. It was a time of war, and there was much disruption of the normal processes. The Convento da Conceição, although founded on principles of poverty, had over the years become extremely wealthy. In order to remain so during these troubled times, it began opening its doors to potential benefactors, wealthy men, who were entertained with conversation and music and scrummy Portuguese pastries. Visiting the convent became a common pasttime for many young men – possibly including the French officers stationed nearby. Although it was against official regulations, nuns from wealthy families often had private accommodations in the grounds of the convent, rather than being forced to sleep in the communal dormatories. The logistics of an affair might, therefore, have been less daunting than it appears at first glance.

Some critics have taken issue with the fact that, although Mariana’s affair is an open secret at best, she seemingly attracts no punishment. Improbable as this may now seem, it may well have been so. The era of the supposed affair was a time of great lawlessness in Portugal, even amongst the clergy: there are accounts of monks, in particular, involved in everything from murder to tobacco-smuggling – importation of illegal tobacco from Spain was hugely profitable – to sexual misdeeds of all kinds. (Mariana’s brother, Balthazar, had three illegitimate children after entering a monastery.) As usual, there was more toleration for bad male behaviour than female, but the records show that in this respect, the men didn’t have it all their own way. At the turn of the century, a scandal erupted when it was revealed that the nuns in a covent in the north of the country were using the little buildings on the grounds, which supposedly were cooking-houses, to entertain their lovers – and that they, too, were involved in tobacco-smuggling. (It is unclear which of these two transgressions attracted the most official ire.) The king, Dom Pedro II, tried to crack down on the licentious behaviour of his clergy, but even as he did so his son, John (later King John V), was openly taking nuns as his mistresses. In the context of the time, Mariana’s affair may have seemed no more than a minor indiscretion. Indeed, you get the feeling that the affair per se was not the problem, but rather that she had it with a Frenchman.

These stories of misconduct amongst the clergy underscore one of the the most striking aspects of the Lettres Portugaises: what we might call the absence of God. This was an era when many people were forced into convents and monastaries against their wills for political or financial reasons. Mariana and two of her sisters were, to remove them from the inheritance line and thus concentrate the family fortune in their brothers. However, it is one thing for a woman to be a nun in a convent and yet have no sense of vocation; it is another for such a nun to write an account of an illicit sexual affair that contains no hint of either moral or spiritual angst. Mariana’s emotions of shame and humiliation are all entirely personal. There is no hint anywhere that she feels that she has sinned against either man or God.

Perverse as it may appear, this lack of religious feeling is one of the qualities of the Lettres Portugaises that inclines me to think they might be real. It seems to me that if you chose to write about a nun having an affair, these are the sorts of touches you would include, on one hand to exploit your subject matter to the full, and on the other to deflect accusations of immorality or anti-clericalism. Fiction had not, granted, yet reached the point where female misconduct was invariably punished (usually with death, but sometimes with – oh, irony! – entering a convent); but it seems to me unlikely that someone would conceive of such a story and then offer no external framework at all. Similarly, I find the lack of internal reference points persuasive. These are the letters of someone, understanding her situation and circumstances, who writes to a second person equally aware of the situation and circumstances. There is no instance in which they do what openly fictional letters too often do, and have the writer telling the recipient things he already knows, or describing things he has already seen, or explaining references to landmarks and events with which he is perfectly familiar. There is no sense in them of the awareness of an audience, or an audience’s expectations.

Whether they are fiction or non-fiction, the Lettres Portugaises were indeed hugely influential upon the development of the novel – the English novel in particular, which is ironic for reasons we shall consider presently. The main basis of the letters’ influence is that their intense interiority showed people a new way to write. We get almost no sense of Mariana’s surroundings, her companions, her duties, or the day-to-day details of her life in the convent. As one commentator puts it, we know the state of her soul, but not what she had for dinner. Her passion absorbs her to such an extent that, we feel, everything else in her existence has become rather dim and shadowy.

This leads into the other aspect of the letters’ influence, the way in which their writing functions for Mariana as a form of self-psychoanalysis. She cannot always maintain her distance, of course, and repeatedly slips back into pleading, cajoling and making improbable plans; but increasingly with the passing of time and the writing of each individual letter, Mariana is able to step back and examine her situation, the growth of her love, the stages of her affair, her lover’s desertion, how real his love for her could have been – and indeed, how real her love for him. That Mariana has been, if you’ll excuse the expression, “in love with love” becomes increasingly clear to us and to her. It is not very surprising. Confined to a convent since childhood, this epoch in her life has come along and simply overwhelmed her. It is her slow recognition of the true nature of her feelings, that they were not entirely what she first thought, that sustains Mariana through the sickening realisation that what to her has been a great and glorious passion has been to her lover a mere diversion, something to rank alongside hunting and gambling as a way of passing the time between his military engagements. It is not, however, this which finally cures her, but the two letters she does eventually receive in return for her own. The first is short, cold, and written with obvious distaste and reluctance; the second is even worse, full of expressions of kindness and – as Mariana puts it – impertinent protestations of friendship. It is the second one that does the job.

There is little in Mariana’s language that rings false, given her circumstances. We might wish her to effect her cure sooner, but we are not surprised when she cannot. The letters circle around and back again as she is unable to leave her subject alone, her words passing from helpless pleading to bewilderment to indignation and bitter anger, mixed with occasional flashes of sarcasm, such as that provoked when an officer who has agreed to carry a letter for her is kept waiting – and waiting – as she repeatedly tries and fails to sign off. How importunate he is! she observes, when he sends her yet another reminder of his need to leave. No doubt he is forsaking some unfortunate woman…  (There’s even an unnerving, pre-Alanis Morissette moment when she reflects darkly that if she’d really loved him as much as she thought she did, his desertion would have killed her – which it didn’t – so she couldn’t have.)

Published letters, including love-letters, were nothing new in 1669. The magnitude of the success of the Lettres Portugaises then begs the question of what it was about these particular letters that made them catch fire all across Europe. It’s tempting to answer “their reality”. Either way, it seems feasible that the rawness of their language and the refusal by Mariana (whether character or author) to either shrug off her desertion or to suffer it in silence may have struck a nerve at the time, particularly in salon society where, whatever the real feelings of the participants, love was often treated merely a game for sophisticates. In any event, the letters swiftly spread from country to country, being published (legally or illegally) in England, Germany, Italy, Spain and Russia – but not Portugal; not legally. Pirated copies did slip across the border, but an authorised edition of the Lettres Portugaises was not published in their putative country of origin until 1819.

It is the effect of the letters in England that I wish to consider here. As it evolved, there was a strong tendency for the English novel to be defined by what it was not: it was not European; it was not “a romance”, that is, a string of improbable events; it was not immoral – or not as immoral as European romances. There had been “immoral” English novels, but by the mid-18th century, they were being expunged from the record. They were not to be spoken of, except perhaps by tactful allusion, as a reminder of past unpleasantness. The same was true of the (mostly) women who wrote them.

The overriding irony of this is that the single work that had the most influence upon the development of the English novel was that most European of productions, the Lettres Portugaises  – not least by inspiring an “immoral” novel by an “unspeakable” woman, which would itself be enormously influential. Women had long written and published in England, but never with impunity. Those who, in the second half of the 17th century, were trying to make a living by it were subject to disapproval and criticism at best, and violent abuse and social ostracism at worst. This, however, applied to women trying to earn a living as playwrights, journalists or (eventually) novelists. At the same time, there was one branch of literary endeavour at which, it was considered, women excelled – and at which they were allowed to do so: letter-writing. Many women did publish their letters – or wrote letters with the intent of publication – and these ruminations upon the subjects of general interest were embraced.

The arrival in England of the Lettres Portugaises opened a new door for the writers of the day – the women in particular. The emotion and focus of the letters, their lack of any surrounding plot or purpose, gave birth to a new form of literature, the epistolary novel: a story told from the inside out. Such novels could, of course, have a conventional framework, but it was no longer necessary; and as the letters themselves had so graphically demonstrated, they were the perfect vehicle for an amatory tale. For the aspiring women writers of the day, it was an amazing opportunity – a form of novel-writing that seemed to need a female author. The extent of breakthrough that this represented is illustrated by the fact that all of the important female English writers of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and from both sides of the moral divide – that is, Aphra Behn, Delariviere Manley and Eliza Haywood on one side, and Jane Barker and Penelope Aubin on the other – adopted the epistolary novel as a means of expression, very often making the connection with the Lettres Portugaises explicit in their titles. And even as the letters themselves had swiftly entered the language in France – a passionate love-letter was said to be “à la Portugaise” – before long, amorous letters and novels published in England were being advertised as “in the Portuguese style”.

Of all the works influenced by the Lettres Portugaises, the one that was itself the most influential was Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister, published across 1684 – 1687, wherein Behn penned an amatory epistolary novel that not only exploited to the full its thematic connection with the Lettres Portugaises, but allowed her to serve her own political purposes by writing what Claude Brabin had indirectly suggested that the letters might be, a roman à clef of a contemporary scandal. Behn’s novel was written and released in three separate parts. The first volume is very much “in the Portuguese style”, although it does what its forebear does not (could not?) and takes the reader inside the minds of both participants in an illicit affair. In writing the second and third volumes, however, Behn was without the political purpose that shaped the first, and was free to experiment with style. Extraordinarily, the result of this is that the three volumes represent three different kinds of epistolary novel, with each of them taking a different approach to the handling of their material, and above all to the way in which the characters are presented to the reader via their letters.

Later novelists may have disapproved of Aphra Behn, but disapproval did not stop them appropriating her style – and taking credit for it. The worst offender was probably Samuel Richardson, whose moral purpose may have been new, but whose technique was borrowed from a woman whom he frequently condemned. (Richardson liked to condemn Eliza Haywood, too, despite the fact that during the 1730s he reprinted her novels and made a lot of money from them.) There’s no disputing that Richardson’s writing, particularly in Clarissa, took the epistolary novel to heights, and psychological depths, that had never before been achieved; but in doing so he built unacknowledged upon work that came before, that of Aphra Behn, certainly, and of—

the author of the Lettres Portugaises.

[That’s it. I promise!]

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4 Comments to “The Love-Letters Of A Portuguese Nun (Part 4)”

  1. “In the Portugese style” reminds me of the way pornography in the UK in the 1970s was sometimes described as “Danish”; the same sort of “harmless description unless you know what we’re talking about, and if you know what we’re talking about you are already less than pure”.

    I don’t have much else to add, I’m afraid: you seem to have covered this matter at least as far as the edges of my knowledge. I can see and accept your argument for Mariana’s existence as the actual author; I’m not convinced by it, but then I don’t suppose you are entirely wedded to the concept either. One just doesn’t know…

  2. And it probably was used to distinguish between “those in the know” and those who weren’t.

    Anyway, as you’ll doubtless be relieved to hear, I don’t have anything to add either! 🙂 – not that there isn’t plenty more out there. It’s almost scary. And no, certainly as far as Mariana goes, if someone comes along with a better (or at least more proven) explanation, that’s fine. Until then, “I choose to believe”.

  3. I say this completely sincerely; I was waiting for Part 4 with anticipation. Maybe not breathless anticipation, but anticipation nonetheless. Fascinating essay on a subject I’ve never heard of before.

  4. Thank you, Jason, that’s very kind of you. And don’t worry – “breathless anticipation” is way beyond my current aspirations!

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