Letters of a Portuguese Nun: Uncovering the Mystery Behind a 17th Century Forbidden Love Hardcover – Jan 11 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
In 1669, five letters, supposedly written by a Portuguese nun, were published in Paris. They spoke of heartbreak at the desertion of a French lover after a passionate affair. The letters were a resounding success in French polite and literary society, and almost immediately sparked a controversy. Were they really the anguished cries of a scorned woman or the work of a talented male writer desperate for employment? Cyr, a stage and screen actress, claims—contra most scholars—that Mariana Alcoforado, the daughter of a rich and influential family, wrote the letters to the dashing French officer Chamilly after he returned to France. The story is fascinating, and Cyr does a good job of setting the context of 17th-century Portuguese and French life, explaining the role of convents in social and commercial realms as well as the international politics that brought Chamilly to Portugal. It's clear that Cyr did extensive research; she is not, however, a writer or a historian. Though her account is compelling and plausible, proof of Mariana's authorship, or even that she had an affair with Chamilly, remains circumstantial at best, and Cyr's argument rests on her own strong response to the sentiments in the letters. (Jan. 11)
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In 1669, a Parisian bookseller published a volume of love letters that took Paris by storm. Purportedly written by a Portuguese nun to a French officer, they detailed a forbidden love affair so passionate it captured the imagination of an entire nation. Although debate remained as to the identity, sex, and status--an impoverished writer, perhaps?--of the author, the letters themselves touched a collective chord in the hearts and the minds of the literati. Centuries later, Cyr traces the origins of the letters to Mariana Alcoforado, the cloistered daughter of a Portuguese aristocrat. As the tale of the star-crossed lovers unfolds, one gets the sense that Cyr is more caught up in the possibilities of a romantic love story than in actually authenticating the authorship of the letters. Margaret Flanagan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top Customer Reviews
Buy it, read it, love it!
"It may be you will find greater beauty, but NEVER will you find such love, and all the rest is nothing"... such are the words written by 26 years old Mariana Alcoforado in a first letter -as she was a shut in nun in Portugal- to her recently lost lover, a kind of misteryous, tall, intelligent, handsome and passionate french officer (monsieur Chamilly) who's destiny brought him to the scene of a local civil warfare thet involved stationed troops and a few times romantic encounters...
In 1669, in Paris, a volume entitled "Portuguese letters" was published by the most successful publisher in town, the thing was -maybe- not even him expected such a fire started out of these five love texts... and the derived controversy in regards to whom these words really belonged to, for many thought they were a fictional work... such was their power on european societies at the time. Now, for anyone who ever has lived such kind of fire in his / her belly, it is clear such controversy is absurd... the letters were written by Mariana, no doubt... or in any case don't believe me! judge by yourself... just be prepared to look at this mirror of adventure, pain, erotism, love, life and dead... after all, as a popular salon game played in 1664 Paris that involved 34 inconvenient questions in which one of them read:
"In love what is the greatest crime? to be refused or not to have dared to ask?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
A lot gets lost, and a lot is saved that would perhaps be better off lost. When looking back on the scrambled fog of the past, people often see only what they want to, and only what they can believe to be true. Unfortunately this means that a lot of what actually happened becomes distorted by the biases of the day. And in the shuffle, it's often the stories of the individuals that are lost, invalidated or claimed to be something they are not.
Luckily, there are those such as actress Myriam Cyr who are willing to work to give a voice to those individual stories that are distorted by the warped mirror of time. In her first book, Letters of a Portuguese Nun, she explores the story of Mariana Alcoforado, a seventeenth century nun who fell in love with a French officer. Gracefully intertwining their individual stories and the cultural events of the time, Cyr takes us on a journey back over three hundred years ago into the heart of a forbidden passion. Against the claims that the 1669 publication of a volume of love letters entitled Portuguese Letters was the fabrication of a (male) French aristocrat, Cyr asserts that the 27 year old nun Mariana was the real author and the letters did, in fact, come from the heart of longing and of loss.
In spite of all the passion and drama of the story, what struck me most in reading the book was the passion of its author. Through the work, the reader can feel the author's irresistible drive to tell the truth as she sees it. A quote from the introduction lingers with me, she writes: "...I thought of the times when, as women, we are not heard, and how after 300 years Mariana, whose words have changed so many lives, is not allowed the most basic of rights, the right to claim her own voice."
Myriam Cyr gives her that right, and in turn validates the whole contested history of female authorship from Sappho to Dorothy Wordsworth, giving the privileges of ownership back to a millennia of women who could not claim them for themselves.
For that I am cannot help but feel both inspired and grateful for her work.
The strange thing, in modern eyes, is that at the time nobody could believe a woman had actually written the letters because they were so full of life and so well expressed - and this view continued right into the 20th century.
Myriam Cyr has put the letters back in the context of the times that they were written and in doing so has taken us into the little known world of 17th century Portuguese convents and politics. She has managed to bring alive a world of war, love and letters. This is a genuine mystery that has been clarified in this book. Having said this, the letters themselves don't seem quite as remarkable today but then we have the benefit of a couple of centuries of literature to draw on that the Mariana did not. This book is a quick and easy read that may make you look at the 17th century world in a way that you'll probably never see in another book on the period.
Mariana Alcoforado was born in 1640 in the picturesque town of Beja, Portugal, and was put in a convent at the age of ten. The Marquis of Chamilly was a Frenchman, a born soldier who was helping the Portuguese fight incursions from Spain. He was garrisoned in Beja in 1666, and the nuns looking out on the fields around them were entertained by the sight of officers exercising their horses. Mariana was captivated by Chamilly's dash in such capers, and inevitably the officers were invited into the convent. As she often has to do, Cyr invites us to imagine details, such as their meeting and growing acquaintance; even in the letters there are few details about any courting. We also have to imagine how the pair eluded detection, or how Chamilly might have been able to sneak into Mariana's quarters before she was locked inside for the night, and how he sneaked out again. Cyr summarizes, "Unsuspected and unseen, Chamilly and Mariana entered a world more intimate than a prayer and more ethereal than air." There was no dramatic discovery of the affair by authorities, but it ended when Chamilly was called back into the official service of his king, Louis XIV. He simply chose duty over love. In her letters to him, Mariana wrote, "It may be you will find greater beauty, but never will you find such love, and all the rest is nothing."
That sort of sentiment is unsurprising now, but when the letters were published in France, they were a sensation, at least partially because they addressed romantic injustice; women were supposed to keep quiet about men's behavior toward them, however painful or unfair. How the letters came to be so widely known is full of mysteries. The dashing and victorious Chamilly may well have been invited to the evening salons of the marquise de Sabl?, and may have circulated the letters himself, which would not have been seen at the time as a violation of privacy. The marquise had a fear of germs, and perhaps her doctor copied the writing out for her (as he did do for other documents) so she would not be contaminated by holding the originals. Perhaps the doctor sought out the worldly and beloved Guilleragues, a witty and well-educated man, to help translate Mariana's colloquialisms. Indeed, many scholars attribute the authorship of the letters to him. With the publication of the letters, any love letter became known as "a Portuguese." Counterfeit versions came out, and whether the letters were real or imaginary was a question that was argued then as now. It was all settled in the mind of Rousseau, who sniffed that "women in general do not like art... they cannot describe or feel love...I would bet everything in the world that the Portuguese letters were written by a man." It is this sort of sentiment that has entered even into scholarly debate over the centuries. Cyr can't prove her case for Marian's authorship, but she still makes a good argument, reminding us that the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one. The resolution is only part of the book, which invites us to read the letters for ourselves, and to contemplate the dance of love performed in an exotic and distant locale.
In addition to her detailed and carefully attended and written literary history, and to the subtle nuances of a love relationship still quivering in its newness, Myriam Cyr tends to the unfolding darker corners of this mysteriously entangled love story as she interprets the searingly passionate LETTERS: Cyr draws the reader closer and closer to the beating pulse of what makes love real for each of us -- then she sweeps us away, and we are breathless.
Four years of critical work by the author -- scouring with painstaking care the books, letters and papers in the old libraries of Europe and beyond, checking data and facts -- have blossomed into this lovingly researched first novel. As well, Ms. Cyr has an irresistible speaking voice for listening audiences: In her Boston speaking tours she reads the Portuguese Nun's LETTERS with a surge of such poetic passion, beauty and emotion that it is as if she wrote these letters herself.
LETTERS echoes in the feeling heart of the contemporary reader --and lingers. The tender power of this haunting 17th century love story reaches to our essence and activates an empathic compassion for the longing and desire for what is fundamentally vital to our souls in our search for love.
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