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Letters of a Portuguese Nun: Uncovering the Mystery Behind a 17th Century Forbidden Love [Hardcover]

Myriam Cyr
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Product Description

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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

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

Review

At first it seems odd that actor Miriam Cyr would assume the detective’s role in the battle over the authorship of history’s most famous cache of letters. Penned by a spurned lover, the Letters of a Portuguese Nun were first published in 1669. Despite initial doubts-call it cynicism-I found myself becoming as intrigued by the story as Ms. Cyr herself, who first encountered the Letters in spoken form at Montreal’s Théâtre de Quat’ Sous. Initially published in Paris, the Letters were addressed to a (unnamed) French Count who had been stationed in Portugal, where, between battles, he met, seduced and then ditched a twenty-six-year-old nun called Mariana. He left, she wrote the letters. Or did she? This is the mystery that Miriam Cyr sets out to solve in her first book.
After participating in English readings of the Letters in New York, Cyr spent three years researching the facts behind their conception and publication. What results is a fresh look at an intriguing period, as well as a strong confirmation not only that the nun existed but that the passionate letters were all her own work. These five letters (included in her text), once bound and published, could be easily concealed in a man’s pocket or behind a woman’s fan; as such, they served rather like stage props in the endlessly popular romantic games played in the Paris salons where they first circulated.
What happened after their publication forms the heart of the mystery, but first Cyr relates the story of how a nun and a soldier managed to enjoy a love affair in 1666-67, in the southern garrison town of Beja. Experienced French soldiers had been engaged to help in the struggle for Portugal’s freedom from Spain, and this explains the presence of lifelong soldier Noel Bouton Chamilly in the town. As interesting as the military politics of the day were, far more interesting is Cyr’s account of how local nunneries functioned. At the age of ten (too young by law), Mariana Alcoforada had entered a convent at the behest of her father, a local bigwig. This actually served her well, considering women’s severely limited options at the time. There she was educated and enjoyed a degree of autonomy suitable to her well-to-do station; she had a house of her own, where she raised a younger sister and a niece.
Given the near-constant state of war and occasional famine in Portugal, economics decreed the necessity of benefactors, so the convents and their charming silk-clad residents held receptions where tea and delicate pastries were served; nuns sang, played instruments, and even danced. It all sounds rather like the Japanese Geisha tradition, except that sexual affairs were, of course, forbidden. Although the names of players have long been known, Cyr couches her account of emotional details with careful phrasing (“it is impossible to tell”, “we can only guess”). Practical details prove more satisfying. Chamilly, for instance, likely left Mariana’s house on the convent grounds in the morning, disguised as one of the painters (who wore large hats) constantly at work in the “city within a city.”
Cyr’s larger picture of Portuguese court life emerges as a tug-of-war between the reformers and the dissolute, the latter personified by the new king, Dom Afonso. Gluttonous, uneducated, self-indulgent, Afonso married a pretty, elegant French princess, who, witnesses record, seemed horrified to meet her new husband in the flesh. She promptly fell in love with his younger brother, Dom Pedro, and they eventually wed, following the forced abdication of the impotent elder brother. At the height of the court drama, Mariana’s French officer left the country. Perhaps, Cyr surmises, the French officer’s indiscretion with the daughter of an influential businessman had become known, and any scandal involving a foreigner threatened the stability of the new royal alliance. As one love affair prevails, the other ends.
Cyr’s meticulous tracing of the affair’s chronology and the society that fostered such passion, are followed by Mariana’s frantic outpourings, her attempts to deal with abandonment and pain. Her missives to her lover, printed in Cyr’s book, reveal the harrowed state of a mind at the extreme of suffering. The five letters “Shook the World”-at least the social, literary world. In Portugal, as in France, love and its themes had long functioned as a kind of private theatre, but no one had ever seen anything as clear and direct as Mariana’s anguished letters. As Cyr writes, they “broke the code” surrounding the “romantic injustice” of male behaviour.
Closer to the spirit of the times was the writer Guilleragues, the man first credited with writing the Letters, who wrote a lightly satirical series of “Valentines” (included with the first Letters), verses for a game that randomly coupled names chosen from a box. His efforts were as playful as the nun’s letters were sensual and despairing. Cyr makes a strong case that such a man could hardly be believed to have written in such wildly different styles. Yet this is the very argument made-and widely upheld today-by a pair of French scholars in 1962, following the trail blazed in 1748 by the philosopher Rousseau, who argued that “that celestial fire that warms and brazens the soul” is foreign to women writers.
The fact of the letters first appearing in French is now the sticking point, not their feminine source. Cyr proves that the educated Mariana could easily have known French-she was, after all, her convent’s scribe-and that the strange rhythms in her prose are precisely explained by her Portuguese mother tongue. Moreover, the exact references to her personal story could not have been known to anyone else. Why, then, is the French deception assumed? By law, Cyr notes, an author’s name had to accompany a published work (and the Letters, however obtained, were by an unknown hand). Thus they were credited to the unemployed Guilleragues, along with his Valentines, and quickly became repeat bestsellers in both original and pirated editions. Cyr generously credits not Guilleragues’s writing talent, but his excellent nose for sniffing out literary treasures. While ending his career as French Ambassador to Turkey, he hired a young man named Galland to peruse Persian writings, the result being the translation into French of the Persian classic, The Arabian Nights.
Perhaps the greatest testimony to the Letters’ power is not the argument concerning who wrote them (Cyr proves that Mariana wrote them, beyond a doubt), but their undeniable effect on other writers. The Letters influenced a raft of great writers, from Samuel Richardson (Clarissa), Choderlos de Laclos (Dangerous Liaisons), to Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Sonnets from the Portuguese). We have long passed the age of literary sentiment and high romance, but even in these ironic times the Letters play a role when deception in love rears its unlovely head. My most recent sighting occurred recently when I was reading Montreal wit Edward O. Phillips’s hilarious meditation on the downsizing years, No Early Birds. His narrator’s sharp eye discovers identical, carefully underlined copies of the Letters just as a Westmount yard sale is about to begin; both were given in the past as love tokens by the same man to two different women, lifelong friends. Mariana’s letters, it seems, can still provoke scandal, four hundred years after they appeared.
Nancy Wigston (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada
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