The Portuguese Letters: A Literary Mystery in the Alentejo
In the 17th century, a young Portuguese nun fell in love with a French soldier. But did she really pen the evocative letters begging him to return?
I first heard the name “Mariana Alcoforado” from a history professor at Evora University in the rural Alentejo region of Portugal—an area not far from Lisbon known for its rolling hills and endless cork and olive trees. The story Professor Libanio Murteira Reis told of a clandestine love affair between this nun and a soldier—and the subsequent literary mystery that unfolded—enchanted me so much that I decided to seek out the remnants of the tale. I began with the scholarly writings devoted to this controversial story and the landmarks that remain from the life of this nun born in the 17th century in the town of Beja.
The rough outlines of her life are known. She was born to a wealthy, land-owning family, and as was common, her father placed her in a convent around the age of sixteen to ensure her safety. Beja was the stage of a long conflict with Spain that began with the Portuguese Revolution in 1640, the same year Mariana was born. As a Franciscan nun of the Poor Ladies, Mariana’s life would have been somewhat constrained by her position as a woman of the cloth, but not totally isolated.
Due to this comparatively relaxed environment, Mariana was able to meet a French officer named Noel Bouton (later, the Marquis de Chamilly), stationed in Beja in 1665 to support the resistance against the Spanish. It is said that Mariana first saw Bouton through a window at the Convento de Nossa Senhora da Conceição. It may have been her brother, a Portuguese soldier, who first introduced them.
The relationship that evolved between the 25 year-old nun and the 29 year-old soldier was a clandestine one. Though romantic liaisons were not uncommon for young nuns, they were not accepted among polite society. But when you visit Portuguese convents of the time, and hear tales about the intrigues that took place in both cloistered convents and more relaxed sisterhoods, it’s not hard to imagine notes passed through barred windows and secret meetings arranged in underground tunnels. Eventually, the scandal of their love affair may have threatened to become public. Bouton deserted Mariana and fled back to France.
It is said that her heartbreak prompted Mariana to write a series of letters to Bouton. Little did she know that her private sentiments would soon reach a public audience all over Europe. The five letters were first published in France in 1669 under the title Les Lettres Portugaises and achieved immediate success for their honesty and passion. Though the original letters have been lost, I was able to find an English translation through the library of the University of California at Los Angeles (they are available to read online), and I can attest that they are still incredibly engaging today. Mariana writes from the perspective of a guileless young girl who cannot fathom that she has been seduced and discarded by someone she esteemed so highly. But she also makes reference to small details of their time together in such a way that it is possible to imagine the whole progression of their romance and the hours they must have passed hidden within her room at the convent. I couldn’t stop reading until I’d come to the end of the last letter, in which Mariana finally resolves to give up her love for Bouton and seek emotional peace.
For years after their publication, the series of letters earned praise as a document of incredible insight into the mind of a 17th-century woman. Yet historians continue to debate whether Mariana really authored the letters attributed to her—or whether a Frenchman named Gabriel-Joseph de la Vergne, Comte de Guilleragues, was in fact the author. The Comte was a diplomat as well as a friend of the famous letter-writer Madame de Sevigne, whose epistles to her daughter provide a glimpse into the French aristocracy. The publisher of Les Lettres Portugaises, Claude Barbin, claimed that they had been written by “a Portuguese lady of society.” But many scholars say they are a work of careful fiction—depicting an invented female psyche progressing through stages of passionate love, despair, and resolve.
Readers of the time, however, were totally convinced of their authenticity, and the letters became a huge publishing sensation. Reading through them, I found myself persuaded that they could only have been written by a woman who had experienced romantic disillusionment:
I was young; I was trustful. I had been shut up in this convent since my childhood...I had never heard the praises which you constantly gave me. Methought I owed you the charms and the beauty which you found in me, and which you were the first to make me perceive.
The letters also served as a model for 17th century Sentimentalism, characterized by an emphasis on emotions over logic. As a result, the word “Portugais” came to mean “love letter.”
In Beja today, a city that rises out of the bucolic scenery of the Alentejo, the evidence of Mariana that remains seems to capture the unrequited passion that consumed her life. Perhaps the most haunting spot is the now famous window known as the janela de Mertola (so called because it faces the city of Mertola in the distance). You can stand behind the reconstructed window, reaching floor to ceiling and criss-crossed with iron bars, and imagine what it might have been like for Mariana to glimpse her French officer for the first time. With its ironwork depicting a Catholic cross, it is a reminder of the obstacles that would have faced a young nun in love. In her second letter to Bouton, Mariana writes that another nun, trying to bolster her spirits, convinced Mariana to leave her room “and thinking to divert me took me for a walk upon the balcony...I went with her, but at once cruel memories assailed me, and these made me weep for the rest of the day.” Today the convent that once contained this balcony—and where Mariana lived until her death in 1723—has been converted into a regional museum.
Beja is an ancient town, once known as Pax Julia by the Romans, and its long history shows in the Roman arches that remain in the old city walls, along with signs of the Moorish occupation. Its castle tower, constructed on top of Roman ruins, is an excellent point from which to gaze over the rolling plains of the Alentejo, a landscape largely unchanged since the 17th century. Ask any local to recount the story of Soror Mariana, and they will gladly give you their version of events.
In 2006, a new book called Letters of a Portuguese Nun: Uncovering the Mystery Behind a 17th c. Forbidden Love by Canadian author Myriam Cyr re-asserted the belief that Mariana Alcoforado herself penned the letters. Cyr argues that Mariana was well educated enough to have written them, and that they show certain signs of having been written first in Portuguese (though published in French). She quotes French author Stendhal as having said, “One has not loved until they have loved like the Portuguese nun.”
If she did indeed write the letters, then Mariana Alcoforado’s consuming passion was not for naught—it made her a published writer, with a world-wide audience more admiring and compassionate than her French officer ever was. Her story continues to be a popular one in European literary circles. As Professor Murteira Reis wrote to me, “Some experts defend the stance that she wrote the letters, and others say it’s apocrypha. In fact there is no definitive proof. However, I think that part of the charm is the mystery.”
Still, a lot of doubt remains. Anna Klobucka, author of The Portuguese Nun: Formation of a National Myth, says that Mariana Alcoforado is nothing more than a “fabrication of the Portuguese national imagination.” She suggests that the fate of Mariana—the provincial nun longing for her dashing French lover—mirrored the fate of Portugal as it became marginalized by greater imperialist powers like England and France. Perhaps, she says, this could account for the Portuguese attachment to the story.
Whatever the case, it’s clear that Mariana Alcoforado occupies an important place in the country’s history. Recently, the Portuguese artist João Cutileiro created a monument to her in the form of a replica of her barred convent window. It now stands in the Parque do Monteiro-Mor in northern Lisbon.
I think her story is a fascinating reason to explore the hilltop town of Beja on a trip to the wine- and history-rich region of Alentejo. It’s also a powerful reminder of how much has changed, with regard to the role of women in European society—and how much remains the same, with regard to romantic love.