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The Portuguese Letters: A Torrid Romance Between a Young Nun and French Soldier

Passionate love letters from a devout nun? Or pure literary fiction? Find out the truth behind the sensational Portuguese Letters.

A black leatherbound copy of "Letters of a Portuguese Nun" on a bench in front of traditional Portuguese house painted white with yellow trim

Mariana and Noël

Her name was Mariana Alcoforado. A 25-year-old Franciscan nun who belonged to a convent located in Beja, Portugal overlooking the small village of Mértola.

His name was Noël Bouton, Marquis de Chamilly. A 29-year-old French military officer stationed in Beja in the middle of the 17th century to fight in the Portuguese Restoration War.

Noël Bouton passed by Mariana's convent window as she took in the view of Mértola — the now storied janela de Mértola (window of Mértola) — and a love affair quickly flourished. But as soon as Noël's post in Portugal ended, their romance also ended just as suddenly. Noël disappeared leaving Mariana anguished and heartbroken.

A publishing sensation that took over Paris

What cemented this passionate fling in history was The Portuguese Letters: a series of five letters that enraptured Parisian society in the late 1600s. Published in Paris in 1669, the letters expressed the fiery passion and despair of an abandoned nun (Mariana) begging her French lover (Noël) to return. Talk about scandal! Not only was a nun expressing sexual desire, but doing so in such a way to make a man blush.

Fueling the flames of public intrigue was the fact that the letters were published anonymously — not even the recipient of the love letters was revealed at first. The mysterious origin of the letters, coupled with their intimate nature, led to such a fervor that for a time, the French word portugaise (Portuguese) became synonymous with a "passionate love letter."

“I am writing to you for the last time, and I hope to let you see by the difference in the terms and manner of this letter that you have at last persuaded me that you no longer love me, and that therefore I ought no longer to love you, I will send you on the first opportunity all that I still have of yours. Do not be afraid that I shall write to you; I will not even put your name on the packet.” — Mariana Alcoforado

But what if the letters were just fiction? What if there was no romance between Mariana and Noël? No devout nun lusting after a foreign French soldier.

Who really wrote The Portuguese Letters?

Over the course of the 17th century, the letters maintained their authentic status and became a European sensation published into 40 editions and translated into multiple languages. A man named Gabriel-Joseph de Vergne was credited as the French translator in an early edition of the published works. It was this translation credit that gave credence to the idea that the letters were a translation from its original Portuguese source.

Explore this love story even more through a writer's visit to Mértola.

Interestingly, it was not until 1810 that Mariana was identified as the Portuguese nun and protagonist behind the letters — nearly 150 years after they were first published. But even before her name was discovered, the letters' authorship had always been attributed to "the Portuguese nun from Beja." That is, until the 20th century.

At which time, it was discovered that the letters were not in fact a verbatim translation from Mariana. And, it was even contested whether Mariana a real person! Instead, a new theory suggested that the letters were a fictitious work crafted from the imagination of Gabriel-Joseph, the original French translator. And this new theory took hold such that it's been the prevailing theory for the past 100+ years.

Could it be true that a Frenchman had so deceptively channeled the soul of a scorned Portuguese woman?

But could it be true that a Frenchman had so deceptively channeled the soul of a scorned Portuguese woman? At least one person remains strongly convinced that Mariana is the authentic writer behind the letters.

Leonel Borrela introduces the "Janela de Mértola" from where Mariana first saw Noël

A modern argument in favor of Mariana Alcoforado

In 2006, Myriam Cyr wrote the book Letters of a Portuguese Nun: Uncovering the Mystery Behind a 17th-Century Forbidden Love where she defends that Mariana Alcoforado absolutely did exist!

And not only that, she argues that Mariana was an educated nun who had the literary ability to have written the letters — a fact that had been challenged earlier on because it was thought that an isolated nun would not have had the creativity or cultural background to write such elaborate letters (trying hard not to take offense for her here).

Listen to author, Myriam Cyr, support the veracity of Mariana Alcoforado and her letters on NPR.

Ultimately, Myriam Cyr did not introduce any new arguments to support the idea that Mariana wrote The Portuguese Letters and therefore, didn't convince many literary experts that Mariana was the author.

Regardless of whether Mariana Alcoforado truly wrote The Portuguese Letters, it placed a Portuguese nun at the center of a torrid love affair and brilliantly portrayed the mindset of a woman's desperation triggered by a betrayed lover — and her eventual acceptance of a love that was not meant to be.

>> Explore reader reviews of The Portuguese Letters on Goodreads here.

>> Buy a copy of The Portuguese Letters here.


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Hispania (academic journal)

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