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The Portuguese Letters: A Scintillating Romance Between Forlorn Nun and French Soldier

Authentic love letters from a passionate nun? Or 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 soldier 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 once Noël left Portugal, it ended just as suddenly leaving Mariana anguished and heartbroken.

A publishing sensation that took over Paris

What resulted from Mariana and Noël's passionate fling is The Portuguese Letters: a series of five letters that enraptured Parisian society in the late 1600s. Published anonymously in Paris in 1669 — at first, not even the recipient of of the love letters was identified — the letters express the fiery passion of an abandoned nun begging her French lover to return.

The mysterious origin of the letters coupled with their intimate nature and the telling of a nun's forbidden love affair all 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

Over the course of the 17th century, the letters became a European sensation published into 40 editions and translated into multiple languages. Gabriel-Joseph de Vergne, the Count of Guilleragues and secretary to the Prince of Conti, was credited as the French translator in early edition of the published works. For this reason, it was long believed that the letters were a translation from their original Portuguese source.

Learn more about this love story through a writer's visit to Mértola

Who really wrote The Portuguese Letters?

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 originally credited translator. For the past 100+ years, this has been the prevailing theory.

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.

Listen to Myriam Cyr 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 incited 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.

>> Buy a special leather-bound edition of The Portuguese Letters here.


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