For almost 350 years, the letters written by a heartbroken Portuguese nun to her French lover who abandoned her have captivated the world. These letters have inspired painters and writers such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Sonnets from the Portuguese) and the authors of Dangerous Liaisons and Clarissa.
Even though these letters have captured the imaginations of many, the authorship of the letters has been questioned for centuries. Were they, as Myriam Cyr suggests, written by Mariana Alcoforado to her lover, Count Chamilly? Or were they written as a work of fiction by a French courtier? Cyr presents compelling research to support her theory that a beautiful young nun was truly the author of these letters.
Cyr provides details of Mariana's life, partly from records and partly through speculation. Mariana, hailing from a prominent family, enters the convent at a very young age, where she receives an education in foreign languages, history, culinary arts, and mathematics. When she is nearly twenty-six years old, she meets Count Chamilly, who visits the convent with other French military officers in Portugal assisting with their war for independence. They begin a passionate and forbidden love affair that leaves Mariana devastated once Chamilly returns to France. She writes him letters in French, describing her despair, and once the letters begin circulating in France, they cause a sensation.
While this seems logical enough, there is a reason why the authenticity of the letters is disputed. Cyr gives some information about that as well, but in such a way that it further supports her argument that Mariana composed the letters.
The letters themselves are also reproduced here, although they only make up a small section of the book. The context in which they were written is fascinating, and Cyr's research leads to some insightful conclusions. It is indeed plausible that a Portuguese nun could write these heart-wrenching missives, and Cyr does a tremendous job of giving a voice to Mariana.
Letters of a Portuguese Nun is a remarkable, engaging read, and would be whether it is fiction or nonfiction. Cyr follows the history of these letters, from within the confines of the convent, to the glittering salons of Paris, to the halls of academia today. By doing so, she demonstrates the timelessness and boundlessness of Mariana's sentiments.