Marianna Alcoforado

Alcoforado, Marianna


 ALCOFORADO, MARIANNA (1640-1723), Portuguese authoress, writer of The Letters of a Portuguese Nun, was the daughter of a landed proprietor in Alemtejo.  Beja, her birthplace, was the chief garrison town of that province, itself the principal theatre of the twenty-eight years’ war with Spain that followed the Portuguese revolution of 1640, and her widowed father, occupied with administrative and military commissions, placed Marianna in her childhood in the wealthy convent of the Conception for security and education.  She made her profession as a Franciscan nun at sixteen or earlier, without any real vocation, and lived a routine life in that somewhat relaxed house until her twenty-fifth year, when she met Noel Bouton.  This man, afterwards marquis de Chamilly, and marshal of France, was one of the French officers who came to Portugal to serve under the great captain, Frederick, Count Schomberg, the re-organizer of the Portuguese army. 

During the years 1665-1667 Chamilly spent much of his time in and about Beja, and probably became acquainted with the Alcoforado family through Marianna’s brother, who was a soldier.  Custom then permitted religious to receive and entertain visitors, and Chamilly, aided by his military prestige and some flattery, found small difficulty in betraying the trustful nun.  Before long their intrigue became known and caused a scandal, and to avoid the consequences Chamilly deserted Marianna and withdrew clandestinely to France.  The letters to her lover which have earned her renown in literature were written between December 1667 and June 1668, and they described the successive stages of faith, doubt and despair through which she passed.  As a piece of unconscious psychological self-analysis, they are unsurpassed; as a product of the Peninsular heart they are unrivalled.  These five short letters written by Marianna to “expostulate her desertion” form one of the few documents of extreme human experience, and reveal a passion which in the course of two centuries has lost nothing of its heat.  Perhaps their dominant note is reality, and, sad reading as they are from the moral standpoint, their absolute candor, exquisite tenderness and entire self-abandonment have excited the wonder and admiration of great men and women in every age, from Madame de Sevigne to W. E. Gladstone. 

There are signs in the fifth letter that Marianna had begun to conquer her passion, and after a life of rigid penance, accompanied by much suffering, she died at the age of eighty-three.  The letters came into the possession of the comte de Guilleragues, director of the Gazette de France, who turned them into French, and they were published anonymously in Paris in January 1669.  A Cologne edition of the same year stated that Chamilly was their addressee, which is confirmed by St Simon and Duclos, but the name of their authoress remained undivulged.  In 1810, however, Boissonade discovered Marianna’s name written in a copy of the first edition by a contemporary hand, and the veracity of this ascription has been placed beyond doubt by the recent investigations of Luciano Cordeiro, who found a tradition in Beja connecting the French captain and the Portuguese nun.  The letters created a sensation on their first appearance, running through five editions in a year, and, to exploit their popularity, second parts, replies and new replies were issued from the press in quick succession.  Notwithstanding that the Portuguese original of the five letters is lost, their genuineness is as patent as the spuriousness of their followers, and though Rousseau was ready to wager they were written by a man, the principal critics of Portugal and France have decided against him.  It is now generally recognized that the letters are a verbatim translation from the Portuguese.

The foreign bibliography of the Letters, containing almost one hundred numbers, will be found in Cordeiro’s admirable study, Soror Marianna, A Friera Portugueza, 2nd ed. (Lisbon, 1891).  Besides the French editions, versions exist in Dutch, Danish, Italian and German; and the English bibliography is given by Edgar Prestage in his translation The Letters of a Portuguese Nun (Marianna Alcoforado), 3rd ed. (London, 1903).  The French text of the editio princeps was printed in the first edition (1893) of this book.  Edmund Gosse in the Fortnightly Review, vol. xlix. (old series) p. 506, shows the considerable influence exercised by the Letters on the sentimental literature of France and England.





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