Book and a Movie - Letters of a Portuguese Nun: Uncovering the Mystery Behind a 17th Century Forbidden Love

My life was yours from when I first saw you and I take some pleasure in sacrificing it to you. A thousand times a day I send my every sigh to find you.  

I stumbled upon this treasure at a used book sale where the teaser, “a historical mystery” caused it to be misfiled with fiction, yet the whole point, as author Myriam Cyr posits, is that nothing could be further from the truth. The five sensational letters it examines, written in 1667-68 and long thought by male scholars to be the work of a man, she argues were indeed penned by a young nun heartbroken over her affair with a French officer. It sounds too juicy to be true and inspired Samuel Richardson’s classic 1748 epistolary novel, Clarissa. Yet Cyr proves through historical scholarship the societal and political conditions that likely enabled a cloistered and cultured woman, learned in languages and employed as a scribe, to pen some of the world’s greatest love letters.

Published in the original French as a diminutive volume easily hidden within a fan, they were a phenomenon among ladies and gentlemen alike. Their power hinges on their ineffable truth, merely hinting at a physical intimacy eclipsed by emotions recognizable by any who have experienced an all-consuming passion—and perhaps been abandoned. I am so angry at myself when I think of all I sacrificed for you, she writes, And yet, I can see that my remorse is not real, that in earnest, I would have liked, for love of you, to have encountered greater dangers, and that I take a morbid pleasure in having risked my life and honor for you.

Such expression, Rousseau said, “. . . that celestial fire that warms and brazens the soul, that genius that consumes and devours, that burning eloquence, those sublime emotions that carry their marvels to the bottom of our hearts, leave always to be desired in women’s writings. They cannot describe or feel love.” Such was the sexist party line for 340 years before Cyr, an actress who became obsessed with the letters onstage, was driven to further the research behind them.

Among the many clips you will find on Youtube related to this work are numerous red herrings: a similarly titled but misleading 1977 sexploitation flick and a 2014 French film that appears to more closely honor the intent. But for a true understanding of the book, watch the author explain her work in this teaser and full lecture

Her case, I believe, is convincing. But more important than the question of authorship is the moral that the Portuguese nun, Mariana Alcoforado, uncovers: It may be that you will find greater beauty, but never will you find such love, and all the rest is nothing.