Anna Klobucka
The Portuguese Nun: Formation of a National Myth
Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 2000


This study describes and analyzes cultural and literary mythology surrounding the figure of the seventeenth-century nun Mariana Alcoforado as the presumed author of the celebrated collection of love letters that originally appeared in 1669 in French under the title of Lettres portugaises (known in their many English editions as Portuguese Letters or Letters of a Portuguese Nun). The Lettres portugaises may be characterized as a multi-layered cultural artifact whose significance has been construed and negotiated throughout the history of its diverse interpretations and debates concerning its origin and meaning. Ostensibly written by a nun cloistered in a provincial Portuguese convent to her departed lover, an officer in the French army, they are nowadays widely reputed to have been a literary fake authored by a seventeenth-century French writer.

Although the Lettres portugaises have acquired a canonical status in the history of French and Western European literature and their attribution and significance have been widely disputed by critics, existing interpretations of the text have not so far taken into account a highly complex life of their own that the Lettres came to acquire in their supposed country of origin. While discussions of the text on the international scene have traditionally foregrounded the issue of its author's gender and psychological identity, eschewing the question of his or her nationality, the Portuguese debate has, by contrast, intimately linked both aspects, inscribing the mythical figure of "Soror Mariana" within the literary and cultural history of the nation.

The Portuguese Nun examines the process of national reappropriation of the text from the Romantic period until its latest, postmodern manifestations exemplified most remarkably by the feminist manifesto Novas Cartas Portuguesas (New Portuguese Letters). From its first "retranslations" into Portuguese in the early nineteenth century, this slim collection of five love letters has retained its status of a somewhat improbable textual support for one of Portugal's most persistently cultivated cultural fictions. This book describes the foundation and development of the myth of Soror Mariana and illuminates its continuing investment in the fabrication, by the country's cultural elites, of a shared national imagination. In Klobucka=s interpretation, the account of the invention of the Portuguese Nun by the Portuguese forms an allegorical correlative to cultural negotiation of identity accompanying, particularly since the last decades of the nineteenth century, the gradually unfolding drama of Portuguese marginality in Europe and the world. Mariana's predicament--as female, provincial, leading a cloistered and uninspiring existence, abandoned by a dashing French lover, and longing helplessly for the absent man and his faraway country--resonated in multiple and often contradictory ways with Portuguese intellectuals attempting to come to terms with the crisis of nationalist and imperial ideology brought about by progressive marginalization of Portugal with regard to such European colonial powers as, most notably, France and England. At the same time, the international fame of the Lettres portugaises came to function as a compensatory measure akin to celebrations of the historical legacy represented by the Portuguese Discoveries, another "invented tradition" that gained currency against the same social and political background.

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Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles