It has been quite a while since I last shared a post, so I thought I would return with a post that contains both a tale and an explanation.
The tale is rather romantic as it involves ‘Lettres Portugaises”; passionate love letters. And the explanation well that is nothing exciting simply a case of real life edging out blogging time. I’m hoping there will be more of a balance over the summer and early Autumn enabling me to return to weekly posts. For now though let us return to what is considered one of the most romantic tales from Portugal, but is it fact or fiction?!
I can’t recall where I first read about Sóror Mariana Alcoforado, but her tale captured me from the start. Not sure why, perhaps because we share a birthday or maybe it was simply the romance and intrigue. Mariana was born in Beja in 1640, the year that the Guerra da Restauração, one of the many Iberian skirmishes between Portugal and Spain, began (also known as the Acclamation War). She was twenty eight years of age before the war finally ended thanks to the help of English mediation, a strategic marriage and a decisive Portuguese victory in Montes Claros.
Beja was the centre of much of the military activity throughout the war, which might explain why Mariana found herself being placed in the wealthy but relaxed convent – Convento de Nossa Senhora da Conceição – in Beja at the age of eleven years.
Around her sixteenth year she became a nun, and if the war had ended around this time her life would have probably simply passed into obscurity. However the war continued, and it led to a chance meeting between Mariana and Noël Bouton, a French soldier based in Beja. It is said she first saw him through a window, janela de Mértola.
However if she did see him through this window either the building has undergone significant change since the 17th century or Noël was a very tall man, as just take a look at the view from it, as well as the view from outside looking up to it!
Despite the window difficulties Mariana and Noël met, and fell in love. The convent was apparently fairly lenient about the nuns receiving visitors. However a love affair was a step too far and resulting scandal led to Noël fleeing Portugal and returning to France, never to contact Mariana again. Poor Mariana deserted in Beja threw herself into work and poured her passion into letters to Noël. He never responded, but her letters somehow found their way to a French publisher. And within 4 years for their first meeting the tale of their forbidden love told through letters became a European literary sensation.
In the 19th and 20th century however, after numerous reprints, doubt began to be expressed about the authorship of the letters. The letters do not specifically mention the convent or her, and it was only later that Mariana’s name was linked to them. And it is very strange about the window, so maybe it is fiction. Certainly the majority of literary critics these days believe that the publisher created them as an epistolary novel.
Having said that though . . . . . . Mariana and Noël did exist; she was a well educated nun and he was a French soldier in Beja so it is conceivable she wrote them. Unfortunately we will probably never know. The original letters have not, as far as I understand, survived so all that exists is the first 17th century printed publication of them. It does though make a great tale, and the convent with its cloister of azulejos makes a great setting for some romance and intrigue.
By the way my photographs of the azulejos, are just a tiny selection of those in the convent. Just wait until you see the ones in the rooms adjacent to the cloister. All being well that post will appear next week.