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“Be good, O my Sorrow, and keep quiet.”

February 15, 2011 19 comments

Lettres d’une Religieuse portugaise.  Anonymous. (337 kindle loc.) Translated as Letters of a Portuguese Nun. I couldn’t find a translation online, so I translated the quotes myself.

I first heard of this book when I read Un Homme à distance by Katherine Pancol, in which Kay and Jonathan correspond and discuss the books they love. Each book has a clue to explain either the characters or the plot. This is why I’m hugely tempted to discover the books they talk about and that I haven’t read.

Letters of a Portuguese Nun is a French text written in 1669. It is attributed to the Comte de Guilleragues and it is composed of five letters sent by a Portuguese nun to her former French lover. Until the 20th C, the letters were believed to be real letters translated from the Portuguese and written by a nun named Mariana Alcoforado to her French lover, Noël Bouton, Marquis de Chamilly.

We can guess the story through the letters although it is never clearly told. Mariane has met her lover when she was already a nun. He was in Portugal for military reasons and left her behind when he went back to France. His name is never told. Mariane trusts another officer to give her letters to their addressee. We understand that she first saw him from her window and that it was love at first sight. They managed to meet in her room and be physically intimate. This was really bold of her, even if she hadn’t been a nun. Her behaviour was scandalous for the time. By succumbing to him and living her passion, she turns her back to her reputation and her family.

She is desperately in love with this man. We only read her letters and although he seems to answer to her from time to time, we never know precisely what he says. His letters are neither included in the correspondence nor quoted in Mariane’s letters. Writing these letters is part of her healing process, she writes as much for herself as for him.

Il me semble que je vous parle, quand je vous écris, et que vous m’êtes un peu plus présent. It seems to me that writing to you is speaking to you and it brings you closer.

From the first letter to the last one, the reader follows Mariane’s state of mind and the evolution of her pain. The text is poignant because she explains in simple words what she feels and how she suffers from his absence, from his desertion. She’s never bombastic and it makes her feelings more real.

Je me jetai sur mon lit, où je fis mille réflexions sur le peu d’apparence que je vois de guérir jamais : ce qu’on fait pour me soulager aigrit ma douleur, et je retrouve dans les remèdes mêmes des raisons particulières de m’affliger I threw myself on my bed and I had a thousand thoughts about how it seems I’ll never heal : what is done to relieve me only bitters my pain and I found in the very remedies the same particular reasons to aggrieve.

She doesn’t understand why he left. She thought he was truly in love with her too. The reader can’t make up their mind about her situation, as she never gives precise details and as the situation is only seen from her point of view. We don’t know why he left, if he’s as broken-hearted as she is or if it was just an affair for him. She’s in pain from the absence, the memories and the unexplained.

Et comment est-il possible qu’avec tant d’amour je n’aie pu vous rendre tout à fait heureux ? How is it possible that I haven’t been able to make you happy despite all my love?

Nonetheless, despite the pain, she doesn’t regret anything.

J’aime bien mieux être malheureuse en vous aimant que de ne vous avoir jamais vu. I’d rather be in love with you and unhappy than having never met you.

It is really moving. The version I’ve read is in modern French. Sure, the sentences have 17th century cadences. But, as there aren’t many descriptions of her everyday life, she could be the girl next door. She’s just a woman in love who has been left by her lover. And that’s why The Letters of a Portuguese Nun is worth reading.

And yes, when Kay recommends it to Jonathan, it’s a way to share with him part of her past.

PS : The title of this post is my translation of the first verse of the poem Recueillement (Meditation) by Charles Baudelaire. The original French text is “Sois sage, ô ma Douleur, et tiens-toi plus tranquille”. The entire poem and several English translation can be found here. These letters reminded me of this poem.

 

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