Home > 17th Century, Anonymous, Classics, Epistolary Fiction, French Literature > “Be good, O my Sorrow, and keep quiet.”

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

February 15, 2011 Leave a comment Go to 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.


  1. February 15, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    I remember I liked this a lot when I read it but it is so many years ago that my memory is a bit blurred. You brought it back very nicely. And you are right, to know these books gives a much deeper meaning to Un homme à distance. One of the books I am curious to read is What Maisie Knew. I have no idea how this ties in and it is one of the novels by Henry James that I haven’t read yet.
    Are going to read your way through the list as well now?


    • February 15, 2011 at 9:10 pm

      I was curious — I always am when it comes to books, actually — and as it was a short book, I read it in between the ones I’m reading now. I really liked these letters and it’s beautifully written and even if I know it’s a cliché, it hits me all the same every time, how we can connect so easily with writers who lived such a long time ago.

      I don’t know yet if I’ll read the whole list. I was tempted by Henry James too. I haven’t read La Cousine Bette, so I’ll probably read this one too. I downloaded the classics on the kindle, I’ll go through the poems slowly. After your review, I don’t think I’ll read the Guy des Cars.


      • February 16, 2011 at 6:46 pm

        Those naughty nuns….

        You have to blog the list you scooped.

        Cousin Bette is one of my favourite Balzacs. And there are a couple of film versions too.


        • February 16, 2011 at 8:58 pm

          Don’t make fun of Mariane, she’s stayed with me since I finished reading these letters.

          “You have to blog the list you scooped.” I wasn’t sure about what you meant. If you wanted to know the list of books coming from Un homme à distance, it’s on the reading list page. If you wanted to know what I intend to do with this list, here is my answer :

          1) The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke. I visited 3 bookstores, but I have it now. I’m very interested in this one because I loved Letters to a Young Poet so much.

          2) The Wild Palms: if I forget by William Faulkner. I’m not tempted. I haven’t been able to finish any book by Faulkner. Maybe I tried the wrong ones. Do you have a recommendation for me?

          3) The House of Others by Silvio d’Arzo. I’d like to browse through it in a bookstore to make up my mind.

          4) Three Horses by Erri de Luca. According to Caroline’s review, it is a good one. But I wasn’t crazy about the de Luca I’ve already read. So it’s not a priority.

          5) Tu, mio by Erri de Luca. In any case, I would read Three Horses before this one.

          6) Bakounin’s Son by Sergio Atzeni. Ditto #3

          7) Letters of a Portuguese Nun. Well, you know what I did for this one.

          8 Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Browning. I’ll try to read some of the poems, but poetry isn’t easy.

          9) The Princess of Clèves by Madame de Lafayette. I’ve already read it. It’s very good. I needed to be older to fully understand it. I should re-read it but my book pile is huge.

          10) The Lost Estate by Alain-Fournier. Hated this one. I abandoned it twice before finishing it. And I did because I didn’t want to be tempted to try a 4th time.

          11) Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. I’ve read it twice, didn’t like it twice.

          12) Letter From an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig. I’ll probably read it someday.

          13) What Maisie Knew by Henry James. Like Caroline, I’m curious about the connection between this one and Un homme à distance.

          14) The Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos. Already read. Not good for the reputation of French lovers, but great book.

          15) La Cousine Bette by Honoré de Balzac. I want to read this one. You just encouraged me to do so.

          16) The She Devils by Barbey d’Aurevilly. This one is on my shelves, I’ll read it but I don’t know when.

          17) An Ederly Mistress by Barbey d’Aurevilly. After # 16

          18) Doomed Love (A Family Memoir) by Camilo Castelo Branco. Ditto #3

          19) Poems by Emily Dickinson. Ditto # 8

          20) African Secret by Roger Martin du Gard.I won’t read this one. I didn’t really like the Thibault and Caroline’s review only confirms I shouldn’t read this.

          PS : I’d love to read your thoughts about French Ways and their Meaning by Edith Wharton. Since you’re British and living in America, I’d be interested to hear what you think about the comparisons she makes. She’s so enthusiastic about France she makes me laugh.


          • Natalie
            January 28, 2013 at 8:37 am

            Good day! I’ve just finished reading Un homme à distance (in russian translation) and was curious about African Secret by Roger Martin du Gard. I am Russian, and unfortunatelly i do not speak French. There is no translation of Confidence Africaine in russian, but i could not find an english translation either. Can you tell me if it has really been translatued into English, and where I can find it. Thank you.


  2. February 16, 2011 at 8:04 am

    Guy des Cars? Lol. I wouldn’t dream of reading him and thank God the people in Un homme à distance didn’t either.


    • February 16, 2011 at 8:42 am

      Sorry, I meant Roger Martin du Gard and his Confidence Africaine, I always mix the two names, I don’t know why. I’ve never read Guy des Cars either, but now that I’ve read a de Villiers, I won’t say I never will. Who knows what can happen sometimes ? 🙂 Poor Roger must be twitching in his grave for being mistaken with Guy.
      Guy des Cars is linked in my mind with Renaud’s song Banlieue Rouge. Do you know it?


  3. February 16, 2011 at 9:51 am

    I know Renaud but I’m not sure about this song. In any case I had a vague memory of Guy des Cars being in rather bad taste… I’m quite positive I will never read him.


    • February 16, 2011 at 10:00 am

      The perfect example of “Romans de gare” in the silly romance category. In this song, Renaud describes a woman who lives Cité Lénine but would prefer to live Cité Mireille Matthieu because at least she knows who it is. She reads Guy des Cars but doesn’t understand what she reads (“Elle essaie Guy des Cars, mais elle comprend pas tout”) It’s a bitter-sweet song.


  4. February 17, 2011 at 10:30 am

    La cousine Bette is also one of my favourite Balzacs. I managed to read La maison des autres. Very depressing. Les diaboliques was great too. I think the only ones I haven’t read are Branco, d’Atzeni the Henry James and Faulkner. Not keen on the Faulkner. The other three I will read. Stefan Zweig is beautiful but you will be suprised in Germany and Switzerland, to read Zweig or Hesse and Erich Maria Remarque and some others was until very recently a proof of bad taste as they were said to be too snetimental. I hardly ever care about such peceptions but admittedly the writing style is not super sophisticated. They are not Thomas Manns or Joseph Roths. Still I like all three a lot.


    • February 17, 2011 at 10:41 am

      La Cousine Bette is now on the top of the pile.
      Thanks for the warning on La Maison des Autres, I really don’t need to read depressing books at the moment.
      I loved Journey into the Past, it didn’t think it was sentimental. There’s a fashion for writers too. Commentors on my post on Maugham said he is unfashionable now. It’s strange to me. I wonder who are the unfashionable French writers I’m missing. I don’t mind if the style is not “super sophisticated” as you say, as long as the plot is good.


      • February 17, 2011 at 11:14 am

        I loved all the Maughams I read too but got the same remark as with Zweig. I try to think of French authors. There certainly are some that are out of fasioh now and will be re-discovered.


  5. February 17, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    I don’t know that I’d find myself agreeing with Wharton. She apparently waxed on about the French Empire, so I suspect we’d part ways on that one.

    The She-Devils is great. It’s stayed with me beyond the reading. There’s a review on my site.

    I don’t care for Faulkner.


    • February 18, 2011 at 8:47 am

      I never said you’d agreed with Edith Wharton. My guess is that, like me, you’d find her ridiculous most of the time. I don’t agree with the general tone of her book but she was spot on sometimes. I meant I’d love to read your thoughts about it to see if someone with an Anglo-Saxon DNA would have the same spot-on points than me. We might discuss this later, if you read my review when I finish writing it.

      I’ll read you review on Barbey d’Aurevilly, thanks.

      Caroline is not keen on Faulkner. You don’t care for him. I haven’t been able to finish the ones I tried. I think I’m going to forget The Wild Palms.


    • February 19, 2011 at 1:17 am

      ‘We’ as in ‘me and Wharton’. Not you and me.


      • February 19, 2011 at 10:29 am

        Sorry, total misunderstanding. That’s the problem with writing – and with hours of distance most of the time, which makes you lose your train of thoughts – instead of talking face to face.


  6. February 19, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    I was thinking how much I liked Wharton and her themes. I haven’t read a bio, but from the little I’ve read it appears she struggled against societal expectations. She did, after all, marry someone with whom she had little in common. It took her a long time to break free of those expectations. She knew first hand that society could bring suffering. But then to hear how she loved the idea of the French Empire (I don’t know specifics), well that’s where I part ways from her. It’s as though she left that great empathy behind for that set of opinions. Of course that’s me now 21st C anti-empire. But still a parting of the ways.


    • February 19, 2011 at 11:51 pm

      Thanks for the explanation. There’s no politics in this book, only thoughts about mores.
      Now that you mention it, I wonder how her own situation influenced what she said about marriage and the difference between what a French and an Anglo-Saxon expect from marriage. I didn’t agree we her on that one)


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