Erotica Readers & Writers Association
Home | Erotic Books | Authors Resources | Inside The Erotic Mind | Erotica Gallery
Adult Movies | Sex Toys | Erotic Music | Email Discussion List | Links

'07 Authors Insider Tips

by Louisa Burton
Formatting Your Manuscript
Scams / Choosing an Agent
Pitching Your Novel...
From The Call to Published...

Hard Business
From Greg Herren
Who Is Telling This Story?
It’s Work, Not A Hobby
Where Ideas Come From

Sexy on the Page
With Shanna Germain
Plotting Erotic Fiction
Seducing Your Muse
Creating Characters...
Description, Action & Dialogue
Fucking on Paper
Ten No-Nos of Erotic Fiction
Climactic Moments: First Draft
Critique Groups
Revising Your Erotic Story
Finding the Perfect Markets...
Just Submit Already
Rejections and Acceptances

Two Girls Kissing
With Amie M. Evans
Verb Tense Confusion
Coming Up with Story Ideas
Attend a Writers’ Conference
The Fundamentals of POV
Should I Sign That?
Etiquette for Authors
Erotica is Serious Work
No Body Writes for Free...
Shameless Self Promotions
The Myth of Writer's Block

The Write Stuff
From Ashley Lister
The Time is Write
The Beautiful People
A Book by Any Other...
Synopsis: the Necessary Evil
Erotica or Porn?
Feedback Whine

2007 Smutters Lounge

Ashley Lister Submits
by Ashley Lister
What's it like being a writer?
An Apology to Salespeople

Get All Worked Up
With J.T. Benjamin
About Secrets
The Perfect Fuck
About Choices
The Age of Consent
The Kingmaker
Kids and Sex
The Price of Beauty
The G.O.P.
All Worked Up About Hate
Real Men

Pondering Porn
With Ann Regentin
Good Sex: A Physics Lesson
Meet Frankenstein
Thoughts on the Orgasm Gap
The Very Bloody Marys
The Doomsday Erection
Online Threesome Porn

Letters of a Portuguese Nun:
Uncovering the Mystery Behind a 17th Century Forbidden Love

by Miriam Cyr

Book Review by Rob Hardy

They were an international bestseller when they were published, five love letters from a devastated woman who had been left by her lover as he went on to military duties. It does not matter that this was more than three hundred years ago; the theme is one that is immediate. The letters were so piercing that immediately a controversy arose over their authorship; no woman could have written them, it was said, because women generally didn’t write, never wrote well, and never felt love as deeply as men. The controversy has persisted, and will persist, because there is no proof on either side, but in Letters of a Portuguese Nun: Uncovering the Mystery Behind a 17th Century Forbidden Love (Miramax Books), Miriam Cyr argues the case for authorship by the nun herself. This is Cyr’s first book; she has had a successful career as an actress, and first heard of the letters when they were performed as a play. She determined to translate them herself (unaware that they were hugely famous and had been translated many times), and performed them on stage herself. She could not answer questions from those who heard her readings about the authenticity of the letters, but sympathized with a woman who told her the letters expressed her feelings during a painful breakup and was outraged that anyone thought they were fictional. Cyr, probably motivated by the same sort of feeling, did three years of research, and even though her conclusions are not watertight, her advocacy of the nun’s authorship is convincing. More importantly, she has brought the heartbreaking letters to a new audience and supplied them with sufficient context to understand their themes.

Mariana Alcoforado was born in 1640 in the picturesque town of Beja, Portugal. Her oldest sister Ana would marry, but Mariana and the other three daughters would all enter convent life. Perhaps Ana had the worst of it; under the strict Catholicism of that time and place, wives ate on the floor rather than at the husbands’ tables, were forbidden from walking on the streets alone, and could be imprisoned for offenses such as talking on the steps of the church. This was despite the madness of love which was the main subject of conversations and fashion. When Mariana entered the convent of Concieção at the age of ten, she was not removed from the amorous enthusiasms of the world. There was a fashion for falling in love with nuns, a form of love that since it was supposed to be spiritual and platonic, was considered to be ideal and worthy. Men who kept their wives incarcerated at home and uneducated would seek out erudite nuns for intimacy. Mariana, possibly because of the dowry given to the convent by her father when she entered, became the student of the abbess herself, learning Latin, Spanish, French, mathematics, science, and more. Young novitiates learned the art of serving tea, and they learned to make the pastries which were supposed to be the best in Portugal. They learned dancing and music. They sound something like geishas, and of course the men who came to see them were expected to help with the convent’s finances. The nuns learned to remain on the fine line that would encourage such support without encouraging physical lovemaking. The rules said that being alone with a man, even a church official, would condemn the nun to ten years of solitary confinement in the rat-infested prison of the convent’s cellar.

The Marquis of Chamilly was a Frenchman, a born soldier who was helping the Portuguese fight incursions from Spain. He was garrisoned in Beja in 1666, and the nuns looking out on the fields around them were entertained by the sight of officers exercising their horses. Mariana was captivated by Chamilly’s dash in such capers, and inevitably the officers were invited into the convent. As she often has to do, Cyr invites us to imagine details, such as their meeting and growing acquaintance; even in the letters there are few details about any courting. We also have to imagine how the pair eluded detection, or how Chamilly might have been able to sneak into Mariana’s quarters before she was locked inside for the night, and how he sneaked out again. Cyr summarizes, “Unsuspected and unseen, Chamilly and Mariana entered a world more intimate than a prayer and more ethereal than air.”

There was no dramatic discovery of the affair by authorities, but it ended when Chamilly was called back into the official service of his king, Louis XIV. He simply chose duty over love. He went on to a distinguished military career, an officer loved by his men because he was fair to them and had obvious courage. If he were told that enemy forces were coming closer, his reply would likely be, “All the better, this means they are closer to our swords.” He had a marriage of convenience which was entirely successful, but he probably never was in love again. His own feelings over leaving Mariana we can only guess at from her letters to him. The five letters are here given in full within the middle of Cyr’s book, and they are full of sweet regret and longing. “I had never known incessant praises before yours. It seemed to me, I owed you the charms and beauty you found in me and had me uncover. I heard good things said of you, everyone spoke in your favor, you did everything to inspire my love.” There is bitterness: “I am so angry at myself when I think of all I sacrificed for you: I have lost my reputation, I exposed myself to my family’s fury, to the severity of this country’s laws against nuns, moreover to your ingratitude, which seems to me to be the greatest of my woes.” And she writes in farewell, “It may be you will find greater beauty, but never will you find such love, and all the rest is nothing.”

These sentiments are unsurprising now, but when the letters were published in France, they were a sensation, at least partially because they addressed romantic injustice; women were supposed to keep quiet about men’s behavior toward them, however painful or unfair. How the letters came to be so widely known is full of mysteries. The dashing and victorious Chamilly may well have been invited to the evening salons of the marquise de Sablé, and may have circulated the letters himself, which would not have been seen at the time as a violation of privacy. The marquise had a fear of germs, and perhaps her doctor copied the writing out for her (as he did do for other documents) so she would not be contaminated by holding the originals. Perhaps the doctor sought out the worldly and beloved Guilleragues, a witty and well-educated man, to help translate Mariana’s colloquialisms. Indeed, many scholars attribute the authorship of the letters to him. With the publication of the letters, any love letter became known as “a Portuguese.” Counterfeit versions came out, and whether the letters were real or imaginary was a question that was argued then as now. It was all settled in the mind of Rousseau, who sniffed that “women in general do not like art... they cannot describe or feel love...I would bet everything in the world that the Portuguese letters were written by a man.” It is this sort of sentiment that has entered even into scholarly debate over the centuries. Cyr can’t prove her case for Marian’s authorship, but she still makes a good argument, reminding us that the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one. The resolution is only part of the book, which invites us to read the letters for ourselves, and to contemplate the dance of love performed in an exotic and distant locale.

Letters of a Portuguese Nun:
Uncovering the Mystery Behind a 17th Century Forbidden Love

(Miramax/Miramax; January 11, 2006; ISBN: 0786869119)
Available at: / Amazon UK

© 2007 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

About the Reviewer
Rob Hardy is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife, two terriers, five cats, and goldfish.

He reviews nonfiction for The Times of Acadiana, but has been reviewing books as a hobby for years before that.
Email: Rob Hardy

  E-mail this page

Search ERWA Website:

Copyright 1996 and on, Erotica Readers Association, Inc.
All Rights Reserved World Wide. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or
medium without express written permission is prohibited.

'07 Book Reviews


A for Amour / B for Bondage
Review by Ashley Lister

Best Women's Erotica '07
Review by Ashley Lister

The Butcher, The Baker...
Review by Ashley Lister

C is for Coeds
Review by Ashley Lister

Cream: The Best of ERWA
Review by Ashley Lister

Cream: The Best of ERWA
Perceptions by Cervo

Coming Together for the Cure
Review by Lisabet

Review by Ashley Lister

F is for Fetish
Review by Ashley Lister

Got a Minute?
Review by Ashley Lister

He's on Top
Review by Ashley Lister

Love on the Dark Side
Review by Angelika Devlyn

Lust: ...Fantasies for Women
Review by Ashley Lister

The Mammoth Book Vol 6
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Naughty Spanking Stories
Review by Ashley Lister

Quickies 1
Review by Angelika Devlyn

She's on Top
Review by Ashley Lister

Sixteen of the Best
Review by Ashley Lister


Amorous Woman
Review by Lisabet Sarai

The Boss
Review by Angelika Devlyn

Burning Bright
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Call Me By Your Name
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Review by Lisabet Sarai

Review by Ashley Lister

Dark Designs
Review by Ashley Lister

Equal Opportunities
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Review by Angelika Devlyn

Review by Angelika Devlyn

Gothic Blue
Review by Ashley Lister

Review by Ashley Liste

The Lords of Satyr: Nicholas
Review by Helen E. H. Madden

Love Song of the Dominatrix
Review by Angelika Devlyn

Review by Angelika Devlyn

Riding the Storm
Review by Lisabet Sarai

The Silver Collar
Review by Ashley Lister

Review by Ashley Lister

Suite Seventeen
Review by Ashley Lister

Sweet as Sin
Review by Angelika Devlyn

Tiffany Twisted
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Top of Her Game
Review by Angelika Devlyn

Whalebone Strict
Review by Ashley Lister

Wife Swap
Review by Gary Russell

Wings of Madness
Review by Angelika Devlyn

Gay Erotica

Historical Obsessions
Review by Erastes

Homosex: 60 Years of Gay...
Review by Erastes

Mammoth Book of New Gay...
Review by Erastes

Review by Lisabet Sarai

Lesbian Erotica

Iridescence:...Lesbian Erotica
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Sex Guides

The Path of Service
Review by Ashley Lister

Secrets of Porn Star Sex
Review by Ashley Lister

Touch Me There
Review by Ashley Lister


Concertina: An Erotic Memoir...
Review by Rob Hardy

Daddy's Girl
Review by Ashley Lister

Dirt for Art's Sake
Review by Rob Hardy

Entangled Lives
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Impotence: A Cultural History
Review by Rob Hardy

I, Goldstein: My Screwed...
Review by Rob Hardy

In Praise of the Whip
Review by Rob Hardy

Insatiable: ...Porn Star
Review by William S. Dean

Letters of a Portuguese Nun
Review by Rob Hardy

Mississippi Sissy
Review by Rob Hardy

Ron Jeremy
Review by Rob Hardy

Virgin: The Untouched...
Review by Rob Hardy

The Year of Yes
Review by Rob Hardy