New Portuguese Letters

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New Portuguese Letters

by Maria Isabel Barreno, Maria Teresa Horta, and Maria Velho da Costa (The Three Marias)


A satirical work set in Portugal in the town of Beja in the late 1600s and in Lisbon in the late 1960s to early ’70s; published in Portuguese (as Novas Cartas Portuguesas) in 1972, in English in 1975,


A satirical reworking of a famous seventeenth-century text, New Portuguese Letters uses a mix of genres to denounce the oppression of women under the New State dictatorship (1933-74) and to break with a prevailing taboo against women’s talking openly about sexual desire.

Events in History at the Time of the Satirical Work

The Satirical Work in Focus

For More Information

Maria Isabel Barreno (b. 1939), Maria Teresa Horta (b. 1937), and Maria Velho da Costa (b. 1938) were all born in Lisbon. Since all three names began the same way, the women came to be known collectively as “The Three Marias” when referred to in connection with their collaborative work. By the 1970s, they had already published individual works on women in contemporary Portugal. Maria Velho da Costa and Maria Isabel Barreno had both written novels (Maina Mendes [1969] and Os outros legítimos superiores [1970], respectively) that featured women defying traditional bourgeois patriarchal family structures. Maria Teresa Horta’s early literary career focused more on poetry, specifically erotic verse expressing women’s right to enjoy their sexuality, an assertion that also found its way into her collection of poems Minha Senhora de Mim (Milady of Myself), which was banned in 1971. It was this banning, in part, that inspired the three women to challenge the regime further by writing the collective work of protest New Portuguese Letters. The Three Marias produced their collaborative text according to specific ground rules, agreeing to meet twice a week and to exchange their pieces of writing. No one author would have the right to edit, censor, or rewrite the work of any of the others, and each piece was to be anonymous. In fact, the sequence in which the various pieces are organized is determined by their actual dates of composition. What emerged was a literary comparison of women’s experiences of love and sexual relations in the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, that brought to the forefront the exclusion and silencing of women under Portugal’s New State and, more generally, throughout patriarchal history.

Events in History at the Time of the Satirical Work

A seventeenth-century nun

New Portuguese Letters is mostly a satirical reworking of the seventeenth-century text Lettres Portugaises, (1669; Portuguese Letters). The reworking shifts between two main time periods, the seventeenth and late twentieth centuries, with the love affair of the nun and French cavalier linking the periods. In order to talk about their own twentieth-century lives as part of women’s history, the Three Marias draw on a combination of myth, legend, and historical fact surrounding the figure of Sister Mariana Alcoforado (1640-1723), a real-life nun credited with authoring the seventeenth-century letters to the cavalier. Rather than engaging directly with the empirical scholarship surrounding the letters’ authenticity and the nun’s identity, the authors use Mariana as a vehicle to discuss women’s invisibility and marginality in mainstream history. One of the Three Marias addresses the nun directly in this vein: “Would you ever have left a name for yourself, if your letters had not made their way to France? Today there are many who do not believe you ever lived the life you supposedly did, who maintain you never wrote the letters attributed to you: you are merely a stained-glass window, a forgotten myth” (Barrena, Horta, and Velho da Costa, New Portuguese Letters, p. 124).

In the original 1669 edition of the actual love letters, neither the nun nor her lover is identified by name. Subsequent editions published in the same year, however, named the cavalier as a real historical figure, Noël Bouton, the Chevalier de Chamilly (1635-1715) who was later to become the Marshall of France. The nun herself was not identified until over a hundred years after the first edition of the letters. In 1810 a French scholar, Jean-François Boissonade, happened to discover a handwritten note in the margin to his first edition of the text, naming its author as Sister Mariana Alcoforado. A real historical figure who lived from 1640 to 1723, this Mariana was subsequently traced to a Franciscan order of nuns at the Royal Convent of our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in the Alentejan town of Beja. She entered the convent in 1656, was a professed nun by 1660, and remained there until she died in 1723, at the age of 83. Whether or not Mariana Alcoforado wrote the letters, her life in her convent community and in her family reveal much about the circumstances of cloistered women in the seventeenth century.

The convent in which the real Mariana Alcoforado lived was founded in 1467. Studies of her life indicate that she came from a large, Alentejan aristocratic family. Her father, Dom Francisco da Costa Alcoforado, placed at least one other daughter, Peregrina, in the same convent, and possibly a third, Caterina. Like Mariana in New Portuguese Letters, the real Mariana had a sister, Ana Maria, who married well with the help of a good dowry. Mariana also had an older brother, Baltasar, who would have wielded considerable power over his sisters, particularly in defending the family honor that was vested in the sexual purity of his female relations. This is reflected strongly both in Portuguese Letters and in NewPortuguese Letters, with Mariana fearing her family’s reaction to her transgression far more than that of her religious superiors. In real convent life, the hierarchy of wealth and family status continued to exercise an influence within the religious environment through the distinction claimed by aristocratic nuns. Even in their religious lives, the nobility retained the title of Dona, as opposed to Soror or Sister.

Many nuns of this period possessed the education and the freedom to think, write, and pursue the arts, evidenced by the burgeoning of poetic and other literary works by nuns in Portugal during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Famous religious contemporaries of the real Mariana Alcoforado were Sister Maria do Céu (1658-1753), Sister Madalena da Glória (1672-176?) and Sister Violante do Ceu (1601-93). The last of these in particular was renowned for her poetry on profane as well as religious love themes. The pursuit of sexual relations among the religious during this period is indicated by the royal ordinances governing convents, designed to deter men from breaking into cloisters and to prevent nuns from acting as messengers or go-betweens. Both Portuguese Letters and New Portuguese Letters suggest that nuns themselves did in fact act as go-betweens, a role allotted to Dona Brites in both texts. The legal penalties for marauding men and complicit nuns, were, tellingly, tightened right after Portugal’s War of Independence with Spain (1640-68). The desire and the opportunity for such incursions into convents would naturally increase with the influx of foreign soldiers into garrison towns, such as Beja, the site of Mariana’s convent and a town very close to the frontier with Spain.

The Wars of Independence between Portugal and Spain began in 1640, when Portugal rebelled against the Spanish Habsburg dynasty, which had ruled Portugal since 1580. Spanish dominance came about when Spain successfully invaded Portugal, following the collapse of Portugal’s ruling Avis dynasty after the death in 1578 of Portugal’s boy king, Dom Sebastião, on an ill-considered crusade to North Africa. The Portuguese did not tolerate this “usurption” for long, particularly as their overseas empire fell under Spanish control, and the Portuguese naval fleet suffered severe losses in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, by Portugal’s oldest ally, England. A Catalan insurrection against Spanish rule in 1640 encouraged sectors of the Portuguese nobility to do likewise, faced with the unacceptable choice of supporting the Spanish in suppressing the Catalans. The 1640 rebellion restored a Portuguese monarchy under Dom João of Bragança, later to become King Dom João IV. War continued, however, until 1668, when Spain officially recognized Portugal’s independence. In the quest for much needed French military reinforcements in these campaigns, Portugal courted the unreliable support of Cardinal Richelieu, who was intent on using Portugal’s enmity with Spain only insofar as war with Spain furthered the strategic interests of France. It is known that the real Chevalier de Chamilly, on


As historians of the period have indicated, and the Three Marias reinforce, it is important to remember that nuns of the seventeenth century did not always have a religious vocation.

We must bear in mind that Mariana Alcoforado was the victim of a social injustice of the times in which she lived, whereby in order to maintain the glory and wealth of noble families, through the institution of the “morgadio” [male entail inheritance] the eldest son would acquire almost the entire paternal inheritance, leaving the other sons to a career in the Church or the army, and the daughters, if they had no possibility of making a wealthy match, to the bars of a convent… Women did not become nuns, as they do nowadays, because they had a vocation or a special sense of devotion. They became nuns as a simple matter of family expediency, placed in the cloister, quite often right from being a young girl, even against their will or without any prior acquiescence.

(Fonseca, António Belard da, p, xix, trans. H, Owen)

whom, as noted, the lover in the New Portuguese Letters is modeled, came to Portugal serving in the Briquemault Cavalary regiment during the campaigns led by Count von Schomberg (1661-68). In New Portuguese Letters, de Chamilly’s attitude towards Mariana purposely reflects Richelieu’s attitude towards Portugal. The lover is less concerned about liberating the cloistered Mariana than about fulfilling his personal need for sexual conquest and gratification. The ongoing analogy between national and sexual identity is made explicit in New Portuguese Letters. One of the Marias asserts that Mariana was “born in a decadent era, … in the age of the Spain of the Philips, when Portugal had been castrated of its virility—of its independence and a king of the purest Portuguese stock, of our Portuguese blood” (Letters, p. 114).

Women in the twentieth-century New State

The twentieth-century backdrop for New Portuguese Letters is the “Estado Novo,” or New State regime in Portugal (1933-74). The New State was largely the project of one man, António Oliveira Salazar, a former financial law lecturer at Coim-bra University, who ruled Portugal as absolute dictator from 1933 until an accident incapacitated him in 1968. The reins passed to Marcelo Caetano, who ruled until the Revolution of April 25, 1974, put an end to the New State.


1926The Portuguese Republic is brought down by a military coup.
1933A newly generated constitution establishes the New State under the dictatorship of António Oliveira Salazar.
1940With the signing of a Concordat with the Vatican, Portugal reinforces Church power in the Portuguese state.
1961The Angolan Insurrection marks the beginning of the colonial wars in Africa.
1968Salazar is succeeded by Marcelo Caetano.
1972The publication of New Portuguese Letters leads to prosecution of the Three Marias, and an international solidarity campaign on their behalf.
1974The Revolution of April 25 ends the New State regime.
1975The first English translation of New Portuguese Letters is published.

Salazar had risen to power in the 1920s following the overthrow of Portugal’s republic during another insurrection, the military coup of 1926. In light of the 1930’s global economic depression, Salazar’s economic management skills served him well. His subsequent rise to power instigated an authoritarian dictatorship often described as Portugal’s version of a fascist state, although his dictatorship lacked the mass popular movements attached to Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Italy. Nonetheless, the New State drew initial inspiration from Italian fascism, which influenced the formulation of Salazar’s legal codes, and from Germany’s Third Reich, whose Gestapo provided the model for the PIDE, the New State’s secret police.

Imperial Portugal

Portugal’s imperial policy would ultimately prove to be the Achilles’ heel of the regime. Salazar’s Colonial Act, initially passed in 1930, and subsequently appended to his foundational 1933 Constitution, had ushered in a new age of economic interest in Portugal’s colonies in Africa. Salazar’s concept of empire envisioned Portugal as the center of a single united fatherland drawing together all of its overseas possessions under the dictates of “One State, One Race, One Faith and One Civilization” (Anderson, p. 112). As the 1933 Constitution stated, “the Overseas Territories of Portugal are given the generic name ’provinces’… they are an integral part of the Portuguese State” (Anderson, p. 108). This active revival of empire led to a considerable rise in white Portuguese settler migration to Angola and Mozambique in the 1940s and ’50s. It was a trend that contravened the dominant thrust of the post-World War II era, which saw imperial powers contend with anticolonial independence movements that would lead to the dissolution of their empires. Great Britain, for one, granted sovereignty in stages to India, a process other British possessions would undergo as well in the next few decades. Portuguese ideology showed no such flexibility. However, unable wholly to resist the general tenor of the times, its colonial system began to reveal some instabilities. In 1961, the Portuguese enclaves in India—Goa, Daman, and Diu—were successfully invaded by India’s own national army. That same year an armed insurrection in Angola marked the beginning of Portugal’s colonial wars in Africa; similar uprisings followed elsewhere in Portuguese Africa—in Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde in 1963 and in Mozambique in 1964.

On April 25, 1974, Caetano’s regime was finally overthrown by a bloodless coup led by a military elite opposed to the regime. The colonial war in Africa had fomented an increasingly disillusioned junior officer class, who formed the “Armed Forces Movement,” inspired by the Marxist ideologies its members had been trained to combat. As a symbolic revolutionary gesture, the soldiers marched through the capital city with carnations in their rifles to suggest the peaceful nature of their action, inspiring the name “Carnations Revolution.”


One in every three Portuguese women and one in every five Portuguese men were illiterate according to surveys for 1974 (Kaplan, p. 182). During the Salazar/Caetano regime, censorship had combined with already high illiteracy rates to severely restrict the reading public, causing disillusionment among writers. Freedom of the press was muzzled. According to a decree passed in 1933, books and newspapers had to be submitted to a panel for censorship before they were published. The panel of censors consisted mainly of army officers. This stringent approach was somewhat relaxed during the Caetano period, and a change in the law meant that publishers, printers, and distributors, as well as authors were legally responsible for the content of the work they produced. This tended to reduce authors to the absurd practice of self-censorship. The outright banning and seizure of published books, as happened to New Portuguese Letters, was relatively rare by this time, so the case of the Three Marias, who were prosecuted along with their publisher, stood out as an extreme.

In this repressive climate, freedom of speech and defiance of censorship became acts of resistance for a new generation of politically committed, primarily communist writers who emerged in the 1940s and ’50s. Together they created Portuguese Neorealism, their own variety of Neorealism, a literary movement occurring elsewhere in Europe that foregrounded the depiction of real-life conditions, events, and views. In the less-than-free society of fascist Portugal, Neorealism became noted especially for its use of allegorical subtexts and symbols. The movement’s writers encoded and encrypted their political criticisms so as to evade the notorious “blue pencil” of the censors and reach the limited community of oppositional readers trained to decode the hidden messages. “The dawn,” for example, came to symbolize the longed for coming of the revolution that would end the “dark night” of the New State. The literary activity of the Neorealist generation proved highly significant for keeping alive intellectual opposition to the New State. As the writer Jose Cardoso Pires (see Ballad of Dog’s Beach , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times) puts it in 1972, “for over forty years Portuguese writers have opposed Salazar’s ’politics of the mind.’… This has earned them a permanent place on the blacklist of the unredeemed” (Cardoso Pires, p. 101).

In this climate of new feminist influences, continued literary and press censorship, and anticolonial war agitation, New Portuguese Letters articulated a protest that worked on several levels at once. Ostensibly it attacked the oppression of women within a family structure designed to act as an instrument of state control. However, the book also makes this a pretext to undermine the extreme military machismo required by Portugal’s anachronistic imperial nationhood in its pursuit of a colonial war. Finally, on a third level, it turns the constraint imposed by censorship into a virtue, preempting official attempts to restrict the range of meanings that could be communicated by focusing on the ability of multiple word play to create a profusion of meaning beyond the censors’ control.

For this reason, the working of language is central to the Three Marias’ narrative project. Their game of hide-and-seek with censorship constitutes a protest against the absurd effects of silencing dissent by censorship, with the text showing meaning to be more than the sum total of the written signs on a page. The satire engages in extensive punning, emphasizing meaning as connotative and ultimately indeterminate.

The Satirical Work in Focus

Plot summary

New Portuguese Letters rewrites the seventeenth-century love affair of Mariana Alcoforado, working from the assumption, implicit in the original text, that the nun has survived her desertion and despair through the therapeutic act of writing. As the history of the letters shows, the nun has also effectively taken her revenge on the cavalier in that the letters have become famous and created a scandal abroad. Taking up the twin themes of passion and revenge, the Three Marias meanwhile describe their own journey towards political affirmation, self-expression, and independence in their contemporary setting. To this end, they invent a whole cast of new characters, who engage in dialogue through letters. Many of these invented characters are direct descendants of the original Mariana Alcoforado and her family and social circle. The result resembles a kind of tapestry, but with a constantly shifting pattern that is difficult to pin down. As one of the Marias concludes, “we would never be able to follow the total pattern of the characters, of the situations, to the very end” (Letters, p. 301).

The one main thread that can be traced through the book is the story of the affair between Mariana and the cavalier. The reader is invited to use this to connect ideas and draw parallels between analogous situations at different times in history. Key themes, events, and characters are repeated throughout the book with significant variations. Mariana herself is reinvented in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and twentieth centuries, as a rebellious free thinker and writer, who eschews marriage and children in order to pursue learning.

Like her real-life counterpart, Mariana Alco-forado is presented in New Portuguese Letters as the daughter of landed Alentejo gentry who have sent her to become a nun to save their money for the dowry of the other sister, Maria. Mariana enters the cloister against her will; devoid of any religious vocation, she finds her new quarters tantamount to imprisonment. Her unattractive sister uses the dowry to buy herself a husband, the seemingly shy and timorous Count de C. Meanwhile, Mariana’s best friend Joana de Vas-concelos corresponds clandestinely with Mariana in the convent, lamenting her own unhappy arranged marriage to a nobleman whom she does not love. She compares her lack of freedom to choose her fate with Mariana’s enforced enclosure in the convent and becomes Mariana’s only trusted link to the outside world. When French troops arrive in Beja to help the newly restored Portuguese monarchy fight for independence from Spain, it is Joana who unwittingly changes Mariana’s life for good by introducing her to the handsome Chevalier de Chamilly, who has been moved to pity by the story of her fate. Joana subsequently facilitates their meetings and communications while one of the nuns, Dona Brites, is also aware of the liaison.

A passionate affair ensues between Mariana and the cavalier, one that leaves him drained of his youth, energy, and masculine prowess. Mariana uses him as much as he uses her. The affair signals the death of his confident selfhood as he remarks in his final letter to Mariana, “day by day myself was dying in your arms” (Letters, p. 95). Mariana miscarries the child she has conceived with the cavalier, achieving a dose of immortality not from biological reproduction but through literary fame. Her published letters create a scandal abroad. The cavalier finds that although he can leave the nun behind, he cannot so easily escape his colorful reputation.

In the next generation, it falls to Mariana’s niece, also named Mariana, to “continue” her aunt’s correspondence with the cavalier as a purely formal literary exercise, since by now both of the original lovers have died. The niece has read the cavalier’s final letter to her aunt on her deathbed. Resentful at being the object of the nun’s amorous writings, he too has now taken refuge in the life of the mind. “And my life henceforth,” he writes, “will be spent solely in searching here on my estates for a place for a wisdom that my heart will not gainsay, for feelings that my wisdom may accept as genuine. My becoming cloistered and shut up behind walls was your doing, Senhora” (Letters, p. 97).

The niece’s reply to this letter, written in the first person, assuming her aunt’s name and persona, provides a retort to the cavalier’s criticism of Sister Mariana. Disparaging the male quest for immortality, she tells him, “it is the custom among males to find the horizon that will lead them to the absolute by playing with the lives of women” (Letters, p. 134). Comparing the blood of war with the blood shed by women who undergo abortion, she points out to the cavalier the unequal share of risk he has imposed on Mariana by violating her family honor.

The Mariana Alcoforado story is expanded upon through a series of flashbacks. These flashbacks disclose bastardization in the Alcoforado dynastic line and the hypocrisy of their supposed honor. It becomes clear that the cavalier has also made love to Mariana’s best friend, Joana. Mariana’s brother-in-law, the Count of C, emboldened by her humiliation, makes his own unsuccessful attempt to seduce the nun. Even Mariana’s own mother, Dona Maria das Dores Alcoforado, has had an illicit relationship, which began against her will when her husband’s longstanding enemy used her sexually in a vengeful attempt to sully her husband’s honor. The result was an illegitimate daughter, Mariana, which explains why her mother hated her and has kept her away from her true father.

A similar story of love and revenge accounts for the mysterious death of Mariana’s much-loved younger cousin, Jose Maria Pereira Alcoforado. As Mariana’s only family ally, in turns a surrogate brother and putative son, Jose Maria never recovers from losing Mariana to the convent. He eventually hangs himself from a fig tree on the family estate, leaving behind a cryptic poem about the death of the fatherland. The poem refers obliquely to the end of the myths of Portuguese heroism embodied in the national epic poem, The Lusiads (also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times.) However, a clearer and more personal motivation for his death surfaces later, when his former love, Mónica, commits suicide, leaving him a note in which she explains that she had merely used him to take revenge on the man she really loved. Male heroism is exposed as fragile and dependent on the love and fidelity of women to maintain its sense of power and purpose.

Alongside these intersecting storylines about Mariana and her family, the Three Marias explore contemporary social issues affecting women. Their sweep includes rape and incest, economic migration, women’s confinement to the private sphere, domestic violence, illegal abortion, a schoolgirl questioning her convent school indoctrination by the New State, and the different penalties meted out by the Portuguese Penal Code to men and women who commit adultery.

The account reveals the assertion of women’s self-worth under the patriarchal system to be impossible. The Three Marias therefore regard themselves as an alternative family group. As one of the Marias remarks, “we made each of ourselves the mother and the daughter of each of the others, and sisters determined to talk about precisely why we were orphans and suffering and destitute. A new family” (Letters, p. 107). From this newfound position of strength and solidarity, they criticize the false prospects for women’s liberation held out by the sexual revolution. In relation to Portuguese society, this last subject prompts ironic commentary:

Here in Portugal we are in the midst of the era of women’s liberation: Women vote, women attend universities, women hold jobs: women drink, women smoke, women enter beauty contests; women wear mini-skirts, maxi-skirts, “hot-pants,” Tampax; women say “I’m having my period” in front of men, women take “the pill”.… [Nonetheless women in the anti-fascist struggle remain] the spoils today of warriors who pretend to be our comrades in the struggle, but who merely seek to mount us and be cavaliers of Marianas who are prisoners in other prisons, and nuns in different convents without realizing it.

(New Portuguese Letters, p. 234)

The three refer to key moments in western humanist history only to reveal its partiality to men and irrelevance to women’s life experiences. The text shows the lack of improvement in women’s status, even during revolutionary periods such as the eighteenth-century Enlightenment era. Dona Maria Ana, an eighteenth-century descendant of Mariana’s niece concludes that women’s daily lives have changed remarkably little, even though:

We are living in an age of civilization and enlightenment, men write scientific treatises and encyclopaedias, nations continually change and transform their political structure, the oppressed raise their voices, a king of France has been sent to the guillotine and his courtiers along with him, the United States of America has gained its independence.

(New Portuguese Letters, p. 151)

Scandal and national identity

Several publishers rejected New Portuguese Letters, fearing the controversy it would raise, and aware that the publishers of banned books were also legally liable to prosecution. Eventually, the Portuguese writer and critic Natália Correia, herself a previous victim of New State censorship, managed to get the book accepted by Estúdio Cor. It was an immediate bestseller but the regime banned it and arrested the Three Marias, prosecuting them for offending public morals and decency. During the two-year court case that ensued, the anonymity of each of their individual contributions enabled them to obstruct the prosecution’s attempts at discovering who had written the specific passages on which the pornography case was constructed.


This passage from a section entitled ’The Father,’ satirically mimics the voyeurism of a rapist father who blames his daughter for being sexually alluring.

“She was perverse:

she lolled about on sofas, her arms drawn back, stretched out full-length, simply lying there, smooth and lithe, within reach, running her sharp-pointed tongue over her already wet lips…

“She was perverse:

she would forgetfully leave the door ajar as she undressed, disclosing her soft belly, her thin shoulders, in tiny little motions, with secret sounds and pacts with childhood…

(New Portuguese Letters, p. 140)

Portugal’s counter-regime writers supported the cause, comparing this book to other great works of European literature unjustly persecuted for obscenity such as D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and James Joyce’s Ulysses. An international solidarity campaign, orchestrated by feminist movements worldwide, countered the suppression too, drawing negative world attention to the absence of free speech, oppression of women, and abuse of human rights in Portugal. The trial finally ended in May 1974, not with the Three Marias’ acquittal but with their “official pardon,” after the New State itself had collapsed in the April 25 Revolution.

The reasons for the prosecution of New Portuguese Letters in 1972 relate to its treatment of nationally and culturally controversial issues, as well as to its broaching of taboo subjects such as autoeroticism, incest, lesbianism, and rape. These inherently “private” issues are exposed in the text as everyday realities, as aspects of life that the repressive sexual ideology associated with the New State and its empire attempted to silence.


“Oh! Ugly lady you sought to complain
Because in your praises, I have sung not a strain;
But now I do want to sing a refrain,
In which, notwithstanding, your praise I will tell;
You will see then how I would praise your name:
You ugly old lady, you who are stupid as well!”
     (Fonseca, Fernando V. Peixoto da, p. 35; trans. H. Owen)

Refuting the idea that “woman is man’s last colony,” the Three Marias make writing both an end in itself, and a means to resist all forms of “colonial” occupation (Letters, p. 235). Breaking the mould of romantic love in western literature, New Portuguese Letters constitutes an attempt to reimagine heterosexual relations. Replacing passion itself with the act of writing about passion, Mariana finds her way out of the impasse of tragedy and death, enshrined in France’s legendary lovers Abelard and Heloïse, or the Celtic lovers Tristan and Isolde, or England’s Romeo and Juliet. Mariana writes a final letter to the cavalier, who is now prosaically married, bored and middle-aged. She tells him, “I wrote you letters of great love and great torment, Senhor, and after having had no commerce with you for so long, I began to love them and the act of writing about them more than I loved your image or the memory of you” (Letters, p. 272).

Sources and literary context

The most obvious influence on New Portuguese Letters is clearly the seventeenth-century Portuguese Letters originally published in French. As discussed above, for several centuries after their publication, the letters were considered by experts to be authentic, and to have been authored by the real seventeenth-century Mariana Alcoforado. However, the evidence connecting the nun to the letters is inconclusive and no original manuscript in Portuguese has been found to date. Subsequent scholarship has tended to concur that Portuguese Letters was a skillful literary fake, written originally in French by Gabriel-Joseph de Lavergne de Guilleragues, who claimed to be their translator and then published them (Klobucka, pp. 2-21).

While the myth and history of Mariana are the Three Marias’ main inspiration, their treatment of Portuguese Letters takes very substantial liberties with the original. New Portuguese Letters is, in many respects, the epitome of an anti-genre work. It combines the format of an epistolary novel with lyric poetry, social commentary resembling journalism, and a polyphonic alternation of voices in dialogue, which lends itself well to public reading and dramatization. Drawing on a wide range of literary influences and sources, the Marias invent their own “women’s tradition,” making particular use of lyric poetry and medieval Galician-Portuguese cantigas de amigo, or women’s songs, to retell Mariana’s story.

Their choice of the cantiga is especially significant since the medieval Galician-Portuguese cantiga de amigo was generally a female-voiced oral form, usually anonymous though some could be attributed to known female poets. In adapting these primarily anonymous medieval songs, the Marias reaffirm not the power implicit in individual authorship, but the collective power of the female voice in poetic dialogue and debate throughout history. Given the scandalous nature of Mariana’s story, their intertextual echoes of satirical Galician-Portuguese songs such as the cantigas de escdrnio e maldizer (songs of mockery and slander) is particularly fitting. These ribald songs, usually sung by men about women, exposed social and sexual scandals, permitting their singers the liberty of the jester.


The international solidarity campaign that surrounded the trial of the Three Marias helped make New Portuguese Letters one of the best known and most widely translated texts ever produced in Portugal. It also became a major source of reference and inspiration for international feminist movements. Although the response from feminists was very positive, the first English translation in 1975 received a mixed reception from reviewers in England and the United States, partly perhaps because the notoriety that preceded the translation had raised expectations of its capacity to shock. One of the most favorable and informative reviews in England came from fellow Portuguese writer Helder Macedo, who was able to contextualize the work for the English reader in relation to twentieth-century Portugal’s resistance literature. A more ambivalent perspective came from Jane Kramer in the New York Times Book Review. Kramer claimed that the Three Marias were “as obsessed with love as poor Soror Mariana” acting like “female Norman Mailers” and “proud prisoners of sex” (Kramer, p. 1). One of the enduring strengths she finds in the book, however, concerns the Marias’ witty recreation of the cavalier, “because love after all is a folie à deux, and the object of the new woman (is it not?) is to put an end to the folly and not the partner” (Kramer, p. 2)

New Portuguese Letters passed rapidly out of the limelight in postrevolutionary Portugal. The Three Marias themselves went on to build successful, independent literary careers. There was no new edition of New Portuguese Letters in the original Portuguese between 1980 and 1998, at which point it finally was republished and recognized as the widely influential text that it was for the boom generation of women writers in the 1980s. The contemporary Portuguese writer Lídia Jorge (see Murmuring Coast , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times) once tellingly described it as women’s “passport of equality in the domain of writing” (Jorge in Louro, p. 26). The passport is a fitting image for a text that permitted the mapping and traversing of new cultural spaces for generations of women constrained, like Penelope, wife of the ancient hero Ulysses, to wait at home.

—Hilary Owen

For More Information

Anderson, Perry. “Portugal and the End of Ultra-Colonialism—2.” New Left Review 16 July- August 1962): 88-123.

Barreno, Maria Isabel, Maria Teresa Horta, and Maria Velho da Costa. New Portuguese Letters. Trans. Helen R. Lane. Poetry trans. Faith Gillespie and Suzette Macedo. London: Readers International, 1994.

Cardoso Pires, Jose. “Changing a Nation’s Way of Thinking: Censorship as a Technique.” Index on Censorship (spring 1972): 93-106.

Cordeiro, Luciano. Soror Mariana, a freira portuguesa. Lisbon. Livraria Ferin, 1888.

Fonseca, António Belard da. Mariana Alcojorado. A Freira de Beja e as “Lettres portugaises.” Lisbon: Portugal-Brasil, 1966.

Fonseca, Fernando V. Peixoto da, ed. Cantigas de Escárnio e Maldizer dos Trovadores Galego-Portugueses. Lisbon: Classica Editora, 1971.

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