Restoration readers and theatre-goers were fascinated by characters who embodied cultural contradictions. One famous example is the enslaved king at the centre of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko; or, the Royal Slave (1688), a frequently reprinted tale that also inspired a stage adaptation by Thomas Southerne, Oroonoko: A Tragedy (1696).On versions of Oroonoko, see Jance Spencer, Aphra Behn’s Afterlife (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000), 223–64. Another is the nun who embodies both cloistered religious devotion and sexual desire. Told in the voice of a Portuguese nun writing to the cavalier who seduced and abandoned her, Lettres d’une religieuse portugaise appeared anonymously in French in 1669 and promptly established a European vogue. Formally, it is a prose exercise in the manner of Ovid’s classical Latin Epistles (also called Heroides), a series of verse epistles in which legendary heroines address lovers from whom they are tragically separated. Private utterances made public, the Portuguese nun’s letters appealed to Restoration readers increasingly fascinated by the inner lives of individuals, experiences in which the mental and even the spiritual paradoxically mingled with bodily sensation.Valuable accounts include Jean H. Hagstrum, Sex and Sensibility: Ideal and Erotic Love from Milton to Mozart (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980), 112–17, and Ros Ballaster, Seductive Forms: Women’s Amatory Fiction from 1684 to 1740 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992), 62–66.
The Portuguese nun torn between sexual desire and religious devotion exerted an enormous influence on later fiction. One French response was promptly translated into English as Venus in the Cloister; or, The Nun in her Smock (1683), appealing to both prurience and the virulent anti-Catholicism of the day. But the subtle letters that L’Estrange here translates into colloquial English take seriously the inner life of a seduced woman, a figure traditionally approached with moral indignation or laughter rather than with sympathy. The Portuguese nun’s story lies behind Alexander Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard (1717), a verse epistle in the voice of another nun tragically separated from her lover. The Lettres also influenced the amatory fiction of Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley, and Eliza Haywood. Whatever their differences, all these writers attended closely to conflicting emotions, elaborating the social circumstances within which women grappled with them. Through these writers, the nun’s story also contributed to the epistolary fiction of their successor, Samuel Richardson.See Ballaster 100–13 and, especially, Toni Bowers, Force or Fraud: British Seduction Stories and the Problem of Resistance, 1660–1760 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011).
By the time Five Love Letters appeared in 1678, there were urgent political reasons for English readers to think through the validity of their own vows in the face of urgent but (they felt) illegitimate temptations. As English people nervously contemplated the heir to the throne, the staunchly Roman Catholic James, Duke of York—whom many Englishmen wanted to exclude from the throne—even some English Tories could feel an uncomfortable tension between their loyalty to their Protestant national Church and their sworn loyalty to their King. In the event, the Duke of York assumed the throne as James II (and VII of Scotland) in 1685, to great popular acclaim. Once James broke his vow to “preserve this Government both in Church and State as it [is] now by Law Establish’d,” however, Anglican Tories who who had championed his right to the throne would bring about the Revolution of 1688–1689, which saw James’s daughter and her Dutch Protestant husband, William of Orange, replace James on the throne as William III and Mary II.I quote James’s promise from Tim Harris, Revolution: The Great Crisis of the British Monarchy, 1685–1720 (London: Penguin, 2007), 41. With Harris, cf. Steven C. A. Pincus’s argument that the Revolution marked a profound cultural shift, an argument he presents concisely in England’s Glorious Revolution, 1688–1689: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006), 1–33, and fully in 1688: The First Modern Revolution (New Haven: Yale UP, 2009). For English readers caught between rival loyalties, these political developments would deepen the appeal of the Portuguese nun torn between her religious vows and her vows of love; as long as James II and his descendants in exile continued to claim the British throne, Toni Bowers argues, British seduction narratives continued to represent broken vows, grappling with heartfelt questions of resistance and complicity.Bowers, Force or Fraud 52–72.
Roger L’Estrange, the translator who gave us this English version of the nun’s story was thoroughly immersed in both partisan politics and its inseparable companion, print.See Harold Love, “L’Estrange, Sir Roger (1616–1704),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; online ed. 2007), article 16514, and the essays in Anne Dunan–Page and Beth Lynch, eds., Roger L’Estrange and the Making of Restoration Culture (Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008). He was the supreme polemicist of his age, a Tory royalist hostile to all forms of political and religious dissent. He established himself as a Tory pamphleteer at the Restoration, and he soon became Charles II’s licenser of the press, a position he held until the Licensing Act expired in 1679. (It was his role to assess the orthodoxy of material proposed for publication before it was approved for publication.)This form of pre-publication censorship would be revived, but it was becoming both ineffective; it also became inconvenient to governments wanting to sway public opinion by presenting their case directly. The Act was allowed to lapse for good in 1695. At about the time he published Five Love Letters—his license to print faces the title page—L’Estrange was beginning a vigorous defence of James, Duke of York. As the Whig campaign to have James excluded from the succession to the throne gained intensity, he opposed it relentlessly in his newspaper, the Observator: “Rumbustious and vitriolic, satiric and savage, week after week for six years and through two million words,” the historian Mark Goldie writes, “Roger L’Estrange’s newspaper, the Observator, corroded the foundations of Whiggery. When it began in 1681, Whiggism reigned, and to doubt the Popish Plot courted personal calamity. Long before it ended in 1687, the plot was dead and Whiggism too. Plot belief was a national demonic possession and L’Estrange its self-appointed exorcist.” L’Estrange, that is, had courageously challenged the false allegation of a Popish Plot to assassinate King Charles, an allegation that provoked mass anti-Catholic hysteria.For Goldie’s comment, see “Roger L’Estrange’s Observator and the Exorcism of the Plot,” in Dunan–Page and Lynch, eds. Roger L’Estrange, 67. On the Observator as an elaborate print artifact inviting oral performance, see Harold Love, “L’Estrange, Joyce and the Dictates of Typography,” in Dunan–Page and Lynch, eds., Roger L’Estrange, 167–79. It may lie behind the ostentatious changes of type and font by the hack Teller of Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub. He was knighted by James II in 1685.
L’Estrange lost influence after 1688 and had to write for pay. Like some distinguished later propagandists, Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift conspicuous among them, he is remembered for literary rather than polemical works. He was a prolific translator from French and Spanish as well as classical Greek and Latin into vigorous, colloquial English and is best known today for Five Love-Letters and especially The Fables of Aesop and Other Eminent Mythologists with Moral Reflections (1691, 1699), which was later adapted and printed by the printer and novelist Samuel Richardson.
The authorship of the Portuguese nun’s letters has been contested. L’Estrange’s note to the reader of Five Love-Letters suggests that he appreciated the Portuguese Letters for its artful rendering of nuances of feeling, but others have imagined that a voice as compelling as the Portuguese nun’s must be expressing spontaneous (and artless) genuine feeling. This feeling held sway from the from the later eighteenth until the twentieth century. Convinced that such an outpouring of feeling could only have been written by an actual woman, indeed by a Portuguese nun, they identified her as Marianna Alcoforado (1640–1723). Many library catalogues actually list Alcoforado as their author. Today, however, it is the contrast between masculine art and feminine spontaneity looks artificial. Modern scholars attribute the letters to a French nobleman, the writer and statesman Gabriel-Joseph de Lavergne de Guilleragues (1628–85).
—David Oakleaf, Calgary, May 2017