Liberation in Lisbon

The Three Marias: New Portuguese Letters

by Maria Isabel Barreno, by Maria Teresa Horta, by Maria Velho da Costa, translated by Helen R. Lane
Doubleday, 432 pp., $10.00

The revolutionary Portugal of this year and last year may at first seem infinitely removed from the land in which this book, and that older book which partly inspired it, were written. The original “Portuguese Letters,” which may have been a seventeenth-century forgery, as some recent scholars insist, were presumably written to the lover who had abandoned her by a young nun, Mariana Alcoforado, from her convent at Beja in the brown silent plains of the Alentejo. The New Portuguese Letters, a huge and complicated garland—or perhaps wreath—of poetry and prose written by three women, dates from the last years of the Salazar-Caetano dictatorship.

Now that melancholy town of Beja is noisy with the rebellion of the landless laborers, beginning at last to occupy the half-cultivated estates of the absentee landlords of the Alentejo. And the repression, the traditionalism, the silent isolation in which the three Marias and their people lived have broken apart. But into what parts? Before, there was the rigid dictatorship of morals and the censorship. Now there are the leering, awkward mobs of men around the pavement stall on Rossio or Restauradores, flicking through the hard-porn magazines flooding in from West Germany and bolstering their “machismo” with bursts of laughter at once contemptuous and frightened. There is a furious political life which brings human beings together at last, only to reveal to them their terrible separateness, their almost insuperable difficulties in speaking of their lives and futures except through stiff slogans.

The gate of the convent may have had its huge bolts and padlocks shot away, but “Mariana” still finds herself bereft, the Chevalier de Chamilly still rides away in fear from the place where he has been naked. The battle for divorce and abortion is being won, and the Marias have fought powerfully in the battle, but they must look back with new respect on the warning of one of them against

this farce, this delusion, this false and shameful “liberation” which has made [woman] even more of a prisoner (a prisoner of herself), caught fast in the meshes of a society that uses the woman,…the spoil today of warriors who pretend to be our comrades in the struggle, but who merely seek to mount us and be cavaliers of Marianas….

The alliance of the three Marias themselves began in 1971. Maria Isabel and Maria Fátima were both writers, both employed at the Institute of Industrial Research. Maria Teresa was a journalist, literary editor of a Lisbon daily, and a poet whose book of verse Milady of Me had provoked a celebrated scandal. All were middle-class, in their thirties, convent-educated, married, mothers of sons. They began to meet, once a week at a restaurant and once a week in the evening at home, to plan a work about woman in society which would also be a self-exploration for each of them and a mutual exploration of their own differences. Their views and natures were far apart: Maria Isabel the coolest, Maria Teresa …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.