‘Calumnies and persecutions’: Denis Diderot, ‘The Nun’

‘The cloistered life is that of a fanatic or a hypocrite.’

I’ve reached that happy time of year when my teaching commitments are almost over and I have some space in which to read and write. Having posted already this week on John Harvey’s social-cultural-philosophical study Clothes I felt inspired to join that doughty band of bloggers (like Kaggsysbookishramblings – her excellent blog is HERE) who post more prolifically than I can manage, yet are able to maintain admirably high standards of entertaining, well-written posts on their scarily voracious reading (where do they find the time?!) – don’t know if I can reach their level, but here goes with a second post this week.

thumb_IMG_2796_1024Denis Diderot’s (sort of) epistolary novel La Religieuse was first published in 1796, but started as early as 1760 (more on that later) which I read in the Penguin Classics version The Nun, translated by Leonard Tancock. I seem to recall buying it after reading Malcolm Bradbury’s final novel, To the Hermitage, published shortly before he died (too young at just 68) – a delightfully irreverent but highly intelligent response to the life and work of Diderot, and in particular of his sojourn at the St Petersburg court of tsarina Catherine II, who had invited him to curate her library and art works at what is now the Hermitage museum. There’s a review here from the online journal Études Anglaises. I enjoyed it when I read it over ten years ago. In the light of the TBR20 movement started by Eva Stalker I resolved finally to pick up The Nun and remove it from my pile of unread books (the TBR pile as it’s called on the Interweb).

The main difficulty was, I didn’t really enjoy the novel that much.

It began as a hoax. Diderot (1713-84) was the archetypal Enlightenment philosophe, a

First edition of Encyclopédie, 1751

First edition of Encyclopédie, 1751

scientific materialist and polymath humanist with strongly anti-Catholic views, which are apparent throughout this novel. He was most famous as the main editor of the Encyclopédie – a vast ‘dictionnaire raisonné’ of all human knowledge at the time, which began to appear in 1751.

 

One of his circle of Paris friends of eminent thinkers and writers was the Marquis de Croismare, who had recently retired from the capital to his country estate in Normandy. Diderot missed his affable company, so in order to lure him back to the city he made use of a scandalously notorious incident of 1758; a nun had petitioned the Marquis to intervene on her behalf in her attempt to revoke her religious vows and leave the convent (to which she’d been condemned against her will by her parents) for the outside world.

Diderot started writing to the Marquis a sequence of letters in the name of another such desperate nun, Suzanne Simonin. Adopting this fictitious persona he constructed a scenario in which she’d escaped from the miserable cruelty of her convent, to which she too had been condemned by her parents.

The plan went wrong. Instead of the desired outcome – the return of the Marquis to Paris to facilitate Suzanne’s liberation – he offered her asylum and a job on his country estate, and stayed put. Eventually Diderot had to send letters to the Marquis telling him ‘Suzanne’ had died. Later, over a period of years, he worked the original material into a full-length novel, but it wasn’t published in its final form until after his death in 1796, and of course after the Revolution which some of his works had contributed towards fermenting.

The Nun takes the form of a curious hybrid: letters addressed to the Marquis petitioning his support (paid employment and asylum), but also a sort of autobiography or memoir in which Suzanne describes her cruel banishment to cloistered incarceration by her heartless parents, followed by her experiences in the religious houses to which she was confined.

It’s not all gothic gloom; at first she is treated with loving kindness by a saintly Mother Superior. When she dies, it all goes horribly wrong. The new Superior is jealously tyrannical in her persecution of her predecessor’s former favourites. Convents are portrayed here as unholy hotbeds of hypocrisy, corruption and persecution, with an unhealthy atmosphere that generates madness, idolatry (or fear) of superiors, bullying, calumnies and febrile sexual depravity. Just look at the cover image above…

Suzanne takes her vows in a weird sort of fugue trance – a characteristically unconvincing scene. Her later attempts to renounce the veil are met with cruel vengefulness: she’s systematically exposed to mental and physical torture, solitary confinement and ostracism. She often contemplates suicide.

Unfortunately I found the prose indigestible. I’m sure the translator did a good job, but 18C French can be pretty stodgy. And the relentlessly victimised Suzanne has a voice that generally comes across as inconsistent and implausibly literary. Here she is on the opening page, explaining her purpose in writing:

…I have made up my mind to overcome my pride and reluctance and embark on these recollections in which I shall describe part of my misfortunes without talent or artifice, with the ingenuousness of a girl of my age and with my natural candour.

 

Like so many gothic narratives of swooning female victims in menacing cloistered environments (there’s a touch of Clarissa’s influence there, too, perhaps; Richardson’s novel was published in 1748), there’s an unsavoury prurience apparent. The narrator’s constant reminders of her youth, innocence and natural piety become tiresomely strident, and the mistreatment she endures with either stoical submissiveness or passive resistance becomes a catalogue of sado-masochism verging on torture porn that the underlying socio-political message fails to justify.

After one particularly vicious campaign against her, for example, Suzanne reveals her wounds to her superiors; she then melodramatically addresses her putative aristocratic reader –

I can hear you, Sir, and most of those who read these memoirs, saying: ‘So many horrors, so varied and so continuous! A series of such calculated atrocities in religious souls! It defies all probability!’

 

Quite so. And just who are we meant to understand constitute her readers? Not just the Marquis, then, but ‘memoir’ readers. It doesn’t add up.

I have a similar problem with the sexual aspects of Suzanne’s revelations. At one stage she’s accused of what is clearly signalled as masturbation and lesbianism, but her coyly euphemistic account overbalances into unintentional humour:

I was credited with intentions I dare not mention, and unnatural desires to which they attributed the obvious disarray of the young nun [who had just fled screaming from her]. Of course I am not a man, and I don’t know what can be imagined about one woman and another, still less about one woman alone, but as my bed had no curtains, and people came in and out of my room at all hours, what can I say, Sir? For all their circumspect behaviour, their modest eyes and the chastity of their talk, these women must be very corrupt at heart – anyway they know that you can commit indecent acts alone, which I don’t know, and so I have never quite understood what they accused me of…

 Really? You either know or you don’t. This is equivocation that begins to resemble the genre of a bawdy Carry On film.

Credibility is strained even more when her last Superior engages in a series of intimate

Portrait of Diderot by Greuze, 1767. Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Diderot by Greuze, 1767. Wikimedia Commons

Sapphic trysts with her that culminate in what is clearly orgasm – which again Suzanne claims she doesn’t understand (‘I jumped up, thinking she had fainted…’) She thinks her Superior was simply taken ill!

This novel has a certain amount of interest as a blast from the Age of Reason against clerical hypocrisy, but as a novel it fails to satisfy.

Next time – before too long, I hope – I intend to return to the topic of the TBR pile. This attempt wasn’t entirely rewarding.