The Nun – Denis Diderot

The story behind this book is as fascinating as the novel itself and it would probably be good to start there, because it all grew out of an elaborate practical joke which was based on a real incident. In 1758 a young nun, Marguerite Delamarre, tried to get herself extricated from the vows she had taken in a Paris convent and returned to the outside world. However it was almost impossible for this to happen at the time and she duly failed but not before it had become the talk of the city. She ended up living her entire life, presumably unhappily, in the convent. Her story suggested itself to Diderot and a group of his friends as a means of persuading another of their company who had retired to the countryside to come back to Paris. They duly started a correspondence with him in 1759 pretending to be Suzanne Simonin, a nun who had escaped the cloister but needed assistance to avoid being forcibly taken back. They also included fake letters from Madame Madin, who was known to both parties and was supposedly sheltering the girl. Unfortunately for the friends of M. de Croismare he fell for the story rather too well and offered Suzanne a place in his household, even going so far as to try to arrange transport for her. They were forced to claim she was ill and then when he became more insistent that he wanted to help her they made the illness more severe and killed her off.

In a postscript, eight years later M. de Croismare did come to Paris and met Madame Madin and was surprised to find that she knew nothing of the whole episode. The story should have ended as a practical joke but Diderot had by now been so fascinated by their tale of woe that he decided to write Suzanne’s autobiography from childhood to how she ended up in the convent and then to her escape and he worked on it through most of 1760 although with no intent to publish, however once he found out that the joke was exposed he did finally publish in 1770.

To provide a reason for Suzanne to be shut up in a convent from the age of sixteen she had two slightly older sisters but it was becoming clear that potential suitors for them were getting more interested in Suzanne so she was put out of the way. This decision by her father was driven more by his (correct) suspicion that he was not actually her biological father and he wanted to prevent her having any call on the families money. He therefore determined that she should be got rid of in the most convenient way and as the story of Marguerite Delamarre proved it was almost impossible in 18th century France for a girl to leave a convent once she had been made to take her vows. However at the first convent she was sent to Suzanne refused to take her vows and created a scene in the church for which she was punished and later taken to a second convent.

At this second convent she was persuaded to take her vows despite protesting she had no vocation to become a nun and so started a horrific experience of neglect, beatings, sleep deprivation, etc. as the Mother Superior had a sadistic side and was determined to beat and torture a vocation into the young girl. Several of the illustrations in the book are based around these episodes and it is the one failing of this edition that the artist appears to be mainly interested in the voyeuristic depictions of a naked and half naked Suzanne than a more balanced view of the plot and the other sufferings she endures at the hands of this Mother Superior and her coterie of similarly sadistic senior nuns.

Eventually she is assisted to go to a third convent and here although the beatings and humiliation are not present she becomes the object of affection of the lesbian Mother Superior much to the confusion of the innocent Suzanne. Diderot appears keen to heap all the exploitative possibilities of a cloistered group of women some of whom are driven half mad by the regime and being locked away from the outside world from such a young age. It is not an easy book to read as it is written entirely from Suzanne’s viewpoint, but I’m glad this session of French works has persuaded me to get it off the shelves.

My copy is the Folio Society edition from 1972 and is notorious for its fading cloth spine, all copies I have ever seen are this badly faded, the rest of the book being protected by a slipcase. It is illustrated by Charles Mozley and translated by Leonard Tancock and is the fourth in my selection of books translated from French for August 2021.

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