Something to Read: The Nun by Denis Diderot

 A beneath-the-wimple exposé

A beneath-the-wimple exposé

I don’t always make a practice of grabbing books from an exchange shelf since, as a rule, they are pretty dreadful. Discarded textbooks, romance novels, memoirs of an accountant, etc. So it’s always fun to run across something worthwhile and surprising. 

And what a surprise! The jacket copy on the Penguin Classics version of Diderot’s The Nun describes the book as a long practical joke: Diderot was seeking to swindle the Marquis de Croismare into believing his fictional account of an illegitimate child pressed into a nunnery against her will. The Marquis was apparently appalled by the petty cruelty of France’s religious institutions and Diderot sought to capture that cruelty in fiction. The book was considered too scandalous in its time—it was written in 1758—and so was published posthumously, in 1796, after the French revolution.

What the jacket fails to describe is that the book is also a piece of mid-18th century lesbian French erotica: a genre that I heretofore did know existed. Here, for example, is a representative passage from the latter half of the book:

 

She whispered: ‘Suzanne, my dear, come a bit nearer.’ She held out her arms, but I had my back to her; she took me gently and pulled me towards her, passed her right arm under my body and the other above and said: ‘I am frozen, and so cold that I am afraid to touch you for fear of hurting you.’

‘Dear Mother, you need not be afraid of that.’

“Immediately she put one hand on my breast and the other round my waist, her feet were under mine, and I pressed them so as to warm them, and she said: ‘Oh my dear, see how my feet have warmed up at once because there is nothing between them and yours.’

‘But,’ I said, ‘what is there to prevent you from warming yourself everywhere in the same way?’

‘Nothing if you are willing.’

I had turned round, and she had opened her nightdress, and I was on the point of doing the same when suddenly there were two violent blows on the door…

 

Who knew that the origins of bodice-heaver were so old? 

Even without its prurient appeal, the book has its charms. It’s yet another great example of what seems to me to be the absolute essence of storytelling: give your audience sympathy for a character and then make dreadful things happen to her. That is, more or less, the pattern this book (novel? False memoir?) follows from the beginning to the end. Our heroine, Suzanne Simonin, is dainty, charming, and innocent. And then she is abused left, right, and center. 

Suzanne’s very existence reminds her mother of the carnal sin that brought her into existence, and so the mother refuses Suzanne her dowry and banishes her into the religious life. Knowing she is not cut out for Christian duty, Suzanne seeks to escape her vows and thus incurs the wrath of her mother superior and sister nuns. She is beaten, kept awake, forced to eat ash-laden food, given a hair shirt, abused with ropes, kept in solitary confinement, starved, mocked, and lashed.

Diderot keeps alive some faint hope of Suzanne’s escape and so we read on. Suzanne moves to a new monastery, where her soul is exposed to the mortal threat of the aforementioned lesbian eroticism. She resists (mostly), and is shunned by her sisters. Then she escapes, is subjected to the amorous advances of men in the outside world, and suffers terribly. It’s all very compelling, very juicy, and oh so French. It is, in short, the perfect read for an evening in a country house, whether you are a 21st-century literary voyeur or a gullible 18th-century Marquis.