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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Suzanne at last accepts her doom


_La Religieuse._]

It may seem that a critic who speaks in this fashion, after an initial promise of laudation, is a sort of Balaam topsyturvied, and merely curses where he is expected to bless. But ample warning was given of the peculiar position of Diderot, and when we come to his latest known and by far his best novel, _La Religieuse_, the paradox (he was himself very fond of paradoxes,[379] though not of the wretched things which now disgrace the name) remains. The very subject of the book, or of the greatest part of it, was for a long time, if it is not still, taboo; and even if this had not been the case, it has other drawbacks. It originated in, and to some extent still retains traces of, one of the silly and ill-bred "mystifications" in which the eighteenth and early nineteenth century delighted.[380] It is, at least in appearance, badly tainted with purpose; and while it is actually left unfinished, the last pages of it, as they stand, are utterly unworthy of the earlier part, and in fact quite uninteresting. Momus or Zoilus must be allowed to say so much: but having heard him, let us cease to listen to the half-god or the whole philologist.

[Sidenote: Its story.]

Yet _La Religieuse_, for all its drawbacks, is almost a great, and might conceivably have been a very great book. Madame d'Holbach is credited by Diderot's own generosity with having suggested its crowning

_mot_,[381] and her influence may have been in other ways good by governing the force and fire, so often wasted or ill-directed, of Diderot's genius. Soeur Sainte-Suzanne is the youngest daughter of a respectable middle-class family. She perceives, or half-perceives (for, though no fool, she is a guileless and unsuspicious creature), that she is unwelcome there; the most certain sign of which is that, while her sisters are married and dowered handsomely, she is condemned to be a nun. She has, though quite real piety, no "vocation," and though she allows herself to be coaxed through her novitiate, she at last, in face of almost insuperable difficulties, summons up courage enough to refuse, at the very altar, the final profession. There is, of course, a terrible scandal; she has more black looks in the family than ever, and at last her mother confesses that she is an illegitimate child, and therefore hated by her putative father, whose love for his wife, however, has induced him to forgive her, and not actually renounce (as indeed, by French law, he could not) the child. Broken in heart and spirit, Suzanne at last accepts her doom. She is fortunate in one abbess, but the next persecutes her, brings all sorts of false accusations against her, strips, starves, imprisons, and actually tortures her by means of the _amende honorable_. She manages to get her complaints known and to secure a counsel, and though she cannot obtain liberation from her vows, the priest who conducts the ecclesiastical part of the enquiry is a just man, and utterly repudiates the methods of persecution, while he and her lay lawyer procure her transference to another convent. Here her last trial (except those of the foolish post-_scrap_, as we may call it) begins, as well as the most equivocal and the greatest part of the book. Her new superior is in every respect different from any she has known--of a luxurious temperament, good-natured, though capricious, and inclined to be very much too affectionate. Her temptation of the innocent Suzanne is defeated by this very innocence, and by timely revelation, though the revealer does not know what she reveals, to a "director"; and the wayward and corrupted fancy turns by degrees to actual madness, which proves fatal, Suzanne remaining unharmed, though a piece of not inexcusable eavesdropping removes the ignorance of her innocence.

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