By Denis Diderot (The Folio Society; 1780/1972)
The legendary French classic THE NUN (or LA RELIGIEUSE) may well be the first true example of “nunsploitation.” It’s over 200 years old yet contains a still-juicy plethora of nastiness. Composed in 1760 but not published until 20 years later (and reprinted in this 1972 English language hardcover, translated and introduced by Leonard Tancock and featuring lithographs by Charles Mozley), THE NUN apparently began life as a practical joke.
The inspiration for the gag was the real-life case of Marguerite Delamarre, a nun who in 1758 campaigned for a release from her vows. The philosopher/dramatist Denis Diderot wrote several letters in the guise of a disgraced nun much like Delamarre begging one Marquis de Croismare (a retired cardinal and longtime Diderot cohort) to intercede her behalf. The joke quickly got out of hand, forcing Diderot to kill off his fictional subject; however, he was also moved to write a more complete account of her life, resulting in the novel under review.
The nature of the joke explains the book’s construction: a lengthy confession by the protagonist, Sister Suzanne Simonin, to M. de Croismare (identified as “a man of the world…well born, enlightened, intelligent and witty”). Ms. Simonin, the product of an illegitimate birth, is thrust by her bitchy mother into a cloister at age 16. She’s initially unfazed (“life at home was so miserable this didn’t upset me”) but life as a “religieuse” comes to weigh on Suzanne, who elects to renounce her vows.
Unfortunately Suzanne’s mother doesn’t want her back, and she’s transferred to the Hellish Longchamp convent. Its kindly mother superior dies shortly after Suzanne enters and is replaced by the evil Sister Sainte-Christine. The latter becomes determined to break the free-spirited Suzanne, and subjects her to a succession of horrific tortures: malnourishment, public ridicule, imprisonment in an underground dungeon, trampling and strategically placed broken glass (at this point Suzanne implores Simonin to “Kill your own daughter rather than imprison her in a cloister against her will–yes, kill her!”).
Eventually Suzanne’s plight inspires a public outcry, and she’s transferred to a third convent. The mother superior here is a lesbian who takes an immediate shine to Suzanne. This kindly but lascivious superior has a disturbing predilection for fondling and rubbing up against Suzanne and then going into shivering fugues, which our eternally naive protagonist doesn’t understand. Suzanne comes to shun the woman, who eventually goes mad from repressed desire.
As for Suzanne, she escapes with the help of an apparently sympathetic monk…who molests her on the ride out! The ending is as grim as can be, positing Suzanne may have escaped the horrors of convent life but that the outside world holds no place for her.
This book has been widely condemned (and celebrated) as anti-Catholic, but I don’t see it that way. Diderot’s views on religion seem concentrated in his characterization of the impossibly kind-hearted Suzanne, who argues passionately (and, you might argue, self-righteously) for forgiveness of her tormentors. The point is that Suzanne may repeatedly renounce her religious vows but is nonetheless the one true embodiment of Christian values amidst her apparently devout superiors, whose actions are far from saintly.
Religious leaders as hypocritical sadists and perverts? Sounds like a topic ripped from today’s headlines. No wonder this centuries-old tome, overwrought though it often is, continues to resonate.