La Religieuse (English: Memoirs of a Nun, or The Nun) tells the story of Suzanne, who is donated to a convent under the pretense of being a financial burden to her family. But in time, Sister Suzanne learns that she is the product of an adulterous affair between her mother and another man. Suzanne’s mother placed her daughter in a convent to avoid family scandal and to atone for her sin. For several personal and financial reasons, Suzanne has no choice but to take the veil.
Sister Suzanne hates religious life. She views the convent as a prison. And indeed, the 19-year-old girl faces untold abuse at the hands of the Superior. She is forbidden from receiving any of the sacraments, including confession. The other sisters shun and insult her, scatter broken glass in her path, and deprive her of basic necessities such as food and clothing. A sympathetic sister helps Suzanne contact a powerful attorney, and the case goes to trial. But the Church is a powerful institution, and no amount of evidence will free Suzanne of her religious duties.
Finally, she is moved to another convent with a Superior who, at first, appears sympathetic to Suzanne’s suffering. The Mother Superior treats the girl like a princess, listening to her story, offering her the best living conditions, and allowing her to skip confession. Unfortunately, this Superior’s intentions are equally nefarious. Under the guise of compassion, she sexually assaults Suzanne. The girl is too innocent and ignorant to understand what’s happening. She often feels uncomfortable, but she cannot put words to her experience. By all appearance, the Superior is a kind and loving person. Yet, a confessor insists that Suzanne avoid the woman at all cost. His successor goes further and offers to help Suzanne escape. But yet again, she leaves the frying pan only to end up in the fire. He also sexually abuses her. At the end of the novel, we learn that Suzanne has taken up work in a brothel and is requesting that the Count to whom she has been telling her story will save her once and for all from the hell that has been her life.
Diderot’s inspiration was a practical joke between a Marquis de Croismare and a nun named Marguerite Delamarre. Shortly after the marquis failed to free Marguerite, Diderot and his friends wrote to Croismare, pretending to be yet another sister in need. Unlike the book’s inspiration, La Religieuse is not a lighthearted read. Diderot exposes the hypocrisy, corruption, and abuse of the institutional Church. Many of the descriptions of abuse are vivid and believable.
But I don’t know how to feel about this work. On the one hand, Suzanne’s experience was all too common in the 18th century. Many women were forced to take the veil against their will. They either went mad from grief or were punished for their disobedience. And today, clerical sexual abuse is a global scandal that has barely been addressed in any meaningful way.
Nevertheless, I sensed a dose of misogyny in the work. Diderot’s nuns are jealous, vindictive, irrational, and emotional. I was also troubled by how sexual assault is treated in the second half of the novel. Suzanne’s Superior is presented as a libertine with lesbian desires. Her acts are condemned as sinful but not abusive. In fact, I get the impression that Diderot considers the situation highly amusing. The victim is too ignorant to notice what is going on. Furthermore, same-sex attraction is presented as an unfortunate consequence of forcing religious life on unwilling girls. The assault scenes were particularly uncomfortable to read because the Superior is presented as a libertine rather than a predator.
And yet, I was also impressed by Diderot’s understanding of human psychology and institutional corruption. At several points in the story, I felt that Suzanne’s thoughts and actions accurately reflect those of an abuse victim. She wants to stay away from her predatory Superior, despite believing that the woman’s intentions are pure. There is a disconnect between what she believes and how she feels. While I was shocked that the physically abusive Superior prevents Suzanne from receiving any of the sacraments, including Confession, abusers don’t behave rationally. Perhaps, the Superior didn’t want to give Suzanne — whom she knew remained vehemently opposed to religious life — the opportunity for reconciliation with the community. Suzanne tries in vain to obey convent rules, in hopes that the abuse will cease. Victims are often made to believe that abuse is deserved, a consequence of something they’ve done. That if they changed their behavior, the abuse would stop.
I find Diderot’s works interesting for the philosophical and social issues they tackle. There is a lot to appreciate in this novel, but I don’t think it was his story to tell. The misogyny and somewhat humorous treatment of sexual assault makes La Religieuse a difficult book to appreciate in the #MeToo movement.