It is difficult to know exactly on what grounds to evaluate this book, an anti-clerical novella published in 1801, in the aftermath of the wreckage of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon. Translation-wise, it is a good translation that retains the poignancy and sweetness of French. Delany is adamant that she does not want to update the book but to make it accessible. This leads to more accessible translations of the terms maman and bonne maman as granny, rather than the more finessed nana or even Grandmama, but that seem somewhat unsophisticated considering the social position of the protagonist. The author, Sylvain Maréchal, is described as a forgotten writer of the Revolutionary period. Historically overshadowed by his idols, such as Voltaire and Rousseau whose thought he draws from heavily in his promulgation of an agrarian utopia dependent on nature, virtue, and reason, Maréchal himself, as the introduction details, is an interesting case. Fiercely anti-clerical, as this book shows, he married a devout Catholic, and was himself buried in a church cemetery by a priest. He was imprisoned for his popular anti-establishment (King and Church) writings, some of which became influential post-1789. In the book, apart from the anti-clericalism, there are hints of his other philosophical and political ideals, and the case the book makes is that the Church distorts and mischannels the natural devices and desires of our own hearts, and only by retreating to an unsullied nature and living in pastoral idyll can we truly be content. The book centres on the infatuation of Agatha, a demure, devout girl who falls madly in love with a priest. Told initially through a series of letters between Agatha and her married, more prudent friend Zoé who is ‘all good’ (Delany notes that Zoé was Maréchal’s pet name for his wife), the book relates how Agatha falls in love with Saint-Almont, a priest she sees at his first mass attended by numerous young women. They are drawn by the story of his turn to the priesthood; done so because of romantic misfortune. He sighs and faints during the ceremony, she sighs after him, and decides to act on her infatuation by dressing up like a boy and helping him serve at the altar. This develops into her attending seminary, becoming his secretary, eventually confessing her love and secret to him. This results in her banishment from the seminary and Saint-Almont’s side, and from this point the correspondence halts, and a more partisan third-person narration takes over. Instead of returning to her home and friends, she falls into despair in a series of caverns, pines, then is discovered by Timon, an anti-clerical, misanthropic quasi-hermit who, consumed by his hatred for the clergy, attempts to kill her, only arrested in the act by evidence of her womanhood. He tends to her, falls in love with her, yet she continues to despair, eventually dying in the arms of Zoé. After this, Timon, Zoé and her husband, and Saint-Almont emigrate to France’s new lands in America; Timon falling into a happy communion with the ‘savage forest dwellers’, Saint-Almont coming as a missionary but renouncing all religion in the end to become a governor for Zoé’s son, and all four meeting annually to celebrate Agatha; her love and death. It is not the most subtle of books. The promotional material for the book makes the case that its views on marriage, class, and virtue remain relevant today, mainly as the Catholic Church in particular still prohibits woman from becoming priests. This material also denotes the fields that the book speaks to, namely French history and literature, history of the novel, women’s studies, and religious studies. I can only comment authoritatively on the latter two, looking at how it describes a woman’s situation and how it understands religion. The introduction notes that today the themes of the book will not be shocking: we are accustomed to cross-dressing; in some cases women have been ordained for many years now. The real shock, Delany says, is less the cross-dressing and more the education into the Roman Catholic priesthood. Yet it is the cross-dressing that gains the most interest here, with Delany noting the implied connections with saints, Joan of Arc, and female revolutionaries. In the latter case, women wearing trousers became illegal in 1800, making this act more transgressive than we take it to be today. The heavy lifting that the introduction does to make the case that this book—what it puts forward and what it shows and argues—can speak to our contemporary concerns, is impressive. However, it builds up a picture on which the text itself cannot come through. The case is made that the figure of Agatha reflects the fragmented and contradictory attitudes towards women at the time. Agatha is represented both as independent and completely at the mercy of a man; intelligent enough to excel at the seminary, yet so influenced by her emotions that she sinks into inertia and dies of a broken heart. Zoé does little more than periodically warn Agatha to no avail that her course is disastrous. A woman causes Saint-Almont to take up his orders, and women flock to see him on the basis of that story. There is certainly a case to be made that this book is an interesting portrayal of desire: how it manifests, what it seizes upon, and how it relates to accounts of woman at the time, but this is not discussed much. Instead, it focuses on the social structures presented in the book. This question of desire interests me because it seems that the romantic politics of the book reiterate a particular trope, found in The Decameron and present in contemporary culture, that religious devotion and celibacy is a matter of misplaced affection, or stems from romantic rejection. This strand is compounded by Maréchal’s anti-clericalism where desire for the priesthood is surely a misplaced desire, for what God is there to desire? Instead, one turns to the priesthood because it is a way to deal with romantic disappointment, as in celibacy there is certainly a reduced risk of romantic disappointment. Thus, the import this novella has for religious studies is that it is illustrative of a certain continuous incomprehension of why people may desire God, and of attitudes towards clergy and the church in the 1800s. In that, it is useful to see how these have altered or remained the same over time. Aside from that, the introduction to the novella is fascinatingly comprehensive in its overview of Maréchal’s context and history. Yet that wealth of information is necessary as the novella is so much a product of its time. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Literature and Theology – Oxford University Press
Published: Jul 18, 2017
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