I first read Manon Lescaut, the 1731 novel by the Abbé Prévost, when I was an undergraduate and before I had read a whole host of other novels that take an excessive and doomed passion as their focus. So this, one of the earliest versions of its kind, was in its rightful place in my reading education, a precursor against which I could measure all subsequent literary renditions of burning love. Most of the eighteenth century texts set on my course I did not get on with; I never liked Voltaire, found Diderot too dry, detested Montesquieu, never saw the charm in Marivaux, but this novel I loved. Returning to it, twenty years later, I found it just as exquisitely written as I did back then, and I enjoyed it just as much. Now I’ve got the opportunity to write the blog essay on it that I’m pretty sure I never managed back in my youthful university days.
So, our narrator begins the tale by telling us of the curious incident he happened upon: a carriage of young women deportees being taken to one of the Channel ports in order to be shipped to the new colonies in America, accompanied not just by an armed guard but by a young man of noble birth who is desperate, determined and nearly out of cash. He’s been bribing the guards to allow him to stay close to his adored mistress who he has promised to accompany to the ends of the earth, and indeed the narrator can now identify amongst the criminals a beautiful, utterly wretched young woman who is clearly out of place. The situation makes such an impression on our narrator that he quickly decides to lend the young man a tidy sum. He thinks never to see him again, but a couple of years later they meet by chance and the young man offers to tell him the whole sorry story as a belated thank you for the money. And so we return in time to the start of the tale, with a certain degree of insight into how it will finish, to hear how the 17-year-old Chevalier des Grieux, handsome, well-born, well-off and blessed with both intelligence and charm bumps into the lusciously gorgeous Manon Lescaut in the street one day, just as she is being sent off by her parents into a nunnery. This might have given him some warning that she was a bit of a handful, but by then it is already too late, as the coup de foudre has struck and des Grieux is madly, hopelessly, irrevocably in love.
Instantly des Grieux drops out of college and runs off with his new mistress to Paris. For a brief, halcyon spell he lives in paradise, but then two things happen: he runs out of money and Manon, who is already attaching herself to an older, wealthier suitor, shops him to his father who sends the boys around to bring him home. Des Grieux simply cannot believe that Manon could be so faithless and so unfair, and although he tries to get over her and return to the path of virtue, he just can’t. It’s not long before he’s returned to Paris, found her, won her back again and set in motion a lengthy and complicated, if repetitious circle of events in which Manon continues to prove herself unworthy of his love, and he proves himself to be a loyal and lovesick fool for her no matter what.
Now Prévost knew that his readers would be clutching their heads in anguish after a while, wondering how des Grieux could possibly be such a chump, and worse than that in the eighteenth century, a blasphemous sinner, and so it’s intriguing to note how all the male authority figures in this novel, all the religious instructors, all the civic governors, all the forces of law and order, even our somewhat anonymous narrator, find themselves instantly attracted to des Grieux and show him marks of respect and admiration. Des Grieux loves only Manon, but he is surrounded in the story by a circle of tenderly appreciative men. This includes his long-suffering friend, Tiberge, who is forever being touched for funds and seems as incapable of learning to mistrust des Grieux’s promises of repentence as des Grieux is incapable of mistrusting Manon’s promises of fidelity. But that’s important to the moral universe of the story; for unswerving devotion becomes a more prized quality than clear-sighted reason. The great wave of Romanticism is starting to gather itself across Europe, and already the extent to which one can suffer shows the extent and the depth of one’s soul. It’s an extraordinary turnaround in male gender identity from where we stand today, so often teasing men about their inability or their unwillingness to show their emotions. Two hundred years ago nobility, sensibility, passion, manliness, were all dependant on their ability to shed copious tears and to express their deepest feelings.
But we shouldn’t think of des Grieux as reduced to a wimpish sissy by his love for Manon. In fact, he lies, steals, cheats and even kills for her. He turns his back on all the advantages of his family (which were, after all, the advantages that really counted at this point in time) and embraces vice and degradation. And everything, everything he does is justified because of the extent of his passion. In this way, loving Manon allows him to do whatever he likes, it pardons him in every transgression he commits (and these are numerous), it permits him to be a daring, excessive individual freed from the normal constraints of law and society, it plunges him headlong into an extraordinary series of adventures that sets him apart from his fellow men and ushers him into a space outside the recognized codes of conduct. If des Grieux had never met Manon, he would have had to do his nice, quiet, tedious studies like the good boy he was born and brought up to be. He spends a lot of time in the narrative cursing the heavens for his ill-fortune, which is supposed to move the reader to pity, but to my 21st century eyes looks like a way of diverting us from the recognition of how much he chooses his path whilst not wanting to be held responsible for its consequences. In reality, I think des Grieux is as much in love with the dark side as he is with Manon, and with the career options open to a desperate renegade who will stop at nothing in the name of passion. That’s the lure of romance for him: the possibility of boldly going where no man (of his class) has gone before.