Germaine Greer on Manon Lescaut

For Germaine Greer, the Abbé Prévost's cautionary story Manon Lescaut echoes his own entanglement with a courtesan

Twenty-Þrst-century perception of the Abbé Prévost's masterpiece, L'histoire du chevalier des Grieux et Manon Lescaut (The Story of the Chevalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut), has been permanently distorted by the libretti written for the operas by Massenet and Puccini, which of necessity foreground the sufferings of the soprano. The Manon of the Abbé Prévost is emotionally inert, a giggling empty-headed minx. The reader can be no more certain than des Grieux that she really loves him, or that she could really love anyone. So far from giving glorious vent to heroic emotion, Prévost's Manon seldom gets to speak at all, and even then des Grieux is ventriloquising.

Des Grieux's inability to detach himself from Manon is evidence of his nobility of character, which Prévost intends us to see as superior to nobility of birth, wealth or social status, though connected to all three. Such sensibility is not to be found among the commercial or working or even the ruling classes, but only among the leisured rural gentry. The 'quality' alone can provide a higher ideal than the coarseness and amorality of absolutism which invariably subdues passion in the interests of politics. The magnates with whom des Grieux comes in contact are unfeeling, as exclusively concerned for their own pleasure and amusement as Manon is. Des Grieux is an intruder in their world of amoral hedonism who overwhelms Manon with the kind of transcendental passion she can neither resist nor return.

Recent research has revealed that the vicissitudes of Prévost's own career bear some resemblances to the misfortunes of the young des Grieux. He was born in 1697, son of a rich bourgeois of Hesdin, who had acquired the ofÞce of procureur du roi, which carried with it the privileges enjoyed by the aristocracy, if not their rank and status. As a younger son he had to choose between a career either in the army or in the Church. He began his studies at the Jesuit College at Harcourt only to abandon them for a commission in the French army in the War of Spanish Succession. He then returned to the noviciate but was soon off again, soldiering in the Spanish-French War. At home again he returned to his clerical studies but instead of becoming a Jesuit, entered the Benedictine order. In the cloister he co-authored part of an immense study of Christianity in France, Gallia Christiana. At the same time he began to write MËmoires et aventures d'un homme de qualité qui s'est retiré du monde (Memoirs and Adventures of a Man of Quality who has Retired from the World). When the prior refused to allow him more time to work on this secular project he absconded from the monastery and found lodgings where he could write in secret. A lettre de cachet being issued against him by the prior, he was obliged to ¤ee to London. From there he went to Holland where he became involved with a courtesan called Lenki Eckhardt. In 1731 appeared the third and fourth volumes of Memoirs of a Man of Quality, with the appended novel, The Story of the Chevalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut. After he and Lenki Eckhardt found themselves unable to pay their debts, he apparently abandoned her and once more tried his fortune in London, where in 1734 he was brie¤y imprisoned for fraud before high-tailing it back to Paris where Manon had been impounded by the censors. Rather as des Grieux does, Prévost threw himself once more on the mercies of the Church and was received into the Benedictine order. His noviciate completed he was given a position in the household of the Prince de Conti, and was able to embark upon a full-time literary career, but he never again equalled the brilliance of his cautionary tale of 1731.

Prévost was past thirty when he took up with Lenki Eckhardt. The Chevalier des Grieux was a mere boy when he became entangled. So reÞned were his manners and elegant his deportment that other gentlemen recognised him at once as one of their ilk, even when he was clad in shabby attire.

Des Grieux's falling in love at such a young age with a giddy creature like Manon is the kind of unmitigated disaster that the families of the gentry most dreaded. Even as des Grieux tells his equally gentlemanly interlocutors about the initial coup de foudre, he also manages to inform us that at sixteen Manon had had a measure of sexual experience, that she was addicted to pleasure, that she was of common birth and was pleased by her conquest of a man of his rank. Her worthlessness having been established at the outset, it is the Chevalier's mad Þdelity to her that will supply the novelty and the tragedy of Prévost's cautionary tale of the dire consequences of combining bons sentiments with actions mauvaises.

Prévost begins his tale with an example of how one gentleman treats another; his Þrst narrator, Þnding the young Chevalier penniless and despairing of ever being able to accompany his beloved to exile in America, gives him money, and by a combination of threats and bribery secures safe passage for him and his mistress who is, at that stage, nameless. Two years later he encounters him in the street, and once more comes to his rescue. This noblesse obliges the young Chevalier to tell his story frankly and freely to his benefactor. Within his Þrst-person account the role of 'guide, philosopher and friend' is played by his older friend Tiberge, who loves him with a sincere and disinterested passion (as Manon never could), weeps for his vicissitudes and tirelessly pleads with him to abandon the course which must lead to his ruin. In Þrst deciding to deceive Tiberge, the Chevalier betrays this noble relationship but Tiberge cannot abandon him for all that. Nor can the Chevalier's father or brother. The gentlemen are all as constant and true as Manon and her brother are shifting and deceitful. The object of the story is to show us how the society of honn êtes hommes is bound together by mutual obligation and protects its own even against ofÞcialdom, the Church and the Law.

© Germaine Greer, 2004. From the foreword to Manon Lescaut by Antoine Fran çois Prévost, translated by Andrew Brown and published by Hesperus Press on February 5 at £7.99.

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