The Nun, by Denis Diderot, trans Russell Goulbourne, Oxford University Press, 240 pp, ISBN: 978-0199555246
Denis Diderot’s powerful convent-based The Nun (La Religieuse) was published posthumously in 1796. This controversial novel became an instant bestseller and a succès de scandale in post-revolutionary France, not least on account of its anticlericalism and its lesbian eroticism. In 2005, OUP brought out a new English translation, with a perceptive introduction by Russell Goulbourne, who identifies the novel’s timeless modernity, deeming it “an anti-cloistral satire that argues for human rights and self-determination”. So why now, more than a decade later, would one re-read a text that is no longer either censored or scandalous?
Sinister echoes exist between the convent experiences of the fictional Suzanne, Diderot’s eighteenth century nun, and the factual experiences of twentieth century Irish Magdalene laundries survivors. A number of considerations arise: is Diderot’s novel really fictional, or is it perhaps mimetic, reflecting some bleak eighteenth century contemporary reality as observed or experienced by Diderot or his contemporaries? Or is the shocking commonality between Diderot’s nun and Irish Magdalene survivors in fact anti-mimetic, suggesting instead an uncanny instance of literature anticipating a horrendous real-life travesty? Most crucially, how can modern society learn from fictional and factual depictions of terrible abuse in a situation of claustration?
To assess such issues, we must re-read both novel and laundry story, looking first at Diderot’s The Nun, which is written in a strong first-person female voice. The text reads like the personal diary or memoir of the young nun, Suzanne. She recounts how her mother feels guilty over an adulterous love affair and wishes to atone by sacrificing her illegitimate daughter to religion. While two older sisters are married with dowries, Suzanne is placed in a convent, where she takes religious vows against her will. The reluctant nun experiences three different convents, where she endures the reigns of five different mother superiors. With each change of regime, the pendulum swings wildly either for or against her, but she is repeatedly victimised throughout the novel, and has little hope of reprieve or escape. While Diderot obviously satirises the various management regimes, the undercurrents are sinister in the extreme.
Suzanne is unusual in literary terms because her outspoken protest against her vows is an ideological one: she does not hanker after some dashing young lover outside convent walls; she simply does not wish to be a nun, or to be enclosed in a convent. In a frank postface, Diderot writes about how he worked hard on achieving verisimilitude of voice by re-writing and simplifying the nun’s syntax and vocabulary. He attests that he wanted readers to experience Suzanne’s words as truly authentic. Thus, her entire narrative is written in a naive, innocent style that rings true to her young age and scant education. But beyond the aesthetic satisfaction of literary honing, why was Diderot so attached to achieving verisimilitude?
While Suzanne is enclosed in her various convents, she suffers the same conditions of deprivation commonly endured by prisoners, as identified by sociologists David Ward and Gene Kassebaum: deprivation of liberty, of goods and services, of heterosexual relationships, of autonomy and of security. Of these five deprivations, Suzanne particularly articulates her own sufferings in terms of the dual deprivation of liberty and security. Despite Diderot’s own atheism, his character Suzanne is inherently respectful of religious belief and prays spontaneously; she simply does not wish to dedicate her life to religion. She suffers terribly from her lack of liberty and begs simply to be free, outside. She attempts public protests: once she dramatically refuses to take the veil and later she undertakes a lawsuit to have her vows deemed involuntary. Both attempts fail, yet she persists in attempting to regain freedom.
Around the same time that Diderot’s fictional memoir was being composed, across the sea in Ireland, all-too-real Magdalene homes and laundries came into being. These convent-based institutions ‑ sometimes termed asylums, refuges, penitentiaries or homes ‑ existed from the late eighteenth century right through to the late twentieth: indeed the final Magdalene laundry in Ireland, in Seán MacDermott Street, Dublin, closed in 1996, just two hundred years after the publication of The Nun in 1796. In these laundries, religious orders interned allegedly “problematic” girls (typically poor, pretty or pregnant) who worked as laundresses for little or no pay. “Magdalenes” were subjected by nuns to rigorous discipline, enforced claustration, and harsh daily working conditions. What may have started out as charitable work in the eighteenth century disintegrated into time-warped institutional abuse by the twentieth. Survivors do not mince their words about the horrorific experiences endured:
I didn’t see anything godly in that church […]. All I saw was a bunch of bullies: […] devils dressed up in nuns’ habits.
(Brigid Young, Magdalene Laundries survivor)
In June 2018, the non-profit, all-volunteer advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR), honoured hundreds of survivors of the ten last Irish Magdalene laundries at a two-day Dublin Honours Magdalenes event in Dublin, with the support of the Irish government. This gathering was organised to celebrate surviving “Magdalenes”, to apologise to them, to listen to them, and to make them feel cherished after childhoods, sometimes lifetimes, of cruelty, abuse and unpaid toil. At that historical gathering, many of the ladies generously agreed to record elements of their personal stories. JFMR will provide an extensive online archive of survivors’ individually articulated memories as testimony of time spent in the laundries and associated convents. Through this archive, schoolchildren, historians and future generations may access their voices, and collectively shudder at the horrors of Ireland’s recent past. Although fitting and overdue, restoring these ladies’ voices is also sadly ironic given the fierce, absolute silence that was imposed on hundreds of thousands of young girls and women daily in the laundries, by night in their convent cots, and beyond death in unmarked graves. But what are the salient identifiers that might alert society to such abuse?
Laundry survivors’ accounts of conventual abuse are shocking: some Magdalene “penitents” were addressed by number, others were randomly allotted a new name that was not theirs. Many survivors recount escaping out the convent door; others nipped out of locked gates, or clambered over the convent roof. In his novel, Diderot’s Suzanne is badly injured when she escapes by climbing over the convent wall using a rope ladder, only to find herself in the grip of a treacherous monk. Similar abusive behaviour by male religious figures within the secretive cloistral setting is an all too common trope recounted by modern Magdalene survivors.
No Magdalene survivor can ever fully escape the memory of their sufferings inside. On the record, survivors weep openly, others remain angry, some forgive, others condemn, some pray fervently, many others reject religion in any form. Little by little, through documentaries, art, sculpture, theatre, academic articles, books and recordings [http://jfmresearch.com], the stories of survivors are being heard, recounted and regretted. Each individual voice is entirely different, but all are female, all bear witness to unspeakable pain and suffering and all testimonies raise the same question: how could these institutions have been so cruel? In the twenty-first century, how can Ireland prevent a recurrence of the confluence of circumstances that led to such horrors being perpetrated within closed walls, right under the nose of society, while those outside remained largely oblivious, even up to 1996? Where might these same conditions that permitted the abuse of society’s most vulnerable members appear next? And what about those people who knew about it all, eyes wide shut?
In an attempt to grapple with these questions, it is both disturbing and illuminating to return to the darkest passages of The Nun. The central concern of Diderot’s satirical novel pivots on the ethics of imposed claustration of young girls in convents. It questions the purpose of the convent qua institution, and depicts in great detail myriad abuses of the enclosed girls, whether emotional, physical or sexual. It illustrates unchristian behaviour by a coterie of enclosed nuns inside, and indicts the convenient blindness that was cultivated on the part of parents, society and the authorities outside. Diderot called his novel a “terrifying satire” of convents and he became so emotionally involved in the fate of his nun that he wept in despair as he wrote of Suzanne’s ordeals.
Claustration is terrifying and depressing for humans, especially when accompanied by a lack of certainty surrounding a release date or even a prospect of release, as attested by modern-day kidnap victims (for example Brian Keenan) and Nazi camp survivors (for example Viktor Frankl). But Diderot’s text adds to involuntary claustration the random factor of abusive leaders. His novel traces the three core contrasting mother superior regimes: firstly, Madame de Moni, a visionary who woos Suzanne into taking the veil; subsequently, Sister Sainte-Christine, who unleashes a litany of abuses that terrorise Suzanne to within a whisker of death; finally, during the licentious third regime of Madame *** (asterisks protect her name to emphasise her imputed shame), Suzanne finds herself the cultivated favourite of a predatory lesbian mother superior. No regime is salutary, yet the domineering and cruel Sainte-Christine stands out as constituting the greatest threat to Suzanne’s life. Any semblance of personal security Suzanne may have felt within the convent setting vanishes upon Sainte-Christine’s accession to power. The narrative descends into a spiral of horrific abuses, including ostracism, bullying, sleep deprivation, exclusion from religious duties, theft of personal belongings, obstruction, damage to property, neglect and incitement to suicide.
Suzanne’s lowest ebb comes when she is locked into an underground dungeon where she is overwhelmed by psychological terror: nobody outside knows she is there; she could vanish or die inside at any time. The emotion is raw: Diderot’s own sister took the veil and died of madness within her local convent. The threat of madness hovers throughout The Nun, embodied by an overtly deranged nun who escapes her actual chains. Such narrative snapshots cast an ominous pall over the entire text and emphasise the precariousness of Suzanne’s daily existence. Her worst incarceration moment is deliberately rendered Christ-like when her dungeon stay is summarily suspended on the third day. However, there is nothing remotely Christian, in Diderot’s depiction, about the young nuns’ herd mentality, or the overt abuse of power when a mother superior and her acolytes place a noose around their victim’s neck.
That noose and most of the other psychological tortures endured by Suzanne are shrouded in religious ritual, in deliberate obfuscation. Amidst a litany of abuses, she is accused of being possessed by a demon and is subjected to exorcism; she is forced to lie in a coffin and sprinkled with holy water as the nuns intone in a threatening drone resquiescat in pace (rest in peace). Suzanne advises:
You have to understand the language of convents in order to understand the particular kind of threat that was implicit in those words.
When Suzanne’s lawsuit over her vows ultimately fails she is treated as an apostate ‑ ostracised, starved and boycotted by all in the most horrible fashion. At each textual horror, Suzanne’s personal security is further threatened and her memoir continues to highlight the absence of external witnesses, checks, balances or accountability, as well as the young individual’s terrible vulnerability in the complete absence of any recourse to justice.
It is a testament to Diderot’s spectacular understanding of human psychology that The Nun continues to touch readers even today. His acute awareness of the female psyche and of the effects of illegal detention, of imprisonment, or of the power games played within all-female enclosed institutions produced a memoir so apparently real that its author is at pains to underscore its fictionality through complicated prefatorial framing.
Diderot’s fictional/factional/factual interface is deeply complex. In textual terms, the litany of tortures and deprivations of security meted out to Suzanne might appear at first to be either hyperbolic, or deeply satirical and lacking in verisimilitude. Yet textually, the veracity of the events recounted by her first-person narrative is supported by multiple external witnesses, firstly in the guise of her lawyer, Monsieur Manouri, and subsequently, by a vicar general and his multiple acolytes. The latter official will bear witness post hoc to the physical mistreatment and systematic abuse of Suzanne within the convent, upon which Sainte-Christine is chastised, Suzanne removed to another convent and the evidence buried.
The eponymous nun is clearly calculated to seduce readers of both sexes. Suzanne actively courts external witnesses to her abuses, whether the gaze of the novelist, her lawyer, the archdeacon, his acolytes, readers across two centuries, or the novel’s intended addressee, the Marquis de Croismare. Controversially, she also invites the voyeuristic gaze by revealing an intimate, veiled, female, often salacious and always prohibited zone that is enticing and titillating. While Suzanne’s voyeur-witnesses are myriad, it is only through the vulnerability of exposure that her story can emerge and she may be free.
Diderot’s text underscores how it requires external judges to condemn convents as unhealthy enclosed spaces, wherein so many women were illegally detained against their will. It is disturbing to witness how secretive and underhand are the many inside manifestations of multiple abuses within the convent. For every external gaze, there is a multiplication of internal silent witnesses who permit abuses to remain undetected, or unrecorded.
Yet even within Diderot’s story of convent abuses, the corollary also pertains, reminding the reader of the original social and charitable intentions of religious orders: the two refuges that open their doors to Suzanne when she escapes are run by nuns ‑ the Hôpital-Général that sheltered the destitute of Paris, and the Hôpital de Sainte-Catherine, a hostel where, irony of ironies (or cruel historical mimesis), Suzanne stays until she gains a salaried placement as a washerwoman in a secular laundry.
Diderot could scarcely have conceived that his narrative of claustral detention, mistreatment and abuse would have such uncanny parallels in twentieth century society. Suzanne and the “Magdalenes” both bear sad witness to a litany of mean, vindictive, petty, belittling, degrading actions against the individual. In 2013, taoiseach Enda Kenny, on behalf of the Irish state, issued an official apology for the “national shame” that was the state’s role in the Magdalene laundries, and for the systematic abuse that occurred to the women therein:
I, as Taoiseach, on behalf of the State, the government and our citizens deeply regret and apologise unreservedly to all those women for the hurt that was done to them, and for any stigma they suffered, as a result of the time they spent in a Magdalene Laundry.
It was director Steve Humphries who produced the first shocking, revelatory documentary entitled Sex in a Cold Climate / The Magdalene Asylums (1998). Recently, there has been a growing artistic, academic, journalistic and societal response to the tragedy of these women’s daily unpaid lives in the laundries. Yet, as Frances Finnegan writes, Magdalene women were “lawfully and immorally detained”, with the damage inflicted having a multiplier effect long beyond the convent regime for those lucky enough to leave or escape. Mary Bosworth notes that studies with Magdalene survivors have attempted to “retrieve the ‘voice’ of the prisoner and her relationship to society”. But for so many it is already too little, too late:
Nuns weren’t supposed to be cruel. They were Sisters of Mercy. They didn’t show us any mercy […]. They weren’t supposed to do what they done.
Phyllis Valentine, Magdalene survivor
To listen to Magdalene survivors now is to hear how young girls were detained in claustral or asylum settings, each held against her will, to be retained or freed at the convent’s whim. Many “Magdalenes” worked in silence, servicing the warped religious insinuation that they might wash away their sins by scrubbing linen. Friendships were forbidden. If they rebelled, punishments included being pushed, hit or whipped by nuns. Many report being humiliated, or made strip naked in front of their peers, and having their hair brutally shaved off as a deterrent to inmates who might try to escape. Signs of femininity were suppressed, with breasts deliberately flattened, and rough, shapeless dress worn by all, as Phyllis Valentine articulates: “ugly, drab uniform. Shapeless, meant to make you as ugly as they possibly could”. Such an uneasy relationship with female sexuality tragically echoes Michel Foucault’s historical observation: “repression operated as a sentence to disappear, but also as an injunction to silence, an affirmation of nonexistence, and, by implication, an admission that there was nothing to say about such things, nothing to see, nothing to know”. Where Magdalene women became sexual victims of predatory males, they had no voice for either resistance or justice. Those who were released report being summarily led to the gates and ejected, often without papers or reference, totally indigent, and filled with a sense of worthlessness and guilt, deprived of education or any sense of inner security. Each of Humphries’s witnesses recounts the shared guilty thrill when the convent bell tolled loudly to alert the nearby town or authorities that a “Magdalene” had managed to escape.
To hear Suzanne’s fictional voice within the echo of Magdalene survivors is to unearth a complex, and shady, novelistic mimetic interface between fact, faction and fiction, between invention and reality, between imagination within imitation, between true voices and fictional ones that ring uncannily like an echo of real truths. Diderot further bursts his own novelistic bubble within his postface, wherein readers learn that Suzanne’s story was originally based on the true story of a real contemporary nun, Marguerite Delamarre, who lost a court case to contest her vows. Marguerite remained in her convent until she was released under the French Revolution’s dissolution of religious orders in 1790. Those familiar with Diderot recognise that the author’s myriad other writings are invariably based on originally factual events, or anecdotal accounts, and it would seem that real life events underpin The Nun too. However, whether fact-based or fictionalised echoes of reality, the incessant litany of abuses suffered by Suzanne in The Nun are not only timeless but far too possible.
For the modern Irish reader, Diderot appears eerily prescient in his rendition of female-led cloistered abuse within The Nun. His novel displays a deep psychological insight into conventual power play and into the psychology of the unjustly detained young female in an all-female claustration setting: primarily, he shows what human beings are capable of doing to those more vulnerable in their care. And he underscores the importance of those outside being alert to listen to vulnerable members in society, and to hear their voices, because the starkest difference between Suzanne and Magdalene laundry ladies is the condemnation to silence of the latter. However factual or fictional she may originally have been, whether mimetic or anti-mimetic, Diderot constructed with Suzanne an incredibly strong warning voice ‑ audible now for over 222 years. We are only now hearing the Magdalenes’ voices. Are we listening?
Síofra Pierse is associate professor of French at University College Dublin, where she researches, writes and lectures on eighteenth century French literature and history of ideas. She joined the Justice for Magdalenes Research team during their “Dublin Honours Women who worked in the Magdalene Laundries” listening exercise in June 2018.