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No Way Out

Síofra Pierse
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…



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