A less fortunate Moll?

I've a bit of a soft spot for eighteenth century fiction. At its best it's wonderfully rumbunctious, rude, lewd, incredibly down to earth; and what always surprises me about it, is that eighteenth century life is never quite the way you think it is.

Yes, it's not an easy life for women. There are double standards - when has life ever been any different? And yet, I think many writers have a genuine sympathy for women. This is notably so in one of my favourite novels of the period, the previously reviewed Moll Flanders. Manon Lescaut has also long been one of my favourite books, although it's been many years since I last read it.

Written by Abbe Prevost, a former priest turned soldier and novelist, who based Manon Lescaut at least partially on his own life. It's a simple tale of two lovers, the eponymous Manon, the archetypal bad girl, and her lover the naive Chevalier des Grieux. Des Grieux meets Manon en route to the local seminary, elopes with her, only for her to run off with another man, when Des Grieux is down financially on his luck. The couple drift together on and off over the next few years, with Manon a sort of high-class hooker with Des Grieux drifting in her wake. Eventually though, things go badly wrong, and the lovers are packed off to a primitive New Orleans where they have to start all over again.....

It was interesting re-reading this. The edition I've got is a Penguin Classic first published in 1949. The translator's preface makes it very clear that Manon is "no better than she should be", and that the narrative told purely from the male perspective is not kind to Manon. But in fact I found this not to be true. There is certainly a level of amorality about Manon. She is less like her nearest rival Moll Flanders (who may very well have influenced Prevost), but stunningly like the much later Zola's Nana (also reviewed on Bookhound - I evidently have a bit of a liking for bad girls).

But it's the men in Manon Lescaut who come across as weak. It is Des Grieux's decision not to marry Manon that leads to their downfall (ironically his belated decision to marry her will lead to worse); Des Grieux's uselessness as a provider that forces Manon into prostitution, and the willingness of the men she encounters to view her as easy pickings that contribute to her lifestyle. Manon may misjudge the intelligence level of the men she encounters, but their spitefulness is mind-boggling.

Ultimately, like Moll, Manon comes over as a strong woman. She may not be as strong mentally or physically as Moll, but she's tough. She does what she has to in order to survive. Prevost's women are strong women controlled (quite literally) by weak men. I don't think that Prevost's tale is really a morality tale, although you can read it like that should that be your mindset. What Prevost does is present a world which is horribly corrupt. A world in which anyone can be imprisoned for no reason just because they've crossed the wrong person. A world in which the wrong people have all the power. Perhaps Prevost is being truly revolutionary - what if women had the power? Would life be different? Or is Manon's pragmatism ultimately as doomed as any other lifestyle. None of the characters quite get it right - they are consumed by religion, or money, or the desire for revenge, or love.

So there's lots to think about politically and philosophically in this novel, but ultimately it's a great love story, and unputdownable. It still remains one of my favourite books.


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