Historical Reflections on Denis Diderot’s The Nun and the Rise of Popular Novelistic Fiction

By Andrew Urie

Widely recognized as one of the great eighteenth-century French philosophes, Denis Diderot (1713-1784) is today largely remembered for his co-creation of the Encyclopédie (1751-1766) with Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783). Fewer people, however, now remember Diderot’s novella The Nun, which was largely composed throughout 1760. Today regarded as a minor literary classic, the work capitalized on late-eighteenth-century concerns about the so-called “ethics” surrounding the rise of novelistic fiction, while simultaneously feeding off of attendant Enlightenment-era philosophical currents and debates.

The inception of The Nun can be traced back to a bizarre, elaborate prank that Diderot and his German friend Melchior Grimm initiated in early 1760 against the Marquis de Croismaire, an intimate amongst their circle of Paris-based friends, who had then recently abandoned Paris in order to take up permanent residence at his country estate in Caen. Eager for their friend to return to Paris, Diderot and Grimm concocted a plan to lure the Marquis back by exploiting his sympathies for an incident that had consumed his attention prior to his departure. The incident revolved around the case of a nun named Marguerite Delamarre, who had appealed to the French parliament to be released from her religious vows. As the Marquis had been directly involved in lobbying on this young woman’s behalf, Diderot and Grimm decided to craft a series of fictitious letters addressed to the Marquis that were written as though authored by the nun herself. Imploring the Marquis for his assistance, the letters were intended to so overwhelm the Marquis’s sense of empathy that he would abandon his Caen estate and return to Paris to assist the nun, thereby reuniting him with his friends.

This elaborate hoax did not go as planned, however, as the Marquis simply elected to stay in Caen and instead invited the nun to come serve at his Normandy estate, which led to Diderot and Grimm electing to kill off their paper heroine on May 10, 1760. Yet while this resulted in the end of the hoax itself, Diderot had by this point become so consumed by his composition of the letters that he continued working on the project for the rest of the year until he created the novella that we today know as The Nun, which details the travails of its fictional heroine, Suzanne Simonin. Although Diderot made no concerted attempt to publish The Nun during his lifetime, he did allow it to be released in 1770 within Correspondence Littéraire, a small-scale circulation manuscript journal that was edited by Grimm. Later, when the novella was formally published in France in the wake of Diderot’s death amidst the Thermidorian counter-revolutionary reaction of 1796, it was immensely popular with the general reading public – some fourteen editions appeared in France between 1796 and 1800 – but widely denounced by conservative critics, who regarded it as “irreligious, obscene, and morally corruptive” (Goulbourne xiv).

The Nun’s genesis as a quite literal attempt to deceive assumes interesting connections in relation to novelistic fiction, which was soaring in popularity throughout Europe during the late eighteenth century. In terms of influences, Diderot is obviously indebted to the literary verisimilitude of the great British epistolary novelist Samuel Richardson, author of Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748), for with The Nun he crafted a compelling illusion of truth, which sought to manipulate the passions of his readers. This claim to authenticity is evident from the very opening of The Nun, in which Diderot attempts to establish his fictional heroine as an entirely credible entity via her following lines: “I shall describe part of my misfortunes without talent or artifice” (21).

If we here consider the Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith’s (1723-1790) notion of sympathy as outlined in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), we can perhaps better appreciate why The Nun so incensed many critics of its era. In Smith’s view, sympathy was a form of stoic self-control that allowed one to appreciate the concerns of another while at the same time maintaining a sense of emotional equilibrium, which would prevent the given subject from enfeebling empathetic enthrallment. While this Smithean notion of sympathy was meant to temper extreme self-interest by allowing for what we might term regulated empathy, Diderot’s novella seems intent upon radically deregulating the empathy of its readers so that they will be overwhelmed by the plight of its heroine.

Ironically enough, Diderot seems to have become so enthralled with his ruse that he on at least one occasion lost control of his own passions and became drawn into his fictive web. As he allegedly told a friend while working on The Nun, “I am breaking my heart over a story that I am telling myself” (qtd. in Furbank xii). Certainly, there is much to incite a reader’s passions within Diderot’s novella. A proponent of the notion that the human animal was naturally sociable, Diderot succeeded in crafting an emotionally charged work that evocatively delineates the plight of its heroine, who is forced by socioeconomic circumstances into the repressive confines of convent life, which aberrantly alienates her from the social existence to which she is naturally inclined. To this end, Diderot here seems at least partially influenced by the views of yet another moral philosopher in the form of Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671-1713), the third Earl of Shaftesbury, who also held that the human animal was marked by an inherent inclination for sociability, for in 1745 Diderot had authored a French translation of Shaftesbury’s An Inquiry Concerning Virtue (1699).

Yet while Shaftesbury’s conception of the human propensity for sociability and his push for an understanding of human ethics that stands apart from organized religion are discernible throughout The Nun, one must keep in mind that Shaftesbury was essentially writing for audiences of refined taste within the upper social echelons. By contrast, Diderot’s novella would find itself popular with a variegated French reading populace. In this regard, it is difficult to imagine what a figure like Shaftesbury would have made of some the more amusingly risqué sections of The Nun, which seem calculated to titillate the bawdy sexual fantasies of readers via an emphasis on the apparent lesbian proclivities of Suzanne’s Mother Superior, who develops an evident sexual attraction to her. By way of these sections of sheer libidinous entertainment masquerading as memoir, Diderot was undoubtedly having fun at the expense of austere moralists of the period, who viewed novelistic fiction as a corruptive consumer commodity that was oriented towards manipulating the populace’s supposed “baser” appetites.

Given that contemporary readers are now generally familiar with various literary mimetic processes due to the relative popularization of literary criticism and theory, one need only review Diderot’s masterful skills of manipulation within The Nun to appreciate why the work triggered so many conservative detractors when released to the reading populace in 1796. Such critics viewed the text as a morally destabilizing, anomie-inducing influence that was unleashed upon readers ill equipped to regulate their passions in the face of such a skillful act of literary verisimilitude. Tellingly, however, The Nun outlived such critics, and today endures as an early work of popular novelistic fiction that attests in both form and content to how the innate passions of the human spirit can never be eradicated.

Andrew Urie is an independent interdisciplinary scholar and writer who recently completed his PhD in Social and Political Thought. His dissertation, Turning Japanese: Japanization Anxiety, Japan-Bashing, and Reactionary White American Heteropatriarchy in Reagan-Bush Era Hollywood Cinema, was nominated for York University’s Best Dissertation Prize. Specializing in American Studies and British Cultural Studies, he has published in Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and PedagogyFast CapitalismAmericana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 1900 to PresentPopMattersThe Bluffs Monitorthe quint: an interdisciplinary quarterly from the north; and Journal of Contemporary Drama in English (forthcoming).

Works Cited

Diderot, Denis. The Nun. Trans. Leonard Tancock. London, Penguin Books, 1974. Print.

Furbank, P.N. “Introduction.” Memoirs of a Nun. By Denis Diderot. Trans. Francis Birell. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1992. Print.

Goulbourne, Russell. “Introduction.” The Nun. By Denis Diderot. Trans. Russell Goulbourne. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

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