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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Antoine-François, Abbé Prévost d’Exiles (1697–1763)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
IT is difficult to regard the brilliant personality and erratic, checkered career of the Abbé Prévost with respect or admiration, even with allowance for the free spirit of the social epoch in which he lived. Now praying and preaching as a fashionable ecclesiastic, now bearing arms as a soldier, now a professor of theology or man of letters, and again wavering between the seclusion of a monastery and the frivolities of a drawing-room, the Abbé’s personality seems a bundle of impulses and retractions. He is not ill described by Dryden’s characterization of Buckingham as “everything by turns, and nothing long.”  1
  Prévost was born in Hesdin on the 1st of April, 1697. A mere lad, he was sent to Paris to study at the well-known Jesuit school known as the Harcourt. He did not persevere in it: he suddenly turned his back upon classics and theology to turn soldier in a royal regiment. He gave himself up to the beginnings of a military life with a full measure of the youthful vivacity hitherto repressed by ecclesiastical surroundings. But again was he unstable. The war ended; and the soldier hastened back to the amiable priests, who welcomed him as a prodigal son. He resumed his courses of study, and a certain degree of enthusiasm carried him this time as far as holy orders. This might surely be taken as a final self-commitment. Not so with Prévost: he acknowledged soon enough the error of even so formal a surrender of himself to the religious vocation—for which indeed his gift was more than doubtful. He returned to the army, to serve with activity and distinction. He had ample opportunity for being a gentleman of fashion and elegance; and at this period of his life the charms of person and manner which never left him were specially seductive, and in whatever society he saw fit to amuse himself, a host of friends male and female received his regard, enjoyed his gifts, and flattered his vanity. He became perhaps as complete a type of the nominal clergy of the period as the tableau of his day presents. It need hardly be said that gallantry à la mode was no small fraction of his diversion. It brought about another shifting of his environment. An unhappy love affair disturbed him, drove him to renounce the world once more; and he entered the Church of the Benedictines of St. Maur. There was a more becoming semblance of permanence in this renunciation; for the following five or six years kept him absorbed in religion,—an esteemed professor and a brilliant preacher. But in the course of a few summers and winters, Prévost’s everlasting hesitation between secular and religious life urged him to a new abandonment of the religious profession. A tangled affair with his ecclesiastical superiors decided him. He fled to Holland to take up—as seriously as he could take up anything—a new career, with which he had already trifled effectively; the career of a man of letters.  2
  Prévost was thirty-one years old when during this self-exile, in Holland, England, and elsewhere, he fairly gave himself to writing; pouring forth that mass of literary work, grave or frivolous, long or short, now as author and now as translator, the products of which are forgotten—with a single exception. He was still young; he was blessed with a profound self-confidence; he was rich in the most diverse experiences of human nature, and in the study of various phases of society, French and foreign. He was a systematic student with a retentive memory, an accomplished linguist, and having an acquaintance with all forms of literature of a singularly practical sort. So qualified, he makes letters his third or fourth profession. It has been said of the abbé that the series of publications from his pen which now followed was a kind of flood,—hitherto repressed to the limit of any man’s repression,—giving to the world at large every sort of souvenir, adventure, and sketch of mankind and womankind, in his brain during his vacillations and wanderings. It is unnecessary to speak at this date of his compilations; to discuss his romances, translations, polemics, his editorial labors, and his studies of special topics, more or less clever or thorough. After doing much literary work abroad, he returned in 1734 to Paris. Once more he renounced, at least in name and garb, the world: he took the habit of a secular priest, and became the almoner of the Prince de Conti for a time. It can be easily understood that whatever advantages his roving career had brought to him, they had not been permanent or substantial. He had sufficient money, however, to buy a small property in Saint Firmin, near Chantilly. There he spent what were to be the last years of his life, in incessant literary composition and publication. There death came to him in 1763; came in a manner as curious and dramatic as any he might have described in one of his fictions. He was struck by a fit of apoplexy one day while walking in the forest of Chantilly. Ignorant peasants found him stretched at the foot of a tree; a rural surgeon, whose ignorance was more than culpable, under the impression that a crime had been committed, proceeded to an immediate autopsy, instead of merely bleeding the unfortunate patient; and the luckless abbé died under the examination.  3
  Of the two hundred works that Prévost left behind him, the novelette ‘Manon Lescaut’ has alone survived. But it is enough to perpetuate his name. It has taken a classical place in French literature; more than that, it has passed into the emotional literature of the world, perhaps for as nearly all time as can be predicted for any story. Not by virtue of great literary art in it, much less by any ethical charm in its material, has the story lived. ‘Manon Lescaut’ morally is always as repulsive a love story (though told with a grace and skill that disguises offense) as it is pathetic. For the persons in its drama no reader can have a sentiment of admiration. Their history is the narrative of a young woman in whom frivolity is the least of her shortcomings. The hero, her infatuated lover, is a young man perverted by temperament and by a master-passion to the career of a professional blackguard and debauchee. But through the tale shines the light of such sincerity of feeling and of delineation, such truth to human nature, and above all, such a glow of a love becoming strangely disinterested and even purifying, that the characters of the protagonists seem to us redeemed, and even glorified, by it. Complete, tragic too, is their expiation. Literally a world lies between the gambling-houses in Paris, where Manon and Des Grieux are habitués, and the sands of Louisiana, in which the transported criminal scoops the shallow grave of her whom he has followed into exile. The book is not a defiance to virtue. It is rather a lesson drawn from vice and from weakness of human nature. Its force not only lies in the simple straightforward treatment of character and of situation in it, but in the fact that one is disposed to take it as a confession, as something that is autobiographic; not merely a little novel elaborated out of a man’s imagination. There was a good deal of the Chevalier des Grieux in Prévost’s own self and career. In the heroine is realized a French type such as no one else has as well expressed; and as has been said by Saint Victor, the reader of Manon’s story is apt to make an exception of it from all works more or less of the same complexion, inasmuch as he would not have her other than she is. The story belongs in the class of such brief and concentrated studies in weak and somehow pitiable human nature as are Mérimée’s ‘Carmen’ and ‘Don José.’ It has been made the subject of drama and opera, of statuary and of paintings innumerable; and however we may repudiate the corruption of human nature which it paints in such uncompromising color, we lay down Prévost’s little book impressed by its truth and dramatic effectiveness to a degree such as few stories of equally small compass give us, even in French literature, always abundant in the impressive trifle. It has a far deeper moral than the question of Byron’s couplet:—
  “Why did he love her? Curious fool, be still!
Is human love the fruit of human will?”
  4
 
 
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