In Which I Finally Read The Handmaid’s Tale

There are always books that one means to read, that ‘should’ be read – and for me one of them was The Handmaid’s Tale. It was published before I was even born, so it has always been popular, always been revered in my experience. This book was always on my list, always something I thought I should read, something that I might find interesting. The new TV series based on the book, coming out later this year, finally pushed me to buy a copy and actually read it.

I was surprised how short it is (my copy is about 300 pages). When I’d read about it before it had always seemed like this grand story that needed time and patience; and in some ways this was true. For a book of its length, there is an awful lot of ‘content’ in The Handmaid’s Tale. There is an awful lot left unsaid, or only implied. Our narrator, Offred, shares her story but is also careful and guarded, only telling what she chooses. We never learn her real name, for example. The ending is also somewhat ambiguous.

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Margaret Atwood apparently classes this novel as ‘speculative fiction’ rather than ‘science fiction’ and I think that’s correct. It is a dystopian novel above anything else, an alternative history of America. But like science fiction it is very detailed and ‘high concept’ with a lot of context needed to really understand what’s going on. Offred gives this to us in pieces so that at first we are lost and following her blindly, but as the book goes on we get more of the wider picture and start to form our own opinions. This was also my experience with the other Atwood novel I’ve read, Alias Grace. That novel has a multitude of perspectives and truths, and while The Handmaid’s Tale is not quite so psychological, it is multi-faceted and filled with the possibility of deceit and betrayal – amongst the characters, but also for the reader.

Atwood likes to challenge her readers, and this novel was certainly challenging to me. It was an infuriating mix of fascinating story, intriguing narrative technique, and utter misery and oppression, for both the characters and the reader. I can’t say I really enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, and it took me a while to read because sometimes I just didn’t want to hear about the nightmarish world that Offred inhabits. During my breaks between reading I wondered whether the book seemed like a feminist novel to me, and in some ways it does – it is about women fighting back. But it also isn’t. Women have been complicit in creating the Republic of Gilead. You wonder what the Wives, Aunts, Econowives, and Marthas really think about the way they live – they have a better deal than the Handmaids, but they are still trapped, and any power or agency they have has been given to them by the men.

I also wondered whether the book is trying to make a statement about religion, or rather when you reduce religion to its fundamentalist principles and then use those for your own gain – on a personal or national level. The Republic of Gilead is ruled by religion, but none of the characters we encounter seem very concerned with it in any form except one of authority. Do any of them really believe in God? Offred mentions ‘true believers’ but they seem few and far between.

One thing that frustrated me was the lack of detail about the rules, and how things became this way – but I suppose that is the point. Offred only tells us what she wants to, and she is clearly traumatised by the whole situation and what she has gone through before – thankfully we do learn about her past throughout the novel. I think this is also just me as a reader – some people are happy with ambiguity in a novel, and others are not. For me, it felt like there was so much more that could have been explored, and while I appreciate that Atwood chose to be ambiguous in order to leave open possibilities, and to encourage the reader to speculate, I didn’t really like this side of The Handmaid’s Tale. At the end I felt unsatisfied, and wished there was more discussion, more investigation. Everything was just so vague and uncertain. I know a lot of people love this book, but it just didn’t do it for me. Atwood is a masterful writer, especially in her carefully planned plots and her manipulative narrators, but for me The Handmaid’s Tale was too frustrating, too impenetrable, too miserable, and too unpleasant for me to enjoy. Still, it’s an inspired concept and I am curious to see what the new TV adaptation will be like – although I know for certain that it won’t be any fun.

*

Originally published in 1985 by McClelland & Stewart. Reprinted many times, most recently by Vintage. I read the Vintage Future Classics 2005 edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

Reading Mental Health: Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

In my last post I mentioned that I had been away on holiday and therefore hadn’t blogged in a while, but promised to be back soon. But then I got food poisoning and was off grid practically the whole week. Bloody perfect. So this is a delayed ‘return’ to the blog. Finally! It’s been too long…

Some of my most recent reads have concerned mental health and mental health care, particularly The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor. That book focused on the end of the ‘asylum age’, a time when psychiatric care was moving away from institutionalising patients and instead beginning to emphasise community care and outpatient care. That was the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Susanna Kaysen experienced the asylum age when it was in full swing, in the late 1960s. She was an ‘unstable’ teenager who had an affair with her high school English teacher, and she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital with a suspected case of borderline personality disorder. You may have seen the excellent film adaptation of Girl, Interrupted with Winona Ryder. If you have you’ll know that Susanna wasn’t an extreme case, like many of the girls she met in hospital. She wasn’t obviously psychotic, or suicidal, and compared to the other girls she sometimes seems completely sane.

1994 Vintage paperback edition (image: penguinrandomhouse.com)
1994 Vintage paperback edition (image: penguinrandomhouse.com)

Susanna was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and the amazing charity Mind have a page on it here that adheres pretty much exactly to what Susanna describes in the book. I think many people will have experienced feelings/symptoms that are similar to BPD, but that doesn’t mean we all have it. It also means it can be difficult to diagnose and/or treat. After all, Susanna was 18 when she was amitted into the hospital, an age when we can act strangely and not be sure of ourselves. But she certainly was unwell, and her later clarity means that she is able to see this, and examine her experiences thoroughly in hindsight.

Susanna’s case papers are included sporadically throughout the text, grounding her experience in reality, and yet making it surreal at the same time – these documents are from another era, another world than our own. But they are fascinating, and give real insight into the American mental health system at the time. I thought this was an excellent touch, and was glad these old documents were included. I also loved the structure and pacing of the book. It is not entirely chronological, but this doesn’t matter. Each chapter is based around a theme or event in some way, and with this method Kaysen is able to cover all the ground I’m sure she intended to without getting bogged down in ‘this happened, and then this’. It is a portrait, a snapshot, an examination. It is an overview of what it felt like to be ‘interrupted’.

Alongside the story of her incarceration, Kaysen diverges off into relevant tangents that create context and background to her story, and, in one of my favourite chapters, explores the difference between ‘brain’ and ‘mind’. I found this fascinating and thought that it added depth and psychological context to the rest of the book. There are lots of succinct lines and paragraphs that I could quote and quote, which was something else I loved – unlike me, Kaysen doesn’t waffle. She gets to the point and makes it.

I would recommend Girl, Interrupted to anyone interested in the history of mental health and its care, and also for anyone who enjoyed the film, or who enjoys interesting and off-beat memoirs. That’s what I would call this book – an off-beat memoir. It isn’t miserable, or depressing, and it isn’t a detailed book exploring complex issues, like The Last Asylum.While we get an insight into the medical system through the case documents and Kaysen’s memories, this isn’t an examination of the use of ‘asylums’ or whatever the right word is. Kaysen does not seek to critique the system, not overtly at least, although of course we do make judgements as we learn about her experience and the experiences of some of her fellow patients (both positive and negative).

Really this is a personal story, one of its time and place, but one that is extremely relatable and human. I wish I had read it when I was a teenager, because Kaysen has some great life-lesson style philosophy that really struck a chord with me. I liked her as a person, as well as liking her book. Having read it, I think it would be interesting to re-watch the film and see how they adapted all the content and characters.

I would love to hear from anyone else who has read this book, or might want to. It is definitely worth it, and has taken its place among my favourites.

*

First published in 1993 by Turtle Bay Books in the US. I read the 1994 edition from Vintage.

Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts by Tracy Borman

I’d had this on my reading list for a while, and when I decided to sack off TBR 20 (we all knew it was coming – more in another blog post to come) I went to Waterstones in Oxford, and this was one the three books I bought (three! Such a delight. Lots of points for the loyalty card). I’d asked for this for Christmas but not received it, so it was the one I chose to read first. I tore through it over one weekend, getting completely lost in the post-Tudor world with its drama and… well, drama. These people were very dramatic.

I learned a lot about James I, which I enjoyed, and how he came to focus on witches and their prosecution during his reign. His mother was Mary, Queen of Scots, executed over an alleged plot to have Elizabeth I assassinated. Mary’s fate had a huge impact on her son, as expected, and according to Borman he had developed a dislike of women due to the combination of a mother demonised by society, and a queen who was intent on killing her. This, Borman states, contributed to his later suspicion of, and determination to eradicate, witches.

2014 edition (image: goodreads.com)
2014 edition (image: goodreads.com)

James’ negative feelings towards witches were intensified by the storms that prevented his fiancee Anne of Denmark to cross to England. He feared they were caused by treacherous witches, something that was confounded by his research in Denmark (he had gone to fetch Anne) about witches and their powers. He returned to England, newly wed and determined to rid his country of witches. In 1599, after the Berwick witch trials, he produced a book on the subject, Daemonologie, that proves a vital resource to Borman in his attitude, but also in the influence his opinions about witches had on the population. James’ influence is perhaps the best way to characterise his involvement in most of the witch hunting that went on during his reign. Though he was very enthusiastic about prosecuting witches at the start of his reign, his interest seems to have dwindled over time. Borman freely admits this, though it makes you wonder why he needed to be included in the title of the book – seeing that his book plays a bigger role in this story than he does.

This was the first little disappointment for me when reading Witches. The second was that the ‘conspiracy that has remained hidden for centuries’, mentioned on the back cover, isn’t really that big of a deal. It’s a long story, but the gist is: the Duke of Buckingham, one of James’ favourites, may have played a role in the death of the son of the Earl of Rutland, one of James’ friends, and blamed it on witches. This is all highly speculative, and really isn’t that big a plot point in the main story of the book, which is the trail and inevitable execution of the Flower sisters, the supposed witches who were accused of causing the death of the Earl’s first son, and later his second. Even though the second son died after they were executed. Anyway.

The story of the Flower women in undoubtedly fascinating, and demonstrates how witches were identified, their reputations tarnished somehow, and how people came to believe they were capable of dark magic. It is a terrible story of mass hysteria and injustice, as well as the ease with which those in power can take advantage of the vulnerable. It is a tale worth hearing, but given that Borman’s main source of information is a pamphlet about the trial, which was written after the event, it doesn’t really feel like enough material to fill a whole book. Simply it isn’t, and so Borman pads out the pages with theories about Buckingham and Rutland – in fact after the Flower women are executed the book devolves into a family melodrama, and the witchcraft now seems irrelevant to the story. It is a strange shift in tone and so late in the book it confirms the reader’s suspicion that Borman doesn’t really have enough of a solid line of plot. There is a lot of information in this book, but it is too crammed it with not enough time given to any one thing, and too much to things which are insubstantial, such as Buckingham’s story. As with the lack of James as the text progresses, this is not what I expected when I picked up Witches and started to read.

My point is that this book is a little rough around the edges. It is poorly structured, and the elements are not cohesive. The witches, and James’ fascination with them, provide great material, which is well told, but to me it seemed like Borman needed more time to pull everything together in order to create a book that worked as a whole. Witches works well in parts, but not all together. Which is a shame, because it could have been brilliant.

*

Published in 2013 by Jonathan Cape, and in 2014 by Vintage.

The Collector by John Fowles

What makes a book a ‘classic’? What makes it last, what makes publishers choose to reprint it for years? Popularity is certainly a huge factor; but what about ‘cult classics’ or those that are a little under the radar? Take for instance The Collector by John Fowles – what made Vintage reprint it in 2004 in their classic red spine model? The Vintage website states that upon publication of The Collector, his first novel, in 1963, Fowles “was immediately acclaimed as an outstandingly innovative writer of exceptional imaginative power.” I can see why he was “acclaimed” as such, but I cannot say that I like his writing. I cannot say that I like The Collector.

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Reading about the novel before I bought it, the story seemed interesting and a lot of people recommended it, and for some reason I expected it to be Victorian-ish, Romantic and strange, with a feel similar to Angels and Insects by A. S. Byatt. I don’t know what in particular it was that gave me this impression, maybe that’s just how I hoped it would be. I can say now with absolute confidence that it was nothing like that at all.

Perhaps my expectations ruined it for me. I’m not sure. But I do think that even if I had gone into it without any expectations, I still would not have enjoyed it. It is a strange book, fine, but it is also quite unlikeable – but at the same time interesting. Fred is a collector of butterflies. He works for the council and keeps mainly to himself; he doesn’t seem to get on with other people. Something that begins to come through in his narration, and is discussed in the section narrated by Miranda, is that he has very set ideas about what is right and good, and particularly what is “nice”. He is very formal and disapproves of any rude language or behaviour, and seems unduly horrified by his colleagues flirting with each other or making naughty jokes. Even from his own narration we can see that he is not comfortable with anything suggestive or sexual.

He watches Miranda, an art student who lives in his village. Even when she moves to London to go to college he knows where she is. He admires her and thinks her beautiful, loving her from a distance. Initially it is pleasant to read about how beautiful he thinks she is, and how her hair looks like a mermaid’s; but there is also an undercurrent of unease, a stalker-ish quality to the way he watches her, and yet never speaks to her. Living in the same village as her and her family allows him to know some facts about her life, such as her family’s money and the fact that they are middle class. Now – class becomes a very important issue in The Collector. From the beginning it is bubbling away, and once Fred and Miranda’s relationship develops it becomes ever more important and ever more influential. He has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about her being middle class and his not – while he often doesn’t approve of other people’s behaviour, he doesn’t seem to like himself that much either – and this, coupled with Miranda studying art, draws him to the conclusion that she is ‘better’ than him. Or at least that she must think herself to be. This difference between them reinforces his dreamlike idea of her as an unattainable object, and reduces any idea he might have of her as a real person.

Before reading I had no idea how he managed to keep Miranda as his “guest”, and so I was horrified to read about his methodical, logical, and very detailed plans for having her at his house for a long period of time – and how to get her there. His house in Sussex is purchased purely because it is isolated and has a big basement, and even that is enough to make you feel queasy, let alone his conversion of that basement into living quarters – with plenty of locks – and his purchase of a van with, perhaps worst of all, a mattress in the back. It is all too real, too believable, but also too raw and unromantic, too cunning and cold.

From the moment he starts following Miranda in his van, I wasn’t 100% sure I wanted to go on. But I did, largely because the middle section of the book is narrated by Miranda, and I was intrigued to see things from her point of view. It is written as a diary, kept while she is in the basement. I can see why Fowles chose to include this, to see the class issues between them from both sides and get a wider perspective on Fred’s personality, as well as making Miranda into a fully realised character. But the diary adds little to the story, only facts about Miranda’s life, her tempestuous relationship with an older man (that she goes on and on about, to no conclusion), and her feelings about Fred. It is not very illuminating, and rehashes scenes we have already seen from Fred’s perspective. Miranda’s point of view adds very little to them, and I found myself skipping or skimming pages. Fred sums up at the end in the grimmest of ways, and there is the sense that he has learned nothing from the experience, only that Miranda was too clever and he should find someone ‘simpler’. I was left feeling queasy, repelled by the whole thing, and wishing I hadn’t read it. Unless you like those feelings, I wouldn’t bother if I were you. Also, according to Wikipedia, several serial killers have used it as inspiration. Nice!

*

Originally published by Jonathon Cape in 1963. I read the 2009 Vintage Classics edition.

Review: A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen

Elizabeth Bowen is widely considered to be one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, but she only came to my attention about a year ago when one of my favourite bloggers, Book Snob, AKA Rachel, wrote a review of her novel The House In Paris. Rachel has reviewed several of Bowen’s novels and her obvious love for and insight into them made me want to find out more.

A while ago I was in Waterstones Piccadilly, and they thankfully had quite a few of Bowen’s novels to choose from; I settled on A World of Love, bought it, but then it sat on my shelf for months as review copies came flowing my way and I did not have enough time for purely recreational reading. Anyway, I eventually picked it up again a few weeks ago, started reading, and kept on reading.

The sun rose of a landscape still pale with the heat of the day before. There was no haze, but a sort of coppery burnish out of the air lit on flowing fields, rocks, the face of the one house and the cliff of limestone overhanging the river … The month was June, of a summer almost unknown; for this was a country accustomed to late wakenings, to daybreaks humid and overcast.

Vintage Classics edition. Image: goodreads.com
Vintage Classics edition. Image: goodreads.com

A World of Love envelops you in this world of sky and cloud and house within the first paragraph. There is atmosphere to this book, spades of it, so that you are completely lost in its pages and lost to the people within them. It is a book driven by characters rather than plot, and brought to mind, all at once, Virginia Woolf, Nancy Mitford (particularly The Pursuit of Love), and Henry Green’s novel Loving. I studied the latter at university for a course on modernism and time, and to be honest I don’t remember many details, except for the impressionistic style with illogical, realistic speech patterns, and dreamlike descriptions of the most ordinary things (the way a character crosses a room, for instance). Woolf is also a master of making the ordinary seem extraordinary – I was blown away when I read To The Lighthouse (also at university) as previous to that I had always found her completely inaccessible; but something about the capricious, fluid way in which she described the everyday really caught me. For example, the scene, repeated several times from different angles, of Mr Ramsey walking rather hurriedly past Lily Briscoe’s easel in the garden. It is an ordinary thing, made magnificent.

Bowen also makes the ordinary seem magnificent, but in a more straightforward way than Woolf. Here she is more like Mitford in her knack for sarcasm and black humour, with a few words implying so much.

‘What is it?’

‘What o’clock, do you mean?’

‘No. What do you want?’

‘I wondered if Jane was in here.’

‘Is she?’

‘No. So I’ve no idea where she’s gone. However, it was only that Fred keeps asking. – Did you know your pillow was shedding, one of your pillows? I wonder which.’

‘Then do take the whole bang lot away! – No, not now! (for the other approached the bed) ‘later on, Lilia, for heaven’s sake!’

Lilia continued, however, to search the lair with her large blue heavily-vacant eyes. ‘And how are you this morning?’

‘Oh, fresh as a daisy, thank you – as you can see.’

This exchange is the first time we meet Lilia (mother of Jane and young Maud, wife of Fred) and Antonia, the owner of the house, and it tells a lot about the nature of their relationship. The two women have known each other twenty years, and are bound by Antonia’s dead cousin Guy, killed in the First World War. He was engaged to Lilia when he died, and left his house to Antonia, and Antonia took in the poor lost young girl and married her off to Fred, who looks after the house and the farm. Now, they all live in a sort of uneasy harmony, never sure who has what status or who is in charge.

Elizabeth Bowen. Image: npg.org.uk
Elizabeth Bowen. Image: npg.org.uk

Jane is arguably our central character – she is awakened to ‘a world of love’ when she discovers a packet of love letters in the attic. She moons about the place reading them and it soon comes to light that they were written by the deceased Guy – but who to? While the past is delicately explored and questioned around her, Jane is all about the future. Her younger sister Maud acts as some sort of spiritual guide for the household, reading psalms aloud in the garden and being obsessed with the time. She is also always accompanied by her ‘familiar’, Gay David. This creature is obviously influenced by Guy (Guy/Gay), whose ‘ghost’ or ‘presence’ is seen and felt at several points in the novel. Maud is a funny little creature I wasn’t sure what to make of, but her purpose seems to be to remind all the other characters that there is a world outside their own heads, something they all forget quite often.

For me this was quite a philosophical novel, pondering the importance of who one loves and who one is married to, and the influence of time on our lives. Towards the end, Antonia says,

‘But for the future … we’d have nothing left.’

For this thrown-together cast of characters, that very much seems to be true.

*

Originally published by Jonathan Cape in 1955. Reprinted by Vintage in 1999.

Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close

Before you say anything – Girls in White Dresses is not chick-lit. I wouldn’t have read it if it was. It just sort of looks and sort of sounds like it; but when you think about it, it only looks like it because the cover has pink writing and a girl in a white dress holding flowers, and polka dots. It doesn’t have a pink background, or a cheesy tagline, or a handwriting font that is all sparkly and aspirational. And it only sounds like it because ‘girls in white dresses’ sounds all wedding-y, but when you think about it, it’s a reference to The Sound of Music; it only references weddings a bit. It’s more metaphorical.

2012 paperback edition

The quote from Vanity Fair on the back of the book states that the central characters (yes, all female) have ‘the pluck and gimlet eye of Carrie Bradshaw’s younger, smarter sisters.’ Now. Be careful here. I watched Sex and the City on TV, and have all of it on DVD, and love it. Like, LOVE it. I saw the first film in the cinema and actually hated it. HATED. I have seen bits of the second film on TV, and it looks like complete rubbish. The films are NOTHING like the TV series, which was intelligent, witty, clever, funny, and modern. The movies are like crap adaptations of the TV series. Anyway, when you see ‘Carrie Bradshaw’ on the back of this book, do not think of the SATC films. Remember the sheer brilliance of the TV series, the sarcasm and witty quips, the frankness about dating and sex. The way Darren Star meant it to be.

A classic moment. Extra points if you remember what they’re looking at.

There has been a fair bit of hype about Girls in White Dresses, and so I bagged myself a copy from the lovely folks at Vintage. After having read the dark noir thriller The Empty Glass, I was well up for reading something a little lighter and happier – something that would make me smile rather than frown. And I found it. Author Jennifer Close takes three friends as her central characters (Isabella, Lauren, and Mary) but includes episodes from the lives of some of their friends, in which the three main girls pop up and offer a withering opinion. I really liked this structure. In a way somewhat reminiscent of early SATC (as well as the book, Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell, which I would recommend), chapters start with a random girl, and then it turns out she knows one of the three main girls – but this is done so casually, so under-the-radar that Close’s sneakiness makes you smile.

At times the shortness of the episodes means that the structure gets a bit ‘this happened, and then this happened, and then this, and this’, but mostly the humour and frankness win you over, and this doesn’t matter too much. Time flies by quite quickly, and sometimes Close jumps back to an episode in ‘college’ (oh, just say ‘university’), but not so much that you get muddled – it’s all background for the present. What’s good about the episodic style is that it feels like Close is only showing you the really important bits from these girls’ stories – there is no waffle or pages and pages of descriptions. The writing is neat, sparse and to the point, but still with plenty of humour and literary ‘flair’, if I can use that word.

Jennifer Close

The style is also quite chatty, and though there are dramatic scenes they happen quite quickly, like everything else, and so you don’t have a lot of time to wallow in them or analyse them. That said, they are not made to seem trivial – Close just does not dwell on anything. Time and the narrative move forward at quite a swift pace.

The only real problem I have with this book is the ending. It happens not unexpectedly but rather swiftly – too swiftly for me. Even at the end there is no philosophising, no wondering why these three girls took longer to settle down than all their friends. It’s a little too neat. I also have a couple of feminist gripes with the ending – but that would ruin it for you.

*

Published in the UK on 9th August 2012 by Vintage, an imprint of Random House. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley

Vintage Classics edition of The Devils of Loudun
Vintage Classics 2005 edition (image: goodreads.com)

Aldous Huxley is a writer that one generally associates with three things – Brave New World and science fiction, along with real life science, like eugenics; drug experimentation, particularly with LSD; and the Eastern spiritualism he practised in California. Huxley came from a distinguished scientific and literary family and was bound to achieve ‘great things’. Brave New World is his most famous novel and I suppose most people associate him with that trope – the possibilities of science in society, the changing nature of our species over time.

Huxley moved from England to California in 1937 and added screenwriter to his already impressive repertoire. It was here that he began his association with the Vedanta Society of Southern California, learning spiritual practices and meditation based on Indian religion and taught by a Swami. He remained a member until his death and wrote extensively for Vedanta publications, as well as others, about the benefits of the practice and the importance of a spiritual life. Huxley was also interested in other elements of spirituality not related to Vedanta, such as parapsychology and philosophical mysticism, allowing for the existence of beings outside of our perception.

Perhaps it was this interest in psychology and mysticism that lead Huxley to the events of the small French town of Loudon in the 1620s and 30s. Urbain Grandier came to Loudon as the town’s new priest – to oversee the spiritual health and goodliness of the population and officially of the Ursuline convent, though he did not have much if any contact with the nuns. Though Grandier was a good priest and served the citizens well, he was also a charmer and a seducer, and seems to have worked his way through the women of the small town, married, widowed and single alike. Suffice to say he was quickly derided by the town’s officials and constantly attacked by them as they tried to find a way to legally expel him from the town. To admit that he had been philandering amongst the female population would be to admit they had technically allowed this behaviour by having knowledge of it and not immediately punishing either the women or the priest. Liked by the population and a gifted speaker, it would be hard to get rid of Grandier without an attention-seeking scandal or courtroom drama.

In the end however, this is what the officials got. Over the years they had attempted to persecute the priest for individual cases of ‘corruption’ of young ladies, but powerful friends had always saved Grandier from an punishment. Philippe Trincant was one of his most disastrous conquests, as she became pregnant and told her father the man responsible; and yet, Grandier escaped punishment. The child was born and kept behind closed doors, and despite M. Trincant’s efforts the priest’s reputation remained untarnished; that same could not be said for his daughter.

Urbain_Grandier
Urbain Grandier (image: wikipedia.org)

Philippe’s was the only recorded pregnancy, but she was one in a long list of women seduced by the priest. The only women he seemed to have no effect upon, up to this point, were the Ursuline nuns over whom he officially ruled. The only contact he would ever have with them was through a grate at the entrance to the convent, through which he would pass blessings and such. This was literally as close as he physically came to the nuns, and he only spoke to the Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne of the Angels, very briefly. However, Urbain Grandier’s reputation reached the convent before he did, and Sister Jeanne became, against her will, fascinated by this strange man, this man who managed to be holy and yet the most despicable seducer. She had never seen his face or heard his voice, but the man had entered her mind and he would not leave easily. Once she did meet him, through the grate, and hear his voice, her fascination quickly and irrevocably grew to an obsession.

In such a confined and monotonous place as the convent, the nuns did not have much with which to amuse themselves. They had their hobbies and charity work, their worship and service of the Lord; but not much else. They had no contact with men or any other part of the outside world and were a small and insular group. Consequently Sister Jeanne’s obsession soon spread to the other nuns – they wondered what it was about this man that enraptured her so, and became increasingly fascinated by him as she was. It is hard to explain what happened next or why – Huxley explores the historical details in order to try and explain how the nuns’ fascination and obsession became hysteria and mania. He clearly spent copious amounts of time and energy examining documents to try and work out the cause and effect here. Really we in the present time cannot know exactly what happened in Loudun four hundred years ago, but we must take what we know of human psychology and the effects of religious fanaticism and try to apply this to the Ursuline nuns. They became nothing if not hysterical. The whole convent was gripped with an obsession, which captivated the small town of Loudun. Grandier’s notoriety grew, with the nuns’ hysteria and fear of him causing him to be seen not only as a philanderer but as a servant of Satan.

Several different exorcists and ‘experts’ were brought in to try and cure the nuns of their affliction; records investigated by Huxley demonstrate the lengths to which the fear of the Devil ran within both the nuns and those who strived to save them. They underwent humiliating and unpleasant practices to try and force the demonic presence out of their bodies. It was believed that specific demons listed in the Bible were inhabiting various parts of the nuns’ physical bodies, with Sister Jeanne of course being the worst afflicted. Undignified and seemingly unholy measures were taken by the exorcists, examining every inch of her body and causing her to be sick and to defecate in order to try and get the demons to leave her body. She would scream and thrash about on the bed, making strange noises that were apparently the demon speaking within her. Hers was the worst but in the end all the nuns underwent such experiences in an attempt to cleanse themselves of Grandier’s demonic power. Meanwhile the priest had been nowhere near the convent and was only trying to defend himself and his position as his accusers closed in. They did, of course, get him in the end; but even after Grandier was tortured and burned at the stake, the nuns apparently were still possessed by demons that he had apparently sent. The scandal grew to such proportions that people actually travelled to Loudun to see the nuns being exorcised. Huxley makes it clear that in the end it became a sort of show that they would put on for the crowd. This fact, reiterated by Huxley, implies that even those involved knew that perhaps these possessions were not real and that it had not really been Grandier that had caused them; that the nuns had been caught up in their own fantasy and hysteria.

Religious belief and fear overcame rational thought and doubt in the town of Loudun. Huxley uses a journalistic but also historical method to examine the facts and try to understand the events he investigates; but despite his careful and thorough examination, everyone involved in The Devils of Loudun – besides its star, Urbain Grandier – seems completely trapped in a world of religious frenzy and fear, separated from logic and rational thought.

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Originally published in 1952 by Chatto & Windus. I read the 2005 Vintage Classics edition.