The Devils of Loudun Page 91

With part of her mind Sœur Jeanne was probably convinced that she actually was the heroine of her own comedy. With another she must have been even more certain of the contrary. Mme. du Houx, who, on more than one occasion, spent long months at Loudun, was of opinion that her poor friend was living almost all the time in illusion.

Did that illusion persist to the very end? Or did Sœur Jeanne at least succeed in dying, not as the heroine before the footlights, but as herself behind the scenes? It was absurd, this backstage self of hers, it was pathetic; but if she would but acknowledge the fact, if she would only cease to impersonate the authoress of the Interior Castle, all might still be well. So long as she insisted on pretending to be someone else, there was no chance; but if she humbly confessed to being herself, then perhaps she might discover that, in reality, she had always been Someone Else.

After her death, which came in January 1665, the Prioress’s comedy was transformed by the surviving members of the Community into the broadest of farces. The corpse was decapitated and Sœur Jeanne’s head took its place, in a silver-gilt box with crystal windows, beside the sacred chemise. A provincial artist was commissioned to paint an enormous picture of the expulsion of Behemoth. At the centre of the composition the Prioress was shown kneeling in ecstasy before Father Surin, who was assisted by Father Tranquille and a Carmelite. In the middle distance sat Gaston d’Orléans and his Duchess, majestically looking on. Behind them, at a window, could be seen the faces of spectators of less exalted rank. Surrounded by a gloria and accompanied by cherubim, St. Joseph hovered overhead. In his right hand he held three thunderbolts, to be hurled at the black host of imps and demons that issued from between the demoniac’s parted lips.

For more than eighty years this picture hung in the Ursulines’ chapel and was an object of popular devotion. But in 1750 a visiting bishop of Poitiers ordered its removal. Torn between institutional patriotism and the duty to obey, the good sisters compromised by hanging a second, yet larger painting over the first. The Prioress might be in eclipse, but she was still there. Not, however, for very long. The convent fell on evil days and in 1772 was suppressed. The picture was entrusted to a canon of Sainte-Croix, the chemise and the mummified head were sent, in all probability, to some other, more fortunate nunnery of the order. All three have now disappeared.


WE participate in a tragedy; at a comedy we only look. The tragic author feels himself into his personages; and so, from the other side, does the reader or listener. But in pure comedy there is no identification between creator and literary creature, between spectator and spectacle. The author looks, judges and records, from the outside; and from the outside his audience observes what he has recorded, judges as he has judged and, if the comedy is good enough, laughs. Pure comedy cannot be kept up for very long. That is why so many of the greatest comic writers have adopted the impure form, in which there is a constant transition from outwardness to inwardness, and back again. At one moment we merely see and judge and laugh; the next, we are made to sympathize and even to identify ourselves with one who, a few seconds before, was merely an object. Every figure of fun is potentially an Amiel or a Bashkirtseff; and every tormented author of confessions or an intimate journal can be seen, if we so desire, as a figure of fun.

Jeanne des Anges was one of those unfortunate human beings who consistently invite the outward approach, the purely comic treatment. And this in spite of the fact that she wrote confessions, which were intended to evoke the reader’s heartfelt sympathy with her very considerable sufferings. That we can read these confessions and still think of the poor Prioress as a comic figure is due to the fact that she was supremely an actress; and that, as an actress, she was almost always external even to herself. The “I” who does her confessing is sometimes a pastiche of St. Augustine, sometimes the queen of the demoniacs, sometimes the second St. Teresa—and sometimes, giving the whole show away, a shrewd and momentarily sincere young woman, who knows precisely who she is and how she is related to these other, more romantic personages. Without, of course, desiring to turn herself into a figure of fun, Sœur Jeanne employs all the devices of the comic writer—the sudden shift from mask to absurd face; the emphasis, the excessive protestations; the pious verbiage that so naïvely rationalizes some all too human wish below the surface.

Moreover, Sœur Jeanne wrote her confessions without reflecting that her readers might have other sources of information about the facts therein recorded. Thus, from the official record of the counts upon which Grandier was condemned, we know that the Prioress and several other nuns were overpowered by remorse at what they had done and tried to withdraw a testimony which they knew, even in the paroxysms of hysteria, to be completely false. Sœur Jeanne’s autobiography abounds in the conventional avowals of vanity, of pride, of lukewarmness. But of her greatest offence—the systematic lying which had brought an innocent man to the question and the flames—she makes no mention. Nor does she ever refer to the only creditable episode in the whole hideous story—her repentance and the public confession of her guilt. On second thoughts she preferred to accept the cynical assurances of Laubardemont and the Capuchins: her contrition was a trick of the devils, her lies were gospel truth. Any account of this episode, even the most favourable, would inevitably have spoiled her portrait of the authoress as a victim of the devil, miraculously rescued by God. Suppressing the strange and tragic facts, she chose to identify herself with an essentially bookish fiction. This sort of thing is the very stuff of comedy.

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