Denis Diederot, Memoirs of a Nun (La Religieuse,
The Nun), trans. Francis Birrell, 1928; Everyinans Library, 1992, Alfred A. Knopf, New YOrk. [Began work on novel 1760].
"No, Madam, because I took them without reflection and without choice."
I answered with considerable self-restraint
for such were not the words which my heart proposed to me. It was saying: Why am I not at this moment where I can tear them
in pieces and throw them from me?
My answer, however, overwhelmed her. She grew pale; she wished to speak again, but
her lips trembled. She did not know what further to say to me. I paced my cell with long strides and she cried out:
Heavens! What will our Sisters say? Oh, Jesus! throw on her a look of pity! Sister Saint Susan!"
mind is made up then? You are going to dishonour us, make us the public butt, and ruin yourself?"
"I want to leave
"But if it is only the House which you dislike. . . ."
"It is the House, it is my condition, it is
the Monastic State. I do not wish to be shut up here or anywhere else.
My child, you are possessed by the Devil. He it
is who disturbs you, makes you talk so, and carries you off your feet. It is absolutely true. Consider the state you are in."
When I looked at myself I saw that my dress was in disorder, that my wimple had turned almost completely round, and
that my veil had fallen over my shoulders. I was irritated with the words of this ill-natured Superior who used with me only
this false and softened tone. I said to her angrily:
"No, Madam. I have no more use for this garment. I have no more
use. . ."
Meanwhile I tried to readjust my veil. My hands trembled: the more I tried to arrange, the more I deranged
it. Losing patience, I seized it violently, tore it, threw it on the ground, and stood opposite my Superior with my forehead
encircled by a headband and my hair loose. Meanwhile she walked forward and backwards, uncertain if she ought to stay, saying:
"Jesus, she is possessed! It is the absolute truth. She is possessed."
And the hypocrite signed herself with
the cross of her rosary.
I quickly came to myself. I felt the impropriety of my condition and the imprudence of my
words. I composed myself as well as I could, picked up my veil and put it on again, and then turning towards her said:
I am neither mad nor possessed. I am ashamed of my violent behaviour and ask you to forgive me. But you can judge by it how
little I am fitted for the convent life and how right I am to try and leave it, if I can."
She answered without listening,
"What will everyone say? What will the Sisters say?"
Madam, I answered, "you wish to avoid a scandal.
There is a way out. I do not ask for my dowry back; I only ask for liberty. I do not suggest that you open the doors for me;
only see to it to-morrow afternoon that they are insecurely watched. You will only notice that I have escaped when to remain
longer in ignorance is impossible."
"Wretched girl, what are you daring to propose?"
"A plan that a good and
wise Superior would adopt for all those to whom a convent is a prison: and for me a convent is a prison a thousand times more
than those ~in which criminals are locked up. I must leave or perish. Madam, I said in a firm voice and with an assured look,
listen to me. If the laws to which I appeal disappoint me in my expectations; and if pushed on by feelings of despair which
I know all too thoroughly... you have a well ... there are windows in the house ... walls all round ... clothes one can cut
up . . . hands one can use . . . ."
" Stop, wretched girl, you make me shudder. What! you could . . ."
could refuse my food when all other ways of finishing with my sorrow failed. One is free to take ones food and drink, or to
go without them. If, after what I have just said, it turned out that I had the courage, and you know I am not without courage,
and that it sometimes needs more courage to live than to die ... picture yourself on the Day of Judgment and tell me which
will seem to God the more guilty the Superior or the nun. I do not ask back, and shall never ask back, anything from the House.
Spare me from a crime, spare me from long remorse: let us come to an understanding."
"What are you thinking of; Sister
Saint Susan; that I should fail in my first duties, lend my hands to crime, take part in sacrilege?"
"The real sacrilege,
Madam, is that which I commit daily by profaning with contempt the sacred garments which I wear. Take them from me. I am not
worthy of them. Let the rags of the poorest peasant be found for me in the village. Let the cloister-door be left ajar."
where will you go to be better off?"
"I do not know where I shall go. But one can only be badly off where God does
not wish one to be, and God does not wish me to be here."
"But you possess absolutely nothing."
"That is so.
But want is not what I fear the most."
"But fear the disorder want brings in her train."
"The past shall answer
for the future to me. Had I been willing to listen to the voice of crime I should now be free. But if it suits me to leave
the House, I shall leave it. Either with your consent or by the authority of the law. You can take your choice . . . ."
conversation had been a long one. When I thought over it I blushed for the indiscreet and ridiculous things I had said and
done. But it was too late. The Superior was still exclaiming:
"What will the world say? What will the Sisters say?" when
the bell summoning us to service separated us. She said to me as she left:
"Sister Saint Susan, you are going to chapel.
Pray to God to touch you and restore to you the spirit of your vocation. Question your conscience, and believe what it tells
you. It cannot but reproach you. You are dispensed from singing in the choir."
We went down almost together. When
the service was over and the Sisters on the point of separating, she tapped on her breviary and stopped them.
she said, "I invite you all to throw yourselves at the step of the altar and implore Gods pity for a nun whom He has abandoned,
who has lost all taste for, and all the spirit of, religion, and is on the point of performing an act sacrilegious in the
eyes of God and disgraceful in those of man."
I cannot describe the general surprise. In the twinkling of an eye each
one, without moving, had run over her companions and endeavoured to deduce the guilty one from her embarrassment. They all
prostrated themselves and obeyed in silence. After a considerable time the Prioress intoned the Veni Creator in a low voice,
and all continued it in a low voice too. Then, after another moment of silence, the Prioress tapped on her pulpit and all
I leave you to imagine the hum that arose in the community. Who is it? Who isnt it? What has she done? What
does she want to do? The suspicions did not last long. My request had bcgun to make a stir iii the world: I received countless
visits: some brought reproaches, others plans: I was approved by some and blamed by others. I had only one way of justifying
myself in the eyes of everyone, which was to tell them of my parents conduct. You can imagine the discretion I had to observe
on this point. Only a few people remained sincerely attached to me besides M. Manouri, who was in charge of my affair, and
in whom I could confide everything. When terrified by the tortures with which I was threatened, the dungeon, whither I had
once been dragged, fixed itself on my imagination in all its horror. I knew the fury of nuns. I communicated my fears to M.
Manouri, who said:
"You cannot avoid all suffering: you will suffer; you must have expected it. You must arm yourself
with patience and support with the hope that it will have an end. As for the dungeon, I promise you that you will never return
to it. That is my business. . . ."
And a few days later he produced an order on the Superior to produce me whenever
she might be called upon to do so.
The next day, after service, I was once more recommended to the public prayers
of the community. They all prayed in silence, and repeated in a low voice the hymn of the day before. The same ceremony the
third day, with this difference, that I was ordered to place myself upright in the middle of the choir while they recited
the prayers for the dying, the litanies of the saints with the refrain Ora pro ea. The fourth day was notable for a mummery,
which revealed perfectly the strange character of the Superior. At the end of the service I was made to lie down on a bier
in the middle of the choir. Candlesticks were placed beside me with a stoup of holy water. I was covered with a handkerchief
and the funeral service was recited, after which each nun, as she went out, threw holy water over me, saying, Requiescat in
pace. You must be familiar with the language of convents to understand the threat contained in these last words.2 Two nuns
lifted off the handkerchief, put out the candles, and left me soaked to the skin by the water with which they had maliciously
sprinkled me. My clothes dried on me, and I had nothing into which to change. This piece of mortification was followed by
another. The community assembled: I was looked at as though damned: my action was treated as apostasy. And all the nuns, on
pain of disobedience, were forbidden to speak to me, to give me assistance, to go near me, or even to touch anything I had
used. These orders were rigorously executed. Our corridors are narrow and in some places two people can hardly pass each other.
If, while walking along, a nun came in the opposite direction she either retraced her steps or squashed up against the wall,
holding on to her veil and dress for fear they should rub against me. If anything had to be handed by me to someone else,
I put it on the ground and it was picked up with a cloth. If something had to be given me it was thrown at me. If anyone had
the misfortune to touch me she thought herself contaminated and went to the Superior for confession and absolution. Flattery
is said to be vile and low, but it becomes very cruel and ingenious when flatterers try to please by inventing means of giving
pain. How often have I recalled the words of my heavenly Superior de Moni:
"Among all these creatures whom you see around
me, so docile, innocent, and gentle, well, there is not one, no, my child, scarcely one whom I could not turn into a wild
beast. Strange metamorphosis to which one is all the more subject the younger one enters into a convent and the less one knows
of life. What I say astonishes you. God spare you from learning its truth. Sister Susan, the good nun is she who brings into
the cloister some great fault to expiate.
I was deprived of all my occupations. In chapel an empty stall was left on each
side of the one I occupied. At refectory I was alone at a table. No one served me, and I was obliged to go into the kitchen
to ask for my share. The first time the Sister who did the cooking cried out to me:
"Don't come in, go further off
I obeyed her.
"What do you want?"
"My food." "
"Your food! Youre not fit to live.
I went away and passed the day without eating anything. Sometimes I insisted, and food was put by the door which they would
have been ashamed to give to animals. I used to pick it up weeping, and go away. Sometimes I arrived last at the door of the
choir and found it shut. I knelt down and waited till the end of the service. If they were in the garden I went back to my
cell. Meanwhile I grew weaker from having taken so little food and from the bad quality of what was provided; still more from
the misery caused by so many repeated marks of inhuman treatment. I felt that if I went on suffering without complaining I
should never see the end of my case, so I determined to speak to the Superior. I was half dead with fright; still I went and
tapped gently on the door. She opened it, and at the sight of me stepped back several yards, crying out:
go further off. I went further off."
I went further off.
"I went further still.
do you want?"
"Since neither God nor man have condemned me to death, I want you to give orders that I be allowed to
"Live," she said, "repeating the words of the cook, "are you worthy to live?"
can know. But I warn you that if I am refused food I shall be forced to complain to those who have taken me under their protection.
I am only here provisionally, till my fate and status are decided. "
Go! she said. Do not soil me with your looks.
I will see to it.
I went away, and she slammed the door violent1y. Apparently she did give orders, but I was hardly better
treated. The nuns made it a virtue to disobey her. They threw me the coarsest food, which they made still worse by mixing
it with ashes and ~ll sorts of filth.
Such was the life I led as long as my case lasted. parlour was not entirely forbidden
me. They could not deprive me of freedom to confer with my judges or my lawyer, though the latter was several times forced
to employ threats to get at me. And then a Sister accompanied me. She complained if I spoke in a low voice, lost patience
if I stayed too long, interrupted me, gave me the lie, contradicted me, repeated all my remarks to the Superior, changed their
sense, filled them with venom, or even denied I had ever said them.; anything you like. They went as far as robbing me, taking
my things away, removing my chairs, coverlets, and mattresses. They gave me no more clean linen and tore my dress. I had almost
to go without stockings and shoes. I had difficulty in obtaining water; I was several times obliged to go and get it myself
as the well, the one of which I have spoken. They broke all my jugs and basins, and I was reduced to drinking the water as
I drew it, without carrying it away. If I walked under the windows I was obliged to run away or be covered with all the dirt
of the cells. Several Sisters spat in my face. I became hideously filthy. As they were alarmed at the complaints I might make
to the Director, the confessional was forbidden me.
On a great feast day, Ascension Day I think, they blocked up my
keyhole. I could not go to Mass, and should have probably missed all the other services had it not been for the visit of M.
Manouri. They at first told him that they did not know what had become of me, that they no longer saw me, and that I did not
perform any of the duties of a Christian. Meanwhile, after endless difficulty, I broke the lock and went to the door of the
choir, which I found locked, as was always the case when I was not among the first to arrive. I was lying on the ground, my
head and back propped against one of the walls and my arms crossed over my chest, while the rest of my body was stretched
out across the passage. The service ended and the nuns arrived to go out. The first stopped dead, and the rest came up behind
her. The Superior suspected what the matter was and said:
"Walk over her. She is only a corpse. "
and stamped me under foot; others were less inhuman, but none dared stretch out a hand to lift me. While I was away they took
from my cell my praying-desk, the portrait of our founders, my other pious images, and my crucifix. I soon had nothing but
what I carried on my rosary, and that was not left me long. So I lived between four walls, in a room without a door or a chair,
standing up or lying on a pallet, without the merest necessaries, forced to go out at night to relieve the calls of nature,
and be accused the next morning of troubling the sleep of the House, of wandering about, and of losing my reason. As my cell
door no longer shut, some nuns used to come in noisily all through the night, pull my bed about, break my windows, and occasion
me all sorts of terror. The noise was heard on the floor above and the floor below, and those not in the plot said that something
extraordinary was happening in my room: that they had heard melancholy voices, shrieks, the clanking of chains, and that I
spoke with ghosts and evil spirits; that I must necessarily have made a pact with Satan, and that they themselves must leave
my corridor. There are foals in every community; they are even the majority. They believed all that they were told, did not
dare pass before my door, pictured me in their troubled imagination as hideous of feature, made the sign of the Cross in meeting
me, and ran away, crying: Satan, go away from me! 0 Lord, come to my help! One of the youngest was at the end of the corridor;
I went towards her and she could not avoid me. At first she turned her face towards the wall, muttering with trembling voice:
Oh Lord! Oh Lord! Jesus! Maria! Meanwhile I advanced towards her. When she felt me near her she covered her face with
her hands through fear of seeing me, leapt towards me, hurled herself violently into my arms, and cried: Pity! Pity! I am
lost! Sister Susan, do not do me any harm! Sister Susan, have pity on me! And as she spoke she fell half dead upon the floor.
On hearing her cry, 5ome Sisters ran up and carried her off. I cannot adequately describe how this adventure was travestied.
The most criminal story possible was made of it. They said the Demon of impurity had seized hold of me, and attributed to
me designs and actions which I dare not name, and strange desires which explained the evident disorder in which they found
the young nun. Truly I am not a man, and do not know what two women can conceivably be imagined to do together, still less
a single woman. And then as my bed had no curtains and they came at every moment into my room, you can see the absurdity of
it for yourself, my lord. These women must certainly have thoroughly corrupt hearts, for all their external deportment, modest
looks, and chaste expressions. At any rate, they know that these dishonourable actions can be done all alone, and I do not
know it. And I have never understood of what I was being accused, and they expressed themselves so obscurely that I never
knew how to answer them.
I should never be finished if I entered into the details of all I was made to suffer. Oh,
my lord, if you have children, learn from my fate what you are preparing for them if you allow them to enter into religion
without the signs of the strongest and most decided vocation. How unjust the world is! A child is allowed to dispose of its
liberty at an age when it may not dispose of a shilling.3 Kill your daughter rather than imprison her in a cloister despite
herself Yes, I say, kill her! How often have I regretted that I was not stifled by my mother at birth. She would not then
have been so cruel! Would you believe it, they took away my breyjary and forbade me to say my prayers. You can imagine that
I did not obey them. Prayer, alas, was my only consolation. I raised my hands to heaven and cried aloud, and dared hope my
prayers were heard by the only Being to see all my suffering. They listened at my door, and one day as I was addressing Him
in the misery of my heart and calling on Him for help someone said:
"You appeal to God in vain: there is no more God
for you. Die in despair and be damned."
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