I was so happy to start the year off with such a great book, but then I’m finding it so difficult to sum it up and have a clear opinion about it, other than: “wow, it’s… erh… rich!”. I’m sure you want to know more than that.
I stumbled upon this book on the Psychology shelf of a library late last year while looking for something a bit out of the ordinary, and right away I was sucked into it. And yet, it’s not an easy book by any counts. It’s a history cum psychology cum theology cum… thriller. Yes, it is possible!
Let’s present it this way: in the early 17C, a young and dashing Catholic priest, Father Urbain Grandier, arrives in the boring small town of Loudun. He’s arrogant and above all, good-looking, far more interested in his own career advancement and pleasures than in religion or even moral principles. By seducing all the available women (under the pretext of confession), he soon makes himself the enemy of about every local bourgeois. (on a simple matter of etiquette he also manages to spite the future Cardinal Richelieu, which isn’t clever). Their schemes to get rid of him all fail until they get in touch with the Mother Superior of the local Ursuline convent.
Having been neglected by Grandier, Mother Jeanne des Anges, ambitious and clever, but above all an attention-seeker, accuses the priest to have made a pact with Satan to corrupt the sisters. The whole convent turn into mass hysteria and even several exorcists can’t get rid of the devils’ possession. Grandier is tried, the powerful Cardinal Richelieu purposefully ignores his pleas because of his old grudge and the priest is condemned to be burnt alive. Not even Grandier’s death at the stake in 1634 stops the possession, fueled in part by the success of the “show” (exorcism sessions were public and attracted huge crowds, just like public executions) and by the obsession of another keen clergyman, Father Jean-Joseph Surin, and it takes many years for things to calm down.
Bear in mind that these all are historical facts, not over-the-top fiction!
There’s very little doubts from the beginning that it wasn’t a real possession (as many people of the 17C were doubtful too), but Huxley uses this particular case to paint a full picture of the time. His book touches history when he describes the links between clergy and power. It touches law and theology in relation to Grandier’s trials. He touches also psychology and psychiatry when he gets to the bottom of the possession and obsession and why people were so keen to believe it.
French history class never allowed me to “experience” 17C France under the reign of Louis 13th in such vivid details (The 3 Musketeers helped, but they were highly fictional!): it seems to have been an era of transition, brought forth in part by Reform, between a totally amoral clergy interested in wealth and honor, and a more spiritual one, interested in a more ascetic view of religion interested in mystique and religious ecstasy. The line was thin for Sister Jeanne des Anges between being possessed by a devil and being a visionary saint like Teresa of Avila, but the common ground was a psycho-sexual neurosis that these women resorted to because they had no other way to express themselves and be taken seriously by men.
This review doesn’t do entirely justice to the book because it’s so rich, but it’s also quite readable. Huxley’s name was only familiar to me for his popular Brave New World and I was not aware of his other writings. It was a great discovery!