The French novelist, journalist, and cleric Abbé Prévost (1697-1763) was an adventurer who lived by his intrigues and his pen. His best-known work is the novel "Manon Lescaut."
Antoine François Prévost d'Exiles, who is known as the Abbé Prévost, was first exposed to conventual discipline when he entered a Jesuit school at the age of 14, following his father's death. In the years that ensued, he alternated military service, love affairs, and intense literary activity with periods as first a Jesuit and then a Benedictine novice. He was ordained a Benedictine priest in 1721 and for 8 years engaged in study, teaching, and scholarly work in a variety of Benedictine communities.
Restless and unhappy, he settled for a time at St-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, where he began to write in secret the fictional compendium Les Mémoires et aventures d'un homme de qualité qui s'est retiré du monde. In 1728 he threw his vow of stability to the winds and fled to London. He traveled through England, eventually becoming companion and tutor to one Sir John Eyles. Les Mémoires was published in part in 1728. Two years later Prévost left England for Holland, and there he worked at translating works of Samuel Richardson and also published the fifth, sixth, and seventh volumes of Les Mémoires.
Les Mémoires is an original work written to promote broader understanding of England in France. At a time when England was regarded by Frenchmen as a bloody and barbarous nation, Prévost had learned to love that country. Unlike most previous Frenchmen who had attempted to write about England, Prévost had learned English; he had also traveled in the provinces, gathering folklore from the peasants. His book is an impassioned plea for religious tolerance. It expresses a deep admiration for the comparative ease with which the different social classes in England mingled.
Prévost recognized that the return to nature as source and subject matter of poetry was a unique phenomenon inEnglish literature, and he was one of the first to introduce this essential romantic theme to France. Of all the works written about England in the 18th century by foreign travelers, Les Mémoires is the most complete, the most unprejudiced, and the most reliable.
Once more in England, Prévost began the publication of his serial novel, Le Philosophe anglais ou les mémoires de Cleveland (generally known as Cleveland), a task that extended from 1732 to 1739. In 1733 he also began publishing the periodical Le Pour et le contre. Upon his return to France and his reconciliation with the Church in 1734, he published Le Doyen de Killerine (1735). L'Histoire d'une grecque moderne and Marguerite d'Anjou, a historical novel, were published in 1740.
After his brief exile, Prévost produced numerous translations, most notably bowdlerized versions of Richardson's novels. He also worked on anthologies of fiction and moral essays, and he served as editor for several large publishing enterprises. In 1754 he collaborated on the Journal étranger and was commissioned to work on the history of the Condé family.
The seventh volume of Les Mémoires was published separately in France 2 years after its original publication in Holland. This highly condensed novel, L'Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, has achieved, of all Prévost's works, the most lasting success. Des Grieux, its childlike hero, is unaware of life, unaware of his own desires, when suddenly he is swept away by his passion for Manon, who is all charm and sensuality. Manon Lescaut is one of a handful of novels that constitute a genre uniquely French—the roman personnel, or personal novel. It is highly compressed, direct, sparing in style and episode; characteristically, it unfolds through a series of psychological revelations. The operas Manon (1884) by Jules Massenet and Manon Lescaut (1893) by Giacomo Puccini are based on this work.
From 1754, when Prévost was asked to write a history of the Condé family, he resided at Saint-Firmin in order to be close to the family archives in Chantilly. He died suddenly from apoplexy (or from a ruptured aorta) returning home at night through the forest of Chantilly.
The translation of Manon Lescaut by Burton Rascoe (1919) is a readable version of the novel. The Modern Library translation includes a brief introduction in English by Guy de Maupassant. The best works on Prévost are in French. A useful study in English is George R. Havens, The Abbé Prévost and English Literature (1921). □