Abbé Prévost Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Antoine François Prévost (pray-voh), who called himself “Prévost d’Exiles” and is generally referred to as the Abbé Prévost, was born in 1697 at Hesdin, in Artois, Flanders. Influenced by Jesuits at the local school, he decided upon the novitiate, and in 1715 he entered the Collège de La Flèche. For unknown reasons, he left the seminary and enlisted as a soldier. After one tour of duty he decided to return to the seminary, but he was apparently tricked into re-enlisting. He subsequently deserted and traveled to Holland. On his way back to France, he may have met the young woman who was later transformed into one of the most enduring heroines of French sentimental fiction, Manon Lescaut; the factual basis for their encounter is obscure. By 1720 Prévost had returned to the monastic community at St. Maur. He was ordained as a Benedictine priest six years later.

While assigned to the abbey of St. Germain-des-Près in Paris, Prévost abandoned the order and traveled to London in 1728. With excellent connections in England, his productivity was enormous. Memoirs of a Man of Quality After His Retirement from the World, with Manon Lescaut as its seventh volume, was published in 1731. Much of the work on The Life and Entertaining Adventures of Mr. Cleveland, Natural Son of Oliver Cromwell, another episodic romance filled with philosophical speculation based on incidental mishaps, was apparently completed at this time....

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Abbé Prévost Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Antoine François (Abbé) Prévost in 1697 in the town of Hesdin (near Calais), the second son of a family that had achieved some distinction in government service and ecclesiastical affairs. His father was a procureur du roi, an important local magistrate with considerable influence in community matters. At the age of fourteen, Prévost enrolled in the local college administered by the Jesuits, but he left the school two years later to join the king’s Musketeers. His military career was cut short by the Treaty of Utrecht. He reentered the Jesuit novitiate, only to drop out twice to pursue secular adventure before beginning his third novitiate at a Benedictine monastery near Rouen in 1720. He took his final vows in 1721, but according to his own account, he had considerable reservations about the religious life. “Forced by necessity,” he wrote in a letter, “I only pronounced the formula of our vows with all the inward restrictions which could authorize me to break them.”

Nevertheless, Prévost served the order admirably. He won respect as a brilliant student of theology at Saint Omer, as a teacher of the humanities at Saint Germer, and as a popular preacher at Évreux during the Lenten season. In 1728, he was called to the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, where, he told a friend, the Church believed he would be “less dangerous than elsewhere.” There he completed an entire volume of the enormous Gallia Christiana, but he felt severely restricted by the life of the order and had written, in secret, at least the first and second volumes of Memoirs of a Man of Quality (the first two volumes of which bear the suggestive subtitle Written Originally in the French Tongue by Himself, After His Retirement from the World). Prévost asked to be transferred to the less rigorous order at Amiens, and the authorities in Rome agreed, but the bishop of the Cluny order delayed the petition to make further inquiries.

Apparently, Prévost doubted that his request would be granted, and he left his post. To explain his actions, Prévost asserted that “My books were my faithful friends; but like myself, they were dead,” and he threatened to expose the Benedictines as fools if he were harshly treated. His justification for his actions was his belief that he had taken nothing with him: “You have kept me for eight years, I have served you well; thus whatever was owed is paid.” The Church appealed to the police for his arrest, calling him “a fugitive monk” and adding that he was the author of a “little novel” that slandered the duke of Tuscany. When a warrant was issued for Prévost’s arrest in November, 1728, he fled to Holland.

Prévost’s six-year exile in Holland and England was one of his most productive periods. The third and fourth volumes of Memoirs of a Man of...

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