Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1169
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 Quality were published in 1728, with two more volumes appearing in 1731. The seventh volume, which is actually a separate book connected only by the device of the Man of Quality meeting a young couple in transit, is the story of Manon Lescaut and the Chevalier des Grieux. The October 3, 1733, edition of the Journal de la cour et de Paris notes the appearance of an histoire that is “the prose equivalent of Voltaire’s verse.”
In spite of the book’s immediate acceptance by the reading public, Prévost had incurred so many debts in Holland that he had to leave the country, and although he was very active in English society, within a year (in December, 1733) he was convicted in England of fabricating a bill of exchange and was almost sent to the gallows. Aside from his continuing financial difficulties, Prévost seems to have thrived during the years of his banishment, but his resentment at being forced to leave France is expressed in his adopted name, Prévost d’Exiles.
Through the intercession of the princede Conti, a patron of many other men of letters, and Cardinal de Bissy, who acted as Prévost’s ecclesiastical sponsor, Prévost was able to return to France in October, 1734, and in February, 1735, he was accepted into the abbey of La Grènetière in Vendée. His appointment as almoner to de Conti freed him from the confines of monastic residence, and for the remaining twenty-eight years of his life, he lived comfortably with his vocation. Manon Lescaut continued to appear in France after its suppression in 1733, but in pirated editions published abroad. Nevertheless, Prévost was famous, and one who, as one Parisian wrote, “would make his fortune just by appearing at the fair.” To capitalize on this fame, Prévost wrote the eight-volume series called The English Philosopher between 1732 and 1739 and, as a kind of literary penance, compiled the fifteen-volume Histoire générale des voyages as an ongoing project assembled from English sources. The set was published from 1745 to 1759. During this period, Prévost also translated Dryden’s All for Love (1735); founded the journal Le Pour et contre, which ran from 1733 to 1740 on a biweekly schedule; wrote a history of William the Conqueror (1742); and wrote several novels, including the triumph of his mature years, Memoirs of a Man of Honor.
Prévost’s life as a celebrated author and prominent figure in the artistic and intellectual circles of Parisian society was generally uneventful compared to the adventures and escapades of his early years, but in 1741, he obligingly corrected the proofs of an underground broadsheet for a friend who had included some libelous statements about several people in power. The “friend” accused Prévost of complicity, perhaps hoping to hide behind Prévost’s celebrity. The strategy failed, the pamphleteer was jailed, but Prévost had to endure another year in exile in Belgium and Frankfurt. By this time, his friends were men of sufficient influence to overcome the envy of various factions angered by Prévost’s singularity, and Prévost was recalled to France. His publisher after 1745, Pierre Didot, assisted Prévost in the acquisition of a rural retreat at Saint Firmin, near Chantilly, and Prévost spent his last years “happy with my cows and two chickens.” During this time, he revised the original manuscript of Manon Lescaut for a kind of “official” edition (1753), changing many direct statements into partial euphemisms. Referring to an old lecher, for instance, Manon says in the 1753 edition, “He will not be able to boast of any advantages I have given him over me,” instead of her much more direct claim in the 1731 edition, “He will not have the satisfaction of having slept with me for even one night.” The loss in directness is balanced, according to some critics, by an increased precision and a reduction of unnecessary epithets and nouns.
Prévost died suddenly in November, 1763, as he was returning through the forest of Chantilly to his house at Saint Firmin. He had been dining with his Benedictine colleagues of the Church of Saint Nicolas d’Acy.