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. Between 1729 and 1733, Prévost lived in Holland, where he profited from the burgeoning trade in French translations of English novels forged by the Dutch publishing houses.
In 1734 he revisited London and gathered data for the periodical Le Pour et contre, which he founded and edited after returning to France the following year. He was reconciled with Church authorities and received a sinecure at Evreux. In 1754, his position as Abbé of St. Georges de Gesnes added to his endowment. He died near Chantilly on November 25, 1763.
These generally comfortable circumstances allowed him to concentrate on literary pursuits. With the assistance of fairly sophisticated colleagues in translation, he embarked on challenging projects: the translations of Samuel Richardson’s three controversial novels, a huge compilation of travel accounts, psychological novels, and historical studies.
Prévost was respected and admired by many literary figures, notably Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His enthusiasm for English literature (for example, the translation of John Dryden’s All for Love, which appeared in Le Pour et contre) places him among the most fully anglicized French writers of the eighteenth century.
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...
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