The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley
Because the UK is celebrating Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee around now, this week's books all have a first publication date in 1952.
chapter 1 - events in the early 17th century
[Urbain Grandier] was a man in the prime of youth, tall, athletic, with an air of grave authority, even (according to one contemporary) of majesty. He had large dark eyes and, under his biretta, an abundance of crinkly black hair. His forehead was high, his nose aquiline, his lips red, full, and mobile.
An elegant Van Dyck beard adorned his chin, and on his upper lip he wore a narrow moustache sedulously trained and pomaded so that its curling ends confronted one another, on either side of the nose, like a pair of coquettish question marks. To post-Faustian eyes his portrait suggests a fleshier, not unamiable, and only slightly less intelligent Mephistopheles in clerical fancy dress.
To this seductive appearance Grandier added the social virtues of good manners and lively conversation. He could turn a compliment with easy grace, and the look with which he accompanied his words was more flattering, if the lady happened to be at all presentable, than the words themselves. The new parson, it was only too obvious, took an interest in his female parishioners than was more than merely pastoral.
observations: Aldous Huxley turns a good sentence, and this book takes a bizarre story and tells it in a fair-minded and fascinating way, but very much from the point of view of a mid-20th-century man who would see himself as rational and enlightened. Neither this book nor the Ken Russell film is as prurient as people might expect, although the details of these real-life incidents – the claims of possession and devil worship in a convent in 17th century small-town France – are extraordinary, and very sexual, and quite uncomfortable to read. The film The Devils was highly controversial and much-banned when it came out in 1971, but is surprisingly serious and very well done, though Russell was never averse to a striking sexual image and the attendant publicity. It has an unusual design aesthetic, and in general is well worth seeing.
Poor Urbain Grandier – he probably was not a very nice man at all, but his dreadful end surely was not deserved.
The biretta is a priestly hat, and there is an odd link to yesterday’s very-different book – Mildred’s cleaning woman is very worried by the fact that the local vicar wears a biretta, as it is a sign of being too close to Catholicism. Van Dyck beard – the artist Anthony Van Dyck was very roughly a contemporary of Urbain Grandier, and it seems clear that the phrase would not have been in use at the time mentioned. Was it already a Van Dyck beard before he had invented it?
Links up with: Nuns feature in this entry, and religion is a major feature of this book. Cardinal Richelieu has a role in The Devils of Loudon – his English equivalent the century before was Cardinal Wolsey.
The picture is of Urbain Grandier and can be found on this website about Loudun.