Opera in Context: Massenet’s Manon

(Almost) Trapped in a Convent

By Cat Cohen

In this installment of “Opera in Context”, we’re exploring convent life in the era of Massenet’s Manon, opening on February 11 at Knoxville Opera. Very soon after Manon Lescaut steps out of a carriage in Act 1, it’s clear that she was born to get into trouble:

“Je suis encore tout étourdie” from Manon, Act 1 Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona
Manon: Natalie Dessay

This beautiful ingenue is finally taking the first exciting trip of her life… only to end up at a convent in Amiens, where she’ll spend the rest of her days praying and weeding the garden. While most convent-bound girls in 18th-century France did feel a burning desire to pledge themselves to the Lord, Manon is clearly not one of those girls:

“Restons ici… Voyons, Manon” from Manon, Act 1
Manon: Beverly Sills

Soon after this takes place, the Chevalier des Grieux stumbles across Manon, who tells him:

Je ne suis qu’une pauvre fille.
Je ne suis pas mauvaise,
mais souvent on m’accuse dans ma famille
d’aimer trop le plaisir.
On me met au couvent tout à l’heure.
Et c’est là l’histoire de Manon Lescaut!

I’m only a poor girl.
I’m not bad,
but often my family accuses me
of loving pleasure too much.
They’re putting me in a convent right away.
And that’s the story of Manon Lescaut!

Something must have happened back at home that rang some alarm bells in her family. Did she get a little friendly with the neighborhood boys? Here’s what the Chevalier des Grieux has to say about the incident in Abbé Prévost’s novel, Manon Lescaut (1731):

“It was against her consent that she was consigned to a convent, doubtless to repress that inclination for pleasure which had already become too manifest, and which caused, in the sequel, all her misfortunes and mine.” –Manon Lescaut, Chapter II

Once a lush, always a lush — at least, in Manon’s case. In portraying a young girl (almost) trapped in a convent, the Abbé Prévost briefly tackled what was to become a common theme in 18th-century French literature: the vocation-forcée. According to historian Jo Ann Kay McNamara, “Many of the leading writers of the Enlightenment represented forced vows that confined “healthy” young women to an “unnatural” life of chastity as one of the great symbolic oppressions of the ancient régime” (Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns Through Two Millennia). Some of this fiction took a rather different view of a young nun’s chastity. La Religieuse, written in 1780 by prominent Enlightenment author Denis Diderot, features a sadistic, Sapphically-inclined Mother Superior. Fantasies aside, a large portion of the French population believed that convents were being used to entrap innocent women.

There is some basis for this belief. With the help of legal documents known as lettres de cachet, parents could effectively force wayward daughters into the cloister. More commonly, disobedient or adulterous wives were sent away by their husbands as punishment. Along with this, daughters who didn’t have a large enough dowry to guarantee a decent marriage were shipped off to convents; sometimes, this was done to secure a larger dowry and better marriage for the eldest daughter. In Convents and Nuns in Eighteenth-Century French Politics and Culture, Mita Choudhury writes: “Convents… supplied a means of social control by removing unwanted or unnecessary members of elite society, preserving familial resources, and educating women”.

Once at the convent, these women would live as well as their dowries would allow. Wealthy inhabitants, who made up the bulk of the sisterhood, could end up living almost as comfortably as they would outside convent walls — many had regular salons and lived in reasonably fancy quarters. With all these creature comforts, plus the benefits of a good educational system, convents seemed like a luxe option for upper-class young women. Unfortunately for poorer girls like Manon, those who couldn’t contribute a decent sum of money to the convent wound up as converses, the class of nuns responsible for manual labor.

While the vocation-forcée narrative dominated the French public’s imagination, the truth was that nuns weren’t exactly eager to have young women running around who didn’t want to be there. Unhappy nuns sometimes ended up escaping the convent and eloping, resulting in a huge scandal. Before becoming nuns, novices underwent examinations by male superiors to determine if their vows were genuine. Granted, it’s not clear whether these examinations could really weed out girls who were bullied into lying about having a divine calling.

While she may have been a lot safer locked up in a nunnery, Manon certainly managed to savor everything that life had to offer. You know what they say: live fast, die young and leave a pretty corpse.

“Obeissons quand leur voix appelle… Profitons bien de la jeunesse” from Manon, Act 3
Manon: Eleanor Steber

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