Friday, February 12, 2016

Venus in the Cloister, or, The Nun in a Chemise, by Abbe du Prat

"Look, here is a book that I will lend you; make good use of it; it will instruct you of many things."

"There is no book that of its nature bears a forbidden title; only the use we make of it means that is good, bad, or neither."

-- from Venus in the Cloister, or, The Nun in a Chemise (34, 81)

This short collection of dialogues, subtitled "Curious Conversations," was originally published in 1683, with later editions that continued to add new material to what is, essentially, 17th century soft porn. Pretty soft, and surprisingly philosophical, by porn standards, although it does start off with one pretty nun interrupting another (in, you guessed it, her chemise), who is pretty obviously masturbating.

In the non-linear series of anecdotes that follows, mostly about the love lives of the characters' fellow nuns, we learn that the French apparently once called French kisses "Florentine" kisses (79), and that communities of nuns and monks were originally connected so they could ease each others' tensions -- making it infidelity if they strayed with partners who belonged to different religious orders. Which did make me laugh.There's an ongoing thread about how some physical pleasures are natural and right, but the characters still judge some others for debauchery. As Sister Angelique says, "All extremes are dangerous" (82).

Just to prove, again, that some things never change, and human inconsistency is one of those things. "There is nothing certain or assured in this world; there is no point of view that can be sustained, and ... we we have merely false and confused ideas of the things that we think we know most perfectly" (77).

Along the way, there are some jabs at the church as an institution, and particularly at the ascetics and, well, the uptight. "What you call 'the contemplation of diving things' is at bottom merely a soft and cowardly sloth, incapable of any action," Angelique declares. The book doesn't get too heavy about this, keeping its tone fairly light, because while it assumes religion and belief in God to be true, its main interest is in everyday human life, accepting sexuality as a part of that. "You know well that our hearts cannot get by without a little amusement ... nature allows these hearts of ours to seek out objects that will fulfil them" (95).

Several books are mentioned in the text, which interested me, since I came to this book because of its mention in Henry Fielding's Shamela. A few of them are particularly intriguing: "A Plain and Pleasant Path for Preventing a Problematic Plumpness," and "Collection of Remedies against Perilous Plumpness, composed for the commodity of the religious ladies of Saint-Georges" (44, 51). I doubt those are specific real books, but they seem clearly based on real ones, and I'd love to see their suggestions!

du Prat, Abbe. Venus in the Cloister, or, The Nun in a Chemise: Curious Conversations. Translated by Andrew Brown. London: Hesperus Press, 2012.

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