1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Prévost, Antoine François

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PRÉVOST, ANTOINE FRANÇOIS (1697–1763), French author and novelist, was born at Hesdin, Artois, on the 1st of April 1697. He first appears with the full name of Prévost d'Exiles in a letter to the booksellers of Amsterdam in 1731. His father, Liévin Prévost, was a lawyer, and several members of the family had embraced the ecclesiastical estate. Prévost was educated at the Jesuit school of Hesdin, and in 1713 became a novice of the order in Paris, pursuing his studies at the same time at the college of La Flèche. At the end of 1716 he left the Jesuits to join the army, but he soon tired of life in barracks, and returned to Paris in 1719 with the idea, apparently, of resuming his novitiate. He is said to have travelled in Holland about this time; in any case he returned to the army, this time with a commission. Some of his biographers have assumed that he suffered some of the misfortunes assigned to his hero Des Grieux. However that may be, he joined in 1719–1720 the learned community of the Benedictines of St Maur, with whom he found refuge, he himself says, after the unlucky termination of a love affair. He took the vows at Jumièges in 1721 after a year's novitiate, and received in 1726 priest's orders at St Germer de Flaix. He resided for seven years in various houses of the order, teaching, preaching and studying. In 1728 he was at the abbey of St Germain-des-Prés, Paris, where he was engaged on the Gallia christiana, the learned work undertaken by the monks in continuation of the works of Denys de Sainte-Marthe, who had been a member of their order. His restless spirit made him seek from the Pope a transfer to the easier rule of Cluny; but without waiting for the brief, he left the abbey without leave (1728), and, learning that his superiors had obtained a lettre de cachet against him, fied to England.

In London he acquired considerable knowledge of English history and literature, traceable throughout his writings. Before leaving the Benedictines Prévost had begun his most famous romance, Mémoires et avantures d'un homme de qualité qui s'est retiré du monde, the first four volumes of which were published in Paris in 1728, and two years later at Amsterdam. In 1729 he left England for Holland, where he began to publish (Utrecht, 1730) a romance, the material of which, at least, had been gathered in London—Le Philosophe anglais, ou Histoire de Monsieur Cleveland, fils naturel de Cromwell, écrite par lui-mesme, et traduite de l'anglois (Paris 1731–1739, 8 vols., but most of the existing sets are partly Paris and partly Utrecht). A spurious fifth volume (Utrecht, 1734) contained attacks on the Jesuits, and an English translation of the whole appeared in 1734. Meanwhile, during his residence at the Hague, he engaged on a translation of the Historia of De Thou, and, relying on the popularity of his first book, published at Amsterdam a Suite in three volumes, forming volumes v., vi., and vii. of the original Mémoires et avantures d'un homme de qualité. The seventh volume contained the famous Manon Lescaut, separately published in Paris in 1731 as Les Aventures du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, par Monsieur D.... The book was eagerly read, chiefly in pirated copies, as it was forbidden in France. In 1733 he left the Hague for London in company with a lady whose character, as given by Prévost's enemies, was far from desirable. In London he edited a weekly gazette on the model of Addison's Spectator, Le Pour et contre, which he continued to produce, with short intervals, until 1740.

In the autumn of 1734 Prévost was reconciled with the Benedictines, and, returning to France, was received in the Benedictine monastery of La Croix Saint-Leufroy in the diocese of Evreux to pass through a new, though brief, novitiate. In 1735 he was dispensed from residence in a monastery by becoming almoner to the prince de Conti, and in 1754 obtained the priory of St Georges de Gesnes. He continued to produce novels and translations from the English, and, with the exception of a brief exile (1741–1742) spent in Brussels and Frankfort, he resided for the most part at Chantilly until his death, which took place suddenly while he was walking in the neighbouring woods on the 23rd of December 1763. Hideous particulars have been added, but the cause of his death, the rupture of an aneurism, has been definitely established. Stories of crime and disaster were related of Prévost by his enemies, and diligently repeated, but they have proved to be as apocryphal as the details given of his death.

Manon Lescaut, one of the greatest novels of the century, is very short; it is entirely free from improbable incident, it is penetrated by the truest and most cunningly managed feeling; and almost every one of its characters is a triumph of that analytic portraiture which is the secret of the modern novel. The chevalier des Grieux, the hero, is probably the most perfect example of the carrying out of the sentiment “ All for love and the world well lost ” that exists in fiction, at least where the circumstances are those of ordinary and probable life. Tiberge, his friend, is hardly inferior in the difficult part of mentor and reasonable man. Lescaut, the heroine's brother, has vigorous touches as a bully and Bohemian; but the triumph of the book is Manon herself. Animated by a real affection for her lover, and false to him only because her love of splendour, comfort and iuxury prevents her from welcoming privation with him or for him, though in effect she prefers him to all others, perfectly natural and even amiable in her degradation, and yet showing the moral of that degradation most vividly, Manon is one of the most remarkable heroines in all fiction. She had no literary ancestress; seems to have sprung entirely from the imagination, or perhaps sympathetic observation, of the wandering scholar who drew her. Only the Princesse de Clèves can challenge comparison with before or near to her own date, and in Manon Lescaut the plot is much more complete and interesting, the sentiments less artificial, and the whole story nearer to actual life than in Madame de la Fayette's masterpiece. Prévost's other works include: Le Doyen de Killérine, histoire morale, composée sur les mémoires d'une illustre famille d'Irlande (Paris, 1735; 2nd part, the Hague, 1739, 3rd, 4th and 5th parts, 1740); Tout pour l'amour (1735), a translation of Dryden's tragedy; Histoire d'une Grecque moderne (Amsterdam [Paris] 2 vols., 1740); Histoire de Marguerite d'Anjou (Amsterdam [Paris] 2 vols., 1740); Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire de Malte (Amsterdam, 1741); Campagnes philosophiques, ou mémoires . . . contenant l'histoire de la guerre d'Irlande (Amsterdam, 1741); Histoire de Guillaume le Conquérant (Paris, 1742); Histoire générale des voyages (15 vols., Paris, 1746–1759), continued by other writers; translations from Samuel Richardson, Pamela (4 vols., 1742), Lettres anglaises ou Histoire de Miss Clarisse Harlowe (6 vols., London, 1741); Nouvelles lettres anglaises, ou Histoire du Chevalier Grandisson (Amsterdam, 3 vols., 1755); Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire de la vertu (Cologne, 4 vols., 1762), from Mrs Sheridan's Mémoires of Miss Sidney Bidulph; Histoire de la maison de Stuart (3 vols., 1740) from Hume's History of England to 1688; Le Monde moral, ou Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire du cœur humain (2 vols., Geneva, 1760), &c.

For the bibliography of Prévost's works, which presents many complications, and for documentary evidence of the facts of his life see H. Harrisse, L'Abbé Prévost (1896); also a thesis (1898) by V. Schroeder.

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