If you’re like me, and encountered the story of Manon Lescaut solely through the operatic adaptations of Puccini and Massenet, you might think of the character of Manon as a naive, slightly bird-brained, affluence-loving faun, and des Grieux as a kind, guileless man utterly undone by love. Perhaps you might have also been a little confused at the vast plot differences between the two operas. I recently snapped up a paperback copy of the novel, Manon Lescaut by Abbe Prevost, from the half-price sale at Balfour Books, and was surprised and entertained to find Manon and des Grieux to be a lovable but utterly irredeemable pair of reprobates. des Grieux becomes a professional card sharp, flits in and out of prison (along with Manon), repeatedly hits up his friends for money, as well as promise large sums for favours from various random people, promises on which he’s unable to deliver. Manon, for her part, spends a considerable amount of time trying to extract money from her rich admirers; sometimes sleeping with them and sometimes not. des Grieux feels no remorse about murdering a porter while breaking out of prison, but sticks resolutely by Manon even after she’s been unfaithful to him repeatedly.
In short, the book’s great fun. I recommend it.
Here are a few choice passages (from Donald M. Frame’s 1961 translation):
After they first run away together:
Passionate as I was for Manon, she succeeded in persuading me that she was no less so for me. We were so unreserved in our caresses that we did not have the patience to wait until we were alone. Our postilions and hosts looked at us with wonder; and I noticed that they were surprised to see two children of our age who seemed madly in love with each other. Our plans for marriage were forgotten at Saint-Denis; we defrauded the church of its rights; and we found ourselves man and wife without giving the matter a thought.
Her first temptation by a rich lover, to which she yields:
She told me that having seen her at her window he had become impassioned for her; he had made his declaration like a true farmer-general, that is to say by notifying her in a letter that the payment would be proportionate to the favours; she had yielded at first, but with no other purpose than to extract from him a considerable sum that could serve to let us live comfortably; he had dazzled her by such magnificent promises that she had let her resolution be shaken by degrees; I should judge her remorse, however, by the grief she had manifested on the eve of our separation.
des Grieux learns how to cheat at cards:
In a short time I profited from my master’s lessons. I acquired an especially great facility in turning cards over and in recognizing them by their backs; and with the very great help of a long pair of sleeves, I could conjure a card away deftly enough to deceive the eyes of the sharpest and quite naturally to ruin many honest gamblers. This extraordinary skill so hastened the progress of my fortune that in a few weeks I owned considerable sums, besides those that I shared in good faith with my associates.
Manon writes to des Grieux about her second rich tempter, and sends a pretty girl whom she hopes will serve as a substitute:
This is about what she told me: G… M… had received her with a politeness and a magnificence beyond her wildest dreams. He had loaded her with presents. He made her glimpse the life of a queen. She assured me nevertheless that she was not forgetting me in this new splendour … to console me a bit for the pain she foresaw the news might cause me, she had managed to procure me one of the prettiest girls in Paris, who would be the bearer of her note.
Prevost’s Manon and des Grieux never stop swearing eternal love to one another despite their various crimes and infidelities, but the overall picture is rather different from Puccini’s: