Sunday, 16 June 2013

Jesuit beaux-esprits sample provincial life

Initial English translations of Bougeant's Amusement claimed enigmatically that he had been "exiled to La Flèche".  By the second edition he is "now confined at La Flèche on account of this work":  

But just what was this terrible Jesuit prison?

In fact it wasn't a prison at all, but the imposing College Henri IV in La Flèche on the River Loir  (a pleasant and architecturally impressive town then as it is today - it certainly deserves better than to be twinned with Chippenham).  The College counted among its former pupils no less a figure than  Descartes.  To be transferred to this provincial backwater was considered by sophisticated Parisian Jesuits to be an ignominious fate; "Quae maxima apud nos infamia est Pariis Flexiam mittor in exilium" wrote one of their number.

Gresset had already suffered a stint at La Flèche after complaints from Chancellor Chauvelin whose sister was Superior of the nuns of the Visitation lampooned in Ver-Vert.  In Gresset's case the punishment  was considerably softened by his promotion to the Chair of Rhetoric there.  He would soon be allowed to finish his theological studies in Paris, where, however, criticism of the Parlement in a subsequent poem finally forced his dismissal. (Gresset himself preferred to maintain he left the Jesuits voluntarily, having joined at too young an age to ensure a true vocation.)

View of the town of 
La Flèche
He left behind a poem Journey to La Flèche which makes it quite clear what the Jesuit beaux-esprits thought of life en province, with its "drinkable" wine, little concerts and petty gatheringsLa Flèche might be agreeable, writes Gresset,  if prisons could be pleasant:. 

La Fleche pourroit être aimable, 
S'il étoit de belles prisons ; 
Un climat assez agréable , 
De petits bois assez mignons , 
Un petit vin assez potable : 
De petits concerts assez bons ,
Un petit monde assez passable. 
La Fleche pourroit être aimable,
 S'il étoit de belles prisons.

The College at La Flèche today

The College in the 17th century

Bougeant thus had every cause to regret his humour when he was made to withdraw to  La Flèche and publically retract his unorthodox account of animal souls.  He was soon restored to Paris but henceforth restricted to strictly scholarly projects - a history of the Treaty of Westphalia and the three-volume  Exposition of Christian doctrine dubbed by some his "amusement théologique".  Gresset wrote an Epistle to Father Bougeant asking whether he was really  going to sacrifice happiness and esprit  for the boring immortality of the College patriarchs - the spirit of a "loveable sage" was not born for such fat, dull works

More unexpectedly, on Bougeant's death in 1743, the future Encyclopédiste d'Alembert lamented the loss to the Republic of Letters of a Jesuit "more enlightenened that his state would seem to permit" who had been confined to La Flèche and forced to "confection" a catechism which led to his premature demise, overwhelmed by disgust and boredom (Oeuvres complètes (1821) ii.26).


I haven't been able to find any English translations of Gresset's poems apart from Vers-Vert but there are plenty of French e-books.  There is also a text of a detailed life of Gresset written in 1894 by Jules Wogue

Pictures are from the article on La Flèche in

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