I had to buy a second-hand copy of Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils of Loudon” from Amazon Marketplace, having searched unsuccessfully in independent bookshops for a current edition. “Do people no longer read it?” I wondered. When the vintage Penguin paperback arrived in the post, I was upset to see two large coffee rings on the front cover and a ripped page in the middle.
Still, it took me right back to my first encounters with Aldous Huxley. Those magical titles: “Crome Yellow”; “Antic Hay”; “Eyeless in Gaza”. The orange spine, the penguin logo. Psychologists report that the books you read as a teenager are the ones which resonate most strongly throughout your life, and I’d vouch for that. Say a book’s title, and I’m back lying on the sheep-cropped grass with my sister, on the top of our favourite little hill, with the childhood sun shining down on us in the spirit of Dylan Thomas. Days, for example, when she read “The Woodlanders” for O Level and I read “The History of Mr Polly”. Or lying on different grass alone when I read Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves”.
“The Devils of Loudon” is a peculiar book, published by Penguin as “History”. That’s stretching a point. It’s more polemic than history, and the very personal proselytising undermined my confidence in the reliability of the research and the reporting.
I hadn’t read the book before. I’d gone to see Ken Russell’s 1971 film of the book when it was first released – when I was both under-age and very vulnerable – and been genuinely traumatised by it. The ”boyfriend” who took me to it was always keen to expose me to things a young girl shouldn’t see.
I bought my copy of the book “The Devils” because I’d been thinking about that experience; and because I’d read that Cardinal Richelieu, who features in it, was the nemesis of the Huguenots in France. If you google “Cardinal Richelieu and Huguenots”, you’ll soon see a very well-known, dramatic painting of the red-robed cardinal striding along the sea-defences at La Rochelle. The picture gives the impression that he was the leading force in the strategically crucial defeat of the Huguenots during the siege of that coastal city in 1628 – and maybe he was.
The “hero” (if he can be called that) of Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils” only had a bit part in Richelieu’s grand schemes.
Urbain Grandier was a strikingly handsome French Catholic priest from a wealthy family who, in 1684, was accused of seducing the Mother Superior and all of the nuns in a convent in Loudun, and causing them to be possessed by devils. He was initially exonerated but fell foul of the political ambitions of the rising Cardinal Richelieu, and was eventually tortured and burned at the stake.
He was the victim of political currents too strong for him to understand or withstand: the battle between Huguenots and Catholics, and between Catholicism and the “Old Religion” of witchcraft; the rise of the nation-state in defiance of the nobility; the implacable ambition of the young Cardinal, who wanted to destroy Loudun in favour of a new town nearby, to be called Richelieu in his name. Grandier was at the mercy of all these forces, and of his own narcissistic hubris, which convinced him that he could insult and defy very powerful people with impunity. According to Huxley’s account, he was also a serial child abuser, grooming pre-pubescent girls and raping them.
Huxley tells the story of Grandier and the nuns with all the story-telling verve that we’d expect. But in between are great tracts about extra-sensory perception, telepathy and the universal subconscious which, according to Huxley, are self-evidently genuine phenomena, whereas devils going by names such as Asmodee and Coalface are ridiculous fantasies.
Still, it’s a book of its time. One of its most objectionable features, to me, is to compare the European witch hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with later Nazi persecution of Jewish people. Certainly there are some similarities: the egregious contortion of legal systems; the show trials; the appeal to people’s basest instincts; the use of torture; the dehumanisation of chosen victims. Yet we know now the scale of the Holocaust, and planned political genocide on a massive scale is not the same as a few rebels and eccentrics being picked off by local potentates.
Reading “The Devils of Loudun”, which was published in 1952, brought home to me how much ignorance there was, shortly after the war, about the extent of Nazi persecution of the Jews; and how the patient, exact and relentless work of Jewish historians has rectified that. It highlighted, too, the fact that the rape of children can no longer, these days, be jocularly dismissed as the natural and irresistible drive of red-blooded alpha males – especially priests – and that the deliberate fostering of fantasies in the hearts of such children does not make them guilty of seduction.