Manon Lescaut PREFACE

By the Author of The Memoirs of a Man of Quality

I MIGHT have inserted the adventures of the Chevalier des Grieux into my Memoirs, but it seemed to me that, as there was no real connexion between them, the reader might find it more satisfactory to have them separated. The thread of my own story would have been cut for too long by a narrative of this size. I am far from being an exact writer, but I am well aware that a narrative must be lightened of circumstances that might make it cumbersome and involved. As Horace says:

Ut jam nunc dicat jam nunc debentia dici,

Pleraque differat, ac praesens in tempus omittat.1

Nor is such an eminent authority needed to demonstrate such a simple truth, for the prime source of this rule is common sense.

If the public has found some slight enjoyment and interest in the story of my life, I daresay it will be no less pleased with this addition. It will see in the conduct of M. des Grieux a terrible example of the strength of passion. I have to portray a young man who obstinately refuses to be happy and deliberately plunges into the most dire misfortunes; who, though gifted with all the qualities which go to make up the most brilliant merit, chooses an obscure and vagabond life in preference to all the advantages bestowed by nature and fortune; who foresees his misfortunes, but has not the will to avoid them; who is sensible of them and is overwhelmed by them, but cannot benefit by remedies constantly held out to him which might at any moment put an end to them; in fine, an ambiguous character, a mixture of virtues and vices, a perpetual contrast between good impulses and bad actions. Such is the substance of the picture I present. People of good sense will not regard a work of this nature as labour lost. Apart from the pleasure of interesting reading, they will find few things in it which may not serve as lessons in the art of living, and in my opinion it is no small service to the public to instruct while entertaining.

One cannot reflect upon the precepts of morality without being amazed to see them at one and the same time revered and neglected, and one wonders what is the explanation of this strange contradiction of the human heart that draws it towards theories of good and perfection which in practice it repels. If people of a certain order of intelligence and breeding will consider what is the most usual subject of their conversation or even of their private meditations, they will readily notice that they almost always turn upon some moral question. The most agreeable moments of their lives are those they spend, whether alone or with a friend, in examining with a candid mind the charms of virtue, the joys of friendship, the ways of attaining happiness, and frailties of human nature which deny us that happiness and remedies for these frailties. Horace and Boileau indicate this sort of conversation as one of the finest elements in their picture of the happy life. How then does it come about that we so easily fall from these lofty speculations and find ourselves so soon brought down to the level of the most commonplace of men? I am much mistaken if the reason I am going to adduce does not explain this contradiction between our theories and our behaviour. It is this: all moral precepts are so vague and generalized that it is very difficult to apply them directly to our specific manners and actions.

Let us take an example. Well-born souls feel that gentleness and humanity are virtues to be admired and are instinctively inclined to practise them; but once they are faced with action they often remain in doubt. Is this really the right moment? How far should one go? Is one not mistaken about the object in view? A hundred perplexities intervene. Even when wishing to be generous and charitable one is afraid of being a dupe; by seeming too tender-hearted and too easily moved one fears to appear weak; in a word, one is afraid of overdoing or falling short of duties which are too vaguely implied in general notions of humanity and gentle behaviour. In such perplexity only experience or example can guide the instincts of the heart into reasonable channels. Now experience is not an advantage that everybody is free to acquire; it depends upon the various situations one has been placed in by destiny. Therefore for many people there remains only the example of others as a guiding principle in the practice of virtue.

It is precisely for such readers that works of this kind can be extremely useful, so long as they are written by a person of honour and good sense. Each event described therein is a kind of beacon, a lesson taking the place of experience; each adventure is a model upon which to form oneself: it has only to be adjusted to one’s own circumstances. The whole work is a moral treatise entertainingly put into practice.

A serious reader may possibly be displeased at seeing me take up my pen again, at my time of life, in order to write an adventure story of love and fortune: but if the thoughts I have just expressed are well founded, they are my justification; if not, my error will be my excuse.