XX: Have you ever thought while we lie here in our bed, dear XY, that we have everything we want—I mean that while we might wish for more material things, sometimes us is just enough?
XY: How interesting you should say that, XX. It chimes with what I was reading: ‘Wealth should be measured by the means it affords us of satisfying our desires.’ So says the Chevalier des Grieux, hero of Abbé Prévost's Manon Lescaut.
XX: A good point, but there should have been a warning attached: to be content with those desires, once acquired! He and his beautiful young lover Manon could never quite discard the idea that just a little more wealth would make them secure in happiness. From the moment he meets her—on his way to entering the Church!—he worries about how he can keep her, instead of simply loving her.
XY: A knight’s tale that reads like an 18th century Bonnie and Clyde. At the same time, these young lovers seem to have neither the savvy nor the passion of those other outlaws. I felt the absence of actual sex greatly, XX. Am I missing something? They don't actually spend much time together, and when they do they’re always fretting about the state of their relationship. I kept wanting to shake the young Chevalier and shout, stop being so jealous and just fuck her, dear boy!
XX: Precisely, XY! Manon’s inability to be without amusements and the Chevalier’s weakness—desperate to fulfil those needs—ruins them. Sometimes the most romantic thing you can do is concentrate on the simplest: each other’s bodies. I thought they could have been happy living quietly outside Paris, luxuriating in the joys of sex and love. But I suppose Manon must have been the most romantic of melodramas then: lovers on the run from wealthy, powerful men intent on procuring Manon for themselves.
XY: Byron is quoted several times, and in fact the Chevalier's adventures often reminded me of Don Juan, though I found it far less clever. It also made me think of Defoe's Moll Flanders, whose female protagonist is similarly both sexually voracious and banished for her crimes to America—a terrible punishment indeed.
But did you think of Manon’s sexual appetite, her addiction to pleasure for its own sake, as being ahead of its time—or as a stereotype of women as temptresses?
XX: Oh, ahead of its time! What I admire is Manon’s canniness in being able to exploit her sexuality—on her terms—to provide a future for them. She has no antiquated views of women’s virtue, in spite of looking like an angel. Sex is a commodity, which she sees as a simple trade for wealth:
‘I indicated my astonishment at this apparent increase in our means. She implored me, laughing, not to worry. Did I not promise you, she said, that I would find resources?’
But you also can’t classify her as a gold-digger, because she clearly adores the Chevalier. That’s the mystery of Manon—you can’t quite decide what she is.
XY: Indeed, mystery is always a source of attraction. What did you make of the supposed ‘honour’ of the Chevalier, as contrasted with the deceitfulness of the ‘common’ Manon?
XX: The Chevalier’s ‘honour’ quickly wore thin. I found myself wishing Valmont from Les Liaisons dangereuses would turn up—a much more fun and appropriate match for her.
XY: When they arrive in Louisiana the Chevalier is told that the governor of the colony has demanded the right to have Manon ‘at his disposal’. There is a pattern in which the Chevalier is constantly forced—and fails—to protect his lover from the advances of other men. The whole book reads like a jealous man's nightmare! Or is it a cuckold's fantasy? He is astoundingly submissive at times …
XX: Manon is ‘property’ to men in both Paris and America; it’s just that in the latter, all illusions of courtly etiquette are removed. In spite of the Chevalier actually fighting a duel, give me one of Manon’s Parisian suitors any day. But she being more ‘male’ in her sexual pragmatism while the Chevalier is the religious naïf led astray—that is an interesting reversal of the sexes.
XY: Didn’t you think an essential question was: what are the rules of love? How do we negotiate with the rules laid down by society, and how do we make up our own?
XX: Yes. Even now, we play certain games in love—we expect lovers to behave like this or say that. The difference between Manon and us is that we have more freedom to define and change the rules of the game—what I might do with someone else is different to what I do with you.
But if I were Manon, I’d have had you smuggled into my boudoir every spare moment, darling XY—what a thrill to be a mistress with an adoring lover on the side! As a matter of fact, why don’t we pretend now that we only have moments until my generous benefactor returns …
XY: I would so willingly take the role of your illicit, adoring lover, XX—let us proceed!