"It was then that I felt the superiority of the Christian faith over all the other religions of the world; what profound wisdom there was in what blind philosophy calls the folly of the cross." - page 82
Suzanne Simonin is a simple French girl who finds herself packaged off to become a nun due to circumstances beyond her control. Suzanne happens to be the product of an affair and her mother decides Suzanne has to make up for those sins. As well, her parents and step-sisters are concerned about family finances as the sisters are in need of dowries. It's decided that to save on costs, Suzanne will enter a convent. There she is subjected to both love and hatred as well as the unwelcome advances of a lecherous Mother Superior.
Some of Diderot's writing is lyrical, even poetic. For example, "A novice-mistress is always the most indulgent sister who can be found. Her object is to hide from you all the thorns of the vocation, she subjects you to a course to the most carefully calculated seduction. Her function is to darken still more the shades of night which surround you, to lull you into slumber, to throw dust in your eyes, to fascinate you, and ours paid special attention to me." - page 23
The story is pretty racy for the 1760s and Diderot has an interesting take on homosexuality, a subject which was even more contentious in the 1700s than it is today. The introduction gives us insight into his treatment of it in the book. "Hitherto homosexual behaviour had been considered either an unspeakable abomination in the eyes of God and man or alternatively one of the two or three eternal themes of pornography. Few had treated it objectively and still fewer with any attempt at sympathy or understanding. Diderot does both." While a Mother Superior uses her authority to force herself upon Suzanne, taking advantage of her naivete, Suzanne also has other lesbian experiences within the convent which are far kinder and consensual.
You may be able to tell that Diderot isn't a fan of the church. In fact he was considered to be an atheist. His views on religion may have had something to do with the death of his sister. She was a nun and apparently passed away from being overworked in a convent.
I found this story extremely boring despite being less than 200 pages long. Suzanne is always suffering at the hands of someone. If it isn't here mother than it's her convent. I found it difficult to believe that for most of her stay at the second convent that she would be singled out and harassed. She's thrown in a cell, her fellow nuns steal from her in order to keep her in the convent. Suzanne didn't seem important enough for people to waste their time on her and I also found it frustrating that Suzanne skips over various parts of her life in the convent that might have actually been interesting. For example, she tells the reader she won't go into details about her novitiate and yet says that it is the pleasantest period of monastic life.
The book makes more sense when you understand that it wasn't originally intended for public consumption. It was a practical joke to lure one of Diderot's friends, the Marquise de Croismare, back to Paris. The novel is told in a series of letters as if it were a true story. Diderot hoped the Marquise would feel so bad for Suzanne that he would come back to the city and rescue her.
As well the nature of Suzanne's harassment was somewhat sadistic. At times it seemed as if Diderot was almost enjoying describing her torture at the hands of other nuns.