The Devils of Loudun is a fascinating book on many levels, and one that I now consider a personal favorite. This non-fiction story tackles the incredible events that took place at a convent in France in the early 17th century( the alleged possession of said convent and subsequent burning at the stake of the evil sorcerer responsible), including the characters that lead up to these events, and the consequences that were suffered long afterwards. This probably would have been an interesting book no matter who wrote it, but with Aldous Huxley at the helm it is elevated to masterpiece status.
The story follows Urban Grandier a handsome, charming, charismatic priest in the small French Village of Loudun. He was quite popular with many elite members of the community, but managed to make himself some very powerful enemies, mostly thanks to his seductive and womanizing ways. He kept secret lovers, and even a wife, throughout his career with the church, but always managed to avoid any sort of punishment. Sister Jeanne des Anges, the driving force behind the possession, was a nun at the convent in Loudun. She became sexually obsessed with Grandier, and claimed he had sent devils to possess her soul. The entire convent is overcome by this “possession” and gripped in a madness, that lasts six years. During those six years countless exorcists are sent, Grandier is executed, politicians exploit the possession from every angle, and the possessed nuns become famous throughout France.
The are parts of the book so unbelievable or frustrating I found myself stopping every five minutes saying “what the hell” to no one in particular. It becomes clear that it is all a show, concocted for personal revenge and political agendas, with innocent people being tortured and burned alive for the sake of it. It is a remarkable feat then, that Huxley actually makes us sympathize with Sister Jeanne, who should be the most despised character in the book. She is clearly a mentally disturbed individual, starting this madness in an ill guided attempt to get back at a man she never even knew, but in other moments she is just a person who got in too deep, and has no escape from her lies, overcome by guilt in moments of lucidity.
If this book only focused on the events at Loudun it would be great, but in addition to a fascinating story, Devils of Loudun remains one of the best books on spirituality ever written. It explores many of the important questions of faith, and why it is so important to us.
Aldous Huxley had a long, successful career, but this book may be the pinnacle of his achievements. It is both a fascinating, entertaining historical narrative, and an important book on faith, and it is well worth your time.