This is a very well researched historical account of hell in this world, by the author of the better known opus Brave New World and The Doors of Perception of Heaven and Hell.
The historical situation of the Catholic Church and the Jesuits, the politics in France during the 17th Century, the downfall of the Huguenots, all constitute the fabric were the personal drama and martyrdom of father Urbain Grandier are sewn.
POLITICAL BACKGROUND: Cardinal Richelieu is directing the policy of France, during the reign of Louis XIII. After Richelieu convinces the King that self-government of small provincial towns must end, the feudal nobility lose their independence by an edict calling for the destruction of their castles and walls, whilst the Hughenots are being crushed by force. One of these towns is Loudun, where the priest (a Jesuit) is Urbain Grandier, an intellectual priest of 35, that knows the meaning and consequences of the edict calling for the destruction of the fortified walls of Loudun. Consequently, when Laubardemont, an agent of the Cardinal Richelieu arrives in the town, he is confronted and stopped by Grandier.
GRANDIER'S VICES: Father Grandier is strikingly handsome and a sensualist. His vows of celibacy have not prevented him from fathering a bastard child with the daughter of Trincant, the town magistrate, and performing an illegal marriage with Madeleine, a young lady with whom he has fallen in love.
THE ANGELICAL DEVIL: The Convent of the Ursulines in Loudun is ruled by Sister Jeanne of the Angels, a young humped back noun, with a beautiful face. She develops an obsession with Grandier and has sensual visions which involve the young priest. When she hears about the illicit marriage, she gets mad and falsely accuses the priest of sorcery and lewdness.
THE CONSPIRACY: Grandier's enemies (Laubardemont, Trincant, Father Mignon and others) grasp the false accusation as the means with which the destruction of the priest can be achieved. They accuse Grandier of sorcery and sent for an exorcist, Father Barre, who starts performing a series of exorcisms never seen before in France. The methods used by him and his assistants to extract the devils reputedly within the bodies of the nuns are base and sadistic. From Sister Jeanne's altered mind come the screams and the behavior that affect the other nuns. From there, collective hysteria spreads and as the nouns bask in their notoriety, their fantasies become more and more unreal. Those who oppose this infernal circus, on the grounds that the exorcists are the ones depraved, deliberately provoking the nouns, are arrested by Laubardemont, who wants to see the matter through. Both Richelieu and his agent are aware of Grandier's innocence but the raison d' Etat calls for the destruction of the young priest.
THE TRIAL AND MARTYRDOM: Not surprisingly, based on the hysterical accusations of the nouns, Grandier and Madeleine are arrested. Grandier is brought to trial and found guilty of sorcery. He is viciously tortured, vainly, in order to extract a confession of his guilt. When Grandier is burnt alive at the stake, in the public square of Loudun, finally the walls of Loudun can be demolished.
BALANCE: A very stirring and moving account of these tragic events, dotted with a psychological analysis of the protagonists of the drama and some insightful reflections about the ruthless workings of politics, this is my favorite Huxley's book. NOT A NOVEL. A SAD HISTORY.