“Love, which people pretend is the cause of our pleasures, is at most only an excuse for them.” – Madame de Merteuil, Letter 81
Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos is pitched as a collection of letters - French letters, if you’ll forgive the pun – published in 1782, in Paris. In an author’s preface Laclos offers us two potential lessons we may glean from reading it:
“One, that any woman who consents to receive into her circle of friends an unprincipled man ends up by becoming his victim; the other, that any mother who allows her daughter to confide in anyone but herself is at the very least lacking in prudence.”
The letters begin with one from said daughter: Cecile de Volanges. It is early August, seventeen hundred-and-something, and this fifteen-year-old has left her convent in preparation for her marriage to the thirty-six-year-old Comte de Gercourt – a soldier stationed in Corsica. She writes to her friend Sophie to discuss, amongst other things, a charming young harp teacher: the Chevalier Danceny. Meanwhile, the Marquise de Merteuil (Madame de Volanges’s cousin) writes to the Vicomte de Valmont (a notorious libertine). Some years earlier, Gercourt had dumped her for an Intendante who had, in turn, dumped the Vicomte for the Comte. In revenge, and with a gentle hint of blackmail, Merteuil enlists Valmont to seduce Cecile, the news of which they will publish after Cecile’s wedding. Valmont, however, has a target of his own: the devout (and married) Présidente de Tourvel, who is currently staying at his aunt’s country house. Merteuil strikes a deal: if Valmont provides her with written proof of his seduction of the Présidente, as well as seducing Cecile, he will earn one more night in her arms. Valmont accepts, and the scene is thus set for the liaisons of the title, and their fatal consequences.
Having first devoured this some 35 years ago, two things struck me most about returning to the work: that (amongst other things) libertinism is, at its heart, a radical ideological attack on the Catholic church; and that the novel depicts scenes of unequivocal queer desire.
Letter 71, for example, has Valmont describing a magnificently convoluted erotic farce at the chateau of one of his lovers. After a night of passion with Valmont, her other lover, Vressac, appears:
“The two lovers kissed and I was kissed by them both in return. I was no longer interested in the Vicomtesse’s kisses, but I admit that I took pleasure in Vressac’s. We left together. And once I had received his long expressions of gratitude we each went back to our beds.”
In another sequence, Cecile writes to Sophie:
“It seems to me that I love [Merteuil] more how I love Danceny than how I love you, and sometimes I wish she were him.”
Merteuil’s Letter 81 is a savage indictment against the blinding powers of patriarchy. Widowed (fortuitously, she would argue) at a young age, she has navigated the world as a woman by cultivating a profound inscrutability – even self-harming in order to practise maintaining her poise and demeanour. She takes lovers, but only once she has the upper hand:
“I have perceived that there is no one without a secret which it is in his interest never to reveal.”
This is a novel of extraordinary power and scandal, said to have been one of the driving forces in the fervour of the French Revolution itself. It is a novel of tremendous pain: of the grotesque inequalities both between the sexes and the social classes; of the solitude of loveless marriages, and of the sheer overwhelming power of mutual sexual attraction in a society laced with taboos. And it is a novel of abuse: of women by men; of young people by older people, and of servants by their masters and mistresses.
It is also a novel that, like all the best ones, leaves us wanting more. In a footnote to the final letter, Laclos teases:
“We cannot at the moment give our readers the subsequent adventures of Mademoiselle de Volanges, nor can we give any account of the sinister events that crowned the misfortunes and completed the punishment of Madame de Merteuil. Perhaps some day we shall be permitted to finish this work…”
The subject of numerous adaptations – films; a ballet; an opera - this is a classic novel that bears rereading time and time again.
*Quotations are taken from Helen Constantine’s excellent translation for Penguin Classics.