Dear friends and readers,
Over the last few weeks I’ve read a reasonable biography of Sade, Francine du Plessix-Grey’s At Home with the Marquis, and some of his works, including three novels: La Marquise de Gange, Eugenie de Franval, Justine; and two philosophical dialogues: Philosophy of the Boudoir, and a Dialogue between a Dying Man and a Priest. My argument is that Sade is both egregiously over-execrated but also egregiously over-praised.
Another way of looking at this blog is it’s about my adventures reading about and a few of the works of the famed Donatien de Sade. In the first half I discuss his little-known late gothic novella (based on a real life notorious court case), La Marquise de Gange. In the second half I summarize and review Francine du Plessix-Grey’s At Home with the Marquis de Sade (Chez Sade). The comments offer a few notes on his other works, calling attention to a gem, Eugenie de Franval.
Both La Marquise de Gange and Eugenie de Franval are instances of attempts at the female gothic. Justine is written in the tradition of heroine’s texts in the era, where the authors are men in drag. Another shorter earlier novella, Miss Henrietta Stalson, is a third book combining these modes.
Plessix-Gray’s book was sold as woman’s look at Sade, and especially providing insights about his wife. It is a book by a woman certainly, but is written to a stereotypical formula, exonerating Pelagie (Sade’s wife) as ignorant and presenting her as sexually enthralled by Sade, both of which seem to me preposterous views to take — even if they are common.
If the reader is interested in anther ‘take’ on Sade: how he’s viewed and used in the movie, Quills, see “a horror and biopic film”.
Marquise de Gange: the horror of life
I finished this novella yesterday and have mixed feelings about it. In brief, it begins as an imitation of Lafayette’s La Princesse de Cleves, which turns into philosophical debate structured like Milton’s Comus (versus the Lady) and towards becomes a novel imitating Richardson’s Clarissa, with a female villain reminiscent of Madame de Merteuil. (One of the villain-heroes of Eugenie is called Valmont.)
I read the article by Mary Trouille which I recommended here: “Good and Evil, Faith & irreligion in Marquise de Grange. Trouille divides groups reading this novella into three: 1) a 2nd rate text by an aging author; 2) a parody of sentimental, moralistic novels, nihilistic in outlook, a pastiche of the maudlin popular lit of the time; she belongs to 3) a third: she argues the novel stands up to an analysis as a seriously intended questioning work, and says Sade does feel sympathy for the victim-heroine.
Towards the end she does acknowledge or somewhat reverse, when she describes the novel as a series of episodes (kidnapping, piracy, imprisonment, tricks), comic effect despite brutality and ugliness of motives; that he took a sadistic pleasure in writing the account. She acknowledges a fundamental discontinuity between tone and structure at the novel’s core: Sade’s La marquise de Gange is a parodic gothic fiction superimposed on historical novel based on court documents and chronicle accounts
It pains me to disagree with her, but my take combines positions 1 and 2) that is, while Sade shows sympathy for the victim heroine, this is both a 2nd rate work because he didn’t work hard enough on it and is more of a parody, ultimately (if you think about it) a send up of many popular elements and (because Sade is tactless and reveals connections others keep off the page) insightful about some of these. Part of the last sequence shows Sade’s marquise is a kind of Clarissa but it cannot be read consistently from that point of view. I find the dialogue on marriage at the center of the Lady and Comus debate actually more central to the work’s gothicism than the one on the existence of God and experience of nature as evil between the Abbe and the Marquise.
The heroine, Euphrasie (Diane in real life) does stand for the horror of existence and he does identify with her — her and the abbe both. When she is abducted, escapes from prison and finds herself in a hideous storm, without shelter, inappropriate clothes and someone approaches, what can she do but shudder. This is 1813, consider what Sade had really seen and participated in, no need for the exaggerated theatrical tortures of Quills:
“. . . un bruit se fait entendre; on approche. L’interessante et trist creature ne sait si elle doit ou desirer ou craindre ce qui parait se diriger vers elle. Que me voulez-vous? s’ecrie-t-elle. Est-ce moi que vous cherchez? Si c’est pourm’immoler, laissez-moi plutot mourir ici; le ciel exaucerta mes voeux, and j’aime mieux perir par sa main que part la votre …” (p. 236)
Primogeniture is exposed as a pernicious influence: so the husband, the marquis’s two brothers talk, one to the other hard to be so dependent on marquis (p 210-11). All need that inheritance from grandfather but suppose she leave it to son. Their business to blacken the woman comes from this need to weaken her position in society so as to get her husband to get her to leave disposition of property to him, then they can get the “rest” — a share.
Fascinating: one portrait of a woman suborned to trick the countess is frank portrait of a Madame de Merteuil. Madame de donis is a woman all believe virtuous but actually amoral, very dangerous says Sade. What emerges here is how some men believe in this spider woman: Sade really cannot conceive women are not hungry for sex with men and want to trap them and are hypocrites. (I find this idea in Pope). Madame de Merteuil is apparently what men believe is true of women (they love sex as men practice it, for power especially, and hide it, they are ever entrapping men), p216; Donis good friend of Marquise and mother, persuades her to win back her husband by behaving as a sexy mistress – not likely psychologically p 219-20; she falls into a trap, man she approaches not her husband, her husband watching and castigates her and there is Donis backing him up
The novella begins as an imitation of Lafayette’s La Princesse de Cleves! The same portrait of a past court life, only in this case instead of 16th century, Henri II, we are in the later 17th century, or just before, with the regency of Louis XIII. The same build up of see how beautiful and polished and sophisticated are these people, with just an edge of “in” historical references, before we move on to our little group of characters.
The marquise is introduced indirectly too: a pawn in a game of marriage. She is not called Diane (her actual name) but Euphrasie, and we are told how beautiful and virtuous she was. She is first Mlle de Rossan, and married to the Marquis de Castellane; he dies. She meets and marries again, an excellent match from his wealth; the marquis is thought to be good husband material and off to his province they go.
But it’s also a conte and there is this strange undercurrent or outbreaks of sudden scathing sarcasm and harsh reactions of burning irritation. This is a hard book to translate even roughly because Sade’s French is vigorous and tightly put together so the sentence structure is very different from English; he has been influenced by Latin and writes in nouns plus his tone switches.
So, for example, in the preface we are told this is an edifying story and you see it’s so painful to him to offer a happy crime (a crime which goes unpunished, which in effect Ganges did) if we cannot show that fate corrected the event, that he has softened the facts so as not to distress the virtuous and also to have a virtuous moral (it’s at this point the irony becomes unmistakable), he doesn’t say everything (one does not tell all). Thus our author not to shake hope, “si consolant pour la vertu, que ceux qui l’ont persecutee doivent infailliblement l’etre a leur tour.”
It’s so consoling for virtue to know that those who have been persecuted infallibly persecute in turn.
Yes how consoling is that thought. Our heroine persecuted no one, and to say her complicit mother (for having married her to this man and also not doing anything about what she was told for ever so long) did is absurd. Sade is thinking of what he experienced and saw in the 1790s. Remember my posting on counter-revolutionary politics.
There are a lot of over-the-top phrases which break the serene surface, sudden brutalities and I just feel someone grinning. Oh this unfortunate woman. On the way to the province, she has a bad dream. Oh dear, it’s bad enough what is to come, but must one be made miserable by prophecies.
At one point he likens his tale to a conte and can’t resist calling Voltaire “un sot.” Voltaire’s tales it seems are amusing and meant to be so. And what an credulous person was Voltaire if he thought to reason when he should have laughed, and “si ses attaques sont devenues pour nous des triomphes, c’est que la verite qui convainc [sic] l’homme sage ne fait jamais rire que les sots.”
If Voltaire’s attacks are today read as triumphs, the truth which convinces the wise man only makes imbeciles laugh. Bitter, Sade is bitter. So after all this is not a Lafayette romance.
At the same time look at the league he has put his novella in. He knows Lafayette’s romance is a masterpiece (or considered so) and partners himself with Voltaire.
Reading on through the first half of this novel. It’s disappointing. It’s much inferior to both Genlis’s Duchess of C****** and Smith’s Montalbert. To give himself a story and entertainment instead of resorting to the documentary facts (which are only really central to the retelling of this story popularly in 20th century versions), like Genlis and Smith he invents: but his invention is a fabliau type story of the Abbe trying to trick the Marquise into going to bed with others. Silly masculinist stuff. It reminds of plays where people get into the wrong bed or Renaissance chapbook matter. It’s hard to tell what his attitudes are: he does not seem to identify with the Abbe or the Marquise. This excuses him to make him jealous. In reality he was simply a vicious horror. These stories of love intrigues and sexual jealousy (including one I happen to be reading from the Victorian era, Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right) have the effect of deflecting, displacing attention from the basic cruelty for its own sake, as a result of power, at the core of the story.
On line at ECCO I found that Charlotte Smith’s Romance of Real life is available. This is a three volume redaction, abridgement and translation of the popular court cases that were read avidly in France — and Smith’s book sold well. We can say now that Austen probably knew the story of the Marquise de Ganges. (It has an “s” in all versions but Sade’s). Smith comes closer to stating the facts than most but she, following her source, attributes erotic/sexual love to the brothers’ desire to destroy the Marquise. Smith centers their hatred in the Marquise’s inheritance: like Clarissa, the Marquise stands to and does inherit an enormous property from her grandfather and she is murdered for it. Basically she is tricked, isolated and then dies a slow death from poison. The village finds out about it and the three men are sought.
In Smith’s version (from Gayot), the husband and one of the brothers is punished; the Abbe goes to Amsterdam and slowly rehabitates himself. Hers is a better version than Sade’s for it least tries to center on the truth, and she brings up (but skirts away from) the terrible humiliations and beatings the Marquise endured. She makes no attempt to titillate and does not enjoy violence.
I do have the second half to go and things are getting very bad for the Marquise at this point in the tale: the husband no longer pretends to love her, and he is driven wildly jealous. According to Trouille, Sade does enjoy retelling the vicious cruelties so I suppose I will be going through that this afternoon.
I don’t want to discount Sade altogether. I’ve started Radcliffe’s Sicilian romance and while on the surface this novella (again a very short book) is beautiful, the attitude of mind is on the conscious level repressive and foolishly sentimental with the characters utterly wooden. Sade does make fun of this in his tale: he is sending up these gothic tales through the ironies of his narrator. But intrinsically he has no real sympathy for the victims, mostly women. He sees the world as evil, and the thing a victim has to do is protect herself; there’s a great problem how, and I suppose if he were ever for reform for real, this is what he’d say reform is for.
Second half: What mish-mash. The last thing Sade cares about is a woman’s powerlessness, though he is engaged by the experience someone imprisoned has. Half-way through the book, Chapter 6, the wicked Abbe (Theodore) stage-manages a false scene so the (convenient) dupe, Villefranche, once again fooled into thinking that the Marquise is anxious, eager to go to bed with him, charges after her in a peculiarly compromising position. Abbe has the Marquise’s husband set up where he can see this, and the Marquis attacks, murders and then throws into the sea Villefranche.
The Abbe is a kind of Iago with the Marquis playing Othello. Now at long last he’s convinced his wife is unfaithful and he allows the Abbey to imprison her. Then we get the oddest long chapter: the Abbe has the Marquise alone in the house, in prison and attempts to seduce her. He is trying to get her to go to bed with him by first the carrot and then stick formulas. His agent is her servant, Rose. What emerges is a Miltonic Comus v the lady debate. They debate issues. He’s for divorce as marriage is a pact and surely the Marquis has broken his bargain. The marquise of course will not have this — marriage is for bringing up children. It is a debate that was going on in the 1790s and (as Mary Trouille shows) for about 7 years some of the most liberal positions promulgated until the 20th century were law in France — alas not custom and never accepted and then turned back.
Repeatedly they debate whether there is a God, and nature of existence as evil. The reader sees through this as a ruse to get Marquise to go to bed with Abbe.
Story sometimes strips the Marquise of all but a pallet of straw; at other times she has books, papers, desk, bed, all she could want. None of this is visualizedn or are we made to feel much of Marquise’s agony — except once in a while a powerful description of her screaming or in distress as she is frustrated by these games but dare not break out and cannot run away. There are effective descriptions of the tedium & meaninglessness of life in prison, a real sense of it, but these are short. They reflect Sade’s own experience, but unlike Genlis he’s not interested in this. Genlis was asked if she were ever in prison and she said not, that she imagined it. Genlis’s book was written in the 1780s well before she fled the terror and lived hand-to-mouth in fear. Marquise of Gange was published 1813 well after the terror.
Sade’s narrator begins to present the Marquise de Gange as a type of Clarissa: wholly virtuous, an example to us all, rather like Milton’s Lady.
Another chapter and the Marquise’s mother. Mme de Chateaublanc comes to see her daughter. She is not only forbidden but we are asked to believe the mother submits to be shut up. She has brought the marquise’s son and the marquise is not permitted to see him at all. Here the gothic conventions just creak. It’s moving when the Marquise grieves, but it’s not probable at all. but Sade wants this. The Abbe does all he can to lie to each woman but neither believes him.
At this point the narrative made me think of Pauline Reage’s famous pornographic Story of O – which I have read the first sequence of. It has women locked up in different places like Mother and daughter here. All for the delectation of the men. Then the woman submit to whatever the men want. What’s missing here is the sexual porn. It belongs here somehow but he has not written it — or pulled it out?
Then Rose, the servant helps them to try to reach one another and we get this labyrinthine sequence, in dim light of course, pure female gothic, but then the abbe’s evil accomplice, Perret catches them and Rose is to be badly punished, but before that can happen the grandfather has died. The Marquis writes and says we have to free them and regain their confidence so they can inherit and change the will to leave it all to us instead of his son. The woman are relieved to be freed — Abbe keeps his lies up.
They pass through Avignon and that gives Sade a chance to paint France: as this degenerate corrupt society, bad or no tax system, lazy do-nothing people. This is a powerful satirical allegory.
Chapter 9 we return to social satire and in a Clarissa situation. The marquise stands to inherit from her grandfather and will not alter the will to leave the money after herself to her son. If she does of course that leaves the room clear for the Marquis and Abbe and Chevalier (the third brother) to kill her and inherit. The third brother has reason to hate her too because when he tried to seduce her in the early part of the book (under instructions from the Abbe) she made fun of him we are told (in front of others), humiliated him, but in the manner of minor and some major 18th century fiction, such scenes are not dramatized so are not felt enough.
The Marquis now refuses to remember all the hideous suspicions and treatment she has had from her husband, the Abbe or the Chevalier. She insists on saying she can see only good and she even deserved to be suspected.
Basically Sade has an outline of real story and larded it with his interests but kept having to come back in order to stick to the “facts” as he read them in the Causes Celebres publications of court cases in the era. It’s the length of a typical woman’s novel of the era and to some extent stays with the outward conventions, but as he has no interest in them he fills it otherwise. I have read that he said the best gothic novel written in his era was Lewis’s Monk, but he hasn’t got what it takes to write that kind of gothic and not be pornographic.
There are two roues, duc de Caderousse, duc de Valbelle, whom Sade appears to condemn outright (most virtuously) (p 224); both older sons, utterly amoral, they agree to play along and help provide evidence to prove Marquise unfaithful and irresponsible.
Invited by mother of one of these roues to a ball, the Marquise shines as in the opening of the story, then invited for a repast by Caderousse; she is drugged and abducted; finds herself in prison, she escapes, storm, she runs out, found by two men who drag her back to room and then her husband’s valet. As the novel opened, we were told he was a bad man; he is now in Caderousse’s service, having quit Marquis de Grange over some “petty” resentment, p 237
But then Sade provides a joke moral (as does Austen so often): while the valet and Marquise flee and she is followed, she says the moral is “the slightest imprudence can entangle an “honnete femme,” p 242 (inveigle, sweep away) and where is she taken but a room where the marquis her husband is 243.
She is blamed by all three men but then taken to Avignon and again treated decently, and urged to change the will to make her husband the executor. When she sees her mother, her first words are this is a dangerous plan then; and don’t trust him; she doesn’t want to give administration of will over to Marquis de Grange because she wants her grandson to inherit; she says humor him basically. p 246
Then we get what I think is a straight imitation of Clarissa: Sade has read it and is imitating: Mother has to go to Avignon about case, leaves no address; Marquise disquieted to be left alone even for a brief time, pp 256-57. Letter arrives from mother asking her to come to her; she’s ill; hurries into coach and find relative of Valbelle, arrives and finds no mother,p 260; they are putting her off and she becomes disquieted, sits down — like Clarissa brought back to the brothel (Clary so much more obvious reason to be in distress), p 262; she manages to get out to a quai (good description of one, ironical visualization of everyone negotiating,seeking advantage) but she knows this is a trick to blacken her reputation, p 264; she is surrounded, forced into carriage (just about) by idea her mother waiting for her (will not take potage) but it’s useless, now we are in another isolated mansoin, surrounded by hedges, and she is far away from help, p 266.
So we are in a gothic house and world. The marquise is fooled, terrified, bullied. Now it’s Valbelle who attempts her virtue; these continual aggressive assaults grow tiresome because each person new and situation the same. He can’t think what else to fill in? Valbelle threatens her with Africa; they will put her off there.
As with Clarissa the women in the house are not the upper class ladies but disguised servants (or promiscuous women) and when Valbelle leaves one, Julie, offers to help her escape, p 270; she is told yet more lies about her mother being nearby and why she is not taken there as yet
Then a pretend pirate scene (!); she is removed to a house of prostitution where a deposition signed that she was there and had sex with someone; and finally she is taken back to Avignon and her mother and she tells her mother what happened; mother says it’s all lies to prove her incompetent
All three brothers (including husband, Alphonse) hear of this and decide no more kid gloves; so time to bully the marquise (and if possible) through her her mother into submission; but they will first pretend all love and trust; Alphonse himself comes and Marquise delighted; her mother believes their new ploy has worked and Brothers don’t know; reception and 2 months of good behavior leave the Marquise now believing.
Now her mother gone, the chevalier says no need to have it in trust, why not just leave it to your husband (fatal moment) she does, p 285
But mother had made the previous will set up so no subsequent change can be made (fearing just this sort of thing); so the Abbe curses out the chevalier and says we have to blacken her; now plot is to have her seem to kill herself; gather false proofs. We get retelling of all their tricks in a way that presents her as incapable; they will demand she rescind her mother’s will, but if not no pity at all anyway. p. 288
So Marquis demands this rescinding the next day; she is sweet and tranquil but says no as this is against her honor and duty
The narrator then bursts out with a sudden execration and calling on furies as he says he now has to tell of these terrible scenes and that they are true. The language is over-the-top and feel comic: “O furies des enfers! …” It feels like he’s poking fun.
She grows ill, calls for apothecary, terrible stuff brought and she instead has some pills; she dines gaily with ladies but then into her room come brothers will pistol and sword and say either she drinks this (arsenic laced) concoction or they will brutally murder her with pistol and sword.
Sade gives us the feeling she drank the stuff so quickly because she was tired of life with these horrors around her: “c’est m’obliger que de hater la fin des mes tourments; en avalant la mort dans ce vase, je ne verrai plus mes bourreaux” when narrator asks if God can permit a crime to such a woman he is hinting she chose to die.
On one level, the book has all the stupidity of a popular work: going to culminate in horrific murders to amuse/titillate; the idea is to hold off and there he provides titillation; literature as masturbation. On the other, Here and there one feels were he trying he could write so much better, p 249 — a number of utterances now and again of tremendous force and scepticism, sardonic.
The book reveals a writer who could have written a masterpiece but hadn’t the respect for himself or the world to bother because a lifetime of experience had suggested to him it would not be appreciated by anyone. He was wrong for he certainly has had a strong fan club in the 20th century, as Du Plessix-Gray reveals.
Plessix-Grey’s Chez Sade, ending on a comparison of Sade’s life and Kaufman-Wright-Chasman’s Quills
Like other biographers of Sade, Plessix-Grey begins with a depiction of the ancien regime and his family (sine qua non for understanding Sade). She assumes a smooth tone in which she outlines this sordid and miserable crew of powerful minor nobility and their vicious lives and motives in order to present a pleasant surface. I recognize this world as the core of the ancien regime — mildly reflected in Austen’s milieu too. It makes the revolution look very refreshing. What a rotten crew this boy was born too — Donatien Alphonse Francois, Marquis or Count de Sade, an only son (he was just five feet two), later in life obese.
Suffice to say that when one looks at the debaucheries of the uncle whose house he was brought up in, his mother’s life as a sycophant at court and the way she was used by the father — she had sex with him in front of his mistress as the price of the marriage — the schools he went to, pulled out rapidly to be put in the military, it’s a wonder he turned out no worse. In the opening pages, one does see the source of his hatred or at least discomfort around women (he had no solid loving strong mother type near him, only female sycophants of his father and uncle) and cold distant enactment of maleness. There was a kindly decent educated abbe uncle and here and there one spots someone who might be endurable and have taught the boy some values — certainly he had access to a great library, and read much of the famous enlightenment books.
Once Sade comes on the stage the book improves: the smooth language, superlatives, and great gap between the activities before us and Plessix-Grey’s tone ceases. Sade’s own tone comes out. Pressured intensely by his father, he marries a woman who learns to love him and for a while is a an exemplary husband and son-in-law — for the in-laws in this world count. He is in effect bought for his ancient title and rank by a rich bourgeois family; the mother-in-law and he would famously become enemies.
The first scandals erupt when he pretends to go to court to solicit positions (this is what passes for “good” behavior) and instead goes to one of his several hideaways and terrifies a prostitute out of her wits. The incident is bizarre because of his really juvenile like rantings against religion and rituals of impiety mixed with sex, but it goes beyond this. There is (I hesitate use words which badmouth and stigmatize out of a notion there is a norm or present norms are good) something awry in this man’s psyche; he is not psychologically well. He must have seemed mad and the prostitute and madam went direct to the police, big as his rank was, and he was arrested. Only the rank and connections of his relatives set him free.
Plessix-Grey has not warmed to her hero — he’s not easy to warm, but she likes his wife, Pelagie. There is something unusual about Pelagie, but Plessix-Grey does not get to the bottom of it. Her account is at once implicitly salacious and unbelievable. I find (like Gillian Gill in a review she wrote for the Women’s Review of Books) that Plessix-Grey is repeating stereotypical accounts which seek to absolve Pelagie by presenting her as this docile wife who simply accepted Sade’s lies. Plessix-Grey suggests Pelagie was just sexually enthralled by this man. As the story proceeds, we see she facilitated and helped Sade commit some of his most egregious attacks on vulnerable women and her loyalty to him was strongest when they were apart. When he finally got out of prison at the revolution, she began proceedings for divorce.
This distortion at the very center of the book signals a failure of imagination and laziness (or discretion and that’s worse for then we are into lies) matched by the way she treats the people Sade abused. There is a strong tendency here to dismiss people who were servants, prostitutes, workers.
Why is Sade (justifiably if somewhat unfairly when we think of other monsters not called that at all) treated as a pariah and repeatedly put in prison. His mother-in-law could not have pulled this off, given who he was (his family, rank, connections), had he not each time freed acted violently and abusively to women mostly, but also some powerless men. Chapters 5 (The First Outrage), 8 (Easter Sunday, the Keller case), and 10 (The Orgy, sometimes referred to as “Little girls” as if prostitutes were not women) tell only what got into police records.
Plessix-Grey compares favorably with Schaeffer and Lever throughout. The way to read her is critically and against the grain and with a sense of humor as I go. She does have far more caustic remarks than Lever, and if he will include more details (such how all Sade’s paternal aunts but one were thrown into nunneries to in effect rot ignorantly), she has others that are intriguing and bring this milieu to life.
She writes novelistically. The three chapters tell of the repercussions of the Arcueil or Keller incident. As Sade’s more intelligent relatives saw, his behavior was picked up as useful for the growing strong sentiments that led to the revolution, to curb not just the egregious abuses of power of the nobles, but to curb the power itself, to change its basis. He became notorious because of the bizarre blasphemous behavior he exhibited and inflicted on others, and the extremity of the distasteful punishments he inflicted on others. After all he did not maim himself.
He himself learned no such lesson from his behavior. His mother-in-law got him off through a lettre de cachet, the king’s justice. Had he had had to take the route of the parlements he could have gone to jail for much longer. But she could not save his reputation; he himself like his father before him was no net-worker; in fact he lived a rather solitary life and preferred the company of people below the rank of the bourgeois; his wife also preferred the company of people below. rank. This was a tie.
To make short the long tangled (and instructive about France at the time) story of how he was gotten off, spent time in a prison where he was given such full liberty that he got his wife pregnant again, and returned to La Coste (his favorite estate mansion in Provence), I’ll stress how 1) his mother said to be so indifferent was instrumental in helping him (though to protect her one reputation), and 2) how all agreed that the hurts he inflicted on the women were nothing different than others nobles did; and 3) once freed he again was able to play the role of an exemplary son-in-law, father, husband and landlord since this long stretch does not match what he does just after. The long stretch also includes his setting up two theaters and doing full and expensive local productions, as if he were running a playhouse and everyone he comes across exists to be in his company or perform as an audience. It’s remarkable to think how he gets everyone into the act. The money spent was enormous though.
Plessix-Gray calls this chapter “A Winter in Provence” and it’s a pleasure to read. Sade does start a liaison with his wife’s youngest sister — all the letters have been destroyed. His uncle the Abbe also joins in. We see how his wife knows all that is going on (despite Plessix-Grey’s assertions not — I’m beginning to think she says this to please the people who provide her sources, i.e., the living Sade people). The material about which plays and how they are put up on stage is fun to read
And so the stretch ends. Why? he returns to Marseilles supposedly to find loans and deal with debts. But what does he do? Within that first day he’s at the brothel with his valet and within a week he has again behaved atrociously, dangerously and crazily to a group of prostitutes. I can hardly get myself to read the details of what he inflicted on them: it’s so sickening, honest. Scatological, having to do withe the excretory system. It’s this accompanied by the juvenile kind of blasphemous tricks that made people really pause.
The women went to the police. They were terrified and horrified. And so I am up to the poor mother-in-law being dragged in again. She has written all sorts of letters to the Abbe trying to enlist him to control his nephew; she has become thoroughly aware of how broke Sade is — how like Becky and Rawdon (Thackeray’s Vanity Fair) he lives through the hopeless hope of creditors.
Ch 12: On the Lam
Sade escapes from Miolans; if you look at the photo, you may think this was no mean feat. He didn’t lack for friends from the lower classes, and the Marquise, his wife, welcomed him back to La Coste. On the Lam seems a wee bit inappropriate since his returned to his lair, oops home. He can get away with this because he’s upper class; this is the ancien regime folks.
But his mother-in-law, the redoutable Mme de Monteuil has had enough; he and his wife are spending hugely while at home. They redo the castle (renovation is such fun), order gourmet foods in great quantities, and feed all. Mme de Montreuil paid herself out of pocket to bribe a huge band of police to do their duty; the assault failed; Sade’s wife, pragmatic bourgeois remember (think of the type Meg Tilly played in Forman’s Valmont where she as Madame de Tourvel becomes a canny survivor). There were some betrayals: Fage, Sade’s notary, and Sade’s uncle, the Abbe (utterly untrustworthy man); the mother-in-law tried a lettre de cache and it look months for the order to be processed; Pelagie went to Paris to defeat that.
Who is fighting who here? I see a mother-daughter struggle. Sade between two women. Sade and his favorite valet remind me of Don Giovanni and Leporello in the latest opera buffe I saw this year on HD opera: a comic routine that is very sad too — only here we must not forget (Plessix-Grey does in part) what Sade and his valet can do to the powerless.
When they won (Sade and his wife) they proceeded (as Plessix-Grey says) “to throw all caution to the winds” at La Coste. They spent big, they transgressed with yet more scandals; he did plays again. Plessix-Gey is revealing and informative about them, how they are done, what they were like: witty, sceptical, disillusioned, erotic.
Chs 12-15; the biter bit; the years in prison start
At this point we move into a psychoanalytical analysis of the man. I agree that something was not right: he exhibits extreme schizophrenic behavior: for stretches an exemplary husband, father, writer, maker of plays, and then an egregiously cruel sadist who revels in bizarre mockeries of the church worthy a 13 year old. Two personalities were at war. One half-mad and the other quite reasonable and even decent (he could be very generous and decent to tenants — as long as they stayed in line of course), and the writing is interesting, very. And the other side of this is a fight to the death over living the life in them between Pelagie and her mother (Sade’s mother-in-law).
Among two pages of plausible paragraphs attached to little bullets with labels that are italicized (i.e., “infantile anxiety”), plausible that is if you accept the portraits of his mother as cold, mean and indifferent, his father as worse and so on, is this hilarious (to me) one:
“In every woman there is a potential for destruction and revenge that is part of a far greater communal energy. It erupts [yet] whenever men threaten the structure of the hearths women ahve patiently built over the millennia and menace the calm, conservative harmony of family life. Few are summoned to unleash this force. But when they do, women’s tumult of rage, their “blood-dimmed tide,” as Aeschylus called it, is terrifying in its power, because it is deeply encrusted in the bed of childbirth, in the archaic impulse to protect the future of their young. And that is why it is so often successful. “
Plessix-Grey’s been reading too many Greek tragedies, this lady. Johnson told Boswell not to think cant if he does repeat it; here we have Plessix-Grey writing mystical cant.
These chapters take us up to where the law in the person of Inspector Marais and a band of powerful men finally caught up with Sade (and his wife) in Paris and clapped him into the Bastille.
What led up to this? While at La Coste, Sade’s last escapades (as they are called) included snatching and luring another bunch of adolescent girls and subjecting them to the same terrifying horrific disgusting practices, whippings, scourging. Anal intercourse was the minimum. One got pregnant. Here where’s I began to feel the opening gambit where Plessix-Grey said Sade’s wife knew nothing of all this was a sop to his family, pro-Sade types, and whoever else might be offended. This story suggests to me how it was overtime that the ancien regime be brought down, and I can see why some would say the guillotine was long overdue.
It was a real difficulty to have put this man away. He operated out of la Coste, his lair, and was supported by all sorts of people who identified. He traveled twice to Italy, but not with impunity.
And here’s where the comedy and moral comes in (and my header comes in): if Sade’s life and activities and how he was getting away with all this, and living luxuriously (overspending for things like harpischords — a man must have a harpischord even if there is no glass in his windows) exemplifies how evil (=harm to others, great harm) and lousy (=corrupt) and unsafe was the ancien regime, so when he went to Italy he found himself getting a taste of his own medicine. He was almost put away because of the powerful corrupt networks in Naples. He cursed and despised the Neapolitans in his writing, but they returned the attitude and the vicious machinery of throwing people in jail who are nobodies in the particular crony system was got up against him, and he had to disguise himself and run away.
Sade returns to Provence to resume his usual activities. Another harem, more violence, but this time a father became enraged and got up close and shot (blanks) Sade through the chest. This scared Sade (he was a cowardly kind of sadist — Plessix-Grey calls him a “non-violent sadist” — depends how you define violence). Plessix-Grey says the father “does not seem to have been the most stable of fellows.” You hear her tone there.
Well how could this be? How horrifying. An aristocrat like himself, shot in his own house? what are things coming to? Sade became very upset. Frightened, and broke, he and Pelagie travel to Paris to get justice! his mother had also died and pace all the talk against her he sorrowed over it and wanted to see her into the grave.
And so he was captured. His untrustworthy uncle and his mother-in-law set the trap.
Plessix-Grey’s description of the Bastille does not make light of the place (Sade is her hero). It was dreadful. So much anti-French revolution propaganda makes light of this place. Thick thick walls, no light, chains for many, no food that was decent unless you had money, this was a horrible horrible hellhole for many. Sade did not endure the worst of it as he had money and connections and was given a room where he could be minimally comfortable, read, and write and eat and he proceeded to do so, with walks in the courtyards.
We get a picture of this man in prison, his wife frantic to get to him every order of food, medicine, books, he wants and how he wants his children. The letters start: his wife has no time for the children now, so preoccupied is she with helping him to be comfortable and the mother-in-law is now the mainstay once again. We read of Mirabeau’s correspondence — incarcerated during this time.
Sade would (ironically) be freed at the fall of the Bastille, but for a very short time. He was almost killed, and missed it because he was switched to another prison, but that’s for another day.
Chs 17-18: recaptured, imprisoned, but much-vaunted letters dull
Pretty quickly (the next chapter) his connections — and that dreaded mother-in-law’s heroic efforts — freed him to return to Provence. The uncle-abbe dies, un-mourned by anyone.
Whereupon we again get a short period of exemplary behavior — accompanied by vast spending. Where he gets these people to lend him money I don’t know, or he has access to endless rents (probably the latter) from his wife’s family.
I am by the way on the mother-in-law’s side all the way. She keeps writing her daughter to stop this extravagant spending.
What happens outwardly is Sade got off. What’s ironic is the way he was got off is totally unjust: the women he had abused were paid huge sums to lie and say there had been no sodomy and all had been exaggeration. He misbehaved so was captured and put back into prison. And the way he was put back in prison was also totally unjust: la President de Montreuil (to give his mother-in-law her full title) bribed yet more people who were powerful and would act out a lettre de cachet and he was thrown into Vincennes, a fortress very difficult to escape from.
The second would no longer happen after the revolution of 1789 when lettres de cachet (sometimes called the King’s Justice or Law) were abolished.
This super-powerful mother-in-law then manages to terrify and bully her daughter into living in a convent in Paris, and a friend of Sade’s and hers, Milli de Rousset joins her. They are broke (we are told) except that they are continually putting together these luxurious packages of food and whatever else he wants to Sade. I’m not quite sure how the mother-in-law managed this; it’s skimmed over.
Now we begin to get the prison letters and they include letters to Mlle de Rousset who was a spinster and became an intense confident of Sade. Their relationship at La Coste is said to be filled with badinage and be witty, but none is quoted.
As far as I can see from what’s in this book, these letters are overrated – I am now struck by how many pages of this book I’ve read (up to p 236) and I’ve yet to read an original thought, interesting account of anything by Sade quoted which would justify high respect for him as a thinker or writer. It’s obvious that Plessix-Grey is hampered because she can’t reprint the passages which are basically pornographic but she keeps saying there’s a lot more to Sade than this..
While in Vincennes, he and Mirabeau (also there) got into a very ugly quarrel; Sade despised him as lower in class; he despised Sade as a upper class moribund bully, bankrupt and useless. Of course both had their tempers tried to the utmost in this place — bullies abounded and needled the people in the prison. No adequate walking or any kind of reasonable activities. Both come off badly in this exchange.
Now it may be that because this is a popular biography Plessix-Gray is “not burdening” her book with literary criticism. I do have Levy and can compare eventually and see if he has some analysis and reprints passages which would demonstrate anything of interest. What I do see is someone who either writes exaggerated compliments and fawns and slobbers (over his wife too) or writes these ugly enraged cursing letters (to his wife too). I hope to read Seavers’s edition of the letters in prison and would be glad to find I am wrong.
He does know what is a well-balanced diet. We have the lists of the foods he asks his wife for and it shows all the food groups and is moderate. Alas he had a terrible weakness for sweets and cakes and these things he ate in great quantities and got no exercise.
Plessix-Grey is aware of the dullness and pettiness of the letters and is excusing them when she says we ought to compare them to other letters prisoners have written, most of which are pretty bad. Yes. But not all. How about Havel’s beautiful letters. Cervantes wrote Don Quixote and Auerbach Mimesis.
But it may be that they improve and in later periods of imprisonment (Charenton) Sade will begin to write something worth while reading and reading about.
I’ve been thinking after all Walter Scott was probably a worse person than Donatien (de) Sade. Last all I read and wrote about and made a blog about John Sutherland’s book on Walter Scott. True, Sade attacked individual people directly and hurt some of them very much. Scott on the other hand, was directly vicious to those in his family who acted generously and were good people because he wanted them to do all they could to aggrandize the family; as a judge he put people away for vicious reasons, he worked to push all sorts of reactionary causes (and successfully); he even engineered a duel as I recall to support a Tory publication which slandered liberal types. Sade could be and was very kind to family members; he was good to many tenants, to his servants; he helped people and what he wrote was not in defense of tyranny.
John Sutherland’s Scott tries to redeem Scott on the grounds and the way sensitive readers understood his writings. Scott left a remarkable legacy which influenced others worthily.
The children, Charenton, the necklace. Plessix-Grey takes us through Sade’s attempts to control how his children will be brought up — not very likely this. We see something of the conditions of life at Charenton to which he is taken. Unsurprisingly (to me) Plessix-Grey retells the story of the necklace very well: she is a gifted popularizer who does not dumb down too much, is not lurid, has an eye for the important detail, conveys what this was an important event so widely circulated and harmful to Antoinette’s reputation. Necker’s dismissal — another important moment in the fall of the monarchy and ancien regime – and not unrelated to said necklace.
Things began to calm down between mother and daughter as the years start to pass and Sade could not indulge himself in long horrible orgies or spend extravagantly.
Ch 23: reading, writing
In these chapters we learn about Sade’s reading and writing but there is very little analysis, just general description, especially of Aline and Valcour, which is autobiographical and has Pelagie’s observations in it. So it’s disappointing. She agrees with all three reviewers that Sade is best seen in these short works, a short novel like La Marquis de Granges and the Philosophy in the Boudoir. And I can see that (if it is accurate) Plessix-Grey does include literary analysis and summaries of many of Sade’s works and letters. Many biographers omit this sort of thing! I had a publisher tell me it “drags” the book down and makes for fewer readers.
She does say of 120 Days that “it’s the “crudest, most repellent fictional dystopia ever limned, the creation of a borderline psychotic whose scatological fantasies have grown all the more deranged in the solitude and rage of his jail cell.”
Forbidden Knowledge by Roger Shattuck contains a persuasive (I think) argument against the over-rehabilitation of Sade. It’s not that he is not interesting and worth reading, but that he is an original mind, a victim, or major figure Shattuck is concerned to refute and to show that this emergence tells something ominous about our own era’s callousness and the re-emergence of privileged hierarchies.
Not unsurprisingly, my “bout” with the violent (and yes pornographic)Quills has spurred me to finish Plessix-Grey, especially to get to the chapters about Sade’s Charenton period.
Now the sections where Sade has gotten out of the Bastille and for a while Charenton: he was actually a functioning politician of the republic, very successful, partly because of his strong self-esteem, knowledge of how to manipulate people, personal prestige as an aristocrat (this carries on as one sees in Lampedusa’s masterpiece of the 19450s, an Italian novel set in the rigorismento where a prince after the revolution is the one left standing, a deeply sceptical-conservative, but brilliantly humane work). He gets a new woman to live with, Constance Quetet, nags his attorney with all the old cold ruthlessness he used to pressure Pelagie with (no concern for this man’s lack of money, home, flights, personal life whatever), to get his rents for him, lavish food, even renovates his flat. He was the one who renamed a central part of Paris. Ironies upon ironies in this section.
Pelagie did separate herself from Sade and refuse to give him any money. He did see his two sons, and there was some rapport, but his daughter he depises as “ugly, fat, and boring.” This reminded me of Catherine Slope’s father in Washington Square (Henry James). I quoted this to Jim, my husband, and he laughed and said, “like whom?” Meaning Sade was fat, ugly and boring. He remained fervently in his gut against the revolution and republican principles, he was able to hide this; on one level he was a constitutional monarchist (as were many of the thinking aristocrats, including Stael) but he was also himself deeply subversive because of his own experiences of the law, his temperament. It’s a salutary example (to my mind) of how subversion is nothing in itself to admire.
Here we have by Plessix-Grey’s account of Justine. She argues it’s a Candide where what is exposed is the hypocrisy and ludicrousness of believing in this world virtue is rewarded. Justine is the Pangloss-Candide-Cunegund figure rolled up into one, and when she meets Juliette, the prostitute who is making it big, we are invited to compare. This is not to say the work is not pornographic and crude: Plessix-Grey quotes no passages.
Chs 27-29: Many years free of bizarre horrible acts
Two further chapters on Sade and I am struck by one reality: after the first long incarceration of Sade beginning in 1777 and until the year I’ve gotten up to, 1795 Sade committed no bizarre horrible acts. It will be said, well, most of these were in prison. First, very ugly behavior by aggressive vicious prisoners goes on, and, as far as we know Sade did nothing cruel, ugly, vicious or hurtful to others. Had he, we would probably know about it since he made himself so notorious, and (as people say) alas not for the violence and humiliation and cruelty he inflicted on others (and himself it should be said) but for the stupid childish or bizarre and (to me) silly blasphemies he accompanied his outrages with. I should say it’s these that makes me say he was not well in his mind at all.
And there now have been a number of years outside prison: thanks to the revolution, he was freed for the past 5 years and he lives a more or less common usual life with Constance Quetet to attend to him the way Pelagie did, all the while he interacts a great deal and successfully until he was (like so many) perceived to be another person to be guillotined — he offended by refusing to murder wholesale when he was at the head of committees to do so, he offended by his open atheism, he offended because he was an artisocrat by birth and connected to reactionary and constitutional monarchists, emigres and so on. His is another story of just missing death: in his case his name was not called the day he was to die, probably because on his behalf Constance bribed big an important man (not famous, but very powerful at the time) who a couple of years later Sade sold La Coste to at a bargain price.
I’m amused and sympathetic even when in 1795 without enough income (Pelagie has come out of hiding to get her part of the rents through Sade’s attorney who worked for her too) he can’t get a job! There’s a begging demanding shameless letter from him to someone he is connected to or knows something screeching for work and pay. Feels so contemporary.
I’m enjoying the book now despite Plessix-Grey’s views, very like Schamus, she likes to tell lurid stories of guillotine mass deaths, but has no time for remembering the hideous poverty and mass deaths and despair of hundreds of years before which brought this horrific sudden disappearance of any civilized behavior about. She also enjoys or appears not to mind the ludicrous crude passages in Sade’s books — for he is now filling time with writing — about sex. He loves to write of multiple fuckings, gets a kick out of having heroines who just love to be debauched and then exploited and this is presented by Plessix-Grey in the same tone that she recounts Sade’s few (he does have some) serious ideas that might be paid attention to: like say “the abolition of all dominance in the institution of marriage” (“It’s as unjust to possess a woman exclusively as it is to have slaves”): here you can see her not scrutinizing this idea which on the face of it won’t work since the domination-submission aspect of relationships probably can’t be legislated away, and the wording shows that Sade is still thinking of men as people.
Chez Sade, Chs 30-31
I’ve changed my thinking on Sade to the point where I’m feeling sympathetic towards him. While he did have one outbreak of one of these bizarre sexual encounters where he apparently showed himself aggressively and more than a little mad and dangerous in the last years, it was just the once — and it didn’t go very far. Plessix-Grey mentions this incident in passing and doesn’t detail it. Otherwise though from 1877 to the year of his death Sade behaved more or less normally (whatever that was in this frantic era) and was not a danger to others. He was endangered by others.
The argument excusing him on the grounds that others did the same or worse won’t wash. That excuses no one who has done a serious crime. But he may be sympathized with very much for the injustice of the second imprisonment and today we would not try to stop (or put him in prison for) his writing, however crazily pornographic (and tiresome) at stretches.
The last two chapters include more detailed summaries and analysis of Sade’s books, of the plays he put on, and narrative of his last years. I grew even to like him — for his candor and yes intelligence. The Marquise de Ganges is a late novella, one of several which are not at all pornographic. Plessix-Grey uses the derogatory term “chaste” of it as if it’s lack of porn is a drawback. It has to have sex and violence for the woman was abused and beaten by husband and brothers-in-law — while she was pregnant too if I recall.
I should include some commentary on the supposed bio-pic Quills: the main characters are based on people who existed and even on some of their behavior but it’s wildly exaggerated. Francois Simonet de Coulmiers, the Abbe (from the high bourgeoisie of Burgundy, very well educated man) was deeply empathetic with Sade and an enlightened psychologist for his time, but he was not a tall handsome man in love with the chambermaid and was not thrown in a dungeon by Royer-Collard. Sade found a strong solace in the company of Coulmier in his later years. Coulmiers was a dwarf in stature. Royer-Collard was a hypocritical puritan after power and he did put a stop to the plays and did all he could to put a stop to Sade’s socializing, dining, life with Constance (in the prison) and managed that. He managed that when he replaced Dr Gastaldy, a liberal type first in charage of Charenton. He never did manage to really turn back the clock on some of the psychological improvements Coulmiers made. There was a chambermaid, Madaleine Leclerc, said to be comely; how much of a liaison they had we can’t know but perhaps some. She loved to eat the gourmet food Sade was still provided with, and received bits of money from Sade; think of her as a teenager who knew that Sade was a famous oddly respected and oddly loathed writer. He was sexually jealous about her.
An important love-hate relationship developed with his older son, Louis-Marie who was something of an intellectual equal. Alas, this son predeceased Sade. A central relationship remained Constance who had replaced Pelagie. And Sade’s lawyer, Gaufridy, who Sade nagged and bothered for years for money and help (Gaufridy came to side with Pelagie); a touching letter by Sade towards the end shows Sade appreciated him.
In the book’s epilogue Plessix-Grey summarizes the aftermath of his death and the history of scholarship and printing of Sade in the 20th century and. Napoleon comes up: she suggests he was aware of Sade, but only tangentially — as a type and individual to be dealt with by agents.
An excursis: Among several realities in the books (price, printing history, whether in English or not) I read and films I’ve seen I’d like here to adduce just one: I’ll lay a bet Andrew Davies’s supposed film adaptation of John Cleland’s pornographic Memoirs of a Lady Of Pleasure aka Fanny Hill does not seem to me like Cleland’s harsh, crude and jeeringly homosexual novel (at least that’s how it has come across to me), but Sade’s Justine; or the Misfortunes of Virtue combined with his Philosophy of the Boudoir.
Justine is, just, readable. It’s very like Richardson’s Pamela or (better yet) Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne or say Retif’s La Paysanne Pervertie, one of these 18th century heroine’s texts. Sade’s idea is virtue gets it in the head every time. He opens with two heroines, Juliette and Justine, and Juliette, very amoral and strong, thrives and Justine, well, poor child, she does badly. Sade’s Philosophy of the Boudoir. This is porn, for it goes on and on. Those who talk of its philosophical insights are talking about dialogue 5. The thing about it is its joyous. Everyone is just so happy doing all these sex acts which seem to me ludicrous athleticism. I was bored, but I’ve seen this in Aretino’s guide to sex acts (pictures).
This is the first half of Davies’s film to a T.
The opening incidents of Davies’s Fanny’s career are just those of Juliette’s career, including being taken to a brothel, initiated by prostitutes in lesbian sex first, the time with the old man, all but the atmosphere is straight from Justine. Except the atmosphere. Davies’s film adaptation is joyous, and this he gets — from The Philosophy of the Boudoir, not Fanny Hill, which is ill-natured in tone and desperate. The second half of Davies’s film, Fanny’s misery and degradation takes off from Justine, but her winning out (and our happy ending) brings us back to Juliette. Critics who have discussed Davies’s Fanny Hill have hardly bothered to compare the texts as (they say) Davies’s is so different; indeed, it is.
As those who follow my Reveries under the Sign of Austen blog know, this summer I have been engaged with reading and thinking about gothic, libertine, and politically radical novels, memoirs and movies, with my excuse that all this is a prelude to writing two papers on some unusual sources of the gothic in Austen’s Northanger Abbey: I watched and wrote on Austen and Quills; Felicite-Stephanie de Genlis, life, Adele et Theodore, and Austen; Charlotte Smith’s powerful gothic of live burial, Montalbert, and Sara Maza’s book on cause celebres memoirs (the real stories often found behind these novels in popular court case histories of the era); and last a truly harrowing account of a real life case of marital cruelty by Retif and his daughter, Agnes de la Bretonne, Ingenu Saxancour, perhaps the most powerful depiction of spousal abuse ever written, a probing analysis and presentation of the psychology of the abuser and abused. My reading about and writing by Sade is part of this project and I have learned a good deal about him and revised my original hostile views considerably.