Reviewing a classic: Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) by Choderlos de Laclos

About the author:

Pierre Ambroise Choderlos de LaclosImage via Wikipedia

Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) is a French epistolary novel by Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos (18 October 1741 – 5 September 1803), a French novelist, official and army general under Napoleon. “Les Liaisons dangereuses” will remain his most known novel, although he wrote poems and other novels as well. He also was a man who began a project of numbering Paris’ streets and invented the modern artillery shell. During the French Revolution he was a diplomat and a commissar in the Ministry of War. Interesting creature. He married relatively late, in 1786, choosing a Marie-Soulange Duperré, 18 years his junior. I wonder whether he let her read his book.

Some quotes from “Les Liaisons dangereuses”:

“Truth to tell, the longer I live, the more I’m tempted to think that the only moderately worthwhile people in the world are you and I.” 

“A man enjoys the happiness he feels, a woman the happiness she gives.”
“Humanity is not perfect in any fashion; no more in the case of evil than in that of good. The criminal has his virtues, just as the honest man has his weaknesses.”

The first letter shows us a young, innocent Cecile de Volanges, aged 15, who, only recently brought out of a convent boarding school, is preparing herself for her incoming nuptials. Unfortunately her future husband, the Comte de Gercourt, put her in a very dangerous position – he had been a lover of Madame Marquise de Merteuil, a beautiful but immoral widow, and they didn’t part on friendly terms; to put it shortly he dared to cast her out. Madame de Merteuil doesn’t like being cast out and she is a woman who knows what she wants and how to get it. She plans a cruel revenge and asks her other ex-lover and a frequent associate in crime, the Vicomte de Valmont, for help. Meanwhile the Vicomte has set himself a more difficult task than corrupting young girls just out of school – he is determined to seduce the virtuous, very religious Madame de Tourvel. He plans it just to create a scandal and boast of another trophy in his rich collection of broken hearts and tarnished reputations. Madame de Tourvel is staying with Valmont’s elderly aunt while Monsieur de Tourvel is away for a court case. Big mistake, monsieur.

Cécile makes involuntarily the whole revenge scheme a bit easier – she hasn’t met her future husband yet but she’s already managed to fall in love with the Chevalier Danceny, her music tutor. Madame de Merteuil and Valmont pretend that they want to help young lovers so that they can use them later in their own schemes. Chevalier Danceny has scruples about the romance with Cécile, though. Impatient Madame de Merteuil urges the Vicomte to seduce Cécile asap in order to exact her revenge on the Comte just in time. Valmont refuses, finding the task too boring and too easy, and preferring to devote himself completely to the cause of the divine Madame de Tourvel. Merteuil promises Valmont that if he seduces Madame de Tourvel and provides her with written proof, she will spend the night with him. Apparently she values her bed skills very high. Valmont, whose vanity was badly tickled, agrees.

He returns to the country house of his aunt expecting rapid success, but does not find Madame de Tourvel as easy a prey as his many other conquests. During the course of his pursuit, he discovers that Cécile’s mother has written to Madame de Tourvel, warning her about the Vicomte’s bad reputation. What a pity she hasn’t warned her daughter instead. Valmont decides to avenge himself in seducing Cécile as Merteuil had suggested. Poor Cecile, not even being fully aware what’s happening to her, gets pregnant and then has a miscarriage right under the nose of her dear mum and Valmont’s respectable aunt. In the meantime, Merteuil, who doesn’t like idle life, takes young Danceny as a lover.

After a really long courtship interrupted only by nights spent in the arms of no longer so innocent Cécile, Valmont finally succeeds in seducing Madame de Tourvel. Unfortunately by that time he has really fallen in love with his victim. However, he is the last to acknowledge this fact, fooling himself and everybody around. Not Madame de Merteuil, though. Jealous Madame proves to be a lethal opponent. First she tricks him into deserting Madame de Tourvel by making him write her a truly outrageous letter and then she goes back on her promise of spending the night with him, knowing fully well who he would really prefer to be with. In response to that open defiance Valmont reveals that he prompted Danceny to reunite with Cécile, and abandon Madame de Merteuil herself – something she detests the most. Merteuil declares war on Valmont. She reveals to Danceny that Valmont seduced Cécile and practically schooled her in whoring. Danceny challenges Valmont and they duel. Valmont is fatally wounded, but before he dies he is reconciled with Danceny, giving him Madame de Merteuil’s scandalous letters. His final missile hits bull’s eye. Two of these letters are enough to ruin Madame de Merteuil’s reputation and also make her lose an important case, leaving her significantly poorer. What’s more, after a theatrical performance, during which she was publicly booed and ostracized, Madame de Merteuil falls ill (probably succumbing to a bout of smallpox) and, as the result, her face is left permanently scarred. She has to flee the country with jewellery stolen from her late husband’s family. I am sure in her challenged state Madame needed it more than them. The innocent victims (but is there really anybody left innocent? ) also suffer: hearing of Valmont’s death, Madame de Tourvel dies from fewer (probably a nervous breakdown) in the convent where she had been educated as a young girl; also Cécile returns to her old convent, too ashamed and too disgraced to lead a normal life.

What I liked:

The story of two individuals who use sex to manipulate and humiliate other people was a scandal right after the first publishing. Even by today’s standards, some of the scenes are shocking and this book used to be compared with the novels of the notorious Marquis de Sade. Small wonder it had been a best-seller even before that name was coined – allegedly 1,000 copies were sold in Paris in a month, an exceptional result for the times.

I loved the fact that it is an epistolary novel so a novel composed entirely of letters written by the various characters. This way the same event could be presented from two or even three different points of view, and readers could get to know plenty about the writers of the letters themselves. The narration pace is really splendidly balanced – not too fast, not too slow, keeping you interested till the very end. The plot is scandalous but it also brings up really serious, complex questions – how to raise children so they are not lured and abused by different predators without scruple, how to lead a happy, fulfilled life, how to arrange a successful marriage. The book speaks volumes about morality without being sanctimonious – not a mean feat.

Now about the characters. The main leads are as complex and well-rounded as you would wish. Madame Marquise de Merteuil has always been my favourite – you simply can’t help admiring her stamina and cunning, even if she was so openly corrupted and sometimes plainly evil. She was a woman living in a world governed by men, her range of choices was evidently limited despite the fact that she was an aristocrat – for instance she couldn’t pursue any professional career (and I don’t doubt she would make a perfect CEO or a politician, finding a more decent outlet to her energy) she had even little to say when it came to her personal wealth. Her revenge on men, although sometimes disgusting, is at least understandable. The main mistake seemed to be her fierce sense of independence. Had she been, say, a mistress of a king or a powerful duke, so still an immoral but less independent individual, she would have been judged less harshly by her contemporaries. Not to mention the fact that she wouldn’t have had financial troubles. The Vicomte is another story. He was a privileged, handsome, intelligent man from a family of means. Even though he could have made something good with his life, a career of a kind, he preferred preying on women and leading a layabout life of a libertine seducing weak or/and stupid for the heck of it. If you think about it, with hindsight you really understand the reasons behind of the French Revolution. Facing such an individual I would be the first to scream “les aristocrates à la lanterne!” (aristocrats to the lamp-post) despite his obvious charms. Small wonder Valmont ended up dead in all movie versions of this novel I’ve seen so far. He was too vain about his lifestyle to change and too damaged at the end to live on.

What I didn’t like:

The fact that such a disfiguring illness attacked Madame de Merteuil right after the public disclosure of her second machiavellian nature did seem a bit over the top…like an act of God. I would prefer her ‘only’ disgraced. However, when it comes to Madame I am heavily biased and I don’t try to hide this fact.

The final verdict:

This book has always been one of my all time favourites. I even read it in French. I recommend it to anybody.

The Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) and the...Image via Wikipedia
Madame (Glenn Close) and the Vicomte (John Malkowitch)  in one of the better movie adaptations of this novel I’ve seen so far
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7 Responses to Reviewing a classic: Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) by Choderlos de Laclos

  1. Blodeuedd says:

    Oh it was this book, duh! It took me a while to put the pieces together.Nice review

  2. anachronist says:

    Yeah, it was this book, I am glad you liked the review!

  3. I read this one a couple of years ago. This book was the basis for the movie Cruel Intentions.

  4. thefriande says:

    This sounds interesting – I love books with immoral characters in them; they make for a far more entertaining read. Besides, I didn't know the author started numbering French streets! Just for that, I think I'm going to pick up the book.

  5. anachronist says:

    Brooke this book is a splendid movie material and I bet there will be more adaptations in the future.thefriande you won't be disappointed! If you write your review, let me know!

  6. Tracy says:

    It's definitely well worth reading, though it's many, many years since I read it.

  7. anachronist says:

    It is one of these rare books which are not only worth reading once but also worth returning to.

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