The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

The epistolary novel

BEFORE

1669 One of the earliest epistolary novels is published, Letters of a Portuguese Nun. It is attributed to French author Gabriel-Joseph de La Vergne, comte de Guilleragues.

1740 The hugely popular novel Pamela, by English author Samuel Richardson, details the corruption of an innocent maidservant.

1747–48 Richardson’s tragic tale Clarissa is one of the longest novels in the English language and considered to be his masterpiece.

1761 Swiss-born philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes Julie, or the New Heloise, in which he uses the epistolary form to explore philosophical questions of rationality, morality, and autonomy.

Letters, diaries, and notes were the primary written means by which people communicated with one another in both daily life and literature during the 18th century. Les Liaisons dangereuses is an example of a literary style known as the epistolary novel (after the Greek for “letter”), which tells a story in the form of letters and, sometimes, other documents. Although it largely died out after the 1800s, in its heyday the epistolary novel was a popular and fashionable genre, reflecting the social world of a great age of correspondence.

Laclos did not simply imitate this genre, he radically extended it. The most famous epistolary novels of the period, such as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise, were often tedious in their meticulous and lengthy descriptions, and moralistic tone. Unlike his contemporaries, Laclos used the epistolary form to provide an exciting pace of action, and his characters often speak in the witty and urbane manner of the time.

"When one woman stabs another to the heart … she rarely misses the vital spot and the wound can never be healed."


Les Liaisons dangereuses

The ruin of innocents

In France, the epistolary novel was linked with narratives of passion and the calculated seduction of women. Key to the success of these novels was the philosophy of “libertinage”, in which eroticism, sexual depravity, and a lifestyle of excess and vice were intermingled with sophisticated wordplay.

In Les Liaisons dangereuses letters between multiple characters expose the moral decline of the French aristocracy just before the Revolution. Laclos’ key “actors” in this form of seduction as sport are the libertine Vicomte de Valmont, and the Marquise de Merteuil – with her public façade of a virtuous lady. Former lovers, they try to outdo each other in their cruelty and manipulative degradation of others through sexual exploitation. Their own and others’ letters show how they plot the pursuit of their entertainment like a military campaign, the narrative tracing a calculated process of ruination involving rape, sexual corruption, and humiliation.

Moral ambiguity

Unlike his contemporaries, who often addressed the reader directly in their epistolary novels, Laclos removed his authorial presence from the narrative, leaving his characters to speak for themselves. Because of his absent narrational voice and the lack of any authorial condemnation of his characters’ actions, contemporary reviewers wondered if Laclos too was as wicked as Merteuil and Valmont.

The cleverness of Les Liaisons dangeureses lies in its moral ambiguity and the extent to which Laclos implicates the reader in society’s treatment of women as pawns in games of ownership and sexual domination. In her own words to Valmont, Merteuil views her actions as part of a wider battle of the sexes in which she is “born to avenge my sex and subjugate yours” – although in doing this, she brings destruction as much to other women as to men. In the letters through which he presents this battle, Laclos seduces his reader via the “pleasure” to be found in a voyeuristic literary exploration of artful temptation.

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The letters that form Laclos’ text are also objects in the plot, used to manipulate. Merteuil and Valmont, the orchestrating villains, are adept at writing letters in ways that exploit how others will read meaning into them.

PIERRE CHODERLOS DE LACLOS

Pierre Choderlos de Laclos was born in 1741 in Amiens, to a family that had only recently become part of the French nobility. The family’s relative unimportance in the social hierarchy meant that as a young man Laclos looked to the military for a viable career. While captain of an artillery regiment at Besançon in 1778, he began writing his only novel, influenced by the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Although Les Liaisons dangereuses was scandalous because of its libertine characters and themes of sexual vice, Laclos himself was not a faithless seducer. He married his lover, Marie-Soulange Duperré, when she fell pregnant; they went on to have two children and live a happy life. He escaped the guillotine in 1794 and devoted himself to his family until his death in 1803 from fever.

Other key works

1777 Ernestine

1783 Des Femmes et de leur éducation

1790–91 Journal des amis de la Constitution

See also: Robinson Crusoe • Clarissa • The Sorrows of Young Werther • Dracula • The Moonstone