When is the last time you wrote a letter? Or received one?
I’m not talking about messaging someone on Facebook, having a chat on Whatsapp, or even exchanging emails – which, by the way, are going the way of the dodo. Teens have pretty much abandoned email in favour of texting while the rest of us pretend we’re too busy to read them.
But no. I’m talking about putting pen to paper and writing an actual letter. Or getting one in the mail that’s not from your bank, your landlord, or Canada Revenue. My grandmother set aside time every day to write letters to friends and family. It’s something I used to do every week. Now I don’t.
And I miss it. I miss actually looking forward to checking my mailbox. I even miss getting those Christmas circulars I used to deplore, telling me all the brave and wonderful things my friends have been up to all year. Now, there’s no point: I can read about it every day on Facebook.
I bring this up because Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the tale of seduction and revenge by Pierre-Ambroise Choderlos de Laclos, is written as a series of letters – 175 in all. If Laclos is to be believed, the French aristocracy did little else but write letters when they weren’t attending the theatre, the opera, or the ballet. And if they were as morally bankrupt and politically corrupt as depicted in this novel – well, heads deserved to roll.
The plot of Liaisons revolves around the machinations of the Marchioness de Merteuil and her former lover and partner in crime, the wealthy and dissipated Viscount de Valmont. Accustomed to relieving their boredom by plotting and scheming against others, they form an alliance aimed at violating two respectable young women – one, a virginal young girl fresh out of the convent, the other the chaste and religious wife of a member of Parliament.
Fifteen-year-old Cécile Volanges is due to marry the Count de Gercourt when he returns from Corsica. The Marchioness, having at one time been cast aside by Gercourt, wants Valmont to deflower the girl and make the seduction public knowledge, thereby creating a scandal and humiliating the husband-to-be.
But Valmont has set his sights on other prey: Madame de Tourvel, a married woman with a spotless reputation for faithfulness and piety. She is virtuous and inaccessible – and it’s that inacessibility that makes her irresistible. Valmont decides he must have her. He persuades Merteuil to agree to a bargain: if he can provide written proof that he has slept with Tourvel, the Marchioness must favour him with a night in bed.
In order to win Tourvel, Valmont must first convince her that he’s a reformed character … that the once decadent playboy is now upright, honest, and penitent. He embarks on an intense letter-writing campaign, to which she eventually, cautiously, responds. Supremely confident, he never doubts that, in the end, love will win out over virtue. She will give in to him, and once she does he’ll have no further use for her. As he confides to Merteuil, “…the time will come too soon when, degraded by her fall, I shall view her with as much indifference as another.”
While everyone knows Valmont is an unscrupulous cad who delights in seducing women and then dropping them, the Marchioness has a very different reputation. Beautiful, intelligent, and rich, Merteuil is the toast of Paris. Everyone, even her closest friends, believe her to be chaste, respectable, and wise. Only Valmont knows her for the shrewd, scheming, and sexually active woman she is. “Conquer or perish” is the motto she lives by. As she admits to Valmont, she learned early on to desire only those things that would be useful to her. Love, passion, and sentimentality are not, apparently, useful.
But this is the 18th century, a time when women – even women as intelligent as the Marchioness – were treated like children. There were many obligations and few choices; for women of noble birth like Merteuil it was marriage or the convent. She did marry, once, but when her husband died she chose the liberty of widowhood over the tyranny of marriage:
“You do not know, Viscount, the reasons I never married again. It was not, I assure you, for want of several advantageous matches being offered to me; it was solely that no one should have a right to control me.”
If this were just a story about a nasty, scheming woman and her equally nasty friend, it would not have maintained its classical reputation for more than two centuries. But the Marchioness de Merteuil is a rich, complicated and essentially modern character. A woman who has found a way to live life on her own terms. If she wasn’t so completely heartless, so utterly devoid of any but utilitarian scruples, we might admire her.
As you can imagine, things don’t go entirely as planned. When, after much letter-writing and several months, Valmont wins the heart of Tourvel, he is mocked by Merteuil for breaking the rules of the game: he was supposed to degrade the woman, not fall in love with her. Valmont denies it, but it’s true – he loves Madame de Tourvel. Still, his pride is hurt. He drops Tourvel cold, plummeting her into a state of despair from which she will not recover.
By the end of the book, nobody – innocent or otherwise – has won. Reputations are in tatters, hearts are broken, and the Marchioness pays a catastrophic price for her audacity. Society is particularly unforgiving when women break the rules. Merteuil’s crime is not that she’s lived a morally ambiguous existence – most of her contemporaries have done the same – but that she’s been found out. She loses her money, her reputation, and her looks, thanks to an attack of smallpox. The woman who would not submit to the dictates of the age has been completely and irretrievably humiliated.
Readers have long been divided over Les Liaisons Dangereuses. It’s been seen as a paean to corruption – an expression of the libertine philosophy promulgated by writers like John Wilmot and the Marquis de Sade. Others, considering the time it was written – seven years before the beginning of the French Revolution – view it as a political critique of a decadent and dying régime.
For me, the book is a window into another era – different rules, different expectations. And a reminder that we ignore the demands of our heart at our peril.