March/April 2012

An Intimate History

Written by Daniel Luzer

In 1782 Pierre Choderlos de Laclos published Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a novel about sexual depravity among the French aristocracy. Largely ignored in the nineteenthcentury, since the 1950s Les Liaisons has been performed using countless formats and titles.

Using a tactic common in the eighteenthcentury, Les Liaisons consists of a series of letters in which the characters themselves describe their actions. The book chiefly concerns two characters, the Vicomte de Valmont and his former mistress the Marquise de Merteuil, and their use of intricate sexual schemes to amuse themselves and settle scores. The novel chronicles their efforts to seduce and corrupt two other figures, the young Cecile de Volanges and Madame de Tourvel, a pious married woman.

It is unclear what the author's intentions were with Les Liaisons; the central message is ambiguous. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, many viewed the descriptions of the idle aristocracy as Choderlos de Laclos’s call to reform the ancient regime. Others postulated that the novel was a call to improve the education of women. Most critics see the book as an acclamation of the libertinism practiced by the novel's protagonists. At least in part due to the turbulent state of French politics in the eighteenth century, the author often changed parties and positions and would, perhaps therefore, change his justification for writing the novel.

An Intimate HistoryUnpopular during the nineteenth century, readers recently rediscovered Les Liaisons Dangereuses, due in part to the popular stage adaptation by CHRISTOPHER HAMPTON. The ambiguity of the message has proven central to the story's success; it gives the reader incredible freedom to interpret the tale. More than 230 years after its publication readers are still discovering that that Choderlos de Laclos's novel is a compelling, subtle story in which the use of the language makes a tale of sexual intrigue interesting to read, even if the central message of the novel is open to interpretation.