Sunday, November 16, 2014

Three stories from The Crimes of Love by the Marquis de Sade

My copy
There was a period in my life when I thought I might become a professor of 18th century history.  One result of this delusion is that the City University of New York is currently enjoying the use of thousands of dollars once in the custody of myself and my parents.  Another result was that I investigated a lot of 18th century books.  James Boswell, Samuel Johnson, and Giacomo Casanova became some of my favorite writers and historical figures, and I also found Tobias Smollet, Laurence Sterne, Henry Fielding, Voltaire, and Oliver Goldsmith worthwhile.

I wasn't willing to make the investment that appeared to be required to get anything out of Samuel Richardson or Edward Gibbon.  Another author I put to the side was the Marquis de Sade.  I'll never forget flipping through a volume of de Sade's works and finding a list of heinous tortures, I guess in 120 Days of Sodom.  Over twenty years later I have not forgotten one of these gruesome flights of fancy birthed by an insane mind, though sometimes I wish I would.

Recently, looking through my books, I found underlinings in my 1993 paperback edition of The Crimes of Love.  I was surprised to find these marks, because the book was in good shape and I was pretty sure I had bought it new, not used.  It was with some surprise that I came upon a piece of marginalia in my own handwriting.  I read this book, presumably in the early 1990s, and since then had not only entirely forgotten the stories themselves, but the fact that I had read the book at all.

This week I reread the paperback, curious to learn what these three stories, 208 pages total, written by a man Aldous Huxley (in the included two-page excerpt from his 1937 Ends and Means) tells us obtained sexual pleasure from poisoning prostitutes, stabbing shop-girls and flogging actresses (and which left not a trace on my mind after I had read them the first time ) were all about.

My copy of the 1993 edition of Crimes of Love is a selection from the original collection of that title, printed in 1800, though the people at Bantam Classics don't make that clear. It contains three novellas translated by Lowell Bair: "Eugenie de Franval," "Miss Henrietta Stralson," and "Flourville and Courval."  The cover painting is by James Tissot, even though the people at Bantam Classics attribute it to a Jane S. Tissot.  The painting, "The Dreamer," was painted in 1871, so perhaps an odd choice: why not illustrate a book of eighteenth century stories with an eighteenth century picture?  I can't say that this book is giving me a good impression of Bantam Classics' way of conducting business.  If I still had any scholarly interest in de Sade I would purchase the Oxford World's Classics edition of Crimes of Love, which includes translations and a comprehensive intro by David Coward.

My synopses and comments on these three tales of rape, incest and suicide below:

"Eugenie de Franval"

Monsieur de Franval is a wealthy young man totally unmoored from conventional morality or religious belief.  His selfish amoral character is blamed on a free-thinking father and the books dad gave little Franval, books which encouraged Franval to ignore tradition and consider afresh every matter.

Franval's parents die before his nineteenth birthday, and Franval finds himself with a huge inheritance.  He marries a beautiful 15-year-old who has a sizable estate of her own (60,000 francs a year) and they have a daughter who is even more lovely than the mother, whom he names Eugenie.  Franval takes absolute control over little Eugenie; Eugenie only sees people Franval allows her to see, and her mother is not one of those people!  Eugenie's education includes no moral or religious instruction, save that provided by her father himself.  You can judge the nature of this instruction by the fact that when Eugenie is fourteen she and her father begin their passionate love affair.  Yuck!

A printing of "Eugenie de Franval"
with a more marketable title from
Hesperus Press
This story is about 83 pages long, and most of it concerns the boring maneuvering back and forth between Franval and Eugenie, who are committed to their erotic relationship, and Franval's wife, mother-in-law, and the mother-in-law's favorite clergyman, who try to rescue little Eugenie and get Franval to learn to behave.  Franval and Eugenie are monsters who will stop at nothing to maintain their relationship.  For example, Franval convinces one of his friends, Valmont, to try to seduce Madame de Franval, so Franval can blackmail her.  When the Madame rejects Valmont, Franval urges him to rape her.

There is no honor among thieves (or rapists, apparently), and Valmont, instead of raping Franval's wife, seizes Eugenie and tries to elope with her.  In this scheme he is aided by Madame de Franval and her mother.  Franval figures this all out, chases down Valmont and Eugenie and shoots Valmont dead on the highway.  Franval, wife, and daughter then flee to one of Franval's provincial castles.  Back in Paris the authorities try Franval in absentia for Valmont's murder.  Franval tells his daughter that if a guilty verdict comes through, she is to poison her mother to death.  Eugenie follows this instruction, murdering her own mother when she learns of the verdict.  But as mom expires in agony, Eugenie, who heretofore has been depicted as a monster as depraved as her father, spontaneously dies from grief and guilt.  Similarly, Franval, after being assaulted and robbed by deus ex machina highwaymen, suddenly expresses regret.  Franval commits suicide with the sword he used in his fight with the highwaymen, and the clergyman fulfills his last wish, that he be buried in the same coffin with the wife he now suddenly realizes he mistreated.

The plot of this story is pretty crazy, but the tale is not entertaining or even interesting.  The pacing is tedious, and the characters are flat and do not develop; they either act the same way throughout the entire story or, as in the case of Franval and Eugenie, are totally evil and perverse and then, at the last second, for no credible reason, reform moments before they die.  There are no explicit sex scenes, and the episodes of violence and death are each described in one or two lines; de Sade doesn't use the sex or violence to generate any kind of excitement or horror.

The story also feels insincere, pretending very unconvincingly to be an attack on freethinking and a vindication of traditional morality and religion.  (It begins, "To instruct man and correct his morals: that is our only purpose in writing this story.") But Franval and Eugenie are the smartest and most interesting characters, they outwit their foes and are always masters of their own fates, their conversions at the last second make no sense, and they don't really get punished for their misdeeds.  When Franval and the cleric have a debate, de Sade gives Franval all the smart arguments.

Quite bad.

"Miss Henrietta Stralson"

This story takes place in England in the 1770s (some of the characters attend David Garrick's final performance, which was in 1776; Sir John Fielding, pioneering police magistrate and brother to the novelist, also appears.)  Thirty-six year old Lord Granwell, the wickedest man in London, is sitting around drinking with his cronies when he spots a beautiful seventeen-year-old girl; we learn she is renowned as the prettiest woman in Great Britain.  Granwell is determined to have her.

This beauty is Henrietta Stralson, the daughter of a country baronet.  She is in town for a brief period while her beloved, Mr. Williams, collects an inheritance.  One of the themes of the story is the decency of country folk and the iniquity and corruption of the town: "...all sentiments become perverted in capital cities; virtue deteriorates as one breathes their pestilential air, and since the corruption is general, one must flee or become infected."  Perhaps de Sade set his story in England because statements like these, applied to France, might get him in further trouble with the authorities?

Granwell captures Miss Stralson several times, has his lawyers obstruct Williams' access to the inheritance, tries to frame Miss Stralson for a crime she did not commit, and so forth.  The story is a tragedy, and in the last pages Williams is ambushed and murdered by Granwell and/or his agents.  (This potentially exciting scene takes place entirely off stage.)  Henrietta is confronted by her beloved's corpse, pierced by thirteen daggers.  She takes one of the daggers, kills Granwell, and then herself.

"Miss Henrietta Stralson" is not good, but it is far better than "Eugenie de Franval."  Granwell and Henrietta are genuine characters, not cardboard props like Monsieur, Madame, and Mademoiselle  Franval.  Granwell delivers extreme misogynist tirades, but when he has Henrietta in his clutches her beauty, country innocence and clever deceptions conspire to soften his heart and he balks at raping her.  Granwell and Henrietta actually have two layers to their personalities, and are changed by events, unlike the monochrome figures in the other story.  The inclusion of real London figures and locations also creates a sense of time and place, which "Eugenie de Franval" lacked.

The point of the story, ostensibly, is to demonstrate the evils of "the disregard of those honorable principles without which neither we nor those around us can be happy on this earth."  But de Sade has the decent characters suffer as much or more than the evil characters, and there are no philosophical passages promoting honesty or sobriety or any other "honorable principles."  The few philosophical sections consist of Granwell's monologues, in which he tells us women were created by nature to serve as a means of male pleasure.  If there is a moral to the story it is "don't go to the city, and, if you do, don't trust anybody!"  The Stralsons and Williams suffer their dreadful fates because they are gullible, and get tricked by Granwell and his cronies again and again.

Bad, but on the periphery of mediocre.

An Oxford edition
"Florville and Courval"

The first two stories were so lame that I almost abandoned this project and left this third story unread.  But the presence of my underlinings was proof that in my twenties I had read it, and I didn't want to believe that I had more perseverance in my twenties than I do today.

"Florville and Courval" is the wackiest of the three stories, full of insane coincidences and including some supernatural elements, like prophetic dreams and presentiments.  De Sade hints that it may be a parody of English gothic novels by having Florville read an "incredibly gloomy English novel" and remark that one of its characters is as unfortunate as she is.

How unfortunate is Florville?  An orphan, she was raised by a good man, but then fell into the company of free thinkers and was seduced by a soldier named Senneval.  Senneval impregnates her, then abandons Florville after she gives birth, taking their son with him.  Almost two decades later our heroine meets her son; neither recognizes the other, and the son is driven mad with desire for his mother and rapes her after she refuses his advances.  Before he can rape her a second time Florville snatches up scissors and stabs her son to death, for which she feels guilty; she was just trying to scare him!

After some years and some other equally bizarre coincidences, Florville marries a gentleman, Courval.  It seems possible that Florville and Courval might live out their old age happily together, but then Senneval reappears.  The characters realize that Courval is both Senneval's and Florville's father, so that Florville has had sex with her father, her brother, and her son.  (A chart detailing everybody's relationships would have been helpful.)  Florville grabs one of Senneval's pistols and blows her brains out.  De Sade concludes by reminding us that "it is only in the darkness of the tomb that man can find the calm which the wickedness of his fellow man, the disorder of his passions, and, above all, the decrees of his fate, will always refuse to him on this earth."

"Florville and Courval" is the craziest of the three tales, but also the most philosophical and most philosophically coherent.  De Sade includes long monologues from libertine atheist types arguing in favor of promiscuity and licentiousness and against religion, and from conservative types advocating virtue and religion.  Both sides' arguments are competent, if not exactly groundbreaking (Pascal's wager makes an appearance.)  De Sade also contrasts the dying moments of a pious Christian woman and those of an atheist woman who devoted her life to sexual pleasure; the Christian is stricken with fear and regret while the atheist is composed and even happy.  (This reminded me of Boswell's famous interview with David Hume on Hume's deathbed in 1776.)

The best of the three selections in the Bantam Classics edition of Crimes of Love, "Florville and Courval" achieves some small level of interest and entertainment value.


These stories are quite weak.  They fail if judged as we conventionally judge fiction, on plot, style, or character.  They also fail to shock or provide much insight into de Sade's radical philosophy, because he pulls his punches and at times even pretends to be advocating traditional morality.

If the Marquis de Sade is an important figure in literary or intellectual history, as we are sometimes told, these three stories are not evidence of that fact.

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