Les Liaisons Dangereuses
(drawn from Rosbottom unless otherwise indicated)
Publication facts. Choderlos de Laclos, a middle-aged captain in the artillery, signed a contract in March 1782 with Durand *neveu* in Paris to publish a book called *Le danger des liaisons.* The first of Durand's editions was printed in duodecimo, in four volumes of equal size (16 centimeters by 10 centimeters), in early April 1782. Ronald Rosbottom attributes the novel's tininess to its scandalousness: "We read repeatedly in various anecdotes of the period, that certain noels should be read clandestinely. It is quite easy to hide a small in-12 volume, roughly six and half by four inches." The first edition volumes contained:
---Vol. 1: Fictitious publisher's note, preface and first 50 letters. 248 pp.
---Vol. 2: Letters 125-175. 242 pp.
---Vol. 3: Letters 88-124. 231 pp.
---Vol. 4: Letters 125-175. 257 pp.
In the only extant ms., however, Laclos divided his novel into only two parts, ending the first at letter 70 (Valmont's letter to Merteuil, warning of Prevan's plot to ruin her reputation). Rosbottom argues that the convenient 4-parter also works well structurally and all but one subsequent printer adhered to it (a 1782 Neuchatel edition, ending at letter 88). Thelander, who compared the ms. to the various 1782 editions, believes the printer probably insisted on the 4-part division but that Laclos had some aesthetic say in the exact breaks.
The novel was extraordinarily popular: Between 16 and 20 editions were dated 1782; a good number of those if not all probably appeared between April-December, at a rate of one every 12 days, Max Brun estimates. The original contract planned 2,000 copies; a few weeks later, Laclos signed another contract with the same terms, indicating for various reasons that the publisher must have sold at least 1200 copies by then. That was the last edition the author approved with Durand, although he probably OKed one more in his lifetime (a 1787 version, with his poems and his correspondence with Madame Riccoboni), says Rosbottom.
The ms. includes a couple of items that don't appear in the first editions: a letter dated Dec. 4 from Valmont to Mme de Volanges (already crossed out in the ms.); and a draft letter from La Presidente to Valmont, neither dated nor numbered, on a page after the novel's end. (These are in the back of our Penquin.) In the ms., all the letters' dates are at the top not the bottom, as in all the editions.
Most important, the title is changed on the ms.: "Le Danger des liaisons" is crossed out and replaced with Les Liaisons dangereuses. Rosbottom argues that the final title is more subtle and vague: "Not only did the first title have an aura of moralism about it, it also limited the flexibility of the readers' strategic responses" (44). Thelander argues that the rewrite is more "euphonious" and makes the book sound less like a moral tract.
Note please that Letter 32 distinguishes between the phrases in the variant titles. In letter 22, Tourvel concluded her defense of Valmont's charity to the peasants with: "M. de Valmont n'est peut-etre qu'un exemple de plus du danger des liaisons. Je m'arrete a cette idee qui me plait." ("Valmont is perhaps another example of the danger of ill-considered intimacies. I leave you with this idea, which pleases me." The implication, as Thelander notes, is that Valmont's associates have led him astray.) Volange's response in 32: "Quand il ne serait, comme vous le dites, qu'un exemple du danger des liaisons, en serait-il moins lui-meme une liaison dangereuse?" ("Though he should only be, as you say he is, an example of the dangers of intimacy, would he be, for that reason, any the less dangerous an intimate himself?")
Thelander offers a quite exhaustive examination of the corrections made by hand to the ms. by the author, as well as the variations between it and the various first editions. I won't attempt to summarize, but note that Laclos revised repeatedly for style and accuracy, sometimes introducing contradictions and confusions in the dates; that in a later 1782 editions, he added a date to the last letter; and that the ms. had four letters with years in the dates in the ms. (three 1780s, one 1778), which allows some speculation on whether he intended the events to be tagged to certain years originally. Thelander believes Laclos fitted the plot to the 1778 calendar or possibly the 1779, at least for purposes of internal consistency.
The book was widely read and discussed and brought Laclos fame and notoriety. Most likely as punishment because of the book's scandalous nature, Laclos' military superiors ordered him to return to Brest where his regiment was officially stationed, not to Ile d'Aix where he had been working with his friend the Marquis de Montalembert. The *Mercure de France* announced the novel in March 1782; the influential literary newspaper *Correspondance litteraire* gave it a long review, commenting on its dazzling success and focusing on its unflattering portrait of high society; noting the problem of attractive vice; and making the to-be-common comparison of Merteuil to Lovelace ("un vrai Lovelace en femme"). The review, like many of the contemporary reviews, argues that the book itself is dangerous--going so far in fact as to say that no real-life liaison is so dangerous as reading this novel. Other reviews were quite harsh--adjectives like crude and stupid and absurd (in French naturallement). The book retained the reputation as highly dangerous well into the nineteenth century.
Donald Eugene Leger provides a convenient if flatly written introduction to the critical response to Laclos over the centuries (until 1971, anyway, when he published it). I've cited some bibliographical sources in my own bibliography that also provide guides.
Contemporary reviewers tended to judge the book according to whether they perceived it to be pleasing, true to live, and morally useful. It was often found to fail the last two categories, with the characters deemed too monstrous to exist and, if they existed, too horrid to be portrayed without danger. *Clarissa* was often used as a yardstick for comparing moral utility, and *Liaisons* found on the short end. Reviewers deemed the book too dangerous for young readers, particularly because unlike *Clarissa* it failed to provide a counterbalancing vision of virtue to vice, and the ending was deemed ineffective in teaching a moral. They wanted the "monsters" to be a great deal less charming and appealing.
The first half of the nineteenth century ignored the novel mostly, mentioning it only to condemn it as "morally dangerous or historically fanciful" (Leger 59). Baudelaire scribbled some notes in praise of the book, but they weren't published until 1903. The book was condemned or suppressed at least twice in France during the 19thC, in 1824 and 1865. Leger also claims that the rise of Romanticism and lyricism condemned a book in which "reason and cold analysis triumph" (77). Dictionaries and critics both revive the novel about 1850, and gradually interest turns to issues such as the characters' psychology, the book's realism, and Laclos' artistry. Since that mid-century revival, interest in Liaisons has grown tremendously, of course. I can't begin to comprehensively discuss the many critical stands pulled from the text in twentieth-century analyses, but feminists, structuralists, and just about every other camp has had its say.
Laclos and Mme. Riccoboni, one of the most popular novelists of the period, exchanged eight letters about the novel, giving us our only Laclosian comments about the novel. Riccoboni worries about the bad portrait of society, accusing him of dishonoring his nation and French women; claims the book lacks verisimilitude; and says he has made the evil Merteuil too attractive. Laclos responds by supporting the morality of his book, claiming that women such as Merteuil exist and should be presented as a warning; that Merteuil is drawn from his experience and is true to life. He claims he wished to show the extraordinary recuperative powers of any society faced with an individual's egocentrism, noting society's role in punishing vice through ridicule and indignation, and pointing out that Valmont and Merteuil were punished at society's hands. He defends his respect for women, saying that denunciating evil women brings honor to virtuous ones.
One thing we may want to consider in class this week or next is how persuasive we find Laclos' interest in providing an connect-the-dots morality. Critics tend to find the book either amoral or much more subtle in its moral workings, usually looking closely at the denouement as well as the editor's note and preface. P.W. Byrne, for example, finds an underlying moral behind the packaging of superficial moralising: "Depending upon upon the sophistication of the reader whom Laclos has in mind, the "Preface" and the end of the book can be seen to offer either a "correct" moral viewpoint which only a churl would find fault with, or a satirical indictment of the self-complacent or bogus moralising of a superficial society amongst whose members the "redactur" should himself be counted" (Byrne 1986: 16).
We're reading Les Liaisons in a class on sensibility; its author greatly admired Richardson, as did his French contemporaries, and *Clarissa* echoes throughout. Yet can we comfortably call this book sensibulous or sentimental, in the tradition of Clarissa--or any other sentimental definition?
The deeply feeling characters (Danceny, Tourvel, maybe Cecile) get trampled by the unfeeling ones. And those sensibulous ones are no models of conduct either--Tourvel engages in little hypocrisies, such as having Valmont trailed. She commits adultery, unlike Clarissa who must be drugged. Danceny and Cecile are fools (and mainly what they feel is sexual hunger.)
Is this a send-up of sentimentality? That's what William Mead says: Because the villains use their victims' emotionalism to manipulate them, Laclos makes us "witnesses not to a mere seduction but to what might be called the assassination of sensibility and its claims to 'usefulness as a way of life' " (quoted in Byrne 1986:12).
Carol Blum posits that Liaisons is a direct response--and correction--to Rousseau's Heloise. Blum sees Rousseau (and thinks Laclos does too) as dancing a sentimental double-step to both explore desire and alleviate sexual guilt. In Rousseauvian sentimentality, the quest for "total communion between characters" gets elevated to a moral principle; this passion, elevated, is accorded tremendous power and is considered a force so potent that characters can act upon it "involuntarily" while remaining innocent. Responsibility is denied; lust is disguised as a fine feeling of fellowship; and language and expression is falsely seen as transparent. Blum goes on to argue that Laclos intended to teach the dangers of sentimentality by showing how successfully Valmont and Merteuil, relentlessly anti-sentimental, manipulate the sentimental characters. In LD: "The desire for fusion and transparency was shown to mask a questionable eroticism. The 'sentiment involontaire' in Laclos's hands became nothing more laudable than an excuse for Cecile to obey the bidding of her senses, or a more elaborately wrought rationale for Mme de Tourvel to do the same. In *Les Liaisons dangereuses* language is sifted for the secret impulse it carries. Mme de Merteuil and Valmont examined letters to assess the value of every word, and no character was permitted to drape his thoughts in 'un voile de sentiment' with impunity" (297).
I would argue, however, that Laclos' depiction of the dangers of sentimentality does not make this an anti-sentimental novel. Liaisons takes the bleakness inherent in sensibility to its extreme but retains a very faintly delineated faith in the ideal. Several critics note that sensibility and sentimentality are deeply pessimistic about society, despite their faith in individual goodness. Says John Mullan of the sentimental novelists he reviews: These "novelists were able to concede that habits of sociability were limited or exceptional, only just surviving in a world in which fellow-feeling was rare and malevolence prevailed--" (13).
G.A. Starr sees sentimentality as an extension of Hobbes' philosophy of inevitably warring human interests: "Sentimentalism examines what is means to be powerless in a society where, despite Christian pretenses and protestations, power is everything, and the Beatitudes are a prescription for endless torment" (362).
Laclos fully exploits sentimental pessimism. Fellow-feeling, in the sense of empathy, rarely occurs and is misdirected when it does. Merteuil-Valmont certainly understand each other well enough, but of course their "fellow feeling" creates a monster that destroys everyone around it and then its creators. Tourvel aches with a desire to alleviate Valmont's distress, and he uses this sympathy for his claimed torment to manipulate and seduce her. Danceny, though a good enough fellow, uses claims of his distress to sway Cecile.
In a well-ordered sentimental universe, individual empathies ideally would cement society. But in Liaisons, double standards and hypocrisy instead bond the society. The "fellow feeling" of society is a destructive kind of conventional morality that cares about the appearance of virtue, not its existence, and ruthlessly eradicates transgressors. Laclos' moral, claims one critic, is that "in a hypocritical society it is all too often only a question of appealing superficially to the "correct" sentiments, making the right moral noises, appearing virtuous" (Byrne 1986:7).
In a way, we can see Merteuil as the perfect product of this hypocritical society in which women in particular get the shaft. "What it means to be powerless in a society where...power is everything" means, for Merteuil, to either screw or get screwed, literally and figuratively. She tries to take power by analyzing and manipulating the workings of conventional, hypocritical morality, but ultimately fails. And Tourvel, having lapsed, has no choice but to die--no "fellow feeling" rescues her, even in a society where all the married women have affairs.
Peter Conroy notes the control "fellow feeling" gives men in particular over women in this novel: male bonding, most notably when Valmont gives his murderer Danceny the letters as he dies, allows men to oppress and punish women. Empathy among men destroys women, just as those letters allow Valmont to destroy his female rival and, in an earlier example, Prevan wins the rival lovers of the "inseparables" to his side while the women become exiled. Women, rather than bonding, are isolated and thereby weakened, Conroy contends. In this case, the social bond cemented by empathy is a power play against women.
Despite this cynical look at sentimentality, Valmont, like Lovelace, would be redeemed and the plot reversed if he acknowledged and acted upon the love he apparently feels for Tourvel. It's his suppression of benevolent, empathetic feeling that costs three people their lives. One could use this road-not-taken subplot to argue for the novel's belief in the sentimental ideal, however unobtainable. But we must acknowledge that even that happy ending option is near impossible. What good would Valmont's acknowledgment of true love be, since his beloved is a married woman? Societal mores would have demanded that their affair be discreet--would have demanded hypocrisy and corrupted Tourvel's innocence, punishing her in particular if it were not. Their society is one in which "right feeling" finds no right expression. Liaisons is a sentimental novel in that it shows the ultimate societal perversion of sentimentality.
1. Well--what do you think? Is this either a sentimental novel or a novel of sensibility; an indictment of sensibility; or something in between?
2. How in particular does sentimentality affect women? (The Marquise scorns sentimental women, preferring a clear-eyed strategy that manipulates rather than explores emotion, and for her trouble gets designated as either a "monster" or celebrated as a feminist among critics. )
3. What do the preface and publisher's note do to our reading? How do they affect our understanding of the book's "moral" or lack thereof? The publisher's note in particular seems quite heavy-handed in its irony. Can we recover our equilibrium after such an introduction to the concerns of the novel? Can sensibility and irony co-exist?
4. Richardson was hugely popular and hugely influential, and of course we find Merteuil reading *Clarissa* to prepare to act a part. In what other ways do Richardsonian concerns make their way into Liaisons? Consider how the characters in the two novels compare.
Byrne, P.W. "The Moral of Les Liaisons Dangereuses: a Review of the Arguments." Essays in French Literature 23: 1986. 1-18.
Conroy, Peter V. "Male Bonding and Female Isolation in Laclos's LD." Studies on Voltaire & the Eighteenth Century 267 (1989) 253-271.
Leger, Donald Eugene. A Study of Representative Criticism on Laclos's 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses.' U of Iowa dissertation, 1970. (Bound volume available in Alderman).
Mead, William. "Les Liaisons dangereuses and moral usefulness." PMLA 22:1960. p. 568
Mullan, John. Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Presss, 1988.
Rosbottom, Ron. Choderlos de Laclos. Boston: Twayne Publishers 1978.
Starr, G.A. "'Only a Boy': Notes on Sentimental Novels." Genre 10 (Winter 1977) 501-527.
Thelander, Dorothy R. Laclos and the Epistolary Novel. Librarie Droz, Geneve: 1963
Bibliographies, Bibliographic Studies (in English)
Recent scholarship on Les Liaisons is so extensive I've chosen to point you to a couple of recent bibliographies rather than compile one reflecting my own eccentric tastes. Try these:
Coward, David. "Laclos Studies, 1968-1982." Studies on Voltaire and the 18th C 219: 1983. 289-328. Very handy introduction to major studies, trends in criticism.
Michael, Colette Verger. Choderlos de Laclos, the Man, His Works, and His Critics: An Annotated Bibliography. NY and London: Garland Publishing 1982. (Not in Alderman unfortunately)
Frautsch, Richard L. "Addenda to a Recent Bibliography on Laclos." Romance Notes 25:2 (Winter 1984) 153-59. Frautsch trashes Michael's work and lists a bunch of items Michael left out.
If you want to read Laclos in French, Coward and everyone else endorses:
Oeuvres completes, texte etabli, presente et annote par Laurent Versini (Pleiade, 1979, 1713 pp.). The text offers an extremely detailed chronology, "carefully weighed editions of LD" and Laclos' essays on women. (Any works by Versini are well worth looking at--of course, you'll need to be able to read French.)