By Ashley Lister
In honour of this week’s topic, I’d like to introduce you to a historical figure that most readers probably won’t know: the Marquis de Sade.
I know what you’re thinking. You think I’ve gone stupid. “We know who the Marquis de Sade is, Ashley,” you’re saying (you’re saying that if you often talk to blogs. Most other people are probably thinking those words). “You shouldn’t have picked on the Marquis de Sade, Ashley,” you’re probably saying (or thinking) “The point of this week’s topic is to pick a historical figure that most readers don’t know.”
And, in fairness, the Marquis de Sade is well-known. He’s one of those few people who’ve coined a word into the language. This is an honour he shares with Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch (masochism), Thomas Bowdler (bowdlerise) and Thomas Crapper – amongst many others.
And I shouldn’t really be mentioning the Marquis de Sade because I’m English and he’s a Frenchman. Instead of discussing him in a positive light (as I intend to) I should be making jokes about the French, such as the one about the eBay advert selling a French Army rifle: never fired, dropped once.
But, although I’m talking about someone everyone’s heard of, I’m not sure everyone really knows about the Marquis de Sade. Most people recognise his name and assume the man we’re talking about was simply a sexual sadist. I want to talk about the Marquis de Sade who was an unsung hero.
Born Donatien Alphonse Francois in 1740, the Marquis de Sade came from a dynasty of high achievers. He attained the title of Comte (Count) when his father died in 1767 but, by that point, Donatien’s notoriety was already linked with the title Marquis.
It is fair to say that de Sade’s novels are not for the faint-hearted. Aside from the graphic sexual content, the stories also impart a cynical philosophy not far removed from the libertine school of thought that was popular in revolutionary France.
Justine, ou les Malheurs de la vertu, concerns countless mishaps befalling a pious heroine. The moral of the tale is reinforced throughout the work as Justine repeatedly learns that being good and kind won’t save her from the world’s cruelty.
Juliette was de Sade’s sequel to this title. Juliette is a continuation of the story and follows Justine’s wayward sister while delivering the same derisive message. The hedonistic Juliette explores a range of vices and finds her situation constantly improving. The only time Juliette suffers a setback in her fortunes is when she tries to do the decent thing. This repeated theme from de Sade’s works was a popular motif of that era’s libertine novels: vice is rewarded; virtue punished.
But Justine and Juliette are works of fiction and many people confuse these tales of debauchery with de Sade’s real life antics.
It is true that he did have appetites for sexual excess. Aside from being married and having a passionate relationship with his sister-in-law it is known that he also had several mistresses. During his years in the military (and the first years of his marriage) it is also certain he spent a great deal of his free time in petite maisons. But there is little evidence to suggest he participated in sadistic practices on these occasions.
The Marquis de Sade spent twenty-seven years of his life in eleven different gaols. He also had a propensity for finding himself at the centre of sexually embarrassing scandals. But, and this is the aspect of his character that I believe is little known, a lot of the time he spent in jail was the result of political crimes.
His first incarceration was the result of great excesses in a petite maison.
De Sade’s second spell behind bars came as a result of an attack on a prostitute. Reports of this incident vary from charges of a vicious assault by de Sade to the dismissal of inflated allegations from the alleged victim. The subsequent trial had him incarcerated for six weeks until he paid damages.
The details of a scandal in 1772 are also obscured by conflicting information but there is sufficient evidence to suggest the claims against de Sade could have been fabricated. Some reports say he poisoned the staff and visitors of a bordello and incited a riot where mayhem and murder ensued. Others say he merely handed out bon-bons to his favourite prostitutes. Regardless of the details, the Marquis de Sade was sentenced to death, commuted to thirteen years imprisonment.
But this was the last time de Sade was imprisoned for any crime of a sexual nature. His sentences after these events were all political crimes.
De Sade lived through the French revolution and was known to have great sympathy for the republican movement. The Ancien Regime had a nefarious appetite for public executions and, with the introduction of the guillotine, the revolutionaries were clearly no less bloodthirsty. Capital punishment was a public spectacle and, while this can’t be used to excuse de Sade for the grotesque happenings within his prose, it lends an understanding of the brutal times that influenced his writing.
He was imprisoned at Charenton in 1789 after entertaining a public crowd with a list of insults directed toward the governor of the Bastille.
After the storming of the Bastille, treated as a former prisoner of the aristocracy rather than a member of that group, he was enlisted as secretary to the Section des Piques for Robespierre. His enemies quietly referred to him as the only living Marquis under the rule of Robespierre and Fouquier.
It was while he was imprisoned that de Sade produced the titles Justine and Juliette. Contrasting against the image of a man who openly sought notoriety, he wrote the following in a 1791 letter to his lawyer Reinaud.
“They are printing a novel of mine but it is too immoral to be sent to you, a pious and decent man. My publisher wanted it well peppered, I was short of cash, so I wrote it fit to corrupt the Devil. It is called Justine, ou les Malheurs de la vertu. If it by chance falls into your hands, burn it rather than read it. I disown it.”
In 1793 de Sade was condemned as a moderate when he saved his wife’s parents from the scaffold. This “crime” led to another year’s imprisonment.
In 1801, a year following the publication of Zoloe and Her Two Acolytes, he was taken to Sainte Pelagie prison because his latest novel was seen as an attack against Napoleon, Josephine Beauharnais and other equally influential celebrities of the day.
Many people will cite the Marquis de Sade as a cruel predator and pervert, but few will point out that he was principled enough to go to prison for his political beliefs or nobly risk incarceration for the welfare of his wife’s parents.
His last will and testament includes the following instructions:
“The ground over my grave should be sprinkled with acorns so that all traces of my grave should disappear so that, as I hope, this reminder of my existence may be wiped from the memory of mankind.”
It’s impossible to know if de Sade was really the villain that his eponymous legacy has left behind. It is certain that he was no stranger to many forms of vice and excess. But, I think, the real Marquis de Sade, the political prisoner and honourable son-in-law, is one of those historical figures that most readers don’t know.