I knew the ending of this novel before I started reading it. As a book widely considered to be a classic, it suffers from having a plot that is known to anyone who makes even the vaguest of inquiries. So, if I knew the ending, why pick it up? To put it simply, I like to read about clever people outwitting other, not-so-clever, people. It’s perhaps a pleasure that can be considered mean-spirited, but it works for me none the less. If that was all I was reading for, did it deliver?
Les Liaisons Dangereuses is constructed from the letters of various members of French aristocratic society as their personal lives mingle in such a way that can only create disaster. Key amongst the many figures who get a moment in the spotlight are the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont, two libertines intent on corrupting and ruining several people within their wider social circles. For the Marquise, this involves the corruption of a young girl, Cecile Volanges, in the lead-up to her marriage to one of the Marquise’s enemies; this corruption is helped by the presence of the Chevalier Danceny, a young member of high society who has taken a shine to the innocent Cecile. The Vicomte’s plans revolve around the complete seduction of Madame de Tourval, the virtuous wife of a judge, to prove once and for all his skill with women. These two plots converge in such a way that each libertine is working to help the other, until their personal feelings for their partner in crime lead to outright war between them. With a set-up such as this, I was given my train-wreck. It was glorious. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I was enjoying their machinations so much that I didn’t actually want Merteuil and Valmont to fail; but, of course, wits such as theirs are not often paired with humility, so those looking for a “happy” ending, where the bad people meet their proper ends, will be satisfied. What I wasn’t expecting from this set-up was insight, of a sort, into the sexual dynamics present in relationships and how these dynamics are perceived by society according to gender. This is most obvious when considering Madame de Merteuil and her relationship with Monsieur de Prevan, an unfortunate noble who convinces himself that he can ruin her pristine reputation by seducing her. When Merteuil decides to play Prevan at his own game, Valmont warns her to say that Prevan has successfully seduced and ruined three women at once before. Despite this story being fairly common knowledge, Prevan’s reputation hasn’t suffered for it; the only way that Merteuil can damage his reputation is to make it look as if he were about to rape her. The ideas that society has regarding male and female promiscuity has always seemed absurd to me: if a woman is labelled a slut for her promiscuity, why is a man congratulated, or at least not punished in the same way, for the same offence? It’s not something that I was expecting to come up, especially considering that this was published in 1782, so it was nice to see both Merteuil and Valmont portrayed in similarly negative fashion for their similar conduct.
Unfortunately, this isn’t utilised fully, and women seem to get the short end of the stick here more often than not. A particular gripe for me is the relationship between Mademoiselle de Volanges and Chevalier Danceny. I knew from his first letter that I deeply disliked Danceny. I considered his behaviour to be generally dreadful, yet he comes out of the novel the least damaged. First, his tactics in persuading Cecile to return his feelings come off more as him taking advantage of Cecile’s inexperience and guilt; if your main tactic is guilt-tripping your object of affection, then there is a serious power balance issue. Second, when he is taken away from Cecile, it takes very little time for Merteuil to seduce him herself once she makes up her mind to do so; this is made worse by his decision to hide his affair from Cecile once he has access to her again, in order to “spare her feelings”. Finally, once her relationship with Valmont is revealed to him, he seems to spare her no sympathy, just allowing her to seclude herself in a convent and suffer for her infidelity; ignoring the hypocrisy there, she’s something like 15 years old and utterly clueless about sexuality, due to having grown up in a convent. To say that I was horrified by Cecile’s ultimate fate would be an understatement.
The other aspect that has interested me especially about Les Liaisons Dangereuses is the huge amount of ambiguity that Laclos includes regarding motive and feelings between characters. I am referring in particular to the relationships that Valmont has with Merteuil and with Madame de Tourval. Throughout the novel, it is unclear whether Valmont is treating Madame de Tourval with the same callousness that he has done with countless other women, or whether he does actually possess some genuine form of love for her. At the same time, it is unclear whether the love affair that Merteuil and Valmont had in the past is impacting the events of the present story: does Merteuil still have feelings for Valmont, or is she merely referring to the past in order to bait him? They’re questions that cannot be answered definitively, but I like to think that genuine feelings are present in both cases; even though they don’t really affect the machinations overall, it is more interesting for me to consider Valmont and Merteuil as capable of love in some capacity, if only to introduce a point of mental weakness that can be exploited.
As you can probably gather from that lengthy discussion that I had with myself about this novel, I enjoyed Les Liaisons Dangereuses enormously. It is a difficult book to recommend to those who like a traditional happy ending, as no-one escapes this unpunished, regardless of their crimes. I can, however, recommend it to those who enjoy following intricate manipulation by masters of social convention, such as myself. It’s also interesting to read the odd mix of libertine and traditional values of the time that this book presents. As a book that is also superbly well-written, I can think of few reasons to outright dislike it. 4.5/5.
Next review: Scarlet and Black by Stendhal.