Wednesday 21 October 2020

'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' at the Dr Johnson's Reading Circle

In October the Dr Johnson Circle met again on Zoom to discuss what may have been the most divisive book in the group’s five years, Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos.

In the book, two conniving aristocrats, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, play games with each other and everyone around them. Valmont schemes to break the virtuous wife, Présidente de Touvel and both scheme to break the virtue of the young Cécile. The book is an epistolary novel in which a third of the letters are skilful tissues of lies, another third are reports about how the schemes are progressing (which might also be skilful tissues of lies) and the last third are genuine communications of feeling (which we may have doubts about, given all the lying).

The division was not over the quality of the book, which was described as ‘powerful’ and ‘mind-blowing’ by members of the circle, it was whether the quality and craft had created a book that was possible to enjoy. We all agreed that we were increasingly appalled as the book progressed and the schemers at the centre were increasingly exposed. But half the circle found themselves disconnected, to the extent of putting the book down, and half the circle found themselves engaged, to the extent of staying up into the night to finish it.

The book spends a few pages at the beginning trying to distance the reader from the action with what purports to be a publisher’s note. The ‘publisher’ of the book has the suspicions that the text may not be actually a genuine collection of letters but, horror of horrors, a novel. He notes that if they are a collection of letters, they can’t be modern French ones, as the current French aristocracy are so virtuous that the characters and events of the book could not possibly happen there. However, the intimate nature of the epistolary form means that this distance is narrowed, especially as the book progresses.

Usually the Reading Circle meets bi-monthly, but with the need for online meetings, it’s been upped to once a month. This means our previous reading of Pamela was fresh in our minds as we read this, especially as the form and subject matter overlapped in so many ways. Whereas Pamela was largely told through her letters, Dangerous Liaisons has letters zipping about in all directions and while Pamela used her letters to reveal herself, many of the letters in this book took the form of disguises. It showed how sophisticated that form of novel had become and we wondered how Laclos kept the details in his head as he wrote, talking fancifully of the reams of post-it notes that must have littered his desk.

At one point Danceny, Cécile’s aspiring lover, declares that, A letter is the portrait of the soul”, a sentiment that couldn’t be further from the truth in this novel. Johnson once wrote something similar to Hester Thrale, though he was being ironic;

“In a Man’s Letters … his soul lies naked, his letters are only the mirrour [sic] of his breast, whatever passes within him is shown undisguised in its natural process. Nothing is inverted, nothing distorted, you see systems in their elements, you discover actions in their motives.”

Valmont is a man famous for seduction but he fails to seduce. He may have charm but his primary technique is to wear down his would-be conquests until they can’t put up any more resistance. He describes it as siege warfare, and that is exactly how he plays it, a war of attrition until the woman gives up. While this is very easy with Cécile, whom he rapes without much compunction, Tourvel is a less easy target. She is committed to her husband and he must use all his ‘skill’ to break her - sending her letter after letter even after she pleads with him to stop. Indeed, the campaign to wear her down begins to wear him down and he starts to fall in love, terrified of having ‘an involuntary feeling’. This makes him weak in Merteuil’s eyes and makes him a target, congratulating him with the wonderfully sarcastic, “you are well endowed, I am sure, with a good opinion of yourself.”

Tourvel, whose spirited defence almost breaks Valmont, eventually gives in and his cock-crowing report almost buries the rape in his self-congratulation. She changes instantly, from a character who expresses herself in firm, yet polite dignity, into Valmont’s slavish worshipper and then, worst of all, the typical tragic heroine dying of a broken heart. While the book may be reaching for the same tragic death as Clarissa, a book overtly mentioned in the text, her sudden lack of agency saps the tragedy out.

While Valmont may be the physical player in the schemes, it’s Merteuil who is the true puller of strings whilst maintaining her cover as a chaste widow, good friend, kind mentor and eager lover. She’s like Iago with a decent postal system. Now tired of Valmont, and jealous of his almost-loving Tourvel, she sends letters to incite a duel which kills him, finding herself the happy fly in the middle of her web and looking for new victims. She receives a huge comeuppance though: the now loose Valmont papers implicate her in enough schemes to ostracize her from all her community; she loses her wealth in a court case she had not expectation of losing and her beauty is taken by smallpox. While some in the Reading Circle felt this appropriate karma for her actions (and the calculated manner in which she did them), others wanted her to have a last triumph she never had, slinking off to Holland a much-reduced figure. In some ways she does get the last laugh, although the author couldn’t have known it: she was spared the guillotine in the Revolution which occurred only four years after the novel’s publication.

This is in no way a book which makes the reader feel good at the end but it is thoroughly gripping throughout. It was fascinating to read a book which uses the word ‘love’ so many times but is filled with so much hate, Dangerous Liaisons still has some danger in it.

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