Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos was not what I expected. I blame advertising.
Let me explain. I happen to be one of the seven people on the planet who has not seen the movie versions of Dangerous Liaisons. Not the one with John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer, both of whom I esteem as actors. Not even the one with my movie crush Colin Firth, which was for some reason titled Valmont. But what I do remember seeing was ads for those versions. Bunches of them. And from those commercials I came away with the impression that the book would be somehow in the style of a “light opera.” I knew there would be naughty bits – the titillating trailers were clear there – but I had the impression that it would somehow be humorous. So I went into this first book for The Classics Club and Back to the Classics Challenges thinking I was going to get a slow start.
Imagine my surprise when I realized I was actually reading was a very dark explication of treachery, in so many different forms.
Dangerous Liaisons is an epistolary novel detailing the complex, sexually charged relationship between the Marquise de Merteuil, a beautiful widow leading a double life, and the Vicomte de Valmont, a well-connected roué. Former lovers, they share a frank enjoyment of seduction. The novel begins with the Marquise requesting Valmont’s help in humiliating her former lover, the Comte de Gercourt, by deflowering his convent school educated intended, Cécile Volanges. (The fact that Cécile is not only the daughter of her best friend, but also her cousin, doesn’t even register with the Marquise.) Valmont demurs, as he is already actively engaged in seducing the virtuous Présidente de Tourvel, but events later make him reconsider the conquest. However, by this point Cécile has already fallen in love with her music instructor, the Chevalier Danceny, considerably complicating an already complicated situation.
Although it was written in 1782, I found Dangerous Liaisons almost shockingly modern. At one point, the Marquise points out that Valmont’s supposed “skills” at seduction are really just the result of luck:
And, pray, what have you done that I have not surpassed a thousand times? You have seduced, ruined even, very many women: but what difficulties have you had to overcome? What obstacles to surmount? What merit lies therein that is really your own? A handsome face, the pure result of chance; graces, which habit almost always brings; wit, in truth: but jargon would supply its place at need; a praiseworthy impudence, perhaps due solely to the ease of your first successes; if I am not mistaken, these are your means, for, as for the celebrity you have succeeded in acquiring, you will not ask me, I suppose, to count for much the art of giving birth to a scandal or seizing the opportunity for one. p. 103-104
Happily, I enjoyed this book, despite my surprise at its darkness, as well as my inability to like most of the characters very much. Maybe it’s because I’m the mother of teenaged girls, but I found myself focusing on – and feeling very sorry for –Cécile. I was also angry at Danceny, who totally abandoned Cécile in the end – only Valmont seemed to notice that his behavior had not been so different from hers. The book certainly captures the double standard for sexual conduct that existed at the time. But I was disappointed we didn’t hear more from Cécile – her last letter comes well before the end, not allowing for her perspective on the climactic events of the novel.
You know you’ve really enjoyed a book when you find yourself thinking about it after you’ve finished. I found myself wondering what the reaction to this book must have been at the time. I even wondered if in describing society so frankly -- and amorally -- Dangerous Liaisons had helped contribute to the French Revolution. I heartily recommend this novel to anyone who thinks classics are “boring” – this will disabuse them of that idea from the first page. This was a great kick-off to my Classics Club Challenge, and counts for my 18th Century Classic in the Back to the Classics Challenge, hosted by Sara Reads Too Much. I got this classic novel for my Kindle at the bargain price of $2.51 – I’ve decided to keep a running total for the 5-year challenge, mostly because I have the idea that reading classics should be good for the book budget! I’ll be updating the total on my Classics Club page as well.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive a free copy of this book for review.