I translated the Marquis de Sade’s only gothic novel into English


Will McMorran, Queen Mary University of LondonIn 1813, a year before he died, the Marquis de Sade wrote his last published book, The Marquise de Ganges. The novel is based on a 17th-century true crime that Sade – notorious aristocrat, libertine and pornographer – probably first heard of as a young boy, and later read about while locked up in the Bastille. According to the accounts of the time, this is what happened.

On the afternoon of May 17 1667, Diane de Joannis, Marquise de Ganges, better known in her time in Louis XIV’s court as la Belle Provençale, is faced with a terrible choice. Standing before her are her two brothers-in-law – the Abbé (the abbott) and Chevalier de Ganges. The Abbé is holding a pistol in one hand and a glass filled with poison in the other. The Chevalier’s sword is drawn. “Madame,” the Abbé tells her, “you must die: you may choose fire, steel, or poison”.

The next few hours pass in a blur. Poison swallowed, then furtively disgorged; escape through a first-floor window; brief sanctuary amongst the women of the village; frenzied blows from the Chevalier’s sword, its blade snapping in her shoulder; and finally, the Abbé’s pistol, pressed against her chest … misfiring.

This is not the end of the Marquise’s ordeal, but there is some respite at least. The women of the village come to her aid once more, driving back the Abbé and the Chevalier, who take flight, never to return – and never to face justice.

Her wounds are dressed, and she is taken back to the Château de Ganges. Despite her extraordinary courage and resilience, however, the damage has already been done. She dies 19 days later – the autopsy confirming poisoning as the cause of death.

Book cover for The Marquise de Gange featuring woman in period dress and powdered white wig.

Oxford University Press

It was one of the crimes of the century, and immediately became a récit sanglant or bloody tale, one to be told and retold by one generation to the next.

Now Sade’s version of this tragic episode is now available in English for the first time, in my new translation for Oxford World’s Classics. Sade scholars have always labelled it a “historical novel” but when I was translating it, I realised that’s not the right genre. It is, instead, Sade’s first and only truly gothic novel – inspired by English novelists like Ann Radcliffe, who wrote The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Mathew Lewis, who wrote The Monk.

Sade and the gothic

Sade today is probably best known as the man who inspired the term “sadism”, and for his works of violent pornography – novels like Justine and The 120 Days of Sodom, which he described as “the most impure tale ever written since the world began”. Until now, he’s not really been considered a gothic novelist – although he is often quoted as an early commentator of this new genre, which he called “the necessary offspring of the revolutionary upheaval which affected the whole of Europe” in an essay in 1800.

Gothic novels thrived in Britain from the 1790s to the 1820s and were highly popular across Europe. The writer Madame de Staël described these as stories whose “aim was to inspire terror with night-time, old castles, long corridors and gusts of wind.” They were stories of horror and suspense, of lust and love, with darkly violent and erotic undertones.

In the early 1790s, Radcliffe was the most influential and successful writer of this popular genre. Lewis’s The Monk, a supernatural tale of murder, incest and religion, saw the gothic take a turn from polite terror to the more shocking – think bleeding nuns and lecherous monks making pacts with demons.

Sade’s pornographic novels do share some features with the English gothic in terms of characters (virtuous heroines, debauched aristocrats and monks) and locations (isolated castles, dark forests, and even darker dungeons). Until now this has seemed a matter of coincidence rather than influence. When he wrote them, Sade hadn’t read Radcliffe or Lewis, and there’s no evidence that they ever read Sade either. And although The Monk was considered scandalous at the time, English gothic novels never come close to the graphic and often crude depictions of sex we find in Sade.

Portrait of the Maquise de Ganges
Diane de Joannis de Chateaublanc, the Marquise de Ganges.

But The Marquise de Gange is a very different work to Sade’s famous – or infamous – pornographic fiction. Written years later, Sade’s retelling is clearly inspired by novelists like Radcliffe and Lewis. It is his first attempt at a gothic novel – complete with its forbidding castle in keeping with “that Gothic style of architecture”.

Like so many other gothic novels, The Marquise de Gange is at its heart a story about predatory men and innocent women. In Sade’s part-fictionalised account of this historical murder, that violence is sexually driven, as the Marquise’s brothers-in-law take revenge for her rejection of their advances. Throughout the novel, male desire is a constant danger, a constant threat.

So far so gothic. But reading this novel is not quite like reading any other gothic novel, because it is impossible to forget who wrote it. Sade’s life, like his fiction, is a tale of repeated acts of sexual violence against women, from Jeanne Testard and Rose Keller, to the teenage girls he hired as servants in his castle in Lacoste one winter. As American radical feminist writer Andrea Dworkin put it, Sade’s “life and writing were of a piece, a whole cloth soaked in the blood of women imagined and real”.

Beneath the novel’s respectable surface, and behind its moralising narrator, the reader can’t help but look for glimpses of an amoral author. One wants to look for the mask to slip, as it seems to when the narrator lingers over the heroine’s “bosom of alabaster, covered only with her beautiful, dishevelled locks” in the climactic scene, or when the narrator forgets whether he should be impressed or outraged by the evil Abbé’s plotting: “Everything had been judiciously, or rather, maliciously calculated in the Abbé’s plans,” he corrects himself. Sade teases the reader, playing cat and mouse throughout this highly self-conscious and subversive version of a gothic novel.The Conversation

Will McMorran, Reader in French & Comparative Literature, Queen Mary University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Marquis de Sade: depraved monster or misunderstood genius? It’s complicated

Portrait of the sadist as a young man by Charles Amédée Philippe van Loo (1719-1795).
Author provided

Alyce Mahon, University of Cambridge

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, was a bestselling author in his day and yet he spent most of his life behind bars. His novels inspired the term “sadist” – “a person who derives pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from inflicting pain or humiliation on others” – and yet, in 2017, France declared his work a “national treasure”. So, was Sade a pornographer or a philosopher – and why does his name continue to cause such heated debate?

Two centuries after his death, Sade (1740-1814) remains a figure of controversy. On the one hand, his name is associated with the French Revolution and the storming of the Bastille, on the other, with rape, sexual terror and torture. During his lifetime, Sade was found guilty of sodomy, rape, torturing the 36-year-old beggar woman Rose Keller, imprisoning six children in his chateau at Lacoste, and poisoning five prostitutes with the aphrodisiac “Spanish fly”.

He managed to avoid the death sentence but still spent 32 years in prisons and insane asylums, partly due to the intervention of family members who kept him locked up to avoid disgrace. Momentarily freed under the French Revolution, he became “Citizen Sade”, participating in some of the key political events of the era, only to see his works seized, destroyed and banned under Napoleon Bonaparte.

His work remained censored throughout the 19th century and most of the 20th – but in 2017 the French State declared his 120 Days of Sodom (1785), written in the Bastille on a 12-metre scroll, to be a “national treasure”. So what happened between his lifetime and ours to change his profile so radically? Here are five things we should all know about the Marquis de Sade.

1. The most disgusting books

Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue (1791), Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795), The New Justine (an extended version of Justine published in 1797) followed by the Story of Juliette, Her Sister (1797) and The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinage (1785) – these are the works that led Napoleon Bonaparte to call Sade an author of “abominable” books and to have a “depraved imagination”. But they were penned behind bars and are the products of an incarcerated imagination – not accounts of his personal life and crimes.

No one escapes the satirical power of Sade’s pen – young or old, virtuous or corrupt, rich or poor – although his narratives are dominated by certain types, especially bankers, clergy, judges, aristocrats and prostitutes.

2. Philosopher of the bedroom

Sade lived in a time of terror. His writings may be read as a knowing inversion of Enlightenment high ideals as they were penned in France at the end of the 18th century in the shadow of the bloody guillotine. For example, Philosophy in the Bedroom – which contains a mock political pamphlet: “Yet Another Effort, Frenchmen, If You Would Become Republicans” – was written shortly after the fall of the leading radical Robespierre and it offers an absurdist take on the rhetoric and promises of the French Revolution.

In it, Sade also reminds us that “were it among Nature’s intentions that man be born modest, she would not have caused him to be born naked”.

3.Sade and sadism

Sade’s taste for sodomy, paedophilia and flagellation, in addition to his fictional accounts of excessive orgies, which describe sexual cruelty and murder in excessive detail, led many to presume he was deranged. This status was magnified by the fact that he ended his life in the asylum of Charenton, although a scientific examination of his skull by a Dr Ramon after his death showed no physical or mental abnormalities – phrenology determined the skull “was in all respects similar to that of a Father of the Church”. Casts were even made of his skull, one of which now sits in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

In Sade’s writings, however, the clergy are typically amoral characters and by the 19th century, the term “sadism” was coined by psychoanalysts to denote the experience of pleasure through the infliction of physical pain.

4. Pornography at the service of women

The feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir defended Sade in a 1951 essay entitled: “Must We Burn Sade?”.

Cover for 2020 book about Sade by the author Alyce Mahon.
Controversial study: the author’s recent book about Marquis de Sade.
Author provided

She argued that his novels’ exploration of the idea that “in a criminal society, one must be criminal” was never more relevant and that his life story and increasing perversity in his fiction was a symptom of society’s increasing attempts to control him.

In the 1970s and 1980s, feminists engaged in heated debate over Sade and his philosophical value. Angela Carter defended him for putting pornography “at the service of women” while Andrea Dworkin insisted his fiction only defended the male sexual desire to “possess” women.

5. ‘Divine Marquis’

By the 20th century, Sade was deemed “divine” by many intellectuals and artists who interpreted his writings as a dark mirror of man’s inhumanity to man. From Man Ray’s imaginary portraits of Sade in the late 1930s, portraying him as a paragon of liberty beside the burning Bastille, as war loomed in Europe, to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Saló (1975), which restages Sade’s 120 days of Sodom in fascist Italy, Sade’s name and writings offered modern artists and writers a means to address the horrors of war and totalitarian regimes. These are themes American artist Paul Chan explores in his mixed-media installations “Sade for Sade’s Sake” (2009) by conflating Sade and the “War on Terror”.

Sade’s writings may seem cold and cruel, but they can but leave a mark on the reader. Surely that is the power of art and why we must continue to read Sade.The Conversation

Alyce Mahon, Reader in Modern and Contemporary Art History, University of Cambridge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.