WQ: The Wilson Quarterly
At Home With the Marquis de Sade: A Lifeby Francine du Plessix Gray
In this groundbreaking account of the scandalous life and the violent times of the Marquis de Sade, novelist, essayist, and biographer Francine du Plessix Gray brilliantly resurrects this legendary man's relationship with his family -- his devoted wife, his iron-willed mother-in-law, and his three children. Gray draws on thousands of pages of letters exchanged by the two spouses, few of which have been published in English, to explore in the fullest historical and psychological detail what it was like to be the Marquise de Sade, a decorous, upright woman married throughout the decades preceding the French Revolution to one of the most maverick spirits of recent times.
Donatien Alphonse Francois, Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), the flamboyant aristocrat whose name has come to connote sexual cruelty, has been called "the freest spirit who ever lived," "the most lucid hero of Western thought," and "a Professor Emeritus of crime." Yet in the vast literature inspired by the marquis' fictional and real-life libertinism, relatively little attention has been given the two women who were closest to him: Renee-Pelagie de Sade, his adoring wife for more than a quarter of a century, and his powerful mother-in-law, Madame de Montreuil. Gray brings to life these two remarkable women and their complex relationship with Sade as they dedicated themselves, each in her own way, to protecting him from the law, curbing his excesses, and ultimately confining him.
After years of indulging a variety of sexual aberrations, experiences he used in novels such as Justine, Philosophy in the Boudoir, and The 120 Days of Sodom, Sade was imprisoned on the basis of an arrest warrant issued by Louis XVI at his mother-in-law's instigation. Throughout his 13 years in jail, Madame de Sade was her husband's principal solace and his only lifeline to reality. Few spouses seemed more ill-matched than the profligate nobleman and his homespun wife, but the two enjoyed intimate bonds of affection and conspiracy. Madame de Sade remained passionately in love with her husband throughout the first 26 years of their marriage; she accepted his many liaisons with actresses, courtesans, and whores of all varieties; hid her husband's traces from the police; and may even have participated in his orgies. It was only upon the onset of the French Revolution, when Sade was finally freed from the Bastille, that Pelagie made a sudden about-face from her decades of abject devotion.
In the course of telling this remarkable story, Gray vividly re-creates the extravagant hedonism of late 18th-century France; the ensuing terror of the French Revolution, when her protagonists lived in fear of imminent destruction; and the oppression of the Napoleonic regime under which Sade spent his last decade. The 74-year span of the Marquis de Sade's life, the entire panorama of his milieu and of his times, are brought to life in these pages with immediacy, irony, and verve.
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Pélagie's energetic husband will not winmany admirers, but his life makes quite a story.
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Soft and voluptuous creatures who are led by libertinage, sloth, or adversity to the delectable and lucrative vocation of whoring, follow the following advice, the fruits of wisdom and experience: practice sodomy, my friends, it's the only way to earn money and amuse yourselves...Prudish and delicate wives, take the same course; become Protean with your husbands in order to attach them to you....You will run infinitely fewer risks, both for your happiness and for your health: no children, seldom any illnesses, and a thousand times greater pleasure.
Marseilles, twelve noon of Saturday, July 27, 1772: a little third-floor flat of 15 bis Rue d'Aubagne, at the corner of Rue des Capucins. Enter gentleman "average size," "blond hair," "handsome face," "full features" wearing a gray coat with blue lining and a vest of marigold-yellow silk with matching breeches; there is a dapper plume in his hat, a sword at his side; he carries a gold-knobbed cane. The visitor is in the company of his valet, who is slightly taller than his master and has long hair and a face pitted by smallpox; he wears a blue-and-yellow-striped sailor's costume. When addressing each other, the two men swap social roles: Sade calls his domestic Monsieur le Marquis and Latour addresses employer as Lafleur, the plebeian name Sade will later bestow on a fictional valet in his novel Philosopby in the Boudoir.
The flat the two men are visiting belongs to the prostitute Mariette Borelly, one of fourgirls hired by the marquis for this particular party. Sade's hunt for big-city pleasure began four days earlier, upon his arrival Marseilles. After dropping off his bags at his hotel, he went several times to a brothel on Rue Saint-Ferréol-le-Vieux to visit a nineteen-year-old prostitute called Jeanne Nicou. Meanwhile Latour was scouring the back alleys of the port district, assigned by his master to recruit some "extremely young girls" for a special debauch.
The company has finally assembled, and besides the hostess of the party, twenty-three-year-old Mariette, it consists of eighteen-year-old Marianne Laverne and two other professionals, both twenty years old, Mariannette Laugier and Rosette Coste.
The four young women are gathered in the room, waiting for the marquis. Immediately upon arriving, he seizes a handful of large coins from his pocket, holds out his clenched palm. "There'll be enough money for everyone!" he announces. Whoever comes closest to guessing the number of coins in his hand, he adds, will have the honor of being first. Each girl guesses a number, and Marianne Laverne "wins" by coming closest.
In the first scene, the Marquis de Sade locks the door and orders Latour and Marianne to lie down on the bed. He whips the prostitute with one hand while masturbating his servant with the other, calling him "Monsieur le Marquis." Then Latour is asked to leave, and exits rather dejectedly. Left alone with Marianne, the marquis offers her a gold-rimmed crystal candy box containing pastilles of Spanish fly cantharides is the chemical name of the substance coated with anise-flavored sugar. He tells her to eat plenty of them in order to bring about the desired flatulence: he has specified that he wishes her to fart and let him "take the wind in his mouth," but she refuses to consume more than seven or eight. The marquis then says that for an extra coin she can be sodomized by him or by his valet take your choice, he offers. When Marianne turns down both options (or so she will claim in her deposition to the police, sodomy being a crime for men and women), Sade hands her a scroll of parchment bristling with misshapen nails and asks her to whip him with it. She cannot manage to give him more than three blows. He orders her to continue, but she pleads that she feels faint. He then asks her to find a heather broom, which she goes to fetch in the nearby kitchen. Less fearful of this household implement than of the metal scourge, Marianne strikes the marquis with it several times, as he cries out that she must strike him harder. Suddenly Marianne moans that she feels sick to her stomach. She rushes to the kitchen to get a glass of water from the maid. Feeling even sicker, she asks for a cup of coffee. Another set of performers gathers to play out the marquis's fantasies.
In the second scene, while Marianne is recovering in the kitchen, Sade invites Latour to return, in the company of Mariette. Sade tells her to undress and to crouch at the foot of the bed. He gives her a few strokes with the broom and asks her to do the same to him. While Mariette repeatedly whips him, the marquis, using his penknife, records on the wooden mantelpiece the number of blows that he receives:... 79...215...225...240...After a total of 758 blows, he throws the girl down on the bed, face up. He takes his pleasure with her in the "conventional manner, while masturbating his valet and then being sodomized by him. Then exit Mariette, enter Rosette.
The antics of the triad in the third scene duplicate those of the previous one, with a few minor variations: the marquis orders Rosette to undress and watches his valet take her in the missionary position. Latour and Sade next take turns masturbating each other, while Rosette thrashes the marquis with the broom. Sade then offers the girl extra cash to be sodomized by his valet. She refuses (or so she will testify) and leaves the room, making way for Mariannette.
In the next scene, Sade first caresses the prostitute and then tells her he will whip her because "he still has twenty-five blows to administer." Seeing the blood on the scourge of nails he is holding (it is his own blood), she takes fright and tries to leave. Sade forcibly prevents her and calls for the first whore, Marianne, to rejoin them. He offers candies to both girls. Mariannette tries a few and spits them out. Marianne refuses the sweets, saying she has already eaten too many. After giving a few blows of the whip to both girls, one of the girls' police testimony went, "the man...whipped both of us with the broom whisk he had asked for, then threw the witness on the bed face down...stuck his nose between the cheeks of her buttocks so as to inhale her wind, and asked the victim to masturbate his domestic again. This she refused to do."
Then, having ordered Mariannette to watch the proceedings, Sade sodomized Marianne while being sodomized by his valet. Mariannette turns away and weeps by the window (or so she will testify), saying she does not wish to watch such spectacles. The marquis again orders her to masturbate Latour, but she refuses and tries to leave. Marianne, still lying face down on the bed, also weeps. Now both girls beg to leave. At first Sade threatens them, then he dismisses them, giving each six livres and promising ten more if they will accompany him that evening on a moonlight sail in Marseilles harbor.
Thus ended an interlude that the marquis's enthusiastic pioneer biographer, Gilbert Lely, called "Cytherean." Sade went back to his hotel room for his afternoon siesta, enjoying, as usual, a sleep as deep and untroubled as a child's. But the prior events had been merely an hors d'oeuvre. He planned to leave for La Coste the next day and could not face an evening devoid of novelties. After his siesta, he sent his lackey to Marianne and Mariannette's bordello to pick them up for his projected sailing party, but they refused to go. Latour then scoured the streets of Marseilles for fresh meat (one is constantly reminded, throughout this picaresque episode, of Don Giovanni and his manservant, Leporello). He found a whore standing before her door, twenty-five-year-old Marguerite Coste, native of Montpellier, who was willing to receive the marquis in her room. Leaving her a small advance, Latour rushed back to find Sade, who was dining at his inn with an actor, and whispered news of his great find. Dinner and guest were quickly dispatched, and the two men set out for the fifth prostitute's room.
In the final scene, Sade and his valet climb the two flights of stairs to Marguerite Coste's room. Upon arriving, the marquis dismisses Latour, who again leaves with a look of frustration. Sade puts down his cane and sword and offers the girl his crystal candy box, from which she eats several pieces of sugar-coated Spanish fly. He tries to persuade her to take more, but she declines. He insists, telling her that all the girls he consorts with eat a great deal of these bonbons, and she finishes the contents of the box. He then proposes to "enjoy her from behind and in other yet more horrible manner," but she refuses, asking him to take her only "in the way God wills it." Sade leaves the lady, paying her six francs.
At dawn the next morning, the marquis and his valet set off in a three-horse coach for Aix-en-Provence, first relay stop on their way home. Little did they know that their last prey, Marguerite Coste, made very ill by an overdose of Sade's candies, was setting in motion the judicial system of the entire Marseilles region, which was under the jurisdiction of the Parlement of Aix-en-Provence. After Sade left her room, she had vomited "black fetid matter" and suffered from fever and severe intestinal pains. Compassionate neighbors called the police, and Mlle Coste was diagnosed by surgeons and pharmacists. Along with the four prostitutes who took part in the marquis's earlier revel, one, of whom had a milder form of the symptoms plaguing Mlle Coste, she would be thoroughly cross-examined by policemen and prosecutors later in the week. On Saturday, July 4, one week after the marquis's "Cytherean" frolic, the king's prosecutor would issue a warrant of arrest for the Marquis de Sade and his valet, M. Latour.
Spanish fly, a substance extracted from the body of a green-hued Mediterranean insect, has been renowned for its aphrodisiac properties since antiquity. It enjoyed a renewed vogue in Europe during the Renaissance and became particularly popular in mid-eighteenth-century France, where it was used extensively and notoriously by one of the most popular military heroes of those decades, Maréchal de Richelieu (candies made with this ingredient soon became known as "pastilles à la Richelieu").
It is very doubtful that Sade employed this venerable substance with the intention of harming his sexual partners. Even Mme de Montreuil, who by now had become her son-in-law's bitterest enemy, vigorously denied any possibility of malicious intent on his part. "Why on earth," she commented, "would a man give poison to girls he had never seen or heard of and whose profession offers no occasion for love, jealousy, or benefit of any kind?" But it was in Sade's nature to be sloppy about preparing such potions, and the doses he forced upon the girls were irresponsibly large, the traditional dosage being two pastilles in twenty-four hours. Sade made excessive use of the drug because his intent went beyond mere sexual arousal. Incited by what psychiatrists call "coprophilic perversion" a neurotic pleasure derived from the smell of feces he wished, above all, to stimulate the prostitutes' intestinal functions and have them produce a maximum of gases. So he covered large doses of Spanish fly with a coating of anise, equally known for its capacity to increase flatulence.
Sade's disregard for the potentially fatal effect of this pharmaceutical experiment inevitably brings up the issue of his brutal elitism and that of his entire caste: most every member of Sade's society was indifferent to the fate of whores. The fact that a man of his rank could be condemned because of a whore's illness he considered all such women to be "vile creatures" was an indignity Sade would never be able to fathom. As an affront to the judicial system that condemned him (he later described the members of the Aix Parlement as "a bunch of tuna merchants and petty seamen, a crowd of riffraff with whom the nobility should have nothing to do"), he even refused to admit that he had offered the prostitutes any sweets. He insisted that the women had simply been made ill by their overindulgence at the dinner table. His disdain for the legal proceedings set against him is displayed in a letter he wrote some five years later. Continuing to assert that gluttony had been the sole cause of the girls' illnesses, he claimed that "a mild disturbance of the entrails is a very prevalent illness in Provence" and derided the prosecutors of his case in his novella Le Président mystifié as "a pack of scoundrels...return[ing] a verdict of 'poison' in a case involving a few strumpets with colic."
But the nature of Sade's intent was never examined by the French judicial system. Once again Sade was not only victimized by his own psychopathic follies and his dreadful reputation; he was also a casualty of the social conflicts that continued to be played out in France. In 1772, the French political system was more dominated than ever by the Montreuils' bitter enemy M. de Maupeou. Louis XV would die in 1774, and in the last two years of his reign, Maupeou, his chancellor, wielded greater influence than ever. Although he had risen to power on the basis of his popularity as a leading member of the French Parlements, by 1772 the mercurial chancellor was locked into a fierce struggle with these increasingly fractious institutions. He had exiled thousands of magistrates throughout the country and replaced them with men loyal to him. So the indictment on charges of poisoning and sodomy brought against Sade and Latour by the Marseilles court was maneuvered by jurists appointed by Maupeou, who did his bidding. Moreover, the lawsuit incited by the Marseilles incident was the most serious one yet brought against the marquis; sodomy, theoretically, carried the death penalty. So the police detail that arrived at La Coste on July 9 to arrest Sade was out for blood. Much chagrined were they to be met at the gate of the château by M. Fage, Sade's notary, and to hear that the marquis and his valet had been gone for a week and had not been heard from since their departure. After a careful search of the castle, the police went on to question servants and villagers, who also claimed, most loyally, that no one had seen the men for many days.
Sade had escaped just in time. Two days earlier, during rehearsals of two plays scheduled to be performed at La Coste on July 9, one of which was Voltaire's comedy Adélaide du Guesclin, an actor in Sade's troupe had come to warn him that he was accused of having poisoned several prostitutes and that an arrest warrant was imminent. Because of its exposed topography, the village of La Coste is perilous for anyone seeking cover; every slope of its barren peak is clearly visible from the plain that surrounds it. But most of its adjoining terrain, the area now called the Vaucluse, is perfect for escapees. (The word maquis, a term for the underground fighters of World War II France, is derived from the thick, low shrubbery that covers much of that region and makes it ideal for outlaws.) So the marquis and his valet had fled La Coste for safer hiding places in their own province. But they had not escaped alone. They were in the company of Sade's sister-in-law the canoness, Anne-Prospère Launay.
The fugitives probably found refuge not far from home: at Saumane, with Abbé de Sade, who would have been delighted to feast his eyes on the ravishing Anne-Prospère, or in Mazan, with the devoted overseer of Sade's estate, M. Ripert. Whatever site of Provence the marquis and his companions hid out in, soon after their attempted arrest the Marseilles court returned a verdict of guilty against them. Police officers came back many times to La Coste, seizing and marking, as specified by law, all of the marquis's property and sources of revenue his château, his farms and estates in the region, and any rents and revenues deriving from them.
And then three weeks later, as mysteriously as she had left, Anne-Prospére returned alone to La Coste, to be with her sister. Did the marquise ask Anne-Prospére to escort the marquis in order to increase his safety, by making his wanderings seem like a peaceful family trip? Or did this impulsive, confused schoolgirl decide on her own to accompany him? Did she return out of religious scruple, or out of ambivalence toward the marquis's sexual requests, or out of loyalty to her sibling? Whatever her intentions were, by the time the enigmatic Anne-Prospére reappeared at La Coste she was not in great shape. Her state of emotional turmoil is portrayed in a petition to legal authorities, drawn up by the Marquise de Sade some time later, which describes the events of the summer of 1772. (It is the same chronicle in which the marquise intimates that her husband had conceived a "fatal passion" for his sister-in-law.) After describing the state of shock she herself suffered in the weeks after her husband's indictment, Pélagie states the following:
She [Mme de Sade] strives to quiet her anguish, to soothe her state of alarm; she addresses herself to her sister, but the disarray she witnesses in [her sister]'s soul, the hesitation and wavering of her answers, only heighten her own state of agitation....Her sister's very dejection diminishes her own strength.
Notwithstanding their shared anguish, soon after Anne-Prospére's return to Provence the sisters went off together to Marseilles, determined to bribe the prostitutes into withdrawing their accusations before Sade's case went on to the court of Aix-en-Provence for appeals. They were armed with four thousand livres, which Pélagie in direr financial straits than ever, since the police had seized all her husband's properties managed to raise with the help of M. Ripert, Abbé de Sade, and even the impoverished Abbé Amblet, who contributed a thousand livres. Her search for cash had been frantic. She had first turned to her mother, who by this time was fully apprised of her younger daughter's liaison with Donatien, and this time the Présidente refused her. No letters of Mme de Montreuil's have survived from that summer, but her state of mind is made clear in Pélagie's aforementioned petition:
The petitioner...imagined that she would find comfort in the tenderness of her parents. She addressed herself to Mme de Montreuil, her mother; she made every possible effort to move her but did not find any of the kindness she had counted on; [her mother informed her that] to solicit for her husband would be tantamount to being the accomplice of his transgressions.
So in the summer of 1772 her husband in hiding, her mother estranged Pélagie was left with no support whatever. The Présidente's state of mind can be readily inferred: How could she continue to assist the rake who had deflowered her most treasured child, the dazzling beauty whom she had groomed to further enhance the Montreuils' social standing by a brilliant marriage? Obviously, Mme de Montreuil had sent her oldest daughter packing. And from now on the enmity between the two women would grow apace.
Their estrangement was not without benefit to Pélagie. Once she realized that she was on her own, she acted with quite as much imagination and dynamism as her parent; her mission in Marseilles was highly successful. In exchange for handsome payment (they probably received over a thousand livres apiece), the two prostitutes responsible for Sade's indictment, Marguerite Coste and Marianne Laverne, signed documents withdrawing their charges.
But this was a small victory in light of the new crop of legends and outlandish gossip that flared up against the marquis a mere six weeks after his Marseilles caper. The writers of the "Bachaumont" newsletter, one of France's most popular social gazettes, published the following fable:
Friends write from Marseilles that M. Le Comte de Sade, who caused such an uproar in 1768...gave a ball....Into the dessert he slipped chocolate pastilles so good that a number of people devoured them....He had mixed in some Spanish fly. The effect of this preparation is well known. It proved so potent that those who ate the pastilles began to burn with an unchaste ardor and to carry on as if in the grip of the most amorous frenzy. The ball degenerated into one of those licentious orgies for which the Romans were renowned. Even the most respectable women could not resist the uterine rage that swept through them. And so it was that M. de Sade enjoyed the favors of his sister-in-law, with whom he had fled to avoid the punishment he deserves. Several persons died of their frightful priapic excesses, and others are still quite sick.
News of Sade's latest fling quickly spread to the highest Parisian circles. Three weeks after the Marseilles episode, M. de Saint-Florentin, the minister of the interior, wrote to the governor of Provence: "One hears a great deal, sir, of a very serious incident in Marseilles that involved M. de Sade and of which the Parlement has been apprised. I can't help but express my surprise at the fact that you have not yet informed me of it directly. It is my duty to keep the king informed of all the important happenings that occur in the provinces."
A renowned bookseller who also published a popular newsletter, M. Hardy, made far graver accusations. Sade, he alleged, had been found guilty of "having conspired with his servants to poison his wife, incited by the violent passion he had conceived for his sister-in-law."
Such reports were all too frequently brought to Pélagie's attention. One can imagine her state of anguish as she sat out the summer at La Coste. How could she make the public understand that her husband's latest fling was just another case of licentious excess, so many thousands of which had gone unpunished? How could she make this truth be heard by a sensation-starved public? Above all, how could she surmount this grimmest crisis to date without her mother's help? Somehow her pessimism never daunted her spirits.
The most unexpected event event yet to occur in this agitated summer was the arrival of M. de Montreuil at La Coste. It was his first visit there. Despite his advancing years and his passive inclinations, he had traveled four hundred thirty miles, braving the summer heat of Provence, to do what he could to safeguard his family's reputation and perhaps bring solace to his eldest daughter. "La Coste is not a very extensive estate, but it is most seigneurial," he recorded in his diary.
Did the lethargic jurist come to Provence to offer Pélagie the help his wife refused to give, or was he merely carrying out the Présidente's commands? Whatever his intent, after ten days at La Coste, M. de Montreuil visited all possible relatives and acquaintances who might aid the family. He went to Saumane to commiserate with the abbé and to Mazan to dine with the resourceful M. Ripert. He met with the oldest of the marquis's uncles, Richard-Jean-Louis de Sade, commander of the Order of Malta, who had recently returned to Provence after a stay of many years abroad. The commander was the family's most respected and powerful member, and it is in his company that M. de Montreuil called on several influential jurists of Aix-en-Provence, whose Parlement was about to review the verdict handed down by the court of Marseilles. Even though he never intended to publish his diary, the cautious M. de Montreuil was so secretive about his mission that his journal entries do not mention his two daughters; they only once refer to his son-in-law, alluding to him in the context of M. de Montreuil's visit to Ripert's home at Mazan (it is probable that he secretly met there with Donatien).
Meanwhile the judicial system was proceeding, as it always did in Donatien's cases, with uncanny speed. In the first days of September, the Parlement of Aix upheld the verdict of the Marseilles court, finding Sade and Latour guilty as accused, "M. de Sade of the crime of poisoning and M. de Sade as well as Latour of the crime of sodomy." And a harsh sentence was imposed: The two men were condemned
to make a public confession in the courtyard of the cathedral of [Aix], and there, kneeling, hatless and in bare feet, rope about their necks...ask forgiveness from God, from the king; and from justice, and this done, to be led to a scaffold erected on Place des Prêcheurs, where Sieur de Sade will be beheaded and Latour will be hanged or strangled on a gibbet until found dead; then the bodies of Sieur de Sade and Latour will be burned and their ashes thrown to the winds.
Thus Sade was sentenced to a double execution he was to be beheaded for the crime of poisoning, burned for the crime of sodomy. The day after the court delivered its judgment, one of the eighteenth century's most picturesque scenarios of public disgrace was acted out on Aix's Place des Précheurs: the two culprits were executed in effigy rustic mannequin likenesses of the men were burned after a beheading and a hanging, in the manner spelled out in the sentence. Such allegorical death sentences, not unusual in the eighteenth century, were primarily designed to have an edifying effect on the public. A bonfire was built well ahead of time, and the large crowds in attendance, misled by the thick clouds of smoke shrouding the mannequins, often believed they were witnessing the real thing. As imposed on Sade, such an illusory execution was strictly symbolic; with the possible exception of political treason, under the ancien régime no physical torture or death sentence was likely to have been imposed upon such a high-ranking lord. Yet the chastisement signified another kind of decease, Sade's civil death. Precisely because he did not appear at his own trial and was condemned in absentia, under France's statutes of limitations the marquis was stripped for thirty years of all possible citizen's rights; his wife inherited a his property, and his increasingly detested in-laws, the Montreuils, now became his children's legal guardians.
The injustices of Sade's trials have been commented on extensively, even by his most bitter and prudish enemies. Documents concerning Sade's indictment and sentence drawn up four years later by Louis XVI's advisers would note "a number of absolute and even radical irregularities." The eminent young jurist Joseph Siméon, who four decades later would serve as minister of the interior in the cabinet of the ultraconservative monarch Charles X, was particularly incensed by the high-handed inequity of Sade's trial. Asked to write a report on the legal consequences of the Marseilles episode, Siméon harshly criticized the initial indictment for being "devoid of any factual foundations" and noted that the entire procedure was characterized by "such precipitous haste that one can only conclude that it was provoked." All critics of Sade's trial agreed that the charge of poisoning was particularly outrageous. The Aix courts never even took note of the fact that the two prostitutes, both of whom had fully recovered from their candy binge within a fortnight, had withdrawn their accusations on that count. Nor did the courts take note of the apothecaries' report, which, however archaic its methodology, exonerated the marquis of attempted poisoning.
The charge of sodomy was more complex, for it was shrouded in countless layers of judicial and social hypocrisy. Eighteenth-century French law specified that both males and females indulging in that practice were to be burned at the stake. Yet every citizen in his right mind knew that the custom had been widespread in bordellos for centuries and that no prostitutes or other women had ever been punished for it in any way. Moreover, only seven of the tens of thousands of men registered by the police as homosexuals throughout the eighteenth century were put to death, all of them defenseless members of the lower middle class. A few years after the civil death meted out to Sade for the Marseilles episode, a French police official commented on the blatant hypocrisy of his contemporaries' attitudes toward homosexuality: "Punishment...falls...not on the most criminal but on the least protected of the guilty....Pederasty, in the long run, is only allowed to be the vice of great lords."
The key phrase here is "least protected of the guilty." Due to the ascendance of Chancellor de Maupeou, by 1772 this was clearly the category Sade had once more fallen into. For this time, Maupeou, being in total control of the judiciary branch of government, was out for Sade's head; the marquis's fugitive status, which sabotaged any possible defense strategy, was a trump card in the hands of the chancellor's minions.
How did the marquis react to his symbolic execution? Many Sade scholars have drawn on a passage from The 120 Days of Sodom in which a debauched aristocrat learns that he has been sentenced to be burned at the stake in effigy: "When informed of the news that he was to be burned in effigy, the Marquis de *** pulled his cock out of his trousers and yelled, 'Fuckgod! Now I'm where I always wanted to be, heaped with scandal and infamy! Wait a minute, I must jerk off!' And so he did, at that very moment." Reading flesh-and-blood facts into Sade's fictions, biographers intimate that upon hearing of his public burning, the marquis acted just like his fictive libertine and cheerfully masturbated. Many Sade studies have been tainted by equally questionable tactics.
Whatever his reaction to the news, by the time he had heard of his death sentence Sade had fled to Italy. His wife having arranged every step of his triumphant evasion of the police, he was traveling in the company, again, of his valet and his sister-in-law. This time he had concocted yet another pseudonym from his repertory of names Comte de Mazan.
What about Pélagie, who once more remained at La Coste alone to engineer mercy for her husband? How might she have felt about his choice of traveling companions? Such speculations must take into account the extraordinary attitude Mme de Sade had toward her marriage. One cannot decode her through traditional concepts of wifely love, for her fixation on Sade far transcended most such attachments. Her obsession for her husband was analogous to the most perfect monastic dedication, to that total surrender of self achieved only by the most perfect nuns. Like an exemplary Christian whose love for a sinner must match the enormity of the sinner's transgressions, she seems to have felt that if Sade became a monster of immorality, she must all the more become a paragon of devotion. Most persons who knew Donatien well Mme de Saint-Germain, his military superiors, even, initially, his mother-in-law detected a secret gentleness in him, which may well have been at the heart of his terrible charm. Pélagie seems to have been acutely conscious of this trait, for she would continue to act throughout their years together as if his excesses were motivated by a totally innocent impulse for experiment, by the same ingenious curiosity that incites a child to pull a butterfly's wings apart.
We've never had access to the Sades' bedroom. Perhaps, when he returned to his wife after his revels, filled with the contentment he achieved through orgy, Donatien expressed his love for her more ardently than ever. Perhaps, when he took her in his arms, she felt their bond was strong enough to withstand any and all transgressions. Whatever inner rhetoric Pélagie took solace in, her spouse was her mission on earth, and she had so totally subjugated herself that she was incapable of judging him. Her marital ardor, in fact, may have been unique in her generation of women. It has a legendary, mythical streak. It is akin to the devotion displayed by wives of ogres in European fairy tales peerlessly domestic women who, constantly stirring delectable stews, keeping immaculate households and perfectly made beds, shut their eyes to their spouses' most gruesome murders. However the world would pity her for being deserted again and again for sluts, for having a husband more vilified than any other nobleman in the realm Pélagie appears to have found such felicity in serving Donatien de Sade that she never considered herself an unhappy woman.
So Pélagie's love was a kind of sublime folly and had most of the lineaments of the loftiest romances: a serene capacity for self-sacrifice; ardent admiration for the cherished one; a voluntary servitude to him, coupled with great disdain for those who had not grasped her beloved's splendor of soul. There was only one essential lineament of "love" as most of us know it that did not infuse Pélagie's obsession with her husband: the desire to possess the being by whom we are possessed. Her love seems to have been too exalted, too selfless, for such a commonplace aspiration. And that may be why she was able to remain at La Coste alone, doggedly struggling for the marquis's freedom, while he lived an incestuous idyll with her little sister in Italy.
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