Brief Lives: Marquis de Sade

Brief Lives: Marquis de Sade

by David Carter

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As explicit in his prose as he was in his private life, the Marquis de Sade remains one of the most controversial writers of all time. This new biography, by the acclaimed translator and author David Carter, promises to shock as much as it informs. Arrested many times for sexual misdemeanors, the Marquis de Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille, where he was writing


As explicit in his prose as he was in his private life, the Marquis de Sade remains one of the most controversial writers of all time. This new biography, by the acclaimed translator and author David Carter, promises to shock as much as it informs. Arrested many times for sexual misdemeanors, the Marquis de Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille, where he was writing 120 Days of Sodom and The Misfortunes of Virtue at the time that it was stormed in 1789. After the French Revolution he was again imprisoned and sent to an asylum, where he wrote diaries and plays. This concise biography offers a fresh look at a relentlessly compelling figure with a fascinating life of scandal and imprisonment.

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Hesperus Press
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Brief Lives Series
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Brief Lives

Marquis de Sade

By David Carter

Hesperus Press Limited

Copyright © 2011 David Carter
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84391-917-9


Childhood, the Military and Marriage 1740–63

The child born on 2nd June 1740 in the Hôtel de Condé, Paris, should have been called Louis-Aldonse-Donatien de Sade, according to his mother's wishes, but, with so many new-born babies dying at the time, the christening was hurriedly put in the hands of some servants. Entrusting such important matters to servants was quite common at this time, and in this case the servants obviously thought that one of the father's names, François, would be more appropriate, instead of Louis, and, as the Provençal name of Aldonse was completely unknown to them, they substituted Alphonse. The child who was to become infamous as the Marquis de Sade was thus finally named Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade.

De Sade's father, the Comte Jean-Baptiste-François-Joseph de Sade, was born in Avignon in 1702, to a family of Italian origin that had settled in Provence in the twelfth century, and he inherited the estates of Lacoste and Saumane and one at Arles in the Camargue, as well as sharing ownership of another at Mazan. On 13th November 1733 he married Marie-Eléonore de Maillé de Carman in the chapel of the same Hôtel de Condé where his son was to be born. His bride was the daughter of the Comtesse de Maillé, who had been lady-in-waiting to the Princesse de Condé. Both the princess and the prince attended the wedding and, shortly after, Marie-Eléonore was also appointed lady-in-waiting. For the first few years of his marriage the Comte de Sade lived separately from his wife, fulfilling his duties as aide-de-camp to the Maréchal de Villars. A daughter was born to the couple in 1737 but survived for only two years. In 1739 the count was appointed lieutenant- general, and it was in 1740, when the Prince de Condé died, that he was sent to Cologne. He was at the Court of Cologne at the time of his son's birth.

The Princesse de Condé died only eighteen months after her husband, when the boy Donatien was just one year old. As a result his mother ceased to be lady-in-waiting but was allowed to stay on in the Hôtel de Condé to bring up both her own son and the five-year-old orphaned prince. It is likely that Donatien resented his position as the younger, weaker child, who was not shown the respect paid to the older prince, and it must have been hurtful as well as mysterious to him when his parents suddenly decided in 1744 to send him away to be brought up by other members of the family. It is possible that one reason for the parents' decision was to free the countess to accompany her husband on some of his missions. In August 1746 another daughter was born, but only survived for five days.

Donatien was sent to the home of his paternal grandmother in Avignon. She was a kind old woman who had mothered ten children, four of her daughters having taken holy orders. The boy stayed there only for about a year and a half, when he was sent to live with another relative, a forty-year- old uncle, who, if not exactly a role-model for him, undoubtedly opened his eyes to an alternative view of morality. This was his father's younger brother, the Abbé Paul Aldonse de Sade d'Ebreuil, who fulfilled his priestly duties at the Cistercian monastery at Saint-Léger d'Ebreuil, near Limoges, but entertained mistresses in his chateau at Saumane. There was also much local gossip about his relationships with the proprietress of a tavern who was notorious as a prostitute, and with a maid by the name of Marie Curt. Interestingly, while the count's finances declined drastically over the years, the abbé had a sizeable income. He had a benefice at the monastery and also received a generous pension from the Archbishop of Arles.

The sight of his new home must have been daunting to the young Donatien: the Château de Saumane had all the appearance of a strongly fortified castle, with walls six feet thick, openings for cannons, a moat, drawbridge and portcullis. However, the abbé had had the interior well decorated, creating also a studio, where he could pursue his interests in natural history, and an extensive orangerie. Most influential on the development of his young nephew proved to be his well-stocked library. Apart from presenting the boy with an example of how to live a double life, the abbé thus also awoke in him a taste for culture.

The library contained the major works of French literature by authors such as Racine, Molière, Boileau, Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot, as well as philosophical works by Hobbes, Locke, Bayle, Montesquieu, etc. There were also hidden corners where the abbé concealed his collection of dubious works on sexual aberrations. While it cannot be proved beyond doubt, it is difficult to imagine that such an inquisitive child as Donatien would not eventually have found a volume with the intriguing title History of the Flagellants, in which the good and bad uses of flagellation among Christians are pointed out. Translated from the Latin by Abbé B*** (Amsterdam, 1701), in which the author apparently cites several cases in which flagellation was known to have incited sexual desire.

A major research interest of the abbé was the history of his own family. He was especially interested in proving the validity of the local legend that Petrarch's Laura had been a member, by marriage, of the de Sade family. He became convinced that she had been the daughter of one Audibert de Noves and Dame Ermessende, and that she became the wife of Hugues de Sade, on 16th January 1325. It has proved difficult to substantiate his claim, but the legend persists.

The count decided to employ a private tutor for his son. The man recommended to him was a 29-year-old cleric from the diocese of Geneva, the Abbé Jacques-François Amblet, originally from Annecy. He had not yet been ordained and so was free to take such a post. Donatien's uncle sent back favourable reports of the tutor to the count, indicating that he seemed to be an intelligent and sensitive teacher. It seems likely that Amblet provided the boy with the warmth and friendship that was lacking in his relationships with his family.

The only other companionship the boy found was with the peasant children of the village and on the nearby farms, with only occasional contact with the children of merchants, lawyers and the like. In this way he acquired a liking for the Provençal dialect. He did however establish one friendship that was to last: with a boy called Gaspard François Xavier Gaufridy, who was the son of a businessman from Apt with responsibility for managing the count's properties. They often went on long walks together and sometimes stayed with Donatien's grandmother at Lacoste.

In the autumn of 1750, when Donatien was eleven years old, the count decided that it was time to bring the boy back to Paris and put him in a Jesuit school, the Collège Louis-le-Grand, in the rue Saint-Jacques. The Jesuit method of education at the time involved a combination of manifest kindness with a strict regime of punishment for any child who infringed the rules. Beating with the birch on a carefully specified extent of exposed body was the norm. Many biographers have attempted to trace de Sade's fascination with whipping and anal eroticism at least in part to the corporal punishment he endured at school, but it must be stressed that such punishment was the norm in most schools and was often enforced in more extreme forms. In de Sade's case there must have been latent tendencies that such treatment reinforced.

Although it is likely that Donatien stayed occasionally in the nearby Hôtel de Condé, he undoubtedly shared the same routine as the boarders for the most part. The daily routine of the school was not particularly strict when compared with other similar institutions, though it might appear so by modern standards. It involved getting up at 5.30 a.m., attending prayers at 6 a.m., and studying the Bible for an hour and a half before breakfast. The morning study period started at 8.15 a.m., with a break for mass at 10.30 a.m. There was then a period of private study until the lunch break, followed by a period of recreation. The afternoon study session started at 1.15p.m. and continued until 4.30 p.m., when there was another break. Then study continued from 5 p.m. until 7.15 p.m. After prayers at 8.45p.m., the boys had to go to bed at 9 p.m. Religious education took up only a small part of the day, being restricted mainly to the morning mass and prayers.

The Jesuits were more generous than many educational establishments when it came to the role of entertainment in the boys' lives. As well as the conventional curriculum of Latin, Greek and rhetoric, they arranged for the boys to take part in theatrical activities and other kinds of performances. Classic French tragedies would be studied and then performed, and in the intervals there would be pastoral sequences with music and dancing. There are even records of the occasional performances of operas and oratorios and many more sober versions of biblical stories and the lives of the saints. In addition to using works by respected authors, the Jesuit fathers often wrote works themselves especially for such occasions. The performances were not just behind closed doors, but were usually attended by the pupils' parents and other relatives, and also invited lords and ladies of the nobility. Extant engravings show that the stage sets were often elaborate, utilising complex machinery, with convincing special effects. Performances were held outdoors in amphitheatres in the summer and in a special indoor theatre in the winter. It cannot be said with certainty that de Sade took part in any of the performances, but undoubtedly he attended most that took place during his stay at the school. It has been estimated that, during his stay, at least fifteen plays and ballets were put on (from August 1750 until sometime in 1753), many with impressive sets and scenery. An interest in writing, directing and acting in plays stayed with him throughout his life, and we can reasonably suppose that the experience of the school productions awakened this enthusiasm.

De Sade's first known close relationship with a woman dates from his time at the Jesuit school. In late August or early September, at the end of every school year, Donatien would stay with one of his father's former mistresses, the widowed Comtesse de Raimond, whose husband had been Governor of Ingolstadt. The countess, born Marie de Bède de Blaye de Montrozier, lived in the Château de Longeville, near Fismes in Champagne. Though her affair with Donatien's father had long been over they maintained a close relationship, and she soon became enamoured of his charming son, whom she frequently referred to in letters as 'my son' or 'our child'. She now lived throughout the year at Longeville with her mother and daughter, but maintained contacts with the most respected members of local society, including leading members of the church and the nobility. Many charming young unmarried women were also among her visitors, and in the winter months she held a sort of regular soirée, at which the latest works of philosophy would be discussed and entertainment provided in the form of music and poetry. A regular participant was a certain Mme De Vernouillet, who quickly won the affections of the thirteen-year-old Donatien. She obviously enjoyed the effect she was having on him. In a letter to the Comte de Sade in September 1753, the Comtesse de Raimond reported that his son was truly in love with the woman and seemed to be experiencing strong affections that were unfamiliar and surprising to him and were driving him wild with desire.

Yet another habituée of the countess' soirées who was captivated by the young Donatien was Mme de Saint-Germain, who also referred to him as her son and invited him to her home. She became so enamoured of him that she refused to let him return to his father and wrote the count a long begging letter, in which she claimed that she was able to shower upon him the attention that would not be available to him in Paris, and that she had already taught him many things in the short time that he had been with her.

De Sade was to remember these women and their motherly love with affection throughout his life. In a letter from his prison in Vincennes in 1784 he was to write to his wife of Mme de Saint-Germain as the one woman in the world, after his wife, whom he had truly loved. He felt he owed her as much as any man can owe to his real mother.

The count was not at all dismayed by his son's amorous liaisons and positively encouraged them. He even rented some rooms for him not far from the Hôtel de Condé, where Donatien could entertain his lady friends when they were in Paris. With his growing financial difficulties the count was also undoubtedly hoping that his son's charms would eventually attract a woman endowed with considerable wealth.

Near the end of the school year in 1754, when Donatien was just fourteen, his life took a sudden turn that was to thrust him rapidly into manhood and enable him to discover the true nature of his sexual appetites. His father removed him from the school and put him into a military training establishment in which he was also attached directly to a regiment. At that time it was not unusual for children as young as twelve to be put into regiments. The count obtained a place for his son in the École préparatoire de cavalerie, founded in 1741, and attached to the light cavalry regiment of the King's Guard. It was a very aristocratic regiment and posts in it were highly sought after. The count had used his connections and pulled strings to ensure his son's acceptance. He also had to provide a certificate confirming at least four generations of nobility in his family, as well as pay 3,000 livres for the honour. After a twenty-month period of training Donatien was appointed sub-lieutenant on 14th December 1755. He did not receive any wages but was now able to wear an impressive blue uniform. After a further thirteen months he was promoted to the rank of cornet, with responsibility for carrying the regimental flag, in the Brigade de S. André of the Comte de Provence's Carbine Regiment.

War was brewing at this time in Europe, with France, Austria and Russia joining together in a coalition against England and Frederick II of Sweden. Fighting broke out in June 1756, sparking off the Seven Years War. De Sade had his first experience of fighting under enemy fire under the command of the veteran Maréchal de Richelieu. According to official reports of the battles de Sade acquitted himself well. By 1757 he had been transferred to the Brigade Malvoisin of the Carbine Regiment, and in April 1759 he was nominated for the captaincy of a cavalry regiment that had become available. He was now in his nineteenth year with an income of ten thousand livres. In the same month he wrote to the Abbé Amblet of his indulgences in pleasure seeking. The abbé was staying with his father at the time and Donatien must have known that the news would be passed on. The letter's tone made it clear that its author had not changed his ways, and he stressed that his first thought on rising from his bed every morning was how he might pursue more pleasure that day. The count also received a letter from a companion of his son, one M. de Castéra, who commented on his violent passions. The companion promised to prevent him from misbehaving with German girls and spending too much money on gambling. These were hardly words to reassure the count.

By this time Donatien's mother had retired to a Carmelite convent on the rue d'Enfer. Whatever the reasons for her final decision, her relationship with the count had been deteriorating over many years, and with the gradual loss of their wealth she had long been unable to live the life of luxury that she had been used to. The count's mistress, Mlle de Charolais, had died after a long illness in 1758, and, finding himself very lonely, he decided to retire to his estate near Avignon. Here he hoped to put his financial affairs in a degree of order, so that he might give some attention to finding a wife for his son. This seemed to be the only sure way of taming Donatien's passions and gaining some guiding hand in his development. The ideal young woman would have to be both noble and wealthy, but he also needed to make his son's prospects more promising if he was to make such a catch. He asked the king to let him resign his own appointment as lieutenant-general of Bresse, Bugey, Valromey, and Gex in favour of his son. In March 1760, the king granted his request, but reduced the stipend for the post from 80,000 to 60,000 livres. The count was not happy with this outcome, but the king would not change his mind.


Excerpted from Brief Lives by David Carter. Copyright © 2011 David Carter. Excerpted by permission of Hesperus Press Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

David Carter is a writer, translator, and freelance journalist and the author of Georges SimenonHonoré de Balzac, and Literary Theory.

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