Taming the Savage Noble

The outrageous life of the Marquis de Sade, told by an author who is susceptible to his "terrible charm"

THE first time the Marquis de Sade went to prison, in 1763, it was under a royal lettre de cachet signed by Louis XV, on charges of "blasphemy and incitement to sacrilege." Thirty years later, after the Revolution, the aristocrat nearly went to the guillotine for having "corresponded with enemies of the republic." Finally, Napoleon's government put him in a mental hospital under a diagnosis of "libertine dementia," based primarily on his writings: unblinking descriptions -- celebrations, really -- of cannibalism, coprophagy, necrophilia, the rape and murder of children, and countless other perversions. In all, he spent twenty-eight of his seventy-four years in confinement.

Every generation has had to decide what to do with Donatien Alphonse de Sade, and since his death, in 1814, his reputation has undergone a series of dramatic turns. For the historian Jules Michelet, writing around 1850, the marquis epitomized the decadence of the ancien régime; yet a few years earlier the critic C. A. Sainte-Beuve had named him and Lord Byron as the two great inspirations of contemporary French literature. Flaubert, Baudelaire, and Swinburne were among the nineteenth-century writers who admired De Sade's work while it was still off limits to most readers.

In 1886 Richard von Krafft-Ebing introduced "sadism" as a pathological term, and De Sade -- both the man and his writings -- became a subject for psychiatrists. The avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire dubbed him "the Divine Marquis" and "the freest spirit that ever lived," and later he became a hero to the Surrealist movement. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Albert Camus condemned De Sade as a spiritual forerunner of the Fascists and the Stalinists, but Michel Foucault credited him with giving the Western world "the possibility of transcending its reason in violence." De Sade's works are now published in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, an honor reserved for acknowledged classics, and their prestige in academic and critical circles has never been higher.

As for De Sade himself, he has been biographically lionized by Maurice Heine and Gilbert Lely and humanized by Maurice Lever. Now Francine du Plessix Gray does something even more radical: in At Home With the Marquis de Sade she domesticates him. Her De Sade "detest[s] bloodshed" and fusses as much over his cherry orchards as over the intricate choreography of his orgies; inquires about his children's manners and schooling as he sits in prison; and holds a "notably idealistic view of marriage" (meaning that he steers clear of other men's wives even as he cheats on his own). It is a portrait that the marquis, who spent most of his life seeking to shock and disturb others, would find frustrating. But then, in Gray's telling, De Sade's story is ultimately an "eloquent allegory on women's ability to tame man's nomadic sexual energies, to enforce civilization and its attendant discontents."

DE Sade was born in 1740 in Paris, in the palace of the Condé branch of the ruling Bourbon family, to which he was related through his mother. At the age of four, after the headstrong Donatien struck a prince of the blood royal during a fight over a toy, he was packed off to his father's relatives in Provence. There he came under the influence of his uncle the Abbé de Sade, a cleric who counted Voltaire among his friends, kept a mother-daughter team of mistresses, and gave his nephew the freedom of his library, which included ample pornography amid the more edifying literature.

At the age of ten the boy returned to Paris and entered the elite Jesuit school of Louis-le-Grand, where he developed what would prove lifelong passions for theater, flogging, and sodomy. Two years later his mother, long estranged from his father, retired to a Carmelite convent, and thereafter Donatien would have little contact with her. At sixteen the marquis received a commission in the army's prestigious carabineers unit, and by nineteen he had acquired a reputation as a gambler and a lothario.

Donatien's father, himself a virtuoso ladies' man but a less than successful courtier and diplomat, sought to secure the family's fortunes with a profitable match for his son. He found one in Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil, the homely daughter of a rich Paris judge. To the elder De Sade, the Montreuils' wealth more than made up for their lack of noble lineage; but the groom was less enthusiastic. Twenty-two years old and smarting from rejection by an aristocratic Provençal beauty, the young rake got over a case of gonorrhea just in time for the wedding.

Marriage hardly reined him in. Five months later De Sade took a prostitute to lodgings he kept in Paris and locked her in an upstairs room. Did she have religion? he asked. She answered that she was a faithful Catholic, whereupon he began furiously cursing. He masturbated into a chalice and told her how he had desecrated communion hosts by using them in a carnal act. He showed her his eclectic set of sexual aids: scourges, crucifixes, religious pictures, and pornographic images. He had her whip him with a red-hot cat-o'-nine-tails. Although he hinted at threats with a sword and pistols, she refused to blaspheme along with him, or to let him whip or sodomize her. He read her some sacrilegious poetry, and when the morning came, he let her go.

Ten days later the Paris police arrested De Sade, but thanks to the influence of his family, the incarceration lasted only three weeks. His mother-in-law, Mme. de Montreuil, was a shrewd and decisive woman who knew how to handle the judicial bureaucracy, and was known as "la Présidente" because of her husband's place within it. Charmed by her son-in-law, she defended him to his blood relatives and assured them that he would reform soon.

Instead, for fifteen years the incorrigible De Sade spread his family's shame ever wider and made his own legal situation ever worse. On Easter Sunday in 1768 he pretended to hire a woman as a housekeeper; then, after threatening to "murder her and bury her in the garden," he whipped her and poured hot wax into the lacerations on her back. Four years later, in Marseilles, he organized a bisexual orgy with his valet, and fed two prostitutes an overdose of Spanish fly; that earned him a conviction in absentia for both sodomy and poisoning, for which he was decapitated and burned -- both in effigy -- in Aix-en-Provence. Undaunted, after more than two years as a fugitive in France and abroad, punctuated by five months in prison in Savoy, he took five adolescent girls and a boy to his ancestral home of La Coste for a winter of orgies, having them held captive until the marks on their bodies had healed. Not until August of 1778, following a shooting attempt by an irate father, another arrest, and escape, was De Sade trapped. He spent the next twelve years behind bars.

It was a sentence that Gray seems to consider unjust. Although she does not excuse De Sade's crimes, she tends to use strikingly mild language to condemn them, calling his captivity and torture of six minors "scandalous antics" and "ignoble doings." As for the Spanish-fly episode, she finds it "very doubtful" that he intended to harm his victims, arguing that he was probably "sloppy" in preparing the "irresponsibly large" dosage, and notes that he was in part "a casualty of the social conflicts that continued to be played out in France" -- between the crown and the parlements, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie -- in the years leading up to the Revolution.

Gray seems less interested in the suffering of De Sade's victims, and hardly tries to evoke the "psychic terrorism" he practiced on them. Of course, the sources are partly to blame for such bias: De Sade and his wife speak to us through their long correspondence, whereas the little people of the past are almost all mute. Yet the author, a novelist and a journalist as well as a biographer, imaginatively ventures beyond the documentary evidence to enter the minds of both marquis and marquise.

Despite her obvious sympathy for him, even De Sade eludes Gray's understanding at times. Puzzled by why he carried his "quest for pleasure" to such self-destructive lengths, she posits a combination of narcissism, delusional grandiosity, infantile anality, and exhibitionism.

Such explanations would not have interested Mme. de Montreuil. After years of protecting her son-in-law from the courts, she finally lost patience when he seduced her daughter Anne-Prospère, a twenty-year-old virgin and a canoness of the Benedictine order, whom he took with him on one of his flights to Italy. Provoked to a "primitive female fury, a rage ... unquestioning in its self-righteousness," la Présidente thereafter dedicated herself to having De Sade locked up for good.

The marquis, who had originally curried favor with his mother-in-law (perhaps seeking, in Gray's view, the sort of affection he had missed from his own mother), vilified Mme. de Montreuil in letters to his wife, calling her "your whore of a mother," "a venomous beast," "an infernal monster," and other, less printable epithets. He later may have taken a more literary revenge. In Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795) a recently deflowered virgin takes part in the rape and genital mutilation of her straitlaced mother. According to Gray,

This is one of the many moments in Sade's fiction that express the author's abhorrence of the maternal principle, of the entire process of procreation. It is tempting to surmise that this detested female is modeled on the Présidente de Montreuil, and that the book's violent ending was further fueled by his resentment of his own glacial mother.

WHILE la Présidente turned against De Sade, Pélagie only grew more tolerant of her husband's misdeeds, even when these involved her younger sister. She helped to round up warm bodies for the revels at La Coste, and may have taken part in them herself. During De Sade's twelve-year stretch in prison, first in Vincennes and later in the Bastille, she bore the insults ("you're only trying to torture me through your execrable letters") that he alternated with endearments ("celestial kitten," "star of Venus," "fresh pork of my thoughts"), and she kept him supplied with books, sweets, tailor-made clothes, and the enormous bespoke wooden dildos (to be made, he stipulated, by the same craftsman who supplied the archbishop of Lyons) with which he consoled himself for the lack of partners. Meanwhile, she lived less than half as expensively as the prisoner, selling her silver shoe buckles to support them both.

Such devotion is at once baffling and familiar, the stuff of a thousand self-help books about smart women and foolish choices. Gray, whose books include a biography of Louise Colet, the novelist and much-abused lover of Flaubert, is something of an expert on female masochism -- and what better subject than the willing victim of the original sadist? Indeed, Gray first planned to write this book about the Marquise de Sade, rather than her husband, in order to plumb "the mystery of absolute passion and the mystery of absolute submission and ultimately the mystery of her own rebellion against him."

Evidently these mysteries proved unfathomable. Gray likens Pélagie's attitude to "that total surrender of self achieved only by the most perfect nuns," and declares that "her love seems to have been too exalted, too selfless" to demand something as "commonplace" as marital fidelity. The idea is romantic, and no doubt will prove seductive to some, but it does not explain much. The author's desire to understand Pélagie's attitude leads her to suppose "a secret gentleness in [De Sade], which may well have been at the heart of his terrible charm." In identifying with the charmed, Gray herself seems to have succumbed, which would explain why at many points she sympathizes with De Sade more than a biographer's detachment should permit.

Gray does offer a more prosaic reason for the marquise's attachment, suggesting that the "initially timid, sheltered Pélagie had been sexually aroused by her husband, intensely so, and may have been further stimulated by witnessing his carousings." Naturally this stimulation would have worn off during De Sade's long incarceration (when he also grew enormously fat). After moving into a convent to appease her husband's obsessive jealousy, the marquise became increasingly pious, and inexorably drifted away from the fervent atheist she had married.

Yet among her services to the imprisoned De Sade was to smuggle out some of his decidedly impious writings. He had started writing before prison, turning out travelogues of Italy and Holland as well as pornographic works, but it took long confinement to unleash his literary energies. Drama was his greatest love, but his plays -- utterly conventional in their morality -- were destined for obscurity. It was his obscene fiction that would bring him immortal fame.

At the time, however, this scandalous work was a matter for the utmost secrecy. In 1785, writing in a tiny script, De Sade transcribed drafts of The 120 Days of Sodom -- a seemingly exhaustive catalogue of ways in which the human animal might conceivably pursue sexual pleasure, especially by inflicting pain -- onto four-inch-wide sheets of paper, which he glued together to make a roll almost forty feet long, small enough to hide in a hole in the wall. In this period De Sade also produced an early version of Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue (1791), which tells the story of a beautiful young orphan, unswervingly good and hopeful, ravished and tortured by almost everyone she meets, and finally struck dead by lightning. Napoleon is supposed to have called it "the most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination." Others would call it the blackest of black comedies.

Removed from the world as punishment for his crimes, De Sade turned to writing. The result would offend society, and posterity, far more than anything else he had done. Although Gray acknowledges the "heinous, deplorable, seldom surpassed misogyny" in De Sade's work, she also sees him as a pioneer of modern psychology. Rejecting the Enlightenment belief in basic human goodness, he anticipated Freud in recognizing "the grim ambivalence of erotic and destructive impulses, of love and hate, that color most human attachments." In the "terrifying orgies of his fictions" he illustrated the freeing of those impulses from all of civilization's taboos. He also foreshadowed today's "Queer Theorists" with his "highly polymorphous view of human eroticism."

Reading De Sade, however, offers none of the satisfactions of clinical objectivity. His books are moral experiments with the reader as the specimen. De Sade blended the arousing and the revolting so skillfully that it becomes hard to tell one from the other, and hard to resist the relentless propaganda -- windy discourses on the falsity of religion and the necessity of murder -- with which the pornography is interspersed. The reader gradually finds himself taking pleasure, however guilty, in imagining the worst atrocities. By Sadean logic, this proves that those atrocities are natural, and that nature -- especially human nature -- is at least as cruel and destructive as it is nurturing and generative.

PRISON not only fostered De Sade's literary career; it also gave him his start as a political orator. On July 2, 1789, a restive crowd had formed outside the Bastille, and for security reasons the commandant of the garrison denied De Sade his regular constitutional along the ramparts. Frustrated, the marquis picked up a funnel (part of his urinal apparatus) and used it as a megaphone to shout out the false news that guards were cutting prisoners' throats inside. Thus De Sade may have helped to instigate the famous storming on July 14, but he gained nothing from it: by then he had been transferred to other confines, and looters destroyed or took all that he had been forced to leave behind, including the manuscript of The 120 Days of Sodom. (It eventually turned up in Germany and was published in 1904.)

De Sade regained his freedom the following April, shortly after the National Assembly voted to release everyone held under lettres de cachet. He emerged to find his world vastly changed. The political and social order in which by birth he held a privileged spot was falling apart. His wife refused even to see him, and soon obtained a legal separation. To protect her children's inheritance from their profligate father, she would spend the rest of her life wresting from him as much of it as she could.

De Sade adapted, personally and politically. Now fifty, he took up with Constance Quesnet, an actress seventeen years his junior. He hid his aristocratic background (at one point claiming to come from a line of simple farmers), adjusted his rhetoric to match the increasingly radical character of the government, and briefly served as president of his Paris section. Gray rightly dismisses the Surrealists' claim that "the revolution found [De Sade] devoted body and soul." In private he supported a constitutional monarchy, a system that would have benefited his feudal class, yet he remained "relentlessly opportunistic in his public stances."

In October of 1793, before an audience of tens of thousands, De Sade eulogized the bloodthirsty revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat -- an action embarrassing to later admirers. Never mind the disjunction between Marat's radicalism and De Sade's secret monarchism. How could a writer who condemned capital punishment (writing that "the law, cold and impersonal, is a total stranger to the passions which are able to justify in man the cruel act of murder") praise a man who had called for the mass execution of political prisoners? Gray proposes that the speech may have been a "parody of sans-culottes clichés." Perhaps the parody was not subtle enough, for its author was arrested two months later on unwarranted suspicion of reactionary activity. Slated for the guillotine on July 27, 1794, he was passed over, thanks to bribery or sheer luck. A day later Maximilien-François Robespierre was executed, and the Terror came to an end. Here, as throughout the book, Gray lays out the historical background clearly, blending it neatly into her story.

Free once again, De Sade spent the next six years mostly in poverty, occasionally working as a theater prompter and at times even begging in order to survive. His "well-peppered" writing, as he privately called it (while publicly denying authorship), earned him more money but cost him his liberty once more. The police arrested him in March of 1801. Two years later his wife and sons had him moved from prison to the more respectable confines of the Charenton insane asylum, where he finally found success as a dramatist: with the approval of the asylum's director, who considered the activity therapeutic, De Sade directed fellow patients in performances of plays, including several of his own, drawing large audiences of curious Parisians.

De Sade also enjoyed female companionship at Charenton. Constance, posing as his daughter, lived in adjoining rooms, and a laundress, seventeen at the time of his death, regularly visited him. The girl, Gray writes, regarded the old marquis like "a doddering uncle given to pinching behinds," but he did more than pinch: they had their last round of "little games," as he referred to their diverse sexual encounters, only six days before he died.

Notwithstanding De Sade's countless liaisons, Gray argues that by far the most influential women in his life were his wife and her mother. The one by patiently and lovingly sustaining him for as long as she did, the other by imprisoning him and thereby forcing him to channel his energies, the two made possible his literary career. Gray remains surprisingly ambivalent about this achievement, declining to decide whether Pélagie's sacrifice was "for good or for worse."

At Home With the Marquis de Sade closes with a description of a mountain spring, its waters cascading down the slopes "with an imperiousness that always strikes me as Dionysian and utterly male" and issuing as a river that irrigates croplands and turns mill wheels. Gray offers this as a metaphor for De Sade's wild sexuality, contained though never fully tamed by civilization, which finally found an outlet in his pen. It is a pretty image, but an oddly fertile one to use about a writer whose work scorns mothers, the maternal, and human reproduction itself. If De Sade's life is a story of civilization's triumph over barbarism, the victory was a pyrrhic one.

Francis X. Rocca is the managing editor of He has written for The Wall Street Journal and The Times Literary Supplement.

Illustration by David Johnson

The Atlantic Monthly; March 1999; Taming the Savage Noble; Volume 283, No. 3; pages 108-113.