In 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.
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.
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.
Will McMorran is Reader in French & Comparative Literature, Queen Mary University of London.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.