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Pierre Choderlos De Laclos
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Pages (PDF): 435
Publication Date: This edition, translated by Thomas Moore, 1812
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Complete 4 Volumes. Les Liaisons dangereuses (The Dangerous Liaisons) is a French epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, first published in four volumes in 1782. It is the story of the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, two rivals (and ex-lovers) who use seduction as a weapon to humiliate and degrade others, all the while enjoying their cruel games and boasting about their manipulative talents. It has been claimed to depict the decadence of the French aristocracy shortly before the French Revolution, thereby exposing the perversions of the so-called Ancien Régime. As an epistolary novel, the book is composed entirely of letters written by the various characters to each other. In particular, the letters between Valmont and the Marquise drive the plot, with those of their victims and other characters serving as contrasting figures to give the story its depth.
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Are novels useful, or are they prejudicial to the morals? is a question long agitated, and not yet resolved; for the reasons on both sides are equally plausible. Undoubtedly Richardson, who is read and cited every where, though prolix and diffuse, has not a little contributed to the practice of pure morality; and yet, on the other hand, what mischiefs have been produced by the immense multitude of novels of all sorts with which France and all Europe have been overrun for some years past; and, as if the evil done by these temporary plagues was not sufficiently accomplished during their short existence, it is prolonged by reviving them in eternal collections. A novel, the morality of which is equivocal, is a very dangerous poison; a novel that only possesses mediocrity, is at best useless. Even a good novel is but aliment for a child, or some weak being, to whom morality unadorned is a disgusting object. Hence we may conclude, that every thinking man will take care to banish this kind of works from his library.
He will then likewise proscribe that novel, now so much prized, called Dangerous Connections, or Letters collected in a Society, and published for the Instruction of other Societies. After having read a few pages of this work, one is almost led to think this title a piece of pleasantry; the letters of Madame de Merteuil, and of the Viscount de Valmont, published truly for the instruction of society. Is it in order to form people to the detestable art of seduction, or to inspire them with a horror of it? and yet this work has been censured, and approved; has had all the honours of war, while so many other useful works are like the manes of the ancients, to whom a sepulchre was denied, and who were forced to wander upon the gloomy banks of the Styx, and admitted only by stealth. O cæcas hominum mentes!
I am far from a wish to calumniate the author, who, I am assured, is a military man of the highest character for wit and good conduct; but his work, which seems to have a moral end in view, is in reality very dangerous. It has been said to be a picture of the manners of a certain class in society; and, if it was not a resemblance, where would be its utility? Must monsters be created to cause in us an aversion of ordinary vices? If it is true, it ought to have been concealed; there are shocking nudities which our minds revolt at rather than receive any instruction from. The veil that covers the Tiberiuses and the Messalinas, ought not to be wholly lifted up.
Young men will find in this novel easy means of seduction; young women will here see portraits of embellished vice; and old libertines will be amused by the exploits of Valmont. But what a monster is Valmont, if such a character exists; and those who know that class of society, assure us, they have met with many such. If there really are such beings, ought not their society to be avoided carefully? It is a forest filled with robbers: to enter it we should be well armed. It is a road full of great precipices, to avoid falling into which, we must be very circumspect.
What a character is the Marchioness de Merteuil! Sometimes she is a Medea, sometimes a Messalina. Read the tenth letter: vice is to be drawn; but should it be drawn in such seducing colours? Are there many young people who will prefer the character of a virtuous man to the brilliant and lively one of the profligate Valmont? Are there many who will not blush at the awkwardness of Cecilia? And when one blushes at being ridiculed, they are not very far from the vice that exempts them from it. In France, ridicule is too much dreaded; they would rather be vicious; and this book will rather assist that taste.
The style of romances may serve to lead us to the knowledge of the morals of ages and nations. Thus the country, which has lately produced the natural and moving Henrietta of Gerstenfeld, is far from the state of depravity of Paris and London. I form my opinion from the book. In the last age the French novels were full of gallantry and virtuous love, because then they were gallant and respectful. In this age, they have substituted wit to love, and the novels are stuffed with an unintelligible jargon of metaphysics. Of this they grew tired, and libertinism succeeded to it. From thence so many licentious romances. The immense quantity that are produced is a complete proof of the corruption of the age; the rapidity with which they are bought, the rage with which they are devoured, farther prove this depravation.
Doing justice to the zeal that seems to animate the author of those observations, we may be permitted, I hope, to make some farther remarks on the manner he has presented his? Before we begin to examine the degree of moral utility contained in the novel of Dangerous Connections, the author of the correspondence first begs leave to ask whether novels in general are useful or prejudicial to morals? This method is the most prudent; but is it not singular, that, acknowledging the indecision of this question, because the reasons for and against are equally seducing, he is still so bold to condemn, indiscriminately, all novels, without assigning any new reasons in justification of this definitive sentence? On the contrary, the author asserts, Richardson's novels have been useful to morality, to preserve them in their purity and in the same breath advises all thinking men to banish them from their libraries! Are the consequences suitable to the premises? Is not that confounding the genus with the species? But if it was even true, that the best novel is only food for infancy, or a weak being, for whom unadorned morality is a terrifying object, would the author's decision be the more justifiable? I will not determine; but I would ask what he means by those thinking men, for whom unadorned morality is not terrifying? It would be, perhaps, those declaiming misanthropes, who censure and despise every thing that does not bear a resemblance to their savage and austere way of thinking? I have sometimes had a good opinion of their understanding, but been ever diffident of their hearts; were we to attend to them, we should also banish from our libraries the divine poem of Telemachus, which is the first of novels, which modest qualification does not hinder it from being, if one may venture to call it, the first of our books; not only by the grandeur of the business it treats, but also by the manner in which it is treated. We should also banish from our libraries even the works of the Correspondence, the morality of which is become very interesting, by an ornamented, pure and elegant style; if, notwithstanding those qualities, this work has its opposers, would it find many readers if it was divested of them?
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