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The Marquise de Gange
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B : too hurried but engaging and intriguing
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
Translator Will McMorran's Introduction to this first English edition of de Sade's last published novel begins by summing up the end the historical Marquise de Ganges (yes, de Sade dropped the final 's') came to in 1667.
It was a famous case -- "one of the crimes of the century", McMorran notes -- and de Sade's readers were likely familiar with it; numerous books featured the story, notably also Gayot de Pitaval's Causes célèbres et intéressantes, which de Sade relied on for his own version.
(Gayot de Pitaval's account is helpfully also included in this volume, as an Appendix.)
The Marquise de Ganges' end was indeed sensational -- but the revelation of exactly what happened to her somewhat deflates what follows.
Readers may well expect that a virtuous heroine has no chance of faring well in a de Sade-novel -- and of course his Marquise de Gange doesn't -- but knowing exactly what happened to his protagonist's real-life counterpart does take away some of the suspense of how the character is doomed and finally done for.
Not that de Sade skimps on the (melo)drama and suspense going forward; still that description of what actually happened, in the opening paragraph of the Introduction, is a lot to live up to and equal.
In other words, readers are strongly advised to close their eyes at least to the opening paragraph (and preferably the opening pages) of the Introduction before plunging into the novel; as useful as the background information is, it can't help but (too) strongly color what follows of de Sade's own fiction.
God forbid we should allow ourselves to paint this canvas any darker than it already is ! It would be impossible in any case, even if someone were to try.The novel begins with Euphrasie de Rossan, "daughter of one of the wealthiest gentlemen of Avignon", married off at just thirteen to the Comte de Castellane. Her husband soon dies in a shipwreck, and the young widow retreats to a cloister; devout though she is, she is understandably bored there and, at age twenty-two, joins society again -- emerging as "the most beautiful woman of the age", and making quite a splash. She has suitors galore and settles on one of them, Marquis Alphonse de Gange.
The young couple are madly and happily in love. They have a son -- but even he is entrusted to Euphrasie's mother, so that nothing can get between them. (De Sade struggles to do much with the boy; for all her virtues, Euphrasie doesn't show much maternal affection or concern and practically never even sees the boy; even when he figures peripherally in the action the boy is kept off-stage, and there is never any real interaction between mother and child. De Sade surely could have made more of the character but simply doesn't seem to know what to do with him -- and, in fact, the real-life Marquise de Ganges also had a daughter but, as McMorran notes, "Sade erases her from his version of events". Children were apparently a complication he couldn't deal with here.) Fatefully, the couple also decides to move away from Paris, with all its temptations, and live, devoted only to each other, in the countryside.
They retreat to the family estate in Gange -- but do not remain entirely isolated and alone. And, yes, that close circle they keep around themselves turns out to be more trap than idyll.
Among de Sade's nice touches is a garden-labyrinth on the castle grounds. There:
When, after several wrong turns and missteps, one finally arrives at the heart of this labyrinth, a sarcophagus of black marble presents itself.Oh, Euphrasie, Euphrasie ..... But she's fine with the idea too. Unsurprisingly, however, the sarcophagus is later the scene of one of the novel's pivotal scenes (though arguably de Sade doesn't do nearly enough with this wonderful feature, with all its obvious potential, symbolic and otherwise).
In his Introduction, McMorran makes the case for The Marquise de Gange as a Gothic novel, and indeed de Sade repeatedly employs favorite Gothic tropes and a lot of such atmosphere. He certainly embraces the genre, though his command of it is often shaky, not fully utilizing some of the features he conceives (like that sarcophagus) or hurrying past some of his best Gothic conceptions -- notably when Euphrasie stumbles through yet another place she has been imprisoned in and comes across: "an open cadaver, almost entirely ripped asunder, on which the castle surgeon had just been working ... for this is his laboratory". If ever there was a locale to linger over, this surely would be it, but de Sade rushes her out; the pacing of The Marquise de Gange is relentless throughout but also sometimes clumsy, not nearly mining much of this invention for anywhere near all it's worth.
Euphrasie is completely devoted to her husband, but she has a big problem, almost from as soon as she gets to Gange: the Marquis' brother, the Abbé Théodore ("not yet bound to take holy orders", despite the title). Théodore sets his sights on seducing the beautiful Euphrasie, and does everything he can to bring about her fall -- into, he then also expects, his arms. He is determined to drive a wedge between the married couple -- to get each to believe the other is unfaithful -- and then, one way or another, see to it that he has his way with Euphrasie. Eventually -- after he's already done quite a bit of harm -- he is joined in his efforts by their other brother, the similarly base Chevalier. (The Chevalier's appearance, a third of the way into the novel, feels a bit like an afterthought, as if de Sade had initially forgotten about the third brother -- though when he finally does come onto the scene, de Sade observes: "This new character, whom it is now time to introduce given the importance of the role we shall soon see him play, was the youngest of the family").
As de Sade sums up:
To describe all three in one fell swoop, we shall say that the Marquis lent himself to evil, the Abbé counselled it, and the Chevalier committed it.With Euphrasie put into compromising positions and circumstances by the manipulative Théodore, the Marquis has reason to doubt his wife, time and again. She is, however, a complete innocent (if also terribly naïve), and for a while, after initially acting out, Alphonse lets himself be convinced each time that she is perhaps not at fault and the two are more or less reconciled; still, once that seed of suspicion has been planted ..... It can be a bit exasperating -- for both the reader and Euphrasie's husband: "The Marquis severely reproached his wife for perpetually falling into every trap laid for her" -- but the various traps the Abbé and Chevalier lay -- with kidnappings of various sorts and a variety of threats -- are certainly entertaining. And Euphrasie falls for and into them, time after time -- leading even her to moan, at one point: "Why must I always be the victim of my own imprudence ?"
Things take on greater urgency when Euphrasie makes a grand inheritance. The Marquis realizes he must be more solicitous of her, if he is to have any influence over the money -- while his brothers are now even more eager to see to Euphrasie's fall, so that they might be able to control (and spend) some of that fortune, before it goes to Euphrasie's son when he comes of age. (Presumably, this is the one reason de Sade kept the boy in the story, a necessary prop.) As the Abbé lays out the continuing course to the Chevalier:
I see only one way, and that is to lay ever more traps in Euphrasie's path, concealing ourselves so well that we evade all suspicion. When she falls into them, as she inevitably must, this should excite the Marquis's jealousy more than ever; let the scandal we shall foment around each stumble ruin his wife's reputation. Let this series of crimes force the Marquis, as he sees her disgracing herself again with every guilty step, to have her legally removed from the administration of the inheritance, so that one of the three of us can take charge of it.Euphrasie's big problem is that she is so virtuous -- to the extent that she won't say a bad word against her brothers-in-law, even after the Abbé openly declares his ambitions to conquer her. Time after time she has the opportunity to at least mention their suspicious roles in the strange things that happen to her to her husband, but she holds back. So also when she meets one of the men roped into one of the plans to trap her, she tells him: "You did the bidding of wicked men. I do not need to know them: such a revelation would devbase them in my heart -- their crime has already brought them low enough". But, of course, knowing who lay behind all this might have helped her protect herself better.
As is, of course, she is doomed -- and it comes to a dramatic final confrontation, the desperate brothers really going all out, and all in. If the three brothers then initially escape with their lives, they also ultimately get theirs, as de Sade imagines their fates after everything goes south -- at least some justice, of some sorts, being served.
It all makes for a quite dramatic tale, if a bit silly and contrived in some of the trials Euphrasie goes through. The Abbé is a well-drawn villain -- very good at the technique of: "meddle and muddle" --, and the Gothic elements are good fun. De Sade's usual excess --of violence and sex, in particular -- is curiously missing -- there would be ample opportunity for it -- but works quite well in keeping Euphrasie true to her pure character (and presumably making her whole sad fate all the more poignant).
The usual Sadean debates about good and evil (well, Good and Evil) unfold nicely here as well -- with de Sade making clear his position:
No, evil is not in Nature, it is in man's depravity, when he forgets its laws, or when he loses all sense of the true meaning of these laws: is there a man in the world who would be capable of committing a crime in cold blood ? ... Of course not. Who is the man who commits a crime ? One carried away by his passions; one who, by defying Nature, and straying from it, can no longer be a man of Nature.The weakness of The Marquise de Gange is simply that it is much too hurried. There's none of the languorous (and other) excess that marks de Sade's longer works; he doesn't even indulge sufficiently in the evil turns here, Euphrasie escaping most of her situations quickly -- or, when they are longer-lasting, such as when her husband locks her away in a tower, not nearly enough drawn-out in description. Even a scene where the Marquis is (mis)led into the bed of another woman is rushed over -- admittedly to keep the focus on Euphrasie, but surprising nevertheless in a fiction by the 'Divine Marquis' (and it is one of many failed opportunities -- with also far too little then said about the woman in question, who is also soon removed from the rest of the story).
In his Introduction McMorran suggests that: "The Marquise de Gange is a far more complex and subversive novel than may at first appear", and there is certainly quite a bit here that is of interest. As in many of de Sade's novels, virtue is sorely tested and challenged -- though, unusually, de Sade shows restraint in how explicit he gets with his story. As such, the exploration of these issues also isn't as blunt as in many of his works -- but there's a slyness, too, to de Sade's approach and larger conception here.
It is all rather too hurried, and parts of the construction feel outright clumsy -- notably, in the figure of the Marquis and Marquise's son, as well as the delayed introduction (there isn't even a mention of him before) of the third brother -- but The Marquise de Gange is still a solid nineteenth-century Gothic novel. The fact that it is based on an actual story is of some interest -- also in how de Sade uses that, as he repeatedly reminds readers of it. Something of an outlier in his large œuvre, it should nevertheless be of considerable interest to readers of de Sade -- and actually makes for a good introductory work for those who have been put off by the raw violence and sexual descriptions overflowing in many his other works; while typically Sadean in its basic outlines, it remains decorous in its presentation.
- M.A.Orthofer, 21 February 2022
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Notorious French author Donatien Alphonse François de Sade lived 1740 to 1814.
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