Some revere the Marquis de Sade as a free-thinking radical, others condemn him as a depraved sex-mad monster. His novels are filled with sexual violence and mutilation but de Sade, infamous French writer and libertine, is a confusing figure. Was he as perverse and cruel as his critics suggest or were his novels a radical defiance of pre-Revolutionary French morality?
Born Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade in Paris, the Marquis was the only surviving child of provincial noble parents. His father, Jean-Baptiste, was a diplomat and notorious bisexual playboy, and his mother, Marie-Eleonore, was a cold and distant woman who left her son to live in a convent soon after he was born. At the age of five, de Sade was packed off to his uncle, the Abbé de Sade, in Avignon. This would have a profound effect on the young Marquis.
Although the Abbé was a churchman, he kept a mistress and may even have run a brothel. Growing up surrounded by hypocrisy, de Sade learnt to despise the Church and its morality. Later he went to a Jesuit college, Louis Le Grand, where the pupils were publicly beaten. Perhaps this experience, coupled with joining the military at 14, sowed the seeds of his legendary penchant for violence and humiliation, although his experience of fighting in the Seven Years' War must also have influenced him.
After the war, de Sade took to aristocratic life in Paris, developing a love of theatre and the arts, frequenting brothels and keeping a mistress. In May 1763, on the wishes of his family, de Sade married Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil, the daughter of a high-ranking, bourgeois family, but he was a faithless husband. In October of the same year, he was imprisoned for 'excesses' committed in a brothel. His taste for violent sex remained, and it wasn't long before another scandal occurred. This time it would make him so notorious that the police would ask brothel madames to keep their girls away from him.
Beating and mutilation
On Easter Sunday 1768, de Sade met a young widow called Rose Keller in the street, and later claimed to have offered her money for sex – she said he offered her a position as a maid. Keller went with him to his small house in Arcueil where, according to her, de Sade threatened to kill her before tying her to a bed and whipping her with a birch branch. He then sliced her buttocks open with a hunting knife and poured wax into the wounds. Keller finally escaped by tying sheets together and climbing out of a bedroom window, running directly to the authorities.
When questioned, Sade claimed she was a willing partner in the beating and denied mutilating her. When examined by doctors, Keller showed no signs of having been cut, but she had been severely whipped. De Sade was imprisoned.
His wife stood by him, even addressing him as 'my good little boy' in her letters, and after his release they had three children. But if the Marquise hoped that her husband would now adopt the role of dutiful husband and father she was very much mistaken.
Orgies and prostitutes
De Sade continued his life of excess, organising orgies and using prostitutes. When he inherited the Chateau La Coste from his father, a property commanding a breathtaking view over the Vaucluse valley, he and his wife hired several servants and pretty young maids. The chateau was not the idyllic fortress depicted in his later novel, The 120 Days of Sodom. Following his violent sexual demands, the maids all ran away and the cook became pregnant and left.
In 1771, after another short spell in prison for debt, de Sade seduced his virginal sister-in-law, Anne-Prospre. The two ran off to Marseilles together, but soon she retreated to a convent and de Sade returned to his ever-forgiving wife. Less that a year later, however, de Sade organised another orgy in Marseilles with four prostitutes and his valet, Latour, passing around a home-made aphrodisiac in the process. The next day, the girls became ill and two of them brought charges of sodomy and attempted poisoning against de Sade. Once again, a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Revenge and imprisonment
De Sade was eventually cleared of the poisoning and sodomy charges, but his mother-in-law, Madame de Montreuil, never forgave him for seducing her daughter Anne-Prospre. She successfully lobbied King Louis XVI for a lettre de cachet, a royal order to arrest him (a method often utilised by the rich and powerful to remove troublesome relatives). It proved effective and de Sade was imprisoned on royal authority and without trial.
In 1778, de Sade began an 11-year stay in prison, first in Vincennes, then later at the notorious Bastille prison in Paris. Denied the decadent lifestyle he was used to, de Sade began to write down his fantasies – and they proved to be increasingly disturbing, involving severe sexual mutilation, rape and incest. Practically every violent or sexual act imaginable is present in his work.
It is ironic that Madame de Montreuil, who hated de Sade so much, was indirectly responsible for the work that would immortalise him, and he produced almost all his novels – including The 120 Days of Sodom and the first drafts of Justine and Juliette – in this period of incarceration. So shocking were these novels that they were published anonymously.
Freedom and asylum
On Good Friday 1790, after the outbreak of the French Revolution, the prisoners of the Bastille, including de Sade, were released. By this time, however, his wife no longer wanted anything to do with him.
Paris was now in revolution and 'petty' crimes such as de Sade's were no longer a public priority. Bizarrely, he became involved in politics, serving as a Grand Juror in many trials. One of these was against his mother-in-law. Given his reputation and her part in his imprisonment, he could have used this opportunity to exact revenge. Instead he had the case dismissed and later resigned his political post.
He didn't remain a free man for long, however, and in 1801 found himself imprisoned again, this time at the hands of the Emperor Napoleon's government, which suspected that he had penned the anonymously published Justine. He was sent to Sainte-Pélagie prison and was later moved to Charenton, an insane asylum where he wrote the 10-volume novel, Crimes of Passion. He spent the remainder of his life there, dying in 1814 at the age of 74.
The Marquis de Sade is often depicted as an evil deviant, but judged in the context of his society his offences are less clear. Pre-Revolutionary France was decadent in the extreme and the upper classes used and abused the peasant population – a common motto of nobility was 'Plaisir a tout prix', meaning 'Pleasure at any price'. So was de Sade truly a monster, or simply a product of his time? Perhaps we'll never know for sure.