The life of the Marquis de Sade

"I am about to put forward some major ideas; they will be heard and pondered. If not all of them please, surely a few will; in some sort, then, I shall have contributed to the progress of our age, and shall be content."

The Marquis de Sade - Philosophy in the Bedroom

Most people have heard of the Marquis de Sade. They think they have a fair idea about who he was, but they're not sure. They smile and remark that he's the guy that got sadism named after him. And sado-masochism. He is a myth. Toffeeman went to find the man behind that myth. Unfortunately he's been dead nearly two hundred years but he still found out some interesting stuff...

On June 2nd 1740 Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade was born to Jean Baptiste, Comte (Count) de Sade, and to Marie-Elonore de Maille de Carman, Comtesse de Sade, a distant cousin of the royal Bourbon family. His mama was a maid in waiting to the Princess de Conde and little Donatien lived with them until he was four. After a fist fight over a toy with the young Prince de Conde, he was sent to live with his grand-mother and aunts, where he was doted on by all the ladies. Papa was absent most of the time because he was an ambassador in Bavaria. When Donatien was six his father decreed that his grand-mama and aunts were wielding too strong a feminine influence on the young lad. He was sent to live with his uncle, the Abbe de Sade, at his monastery near Avignon.

The Abbe was nobodies idea of a chaste man of the cloth, with his frequent meetings with mistresses and prostitutes. There was also the occasional orgy in the church grounds where priest, nuns, prostitutes and nobles commingled [it's a word] to partake of the most scandalous and debauched activities. Allegedly. The Abbe, as befitted a man of his position, kept a well stocked library upon who's shelves rested such educational titles as 'Book of Postures', 'Venus in the Cloister, or the Nun in Her Nightdress', and 'John the Fucker Debauched'. Donatien was free to read whatever he wanted, and starved of playmates his own age, he spent long hours in the library perusing books which, according to the French euphemism, "were meant to be read with one hand." But we're not saying that this caused him to be a raging pornographer and evil debaucher. It just seems interesting.

At the age of ten he moved from Saumane to Paris, where he entered the College Louis-le-Grand, a Jesuit prep school for young men of noble blood. While the Jesuits were good teachers, they were no less worldly than the Abbe de Sade. Sodomy and corporal punishment were as common as scholarship and statesmanship at the college.

In 1755, at the age of fifteen, Sade entered the King’s light cavalry regiment. He soon saw action during the Seven Year’s War. He established himself as a fearless and decisive leader during the battle for the British fortress at Port Mahon. He was made a captain at the age of eighteen due to his bravery, charm and good looks. He also made a reputation for himself as a ladies man and there were rumours of unusual practices, but he didn't get in any trouble he couldn't get out of. In 1762, with the onset of peace, he returned to France and became known in society.

Despite the Marquis being in love with at least one other lady, Papa arranged a marriage to the Mademoiselle Renee-Pelagie de Montreuil. Though plain and dull, Pelagie was a rich and well connected woman. Her mother was especially influential in society and she and the Marquis got along swimmingly for a while until the Marquis got thrown in prison after an incident with two crucifixes, a collection of whips, some holy communion hosts and a talkative prostitute.

His well connected in-laws got him out but his mother in law sent an Inspector Marais to keep a close eye on the Marquis' activities. He continued to cavort with actresses and prostitutes, and made little attempt to disguise his unfaithfulness. The in-laws were pas impressed. In 1765 he headed for his ancestral estate of La Coste, near Avignon. He continued to misbehave and escaped punishment after a particularly nasty incident with a whip in 1768. French society at the time was fairly easygoing, and being of noble lineage he could pretty much cavort with whoever he wanted to, as long as he didn't cause a scandal.

Which is what happened after a particularly [un?]pleasant night in Marseilles in July 1772 with his valet, four prostitutes and a passing young woman became public knowledge. After a few months on the run he was caught. He escaped and went on the lam again, roaming around Europe. By December 1774 it was safe to come back and he set up house with his wife at La Coste. Pelagie has been compared to Hilary Clinton because of her exceptance of her husband's intricate and unusual sex life. He hired five teenage girl servants and a boy secretary, and so began an experimental six weeks of daily orgies with plenty of masturbation, fellatio, sodomy (both hetero and homosexual), sodomy chains, and, of course, scourging [there's whips involved], directed with great zest by Sade. The Marquis seems to have delighted in this destruction of innocence.

Local tongues wagged and soon Sade was forced to let the kids go. His social standing meant he stayed out of prison, but he was infamous throughout the land. This did not stop him having many affairs as he spent the next few years arsing around France and Italy. This was fine as long as he kept it quiet and kept out of Paris, but he didn't, and when he flaunted his debauchery right on his inlaw's doorstep they were not impressed. So on February 13th 1777 he was locked up in the fortress of Vincennes in Cell 11. He was to spend most of the next thirteen years behind bars in a variety of different damp basements, one of which was in the Bastille from which he got to see Marie Antoinette losing her head.

The French revolution frees him [as they do]. After having put up with a lot, his wife finally divorced him. The Marquis sat on various revolutionary committees but like a lot of others, he got on the wrong side of Robespierre, and spent the Terror back in jail. In July 1794 he was about to get the guillotine when Robespierre beat him to it and De Sade was released. Without the financial support of his wife's family and with his blood relations all dead or gone, he had to scrape by, selling his estate in the country and being generally in a fairly destitute state. In 1799 Napoleon took charge in France and he was not a fan of the Marquis' work. By 1801 Sade was in the Sainte-Pélagie prison.

In March 1803 he had to be transferred after molesting some young prisoners. He was put in the Charenton insane asylum as no-one really seemed to know what to do with him. He struck up an unlikely friendship with the asylum's director, a four foot tall hunchback named François Simonet de Coulmier. De Coulmier favoured more progressive therapy than the leaches, ice-immersion baths, strait-jackets and purgings popular at the time. Sade lived in relative comfort at Charenton, where he had time to write and stage plays with his fellow inmates, but he grew madder by the year. He was smuggling his writings out, but he was often caught and forced to spend long periods in solitary confinement.

"Either they kill me or take me as I am, because I'll be damned if I ever change..." wrote Sade in a letter to his wife from prison in November 1783. Thirty one years later, Sade, now seventy-four, wrote in his journal of a delightful romp with a seventeen-year-old worker in the asylum, Magdeleine Leclerc. Their sexual relations had started much earlier, for Sade's meticulous records indicate that this was their fifty seventh sexual rendezvous. She visited "for two hours, and I was very pleased with it," he recorded. Donatien Alphonse Francois, the Marquis de Sade, died five days later on December 2nd 1814. He had lead a busy life.

Despite the ups and downs and ins and outs of his life, the one permanent part of Sade’s life was his sexual imagination. During his periods of incarceration he feverishly scribbled a number of books that were published in the period after the revolution. His major works include 'The 120 Days of Sodom', 'Justine (or the Misfortunes of Virtue)', and 'Philosophy in the Boudoir', among others. Correctly thinking that society would frown on his work, Sade published his works under a nomme de plume. Literary critics slaughtered his writings for generations to follow. The books had to be printed in secret and sold under the table. They remained banned in France, and Ireland, until the 1960's.

The twentieth century was kinder to the Marquis. Scholars and critics began to defend the value of his work. He was likened to Nietsche and Freud in his exploration of the darker sides of human nature. Feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir and Camille de Paglia were among his most arduous defenders. And in the next few weeks 'Quills', a new film starring Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix and Michael Caine, is being released here, and it is being talked about as an Oscar contender.

So there you have it. Quite a life and legacy. Not many people get words named after them. During the '120 days of Sodom', the Marquis de Sade wrote "All universal moral principles are idle fantasies." It's something to think about.