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Letter 1: Introducing Cecile - The Epistolary Novel

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August 1st, 2005

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08:02 pm - Letter 1: Introducing Cecile
First of all, an admin thing. Is there anyone here who does not know the story of this novel, either from having read it or having seen the film? If so, what are your feelings about spoilers? It can be useful for people who know the entire text to refer to what happens later on, but most people hate having the plot spoilt. We're certainly going to encounter this problem with Clarissa, which far fewer people will have read already, although admittedly that has much less of a plot.

Anyway, if anyone wants us to be careful about spoilers (and don't feel bad about asking, I probably would had I not read this umpteen times), let us know and we can use cuts for posts, and warnings in the subject headers for comments. I'm going to err on the side of caution and do so for the time being.

If you're quoting, mention the letter if it's not the one under discussion, and preferably cite the page and edition (e.g. 1961 Penguin). Putting the letter number in the post subject header will be useful too.

Now for the actual novel. This is just on the first letter, we should discuss the preface as well. What do you make of this opening? It introduces a major character, but not one whose viewpoint will be the dominant one. Her correspondent never writes a word or participates in the action (and none of the convent gossip will be remotely relevant), and later on the "editor" tells us that he's suppressed their correspondence as uninteresting. Later the same happens with another correspondence of Cecile's. You can view Cecile as a sweet kid, or as a naive brat who deserves to be written out.

Girliness, wide-eyed innocence (very "brave new world") and an interest in clothing are the main features of this letter, I'd say. It's chatty and friendly, which is nice up to a point. I veer between finding Cecile irritating and pitying her. I find this letter rather endearing, especially since it's obvious that she's going to get an education of some sort before too long. She's evidently been quite thoroughly submerged in that convent, to judge from the way she notes the clothing details and the excitement at getting a lockable desk of her own, not to mention her poor reading of social clues when she takes the shoemaker for her proposed husband.

The desk. First symbol of female sexual space? Untouched, pretty, lockable, guarded by her but as yet there's nothing of real importance to guard, and something which is actually hers, under her own control, although it is in her mother's house and ultimately under her mother's authority.

There's also the approach to romantic love. She's certainly not troubled by the idea of an arranged marriage, I think she's hoping for a knight in shining armour to appear, and she's reacting as becomes the sentimental heroine, hands trembling, heart beating fast. Immediate bathos when she overreacts by jumping up and shrieking (would you say this is boisterous and unladylike?) and is required to give the man not her hand in marriage, but her foot.

No, I think the reader is meant to look down on Cecile in charmed mockery, rather than identify with her, though perhaps I'm judging from the major characters who are about to appear. In the Preface, which is so laden with irony it's difficult to tell how to read some of it, Laclos says that "since nearly all the sentiments expressed are either pretended or dissembled, they can excite only the interest of curiosity, an interest always much inferior to that of feeling; one, above all, which [inclines] the reader less to indulgence" (1961 Penguin, pp.20-1). And perhaps we are also meant to look at her, young, fresh, blushing attractively, and with bosom heaving no doubt.
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[User Picture]
Date:August 2nd, 2005 12:49 am (UTC)
Sorry I didn't introduce myself. I wasn't sure I was about to write anything, but I was definitly going to read Dangerous Liaisons and discussions around it. I'll introduce myself in separate post.

I think of Cecil as a "blank page" here. Anything can be written on a blank page - both good and bad, depending on who the writer is. I would rather pity this girl. She was never given proper attention as a person, nobody takes her seriously, even her own mother, let alone servants. However, she doesn't seem to be troubled by that. She isn't accustomed to thinking or analyzing. She only relates the events of her first day outside of the convent to her friend, without elaborating on them, she doesn't try to draw any conclusions, neither she asks questions. Which makes me wonder if anything worthy could theoretically be written on that page?
[User Picture]
Date:August 2nd, 2005 01:30 pm (UTC)

rambling in second para, bit of a spoiler in third

She doesn't really think, this girl, does she. (Reminds me of Gone with the Wind, where Mitchell keeps remarking that Scarlett never analysed anything in her little life. Why she keeps running down her heroine like that, I haven't figured out yet.) She is rather endearing regardless. I wouldn't want to read an entire novel narrated by her unless she started using her brain a bit more, and it's more a case that things are done to her rather than her doing things, but you laugh with her as well as at her, at least. Good point about how she's been brought up, what kind of a way to treat a daughter is that?

I've always been interested in the "woman as text" theme, and managed to baffle a friend of mine from synagogue (who is studying theology and doesn't know our weird jargon) by forwarding an e-mail to her in which I'd been discussing bodily inscription in The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry (which is the first play in English written by a woman, hurrah). I got a reply pointing out that tattooing is forbidden in Judaism.

Er, talk about a tangent. Anyway, " Was this fair paper, this most
goodly book, / Made to write 'whore' upon?" as Othello says somewhere in IV.2. There's that bit later on when Emilie's body is used as a desk for that hilarious letter with two meanings throughout.

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