August 1st, 2005
|elettaria||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.
I like Cécile. In the first letter she seems young and innocent, and I think de Laclos had to begin the book the way he did to give us the necessary background information about Cécile. First time readers would be lost if they didn't have any familiarity with the world Cécile inhabited. We need to know what makes her, her.
Personally, I don't think Sophie, the receiver of the letter would roll her eyes at Cécile's words, because Cécile is, after all, only fulfilling a woman's role in 18th century France.
And, as anyone who is familiar with this novel knows, the "good" guys aren't entirely good and the "bad" guys aren't entirely bad.