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Letter 9: "the Volanges bitch" on Valmont - The Epistolary Novel

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August 11th, 2005


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elettaria
10:52 pm - Letter 9: "the Volanges bitch" on Valmont
But Valmont is not a man of that sort [a victim of impetuous passions]: his conduct is the outcome of his principles.

Is this libertine code written down anywhere, like all those manuals on courtly love in the middle ages? It appears to be fairly formalised, but it's not always clear what the rules are.

He knows exactly how far a man may carry villainy without danger to himself, and, so that he can be cruel and vicious with impunity, he chooses women for his victims.


Oh, so we do get to choose our sexual orientation?

She then proceeds to treat Mme de T as a child due to her sheltered life and innocence, and doesn't specify what Valmont has done wrong. A fatal mistake, I think, and certainly not one that would be wise with a rebellious daughter. Curiously, she gives the Marquise credit precisely because "she alone has been able to resist and even to master his wickedness". Presumably this means that the Marquise and Valmont managed to keep their affair relatively quiet. If Mme de V knows of it, then she is immediately revealing herself to be a hypocrite: shag whomever you like, dearie, as long as no one finds out.

(all from 1961 Penguin, p.38.)

ETA: er, that's "on the subject of Valmont", not physically on him. Though what do you make of that bit in the play and the film when he later tells Cecile that he slept with her mother many years ago? In the novel (L110) he just says that he amused himself by ascribing various scandals to her mother. You still don't know whether that means that her mother was as good as gold, or whether she got up to the odd bit of mischief, just not as much as Valmont claims at this point.

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From:movingfinger
Date:August 13th, 2005 04:56 am (UTC)
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Is this libertine code written down anywhere, like all those manuals on courtly love in the middle ages? It appears to be fairly formalised, but it's not always clear what the rules are.

It was a real philosophy, yes. I think it began in the court of Charles II (Rochester, et al.), but they could well have brought it from France, from the French exile. It "flourished" (Hell Fire Club and all that) through about the end of the 18c and has elements of Enlightenment rationalism, what we would now call libertarianism, and even a bit of Romanticism. I don't happen to have any reference works at either my actual or metaphorical fingertips, although I believe much was written in those sex-scholarship-happy '90s by people looking for pub credits and theses on sexual identity and politics and transgressions and blah blah blah... With a little library digging one should be able to turn up a decent and analysis of the literary works contributing to it.

Oh, so we do get to choose our sexual orientation?

Without having the French text to compare this to, quite dangerous to make this leap. My sense is that one would ruin other men by destroying their careers (politics), finances (gambling, dissipation), or tricking them into a dishonorable act. Women are ruined through their reputations (sexual misconduct).

She then proceeds to treat Mme de T as a child due to her sheltered life and innocence, and doesn't specify what Valmont has done wrong.

She lays it out about as clearly as she can. She may not have particulars and also she doesn't want to repeat infamies about his victims. Much of the speech is allusive and indirect even in the most "direct" sections of Laclos's writing, and not being familiar with French texts and letters of the period I don't know whether this was a reflection of how people wrote, a literary convention, or a necessity forced on the author so that the book wouldn't be suppressed (oh well).

What I see happening here is that polite society is unable to defend itself against someone determined to operate unbound by the society's rules. Mme Volanges cannot put into words (assuming my translation is faithful) what exactly Valmont has done, in part I suspect because her own sense of justice (if she doesn't really know, she will not make it up, unlike Valmont and Mme de Merteuil who resort to fiction as it suits them).

A modern analogy being, the US Democratic and Republican parties...

As for Mme de Tourvel, Mme de Volanges' "fair young friend", she appears to be indeed young. We do not know how long she has been married, do we, but we know that (already, or does this come in later, sorry) Mme de Volanges has been instrumental in arranging her excellent and happy marriage. As a married woman, she would be expected to be able to Know All, but if Mme de Volanges knows her well and is aware of her youth and unworldliness, she will address her in an un-crude and polite way, with an oblique but clear warning.

If Mme de V knows of it, then she is immediately revealing herself to be a hypocrite: shag whomever you like, dearie, as long as no one finds out.

But there is no evidence that she knows, so why accuse her of hypocrisy?

...in the play and the film...

Having neither, can't comment. I have the Everyman translation, Aldington's, which is sufficiently old (1924) that I am distrustful of the circumlocutions: how many are Laclos's, how many are Aldington's?

The reference is far ahead, to Letter CX, and in this edition at least there is no ground to suppose Mme Volanges has done anything. Valmont writes, "I related to her [Cecile]...all the scandalous adventures which came into my head; and...I laid them all to the credit of her Mamma...".
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From:elettaria
Date:August 13th, 2005 11:31 pm (UTC)
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I was being ironic about the sexual orientation thing, but it does bring that to mind. She brings up the idea of men as victims by contrast, and you're left wondering how he would victimise them, whether it would be in the same way or differently (and of course, there's the idea that you can attack a man through cuckolding him, though evidently this is something more direct). Like you, I'd be inclined to suspect non-sexual methods, if for no other reason than Mme de V not wanting to shock her young friend, but the possibility remains. Obviously where heteroerotic sex is involved, women are vulnerable in a way that men, by and large, are not, but for a number of societies, sex between men is a major scandal. Though it's a scandal that usually affects both partners more or less equally, unlike the double standard for heteroerotic encounters, so it wouldn't really pay to go around debauching other men if you wanted to keep any place in society. I think. My knowledge of homosexuality (or whatever we call it) in the 18th c is rather scanty and I know nothing about what was happening in France, do you?

Mme de Tourvel is 22, I can't remember if it says how long she's been married. You do have a very good point about Mme de Volanges' reasons for not going into detail, but the fact remains that vague insinuations are easier to brush aside than more concrete information, whether it's "he's ruined five young wives of my acquaintance" or "Mdle X claims that he raped her and certainly has not been received into society since then". Considering the stealth with which Valmont works, she probably hasn't realised the level of risk that's actually involved.

Was Valmont's and the Marquise's affair public in any way? It would seem most likely not, but I'm intrigued by that "she alone has been able to resist and even to master his wickedness". What would the outwards signs of such mastery be? Valmont is suddenly the Marquise's devoted slave, doing the French aristocratic equivalent of fetching her slippers for her, but of course they can't be sleeping together? Considering that the Marquise has already been known to commit "indiscretions", that would be an extremely naive conclusion to draw. I'm guessing that the Marquise is simply so powerful socially that people have managed to convince themselves that slight signs of wickedness are in fact nothing of the sort. It looks like whitewashing to me.

I'm also assuming that Valmont is simply slandering Mme de Volanges in that later scene, but you do wonder if he's building on absolutely nothing or whether she does in fact have a bit of a past herself, how much more there is to her than meets the eye. Here's the scene from Hampton's play, which is generally superbly written (and starred Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan for the first run, *drool*):

VALMONT: [Your mamma] was, after all, at one time, one of most notorious young women in Paris.
CECILE: Maman?
VALMONT: Certainly. More noted for her enthusiasm than her ability, if I remember rightly, but none the less renowned. There was a famous occasion, oh, before you were born, this would have been, when she went to stay with the Comtesse de Beaulieu, who tactfully gave her a room between your father's and that of a Monsieur de Vressac, who was her acknowledged lover at the time. Yet in spite of these careful arrangements, she contrived to spend the night with a third party.
(CECILE laughs again.)
CECILE: I can't believe that; it's just gossip.
VALMONT: No, no, I assure you, it's true.
CECILE: How do you know?
VALMONT: The third party was myself.
(CECILE's jaw drops.)
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From:movingfinger
Date:August 14th, 2005 01:18 am (UTC)
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She brings up the idea of men as victims by contrast, and you're left wondering how he would victimise them, whether it would be in the same way or differently...

The entire premise of the novel is the victimization of a man! Mme de Merteuil is annoyed that Gercourt, who dumped her for someone else, is marrying Cecile and wants to spoil the marriage. This is one way of victimizing a man, and one about which he can openly do nothing without ruining himself. By seducing and corrupting Cecile by proxy, Merteuil has pre-emptively destroyed the marriage's raison d'etre (security of offspring), cheating and insulting Gercourt. Gercourt will have no recourse.

In a society in which women are always the property of a man, to seduce the woman is to damage the man who owns her; thus, Valmont's seductions, seen by us as wrongs against women, are seen by his contemporaries as wrongs against the men who (effectively) own the women. Property crimes. Merteuil has not remarried because she cannot stand to be the property of a man. In a sense she is a Miltonian figure, reigning in hell because she will not be ruled in heaven.

The family and social concerns of the women (expressed in their letters) and the modern Western reader's own unfamiliarity with a society in which women do not have property rights make it easy to overlook the male-dominated social furniture of the world Laclos writes about and which his readers understood implicitly. For example, Valmont is visiting an aunt whose estate is entailed upon him. The aunt is a widow; she has the life usage of her late husband's estate only as she failed to produce an heir. Women did not inherit property in France (or many other places) at that time.

Hm. I seem to have lost track of Cecile's father (Monsieur de Volanges).

Was Valmont's and the Marquise's affair public in any way? It would seem most likely not, but I'm intrigued by that "she alone has been able to resist and even to master his wickedness". What would the outwards signs of such mastery be?

If it were public, Mme de Volanges would know about it and probably wouldn't let Cecile near Mme de Merteuil.

Outward signs of mastery might include Mme de Merteuil lying about what happened; conversations between them in public places that mislead others (the conversations probably prearranged); social cues in the form of invitations, encounters in public, etc., which we don't know about, not knowing the etiquette rules. If Valmont, a man known for loving and leaving, still publicly plays the suppliant to de Merteuil, the public will assume he has not yet been successful with her.

Here's the scene from Hampton's play, which is generally superbly written (and starred Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan for the first run, *drool*):[...]

Let us focus on Laclos's text.
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From:elettaria
Date:August 14th, 2005 08:28 pm (UTC)
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The men supposedly being targeted through their women are almost all conspicuous by their absence, however. You don't see M de Tourvel outraged about his wife, you don't see Gercourt fuming because his bride has been spoiled, you see the reactions of the women, their emotional states, the power games between them - which involve men, yes, but not men with legal power over them such as husbands or fathers. If you want to see a woman victimised and the men all ignoring her in favour of a property squabble over her, read Chaucer's "Franklin's Tale", where the woman is written out by the end. (That doesn't automatically make Liaisons a proto-feminist novel, especially considering the way it glosses over and even justifies rape.) The only cuckolded man you see here (to extend the definition of cuckoldry a little) is Danceny, who is regarded as laughably incompetant throughout, which makes it even more ironic that he's the one to kill Valmont.

And as the film points out - and yes, dammit, I reserve the right to discuss decent adaptations of the text, they're a form of cricitism in their own right - it's surprising that the bumbling Danceny managed to kill someone like Valmont, for whom everything is conducted like a duel. There's an element of chance in all duels, but where experience and skill are involved Valmont is ahead of Danceny in every way. You can take the view that Laclos needed to punish his characters in some way, and Danceny was the only contender whom we've actually met (unless Azolan suddenly revealed his burning passion for one of the ladies Valmont's involved with, jumped to her defence, and behaved in a way utterly unlikely for someone of his class - nope, we're still left with Danceny). The film had Valmont getting side-tracked by remembering Mme de Tourvel, the implication being that this uncharacteristic love had weakened him and left him vulnerable to attack by men. In fact, servants aside, I think the duel is the only significant encounter there is between men. Their paths cross occasionally due to their both being involved with the same two women, but if anyone's the pawn in those triangular relationships, it's Danceny, who's used by Valmont to access Cecile (herself thoroughly a pawn, but still ahead of Danceny here) and by the Marquise for her own pleasure and to score off Valmont.

I like the idea of the Marquise as a Miltonian figure, but how would marriage be ruling in heaven? Do you mean because she would be able to have one relationship that was socially sanctioned? Come to think of it, is anyone having marital sex in this novel? I can't think of any. You don't see marriages in action in any way. Mme de Tourvel is effectively a grass widow, and her resistance appears to be founded on general virtue rather than love for her husband, whom I can't even remember her mentioning.
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From:book_worm817
Date:August 17th, 2005 04:38 pm (UTC)
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Mme de Tourvel is 22, I can't remember if it says how long she's been married.
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In Letter V the Marquise says "... she is twenty-two and has been married nearly 2 years."

The Marquise has a very dim view of the effect of marriage on women. "... when a women is encrusted to that extent she must be left to her fate; she will never be anything but a poor creature." Marriage is very much an encumberance in the Marquise's mind.

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