Thursday 3 December 2020

Review: The Marquise de Sade, Rachilde (1887)

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading The Marquise de Sade, by Rachilde (first published in French in 1887). 

I’ve read books by other writers who were part of the late nineteenth-century Decadent Movement. I’ve blogged, for instance, about Joris-Karl Huysmans’s 1884 À Rebours (Against Nature), which is often held up as representative of the excesses of the artistic and literary movement. I’ve read Oscar Wilde, Max Beerbohm, and Algernon Charles Swinburne, some of the most famous Decadent writers in English. And I’ve enjoyed the illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley, probably the most famous British visual artist in this group.

However, I had no idea until recently that there was a woman writer amongst the leading French Decadent authors—Marguerite Vallette-Eymery, who published under the pen name Rachilde.

The Marquise de Sade, Rachilde (1887)

The novel of Rachilde’s I picked up was The Marquise de Sade (1887), though her 1884 Monsieur Venus is perhaps slightly better known. Flicking through its front pages, I discovered that it had taken more than a hundred years (!!) for The Marquise de Sade to be published in English, with this translation, by Liz Heron, appearing in 1994.

An intriguing writer, a racy title, and a recent translation? I was in, and flew through the novel within days. Now I’m blogging to tell you all about it. Warning: spoilers ahead, as this one’s a little off the beaten track…

CN: Sexual Violence, Animal Cruelty, Transphobia, Homophobia 

First up, the title is pretty misleading. The novel has nothing directly to do with the nobleman, philosopher, and sexual libertine who put the “S” in “BDSM.” Rather, the feminisation of the title (this is the Marquise de Sade, rather than the masculine Marquis) is a reference to the novel’s central theme. Rachilde’s book is a bildungsroman about how a girl grows into a woman with a perverse taste for cruelty.

Second, if you’re expecting sex on every page, you’re going to be disappointed. Mary Barbe, our protagonist, is seven years old in the opening chapter and the book mainly deals with her childhood. This, of course, includes references to her nascent sexuality, but it’s only in the last quarter of the novel, when Mary is an adult, that the content becomes overtly and consistently sexual.

What I was least prepared for was how (deliberately!) funny the book was in parts. Mary is the daughter of a colonel and Rachilde’s satirical depiction of the social life of officers in the French army is incredibly entertaining. 

As a writer, I was also impressed by Rachilde’s convincing use of a child’s point of view, while the narrative still winks at what’s really going on between the grown-up characters. Even as the book plays with the excessive and the absurd (e.g. a brawl between the officers’ children over live lambs, which have been given out as gifts at a kids’ party), I felt like the writer really knew and could empathise with children—something that’s pretty rare in nineteenth-century novels.

I’m no psychiatrist, but Rachilde’s psychological portrait of Mary reads as proto-Freudian and progressive. Mary is initially a sensitive and caring child. But neglected by her family, who would prefer her to be a boy, she is starved of affection and has several early experiences that lead to her associating love and pain. Her first (pretty innocent) fumblings with a boy in her tweenage years are also linked to power play, as she convinces him to steal a prized rose from his employer for her in return for a kiss.  

As the novel progresses, her development becomes less believable. She ends the novel fantasising about murder, having tasted every other excess. And, in a strange twist I didn’t see coming, it is a “transvestite man” that she considers killing. She talks of men who sleep with other men as “fallen” and “ill-equipped to defend [themselves] against women.” And says, “her conscience would be clear if the chosen victim were among that kind!” 

While the ending is a clear escalation in violence, there are also plenty of other moments readers will find problematic, distasteful and shocking throughout the book.

There are various instances of animal cruelty. The opening scene sees Mary faint as she watches an ox being butchered and its blood drained as a cure for her consumptive mother. As a small child, Mary’s beloved companion is a cat (even though it scratches her). I won’t go into details, but, predictably, the cat and her kittens meet unpleasant ends, further cementing Mary’s misandry and misogyny. 

Mary’s own “cruelty” as an adult at first revolves around exercising her newfound power to deny men. She pretends she loves them, but refuses to have sex with them, or goads them into making sexual advances, but then blackmails them about what they have done. Eventually, one of the young men she’s been playing with rapes her, cuckolding his father in the process. The narrative suggests that he is the victim.

But it’s not only men who Mary can captivate and torture. In one of the most memorable scenes in the novel, Mary has a woman who wishes to sleep with her strip naked before her, and then, without warning, brands her with a red-hot poker. Reader, I gasped.

I’ve written before about the misconceptions people can have about the nineteenth century. This was certainly not a period when everyone was swooning at the sight of an ankle or an uncovered table leg. French Decadent literature may be more out there than the novels of British novelists in the time period, but you can be sure that many of our literary greats were reading books like this one. Overall, I’d recommend The Marquise de Sade to enthusiasts for the period with a strong constitution, and to adventurous readers with a taste for more than Fifty Shades of Grey

Compared to The Marquise de Sade, my own novel, Bronte’s Mistress, seems almost wholesome, but, if you love the nineteenth century, please consider buying a copy for yourself or as Holiday gift this Christmas season! Want to get in touch? You can always message me on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter (no creepy DMs please), and you can also sign up for my monthly email below.

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  1. I've read Monsieur Venus. It was fairly surreal -- the book itself, and then I'd picked it up at the MLA convention and was reading it in my hotel room between job interviews and panels. It has one of the strangest endings I've ever encountered -- as in "She didn't go there, did she? Did she really?"

    1. Yes! This book was similar. I will have to read Monsieur Venus now too.

  2. Finola, what a lovely surprise to search for information on this book and find your entry. Thanks for reading and writing about it! It sounds like quite the ride ...