I was 14 when I read the French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos and it taught me most of what I know about love.
The author told a friend it would be “out of the ordinary…something that would resonate around the world even after I’m gone.”
The plot is simple and wild: two aristocrats – the marquise de Merteuil (a widow) and the vicomte de Valmont (her former lover) – use sex as a game in which to control others and impress each other.
It was first published in 1782, but for a virgin teenager from a 1970s Bristol working-class community so respectable that girls who left home before marriage were thought to be “starting from the game”, took a look at another world. A world where sex could be both a glittering sport and a competition.
I was 14 when I read the French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos and it taught me most of what I know about love
More than two centuries later, the book’s fascination continues. In November, Paloma Faith appeared opposite Lesley Manville in a prelude to the novel, the Lionsgate+ TV series also called Dangerous Liaisons.
It focuses on the life of the Marquis and the viscount in the slums of Paris before they became famous. Last summer, Netflix launched another film Les Liaisons Dangereuses, this time set in Biarritz and streamed on Instagram.
Looking back, Liaisons wasn’t my first trip to the adult section; I spent the summer that I became a teenager reading Lolita, hanging out in the park in hot pants, and laughing at the dirty old men who sneakily eyed my legs.
But I was disappointed to find out (spoiler alert) that Lolita ends up being a good girl; no wonder she dies in childbirth, she sneered at my teenage self. Before I heard of “unsympathetic female leads,” I knew I wanted to be.
The author told a friend that it would be “out of the ordinary…something that would resonate around the world even after I’m gone”
Not because I was deprived of love and desperate to settle down with a spouse and two vegs (or some other silly theories decent people have about libertines) but because I understood, even then, that this was how I was probably going to get the most out of it. of my life. This was the life that suited me best.
School biology lessons made sex seem so trivial and revolting at the same time that I vowed never to indulge in flirtation with a male until I had escaped safely to London – by 16 I had already seen some of the brightest girls of my year become mothers. (“Contrary to conventional wisdom, opportunity always knocks more than once, while a misstep can never be retraced,” Marquise de Merteuil wisely advises.)
I had a feeling I was going to be quite hooked on sex once I tried it. (I was right – albeit in a surprisingly small-town and very un-Liaisons way, I embarrassingly married the first man I ever had sex with at age 17; make up for lost time.)
I now avoided my hometown boys like the plague, well aware that if I tried any of my fictional role model’s lines on them (‘He’d call me fake and unfaithful — I’ve always had a soft spot for those two words.
Next to cruel, they’re the nicest words for a woman to hear, and not hard to earn’) they’d walk away anyway. But that was just how I saw other people when I was a teenager: people to practice being witty about, and while I steered clear of my classmates, my poor mother bore the brunt of it (“When a Woman Strikes the Heart of another, she seldom misses, and the wound is invariably fatal’ – another bon mot from the Marchioness.)
De Merteuil was certainly a different kind of woman. The French novelist André Malraux considered her “unprecedented … her first”. [in European literature] whose acts are determined by an ideology’.
The plot: two aristocrats use sex as a game to control others and impress each other
Or as I more fundamentally told a newspaper in 2005 when asked who my favorite literary villain was: “The Marquise de Merteuil of Les Liaisons Dangereuses – she’s a fair cow and would be a laugh to date.”
She was what we’d call a “player” these days, someone we’d boo on Love Island, except those naïve ones in bikinis are innocent in their own way, while the M de M was born evil.
I won’t reveal too much about the plot in case it spoils it for lucky readers who have yet to be introduced to her evil ways, but I will say that her breathtaking level of candor has never been surpassed by any heroine, anti or not.
This novel contains the real facts of life, far more vital than any basic biology lesson, so much so that when teenage girls wrote me for advice on life and love when the television adaptation of my young adult novel Sugar Rush was a success, I would send them a copy of this book instead.
The phrase “cruel to be kind” came to mind. I wanted them to be warned and then rescued in the realm of the senses, well aware that war between the sexes is rarely civil.
The current wave of #BeKind brainwashing still hadn’t officially been inflicted on young women when I was a year old, but people-pleasing has always been a hard habit for women to break and I figured they’d need all the practical advice they could get .
Perhaps because literary critics aren’t keen to be seen praising a book about sexual shenanigans unless something heavier is going on, Liaisons has also been seen as a groundbreaking text depicting the corruption and depravity of the French nobility.
Yet it’s basically about the fun two amoral people can have. The proof of this is that although Christopher Hampton’s 1985 stage adaptation and Glenn Close’s 1988 film based on it are set during the ancien régime, there have been many versions: Jeanne Moreau’s film from 1959 set in contemporary Paris, 1999’s Cruel Intentions set in Manhattan (which spawned a sequel and prequel), 2003’s Untold Scandal set in 18th century Korea.
There have also been several 21st century novels based on the original, including A Factory of Cunning in which the Marchioness fakes her death and flees to England.
Perhaps Liaisons has never lost its appeal because it is not only a sexy book but a wise one – many libertines discover altruism in the Valmont way: “I am amazed by the pleasure one takes in doing good; and I should be tempted to believe that what we call virtuous people do not have so much merit as they lead us to suppose.’
Surprisingly, it’s not on the list of 1,000 activation texts in our excellent higher education institutions, which is a shame: if I were young today, I would make that activation list my reading list.
Thankfully I’m not young in this strange and frightened new world. I’m a wicked old lady of 63 who has lived nine lives tops.
I’ve had my heart broken and I’ve had my heart broken, but looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. And I have this perfect novel to thank for making me fearless and for teaching me a very important lesson: life is too short not to follow your heart, even if it leads you down a blind alley and robs you of your self-control with the tip of a knife. . Perhaps it was a revolutionary text after all.
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