Marquis de Sade in modern context

December 13, 1998|By Pia Nordlinger | Pia Nordlinger,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"At Home with the Marquis de Sade: A Life," by Francine du Plessix Gray. Simon & Schuster. 400 pages. $27.50. If Bill Clinton's sexual escapades have depleted your patience for tales of heartless adultery and naughty romps, you might want to wait a while before reading Francine du Plessix Gray's "At Home with the Marquis de Sade."

This broad biography follows Sade's life, not just as a brutal sexual deviant, but as a husband, a father and a son. Gray's project is to shed light on the Marquis' domestic life, and she does so with finesse.

"What was it like," she writes in the foreword, "to be at home with the Marquis de Sade? What was it like to be the Marquise de Sade, a pious, very decorous woman married ... to one of the most depraved mavericks of recent times? What was it like to be Sade's mother-in-law, a highly ambitious bourgeoisie struggling to protect the fabric of a family that her renegade son-in-law constantly threatened to destroy?"

Gray answers these questions with diligent research into the letters of the entire family. The correspondence between the Marquis and the Marquise, especially during his extended prison sentences, reveals surprising affection and tenderness. We read husbandly warmth from a man who spent nights on beds full of prostitutes. We read doting loyalty from a woman who knew the sordid truth and at times facilitated her husband's gatherings.

The Sade marriage, as it turns out, was not unlike the Clinton marriage. In both cases, the man is a serial adulterer, powerless against his libido - especially in times of legal trouble. In both cases, the woman is fully cognizant of the man's activities and becomes strident in his defense.

The personalities involved are eerily parallel: Hillary and the Marquise are strong, independent-minded women spellbound by charming moral degenerates. "The great enigma of the Sades' marriage," Gray writes, "is that this puritanical young woman so worshiped her husband that she was able to suspend all moral judgment of him."

Sade's relationship with his mother-in-law, Madame de Montreuil, was more complex. Montreuil knew that Sade had a "zipper problem" even before she arranged for him to marry her daughter. He, however, was aristocracy of the highest order, and the Madame overlooked his failings - which she assumed married life would squelch - for such an illustrious name.

Montreuil became Sade's confidant and protector, stepping in when his orgies became legally problematic (sodomy was a crime) and shielding his wife (her daughter) from the humiliating news.

Although he did allow his family a smattering of scandal-free years, Sade was beyond reform. His debauchery so angered and bankrupted his mother-in-law that she viciously turned on him. Her daughter took over as primary defender, but in time she too found her husband a thankless wretch.

"At Home with the Marquis de Sade" is a wonderfully readable biography, packed with details about Sade's life, as well as a cultural history of 18th-century France. Gray has culled the information so well that there is a satisfying mix of juicy and not-so-juicy parts.

Readers who enjoy history, literature, or Sade himself will find the book delightful. This subject matter, both appalling and fascinating, written in Gray's crisp and elegant prose, makes for an extraordinary read.

Pia Nordlinger writes for the Weekly Standard and is moving to New York where she will be an editorial writer at the New York Post. Her work has appeared in The Baltimore Sun, the Washington Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Orlando Sentinel, and the online magazine Squire.

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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