Mrs. de Sade: What about Her? December 31, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Mrs. de Sade: What About Her?.
Tags: biography, francine du plessis gray, french literature, louis xvi, marquis de sade, marquise renee-pelagie de montreuil, roger hollander
(I cannot remember why I wrote this review. It may have been for a journalist at one of Guayaquil’s dailies, who suggested I submit some reviews for publication. Since I have no copy of this work in Spanish, I assume that just reading the article and putting my thoughts to paper was enough for me.)
We know much – some would say too much – about the scandalous life and work of the Marquis de Sade, but little attention has been paid to his wife, the Marquise Rénee-Pélagie de Montreuil. Francine du Plessis Gray gives us the beginning of a picture of her in an article entitled “At Home with the Marquis de Sade,” published in the October 12, 1998 edition of “The New Yorker” magazine.
He was twenty two, she twenty one, when they tied the knot in Paris on May 17, 1763. It was an arranged marriage of convenience. Her nouveau riche bourgeois family sought royal respectability; his “noble” family was short of cash. Contrary to expectations, the couple fell deeply in love.
During the first five years of their marriage, the Marquise’s mother-in-law, Mme. de Montreuil, conspired with de Sade to keep his escapades, “his peccadilloes and his rambunctious liaisons … his innumerable exploits with actresses, courtesans, and whores of all varieties,” hidden from his wife, whom du Plessis Gray describes as “a prim decorous woman … neither beautiful nor cultivated … (but) what she lacked in polish she redeemed in strength of character and robust independence.” When he was jailed in the autumn of 1763, for example, for “acts of blasphemy and sacrilege,” she was led to believe that it had to do with unpaid debts.
However, in the spring of 1768, the Marquis’ shenanigans had gotten out of hand, and he was busted for alleged physical abuse of a beggar woman whom he had picked up, and was again imprisoned, this time for six months. Judging that the scandal would be too big to hide, he confessed all to the Marquise, who from that time forward replaced her mother as his protector. “Pelagie, far from being alienated by the heinousness of her husband’s crimes, found her passion for him intensified. To restore his freedom and protect him from increasingly vigilant captors became her goal in life, and she brought to that mission the sort of dedication that the most inspired priests or nuns bring to their vocation.”
What the two had in common was “solitary, affection starved childhoods, and both had remained loners,” who “for much of their married life … clung to each other like two neglected orphans …” The Marquise shared with her husband his disdain for “the adult world of sycophancy, social clambering, and material gain.” She once described French high society as “a bunch of riffraff, the most successful of whom are the most fraudulent.” Although she was in many ways his opposite, she was by no means a prude. She certainly witnessed and may have taken part in his famous orgies.
Their affection for one another is well documented in their letters. He referred to her as “star of Venus … my baby … violet of the garden of Eden … celestial kitten.” She most often called him “my good little boy.”
Their marriage was able to withstand, perhaps was even strengthen by the constant scandal and the pressure of police harassment, and was not even threatened by the Marquis seducing and having an extended affair, while living in exile, with Pelagie’s beautiful sister, ten years her younger, who had left her convent to visit them. However, this event turned the Marquis’ mother-in-law into his bitter enemy, and eventually she was able to trick him into returning to Paris, where she had been able to obtain from King Louis XVI an “arbitrary order of arrest” that lead to his imprisonment for thirteen years beginning in 1777.
This proved to be the beginning of the end of the marriage. Although Pelagie continued to be one hundred percent loyal and lived in poverty and gave up the custody of their three children in order to be able to supply him with what he needed to be comfortable and well fed in prison, de Sade came to distrust and harass his wife. In 1781 she was allowed her first visit, and he absurdly accused her of infidelity, of having an affair with one of his former secretaries and with her own female cousin.
He ordered her to live in a convent, and she complied by entering a religious community at Saint-Aure, where she was not required to take any vows but to otherwise participate fully in the religious life of the order. Ironically, it may have been de Sade’s own tyrannical jealousy that contributed to her gradual transition to religious devotion and piety. “I consign you to your room,” he commanded, “and, through all the authority that a husband has over a wife, forbid you to leave it, for whatever pretext.” de Sade criticized her newly formed piety and was further enraged when she gradually made peace with her mother.
During his thirteen year internment, de Sade came into his own as a writer, and produced his major works. His wife disagreed with the cynicism and materialism of his writing and warned him that they would anger the government authorities and postpone his release. By the time he was finally released in the spring of 1790, the Marquise had decided she wanted a separation and divorce.
From that time their only communication was to quarrel over financial matters. She lived out the rest of her life in seclusion at her parents’ estate near Paris, and died at the age of sixty eight in 1810.
du Plessis Gray speculates on the possible cause of her disillusion with her notorious husband whom she had nevertheless always been supremely devoted: “Was Pelagie, quite simply exhausted, after struggling for a quarter of a century against her husband’s rages and gargantuan demands, society’s scorn, the blackmail of prostitutes, the rigor of government and prison bureaucracies, her mother’s fury, and creditors everywhere?”
As was their marriage, their eventual estrangement was an enigma. It would seem that the truth of her initial undying love and the reasons for her eventual alienation she took with her to the grave.