I translated into English the only Gothic novel by the Marquis de Sade

In 1813, a year before his death, the Marquis de Sade wrote his last published book, La marquise de Ganges. The novel is based on an actual 17th-century crime that Sade – notorious aristocrat, libertine, and pornographer – probably first heard of when he was a young boy, and then read while locked up in the Bastille. According to the accounts of the time, this is what happened.

In the afternoon of May 17, 1667, Diane de Joannis, Marquise de Ganges, better known in her time at the court of Louis XIV under the name of the Belle Provençale, is faced with a terrible choice. Standing in front of her are her two brothers-in-law – the Abbot (Abbot) and the Chevalier de Ganges. The abbot holds a pistol in one hand and a glass filled with poison in the other. The knight’s sword is drawn. “Madame,” said the abbot to her, “you must die: you can choose fire, steel or poison”.

The next few hours pass in a blur. Poison swallowed, then stealthily disgorged; escape through a first floor window; brief sanctuary among the women of the village; frantic blows of the knight’s sword, its blade slamming into his shoulder; and finally, the Abbot’s pistol, pressed to his chest… failed.

This is not the end of the marquise’s ordeal, but there is at least a respite. The women of the village come to her aid once again, pushing back the abbot and the knight, who flee, never to return – and never to face justice.

Her wounds were healed and she was brought back to Ganges Castle. Despite his extraordinary courage and resilience, the damage has already been done. She died 19 days later – the autopsy confirmed that poisoning was the cause of death.


Oxford University Press

It was one of the crimes of the century, and it immediately became a bloody story or a bloody story, to be told and repeated from generation to generation.

Now Sade’s version of that tragic episode is now available in English for the first time, in my new translation for Oxford World’s Classics. Sade scholars have always called it a “historical novel,” but when I translated it, I realized it was not the right genre. Rather, it is Sade’s first and only truly Gothic novel – inspired by English novelists like Ann Radcliffe, who wrote The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Mathew Lewis, who wrote The Monk.

Sade and the Gothic

Sade today is probably best known as the man who inspired the term “sadism”, and for his works of violent pornography – novels like Justine and The 120 Days of Sodom, which he described as “the tale of Sodom.” most impure ever written since the beginning of the world. ”. Until now, he was not really considered a Gothic novelist – although he is often cited as one of the first commentators of this new genre, which he called “the necessary offspring of the revolutionary upheaval which touched all of Europe ”in an essay in 1800.

Gothic novels flourished in Britain from the 1790s to the 1820s and were very popular throughout Europe. The writer Madame de Staël described them as stories whose “aim was to inspire terror with the night, old castles, long corridors and gusts of wind”. They were stories of horror and suspense, of lust and love, with dark, violent and erotic undertones.

In the early 1790s, Radcliffe was the most influential and successful writer of this popular genre. Lewis’ Monk, a supernatural tale of murder, incest, and religion, saw Gothic go from polite terror to shockingly shocking – think bloodied nuns and lewd monks making pacts with demons.

Sade’s pornographic novels share some characteristics with English Gothic in terms of characters (virtuous heroines, aristocrats and debauched monks) and locations (isolated castles, gloomy forests and even darker dungeons). So far, it has seemed a matter of coincidence rather than influence. When he wrote them, Sade had not read Radcliffe or Lewis, and there is no evidence that they ever read Sade either. And although The Monk was considered outrageous at the time, English Gothic novels never come close to the graphic and often crass representations of sex found in Sade.

Portrait of the maquis of Ganges
Diane de Joannis de Chateaublanc, the Marquise de Ganges.
Wikimedia

But La Marquise de Gange is a very different work from Sade’s famous – or infamous – pornographic fiction. Written years later, Sade’s account is clearly inspired by novelists like Radcliffe and Lewis. This is his first attempt at a Gothic novel – with its intimidating castle in keeping with “that style of Gothic architecture”.

Like so many other gothic novels, La Marquise de Ganges is basically a story of predatory men and innocent women. In the partly fictional account of this historic murder of Sade, this violence is motivated by sex, while the Marquise’s brothers-in-law take revenge for her rejection of their advances. Throughout the novel, male desire is a constant danger, a constant threat.

So far so gothic. But reading this novel is not quite like reading any other Gothic novel, because it is impossible to forget who wrote it. The life of Sade, like his fiction, is an account of repeated acts of sexual violence against women, from Jeanne Testard and Rose Keller, to the teenage girls he hired as servants in his castle in Lacoste one winter. As radical American feminist writer Andrea Dworkin put it, “Sade’s life and writing were in one piece, a whole fabric soaked in the blood of imagined and real women.”

Beneath the respectable surface of the novel and behind its moralizing narrator, the reader cannot help but seek glimpses of an amoral author. We want to look for the mask to slip on, as it seems when the narrator lingers on the “alabaster bosom of the heroine, covered only with her beautiful disheveled locks” in the climaxing scene, or when the narrator forgets whether he is must be impressed or outraged by the plot of the evil abbot: “Everything had been judiciously, or rather, mischievously calculated in the plans of the abbot,” he corrects himself. Sade teases the reader, playing cat and mouse throughout this very self-conscious and subversive version of a Gothic novel.


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