De Sade: Justine in Tears

De Sade's Justine or the Misfortunes of Virtue

De Sade’s Justine or the Misfortunes of Virtue

I have not read any of the Marquis De Sade’s work, so perhaps I am not in the position to judge. But the more I read about him the less I like. Unlike Sacher Masoch who seems almost endearing in his craving to let his Miss Whiplash girlfriend knock seven bells out of him – a sort of Christian Grey in reverse.

With regards to De Sade, I can find nothing attractive about a man who enjoys torturing and raping women. I am not saying De Sade would not have made a pleasant dinner companion; if you could keep him off his pet subject. Dare say he could be witty and most charmingly persuasive. People like de Sade often are. They have a way of being able to justify their tastes and making you feel naïve, or worse provincial, for disagreeing with them.

Yet the more I read about De Sade the less comfortable I am. He is certainly not as portrayed, so charmingly and youthfully, by Geoffrey Rush in the biopic Quills (2000) – an amiable old eccentric; guilty of no more than holding up a looking glass to the sexual hypocrisies of his age. De Sade’s behaviour towards woman was so extreme that even in a time when the abuse of women was endemic in society his contemporaries thought he should be locked away in prison or a mental asylum – which is in fact where he spent a large part of his life.

De Sade was briefly imprisoned a number of times after local prostitutes complained about his misuse. After De Sade kidnapped a poverty-stricken widow and inflicted sexual and physical abuse on her until her escape, his mother in law obtained a letter de cachet from the king. This was basically an open arrest warrant for indefinite confinement.

With that sentence hanging over his head, De Sade fled Paris. In 1772 he had to flee Marseilles after being sentenced to death for attempting to poison prostitutes with the aphrodisiac Spanish Fly, and buggery with his manservant – maybe I should rephrase that. He continued to abuse young servant girls with, it must be said, the connivance of his wife – the Rose West to his Fred – until he was tricked into returning to Paris where he was arrested and sentenced to death – for buggery with his manservant.

While De Sade successfully appealed his death sentence, he was imprisoned indefinitely under the King’s lettre de cachet (usually used for the crown’s political enemies) that was still in force. He was briefly confined in the Bastille – which gave him some reputation with the revolutionary regime as Citizen De Sade – until he chose the wrong side during the Reign of Terror and was imprisoned once more. In fact he was transferred to an insane asylum few days before the Bastille fell in the opening salvo of the French Revolution.

In the insane asylum he wrote ‘120 days of Sodom’ about some roués locking themselves in a castle for 4 months with veteran prostitutes as advisors in depravity and well-endowed studs willing to dish out every imaginable outrage on their victims – young teenagers of both sexes. Even a brief plot synopsis is pretty stomach turning, so let’s swiftly move on.

In 1801 Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the arrest of the anonymous author of a pair of novels ‘Justine’ and ‘Juliette’. De Sade was arrested at the publisher’s office and imprisoned without trial. When his family declared him insane, he was moved to an asylum. Here, at the age of 70, he began a 4 year sexual relationship with the fourteen year old daughter of one of the asylum’s employees, which lasted to his death. (This is the plot of the film ‘Quills’ starring Geoffrey Rush and Kate Winslett as his 14 year old mistress). After his death, his son had all his unpublished manuscripts burned.



Justine (or the Misfortunes of Virtue) published in 1791, and Juliette (or the Prosperity of Vice – 1801), were about two sisters on very different paths. At the age of 13 Juliette is seduced by a nun and under her influence becomes very sexually precocious and a murderess. She enjoys associating with sadists and murderers, and indulging in every form of depravity. In true De Sade style she is blessed with every happiness – position, reputation and wealth.

In contrast, her sister Justine clings on to her virtue and is subjected to everything you would expect from De Sade. Recounting her tale of woe to a wealthy stranger, the woman reveals herself to be her sister Juliette – now given up her life of vice and living in luxury.

The moral of the tale is that Juliette by embracing vice was in control of her fate and can now devote herself to goodness and charity. Justine, by resisting vice is never in control. She has been dragged in ever deeper and is damaged by her experiences. It is only through Juliette that Justine’s name is cleared and reputation restored. Offered a life of comfort and happiness in her sister’s mansion Justine goes out on to the balcony and is promptly struck by lightning. (Not doubt crying out: “Do I never get a break!”)

It is said that De Sade’s Justine, while admittedly having its moments, is not as graphically pornographic as his other works. This may well be because it was written as a ribald parody of Samuel Richardson’s immensely popular 1840 novel Pamela (Or Virtue Rewarded).

Richardson's Pamela or Virtue Rewarded

Richardson’s Pamela or Virtue Rewarded

Pamela, a beautiful 15 year old maid, resists seduction and rape by her aristocratic employer and is rewarded for her virtue by her employer’s sincere offer of marriage. In the second volume, her steadfastness and subservient good nature endear her to her husband’s upper crust neighbours and family who accept her into society.

It is impossible to over-emphasise how important Pamela was at the time. It was turned into sell-out plays in France and Italy, and became the subject of Piccinni’s most successful Italian comic opera ‘La Buona Figliuola’ (The Good Girl).

Virtually single-handedly Pamela created the whole genre of what we now know as romantic novels – where a girl’s innate goodness is recognised by a worthy man; where beauty is more than skin deep – pick a cliché… any cliché.

Without Pamela’s runaway success it would be hard to know if Jane Austen or the Brontes would have had the opportunity to present their work to the public. Without their influence on the development of the modern novel, there would be no Barbara Cartland or Mills and Boone; no Jackie Collins or Jilly Cooper; perhaps even (God forbid) no ‘50 Shades of Grey’. So who knows, perhaps Justine did not die in vain after all.

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