Yesterday, I had the fun of talking to the cast of an upcoming production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses by The Porchlight Theatre Company (a wonderful theater group that specializes in the classics, though I should confess to being a bit biased as I’m a board member).
I was there to talk about the historical context of the story. It was very impressive listening to the research the cast had already done. There’s a wonderful richness in so many people exploring an era, very different from a writer’s solitary research. Les Liaisons Dangereuses, both Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel and the Christopher Hampton play and various other adaptations, has fascinated me for years. As I explained to the cast, this is the world of my main characters’ parents—which explains a lot about the problems my characters have :-). I realized a long time ago that to understand the forces that shaped my characters I needed to understand the French Revolution and the world before it, the LLD world.
Lady Bessborough compared the Marquise de Merteuil in LLD to Lady Melbourne, the great Whig hostess. Les Liaisons Dangereuses, first published in 1782, scandalized late 18th century society on both sides of the Channel not because the world it described—in which seductions are strategized with the cool calculation of a chess game—seemed alien but because it hit so very close to home. The novel had an impact on French and British society for at least a generation. There were rumors that a private copy with blank binding had been ordered for Marie Antoinette’s library. It was still a scandalous book in the Regency/Napoleonic era.
Beneath a Silent Moon is my book most influenced by LLD. Kenneth Fraser, Lady Frances, and Lord Glenister lived in this world. When I was working on the book, I went to the wonderful Frick Collection in New York. I was building Kenneth Fraser’s art collection, but I particularly focused on the Fragonard and Boucher paintings. Two archetypal painters for this world. I was struck by the prettiness in the paintings with sensuality beneath the surface. A delicate, carefully controlled world. In Beneath a Silent Moon, Mélanie thinks of it as “young lovers in a rose strewn garden watched over by Venus and Cupid. A world of sugar-coated romance with carnality pulsing just beneath the surface.”
Kenneth Fraser and Lord Glenister’s bet about seducing a married lady who had not yet given her husband an heir and Kenneth’s ruthlessness in winning the bet by seducing Glenister’s wife are right in line with the behavior of the characters in LLD. And with real stories from the era, including one I used in the book about one man buying a mistress from a friend for five thousand pounds and both the lady and her husband being witnesses to the contract.
In Beneath, Lady Frances says that “The younger generation don’t necessarily play the game by the same rules.” It is true that things were changing. Romantic games were still a favorite pastime of the beau monde (Lady Melbourne’s daughter, Emily Cowper, had children by a number of different men, including her long-time lover Lord Palmerston whom she eventually married after the death of her first husband). But the games were played more subtly, with love holding greater weight in the equation. At least for some. I have Val and Honoria in Beneath playing games similar to Valmont and Merteuil in LLD.
Yesterday we talked about how the Christopher Hampton play version of Les Liaisions Dangereuses begins and ends with games of piquet. I’ve always seen LLD (and particularly the Hampton play) as the story of people who try to turn passion into a game. To put a neat frame round it, as in the Fragonard and Boucher paintings. But ultimately they can’t control their emotions and that’s their downfall. Valmont cares for Madame de Tourvel and it interferes with his game playing. The marquise cares for Valmont, though she tries to deny it, and it influences her actions.
If you think about the music of the era, Beethoven’s music in the post LLD era is full of unrestrained emotion. His music was considered very shocking. Not, I think, because there was passion on the music—people in the late 18th century were quite frank about sex—but because it was passion and emotion that couldn’t be controlled.
Interestingly, the world of the Congress of Vienna, about which I’m writing now, is very like the world of LLD. Perhaps not surprisingly. Many of the politicians were trying to turn the clock back to before the French Revolution. The world of the ancien régime. Trying to impose a neat order and control reformist ideas. At the same time there was a lot of romantic intriguing at the Congress that seems straight out of the LLD world.
Have you read Les Liaisons Dangereuses or seen any of the adaptations? If you write books set in the late 18th or early 19the centuries does the world it describes influence your writing? How does the world of The Scarlet Pimpernel, just a few years later, compare?
In the Fraser Correspondence, I’m taking a break from Charles and Mélanie’s adventures at the Congress of Vienna and writing about their first holiday season together in 1812 (we’ll return to the Congress of Vienna after the holidays). This week’s addition is a letter from Charles to Mel, five days after their marriage.