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Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos de Laclos was born in Amiens, France on October 18, 1741, to a respectable family. At age eighteen, he entered the military as an artilleryman and spent some twenty years in service. He wrote light verse and a comic opera produced in 1777, Ernestine. In 1779 he was sent to the island of Aix to supervise the construction of a fort. It was here that he composed Dangerous Liaisons. In 1781 he returned to Paris to supervise the printing and publication of his novel, which appeared in 1782 to great acclaim and scandal. In 1786 Laclos married Solanges Duperre, whom he had impregnated some two years earlier, and thus acted on better morals than those of most of his characters in Dangerous Liaisons. During the French Revolution, Laclos was imprisoned twice, though he was released on both occasions. In 1800 he joined Napoleon's army. He was killed in service in Italy in 1803. Any fame Laclos enjoys today is due entirely to Dangerous Liaisons, his one great, diabolic masterpiece. Readers will agree that, in this case, one is enough. Some readers might think one was, in fact, more than enough.
The epistolary novel grew in prominence throughout the 18th century until it finally arrived at the pen of Choderlos de Laclos. Richardson's Clarissa in England and Rousseau's La Nouvelle Heloïse in France, both epistolary novels, had been extremely well-received. Their themes of education, romance, and the definition of the female self were repeated in Laclos's own work, but with a twist. Laclos learned from the error of Richardon and Rousseau's ways in that he did not create a novel written from a single perspective, that and he did not use the letters of his Dangerous Liaisons solely to report the events of the novel. The diary-like epistles of Clarissa and La Nouvelle Heloïse certainly kept the plot moving along, but they were extremely flat. There seemed to be no motivation behind these letters. To combat this lack of depth, Laclos wrote a kind of drama in letters, where multiple personages vied and schemed with, and against, each other through what they wrote. It is the portrait of the end of an era, an extremely rarified society gasps its last breaths on the pages of Dangerous Liaisons. It is the most extreme kind of epistolary novel one can imagine, a novel that could not be written except in letters, and it seems the last possible book of its kind. Its plot and its characters so perfectly motivate its own form that the result is terrifying and seamless.
However, what is perhaps more important is that all this writing was going on against a background of a stirring revolution, or seven years before the beginning of the French Revolution. Written so close to a time of civil war, Dangerous Liaisons is itself extremely concerned with conflict and military strategy, even if only in the realm of romance and personal relationships. Choderlos himself was a military officer at the time of writing the novel. As a soldier, Choderlos was something of an outsider to the society he described. This was the society of the aristocracy, a society which, whether it knew it or not at the time, had its back up against the wall. Its excesses, monetary and otherwise, had progressed to the point where they could go no farther; fashion, no longer a pastime, had become a profession in itself.
The publication of Dangerous Liaisons produced a scandal, not only because it described the long success in society of two seemingly depraved individuals who lacked any trace of morals, but because it was seen as a roman à clef. This is to say that readers of Dangerous Liaisons claimed to be able to find certain keys in Choderlos de Laclos's descriptions of his personages which linked them to actual individuals in society. The preface to the novel that describes how the letters were taken from an actual correspondence did nothing to dispel this belief. It is interesting that the issue of authenticity or sincerity of intentions is so frequently in question in the novel, since its own authenticity was frequently the topic of discussion in Parisian society. One can only be sure that Laclos hoped to make a splash by writing a novel so clearly designed to titillate, amuse, and criticize.
Despite its banning in 1824, Dangerous Liaisons has risen through the ages as one of the most famous accounts in the French language of affairs of the heart. Though it is without a doubt the product of its time, produced by societal pressures, it is also an account of the limitations of inter-personal relationships that no one has yet managed to escape entirely.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Dangerous Liaisons!