Donatien Alphonse Francois, Marquis de Sade, was born on 2 June 1740 at the Conde Palace in Paris, it seemed just another son of an impoverished Nobleman but during his long life he was to find fame as an advocate of sexual freedom unrestrained by morality, religion, or law. As a result, many of his seventy four years were to be spent behind bars in various institutions including five years in the infamous Bastille and many more in an asylum for the criminally insane.
His time under lock and key he used to write, combining philosophical discourse with the most extreme pornography in a series of erotic novels which depicted his bizarre sexual fantasies in the most graphic of terms, and the most notorious of these was the 101 Days of Sodom.
De Sade came from the stock of ancient nobility, his family were Noblesse d’Epee (the Nobility of the Sword) not the more recently ennobled and parvenu Noblesse d’Robe (Nobility of the Cloth) the families of bankers, wealthy merchants, and successful lawyers which merely meant the de Sade family had the status but not necessarily the money.
Whether the young Donatien ever inherited the title Marquis is doubtful, but he seems to have taken it anyway.
He had the traditional upbringing and education reserved for sons of the nobility being raised by a series of nannies before being sent to boarding school. In his early twenties he embarked upon the conventional career of a younger son taking a commission in the army and rising to the rank of Colonel of a Regiment during the Seven Years War.
In 1763 he married a rich Magistrates daughter, Renee Pelagie de Montreuil, a match made in heaven for the scion of arrogant but impoverished aristocracy, but it was never a conventional marriage.
Despite having two daughters de Sade was never interested in domesticity and at his Castle in Lacoste he would procure the services of prostitutes who he could abuse at his leisure but when one of them complained to the police of maltreatment he was placed under surveillance, at which point he moved to Paris.
He soon found himself in trouble once more when on Easter Sunday 1768, a prostitute named Rose Keller escaped from his Chateau at Arcueil by jumping naked from a second floor window. She was later to accuse de Sade of imprisoning and sexually abusing her but the Authorities were disinclined to take the word of a prostitute over that of a nobleman and were reluctant to proceed further with the complaint. But his increasingly exasperated mother-in-law petitioned the King for a Lettre de Cachet. This was a Royal Warrant for the arrest of a suspect that stated no cause and denied the accused access to the Courts – in other words, the accused could be confined indefinitely at the King’s pleasure.
Warned that a Lettre de Cachet had been issued for his arrest, de Sade fled Paris for Marseille, but the need to keep a low profile did not curtail his activities and he continued to procure prostitutes whom he had taken to drugging with an aphrodisiac known as Spanish Fly. This was meant to heighten the sexual experience. Instead, it led him to almost commit murder for the drug was also a poison and many of the prostitutes became very seriously ill and it was only through good fortune that none of them died.
In the meantime, he had been accused of committing sodomy with his manservant, Latour.
In eighteenth century France sodomy was considered a crime punishable by death so de Sade, his wife’s sister who was staying with him at the time and Latour, all fled to Italy. But the outstanding Lettre de Cachet remained a Sword of Damocles hanging over his head so after spending a spell in prison in Italy he agreed to return voluntarily to France but in secrecy.
He hid out for a time at his Castle in Lacoste supported by his wife who was always an eager accomplice in his activities. There he continued much as before hiring women as serving girls only to sexually abuse them once they had started in his employ, though he was lucky on one occasion to survive an attempt to murder him by an outraged father.
In 1778, he was arrested whilst on a journey to Paris to visit his sick mother unaware that she had in fact already died. Whilst in custody it was revealed that he had been sentenced to death in absentia. He successfully appealed the sentence but was to remain in prison under the orders of the Lettres de Cachet.
In 1784 he was transferred to the Bastille where five years later on 2 July 1789, he was heard to shout from the window of his cell to the crowds that had been gathering around this symbol of Royal Authority in the heart of Paris ever since the recall of the Estates General and the ongoing constitutional crisis:
“They are killing the prisoners here, they are killing us all.”
Such was the level of hysteria already prevailing that his words almost caused a riot. Two days later he was transferred to the Insane Asylum at Charenton. On 14 July the Bastille was stormed sparking the French Revolution.
In 1785, during his time in the Bastille and over a 37 day period he had written on a 12 metre long roll of paper his most famous literary work – 101 Days of Sodom. Upon learning of the storming of the Bastille he was devastated believing that his manuscript had been lost forever. Much to his relief it was returned to him some months later.
The 101 Days of Sodom is set in a remote Castle detached from the rest of the world where four main characters all of whom are rich beyond the dreams of avarice and having nothing else to do in life but indulge their passions and are described as “lawless and without religion,” and that they obey only “the imperious decrees of their perfidious lust.”
They are an Aristocrat wanted for murder, a Bishop obsessed with anal sex, a Judge ugly and unclean, and an effeminate Banker representing the very pillars of an establishment that de Sade professed to despise and in his novel he would debase them all and everything they stood for.
The four main characters had willing accomplices to their debauchery namely a number of both male and female prostitutes but the victims of their sexual excess were to be their four young daughters all of them virgins.
The plot revolves around their indulgence of the four main passions: the simple, the complex, the criminal, and the murderous.
In the pages of the book every sexual perversion is catered for from incest, to bondage, flagellation, sodomy, and necrophilia.
The book ends in an orgy of bloodlust and killing as women are raped to death atop a bed of nails and the men climax as the blood seeps from the naked bodies of the women who were their victims.
He was delighted to have rescued his manuscript.
Following the Revolution and the truncating of the King’s powers the Lettres de Cachet were abolished and not long after de Sade was released from Charenton; and in 1790 was elected to the recently formed National Convention ostensibly for his role in the storming of the Bastille, even though he hadn’t been present at the time.
He now dropped the title Marquis and insisted upon being referred to as Citizen de Sade and though his years of confinement had left him fat and ponderous it had in no way reduced his vigour and he was a very visible presence in the Convention speaking often.
But he was also a man of contradictions opposing the death penalty, the excesses of the Revolution and the tyranny of the State yet he remained an advocate of the left and a vocal supporter of that man of blood, Jean-Paul Marat.
The Revolution had provided de Sade with a brief respite from his many years on the run and frequent imprisonment and he was determined to make the most of it. He continued to indulge himself in the usual way but also took time to see to the publication of his books. He also abandoned his wife and set up home with an unemployed actress named Marie-Constance Quesnet, with whom he was to spend the rest of his life.
In 1796, threatened with bankruptcy he was forced to sell his Castle at Lacoste to pay his debts and the little money he earned through his books went to creditors. He continued to write anonymously but the true identity of the author of such scurrilous and scandalous works was rarely in doubt.
In 1801, on the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte he was arrested once more for being of a lascivious disposition and the author of amoral and irreligious works. In reality it was because of his revolutionary past and his known opposition to the upstart Bonaparte.
He was sent to the Saint-Pelagie Prison but in 1803 his ex-wife and her family petitioned to have him transferred to the gentler surroundings of the Asylum at Charenton where they agreed to pay for his keep and provide him with a pension. There he was permitted to stage his plays and invite the public to come in and view them. He also began an affair with a 13 year old girl, Madeleine LeClerc, even though Marie-Constance was living with him at the time.
On 2 December 1814, aged 74, the Marquis de Sade, died.
He had insisted that no autopsy be carried out on his body regardless of the circumstances of his death.
Some academics, particularly in France, view de Sade’s writings as a searing critique of Authority and established Enlightenment thinking. Others view him as a vile pornographer who used the written word to indulge his sexual fantasies at a time when he could not indulge them physically.
Perhaps, at the end of the day, his greatest legacy is to have given us the word for violent sexual excess that derives from his name, Sade – Sadism.