I was 14 when I read the French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos and learned most of what I know about love from it.
The author told a friend that it would be ‘unusual…something that will reverberate through the world even after I leave it’.
The plot is simple and cruel: two aristocrats – the Marquise de Merteuil (the widow) and the Viscount de Valmont (her ex-lover) – use sex as a game to control others and impress each other.
It was first published in 1782, but it gave a teenage virgin from working-class Bristol in the 1970s who was so respectable that girls who left home before marriage were thought to be going ‘to the game’, it gave her a glimpse of another world. A world where sex could be both a glittering sport and a competition.
I was 14 when I read the French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos and from it I learned most of what I know about love
After more than two centuries, the fascination with the book continues. In November, Paloma Faith appeared opposite Lesley Manville in the introduction to the novel, the Lionsgate+ TV series also called Dangerous Liaisons.
It focuses on the life of the Marquis and Vicomte in the slums of Paris before they became famous. Last summer Netflix launched another film Les Liaisons Dangereuses, this time set in Biarritz and shown on Instagram.
Looking back, Liaisons wasn’t my first foray into the adult department; The summer I became a teenager I spent reading Lolita, lounging in the park in hot pants and laughing at the dirty old men who furtively looked at my legs.
But I was disappointed to find (spoiler alert) that Lolita ends up being a good girl; no wonder she dies in childbirth, my teenage self scoffed. Before I heard about ‘unlikable female protagonists’, I knew I wanted to be one.
The author told a friend that it would be ‘unusual…something that would reverberate through the world even after I leave it’
Not because I was loveless and desperate to settle down with a spouse and two wegs (or any of the other stupid theories that respectable people have about lechers), but because I realized even then that this was the way I was likely to get the most out of my life . This was the life that would suit me best.
Biology lessons at school made sex seem so commonplace and disgusting at the same time that I vowed never to engage in a romantic relationship with a man until I had safely escaped to London – at 16 I had already seen some of the smartest girls in my year become mothers. (‘Contrary to conventional wisdom, opportunity always knocks more than once, while a misstep can never be taken back,’ the Marquise de Merteuil wisely advises.)
I had a feeling that I would be very enthusiastic about sex once I tried it. (I was right—albeit in a stunningly provincial and utterly unattached way, I shamefully married the first man I had sex with at the age of 17; however, within five years I had eloped and become a die-hard bohemian heartthrob, making up for lost time.)
Now I avoided hometown boys like the plague, aware that if I tried any of my fictional role model’s sentences on them (‘He’d call me fake and unfaithful – I’ve always had a weakness for those two words.
Besides cruelty, those are the most beautiful words a woman can hear, and they are not hard to earn’) would have been rejected anyway. But that’s the only way I saw other people when I was a teenager: the people I practiced being funny on, and while I shunned my classmates, my poor mother bore the brunt (‘When one woman hits another in the heart, she rarely misses , and the wound is always fatal’ – another bon mot from the marquise.)
De Merteuil was certainly a different kind of woman. The French novelist André Malraux considered it ‘unprecedented… the first [in European literature] whose actions are determined by ideology’.
Plot: Two aristocrats use sex as a game to control others and impress each other
Or as I put it more simply to a newspaper in 2005 when they asked me who my favorite literary villain was: ‘Marquise de Merteuil from Les Liaisons Dangereuses – she’s a real cow and you’d laugh at her.’
She was what we’d call a ‘player’ these days, someone we’d boo on Love Island, except that those bikini geniuses are innocent in their fashion, while M de M was born bad.
I won’t reveal too much about the plot in case I spoil it for lucky readers who have yet to be introduced to her wicked ways, but I will say that her level of breathtaking sincerity has never been surpassed by any heroine, anti- or otherwise.
This novel contains real life facts far more important than any basic biology lesson – so much so that when teenage girls wrote to me asking for advice on life and love when the TV adaptation of my young adult novel Sugar Rush was a hit, I would send them a copy instead this book.
The phrase ‘it’s cruel to be kind’ came to mind. I wanted them to enter the realm of the senses, forewarned and thus armed, aware that the war between the sexes is rarely civil.
The current wave of #BeKind brainwashing hadn’t been officially imposed on young women when I was a year old, but women have always had a tough habit of people-pleasing, and I realized they’d need all the practical advice they could get.
Perhaps because literary critics don’t want to be seen praising a book about sexual shenanigans unless something more serious is going on, The Connections is also considered a revolutionary text that depicts the corruption and depravity of the French nobility.
And yet it’s really about the fun that two amoral people can have. Evidence of this lies in the fact that although Christopher Hampton’s 1985 adaptation and Glenn Close’s 1988 film based on it are set during the ancien régime, there have been many versions: the 1959 Jeanne Moreau film set in contemporary Paris, Cruel Intentions from 1999 set in Manhattan (which spawned a sequel and a prequel), 2003’s Untold Scandal set in 18th century Korea.
There have also been several 21st century novels based on the original, including The Cunning Factory in which a marquise fakes her death and escapes to England.
Perhaps Connections has never lost its appeal because it is not only a sexy book but also a wise one – many lechers discover altruism in the manner of Valmont: ‘I am amazed at the pleasure a man takes in doing good; and I should be tempted to believe that what we call honest men have not so much merit as they lead us to suppose.’
Surprisingly, it’s not on the list of 1,000 texts that drive texts in our fine further education institutions, which is a shame – if I were young today, I’d put that reading list on my list.
Fortunately, I’m not young in this strange, scared new world. I’m a mean 63-year-old old woman who has lived nine lives to the fullest.
I broke hearts and was heartbroken – but looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. And I can thank this perfect novel for making me fearless and teaching me a very important lesson: life is too short not to follow your heart, even if it leads you to a dead end and robs you of your self-possession at knifepoint. Perhaps it was a revolutionary text after all.
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