The Reading Room

Scandalous Fictions, Novel Liaisons

From: Garth Bond
Date: Tuesday, February 15, 2022 at 8:06 PM
To: Caroline Breashears 
Cc: OLLSubject: Dangerous Reading Room Liaisons
I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your Reading Room post on Dangerous Liaisons from last week. Beyond reminding me of our previous conversations about this work—reason enough to love it—your linking the novel to Epstein and Maxwell really reframed the ethical questions involved for me. In particular, your comments about society’s complicity in Valmont and Merteuil’s crimes got me thinking about readerly complicity and concerns—both at the time and currently—regarding the moral status of the novel.
I apologize if I’m repeating myself, but one of the most troubling things about Valmont and Merteuil in the novel is how much more entertaining and enjoyable they are than the more innocent and virtuous characters. We all recognize that they are wicked characters and that the novel is instructing us to learn from their viciousness rather than to emulate it; but it is also hard to imagine any of us would keep reading left only to the decent dullness of their victims.
It makes me wonder how different we are as readers from the enabling Madame de Volanges of the novel. We, too, receive them into our homes, indulging them for their charm and cleverness. While it is easy to tell ourselves that we are learning the novel’s lessons, taking to heart the dangers of such liaisons, how much confidence should we have that our fictional moral judgment will translate into good decisions in real life? The progress of the French Revolution into the Reign of Terror (and beyond) raises questions about just how fully the novel’s original readers absorbed its moral messages.
I know, I’m sounding a bit like critics of the time—and some present day school boards—worrying about the dangerous impact of novels on their readers. By the way, I found that 1750 essay by Samuel Johnson you were telling me about on the dangers of the emerging modern novel. His assessment of early English novels—like Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel, Clarissa, published just two years earlier—is at least as pessimistic as mine: “there are thousands of the readers … willing to be thought wicked, if they may be allowed to be wits.”
Johnson’s concern about the dangers of this newly emerging genre resonates with my interest in book history. His point was specifically about the dangers raised by the realism of the novel. No one, in his view, would be so foolish as to emulate the villains in Renaissance and Medieval romances; but the realism of this new genre—fostered by the emerging print industry and the increasing literacy of 18th Century Europe—made Johnson anxious about this new form.
In my reading, Johnson’s anxiety is less analogous to contemporary book banners than to concerns about new technologies like social media. To us, the novel is an old and comforting technology, rather than a new and alarming one. Whatever reservations school boards may raise about individual books, they are not proposing that novels as a form are a potential danger to children. Johnson’s concerns about the realism of novels is more akin to our worries about the effects of screen-time, pernicious algorithms, and doom-scrolling. Johnson’s solution seems to be that authors should carefully sort their virtuous and vicious characters so as to avoid misleading readers, which perhaps explains why we are so much more likely to read Dangerous Liaisons than Johnson’s Rasselas.
Laclos himself seems to have recognized the complicated relationship between novels and moral education. Dangerous Liaisons is full of references to earlier epistolary novels, especially to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Julia and Richardson’s Clarissa. There is even a hint that Valmont may have modeled himself on Richardson’s witty villain, Lovelace, as he paraphrases him at the start of a key letter (No. 100). Later, in Letter 107, we learn that one of his intended victims is also reading Clarissa—though she fails to learn the necessary lessons from it.
In an even more complex passage, we see Merteuil using our own prejudice against the dull virtue of fictional heroines to mislead young Cécile after Valmont has raped her. In Letter 105, Merteuil ridicules her natural response to his crime, admonishing her for behaving like the virtuous Clarissa: “Monsieur de Valmont is a wicked man, isn’t he? What? Does he dare to treat you like the woman he loves best in the world? Has he taught you those things you were dying to know? What unforgivable behavior!… You would make a marvellous character in a novel.”
What I think Laclos understands about the dangers posed by the novel is that they are, in fact, the dangers of the real world. To remove those dangers from our libraries or school curriculums because they make us uncomfortable is to render ourselves more rather than less vulnerable to their vicious charms. As John Milton said in his own brief against censorship, “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and seeks her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”
But look at what a ridiculous email I’ve sent you. Here I intended to continue our interrupted conversation and finish up my point about Laclos’s clever use of letters in the novel, and instead I’ve spent a lot of time telling you things you already know. Best to quit while I’m ahead, so I’ll leave off with a valediction in the spirit of the novel.
Your friend and pupil,Garth