A Novel Education
From: Caroline Breashears
Date: 5 March, 2022
To: Garth Bond
Subject: Dangerous Reading Room Liaisons
Your recent post on Dangerous Liaisons (1782) was riveting. As you say, Laclos knows that the dangers posed by novels are "the dangers of the real world." Removing such novels from school curriculums would only render people more vulnerable. In fact, I think Laclos's novel is partly about the problem of education—specifically, the education of women.
In Dangerous Liaisons, the fifteen-year-old Cécile de Volanges falls prey to the machinations of the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont precisely because she is so badly educated. She returns home from her convent ignorant of the most basic facts about society and her mother's plans for her. Can we wonder that she mistakes a shoe maker for her fiancé, or Merteuil's attentions for friendship?
But Laclos' target is not simply neglectful parents and sinister socialites. He clarified his concern in 1783, when he responded to a question from the Academy of Chalons-Sur-Marne: "How Can the Education of Women Best Be Improved?" His answer is that it cannot be improved: "without freedom there is no morality, and without morality no education."
For Laclos, women were not free. Paraphrasing Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he writes,
Come and learn how, born man's companion, you have become his slave; how, fallen into this abject state, you have come to like it, to regard it as your natural state; how, lastly, degraded more and more by a long habit of slavery, you have come to prefer its debasing but convenient vices to the more difficult virtues of a free and respectable existence.
Without morality, Laclos insists, there can be no real education. In society as it was in 1783, a well-educated woman would be either "very unhappy remaining in her place or dangerous if she tried to leave it."
In making this point, Laclos was very much in dialogue with Rousseau, whose model of female education was Sophie in Emile; or On Education. As Rousseau argues, "if woman is made to please and to be subjugated, she ought to make herself agreeable to man instead of arousing him." She should learn restraint. She should learn gentleness and, since she is to obey man, "endure even injustice and to bear a husband's wrongs without complaining."
Laclos was having none of it, and neither was his example of a dangerous woman: Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons. In letter 81, she tells Valmont how she educated herself. Her account has a number of components we would call feminist. For instance, she argues that Valmont is not extraordinary as a seducer because, as a man, he faces no risks: "For you men defeat is only one victory less. In this unequal contest we are lucky not to lose, and you are unlucky not to win."
Merteuil attributes her success to her principles: "I have created them, and I can say that I am what I have created." She argues that she was forced to do so because, as a woman, she entered society ignorant. The only way to learn what she wanted was to learn the art of self-mastery and to conduct research.
Merteuil's self-education is simultaneously terrifying and enlightening: "In novels I studied manners; in the philosophers, opinions; I even tried to find out from the strictest moralists what they demanded of us, to be certain what it was possible to do, what it was best to think, and how one must appear to be."
Her tale illustrates Laclos's point in his reply to the Academy of Chalons-Sur- Marne. It is not enough that we have access to great books: we must also be able to understand and apply that knowledge morally, which requires freedom.
In the world of Dangerous Liaisons, the lack of female freedom contributes to the corruption of elite society, which Laclos presents for the "instruction" of other classes. As you say, Garth, the "the progress of the French Revolution into the Reign of Terror . . . raises question about just how fully the novel's original readers absorbed its moral messages." Let's hope that we are able to understand them more clearly.
Your friend and pupil