Donatien Alphonse François Comte de Sade was born on 2 June, 1740. Commonly called the Marquis de Sade, he became the Comte de Sade when his father died in 1767. He was first imprisoned at the age of 23, and by the time he died in 1814 he had spent a total of 27 years in prison. It was during his incarceration that he did most of the writing for which he is now famous.
As most of his crimes and most of his writings are of a sexual nature, these will not be dealt with in this entry. This is the story of his life.
Childhood and Corruption
His mother was related to Prince de Condé, a junior branch of the Royal Bourbon family, and so she became the Governess of the Prince's son. Following an altercation with the young prince when he was four, Sade was sent away to live with various branches of his extended family.
Sent to live with his paternal grandmother, Sade was spoilt by her and her five daughters. Four were nuns, and so lavished on him all the affection they could not give to anyone else. The fifth and youngest daughter was a notoriously promiscuous girl who loved to indulge him in any way he demanded. Sade grew more demanding and unruly over the two years he lived there.
Upon hearing of the way his son was being 'corrupted' by the attentions of the female family members, his father moved him to live with his uncle at Saumane, the Abbé Jacques-François Sade. He thought a masculine role model was needed for his son.
A close friend of Voltaire (a well-known French philosopher), the Abbé shared the warm and sensual nature of his sisters. Voltaire encouraged this worldly side with poems.
However much of a priest you are,Known as the 'sybarite2 of Saumane', the Abbé was a fond fancier of the female form. While living with his uncle, Sade had some of those females as housemates, including a mother and daughter, a maid, and a prostitute. Orgies were not uncommon in the church grounds at his official residence in Auvergne.
O Sir, you'll continue to love.
That is your true ministry,
be you a bishop or the Holy Father.
You will love,
you will seduce,
and you'll equally succeed,
in the Church and in Cythera1.
Left alone much of the time, Sade was allowed to read anything in the Abbé's extensive library. While the library housed many of the most learned classics, it also kept such books as Book of Postures, Venus in the Cloister, and Nun in Her Nightdress. Other books with titles more explicit were also available to the young Sade, and he read as many of them as he could.
Becoming concerned that his son was being corrupted as much, if not more, at his brother's house, the Comte de Sade moved his son again when he was ten. He was sent to school in Paris, to the College Louis-le-Grand, a Jesuit prep school for young men of noble lineage. However, again the Comte had made a mistake. The Jesuits were excellent educators, but sodomy and corporal punishment (in the form of flagellation) were rife at the school.
After four years at the college, Sade was moved again at the age of 15, this time to a military academy. He went into the King's Own Infantry Regiment as a sub-lieutenant. When the Seven Years War broke out that same year, his capabilities as a brave and resolute leader were proved during one of the battles, where his actions resulted in the French taking Port Mahon. Following this, his father used his connections to have Sade transferred to the Carabiniers de Monsieur. Commanded by a member of the royal family, he was made the Standard Bearer for the Carbine Regiment. His bravery made him a prime candidate for promotion, and he was made captain by the age of 18. He was stationed in Germany at the time. To his father's dismay, he indulged his appetites at will.
Adulthood and Imprisonment
In 1762, Sade returned to France to find an arranged marriage waiting for him. Despite initially refusing to agree, he finally relented and married Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil, the daughter of prominent military leader, in May. He had only been married for just over a year when he was imprisoned after an encounter with a prostitute. Sade was astounded at being imprisoned for behaviour that he thought was commonplace amongst the nobility, and he pleaded to be set free. His apologies were so heartfelt, that with the help of the Montreuil family, he was released after three weeks.
He continued to meet with prostitutes, and had many affairs behind his wife's back. In 1768, he was again in trouble with the police for assaulting a woman he found begging for alms. This time he served four months. Considering him a mortal threat to prostitutes, although murder was not one of the crimes that Sade ever committed, Police Inspector Marais of the Parisian police force warned brothels against supplying Sade with girls. Despite the warning, a warrant for his arrest was issued in July 1772. He had been feeding aniseed sweets laced with Spanish Fly (an aphrodisiac) to prostitutes. Two of them then suffered digestive problems, one so bad that poisoning was suspected. The girl was so ill, and poisoning considered so despicable at this time3, that he was tried in his absence and sentenced to death. He was arrested in December the same year, and due to pleas of 'youthful folly' to the King from his wife, he was put into prison. This time he escaped after four months.
He stayed at large for four years, despite having his house raided due to concern for the whereabouts of a number of young girls in the area. When he was finally rearrested in 1776, he was kept in prison for 13 years, despite having been cleared of the charges of poisoning. In 1778, the King granted him an appeal against his death sentence, and he was cleared due to lack of evidence. However, he was kept inside due to a lettre de cachet4 arranged by his mother-in-law. He escaped again en route to the prison. He was captured after three months, and was this time kept under strict surveillance. He was sent away from the Bastille in 1789, to the insane asylum at Charenton. The Decree of Assembly released the majority of prisoners held under lettre de cachet.
It was during this long stretch that Sade secretly wrote a number of pornographic novels. He published them under a nom de plume in the period after his release. They caused a storm of protest, and remained unavailable to the general public. His wife also divorced him, so he had no means of supporting himself. Using his charisma, he soon found friends willing to keep him while he began to make a living from selling novels and short plays.
He became politically active, writing political pamphlets, and was voted as the President of the Piques section in Paris. As part of his duties, he presided as Grand Juror over many trials, including that of his mother-in-law and her family. He did for them what he did for most of the prisoners, he dismissed the cases. He was loath to apply the death penalty to anyone. When he eventually resigned his post in 1793, he was arrested for 'moderatism', and served another year in prison.
He was again arrested in 1801 and imprisoned under 'administrative punishment' without a trial. He was moved to the insane asylum at Charenton, on Napoleon's orders on the grounds that his writings expressed a state of 'libertine dementia'.
Justine is the most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination.
His insolent political pamphlets also undoubtedly provoked Napoleon, who was notorious for sending even the slightest offenders to prison without trial. Sade wrote more novels while he was again incarcerated, plus plays and concerts that he established and directed in the asylum. He was also having an affair with a young worker in the asylum, from the time she was 15, and he was 72. He died there in 1814, aged 74.
Sade was well known for his controversial theory that since both sexual deviation and criminal acts exist in nature, they must also be natural. His name was taken by Richard von Krafft-Ebing5 and used to form the word sadism, at that time meaning the way that cruelty is inflicted to attain sexual release. Sade's writing style had been referred to as le sadisme for years; Krafft-Ebing was the first to use the term in a clinical manner.