His time in the Bastille, one of the most notorious jails in Europe, had taken its toll on the Marquis de Sade, a man whose arresting blue eyes and curly blond hair had once so beguiled women, they stopped in the street to stare at him.
Obese, thanks to the delicacies sent him by his adoring wife — eel pâté, chocolate cakes and bacon-wrapped thrush among them — the 45-year-old aristocrat suffered migraines and gout, and wore strange, mask-like leather goggles to help his failing eyesight.
Yet one October evening in 1785, after being incarcerated for nearly eight years, he began to write 120 Days Of Sodom, a work of fiction whose content demonstrated that, for all his physical decline, there had been no dimming of the perverted appetites which led to his name inspiring the word ‘sadism’ for acts of extreme sexual cruelty.
It’s tempting to view the book as an early 50 Shades Of Grey. But that would be to underestimate the astonishing depths of depravity depicted within, acts said to have inspired the unthinkable crimes of Moors murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.
It’s a novel so heinous that many who took possession of the original manuscript over the centuries to come were said to have been cursed. And, as revealed in a fascinating new book about that document and its history, such suffering would undoubtedly have delighted Sade.
The 120 Days Of Sodom is a work of fiction whose content demonstrated that, for all his physical decline, there had been no dimming of the perverted appetites which led to his name inspiring the word ‘sadism’ for acts of extreme sexual cruelty
Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade and Kate Winslet as Madeleine ‘Maddy’ LeClerc in the 2000 film Quills
He penned it while surrounded by the possessions allowed to a prisoner of his social standing in the infamous Parisian prison. Alongside bottles of eau de cologne and velvet cushions, his cell was filled with his prized collection of sex toys, custom-made from rosewood and ebony by a leading furniture maker of the day.
Exactly how he used them does not bear thinking about, given the extremes described in 120 Days Of Sodom, its plot centring on four wealthy perverts who kidnap 16 teenage girls and boys from their homes in central Europe and imprison them in a mountain-top chateau from which there is no hope of escape.
As the Duke, the most domineering of the four kidnappers, tells the prisoners: ‘You are already dead to the world and it is only for our pleasures that you are breathing now.’
In the castle’s sumptuous apartments and soundproof torture chambers, the young victims are subjected to four months of horrors ranging from incest and disembowelling to cannibalism and infanticide.
By the end of the novel, the chateau is swimming in blood and body parts, leading one modern critic to declare that ‘nobody, unless he is totally deaf to it, can finish 120 Days Of Sodom without feeling sick’.
It is all the more unsettling for knowing that it reflected the outrages which Sade perpetrated on others in real life. Born in Paris in 1740, he soon showed himself to be disturbingly amoral. In 1763, his parents forced him to marry Renee-Pelagie de Montreuil, a young woman who was very plain but came from one of France’s most notable families.
She adored Sade but within six months of their marriage he sought out a young prostitute named Jeanne Testard and offered her two gold coins to accompany him to his love nest nearby.
His time in the Bastille, one of the most notorious jails in Europe, had taken its toll on the Marquis de Sade
There, he locked the door and demanded that she whip him with a cat-o-nine tails heated until its metal strands glowed red. He then threatened to shoot her until she whipped herself and trampled on a crucifix while screaming blasphemous obscenities.
Five years later, he met a widow begging for alms and tricked her back to his home. Whipping her and slicing her repeatedly with a knife, he poured hot sealing wax into her wounds before locking her in a bedroom.
She escaped but, as with his previous victim, his family’s high social standing saw him escape punishment, leaving him free to perpetrate perhaps his most awful crimes with the apparent connivance of his wife. In 1774, the couple arrived at their estate in Provence with a ‘staff’ of six girls and one boy, nearly all in their teens.
Through a secret door leading off the library there was a hidden room displaying various sexual devices and pornographic curios, while a dark staircase led to a medieval dungeon.
‘Outsiders would never learn exactly what transpired there within the walls of the chateau that winter,’ says Joel Warner, author of the new book, The Curse Of The Marquis De Sade. ‘Most likely, he elaborated on his past transgressions, building ever more extravagant scenes of violence, debauchery and sacrilege.’
Tiring of the dishonour he brought on the family, his mother-in-law used her influence to get him locked up in the Bastille. Since paper was hard to obtain, he saved space by writing almost microscopically small letters with his quill, pasting another sheet to the bottom of each completed one to form a continuous scroll stretching nearly 40 ft and covered with 157,000 words.
He secreted this in the wall of his cell and did not have time to retrieve it when he was transferred to Charenton, an asylum outside Paris, as a punishment for disruptive behaviour in the summer of 1789. He was released the following year, but in 1801 he was locked up for the rest of his life and died of gangrene in 1814.
Lacoste is best known for its most notorious resident the Marquis de Sad
As for 120 Days Of Sodom, the original manuscript was found by a labourer. In the mid-1800s it came into the hands of the Marquis de Villeneuve-Trans. It brought him and subsequent owners terrible luck, its arrival in his collection coinciding with money troubles which saw him forced to sell off his chateau.
Its next three owners all died in their 50s or 60s. But the biggest misfortune associated with the book came in 2014 when it was bought for £5 million by Aristophil, a French company. This extravagant acquisition attracted the attention of journalists and lawyers. It led to allegations that the company’s CEO Gerard Lheritier was running a Ponzi scheme, whereby investors are paid off not from real profits but from money put in by other investors.
With the case yet to come to trial, Lheritier continues to protest his innocence; meanwhile, as part of the investigation, the French state has seized the much-sought-after original 120 Days Of Sodom, which is now consigned to a national library storage buildings on Paris’s Right Bank.
That’s less than 1,000 yards from the spot where the Marquis de Sade first started his work — which may have been written more than two centuries ago but still has the power to horrify us today.