Biography of Marquis de Sade, French Novelist and Libertine

Le Marquis de Sade, jailed in Bictre, playing with roses (France). In March 1803.

Corbis / Getty Images

The Marquis de Sade (born Donatien Alphonse François de Sade; June 2, 1740—December 2, 1814) was infamous for his sexually charged writings, his revolutionary politics, and his life as one of France’s most notorious libertines. His writing often focused on violent sexual practices, and his name gives us the word sadism, which refers to pleasure derived from inflicting pain.

Early Years

Donatien, born in Paris in June 1740, was the only surviving child of Jean Baptiste François Joseph, the Count de Sade and his wife, Marie Eléonore. Jean Baptiste, an aristocrat who served as a diplomat in the King Louis XV’s court, abandoned his wife while their son was very young, and Donatien was sent off to be educated by his uncle after Marie Eléonore joined a convent.

The uncle apparently allowed young Donatien to be raised by servants who catered to his every whim, and the child developed a mean streak. He was described as spoiled and willful, and at the age of six beat another boy so severely that there was some question as to whether the victim would ever fully recover.

By the time Donatien was ten, the uncle, an abbot in the south of France, had had enough. He sent his nephew back to Paris for schooling at a Jesuit institution. Once enrolled at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Donatien misbehaved frequently, and received frequent corporal punishments. In particular, the school used flagellation as a deterrent for poor behavior. Later, Donatien would become obsessed with this practice. By the age of fourteen, he was sent to a military school, and as a young man, he fought in the Seven Years War.

Despite his absence from his son’s life, the Count de Sade was anxious to find Donatien a wealthy wife to help solve the family’s financial problems. At 23, Donatien married Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil, the daughter of a well-to-do merchant, and built a castle, the Château de Lacoste, in Provence. A few years later, the Count passed away, leaving Donatien the title of Marquis. 

Marquis de Sade
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Scandal and Exile

Even though he was married, the Marquis de Sade developed a reputation as the worst sort of libertine. At one point, he had a very public affair with his wife’s sister, Anne-Prospère. He frequently sought out the services of prostitutes of both sexes, and had a tendency to hire and subsequently abuse very young servants, both male and female. When he forced one prostitute to include a crucifix in their sexual activity, she went to the police, and he was arrested and charged with blasphemy. However, he was released shortly thereafter. Over the next few years, other prostitutes filed complaints about him, and the court eventually exiled him to his castle in Provence.

In 1768, he was arrested again, this time for imprisoning a chambermaid, whipping her, cutting her with a knife, and dripping hot candle wax into her wounds. She managed to escape and reported the attack. Although his family managed to buy the woman’s silence, there was enough of a social scandal that de Sade opted to stay out of the public eye after the incident. 

A few years later, in 1772, de Sade and his manservant, Latour, were accused of drugging and sodomizing prostitutes, and the two of them, along with Anne-Prospère, fled to Italy. De Sade and Latour were sentenced to death, in absentia, and managed to stay a few steps ahead of the authorities. De Sade later rejoined his wife at Château de Lacoste.

At the château, de Sade and his wife imprisoned five women and one man for six weeks, a crime for which de Sade was eventually arrested and imprisoned. Although he was able to get the death sentence lifted in 1778, he remained incarcerated, and over the next few years, he was transferred to various prisons, including the Bastille, and an insane asylum.

Crumbling exterior of Marquis of Sade castle in Lacoste, Luberon, Vaucluse, France
The remains of Chateau LaCoste. J Boyer / Getty Images

Writings

During his various imprisonments, de Sade began to write. His first work, Les 120 Journées de Sodome, or 120 Days of Sodom: The School of Libertinage, was written during his incarceration at the Bastille. The novel related the story of four young noblemen who move to a castle where they can abuse, torture, and eventually kill the harem of prostitutes they hold captive.

De Sade believed the manuscript to be lost during the storming of the Bastille, but the scroll on which it was written was later discovered hidden in the walls of his cell. It was not published until 1906, and was banned in numerous countries for its graphic sexual violence and portrayals of incest and pedophilia.

In 1790, free once more, de Sade — whose wife had finally divorced him — began a relationship with a young actress, Marie-Constance Quesnet. They lived together in Paris, and de Sade became politically active, supporting the new regime that was in place following the French Revolution of the previous year. He was even elected to public office, joining the National Convention as part of the radical far left. He wrote several inflammatory political pamphlets; however, his position as an aristocrat made him vulnerable with the new government, and in 1791, he was imprisoned for three years after he was critical of Maximilien Robespierre.

Once again, de Sade began writing sexually violent fiction, and his novels Justine and Juliette, which he published anonymously, created an uproar. Justine, written in 1791, is the story of a prostitute who is subjected to repeated rapes, orgies, and torture on her quest to find a virtuous life. Juliette, the follow-up novel published in 1796, is the tale of Justine’s sister, a nymphomaniac and murderer, who is perfectly happy to live a life devoid of virtue. Both novels are critical of theology and the Catholic Church, and in 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the arrest of the anonymous author. It didn’t take long for de Sade to end up back in prison.

Donatien Alphonse François de Sade
Portrait of de Sade by Pierre-Eugène Vibert. Heritage Images/Getty Images / Getty Images

Institutionalization and Death

De Sade was arrested for his obscene and blasphemous writings, and was sent to prison again in 1801. Within a few months, he was accused of seducing young prisoners, and in 1803, he was declared to be insane. He was sent to Charenton Asylum, after Renée-Pélagie and their three children agreed to pay for his maintenance. Meanwhile, Marie-Constance pretended to be his wife, and was permitted to move into the asylum with him. 

The asylum’s director allowed de Sade to organize theatrical plays, with other inmates as actors, and this went on until 1809, when new court orders sent de Sade into solitary confinement. His pens and paper were taken from him and he was no longer allowed to have visitors. However, despite these rules, de Sade managed to maintain a sexual relationship with the fourteen-year-old daughter of one of Charenton’s staff members; this lasted for the final four years of his life.

On December 2, 1814, the Marquis de Sade died in his cell at Charenton; he was buried at the asylum's cemetery.

Legacy

Following his death, de Sade's son burned all of his father's unpublished manuscripts, but there are still dozens of writings —novels, essays, and plays — available to modern scholars. In addition to giving us the word sadism, de Sade also left behind a legacy of existential thought; many philosophers credit him with using violence and sexuality to create imagery that demonstrates man's capacity for both good and evil. It is believed that his work had significant influence on the writings of nineteenth-century philosophers like like Flaubert, Voltaire, and Nietzsche.

Marquis de Sade Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Donatien Alphonse François de Sade
  • Known For: Sexually graphic and violent writings, charges of blasphemy and obscenity, and a reputation as one of France's most notorious libertines.
  • Born: June 2, 1740 in Paris, France
  • Died: December 2, 1814 in Charenton-Saint-Maurice, Val-de-Marne, France
  • Parents’ Names: Jean Baptiste François Joseph, the Count de Sade, and Marie Eléonore de Maillé de Carman

Sources

  • Feay, Suzi. “Who Was the Marquis De Sade Really?” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 16 July 2015, www.telegraph.co.uk/books/authors/who-was-the-marquis-de-sade-really/.
  • Gonzalez-Crussi, F. “The Dangerous Marquis de Sade.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Mar. 1988, www.nytimes.com/1988/03/27/books/the-dangerous-marquis-de-sade.html.
  • Lichfield, John. “Marquis De Sade: Rebel, Pervert, Rapist...Hero?” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 14 Nov. 2014, www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/marquis-de-sade-rebel-pervert-rapisthero-9862270.html.
  • Perrottet, Tony. “Who Was the Marquis De Sade?” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Feb. 2015, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/who-was-marquis-de-sade-180953980/.