Speaking of tongues, this is a wonderful tale of lascivious debauchery, rampant treachery and scurrilous letter writing. This is another of E’s books but was given to her by the same friend that gave her Mrs Dalloway so I was braced to be disappointed, but I really enjoyed it.
The book takes the form of a series of letters between the main characters. The central protagonists are the machiavellian Marquise de Merteuil and the vicious Vicomte de Valmont who engage in a lively correspondence as they embark on sexual escapades to make fools of others and try to outdo each other in their competition to be the most immoral. Set in the heyday of the French aristocracy, just before the French Revolution, this part of their story begins as Valmont decides that his next challenge will be to seduce the exceedingly virtuous and long married Madame de Tourvel. At the same time as this, the Marquise asks him to do her a favour and also seduce the naive, young Cécile de Volanges, who has recently returned from her education in a convent and is living with her mother pending her marriage. Cécile de Volanges is due to marry a man who has upset the Marquise so this is her revenge upon him.
This sets the scene for a tale of malice and revenge as the Marquise and Valmont get further embroiled in plot after subplot in a story that initially sees them turned on everyone else but then gradually sees them turn on each other. The story is, in many ways, an exploration of the ideology that drives the central pair, with the disdain for love being a central challenge that both of them struggle to reconcile with their feelings and decisions. Although this is known as a book about licentiousness it is actually much more about psychology and the games people play with each other.
While Valmont is at the centre of the action for most of the story, for me, the best character was the Marquise. She is absolutely in control of the story and even though a lot of what she is doing is reprehensible, somehow I would just love to drink a gin with her. There is a fascinating segment about how she has managed to retain her independence and manage her lovers in a society when women traditionally were ruled by men. She so clearly enjoys her role as puppetmaster and it is great watching her make Valmont dance, even though he believes himself entirely independent.
For me, the story could have ended at about page 270. I totally loved it up until then. I suppose the rest of the book was the inevitable consequence of what had been set in motion, but I would have preferred a less definite end to the story (I will say no more for fear of spoilers) with more scope for further adventures. My main piece of advice, if you read this particular edition, is not to read the introduction which shamelessly gives away the end of the book, although it is an interesting read for afterwards. All in all, a good rollicking read.