Dangerous liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos

Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos de Laclos was born on October 18, 1741, in Amiens, France. Little is known about his family, except that his father was of the lesser nobility and held a governmental office. When Laclos was eighteen he enrolled at the Royal Artillery School in La Fère. At the time, with Europe engaged in the Seven Years War, a career in the military held the promise of both excitement and steady employment. Shortly after he graduated, however, the war ended; with the Treaty of Paris (1763) France ceded its territories in India and Canada to England, and a lengthy period of relative peace descended on France. Over the next decade, though he rose quickly through the ranks of the French army, Laclos was stationed at a succession of quiet provincial posts in Toul, Strasbourg, and Grenoble.

Laclos began writing during these early years in the military. Many of his poems were published in the journal L’Almanach des Muses, and in 1777 he adapted Madame Riccoboni’s novel Ernestine as a comic opera. A few years later he began work on Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the only novel he would ever write. The novel was an increasingly popular but still relatively innovative literary genre in the late eighteenth century. Like many authors of his time, Laclos attempted to give credibility to his fictional work by presenting it as a nonfictional memoir. Upon its publication in 1782, Laclos’s tale of seduction, deceit, and betrayal scorched French readers and brought his own reputation under scrutiny; some even thought he might have been the model for the novel’s arch-seducer, Valmont.

Marriage to Marie-Soulange Duperré in 1786 may have quieted Laclos’s personal life, but another storm was unleashed that year when he published a critique of famed military tactician Maréchal de Vauban. Recriminations were swift, and Laclos was assigned dismal posts as punishment. In 1788, as pre-revolutionary tensions increased in France, he took a military leave to become secretary to Philippe II, Duc d’Orléans and King Louis XVI’s cousin. In 1789 the Duc came under suspicion for involvement in riots against the king. Laclos accompanied him on a hastily planned trip to England shortly before the French Revolution broke out.

Laclos returned to Paris in 1790. He joined and became firmly aligned with the Jacobin Club, a key revolutionary group. His previous connections with the politically ambitious Duc d’Orléans, however, brought him under the suspicion of the Jacobins. Laclos was arrested twice during Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, a time when thousands, including the Duc, were convicted of treason and guillotined.

In 1799 Napoleon staged a coup d’état in Paris to become first consul of France. Laclos, who had supported the coup, was reinstated in the French army as a brigadier general. He spent the next several years involved in Napoléon’s military campaigns in Italy. In 1803 he was sent to fortify an island off Taranto, Italy, where he was struck down by dysentery and malaria. He died on September 5, 1803.

The World of Pierre Choderlos

de Laclos and Les Liaisons


1741 Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos de Laclos is born on October 18 in Amiens, France. His father, Jean-Ambroise Choderlos, is of the lesser nobility (ennobled but without a titile) and a government official.

1756 The Seven Years War begins; this major European conflict pits England and Prussia against France, Austria, and Russia.

1759 Voltaire’s satiric novel Candide is published.

1760 Deciding to pursue a career in the French military, Laclos enrolls in the Royal Artillery School in la Fère.

1761 Laclos becomes a second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery Corps. Jean-Jacques Rousseau publishes Julie; ou, la Nouvelle Héloïse (Julie; or, the New Eloise); the novel’s epistolary format will inspire the structure of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

1762 Laclos is stationed in La Rochelle, France. Rousseau’s political work Du Contrat Social (The Social Contract) is published.

1763 The Treaty of Paris, signed on February 10, ends the Seven Years War; France relinquishes control of its territories in Canada and India to England. Laclos is sent with his regiment to Toul, France.

1765 Laclos is promoted to first lieutenant.

1766 He is stationed in Strasbourg, France.

1767 Laclos’s first published work, a poem entitled "À Mademoiselle de Saint-S.," appears in the journal L’Almanach des Muses.

1769 Laclos is stationed in Grenoble, France, where he remains until 1775. Napoléon Bonaparte is born in Corsica.

1771 Continuing his rapid rise through the army ranks, Laclos becomes a captain.

1773 Two more of his poems, "Les Souvenirs" ("Memories") and "Épître à Eglé" ("Episte to Eglé"), are published in L’Almanach des Muses.

1774 Louis XVI becomes king of France.

1775 Laclos is stationed in