|Pierre Choderlos de Laclos by Maurice Quentin de La Tour|
Today it's back to France to meet an army officer who is better known for a certain scandalous novel than his military exploits. A man of contrast, artillery know-how and huge literary ambition, it is a pleasure to meet Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, author of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
Although Laclos was to attain notoriety for his writing, when he was a young man in Amiens there was no doubt as to the direction his career would take and he was dispatched to the École Royale d'Artillerie de La Fère, where he trained for a life in the service of his country, devloping a particular expertise for artillery. At the age of 22 he took part in the Seven Years' War and then rose through the ranks to the office of Captain, becoming a noted authority on ballistics and though his professional ambition was more than fired, his true dreams lay elsewhere. Frustrated with the regimented military life and bored with his fellow soldiers, he amused himself by writing poetry that enjoyed some small success. Buoyed by this, Laclos' career seemed to be taking off when he wrote the libretto to the opera Ernestine. The work was chosen for a royal premiere in the presence of Marie Antoinette, which could surely only mark the start of a glittering career.
Opening in 1777, the opera was a commercial and critical flop and Laclos went back to what he knew. He established a military school in Valence, where a certain young man by the name of Napoleon would one day study. Whilst his career went from strength to strength Laclos continued to write, eventually beginning work on what would become his most famous novel. With his military career getting in the way of his creative urges, Laclose took a six month leave from the army and retired to Paris, dedicating himself to the business of writing.
|Marie-Soulange Duperré, Madame Laclos by Alexandre Kucharski, 1786|
In 1782, three years after he began writing Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the book was finally published in four volumes. The hugely successful novel made his name and he was famed throughout society for the scathing, scandalous work even as he returned to his military career. In 1786 he married 27 year old Marie-Soulange Duperré, with whom he would have three children. The couple were devoted to one another and enjoyed a harmonious, loving marriage
When Laclos retired from the army in 1788 he immediately took up a diplomatic position in the service of Louis Philippe, duc d'Orléans. Devloping strong Republican sympathies as the Revolution swept France, Laclos took a position in the Ministry of War and proved himself a decisive and invaluable strategist. Revolutionary politics and personalities were nothing if not changeable and intrigues led to his arrest, with Laclos spending some time in prison.
Laclos moved into research then, working on the development of artillery shells and in 1800 Napoleon himself saw that Laclos was allowed back into the army, this time as Brigadier General. Once again his career trajectory soared but this time Laclos was cut short by failing health and he died in the former convent of St. Francis of Assisi at Taranto, his remains laid to rest at Forte de Laclos. Sadly Laclos was not to rest long and a decade later the Bourbon restoration saw his tomb destroyed and his remains hurled out to sea.
It was an ignominious end to a life that had known both highs and lows; one hopes that Laclos might take some comfort from the knowledge that, more than two centuries since he set out to write an epistolary novel that would be remembered, Les Liaisons Dangereuses has attained the status of masterpiece.