La Marquise de Sade

So yesterday we met Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belbeuf, Monsieur le Marquis, Missy, Uncle Max. To that string of aliases she could add an extraordinary number of literary avatars; her scandalous life and aristocratic background proved an irresistible combination for contemporary writers. She appears thinly disguised in numerous works of fiction, though often the portrayal owed more to the era’s hypocrisy and the author’s projection than the marquise herself. But whether it was in inspiring or actively encouraging writers she favoured, Missy was associated with many of the most fascinating literary figures of her day.

Count Robert de Montesquiou, for instance. Like Missy, the count seemed to exist to provide others with raw material for fiction. He frequented a salon hosted by the marquise along with the likes of Maupassant and Jacques-Emile Blanche and later spoke in her defence during the Moulin Rouge scandal, commenting that “in the tempest, she had panache”. It was perhaps Missy’s own infamy that made her sympathetic to others cast out of society; she was close to disgraced aristocrat Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen and invested in his journal Akademos.

There was a time when Missy considered taking her literary legacy in her own hands, so we can only regret that her plan to write her memoirs in collaboration with Joséphin Péladan came to nothing. Instead she had to see herself characterised, and often vilified, by the likes of Rémy de Gourmont, who portrayed her as “Claude de la Tour” in his novel Le Songe d’une femme.

But the literary image of Mathilde de Morny was shaped above all by a quartet of writers: Jean Lorrain, Rachilde, Catulle Mendès and Colette.

Jean Lorrain was the Belle Époque Perez Hilton, becoming a journalist just as the public’s appetite for celebrity gossip exploded. His approach veered from sycophancy to slander and Missy experienced both these modes. Lorrain was at first fascinated, obsessed, even, by the marquise and keen to get close to her. However she (rightly) mistrusted him and resisted his overtures, and Lorrain’s reports became ever more scurrilous. His weapon of choice was the blind item; the public generally knew the identity of the victim, but as long as names weren’t mentioned, a veneer of propriety was maintained. But he grew ever more brazen, at one point writing about a woman called “Mizy” in a long article which depicted her not just as a woman who chose not to have children, but an infanticide.

Lorrain was jealous of Missy’s influence over Liane de Pougy, whose main confidant he had previously been. In articles, poems and a memorable short story which added necrophilia to the marquise’s portfolio of peccadilloes, his campaign was vicious and protracted. But he was on thin ice; with his dyed hair, made-up face and well-known penchant for barrow boys and other rough trade, it was not for nothing that he was known as “Sodom’s ambassador to Paris”. So when he wrote about Missy’s “vices”, the public’s reaction was generally “she should talk”. And so when Missy finally snapped and sued Lorrain (and won), she enjoyed widespread sympathy. Lorrain henceforward pointed his poison pen away from Missy, and ended his days in narcotised disarray.

The writer Rachilde, who shared Missy’s preference for men’s clothes while stopping short of full drag, was fascinated with the marquise even before her lesbian affairs were common knowledge. She saw how numerous men became obsessed with Missy, but in a way that seemed to reverse the expected male and female courtship roles. It inspired the character of Mademoiselle de Vénérande in her 1884 breakthrough novel Monsieur Vénus; if there were any doubt she has the character live at the same Champs-Elysées address as Missy.

La Marquise de Sade, published in 1887, was even more indebted to Missy, and like Lorrain, Rachilde transformed the mild-mannered marquise into a demonic grotesque in thrall to unspeakable vices. No matter that the real Missy exercised regularly, drank modestly and was all but vegetarian; for Rachilde she was Mary Barbe, doped-up dominatrix and “lethal amazon”.

But it was Catulle Mendès who turned Missy into the ultimate Decadent anti-heroine. His racy page-turner Méphistophela was published in 1890, when the vogue for literary lesbians was at its peak. The protagonist “Sophie” (which was actually Missy’s real name; she preferred her middle name Mathilde), is traumatised by her wedding night and subsequently turns to women. This faux-psychoanalytical approach is typical of Mendès; he had Missy’s “case” “analysed” by a psychiatrist who concluded that her appearance of health and vitality was “her system’s last instinctive defence before physical and moral collapse”.

And then of course there is Colette.

As we saw yesterday, the two women’s open affair caused widespread outrage. Colette’s husband and collaborator Willy professed at first to be amused by the situation, poking fun at Missy by sitting in a women-only train carriage and when challenged declaring “But I am the marquise de Morny!”. But it was he who promoted the infamous Moulin Rouge revue, and insisted on playing up Missy’s identity (which of course everyone knew), even using the Morny arms on promotional posters; later he would also borrow character traits from her in a series of novels set in the mythical kingdom of “Morénie”, a transparent allusion to Missy’s august surname.

And yes, Colette also borrowed generous helpings of the marquise’s persona in writing two of her novels, one during and one after their affair. The first was La Vagabonde in 1910, in which Missy appears disguised as “Max” (in her later years Missy was known to her intimates as “Uncle Max”). The novel was filmed in 1917 with Musidora in the lead role.

Some years later came Le Pur et l’Impur, which had real personalities (such as Marcel Proust and our friend Jean Lorrain) mingling with invented characters, including “La Chevalière”, doubling for Missy. Although it was published in 1924, Missy only got round to reading it in 1942, and was so upset by the depiction that she broke off all contact with Colette.

Two years later Mathilde de Morny was no more, but her strange and wondrous literary legacy lives on.

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10 comments

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  9. carlos

    Belle photo et belle histoire de vie. Colette c’est un de mes écrivains favoris.

  10. Pingback: A dandy in aspic | Strange Flowers

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