Books: The satanic Scarlet Pimpernel

At Home With the Marquis de Sade by Francine du Plessix Gray Chatto pounds 20

The Marquis de Sade was five foot two, and had a virile member 20cm long and 16cm circumference when erect. We know this intimate detail because in prison he asked his long-suffering wife Renee-Pelagie to provide him with a specially made "pocket-flask" of these dimensions - the size of his own prestige - in rosewood or ebony. This was one of the few jobs the Marquise baulked at, unable to face the derision of the Parisian cabinetmaker: "I beg you to release me from this errand." Sade was unsparing, rejecting one attempt as too small. On the contrary, it was too large to fit in his pocket, she protested, and Sade scrawled on her letter: "I don't put it in my pocket. I put it elsewhere, where it still turns out to be too small."

This was not the only service Sade demanded of Renee-Pelagie while incarcerated for decades without trial at the behest of her venomous mother. His powerful sexuality, dammed and thwarted, was largely diverted into over-eating. The typical fortnightly hamper, says Francine du Plessix Gray, might contain "30 large macaroons, 12 iced cakes, a large box of marshmallows, several pots of greengage, purple plum and raspberry jams, a box of candied fruit, jars of canned peaches, an almond cake, and chocolate, always more chocolate". "The Savoy biscuit isn't at all what I'd asked for," he grumbled to Renee- Pelagie. "I wished it to be iced all the way around its surface, on top and underneath." And why hasn't some enterprising restaurateur created the Marquis de Sade pudding? "I wish it to be ... of chocolate so dense that it is black, like the devil's arse is blackened by smoke."

The Marquis's rage and justified paranoia spilled over into his letters to the Marquise, who displayed exemplary fidelity throughout the Marquis's long years in detention, in the Bastille, the Chateau de Vincennes, and other less salubrious donjons. The first time they met after four and a half years apart, the excited Renee-Pelagie arrived in her finery, with freshly curled hair. A week later a letter from her husband furiously denounced her for dressing "like a whore". Sade had another female correspondent, a childhood friend from Provence, "Milli" de Rousset. Milli was eventually to fall out with her penfriend when he turned on her. Yet all his life, even in the most unpromising circumstances, Sade seemed able to command the loyalty and love of the opposite sex, despite the nauseating misogyny of his pornographic novels. Gray examines the Marquis in the light of these relationships with intelligent, resourceful women, and her portrait of Renee-Pelagie makes her seem much more sympathetic and less banal than an 18th-century Rose West.

Male fans of the "Divine Marquis" like to stress his uniqueness and audacity, but very early on in this spirited biography Gray has effectively normalised Sade in the context of his times. Within a few pages we have met the Comte de Charolais, who liked to shoot at workmen repairing roofs in the village outside his chateau and hunt peasants - not pheasants - for game. The resulting murders led the Comte to beg pardon of the indulgent Louis XV, who was not amused. His sister, Mlle de Charolais, the mistress of Sade's own father, had her portraits painted in the garb of a Franciscan nun, the better to inflame her many lovers. Even writing pornography was a literary path well beaten by hard-up members of the aristocracy.

Yet Sade certainly lacked some quality which would have enabled him to function in this society - hypocrisy, perhaps. He refused to ingratiate himself with other nobles, or attend the King at Versailles. When he was locked up in turn by two monarchs, the Jacobins and finally Napoleon, he lacked powerful friends to lobby for him.

Sade's political philosophy Gray well defines as "a very bizarre blend of robber-baron elitism and radical libertarianism". His writings evince aristocratic contempt for the lower orders, yet in life he seemed more at ease with his servants than his peers. In one of the debauches that made him a household bogeyman in France, he staged an orgy in Marseilles with four young prostitutes, accompanied by his faithful valet Latour. The two men masturbated and buggered each other, Sade addressing the servant throughout as "Monsieur le Marquis", while Latour addressed his master as plain "Lafleur". This natural egalitarianism - or at least its perverse facsimile - stood Sade in good stead during the Revolution.

Sade's was an amazing life, that of a satanic Scarlet Pimpernel, brilliantly evoked in this compulsively readable account. He was condemned to death in absentia for the Marseilles orgy, burned in effigy, and evaded capture by dashing from chateau to chateau. He led a daring escape from the fortress of Miolans, but was unlucky enough to have been spirited out of the Bastille to a more secure jail 10 days before it fell. He had been bellowing out of his window, using a urinal funnel as a megaphone, that the inmates were being massacred. He later claimed, surely with some justification, that he had "collaborated in the seizure of the Bastille".

Freed by the Jacobins as one who had suffered unjustly during the ancien regime, he rose to a position of some authority in revolutionary circles. In perhaps the most astounding reversal in a life not short of them, his hated mother-in-law, prototype for all the tortured and mutilated mothers of his fiction, fell into his hands. Sade took grim glee in saving her from the guillotine, thereby undermining his own revolutionary credentials and bringing himself that much closer to the National Razor (he escaped execution by the merest fluke on the day Robespierre was arrested). It was the most exquisite revenge he could take on her, and, as Gray says, "this is one of the few times that Sade evokes our admiration".

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