1700s Books in Translation Classics

Dangerous Liaisons – Choderlos de Laclos

Translated from the French by Helen Constantine

Dangerous Liaisons was the latest choice for my book-group and I was very pleased to be forced to read it, as there was no way I’d have picked it up myself!

First published in 1782, the book is written entirely in the form of letters between members of the French aristocracy. The two central characters are former lovers who enjoy seducing others; through increasingly deceptive letters they try to win the attention of a married woman and an innocent convent girl.

Unfortunately the book annoyed me from the beginning. I have never been a fan of reading about privileged people who have nothing to worry about other than their own appearance – they are so self absorbed that I just want to slap them! The characters in this book were some of the worst I’ve come across, spending their entire day writing letters to each other and gossiping. This just holds no interest for me. 

You say she is plainly dressed; and so she is: all ornament spoils her; everything that hides her detracts from her beauty; in the abandonment of déshabillé she is truly ravishing.

Their soppy proclamations of love for each other irritated me and I just didn’t care what happened to any of them.

The letter format also meant that there were no descriptions, depriving the book of period atmosphere. It could easily have been set in a different country, or even time period, and little would change. Some would say this was a plus-point, but I would have loved to know what their surroundings looked like and to imagine the sounds and smells of the city.

I waded through 177 pages of increasingly dull conversations before I finally decided that I my time would be better spent reading a book that I enjoy – I gave up and read the plot summary on wikipedia!

I was the only member of the book group to hate it –  the 7 other people present loved the wicked characters and their manipulative ways. I appear to be in the minority on this one, so please don’t avoid the book on my account.


Have you read Dangerous Liaisons?

Did you enjoy it?

50 replies on “Dangerous Liaisons – Choderlos de Laclos”

Have you read epistolary before? Not that having done so would make a difference on your enjoyment of the book. I personally love debauched rich people in my novels.

Two suggetions: you still might hate the plot, but check out the Glenn Close/John Malcovichfilm of the book – stunning (x3) sets and costumes. Watch it just for that. And for Uma Thurman in on of here earliest roles playing the convent girl as a gullible moron to perfection.

Next if you haven’t read epistolary before, a recommendation to salvage your respect for the form. Try Fanny Burney’s “Evelina” – typical young girl launches into society and gets into awkward situations plot. It was written around the same tiime as Dangerous Liaisons but with more description as she writes home (although still not as much as an omnipotent narrator) – less awesful people and a lot more fun. Burney had a delightful imagination, one of my favorite authors and Jane Austen (if you like her) found a lot of inspiration from her and even mantions another novel “Camilla” iin “Northanger Abbey”


I have read a few epistolary novels before, but to be honest I haven’t really enjoyed any of them. I think it is just a writing style that I have difficulty connecting with.

I have already reserved the DVD you mention. I am hoping that watching it will give me a greater appreciation of the time period and hopefully the book too.

Thank you for the helpful comment – I’m off to have a look at your blog!

I enjoyed the movie, but definitely more so for the costuming and sets.

Have you seen Cruel Intentions? It’s basically plot point for plot point of Dangerous Liaisons done up modern. If you have I’m curious as to what you thought of it.

There are large number of adaptations of the books, I think the one called Valmont has Colin Firth playing the title role.

Christina, I have seen Cruel Intentions, but I can’t remember anything about it! Perhaps that is an indication that it didn’t have much of an impact on me? I’ll have to rewatch it at some point.

Oh, and I meant to add-

Epistolary is definitely not for everyone. Jane Austen’ attempted it with “Lady Susan” and tried to write in a similar manipulative evil woman as the main character. About halfway through she basically says to hell with it and wraps the story up by saying that all the character met up and therefore there are no more letters and…in typical Austen fashion, everyone ends up with who they are supposed to.

Jackie, I love it when you thoroughly bash a book — you don’t hold back! I haven’t read the book but I did see the film with John Malkovich as a totally creepy Valmont. Excellent cast & costumes (won an Oscar for costumes, along with 2 others).

Oh Jackie, I wish I had have been at the discussion, instead of coughing up my lungs in bed, because I could have given you some moral support. I didn’t particularly enjoy this book. I clearly didn’t hate it as much as you, and although I did want to abandon it at the mid-way point, I perservered and I think it was worth it in the end.

I hadn’t noticed the lack of scene setting / period atmosphere at all… I guess, ultimately, this is a book about power games between two horrible people, and not about giving us an insight into what the drawing rooms and parlours looked like etc. Also, remember when it was written there would have been no need to provide that detail, it’s only now, reading it in the 21st Century, that we may want to have it explained to us.

kimbofo, I wish you’d been there too! From the discussion last night I learned that the book did have a long dull section in the middle (where I gave up) but that it did pick up towards the end. The fact that they went on to say that it returned to being as good as the beginning reassured me that I did the right thing by giving up. I didn’t enjoy the beginning, so it wasn’t right to invest several more hours into something that would only annoy me further.

I appreciate that they didn’t need the period detail when it was first written and I’m sure they all loved it back then, but as a 21st century reader I’d prefer to read books written now with all the period detail added for me.

I look forward to reading your review!

I haven’t read this book but it actually sounds like something I may really enjoy! Priveleged, self absorbed characters are fun for me. Which is probably why I enjoy Edith Wharton.

Stephanie, If you enjoy Edith Wharton then I’m sure you’ll love this book. I struggled with Age of Innocence for the same reasons – annoying characters with more money than sense! I hope you enjoy it!

I remember reading this one as a teenager, but that’s about all I remember! OK, not strictly true – I remember really enjoying the beginning of the book, but then finding it increasingly dull. I’m actually not entirely sure if I ever finished it, but I’m going to consider it read, as I’ve no strong urge to revisit it!

Jackie, I have a feeling that the film adaptation is going to be so hyped after our talk of it last night and now in comments that you are going to be dreadfully disappointed! I wonder whether it will redeem it for you in any way.

I haven’t posted my thoughts yet but enjoyed reading yours. For me it was because they were so absorbed in their wicked games that I was absorbed in the book; I became fully immersed in the petty sparring and devious ploys.

Claire, I do think I was very disadvantaged by not having seen the film. I hope that I enjoy it now, as I am a bit worried by the hype!

I look forward to reading your comments – I’m sure that the majority of people will agree with you!

I’ve seen two or three film adaptations of the novel and none of them interested me. I have never had a desire to read this one — I would have likely been on your side at the club discussion.

Beth, You’re the first person to say that the film wasn’t amazing, so it does sound as though you’d be on my side – if only I could have flown you over!

It’s a book I own but have never read. I think it may have a hard time living up to the absolutely wonderful film and stage play, so I guess I’m scared I’ll be intimidated by it. However, epistolary novels are fine by me – I’m sure I will be in the frame of mind to read it one day … maybe my book group should try it!

Annabel, I think this is a great book group choice (as long as all the members are keen readers happy to stretch themselves) It sounds as though this is another of thoserare books which aren’t as good as the film – I’m looking forward to watching it.

Oh, sad. Like Annabel, I own it but have never read it. I really liked the films, though and I really like 18th century French history. Sad that you can’t even TELL it’s in France. Sigh.

Aarti, I would have loved to find out a bit more about what France was like back then. I would probably have made it to the end if I’d had a bit of atmosphere to make up for the annoying discussions. Such a shame.

I read this and remembered thinking it was okay, definitely not a favorite. Part of my “meh” feelings about the book probably resulted directly from the fact that I found Stephen Frears’s film version so wonderful.

I never read this one, but I remember watching the movie quite a few times when it was first out on video (this was before the dvds, LOL) and I have always liked the film. The main characters, played by Glenn Close and John Malkowitz are very annoying, so I guess the movie have caught the book’s characters very well.

Louise, The other members of the book group thought that the film reflected the book very well, although I’m told the ending is slightly different – it is a good job wikipedia means I won’t have to to read the rest of the book after all!

I’ve not read the book, but have seen the movie, and squirmed with delight over the depravity of the characters. They are just HORRIBLE! And I loved it. Made me into a huge Malkovich fan. I don’t always have to like the characters, as long as they are interesting and entertaining. Sometimes that feeling of nearly hating a character is good for the blood flow!

I love reading your reviews because you are always so honest about what you read.
I can’t believe that you too have given up on a book but still tried to find out what happened in the end anyway – going to wikipedia to read the plot summary. I’ve done that too, but, wasn’t prepared to waste time reading something that I wasn’t enjoying.
Thanks for the review, Jackie, I enjoyed reading it, you made me smile.

Kim, I’m pleased that I made you smile! I only tend to look up the plot if it is a classic I feel I should know about. If it is a modern book then I probably won’t bother finding out about the end. I think listening to my book group talk about the book was much more important than finding out roughly what happens – they were very enlightening! Thanks for your kind comments!

I didn’t read the book but boy did I love the movie!! (The one with Glenn Close and John Malkovich.) You should watch it … it might help you to like it more. I’m assuming it is the same story … I always thought the movie was based on a play though but I could be wrong.

I’ve not even thought about picking this one up, and I’m still not sure I would. I think it would bore me, if all they talk about is seduction and all the other recreational things they get up to. Then again, I do love strong character novels, so really until I pick it up I’ll never know.

I’ve given up on books before (The Savage Detectives being one), I think if a novel is that painful to read, why bother carrying on, find something you do enjoy.

Alice, I bought a copy of The Savage Detectives last week. I hope that I enjoy it more than you did, but can see why Bolano could end up being abandoned. I hope that you enjoy DL if you decide to give it a try.

yes remember rob asked you to give him a whirl , victor hugo is that bad or zola i ve read them before just not time this year to squeeze on in ,reading clezio soon but he is a modern french writer

I enjoyed this book when I read it, though I think mainly because I love love love epistolary novels. If I weren’t a fan of that particular form, I believe my reaction would have been very different – because I do prefer having a few nice characters around.

Jenny, The only epistolary novel I’ve enjoyed has been The Guernsey LPP Pie Society and I think that only worked for me because I listened to it. I just like my atmospheric descriptions too much!

I am sorry you didnt enjoy this Jackie and then again I am not sorry too as it alwas adds to the discussion if people feel different ways about a book, so in that sense it was a bonus it wasnt your cup of tea. As an optimist I am hopeful we will all love a book the same eventually, mind you the conversation might go nowhere hee hee.

Simon, I like it when people have a different way of looking at the same book. I think it adds to the conversation a lot. Hopefully I’ll love next month’s book and hope that someone else can take their turn disliking it!

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