Last reviewed: June 2018
French novelist, nonfiction writer, and poet
September 5, 1803
Taranto (now in Italy)
Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos de Laclos (lah-kloh) was born into a family of Spanish descent that inherited a title from an attendant to Louis XIV. Although his relatives were financial administrators, Laclos chose a military career and entered La Fère Academy in 1759. By the time of graduation in 1763 he held the position of second lieutenant; in a span of fifteen years he was unable to advance beyond the rank of second captain during a time of relative peace in Europe. Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos de Laclos.
Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos de Laclos.
While stationed in Grenoble between 1769 and 1775, Laclos apparently met several society figures who contributed to the formation of the principal characters in Les Liaisons dangereuses. The psychology behind this work is derived from Laclos’s reworking of Samuel Richardson’s History of Clarissa Harlowe (1748) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The New Héloïse (1761)—epistolary novels renowned for intense passion, social realism, and elevated language. As a military commander, Laclos was in a unique position to view the game of seduction as a series of maneuvers and strategies. Based on his political choices during the French Revolution, it is reasonable to conclude that Laclos meant to hold a mirror to the French ancien régime society of the 1770’s, noted for its excessive promiscuity, nefarious scheming, cynical worldliness, and blatant hypocrisy.
In the years before the fall of the Bastille, Laclos married (two years after the birth of a son) and served as a secretary to Louis Philippe Joseph, Duke of Orléans, before joining the Jacobin Party in 1790. From around November 1790 to September 1791 he reportedly edited the Jacobin weekly Journal des amis de la Constitution. During the Reign of Terror, he was imprisoned but later released on house arrest. He was reinstated into the army, supported Napoleon Bonaparte, and was subsequently appointed a general of the artillery in 1800. Three years later, during the Napoleonic Wars, he died in Taranto, probably from dysentery. In 1903, a collection of his writings—mostly speeches, treatises, letters, and poems—was published. Les Liaisons dangereuses, popularized in stage and film adaptations, remains a classic representation of diabolical subtlety and Machiavellian subterfuge.