Home
Life and Times
youth: 1740 - 1762
marriage: 1763 - 1771
prison: 1772 - 1790
the works: 1791 - 1803
asylum: 1804 - 1814
Prison Letters
introduction
read them
receive them
Bibliography
About Neil Schaeffer

The Marquis de Sade
A Life

The definitive biography by Neil Schaeffer

Home : The Prison Letters : Archive : February, 1781
The Grande Lettre, Part 3 of 3
The following Sade called his "Grande Lettre." It is a very long justification of his innocence in all of the scandals that led to his imprisonment. Last of three parts.

Sade to his wife.

[February 20, 1781]

<< continued from last week

[S]omething still remains, and I would like to resolve everything. They found, or could have found, three items in my wallet going against me. Let me explain all three.

The first was a prescription to abort a pregnant woman who would like to get rid of her child. It was a mistake for me and imprudent, doubtless, to have written down such a thing, and I admit that. I have certainly never made use of it, and I did not at all take it with the intention of ever using it. I have had occasion to see in my life two or three women or girls--no need to explain--who had strong reasons to hide the result of their bad conduct with their lover and were forced to such a crime. They revealed their situation to me and at the same time confided the very dangerous method that practitioners of this art were using with them and in which, it seems to me, they were risking their life. Learning in Italy about the means for abortion discovered in my wallet, and finding it extremely gentle and absolutely safe, curiosity prompted me to copy it down. I believe that in the eyes of any reasonable man, there is nothing there worth making a fuss about, and there is not a choirboy who does not know that sabine [an herb thought to cause abortions] has that very effect.

The second paper was the continuation of a discussion with the little doctor from Rome [Giuseppe Iberti, whom Sade first met during his trip to Italy in 1775-76]. He was claiming that the Ancients poisoned their blades by the method that he described; and I maintained the contrary, assuring him that I thought I had read somewhere of a very different procedure. That occurred in the context of the poisoned antique arms we had seen together at the arsenal of the chateau Saint-Ange. As I wanted to insert a word of the discussion about that in my description of Rome, I wrote down his opinion, promising him to send him mine as soon as I would have rediscovered the source, and then, in my essay, to later decide which view would be the most plausible. I indeed found this opinion that differed from his, and it was in one of the books that you sent me, the fourth volume of the Histoire des Celtes. It was an herb called linveum, and, according to Pliny and Aulu-Gelle, Hellebore, that the Ancients rubbed on the weapons they wanted to poison. I would therefore have settled on this view, while opposing the one that had been offered to me. And there you have the explanation of what they found. Is there a smaller sin than that?

But we now come to the most important: a complete examination into matters very similar to those of which they accused you [Mme de Sade had been accused of tampering with the religious faith of her young servants at La Coste]. Yes, there is an awful piece of evidence here, but one may say that it is only the story of the magpie's mass [daily morning mass in memory of an unjust condemnation of a servant for a theft in fact committed by a magpie]; you doubtless know it? Now then, may this story, the one about that Calas business, and many others like that, teach you, you who so lightly lock people up, that one should never judge on appearances and punish people without hearing them, above all in a country which considers itself and its government free of malicious prosecution; that, in short, there is not one single citizen that you have the right to lock up without hearing him, or who would not afterwards at least have the right to avenge himself in whatever manner it may be, in order that he may punish you for it. Yes, whoever you may be, keep this very well in mind, and listen to what I have to say of this most important document. This document is the confession of the errors committed by an unfortunate who, like me, sought asylum in Italy. He was far from thinking that he could return from there; and, seeing me ready to return over the Alps, he gave me this document written in his own hand, begging me to show it [to a lawyer] in France and to send him back the answer. I promised to do it. Two days later, he came to beg me to return the paper in his handwriting which would become, he said, a piece of evidence against him. He wanted to have it transcribed, but he knew no one there who could write in French. I copied everything in my handwriting, thinking only of the pleasure of obliging him and without considering the consequences this paper could have. There again you have a fact about which I give my word of honor and to which I will attach the most authentic proof when needed.

There you have, then, all my so-called sins, there you have what I challenge and what I will prove, I swear it, with evidence and methods of such authenticity that it will be absolutely impossible to refute their testimony. I am, then, guilty only of pure and simple libertinage, and such as is practiced by all men, more or less, in proportion to their temperament or to the penchant for it which they derived from nature. Everyone has his faults; comparisons are invidious, and my torturers, perhaps, might lose in the comparison.

Yes, I am a libertine, I admit it. I have conceived everything imaginable in that department, but I have certainly not done everything I thought of, and I certainly never will. I am a libertine, but I am not a criminal or a murderer, and since they force me to present my apology next to my vindication, I will then say that it might be possible that those who are condemning me as unfairly as I am condemned would not be able to counterbalance their infamies by good deeds as evident as those that I can set against my errors. I am a libertine, but three families dwelling in your quarter have lived five years on my charity, and I have saved them from the worst extremes of poverty. I am a libertine, but I saved a deserter from death, abandoned by all his regiment and by his colonel. I am a libertine, but in the face of all your family at Évry [where Mme de Sade's uncle lived], I have, at the risk of my life, saved a child who was about to be crushed under the wheels of a wagon whose horses had bolted, and I succeeded by throwing myself upon them. I am a libertine, but I have never compromised the health of my wife. I have never indulged all the other sorts of libertinage often so fatal to the fortune of one's children: did I ruin them by gambling or by other expenses which could have deprived them of anything or even someday cut into their inheritance? Did I mismanage my estates, as long as they have been in my control?

In short, in my youth, did I give any hint of a heart capable of the black crimes that they imagine today? Did I not always love everything that I ought to love and everyone who should be dear to me? Did I not love my father? (Alas, I still mourn him every day.) Did I behave badly to my mother? And was it not when I came to gather her last sighs and give her the last proof of my love, that your mother had me dragged into that horrible prison where she let me languish for the past four years? In short, let them examine me from my early childhood. You have near you two people who have witnessed it, Amblet and Mme de Saint-Germain. From then to my youth, which was able to be observed by the marquis de Poyanne [a family friend and Sade's superior officer in the cavalry], under whose eyes I have spent all of it, and from there to the time I got married, let them see, let them inquire, let them inform themselves if I ever betrayed any sign of the viciousness that they suppose in me and if any bad behavior had ever hinted at the crimes they accuse me of: that ought to be the case; you know it; crime has its natural evolution. How is it possible, then, to presume that from a childhood and a youth so innocent, I have suddenly reached the highest pinnacle of conscious horror? No, you do not believe that. And you who tyrannize over me so cruelly today, you too do not believe it: your taste for vengeance has subverted your mind, you have abandoned yourself to it blindly, but your heart knows mine, it judges it truly, and it well knows that it is innocent. I will have the pleasure of seeing you admit it one day, but the admission will not pay me back for my sufferings, and I would not have suffered any the less for it . . .  In short, I want to be vindicated, and I will be, at whatever time they will let me out of here. If I am a murderer, I would have been in prison not long enough, and if I am not one, I would have been punished far too much and I would be right to demand an explanation.

There you have, I admit, a rather long letter. But I owed it to myself, and I promised it to myself at the end of my four years of suffering. They are up. So here it is: it is written like a death-bed confession, so that if death surprises me before I have the consolation to embrace you one more time, I would be able, even in dying, to direct your attention to the sentiments expressed in this letter, as to the last feelings that will be addressed to you by a heart eager to carry at least your respect to the grave. You will forgive its disorder; the letter is neither artful nor witty: you should look only for nature and truth in it. I am erasing several names appearing at the beginning so that it reaches you, and I urgently beg that it be forwarded to you. I do not ask that you answer it in detail, but merely to tell me that you have received ma grande lettre. This is how I will refer to it; yes, that is how I will refer to it. And when I will direct you to the feelings contained in it, then you will reread it . . . Do you understand, my dear friend? You will reread it and you will see that the one who will love you until his death wanted to sign it with his blood.

De Sade.

previous | next

E-mails from prison!
Sade was incarcerated for 14 years without trial before being freed by the French Revolution. In that time he wrote hundreds of letters to his wife. Receive a new letter every week never before translated into English. Click here to subscribe.

Home | Life & Times | Prison Letters | Bibliography | About Neil Schaeffer