Virtue was published by Hesperus Press in 2011 and consists of the novella Ernestine: A Swedish Novella and the short play Oxtiern, or The Miseries of Libertinism which is Sade’s own adaption of Ernestine for the stage. Ernestine was originally published in 1800 in the four-volume collection, The Crimes of Love (Les Crimes de l’amour, Nouvelles héroïques et tragiques) which was the only collection of Sade’s short fiction published in his lifetime. The stories were written, however, before 1788 when Sade was still imprisoned in the Bastille. These short stories lack the explicit sadistic sexual content for which Sade became infamous but they often concern contemporary morality and libertinage. In these short stories, which were intended for general publication, the libertines generally get their comeuppance which does not happen in his infamous ‘libertine’ novels such as Justine and Juliette. Virtue was translated by David Carter.
Ernestine begins with a frame story; the narrator describes his visit to Sweden, including the copper mines of Falun and Taberg. It is whilst being guided round the mines of Taberg by Falkeneim that he meets Oxtiern, who, the narrator is informed, is a Swedish nobleman who has been banished to the mines after being found guilty of ‘unprecedented crimes’. The narrator is intrigued by Oxtiern and wants to know how and why he ended up there, so Falkeneim tells Oxtiern’s tale which forms the main story.
The story begins in a small town, Norrköping, about fifty miles from Stockholm. Colonel Sanders, a widower, lives there with his beautiful daughter, Ernestine, who is sixteen years old. Ernestine is in love with Herman, who lost his parents at an early age, and who works for a local businesswoman, Widow Scholtz. But, Widow Scholtz, who is described as ‘an arrogant, imperious woman’ has a passion for Herman and things soon become complicated: Sanders approves of Ernestine’s and Herman’s betrothal but he does not want to upset Mme Scholtz, who is known to have a temper…and power; Ernestine knows of Scholtz’s interest in Herman and fears that Herman may be swayed by Scholtz’s money; Sanders begins to think it would be best for everybody if Herman married Scholtz rather than his daughter. When Herman declines Scholtz’s offer of marriage she warns him:
Herman, you do not know the woman you offend…No, you do not know of what she is capable…You will learn it perhaps too late…Leave at once…Yes, leave…
Six months go by before the arrival of Count Oxtiern. At a ball, held by Mme Scholtz, Oxtiern becomes obsessed with Ernestine and begins to charm her father, who is flattered by the attention of a count. This has, of course, been planned by Scholtz to draw Ernestine away from Herman but if she can’t have him then she is prepared to destroy him. Oxtiern and Scholtz now plot to get Ernestine and Herman as their respective lovers. Oxtiern tempts Sanders and Ernestine to Stockholm whilst Herman is left at the mercy of Scholtz. When Herman continues to resist Scholtz’s advances she decides to frame him for stealing from her and imprisons him. With Herman permanently separated from Ernestine she cruelly enjoys telling him that Ernestine is now Oxtiern’s wife and that this was achieved with Sanders’ blessing—none of which is true.
Scholtz has given up on Herman, who is now moved to Stockholm where he is due to be executed. Ernestine is meanwhile tricked into meeting Oxtiern on the pretext that she is to meet Herman, whom she hasn’t seen for months. In a quintessentially Sadeian scene Oxtiern attempts to seduce Ernestine, but with cruelty rather than flattery. He tells her that Herman has been condemned for robbing Scholtz and that Ernestine may be implicated in the crime as well. But if she willingly submits to Oxtiern then he will get Herman released and she can marry him (Herman). If she doesn’t submit then Herman will die and he will rape her anyway. Ernestine still refuses and reasons thus:
It is never permissible to commit one crime to prevent another. I know my lover sufficiently well to be certain that he would not want to enjoy a life that had cost me my honour, and what is more he would not marry me after my reputation had been blackened. I would have thus made myself guilty, without his becoming happier as a result. I would have become so without saving him, since he would certainly not survive such excessive horror and slander. So let me leave, sir. Do not make yourself more of a criminal than I suspect you of being already. I shall go to die near my lover. I shall share his dreadful fate. At least I shall perish worthy of Herman, and I would rather die virtuous than live in ignominy.
With this Oxtiern goes into a rage and Mme Scholtz cruelly draws back the curtain to show Herman, at that moment, climbing the scaffold. Oxtiern rapes the unconscious Ernestine at the moment Herman is being executed.
Against Mme Scholtz’s advice Oxtiern lets Ernestine free. The story does not end there but involves a duel where Sanders tries to get his revenge for the crimes committed against his daughter but Oxtiern is not to be outwitted so easily. This part of Ernestine also forms the bulk of the short play, Oxtiern, which is included in this edition. It’s interesting to see how Sade altered much from the story to make it work as a play.
Unlike his ‘libertine’ novels, in Ernestine Sade has the libertines punished for their crimes—Mme Scholtz is executed whilst Oxtiern is banished; but he is ultimately freed by Sanders and vows to perform virtuous acts from thereon. Knowing Sade’s other works I can only imagine him smirking to himself with this ‘virtuous’ ending, after having Ernestine raped by Oxtiern and then killed by her own father and having Herman executed for a crime he didn’t commit only to have Oxtiern surviving by showing some Christian repentance. Sade wanted to be taken seriously as a writer and with the ‘sanitised’ stories in The Crimes of Love he had hoped to be recognised as such. However, he was soon after arrested for being the author of the obscene works, Justine and Juliette, which he denied publicly. Even though his fame is due to these obscene works I feel that some of his more accessible works are worth reading even if they may still be too much for some readers.
You have no idea, my friend, of the effect of a young woman’s tears on all these weak and timid souls.