Although Aline and Valcour is less explicit than Sade’s more well-known works, it covers similar themes and is still obviously a work by Sade. Unusually for Sade, it is an epistolary novel, a form of novel that was very fashionable in the late eighteenth century. The titular heroes are young lovers who have been separated by Aline’s father, Monsieur de Blamont (a.k.a. “The President”) who is determined to marry off his daughter to his friend, Monsieur Dolbourg. But, as is typical in Sade’s works, M. de Blamont and M. Dolbourg are both libertines, and as Sade tries to make them as repulsive as possible he also makes sure that their professions are as repulsive as possible too—repulsive to Sade that is—Blamont is a judge, whilst Dolbourg is a banker. In order to physically separate Aline and Valcour Blamont has proposed they spend their summer at Vertfeuille. However, they can still write to each other clandestinely and, luckily for Valcour, Mme Blamont likes him and is prepared to thwart her husband’s plans; also present at Vertfeuille is Valcour’s friend, M. Déterville. In an early letter to Valcour, Aline sums up the situation.
My dearest, we must stop seeing one another.
There they are—cruel words. I put them down without dying. Follow me bravely. My father spoke as the master who demands to be obeyed. A convenient match appears, and that suffices. He didn’t ask if I agreed but took into account only his own interests, wholly sacrificing my feelings to his caprices. Don’t implicate my mother—she said and did all she could, and imagines doing still more. You know how much she loves me and you must be aware of her tender feelings for you. Our tears flowed together. The barbarian witnessed them but was not moved.
In the early letters, mostly between, Aline, Valcour and Déterville, we learn of Blamont’s intransigence over the proposed wedding between Dolbourg and Aline and then we find out more of Valcour’s history. Valcour was born into a distinguished family and grew up to be arrogant and angry; when war was started he was quick to join the army, as an officer, of course. Valcour fell in love with Adéläide Sainval but their marriage was forbidden by Valcour’s father, and so the couple separated, though both still loved each other. Later Valcour killed Adéläide’s brother in a duel and had to leave France for Switzerland, where he met Rousseau and became captivated by literature and the arts. Thus Valcour is of royal blood, but also an impoverished artist; M. Blamont wants Aline to be married to money. It’s interesting to note that much of this description of Valcour’s early years is similar to Sade’s own.
If the story is a bit pedestrian up to now then it really kicks off with ‘Sophie’s Story’; I won’t be able to go into the details but will give a taste of what happens. On one of their walks in Vertfeuille they come across a distraught young woman, who has just given birth, and who is fleeing her captors. She has been held as a sex slave, along with another woman, Rose, by two men Delcour and Mirville. Sophie had been ‘married’ to Mirville and Rose to Delcour. It is soon suspected, and then proved, that Delcour is in fact M. Blamont and Mirville is Dolbourg. Years earlier Blamont and Dolbourg had impregnated two sisters at the same time and hatched the plan where they would both have each child raised separately so that when they were old enough (about thirteen years old) each would take the other’s daughter as their mistress—this is pure Sade just without the explicitness. However the plans weren’t executed properly and there was much confusion over babies being mixed up etc. At one point it is believed that Sophie and Aline are sisters, especially as they look so similar but in the end this is erroneous. Sade concocts a convoluted plot which becomes even more confusing when Valcour and Déterville try to uncover the truth about Sophie, Blamont and Dolbourg and try to decide what to do with Sophie and the proposed marriage between Aline and Dolbourg. Mme Blamont is aware that the evidence they have regarding Sophie can be useful against M. Blamont but she knows that the cards are stacked in his favour. As a libertine he is used to arguing his case and as a judge he knows the law and has connections, and besides any damage to his honour will also reflect on her, and Aline. In the end M. Blamont is able to muddle things enough so that all they agree on is a delay of three months to the marriage.
In a letter to Valcour, Déterville makes the following comment on depravity in general, but concerning M. Blamont in particular.
Man’s greatest fault is to buttress his vices with doctrines that, once elaborated, serve to legitimize his conduct; everything that would be condemned in the heart of another will be forever engraved in his own. That’s why a young man’s wrongdoings are insignificant: he betrays principles but returns to them. An older man sins only after reflection; his faults emanate from his philosophy, which foments and nourishes them by erecting principles on the debris of his childish morality. And in these inflexible so-called principles he discovers the laws of his depravity.
Volume One ends with Déterville recounting the arrival at Vertfeuille of a young couple, Sainville and Léonore, whose story takes up the whole of Volume Two.