Your blogmistress is honored to have Laurel Corona write in this space during a very special week: The launch of her novel Finding Emilie. Finding Emilie is a novel following the fictional daughter of Emilie de Chatelet, a noble who was an all around 18th century spitfire, taking Voltaire as lover and studying Newton and physics when she should have been attending to her social duties. Here Laurel gives us a behind-the-scenes look at how imagining a teenaged Dangerous Liaisions helped shaped the villains for her novel.
Anne-Mathilde de Praslin and Jacques-Mars Courville are a villainous pair in my new novel, FINDING EMILIE. The two love use his dashing good looks and her wealth and beauty to lure unsuspecting young women into Jacques-Mars arms, he for sexual conquest and Anne-Mathilde for the pleasure of seeing a reputation ruined.
In developing this nasty twosome, I looked for insight in several places. First, I cast my mind back over movies I’d seen about popular kids in high school who set their sights on humiliating some poor soul who wanted nothing more than to be one of them. I can’t remember the names of most of these films now, but I remember the general scheme. Pretty and well dressed girl befriends non-threatening mousy girl who, Stockholm-Syndrome like, begins to take on the views and qualities of her oppressor. Together they look for someone on whom to inflict their mean-spirited entertainments. In this, they are aided by a handsome, popular boy, maybe on the football team, who is looking for the school record in sexual conquests. Enter victim, and the plot goes forward. Blood at the prom, anyone?
The second source of insight came from eighteenth-century French literature, the era in which my novel is set. Long ago in graduate school, I read Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, discovering, to my delight, that there really was such a thing as a “dirty French novel,” which I had heard jokes about. I must admit, enough time had passed that when I thought of the novel I was picturing Glenn Close and John Malkovich in the film version, but that was good enough for my purposes.
In Laclos’ story, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont are ex-lovers who still share a magnetic attraction to each other, which is now channeled into plots to force others into indiscretions that will ruin their reputations. The purpose? No more than the challenge of it, and of course the thrill of new sexual encounters.
The plot revolves around multiple seductions, Valmont of the naive schoolgirl Cecile, who is in love with her music teacher, Danceny, but gives her virginity to Valmont at his insistence that she needs practice before sleeping with the man of her dreams. All the while Valmont’s eyes are set on the beautiful but rather priggish Madame de Tourvel, whose insistence on her virtue and her love for her absent husband makes her a wonderful challenge for the libertine Valmont.
The Marquise de Merteuil sets Valmont a challenge that he won’t succeed with Tourvel, and in fact works against him, because the prize if he wins is getting to sleep with her again which she does not want. She helps him seduce Cecile, however, because she is engaged to a lover who once spurned the Marquise and she wants his young bride not to be a virgin on the night her old lover takes his young, convent-educated bride to bed. In the meantime, Merteuil takes as a lover Danceny, the music teacher Cecile wants to elope with. The plot evolves from there, through betrayals and counter betrayals, and in the end the ruin of all of the characters, and the death of a few. It’s an odd book, amusing despite the bleak world it portrays, and fascinating, like the proverbial train wreck.
The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont are much older than my characters, but I started wondering what they would have been like as teenagers. What might their first schemes have been? My novel leaves Anne-Mathilde and Jacques-Mars while they are still in their teens, and although their plots are damaging enough, they are rather unambitious compared to those of the full blown villains in Laclos’ novel. I want to avoid plot spoilers, so I’ll just say that Lili and Delphine, the main characters in Finding Emilie, both become targets, and Delphine has a narrow escape. The mousy little foil, Josephine, who is Anne-Mathilde’s “best friend,” is not so lucky.
So that’s how it works when I’m thinking through how to populate a novel. I’m not the first one to imagine what life was like in the Ancien Regime, in the years just before the French Revolution. It’s great to have sources like Laclos and filmmakers like Stephen Frears (who based Dangerous Liaisons on a play adaptation by Christopher Hampton), and Milos Forman, whose film Valmont is based on the same story. Their vision helps mine to grow, and the result in Finding Emilie is a prequel I hope lovers of French literature will get a little extra pleasure from reading. For others, all I will say is I think you’ll find in Anne-Mathilde and Jacques-Mars two characters you’ll love to hate.