Irresistibly charming or shamelessly deceitful, remarkably persuasive or uselessly verbose, everything one loves to hate — or hates to love — about “French lovers” and their self-styled reputation can be traced to eighteenth-century libertine novels. Obsessed with strategies of seduction, endlessly speculating about the motives and goals of lovers, the idle aristocrats who populate these novels are exclusively preoccupied with their erotic lives. Deprived of other battlefields in which to fulfill their thirst for glory, libertine noblemen seek to conquer the women of their class without falling into the trap of love, while their female prey attempt to enjoy the pleasures of love without sacrificing their honor. Yet, in spite of the licentious mores of the declining Old Regime, men and women are still expected to pay lip service to an austere code of morals. Asked to constantly denounce their own practices, they find that their erotic war games are thus governed by a double constraint: whatever they feel or intend, the heroes of libertine literature can neither say what they mean nor mean what they say.
The Libertine Reader includes all the varieties of libertine strategies: from the successful cunning of Mme de T– in Denon’s No Tomorrow to the ill-fated genius of Mme Merteuil in Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons; from the laborious sentimental education of Meilcour in Crébillon fils’s Wayward Head and Heart to the hazardous master plan of the French ambassador in Prévost’s The Story of a Modern Greek Woman. The discrepancies between the characters’ words and their true intentions — the libertine double entendre — are exposed through the speaking vaginas in Diderot’s Indiscreet Jewels and the wandering soul of Amanzei in Crébillon fils’s Sofa, while the contrasts between natural and civilized — or degenerate — erotics are the subjects of both Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage and Laclos’s On the Education of Women. Finally, Sade’s Florville and Courval shows that destiny itself is on the side of libertinism.