Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


The Comte de Sade

The Comte de Sade's growing frustration with his only son stemmed from the decline of his own fortunes, and the hope for redemption he had pinned to Donatien's career. His own career had reached its zenith shortly after the birth of Donatien, when he served as ambassador to the court of the Elector of Bavaria. During this time, the War of Austrian Succession broke out, and he was jailed by troops loyal to Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. His release was secured by the fevered lobbying efforts of his wife, but upon returning to Paris he was confronted by accusations of financial mismanagement during his time in Bavaria. The life he had dreamed for himself, that of nobleman and bon vivant, was shattered as personal grudges and enmities were unleashed upon him as a result of this scandal. The Comte was very vulnerable politically, and scarcely blameless for his reversal of fortune. Indeed, he had a direct hand in his own downfall.

Portrait of the Comte de Sade
Portrait of the Comte de Sade

Born into a family whose claim to prestige and political influence had been ebbing for several generations, Jean Bapiste Comte de Sade's sole ambition as a young man seemed to be to enjoy the privileges accorded to the nobility without having to work for that right. Despite his family's marginal position within the French noble hierarchy, the Comte pursued the life of a playboy. A bisexual debauch, he was once arrested for soliciting a male undercover agent for the King Louis XV's police. While willing to satisfy his homosexual urges with street prostitutes, the women he sought had the finest pedigrees in all the land. He came of age at a period of French history known as the Regency, which, for its widespread debauchery, has been compared to the Roman Empire. The Regency was named after the Duc d'Orleans, Louis XV's nephew and ruler of France between the boy-king's fifth and thirteenth years. The regent was known to hold suppers with nobles from across the land, who, after they had supped, disrobed and reenacted scenes from assorted classical erotic texts. Group sex, oral sex, and homosexual intercourse were among the more popular after dinner activities.

In recognition of the fact that he was in need of political connections to compensate for his own family's lack of status, the Comte aligned himself with the Prince de Conde, whose own son would be so savagely attacked by the Comte's son Donatien. However, in choosing the Prince, Jean Baptiste linked his fortunes to one of the most despised noblemen in all of France, a serious miscalculation that would result in serious ramifications for the careless count.

His shortsightedness led him to not only select a poor protector, but to also turn right around and betray the very man to whom he owed his station. The Prince was married to a ravishing young princess from Germany, and to whom Jean Baptiste was immediately drawn. In one of the most cynical schemes hatched in the history of debauchery, the Comte decided to marry a lady in waiting to the Princess, Mlle Maille de Carman, Donatien's mother. He did so in order to create a pretense for being close to the Princess at all times. He later wrote, "I pointed out to her (the Princess) that I had sacrificed my material security by marrying a girl without dowry...for the sole purpose of being closer to her and obtaining permission to see her at all hours. My marriage afforded me considerable familiarity. I could enter her quarters anytime."

What the Comte de Sade's wife lacked in dowry, she made up for in status. It was her connection with the Conde family that secured her husband an ambassadorship to Bavaria. However, it was due to his high living as ambassador, as well as to the many enemies the Conde family had cultivated over the years, that the count found his reputation and career in serious jeopardy upon returning to France after his imprisonment. The Prince had died in 1740, leaving Jean Baptiste completely exposed to the wrath of those who had hated the Prince, but had dared not attack he or his associates while he was alive. And so, just had he had had to rely on the status of another to give his own standing legitimacy, Comte de Sade now found himself equally as dependent upon his own son for the same reason. In the most ironic of twists, this debauched libertine found himself in the unlikely position of having to impose a Puritan standard of conduct upon his son in order to enhance his fortunes at the altar. However, the Marquis was growing harder to control.

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