publisher colophon

In 1793, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, author of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, was imprisoned for having suspicious political connections. Distraught, Laclos relied upon correspondence and material objects to maintain his sense of self and his connection to his family. His letters home reveal a series of emotional practices, most notably the adoration of material objects that reminded him of his relatives. Laclos's attention to these objects paralleled devotional practices, including the veneration of relics. He turned love for his family into a kind of religion, revealing new facets of sentimentalism and secularization during the eighteenth century, especially during the French Revolution.

In Year 2 of the French Revolution (1793), Pierre Choderlos de Laclos was languishing in the maison de santé/prison at Picpus, a site that held politically suspect but wealthy characters including – notoriously—the marquis de Sade. Laclos, an artillery officer and novelist best known for his 1782 Les Liaisons Dangereuses, had worked for the disgraced Philippe d'Orléans, cousin to king Louis XVI, in part by writing political texts.1 When Orléans fell from grace, Laclos did as well. Orléans could not save himself during the Revolution's most radical and anti-noble phase despite his fervent republicanism. Even rechristening himself Philippe d'Égalité could not remove the stain of his royal blood. Orléans was arrested in April 1793 and executed that November. Laclos's past political support for Orléans made him appear dangerous. Revolutionaries deemed him too suspicious to roam free, but not yet worthy of trial and execution.2 Laclos found himself stuck in a holding pattern at Picpus, where he would remain until the Terror was over.

Prisoners at Picpus enjoyed comfortable accommodations, but Laclos did not consider himself lucky.3 Anguished by his separation from his beloved family and bored by the tedium of idle days, Laclos felt his identity slipping away. "De toutes les privations qui suivent la perte de la liberté, celle-là seule m'étoit vraiment douloureuse qui, m'isolant entièrement de toi et de mes enfants, m'avoit en quelque sorte ravi ma qualité d'époux et de père, et me livroit à une mort anticipée, en me privant des douces affections qui, seules, donnent du prix à la vie" [Of all [End Page 289] the hardships that have followed the loss of my liberty, that which has been the most truly saddening for me is that, by isolating me entirely from you [my wife] and my children, by depriving me of those sweet affections which, alone, make life worthwhile, I have been in some ways been robbed of my role as spouse and father and left to die.]4 Laclos did not just feel lonely—he was losing himself, and particularly losing his identity as a loving père de famille.

How did Laclos deal with these pressures? His correspondence with his wife from his arrest in 1793 until his release in late 1794 provided one way for him to cope: her letters and the love they represented were a safety net that kept him from falling into an abyss of despair. "Ma longue détention a pu vieillir mes traits, diminuer mes forces et peut-être mon talent; mais mon coeur est resté jeune et sensible. En se mêlant avec le tien, il a repris une nouvelle fraîcheur. Mon existence isolée serait pénible et flétrie, mais je n'existe plus qu'en toi…" [My long detention has aged my features, diminished my strength and maybe even my talent; but my heart has remained young and sensitive. By joining with yours, it has taken on a new freshness. My isolated existence may be aggravating and lackluster, but I live through you…]5

Laclos's correspondence with his wife, and the practices described within it, reveal more than a man's attachment to his spouse; they show he developed a series of quasi-religious emotional practices.6 Laclos not only read and wrote letters to his family but also saved objects that reminded him of his loved ones. He crafted daily rituals that helped him focus on his family and forget his unhappy surroundings. In short, he structured his days around letters and objects that reminded him of his family's love, and used those recollections to temporarily escape his unhappy surroundings and transport himself back to his happy home. In this way, Laclos's emotional practices look somewhat like religious rituals, which were designed to occur at regular intervals and remove an individual's focus from the mundane world to the heavenly realm. Laclos's letters were wholly secular in that he never mentioned God or Christianity, but they were sacred, in the broadest sense of the term, in his veneration of his family and his love for them. The structure of his day, his transcendence of his surroundings, his use of mementoes as secular relics: all of these paralleled Catholic religious culture.

Scholars often discuss the eighteenth-century "cult" of sentiment but rarely analyze it through a religious lens.7 Laclos's letters, however, show that perhaps we should take the label more seriously, and consider how the family became sacred. There may not have been a formal religion around family life, but there are clear connections and parallels—albeit implicit ones—between religious worship and the practice of family love in the modern era. Indeed, the sociologists Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim have identified romantic love as the "secular religion" of our age, with individuals "idolizing" their marriages and families.8 While Beck and Beck-Gernsheim focus on a much later era, Laclos's example reveals the eighteenth-century origins of this tendency. In this essay, I consider these large themes by concentrating on the emotional practices of a single individual. This focus pushes existing research in new, historical directions while still allowing for a careful reading of Laclos's texts.

That Laclos's letters to his wife and children reveal a near-religious devotion to them makes sense in the context of French Revolutionary politics and culture. [End Page 290] While it was common for many Europeans to gather mementoes and emulate sentimental family norms throughout the eighteenth century, the French Revolution intensified such practices.9 Many individuals, but perhaps especially those fearing for their lives during the Terror, sought solace in comforting rituals and familiar relationships. For republican revolutionaries like Laclos, many of whom felt wary about organized religion, these rituals often took a secular form.10 While scholars have studied revolutionaries' attempts to sacralize the secular, they have not focused on rituals of family love and have instead studied public museums, monuments, and festivals.11 But religious practice embraces private as well as public expressions of devotion, then and now. Laclos's letters show that we should look within private spaces as well as public ones to understand the full range of religious parallels during the French Revolution. Individuals living through this turbulent, often exciting, sometimes terrifying time turned to their loved ones for solace and even salvation.


Laclos's emotional dependence on letters and objects was shared by many eighteenth-century couples, for the age of sentiment was also an age of separation. Eighteenth-century families could be split by migration, military duties, or commercial opportunities.12 Individuals might seek out a new life in Paris, or take to the sea in search of better fortunes. Either way, middling families spread farther apart than they had previously.13 For these families, letters were a vital means of communication, and one that occupied a curious imaginative space: letters elided separation at the same time that they affirmed it.14 Indeed, as Sarah Pearsall has suggested, the fact that eighteenth-century letter writers were moved to express their feelings at length and in such flowery prose owes something to the fact that family members were often separated from each other.15 Anxious to maintain familiar ties and eager to display a well-tuned sensibility, writers crafted lavishly emotional letters, replete with exclamation points and references to tears and sighs. "See how I love you!" but also "see how lovable and virtuous I am!" these letters exclaimed, in effect. As any researcher of eighteenth-century correspondence knows, these letters were hardly as original or spontaneous as they claimed to be. Letters were supposed to appear natural and sincere, but adhered to the rules spelled out in correspondence manuals sold to middling and upper sorts. These manuals spelled out specific forms and expressions for letter-writers to use. For letters to family members, like those considered here, correspondence manuals advised writers to imagine they were conversing directly with their beloved, adopting an informal and straightforward style; this made the letter more intimate, in contrast to the elaborate forms that dictated formal correspondence for business and political dealings.16

The eighteenth-century enthusiasm for letters extended beyond personal relationships: readers devoured epistolary novels, which were particularly in vogue during the second half of the eighteenth century.17 This was, of course, a genre that Laclos knew well: his Liaisons Dangereuses remains one of the most celebrated and scandalous exemplars of the type. And as Janet Altman has shown, Laclos's novel shows a sophisticated understanding of how letters functioned in his society. Letters were the weapon of choice for Laclos's seducer the Vicomte de Valmont: slowly, in missive after missive, he wore down the defenses of his married target, the [End Page 291] présidente de Tourvel. But letters in Liaisons functioned as more than simple texts: they were objects with transformative power. The mere act of accepting or returning a packet of letters held great significance.18 Even before his time in prison, Laclos knew well the complicated effects that exchanging correspondence could have.

But while examples from this genre abound, Laclos drew particularly on one author as he crafted letters to his wife: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. After receiving a letter in which his wife praised his writing as Rousseauian, he responded with delight: "tu trouves que Rousseau et moi, écrivons de même! Tu me fais assurément beaucoup d'honneur,… il a écrit presque tout ce que tu m'as inspiré, et ce que tu m'inspires encore" [you find that Rousseau and I write in similar ways! You do me much honor in saying so, for he has written nearly everything that you have inspired and continue to inspire in me.] Laclos also accorded Rousseau a prominent role in mediating his relationship with his wife: "je ne connais que lui de digne d'être, auprès de toi, l'interprète de mes sentiments et peut-être, lui et moi, étions-nous les seuls êtres capables de parler à ton coeur le langage qui lui convient, et que tu sais si bien entendre et apprécier" [I know of no one worthier than he—other than you yourself—of being the interpreter of my sentiments. And he and I are possibly the only ones capable of speaking in the language of your heart; you know so well how to hear and appreciate our words.]19 Moreover, in seeking touchstones for his love for his family, Laclos may have again been inspired by Rousseau's Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse, in which the hero Saint-Preux sought material reminders of his beloved Julie. He did not require much prompting, as almost every object around him called Julie to mind: "Je ne verrai rien que sa main n'ait touché; je baiserai des fleurs que ses pieds auront foulées; je respirerai avec la rosée un air qu'elle a respiré…" [I will see nothing unless her hand had touched it; I will kiss the flowers where her feet had tread; I will breathe along with the roses the air that she has breathed…]20 Any number of objects would cause Saint-Preux's thoughts to turn to Julie, and he cherished how readily he could feel her presence even when she was absent. His feelings were so strong that they could infuse nearly any item with emotional value. Laclos followed this model, particularly when his stint in prison required him to be creative about what item might serve as a memento.21

Indeed, many other individuals did the same. Letters—both actual and fictional—were sometimes, happily, accompanied by material objects like locks of hair, miniature portraits, or rings. These objects provided tangible proof of affection, giving people something to hold onto, caress, and even engage in conversation. The small scale of the items was not simply due to logistical necessities; there was an intimacy to a miniature portrait that a larger, grander portrait lacked because a miniature was small, easily hidden, and intended for careful and close inspection. So, too, did a lock of hair—perhaps closed into a piece of jewelry or hidden in a drawer—feel more personal than something ostentatious. Objects such as love letters, miniature portraits, locks of hair, and rings encouraged romantic affection.22 Such gifts helped along courtship, announced betrothal, cemented ties, and commemorated loss. They took different forms and leant themselves to different practices, but they all suggest a widespread reliance on material objects to create and maintain bonds. Using objects to prompt a sentimental reaction was so commonplace in the eighteenth century that Sarah Pearsall includes it in a checklist of epistolary tropes.23 Words did not exist in a vacuum, but came accompanied by [End Page 292] tokens of affections; physical reminders of love were cherished just as much as the written expressions of love.

Devotion to these objects was so intense it mirrored sacred veneration. As Lynn Festa has noted, readers of sentimental novels could be moved to invest in commemorative objects. A famous example grew out of Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey, when the parson Yorick gives a snuffbox to Father Lorenzo, a monk he had previously insulted, as recompense. Moved by this episode, and by the novel as a whole, some readers bought copies of Yorick's snuffbox. Festa writes that sentimental objects like these snuffboxes were "public sign(s) of a private sensibility" that were "designed to serve as an outward sign of inward grace"; they were "a kind of sacrament" that marked the holder as having a sensitive (and therefore virtuous) heart.24 Readers desperate to connect to their favorite novels invested great meaning in objects such as these, turning them into key markers of near religious devotion to fictional characters and the ideals they represented. While in prison, Laclos adapted this practice, using secular relics to attach himself to his real but absent family.

Laclos's case was in many ways extraordinary: his wealth and connections separated him from most of his compatriots and kept him safer and more comfortable than less fortunate prisoners. After a brief stint at the prison de La Force, he had the good fortune to be transferred to Picpus, a maison de santé where wealthy "patients" could be transferred from Paris's overcrowded prisons and allowed certain liberties (access to the grounds, more spacious accommodations, the ability to send and receive letters) in exchange for payment.25 This context helps explain why Laclos was one of only a few revolutionary prisoners to leave behind a substantial collection of letters. Yet while his lodgings may have been more luxurious than those of other prisoners, Laclos could not grow too comfortable at Picpus. The pace of executions only quickened during his time in prison. Having been deemed a suspicious character already, his luck could always change. The danger he faced was never far away.

That fear and uncertainty is why Laclos's situation, privileged though it may have been, was not wholly removed from those of other prisoners. Like them, he was not at liberty to see his friends and family whenever he wished; like them, he lived under the shadow of doubt that any day his fortunes might change, with a trial and execution to follow.26 And like them, he waited anxiously for each new letter from home. As Elizabeth Foyster has argued, letters were of critical importance to prisoners, most of whom yearned to maintain family ties; many of these letters were also accompanied by material objects such as miniature portraits or locks of hair.27 It is not difficult to imagine that other prisoners might have used their letters and objects the same way that Laclos used his.

Accordingly, while Laclos may not be a representative figure in every respect, he nevertheless makes for an intriguing case study of how those separated from their families used correspondence, material objects, and meditative practices to hold on to their sense of self and their connection to their relations. When Laclos meditated upon mementoes to facilitate an imagined link to his family, and when he encouraged his family to do the same, he was almost certainly not alone. Being detained may have heightened Laclos's fears and made his need for reassurance from familiar objects of affection both greater and more legible, but these were [End Page 293] almost certainly emotions that extended past prison walls. The eighteenth-century cult of the family likely had many devotees.


Unlike his novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which centered around the rakish Vicomte de Valmont and the devious Marquise de Merteuil, Laclos's adult life had little of the libertine or cynic about it. Indebted to Rousseau's version of sentimentalism, Laclos's letters to his wife depict him as totally devoted to her and their children; his wife, in particular, commanded his adulation. It was only reasonable that he should love her, he wrote, for "tu as des qualités qui justifient mon amour pour toi… Maîtresse adorable, excellente femme et tendre mère, en voilà le résumé en peu de mots… Je me félicite, chaque jour, de t'avoir rencontrée" [you have certain qualities which justify my love for you… Adorable mistress, excellent wife, and tender mother: such is the list in just a few words… I congratulate myself every day for having found you.]28 His love ran so deep that once he tapped into his feelings, they gushed out as a torrent of words: "je me livre au premier sentiment que j'éprouve, et je ne le quitte que quand mon papier m'avertit de finir" [I surrender myself to the first sentiment that I feel, and I only stop writing when I am about to run out of paper.]29 Madame and Monsieur were two halves of the same whole, so closely connected that he called her "toi qui es un autre moi-même" [you who are another of myself.]30

Overwhelming emotions, the rush to turn feelings into words, self-congratulation on having a well-tuned sensibility: these tropes of eighteenth-century correspondence filled his letters. Rather than skewering men of feeling, as he did in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Laclos embraced the sentimental model in his own letters and portrayed himself as the prototypical man of sensibilité: the good husband and the good father whose tender connections to his wife and children demonstrated his virtue and developed theirs.31 Revolutionaries saw a link between being a good citizen and a good father/husband, and Laclos himself made this connection explicit. He wrote that everything he did and thought "a été pour la République, pour toi, pour mes enfants" [was for the Republic, for you, for my children.] Should he be known for nothing else, his family's love—"cet unique objet d'affection" [this unique object of affection]—was enough: "le coeur pur et sensible d'une bonne épouse et une bonne mère, est un panthéon qui en vaut bien un autre" [the pure and sensitive heart of a good wife and a good mother is a pantheon worth as much as any other.]32 As a good husband would, he kept up a voluminous correspondence with his wife; unfortunately, none of her letters have survived, and so we only have one half of their conversations.

Laclos did not take well to life in prison and began to wallow in depression. By April 1794, his letters turned melancholic: "Comme je n'ai jamais de nouvelles à te mander, quand je n'ai pas à te répondre, ma correspondance se trouve finie dès que j'ai dit comment je me porte et que j'ai parlé de la pluie et du beau temps" [As ever, I have no news to send you, for when I don't have anything to respond to from you, my letter is finished once I've told you how I'm doing and discussed the weather.]33 Part of his problem was that much eighteenth-century literature, both fictional and prescriptive, emphasized the public and private virtues of a loving [End Page 294] family. But what if the paterfamilias was away? One of Laclos's fears about his time in Picpus was that he would not be the kind of husband and father he wished to be. While in prison, he was not on hand to care for and educate his children Étienne (b. 1784) and Soulanges (b.1787). A good father, in his estimation, would instruct his children in life principles, fashion them into useful and talented citizens, and provide a model of virtue for his children to emulate. But how could Laclos do any of those things while in prison? All required some sort of contact between a father and his children. And how could he be a loving partner to his beloved spouse? He wished to see his wife, to talk with her, to help her navigate this political storm—and yet he could not. The ideal of the "good father" and "good husband" were mutually reinforcing and validated a man's virtue, utility, and patriotism. Laclos yearned to live this ideal, and regretted that he "had in some ways been robbed of [his] role as spouse and father."34

He needed to find a way to be present for his family—and to make them present to him—despite their separation. To do that, he turned to letters and material objects. His isolation led him to invest extraordinary significance in ordinary things. For example, Laclos's family included a "pôt de beurre" [pot of butter] with the foodstuffs they sent to the prison. This gift—which Laclos sadly described as "la plus grande nouvelle" [the most exciting news] of his day—brought the prisoner some comfort. It became a way for him to stay connected to his children (the ostensible donors of the butter) and for them to stay connected to him.35

Laclos's delight at this pot of butter went beyond that usually accorded to dairy products. He created rituals around eating the butter, which he described to his wife. Laclos asked Madame "de les en remercier, en les assurant que toutes les fois que j'en mange et que j'en mangerai, je songe et je songerai à eux; je n'oublierai pas non plus leur mère…" [to thank them (the children) for it, and assure that every time I eat it and that I will eat it, I think and I will think again of them; nor will I forget their mother…] This new routine helped the author imagine himself in the bosom of his family. The butter was more than a onetime pleasure: it was a touchstone he returned to again and again. His repetition of verbs in multiple tenses—I eat and I will eat; I think and I will think again—suggests that he had crafted a ritual to be reenacted over and over again. In this ceremony, Laclos used meditation upon a beloved object to erase the distance separating him from his family. By eating the butter and thinking of his beloved family, his meals would become "un espèce de repas de famille, tel que les circonstances nous permettent d'en faire" [a sort of family meal, as much as circumstances will allow.]36 Laclos mentioned these "déjeuner(s) de famille" [family suppers] in several different letters, and it would seem that the family "dined" together every décadi (the tenth day of the revolutionary calendar which replaced Sunday).37

Laclos grew so attached to the butter dish, so dependent upon it to act as a conduit between him and his family, that he could not bear to discard it even after he had eaten all of the butter. He kept the empty dish as a reminder of his children's affections, taking care to place it in a prominent place: "Je n'ai pas voulu que le souvenir de leur amitié pour moi pût finir en même temps: en conséquence, j'ai placé le pôt sur une des tablettes qui sont dans ma chambre, de manière que mes regards s'y portent naturellement toutes les fois que j'entre chez moi" [I did not want for the souvenir of their amity for me to end at the same time (as the butter); [End Page 295] consequently, I placed the pot on one of the little tables in my bedroom, in a spot where my gaze falls naturally every time I enter the room.] He felt comforted by the continued presence of his keepsake, noting that "j'éprouve depuis, que si le pôt est vide de beurre il n'est pas vide de plaisir; car je ne le remarque pas sans me rappeller la tendresse de mes enfants pour moi, ce qui me cause une bien véritable satisfaction" [I have since concluded that even if the dish is emptied of butter, it is not empty of pleasure; I never look at it without remembering the tenderness that my children feel for me, and that brings me real satisfaction.]38 He also continued the practice of "family dinners" that he had inaugurated with the butter dish. Dining alone was one of the undesirable hallmarks of eighteenth-century bachelorhood, standing in marked opposition to the cozy familiarity of a family meal.39 Laclos did his best to recreate the comforts of family life, with a butter dish standing in for his absent family.

"Family dinners" were not the only time Laclos transported himself back to his family. Imaginary conversations regularly took place in his cell and he would "me transporte auprès de toi et de mes enfants [transport myself to be near you and my children]." He frequently found himself speaking out loud to his wife. "Je me surprends souvent causant avec toi et avec eux, comme si vous m'entendiez. S'il me vient une idée douce, je n'ai pas de repos que je t'aie trouvée pour te la communiquer; s'il m'en vient une pénible, je me recueille aussitôt pour chercher comment je pourrai te l'adoucir…" [I often catch myself talking with you and them (our children), as if you could hear me. If a sweet idea occurs to me, I cannot rest until I've found you and told you about it; if something difficult comes to mind, I reflect on how I can soften the news for you.] These conversations felt so vivid that "ces illusions trompent souvent la réalité" [I often mistake these illusions for reality.]40

These imagined conversations were not accidental flights of fancy. Laclos structured his day to facilitate them. Every moment offered a chance to feel connected to his family: "Je suis au levant comme toi; ainsi quand je verrai le soleil sur mon lit, je medirai [sic] qu'au même moment, nous partageons ses rayons, et je les en trouverai plus doux" [I see the same dawn that you do; so when I see the sun shine on my bed, I will tell myself that at this very moment, we share the same rays, and I will find them all the sweeter.]41 These letters reveal a man determined to stay attached to his family, by whatever means available.

Laclos's veneration of the butter dish and his efforts to build moments of reflection into his day are "emotional practices," to borrow Monique Scheer's term. Emotions are more than just passing feelings: they are things we do. Emotional practices, in Scheer's definition, "are habits, rituals, and everyday pastimes that aid us in achieving a certain emotional state."42 By engaging in such practices on his own, Laclos tried to console himself; by writing letters about his practices, he not only reminded himself of the comfort his rituals had provided but also attempted to include his wife and children in the ritual, to make it as social an experience as he could under the circumstances. Moreover, his actions paralleled Christian religious culture. Like the carefully paced day of a monastery, with designated times for prayer, Laclos structured his day to encourage reflection on his family and close the distance between them. But whereas monks and nuns were called to live celibate lives, with family life standing as an obstacle to religious contemplation, Laclos flipped this hierarchy and made his family the center of his devotion. [End Page 296]

Laclos's intense relationship with a butter dish shows how humble items could become significant, even sacred. In a time of desperation and isolation, he invested an everyday object with tremendous affective power. It kept him connected to his family and mentally transported him back into his home. This is not to say that a butter dish was the ideal emotional object. Laclos noted that "c'est à défaut d'objets qui aient plus de rapport avec eux, que j'ai choisi ce petit pôt" [it's due to a lack of objects more connected to [my children] that I have chosen this little dish.] Instead of a piece of crockery, he would have preferred objects unique to his family. Anything that recalled his family more exactly would do: "j'eusse mieux aimé avoir leur portrait; et si j'avois eu leur portrait, j'aurois encore préféré quelque chose qui pût penser et s'exprimer comme ils le feroient eux-mêmes; enfin, tout ce qui se seroit le plus rapproché d'eux, auroit été, ce que j'aurois choisi pour en faire ce monument, ou ce signe, de notre tendresse mutuelle" [I would have preferred to have their portrait; if I had had a portrait, then I would have preferred something that could think or speak as if they had made or written it themselves; in sum, whatever I had that was most closely connected to them, I would have then made into a monument, a sign of our mutual tenderness.]43 But as the example of the butter dish shows, sentimental objects were not necessarily expensive or rare; they were not all finely drawn miniatures or valuable lockets. Ordinary items with little fungible value could do extraordinary things.

Laclos did not imagine that material things could create love or goodness where there was none, but he did believe they could amplify existing feelings. They supplemented person-to-person influence. They strengthened and solidified existing ties; they were not strictly passive. Objects of this sort were actively affective and were akin to sentimental relics. In Catholic France, the quasi-sacred nature of such items may have been even more pronounced, given that this was a culture that still incorporated holy relics into religious worship. Christians had, for centuries, venerated the physical remains—sometimes hair, sometimes bones, sometimes other body parts—of especially holy individuals; devout individuals undertook long pilgrimages to see such objects. On a more everyday level, Catholics and Protestants alike cherished small devotional objects (such as pendants or rosaries) that helped them cope with fear, grief, and sickness.44 Jaucourt mocked these practices in the Encyclopédie, calling them practically "pagan" and arguing that the impossible proliferation of relics proved the "insane credulity of men"; how many portraits of the Virgin Mary could really have been painted by St. Luke?45 Laclos, for his part, never voiced such concerns.

Laclos was not unique. The larger historical context suggests that secular relics of this sort were commonplace in the eighteenth century.46 When Galileo's remains were reinterred in the eighteenth century, his middle finger was ensconced in a reliquary; other revered savants received a similar treatment.47 Likewise, when Alexandre Lenoir designed a new tomb in 1800 for Abelard and Heloise, the twelfth-century philosophers and onetime lovers, Lenoir kept parts of their bodies to distribute as gifts. One recipient, the Baron Denon, had a considerable collection of secular relics, including a piece of Molière's corpse and a bit of one of Napoleon's bloody shirts.48 And, of course, the Panthéon in Paris contained the remains of celebrated figures such as Voltaire and Rousseau, holding them up as great men worthy of the nation's reverence. As David Bell has noted, the "cult of [End Page 297] great men" that encouraged this behavior paralleled Christian religious practices, including the veneration of saints and celebration of holy days.49 Nor was this category restricted only to those who could afford pieces of famous corpses. Samuel Johnson considered anything "kept in memory of another, with a kind of religious veneration" to be a "relick"; he did not confine his definition to traditional religious objects but made room for secular devotion.50 Laclos stands out from these examples not in the veneration of objects per se, but rather his veneration of family mementoes. Laclos's example is thus related to but distinct from collecting relics of famous individuals or circulating objects as part of a national or religious cult.51 His celebration of family mementoes rather than religious or patriotic objects, and his entirely private use of those objects, suggests that the trend of sacralization may be broader than scholars once realized.

Madame Laclos understood the significance of such objects, particularly for her husband's state of mind. She took a lock of her husband's hair and a lock of her own and put both tendrils in an envelope, which she presented to Etienne (their eldest child and, at this point, their only son). There is a long tradition of gifting hair, for locks came directly from a beloved's body and yet never decayed. These locks could be, in Angela Rosenthal's words, "relic-like," and "an apt corporal materialization of the sentimental age."52 Madame Laclos included a poem in which she exhorted her son to live a virtuous life: "Ces cheveux te sont donnés par ton père/La tresse en fait par ta mère./Tant que tu seras bon, vertueux/Ce présent te sera précieux" [This hair was given to you by your father/The braid was plaited by your mother./As long as you are good, virtuous/This gift will to you be precious.]53 The purpose of this gift seems to have been two-fold: to guide Etienne's moral development and to console Laclos. Monsieur Laclos would know that his wife had given this gift, and that knowledge would make him feel present in his son's life despite his physical absence.

Monsieur Laclos reacted just as Madame must have hoped. When she told her husband what she had done, he responded with glee: "j'aime beaucoup cette idée, d'attacher à la vertû par des monuments, et par une idée tendre et sensible" [I very much like this idea, to bind him to virtue through monuments, and by a tender and sensitive idea.]54 Having this precious item in his care would help Étienne develop into a better person: "l'amour d'un enfant d'un bon naturel et qui a des bons parents, est pour son père et sa mère. Il ne s'agit donc que de développer ce sentiment, et d'y fixer l'attention, et c'est ce que fait fort bien, à mon sens, ce que tu as écrit pour ton fils" [the love of a child, one who is naturally good and who has good parents, is for his father and mother. Nothing more is required than to develop this feeling, to fix its attention. That is what the letter that you wrote for your son has done very well, in my opinion.]55 By giving her son a memento of his father and mother, as well as a letter expressing her love for him and her desire to see him mature into a good man, Madame Laclos was setting her son on the path to virtue. She was teaching Étienne a kind of emotional practice, to encourage him to reflect on his parents' love and expectations for him and to use those feelings to shape his conduct.56

Monsieur Laclos clearly believed the lock of hair to be of great significance, for he called the gift a "monument" to their love. His word choice suggests that he expected the object to fulfill a long-term pedagogical purpose. Many revolutionaries [End Page 298] had a great enthusiasm for monuments. They aspired to shape the French into a new people, to bring about a rebirth of the nation that would depart dramatically from the past. To accomplish this radical shift, they proposed an array of monuments, festivals, and other events, all of which were intended to replace and erase their Old Regime predecessors.57 These monuments would serve an instructive purpose: they would teach the French to be citizens. When Laclos referred to the locks of hair given to his son as a monument, he suggested that even a small item could teach a similar lesson. Little Étienne would have a constant reminder of his parents to guide him. Every time he looked at it, held it, he would be reminded of his parents. This intimate monument would encourage him to be the best man and the best citizen that he could be.

The use of the word "monument" also suggests a certain degree of permanence and eminence. Eighteenth-century writers had intended monuments to commemorate grand events and illustrious individuals.58 Revolutionary monuments were generally meant to stick around for multiple generations. They were not reflective of a passing fancy but were instead designed to reflect more permanent national ideals, to shape successive generations of young French men and women. A lock of hair would, on the one hand, seem to lack this permanence, and yet the fact that Laclos labeled it a "monument" suggests that he believed the object and memories of it would make a lasting impression on his son.59 The gift would have great affective power.

Madame Laclos's word choice is likewise noteworthy: she called her gift a "talisman." Laclos agreed that the term was apt. Switching into didactic mode, Laclos informed his wife that "le mot Talisman… signifie un morceau de métal, pierre ou autre matière, sur lequel sont gravés certains caractères qui sont censés avoir telle ou telle vertû" [the word Talisman… signifies a piece of metal, stone, or some other material, on which certain characters have been inscribed and which are believed to have certain characteristics.]60 The Encyclopédie article on "talisman" (1765) had mocked these objects as products of superstitious cultures, but Laclos's usage suggests that associating the object with family love purged "talisman" of negative connotations. Laclos went on to discuss the mythical powers often associated with talismans: "en stile de féerie ou d'enchantement, on peut avoir des talismans pour le jeu, et on gagne, pour l'amour, et on plait; pour la richesse et on est riche, etc, etc…" [as with fairies or enchantments, you can have a talisman for a game, and you'll win; for love, and you'll be loved; for wealth, and you'll be rich, etc, etc….] This transformative power fit with Laclos's ideas about the locks of hair: "Tu as donc fort bien pû (en style figuré) dire à ton fils, en lui parlant de nos cheveux que tu lui as donnés: qu'ils soient pour toi le talisman de la vertû, car c'est lui dire, en d'autres termes, qu'ils servent d'une manière efficace à rappeler toutes les vertûs dans ton coeur…" [You may well have (in a manner of speaking) said to your son, in speaking to him about the locks of hair that you gave to him: these are for you a talisman of virtue, which would be to say, in other words, that they will prove effective in helping call up all of the virtues in your heart….]61

Madame Laclos expected Etienne to cherish the hair and the letter. This was a possession she wanted him to keep, to return to again and again, to use as a compass to guide his thoughts and actions. Perhaps he would keep it in a place of honor and frequently take it out to read and re-read the letter, all while running [End Page 299] his fingers over his parents' locks of hair. Just like a monument, the lock of hair served a pedagogical purpose; just like a talisman, the object would exert an almost magical force on the child. These physical objects—the letter and the locks of hair—stood in, as necessary, for the physical presence of his loving and (should Etienne stray from the path of virtue) reproving parents. At the same time that they exhorted Etienne to virtue, the "talisman" and its accompanying letter consoled Laclos; his wife had found a way to make him feel present in his ten-year-old son's life, even though he was still physically absent.


Laclos thus relied on objects of all sorts to preserve his ties to his family. He was able to convert very humble objects into relics and talismans, to infuse them with the kind of sacred power he needed to save himself and stay attached to his family. Unfortunately, historians must rely on his descriptions of them, rather than the objects themselves. Laclos's butter dish has been lost, and so it is not possible to write a history of the object itself, or what Giorgio Riello has called a "history from things." But his letters about the dish remain, and they constitute a vital source for the "history of things." They suggest the importance of material objects to Laclos's emotional life and the power that objects had over individuals.62

In his efforts to stay connected to his family, Laclos relied on methods that paralleled religious devotional practices: venerating objects and using those items to guide his thoughts and structure his day around mediated prayer. He toyed with different descriptors for these items, including "talisman" and "monument," but always as a way to convey their great transformative power. In that sense, his nomenclature—thought it might differ from my preferred term of "secular relic"—supports my contention that he perceived these objects of affection as having magical or religious power. Nor is his use of objects the only parallel with religious practice. During this dark period, Laclos's family was his salvation; reflecting on his love for them and their love for him helped him manage his despair, much as prayer would have occupied and sustained a religious worshipper. Many eighteenth-century individuals may have done the same, whether their separations were caused by commerce, war, or prison. Laclos's example speaks to a different facet of the eighteenth-century cult of sentiment: that it imbued family life with sacred qualities, creating a "secular religion" that persists to this day.63 As Europeans had long cherished emotional objects like locks of hair, Laclos's veneration of personal items has a deep history. We still need more research to clarify how such practices evolved over time. Yet it seems clear to me that though previous generations had also saved mementoes and written affectionate letters, the French Revolution intensified these impulses. The fear of death and the uncertainties generated by political instability made individuals clutch even more tightly to their precious mementoes. Scholars have long studied the revolutionary culture of secularization and sacralization, with republicans seeing once secular practices and activities as newly sacred. But this culture of the sacred was not just about the National Assembly or annual festivals; the Revolution's holy light also shone on the family. [End Page 300]

Meghan K. Roberts

Meghan K. Roberts is Assistant Professor of History at Bowdoin College and author of Sentimental Savants: Philosophical Families in Enlightenment France. She thanks Margaret Boyle, Dallas Denery, Jennifer Heuer, Katie Jarvis, Ann Kibbie, Erin-Marie Legacey, Sarah Maza, April Shelford, Peggy Wang, and the anonymous reviewers for Eighteenth-Century Studies for their helpful feedback.


1. Jean-Paul Bertaud, Choderlos de Laclos (Paris: Fayard, 2003), 186–98.

2. René Pomeau, Laclos ou le paradoxe (Paris: Hachette, 1993), 108.

3. For information on a similar maison de santé, see Frédéric Lenormand, La Pension Belhomme: Une prison de luxe sous la Terreur (Paris: Fayard, 2002). Laclos's transfer from De La Force to Picpus remains mysterious; an unknown friend pulled strings for him. Bertaud, Choderlos de Laclos, 421.

4. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos to Marie-Soulange Laclos, 12 Thermidor Year 2 [30 July 1794], in Oeuvres Complètes/Laclos, ed. Laurent Versini (Paris: Pléiade, 1979), 844–45. All translations are my own.

5. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos to Marie-Soulange Laclos, 19 Prairial Year 2 [7 June 1794], in Oeuvres Complètes, 827.

6. I borrow the phrase "emotional practices" from Monique Scheer, who in turn adapted the concept from Pierre Bourdieu's theory of practice. Monique Scheer, "Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (And Is That What Makes Them Have a History?): A Bourdieuian Approach to Understanding Emotion," History and Theory 51 (May 2012), 193–220.

7. Sarah Maza, "Only Connect: Family Values in the Age of Sentiment," Introduction to special issue of Eighteenth-Century Studies 30, no. 3 (Spring 1997), 207–12; William Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework of the History of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001), 141–72; David Denby, Sentimental Narrative and the Social Order in France, 1760–1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994); Anne C. Vila, Enlightenment and Pathology: Sensibility in the Literature and Medicine of Eighteenth-Century France (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1998); G. J. Barker-Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992), 248.

8. Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, The Normal Chaos of Love, trans. Mark Ritter and Jane Wiebel (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1995), 168–201, esp. 171–81.

9. Sophie Matthiesson's research further bolsters this point, as she finds an increased demand for miniature portraits and other commemorative objects amongst prisoners. Sophie Matthiesson, "Marking Time: Prison Art in Revolutionary France, 1793–1795," (Ph.D. Diss., Monash Univ., 2016), 15.

10. As Charly Coleman notes, this definition of secularization—"the means by which secular concepts, institutions, and ideals emerged out of, but also within, theological antecedents"—has gained increasing acceptance. Charly Coleman, "Resacralizing the World: The Fate of Secularization in Enlightenment Historiography," The Journal of Modern History 82, no. 2 (June 2010), 368–95, 372.

11. Mona Ozouf and David Bell stress that these attempts were not always successful but nevertheless reveal a political culture in which sacred practices were regularly coopted for secular purposes. David A. Bell, The Cult of the Nation in France: Inventing Nationalism, 1680–1800 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2001), 22–49 and 159–68; Mona Ozouf, Festivals and the French Revolution, trans. Alan Sheridan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988), 262–82. Ronald Schechter, by contrast, sees "strong evidence of authentic revolutionary religiosity" and argues that "the Revolution was not merely like a religion but a religion in its own right." Ronald Schechter, "The Holy Mountain and the French Revolution," Historical Reflections 40, no. 2 (Summer 2014), 78–107, 79. See also Joseph Clarke, Commemorating the Dead in Revolutionary France: Revolution and Remembrance 1789–1799 (Cambridge Univ. Press: Cambridge, 2007). On museums, see Alexandra Stara, The Museum of French Monuments 1795–1816: "Killing Art to Make History" (New York: Routledge, 2013).

12. Emma Rothschild, The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2011); Jennifer L. Palmer, Intimate Bonds: Family and Slavery in the French Atlantic (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Jennine Hurl-Eamon, Marriage and the British Army in the Long Eighteenth Century: "The Girl I Left Behind Me" (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2014).

13. David Garrioch, The Formation of the Parisian Bourgeoisie, 1690–1830 (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1996), 105–22. [End Page 301]

14. Janet Altman, Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form (Columbus, OH: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1982), 43.

15. Sarah Pearsall, Atlantic Families: Lives and Letters in the Later Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008), 53–55.

16. Dena Goodman, Becoming a Woman in the Age of Letters (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 2009), 139–43; Roger Chartier, Correspondence: Models of Letter-Writing from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century, ed. Roger Chartier, Alain Boureau, and Cécile Dauphin, trans. Christopher Woodall (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1997), 93–95; Clare Brant, Eighteenth-Century Letters and British Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 33–59.

17. Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), 35–69.

18. Altman, Epistolarity, 18–19.

19. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos to Marie-Soulange Laclos, 14 Prairial Year 2 [2 June 1794], in Oeuvres Complètes, 825.

20. Quoted in Denby, Sentimental Narrative, 103.

21. Laclos was not alone in consciously modeling his letters after epistolary novels. Susan E. Whyman, The Pen and the People: English Letter Writers 1660–1800 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), 161–90.

22. Sally Holloway, "Romantic Love in Words and Objects during Courtship and Adultery, c. 1730 to 1830," (Ph.D. Diss., Royal Holloway, Univ. of London, 2013), 88; Dena Goodman, Becoming a Woman in the Age of Letters; Lynn Festa, Sentimental Figures of Empire in Eighteenth-Century Britain and France (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2006), 67; Anne Fillon, Les trois blagues aux doigts: amours villageoises au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: R. Laffont, 1989), 169.

23. Pearsall, Atlantic Families, 93.

24. Festa, Sentimental Figures of Empire, 77.

25. These business dealings were not above board, and many of the details of prisoner transfer and treatment were not recorded; coupled with lax reporting in general, this makes it difficult to reconstruct experiences inside Picpus. Maurice Lever, Sade: A Biography (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1993), 463.

26. Olivier Blanc, Last Letters: Prisons and Prisoners of the French Revolution, 1793–1794, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987).

27. Elizabeth Foyster, "Prisoners writing home: the functions of their letters, c. 1680–1800," Journal of Social History 47, no. 4 (2014), 943–67, 950–54.

28. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos to Marie-Soulange Laclos, 29 Prairial Year 2 [17 June 1794], in Oeuvres Complètes, 838.

29. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos to Marie-Soulange Laclos, 18 Floréal Year 2 [7 May 1794], in Oeuvres Complètes, 802.

30. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos to Marie-Soulange Laclos, 1 Year 3 [22 September 1794], in Oeuvres Complètes, 868. On Republican love and gender complementarity, see Suzanne Desan, The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2006), 47–92.

31. Meghan Roberts, Sentimental Savants: Philosophical Families in Enlightenment France (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2016), 24–39, 79–84; Lynn Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1992), 17–40; Jeffrey Merrick, "Sexual Politics and Public Order in Late Eighteenth-Century France: The Mémoires Secrets and the Correspondance Secrète," Journal of the History of Sexuality 1 no. 1 (July 1990), 68–84, 81; Leslie Tuttle, "Celebrating the Père de Famille: Pronatalism and Fatherhood in Eighteenth-Century France," Journal of Family History 29, no. 4 (October 2004), 366–81.

32. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos to Marie-Soulange Laclos, 18 Floréal Year 2 [7 May 1794], in Oeuvres Complètes, 802. [End Page 302]

33. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos to Marie-Soulange Laclos, 23 Floréal Year 2 [12 May 1794], in Oeuvres Complètes, 807.

34. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos to Marie-Soulange Laclos, 12 Thermidor Year 2 [30 July 1794], in Oeuvres Complètes, 845.

35. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos to Marie-Soulange Laclos, 14 Floréal Year 2 [3 May 1794], in Oeuvres Complètes, 796.

36. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos to Marie-Soulange Laclos, 14 Floréal Year 2 [3 May 1794], in Oeuvres Complètes, 796–97.

37. Pomeau, Laclos ou le paradoxe, 112.

38. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos to Marie-Soulange Laclos, 3 Prairial Year 2 [22 May 1794], in Oeuvres Complètes, 815.

39. Amanda Vickery, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2009), 58–61.

40. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos to Marie-Soulange Laclos, 1 Messidor Year 3 [19 June 1794], in Oeuvres Complètes, 839.

41. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos to Marie-Soulange Laclos, 20 Floréal Year 2 [9 May 1794], in Oeuvres Complètes, 804.

42. Scheer, "Are Emotions A Kind of Practice?," 209–12.

43. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos to Marie-Soulange Laclos, 3 Prairial Year 2 [22 May 1794], in Oeuvres Complètes, 815. On miniature portraits in the context of the revolutionary prison, see Mathiesson, "Marking Time."

44. Mary Laven, "Devotional Objects," in Early Modern Emotions: An Introduction, ed. Susan Broomhall (London: Routledge, 2017), 156–60.

45. Louis, Chevalier de Jaucourt, "Relic," in The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project, trans Malcolm Eden (Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, Univ. of Michigan Library, 2007), (accessed April 1, 2016). Originally published as "Rélique," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 14:89–91 (Paris, 1765).

46. In addition to the works cited in note 9, see also Albert Soboul, "Religious Feeling and Popular Culture During the French Revolution: 'Patriot Saints' and Martyrs for Liberty," trans. Jane Hodgkin, in Saints and Their Cults: Studies in Religious Sociology, Folklore and History (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983), 217–32. As for the use of emotional objects in other times and places, please see Feeling Things: Objects and Emotions Throughout History, ed. Stephanie Downes, Sally Holloway, and Sarah Randles (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, forthcoming). Yet as Sophie Matthiesson notes, "the role of material culture within the revolutionary prison remains an unexplored field." Mathiesson, "Marking Time," 95.

47. Marco Beretta, Maria Conforti, and Paolo Mazzarello, eds., Savant Relics: Brains and Remains of Scientists (Sagamore Beach: Science History Publications, 2016).

48. Christopher M. Greene, "Alexandre Lenoir and the Musée des monuments français during the French Revolution," French Historical Studies 12, no. 2 (Autumn 1981), 200–22, 214–16.

49. Bell, Cult of the Nation, 119–21.

50. Samuel Johnson, "Relick," A Dictionary of the English Language, 2 vols. (London, 1792), 2:246.

51. On the private veneration of locks of hair, see Rosenthal, "Raising Hair," 11; on personal items as relics of a larger religious/political cult (in this case, Jacobitism), see Sasha Handley, "The Radical History of a Bed Sheet," History Workshop, at (accessed July 17, 2017) [End Page 303]

52. Hair arguably became even more significant in the eighteenth century because it was seen to mark racial, sexual, and national difference, crucial in the growing global economy. Angela Rosenthal, "Raising Hair," Eighteenth-Century Studies 38, no. 1 (Fall 2004), 1–16, 11.

53. Quoted in Pierre Choderlos de Laclos to Marie-Soulange Laclos, 25 Floréal Year 2 [14 May 1794], in Oeuvres Complètes, 808.

54. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos to Marie-Soulange Laclos, 25 Floréal Year 2 [14 May 1794], in Oeuvres Complètes, 809. Laclos also used the term "monument" to describe his lock of hair in a letter sent 19 Germinal Year 2 [8 April 1794], in Oeuvres Complètes, 793.

55. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos to Marie-Soulange Laclos, 25 Floréal Year 2 [14 May 1794], in Oeuvres Complètes, 810

56. On emotions-as-practice as learned and passed from generation to generation, see Scheer, "Are Emotions A Kind of Practice?," 218.

57. Ozouf, Festivals and the French Revolution; Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1984), 52–84; Bell, The Cult of the Nation, 140–97.

58. Louis, Chevalier de Jaucourt, "Monument," in Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 14:89–91 (Paris, 1765), 10:697.

59. The use of this term also suggests that Laclos held onto his republican political leanings despite his imprisonment.

60. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos to Marie-Soulange Laclos, 29 Floréal Year 2 [18 May 1794], in Oeuvres Complètes, 813.

61. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos to Marie-Soulange Laclos, 29 Floréal Year 2 [18 May 1794], in Oeuvres Complètes, 813.

62. Giorgio Riello, "Things and Historical Narratives," in History and Material Culture: A Student's Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources, ed. Karen Harvey (New York: Routledge, 2009).

63. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, The Normal Chaos of Love, 171–81. [End Page 304]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.