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The Marquis de Sade
A Life

The definitive biography by Neil Schaeffer

Home : Prison Letters
"Either kill me or take me as I am, because I'll be damned if I ever change..."

Sade, from a letter to his wife, written in prison, November 1783

Read the letter of the week

In writing my biography, The Marquis de Sade: A Life, I found that one of the true surprises was the richness, the humor, the genuine humanity that can be seen in his letters from prison, written mostly to his patient and devoted wife Renée. Since he spent 29 years behind stone walls, prison letters were one of his most typical forms of discourse. In addition to the features mentioned above, in these letters, you will also see the extremes of his personality swings, his bizarre and paranoid system of reading hidden meanings from numbers and words, his essential loneliness and self-absorption, his preoccupation with his sex life, his attempts to understand himself, his development as a literary stylist and ultimately as a fiction writer.

I offer my translations solely for the pleasure of individuals who seek to appreciate and understand Sade. My practice in translation has been to strike a compromise in modernizing Sade's orthography and punctuation, so that the translation retains some flavor of his style and of eighteenth-century conventions without sacrificing readability. When I have shortened a letter, I indicate a cut with three spaced periods. All other strings of periods are in the original.

I begin the correspondence when Sade was 36 years old and hiding out in his chateau of La Coste in Provence. A few years earlier, he had been found guilty in absentia for the capital crimes of performing sodomy and also of poisoning some prostitutes in Marseilles. Nevertheless, he left the relative safety of La Coste to come to Paris when he learned that his mother was very ill. When he arrived on February 8, 1777, he learned that she had been dead for three weeks. It appears that he had once again fallen into a trap. On February 13, Sade was arrested by Inspector Marais by means of a lettre de cachet obtained by his mother-in-law, Mme de Montreuil, who thought prison was the best place for him while he pursued his eventually successful appeal of the Marseilles verdict.

A new letter will be posted here each week, or you can subscribe to receive weekly emails of never before translated letters.

E-mails from prison!
Sade was incarcerated for 14 years without trial before being freed by the French Revolution. In that time he wrote hundreds of letters to his wife. Check back here each week to read a new letter or subscribe to our e-mail list to receive it in your mailbox.

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