At one level, the Marquis de Sade’s short story, “The Lady of the Manor of Longeville, or a Woman’s Revenge,” is a feminist tale, for it tells the story of a woman who outwits her husband by discovering and exposing his adulterous affair, even as she cleverly manages to conceal her own.
Thus it is accurately subtitled, “A Woman’s Revenge.”
But there is, from the very start of this story, another level of inequality that does not go remedied—and that is the inequality of class.
The fight for one particular woman’s sexual equality with one particular man takes place in a world where only the rich are really considered worthy of attention, while the poor are an afterthought (except, of course, in their utility in the bedroom, kitchen, and garden).
The ironic and caustic opening of this story marks it as having been written prior to the French Revolution, when France still had a king, and it concerns itself with France’s distant aristocratic past, before there were any kings. Hence the Marquis de Sade, who grew up in an aristocratic family, sarcastically addresses this past with feigned conservative nostalgia:
In the days when the aristocracy ruled their lands like despots—those glorious days when France contained within her boundaries countless sovereign lords and not thirty thousand cowed slaves bending the knee to a single man—the Lord of Longeville, master of a fief near Fimes in Champagne, resided on his not inconsiderable estates. With him lived his wife who was small, dark of hair and pert of face, vivacious, not very pretty but brazen, and passionately fond of her pleasures.
This is an easy world to drop into imaginatively, for it is one where everyone (except the Lord’s wife) knows their place, and can be expected to stay in their station, and do precisely as they are told.
And so the story draws its focus down upon the unpredictable and intelligent woman of the manor, and her sexually rakish husband who, in a gesture worthy of King David in his stealing of Bathsheba from one of his soldiers, takes as a mistress the wife of a poor farmer.
The Lord’s wife, in her turn, takes to her bed a poor, but sexually powerful, eighteen-year-old miller, whom Sade describes as “a young dog . . . as pure as his own flour, as muscular as his mule, and as pretty as the roses which grew in his little garden.”
Both the Lord’s mistress—and his wife’s paramour—are readily disposable, and easily replaced, and one of them is literally disposed of (the farmer’s wife is cast into the manor’s moat in a sack, as one might throw out the trash).
As has ever been the case, the rich find use for the poor, not just for conventional labor, but for sexual labor, and it is this liberty which the Lord’s wife succeeds in winning—and securing—for herself alone.
Notice, in the above painting, a man (or woman?) peeking out of the bed curtains, and imagine the potential for discreet sexual machinations between aristocrats and their servants in these large manor houses.
This is the premise underlying de Sade’s short story. Though less explicit than the master-slave narratives of his novels, the hierarchy of master and servant is still present here, lurking about its margins.