When Cécile de Volanges is fifteen years old, her mother removes her from a convent in preparation for the girl’s marriage to the Comte de Gercourt. The match is arranged by Madame de Volanges without her daughter’s knowledge. Shortly after her departure from the convent, Cécile begins an exchange of letters with Sophie Carnay, her close friend. Cécile has few contacts with her fashionable mother except for trips they make together to shops to purchase an elaborate wardrobe. The little she knows about the plans for her future she learns from her maid.
The unscrupulous Marquise de Merteuil sees in the proposed marriage an opportunity to get revenge on Gercourt, who some time before deserted her for a woman of greater virtue. In her wounded vanity, she schemes to have the Vicomte de Valmont, a libertine as unscrupulous as herself, effect a liaison between Cécile and the Chevalier Danceny. Such an affair, circulated by gossip after Cécile and Gercourt are married, will make the husband a laughingstock of the fashionable world. To complete her plan for revenge, the marquise also wants Valmont to seduce Madame de Tourvel, the woman for whom Gercourt abandoned her. Madame de Tourvel is the wife of a judge. As a reward for carrying out these malicious schemes, the Marquise de Merteuil promises to reinstate Valmont as her own lover.
Valmont is able to arrange a meeting between Cécile and Danceny. Although she is attracted to the young man, Cécile hesitates at first to reply to his letters. She conceals her eventual consent to write to him, even to speak of love, from her mother. Valmont meanwhile turns his attention to Madame de Tourvel, who is a virtuous woman and, aware of the vicomte’s sinister reputation, tries to reject his suit. Nevertheless, she finds herself attracted to him, and in time she agrees to write to him but not to see him. She also stipulates that Valmont is not to mention the subject of love or to suggest intimacy. Eventually Valmont and Madame de Tourvel become friends. Aware of her indiscretion even in friendship, she finally tells Valmont that he must go away, and he accepts her decision.
In the meantime, although she writes him letters in which she passionately declares her love, Cécile is steadfast in her refusal to see Danceny. Cécile grows more mature. She still writes to Sophie, but not as frankly as before. Instead, she turns for advice to the Marquise de Merteuil, whom she sees as a more experienced woman. The marquise, impatient with the slow progress of the affair between Cécile and Danceny, informs Madame de Volanges of the matter, with the result that the mother, in an angry interview with her daughter, demands that Cécile forfeit Danceny’s letters. The marquise’s plan produces the effect she anticipates; Cécile and Danceny declare themselves more in love than ever.
Hoping to end her daughter’s attachment to Danceny, Madame de Volanges takes Cécile to the country to visit Madame de Rosemonde, Valmont’s ailing aunt. Valmont soon follows, on the Marquise de Merteuil’s instructions, to keep the affair alive between Cécile and the young chevalier and to arrange for Danceny’s secret arrival. Valmont, bored with rustic life, decides to take Cécile for himself. Under the pretext of making it safer for him to deliver Danceny’s letters, he persuades her to give him the key to her room. At the first opportunity, Valmont seduces her. At first the girl is angered and shocked; before long, however, she surrenders herself to him willingly. Valmont is at the same time continuing his attentions to Madame de Tourvel. Deciding that persistence accomplishes nothing, he tries ignoring her, whereupon Madame de Tourvel writes to offer her friendship.
Cécile, deeply involved with Valmont, writes the Marquise de Merteuil, asking for her advice on how to treat Danceny. Madame de Volanges, who is unaware of the situation, also writes the marquise, telling her that she is considering breaking off the match with Gercourt; her daughter’s happiness, she declares, is perhaps worth more than an advantageous marriage. In reply, the marquise earnestly cautions Madame de Volanges on a mother’s duty to guide a daughter and to provide for her future.
Madame de Tourvel also becomes a guest of Valmont’s aunt, giving Valmont the opportunity to seduce her. He is tempted but takes greater pleasure in seeing her virtue humbled. After his rejection and her own moral scruples force Madame de Tourvel to flee in shame, she writes Madame de Rosemonde a letter in which she apologizes for her abrupt departure and explains her emotional straits. Madame de Rosemonde’s reply is filled with noble sentiments and encouragement.
Valmont is surprised to find himself deflated by Madame de Tourvel’s departure. His ego suffers another blow when Cécile locks him out of her room. The marquise is more impatient than ever with Valmont’s slow progress, and she decides to work her revenge through Danceny. Her first step is to captivate the young chevalier. He succumbs to her but nevertheless continues to write impassioned letters to Cécile.
Valmont decides to possess Madame de Tourvel. Afterward, he describes her initial hesitation, surrender, and complete abandon in a triumphant letter to the Marquise de Merteuil, closing his account with the announcement that he is coming at once to claim the promised reward. The marquise manages to put off his claim, however, by reproving him for his handling of his affair with Madame de Tourvel. The difference between this and his other affairs, she says, is that he has become emotionally involved; his previous conquests were smoothly and successfully accomplished because he regarded them only as arrangements of convenience, not relationships of feeling. The irony underlying her attitude is that she is still in love with Valmont and did not count on losing him, even for a short time. She loses control of the strings by which she dangled Valmont to satisfy her desire for vengeance.
Valmont tries to free himself of his emotional involvement with Cécile and Danceny. Cécile miscarries his child; Danceny’s devotion no longer amuses him. Although Valmont makes every effort to win the favor of the marquise, she holds him off and, after a quarrel, capriciously turns from him to Danceny and makes that young man a slave to her charms and will.
Both Valmont and the marquise are eventually defeated in this duel of egotistic and sexual rivalry. Danceny, having learned of Valmont’s dealings with Cécile, challenges the vicomte to a duel and mortally wounds him. As he is dying, Valmont gives the chevalier his entire correspondence with the marquise. Once her malice is exposed, she is ruined socially. When an attack of smallpox leaves her disfigured for life, she flees to Holland. Madame de Tourvel, already distressed because of the treatment she received from Valmont, dies of grief at his death. Cécile enters a convent. Danceny gives the incriminating letters to Madame de Rosemonde and, vowing celibacy, enters the order of the Knights of Malta. Madame de Rosemonde seals the letters that brought disaster or death to everyone who was involved with so dangerous an acquaintance as the Marquise de Merteuil.
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