Letter 33

The Marchioness de Merteuil to the Viscount de Valmont

Now that you dread succeeding, my dear Viscount, now that your scheme is to furnish arms against yourself, and that you wish more to fight than conquer, I have nothing more to say. Your conduct is certainly a masterpiece of prudence; in a contrary supposition, it would be the highest act of folly; and to tell you my sentiments freely, I fear your project is entirely chimerical.

I do not reproach you for having let slip the opportunity; for I really cannot see that you had it in your power; and I know well, whatever others may say, that an opportunity lost may be found again, and that a rash step is irrecoverable.

But I admire your wisdom in commencing a correspondence, and I defy you to foresee how it will end. You perhaps hope to prove to this woman, that she should give herself up? And that seems to me a truth of opinion, more than of demonstration; and that to make it be relished, you soften, and not argue; but what purpose would it answer to soften by letter, since you would not be on the spot to benefit by it? If all your fine phrases should even produce the intoxication of love, do you flatter yourself that it would be of so long a duration that reflection would not come time enough to prevent its consequences? Think, then, how much it will take to write a letter, and how much before it can be delivered; and then consider if a woman, of the principles of your devotee, can think so long on what she endeavours never at all to think of: this proceeding may do very well with children, who while they write, I love you, do not know they say I give myself up to you; but Madame de Tourvel’s reasoning virtue makes her know the value of the terms. This appears very plain; for notwithstanding the advantage you had over her in your conversation, she foils you in her letter; and what will be the consequence? That by long debating, you will not bring to compliance; that by dint of searching for good reasons, she will find them, will give them, and stick to them; not so much because they are good in themselves, as not to act inconsistently.

Moreover, a remark I am astonished you have not made, is, that nothing is so difficult in love, as to write what one does not feel. I mean to write with the appearance of truth; it is not but the same phrases are used; they are not arranged in the same manner; or rather, they are arranged with too much perspicuity, and that is worse.

Read over your letter again; it displays so much regularity that you are discovered in every phrase. I am inclined to think your Presidente is so unfashionable as not to perceive it; but what is that to the purpose? the consequence will be still the same; that is the defect of romance; the author racks his brain, heats his imagination, and the reader is unmoved. Heloise is the only exception I know; and notwithstanding the great talents of the author, from this observation alone, I have ever been of opinion, that the work is grounded in truth; not so in speaking; the custom of conversation gives it an air of tenderness, to which the facility of tears still greatly adds; expressive desires blend themselves with the languishing look, and, at last, incoherent speeches more readily bring on that turbulence of passion, which is the true eloquence of love; but above all, the presence of the beloved object banishes reflection, and makes us wish to be overcome.

Believe me, my dear Viscount, she does not desire you should write any more; retrieve your error, and wait for the opportunity of speaking to her. This woman has more fortitude than I expected; her defence is good, and were it not for the length of her letter, and the pretence she gives you for a replication in her grateful phrase, she would not at all have betrayed herself.

And what, I think, ought to ascertain your success is, she exhausts all her strength at once; and I foresee she will persist in it, for the defence of a word, and will have none left for the crisis.

I send you back your two letters, and, if you are prudent, they should be the last till after the happy moment. It is too late to say anything of the little Volanges, who comes on very well, and gives me great satisfaction. I believe I shall have done before you, which ought to make you very happy. Farewell for today!