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So we're a few years before the French Revolution, when the lower classes in France turned against the wealthy aristocracy and the whole social structure got turned on its head. Heads aren't rolling yet and there isn't a reign of terror just now, but there's a clear, steady reign of decadence among the nobility. The rich folks in this novel have way too much time on their hands. To amuse themselves, they play around with the lives of others just to see what will happen. Hearts broken? Totally fun. Reputations ruined? Even better.
The Marquise de Merteuil is a widow with a reputation for smarts and purity. She's had many lovers, but this isn't widely known because she's forced people's silence. She's probably the most dangerous character in Dangerous Liaisons. You don't want to get on her bad side, and you definitely don't want to try to control her.
One of her former lovers has gotten on her bad side, and she wants revenge. Monsieur Gercourt, who broke off their short affair, plans to marry Cécile, the daughter of Madame de Volanges. He's away with the military, however, unknowingly giving time to the Marquise to plan her revenge. The engagement gives her the opportunity she needs.
She writes to another one of her former lovers, the Vicomte de Valmont, asking him to seduce the young Cécile. She wants Gercourt's bride to be less than innocent and pure when they're married. Valmont, however, has his own game of seduction underway at the moment. He intends to win the heart of Madame de Tourvel, a virtuous married woman currently staying with his aunt while her husband's away on business. The challenge of ruining a woman with principles appeals to his twisted and inflated sense of self.
He eventually agrees to help the Marquise with her revenge, on the condition that she has sex with him again. The Marquise accepts on the condition that Valmont succeed in making Madame de Tourvel fall in love with him. This double seduction forms the main thread of the story.
Cécile has her own crush to worry about, and it's not her future husband. She's in love with her music teacher, the Chevalier Danceny. Their love is forbidden because of their social class differences (she's rich and he's not), so they have to write and pass letters to one another in secret. Valmont makes himself available to "help" the young couple, then uses the knowledge he's gained to coerce Cécile into having sex with him.
Madame de Tourvel, for her part, befriends Valmont and tries to convert him from his depraved ways. He goes along with this fake turn to religious piety and confesses his love to her. Being a faithful married woman, she's scandalized and asks him to leave. He continues the plan with letters, slowing playing with her feelings, her sense of morals, and her faith. In time, she falls for him, but she won't sleep with him. Not until he threatens suicide does she give in.
The Marquise isn't impressed. She accuses Valmont of being in love with Madame de Tourvel, and tells him he has to leave Madame de Tourvel if he wants her. In obedience to the Marquise, Valmont abruptly leaves Madame de Tourvel in the lurch, but the Marquise still won't have him.
So they go to war. The Marquise tells Danceny that Valmont has slept with Cécile, and Danceny challenges the Vicomte to a duel. Valmont's mortally wounded, but makes peace with Danceny, giving him the incriminating letters he has from the Marquise. With these letters, Danceny takes revenge on the Marquise, making public the details of all her dastardly schemes. Cast out of society, she flees Paris and contracts a terrible and disfiguring case of smallpox. Madame de Tourvel, in despair about the Vicomte, becomes ill and dies. Cécile goes off to the convent, her mother's devastated, and Danceny goes to Malta to become a celibate knight.
All's well that ends…wait. Does anybody get a happy ending?
Marquise: wife of a Marquis, a nobleman not quite as important as a Duc, but better than a Comte.
Présidente: wife of a Président, a head of a parliamentary court
Maréchale: wife of a Maréchal, a high-ranking military officer
(Are we noticing a trend here?)
Vicomte: A "deputy count"; a lower-level aristocrat than a Comte. If Vicomte Valmont was married, she'd be called—you guessed it—Vicomtesse.
Chevalier: the lowest order of French nobility, often someone who's a member of an order of knights.