*Note: Some of the biographical information about Bretonne contained in this article is from The Literary Encyclopedia
Although Nicolas Restif de La Bretonne began writing Pleasures and Follies of a Good-Natured Libertine in 1793, he did not print it until 1798. Bretonne was a printer by trade, and he wrote and printed more than two hundred works of his own, most having nothing to do with erotica. He was partly inspired to write Pleasures and Follies of a Good-Natured Libertine as an attack on and a reply to De Sade, who had written the novel Justine in 1791.
Pleasures And Follies was never publically published in Bretonne’s lifetime. He privately produced fewer than a dozen copies of the book. A great deal of the novel is concerned with the sexual relationship between a girl and her father. And it is based partly on fact, because Bretonne had an incestuous relationship with one of his daughters in 1788 when he was still married at age fifty-four and his daughter was twenty-seven. So in a real sense, Pleasures And Follies is a novelization of Bretonne’s own life and sexual adventures, and he drew on episodes of his own life for the novel.
In a general sense, Bretonne wanted to show in Pleasures And Follies, in opposition to De Sade, that sensuality, in both male and female, is good and positive. He was the first writer to fully develop a female character and depict her as enjoying sex, and to describe fully the woman’s perception of sex in general and the sex act in particular. This is part of the reason why Bretonne can be called the father of modern erotic literature.
Indeed, an argument could be made that Bretonne was the first literary “realist,” and that he invented the personal novel, Rousseau notwithstanding. He was both an acute observer of the world around him, and equally perceptive in the examination of his own thoughts and feelings. He was both a social realist and a sexual fantasist in his writing. He represents a bridge between the classical and the modern—at least in the genre of erotic literature.
Bretonne’s perspective and style of writing was revolutionary. Nothing like Bretonne’s writing had ever been read before—in any genre.
What is fascinating to me is that Bretonne is virtually unknown today. But it was he who laid the foundation for the modern genre of erotic literature. With Bretonne, erotic literature gained the form we recognize today. And he did it in 1793 with the novel Pleasures and Follies of a Good-Natured Libertine.