La Princesse de Clèves, by Madame de Lafayette

La Princesse de Cleves 1678

La Princesse de Cleves 1678 edition

One of the finest literary works ever written in French is a historical novel, La Princesse de Clèves, published in 1678. I first read it in high school, because it was part of the curriculum. Truth be told, I found the Princesse rather dry and uninspiring at the time.

And then one night, many years later, I flew to France from California and was suffering from a bad case of jetlag. I rose and went to the bookshelves in my aunt and uncle’s home, searching for something to while away the hours that still separated me from daylight. I happened upon La Princesse de Clèves, and began reading.

And I was amazed! I was a grown woman now and I found the story of the heroine heartbreaking.

The plot is very simple: a young noblewoman, Mademoiselle de Chartres, marries the Prince de Clèves, a man she esteems and respects but does not love. This is not a forced marriage as was all too often the case then, not even an arranged marriage.

Madame de Chartres, the heroine’s mother, is a caring parent, though she is also ambitious and wants the best possible match for her daughter. The husband, the Prince de Clèves, is a completely decent man, very much in love with his young bride.

What is tragic thing here is that the heroine does not even suspect that something is missing from her marriage. She is, in a way, happy in her naiveté.

Her peaceful universe collapses when she meets, and falls passionately in love with the dashing Duc de Nemours. She is torn between her passion and her high religious and moral standards.

I said earlier that Princess is a historical. It has all the makings of one. The setting is the French Court in the 16th century, during the final years of the reign of Henri II. The author lived 120 years later and thoroughly researched the era of the Renaissance.

Mary Stuart Mary Queen of Scotts Clouet

Mary Stuart Mary Queen of Scotts Clouet

The Princesse herself is fictional, but many historical characters appear in the novel: Queen Catherine de Medici, her fearsome rival, the King’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, and Mary Queen of Scots (pictured here.) Young Marie Stuart was then married to the Dauphin, future François II and was known as La Reine Dauphine. The intrigues and shifting alliances between the followers of these three powerful women form a complex web that surrounds the heroine.

I will simply translate the first sentence of the novel: “Magnificence and chivalry have never appeared in France with such brilliance as in the last years of the reign of Henri Second.”

You read the rest…

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20 Comments to “La Princesse de Clèves, by Madame de Lafayette”

  1. Dessie Octavia Vargas says:

    That sounds fascinating. I’m going to find it and read it!

  2. CATHERINE DELORS says:

    Please do let me know what you think of it, Dessie.

    I find it absolutely beautiful but, judging from the comments on Amazon, some modern readers do not share my admiration for this novel (some do, though, and it makes me happy!)

  3. I read this years ago in graduate school and definitely need to reread it again. I remember the professor touting it as the first “psychological novel,” or novel that explored the thoughts and emotional landscapes of the characters. Narrative fiction written before Lafayette’s novel depicted the unfolding of external events rather than the roil of internal conflicts.

    I will be quite interested to read Mme de Lafayette’s descriptions of Renaissance court life. Having lived only a hundred or so years later, I’m sure she must include many details that escape later writers.

    Thanks for reminding me of this wonderful book!

  4. CATHERINE DELORS says:

    Julianne – I agree with your professor about Princess being a trailblazer.
    I had such a different experience when I reread it as a grown woman. I wonder whether the same will happen to you.

  5. Danielle says:

    This sounds wonderful. I had to go and scan my bookshelves and found I actually own a copy. I’ve moved it up to the stack of books by my bed! I think sometimes contemporary readers aren’t willing to make an effort with books that are more challenging or perhaps a little slower going. Oftentimes it seems those are the best books, though.

  6. CATHERINE DELORS says:

    It’s a short book, but I think some readers may be turned off by the complexity of the Court intrigues. Not a problem for the author, who was herself part of the Court of Louis XIV.
    Wouldn’t it be fun if I did another post on The Princess de Cleves in a few weeks, and we all exchanged our impressions?

  7. Eva says:

    My library doesn’t have this one. :( But I’ll try to find a copy of it!

  8. Danielle says:

    I’d love that. I’ll try and work in reading my copy in the next couple of weeks. Mine only has 176 pages. I have a Penguin edition with a lovely cover–it is a detail from the Catherine de’ Medici tapestries in the Uffizi (and the people depicted look decidedly contemporary!). The blurb reads that this is the first French novel and already modern–it its depth of psychological analysis, its purity of language and classical simplicity of plot. Sounds good!

  9. CATHERINE DELORS says:

    It’s a deal then. Have a great read!

  10. I like the story very much. Even worked it into a larger point I was making here about the dubious benefits of honesty and confession – hopefully you won’t reject the analogy out of hand. Best wishes, Martin http://www.sexualfables.com/the_woman_in_the_bower.php#e

  11. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you for stopping by, Martin! No, I don’t reject out of hand an analogy between the Princess and a Muslim “silent majority.” It is an interesting one, though I am not convinced.

    I believe that the reasons for the Princess’s disclosure to her husband (“confession” in a Catholic context has a specific and entirely different meaning) are more complex than simply making a clean breast of the whole thing. Madame de Cleves is distraught over the loss of her mother and the moral guidance she would have provided had she lived longer. She is terrified of being overcome by the strength of her love for Nemours and hopes that her husband can help her in that regard. I believe it is a very touching token of her distress and a proof of the level of trust and respect she feels for her husband. Her disclosure is above all a dramatic plea for help.

    I browsed your site and saw that you mention the remarkable Christine de Pisan. Good for you! I will post about her shortly.

    I take issue, however, with your entry on Joan of Arc. Joan‘s virginity was indeed verified by matrons on two occasions: right after she met King Charles VII, and during her trial. Needless to say, if there had been any doubts about it, those would have been widely publicized and exploited by the King’s enemies. This also makes any doubts about Joan’s gender utterly preposterous. They simply reflect the discomfort some may feel at the idea of a woman in the role of military leader.

    Finally, virginity has never been a requirement for sainthood. Many saints, male and female, were not virgins. Saint Augustine comes to mind, of course. Also, one of the most popular female saints (and a favorite of mine) Saint Rita, was a mother and widow. So was Saint Monica, Augustine’s mother. Joan of Arc, in any case, was reportedly raped before her execution. She might not have died a virgin, though she certainly lived as one.

  12. Well, I don’t disagree with you on Joan of Arc really. But the entire chapter is tongue in cheek. It becomes more apparent by the time you get to Voltaire. My concern is that historical writing has become overly concerned with a welter of detail such that readers have lost sight of the central issues, especially (in this case) the symbolic and real power of virginity and the political wars over it. I don’t say this as a conservative (I’m not) so much as a bemused observer of today’s equivalent cultural wars. My Joan chapter strikes readers in a wide range of ways, which is my goal. So far as Madame de Cleves goes, again I was just teasing you in my ham-fisted way by alluding to confession. Cheers, Martin

  13. Catherine Delors says:

    Oh, it’s all right, I will have another post about the Princess de Cleves in a few weeks, and we’ll see what the blog readers think of your analogy. It is intriguing. My general issue about silent majorities, Muslim or otherwise, is their silence, which anyone can interpret in whatever way they like.

  14. Lauren says:

    If anyone is interested, you can read ‘Princesse de Clèves’ as a free e-book at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/467

    There is also a French translation with notes.

  15. Catherine Delors says:

    Indeed, Lauren, I should have mentioned Gutenberg. Thank you so much for repairing this omission. I will modify the post accordingly, in case readers don’t follow the comment trail.

    Gutenberg’s English translation is older, different from the one you get in print. The French version posted there is the original, not a translation, though.

  16. Tom says:

    I just finished it today. Boring at first, then repetitive (they keep repeating their actions when confronted with “love”), and then it got kind of interesting. It definitely shows both a naivety and a kind of wisdom of duty (restraint from love) on her part.. But good overall!

  17. Catherine Delors says:

    Glad you enjoyed it overall, Tom, and many thanks for sharing your impressions!

  18. Great overview. Your style of writing is really a joy to read.

  19. Penny says:

    Thank You, I just ordered the Penguin edition.
    I don’t know French history except for what you have taught
    me through the books you write and the ones you tell me about.

  20. dbe certification says:

    I enjoyed this book. It was kind of depressing to see someone marry a person that they are not in love with though.