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.”

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