The Princess of Clèves – Madame de Lafayette

Book #990

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

Welcome to the convoluted and twisted world of the French court in the time of Henri II, perhaps a man as well known for his wife, Catherine de Medici or his mistress, Diane de Poitiers.    It will help you to understand who is whom in the royal families of France, Spain and Scotland; as well as some grip on the varying positions at the court of France.

When I began reading this small work, I thought it was going to be a tooth-pulling experience.  A great part of the starting section is dedicated to identifying who is allied with whom, related to whom and wanting to do down whom.  You must also get used to the convention (in my translation, at least) of Madame XYZ or rather M.XYZ rather than the title of the person being described.  This is not quite as awkward as it sounds, but does take a little thought at first.

Nearly all the characters mentioned, with the exception of the eponymous Princesse de Cleves, is a real historical figure.  And seriously, it seems like life at court was one great big soap opera.  Modern day television writers are sure to be well inspired by reading this.

So, the characters here are the Prince and Princess de Cleves, the Duc de Nemours, the King, the Queen, the Queen-Dauphine (later Mary, Queen of Scots – all of 16 at the time of the novel’s setting), the Duchess of Valentinois (Diane de Poitiers), the Vidame de Chartres and sundry other characters who move the story along.

It is principally a love story, with a moral twist.   The Princess (as Mademoiselle de Chartres) marries the Prince at about the age of sixteen when her mother brings her to court to find a good husband (position and wealth).  Unfortunately for the young woman, after she is married she gets to meet the charming, witty, handsome and accomplished Duc de Nemours.  They fall in love and the story follows their rather crooked path.

It is, apparently, France’s first historical novel and is considered to be one of the earliest psychological novels.  We are certainly treated to a lot of what goes through the Princess’ mind regarding her conflicting feelings of love for the Duc and respect for her husband.  The internal struggle of goodness and morality over love and passion pretty much sum up the majority of the novel.

Despite its age, and perhaps the age of my translation (by Nancy Mitford), it was a remarkably easy read.  I did find the moral question plaguing the Princess to be somewhat overdone, after all there was description after description of the affairs going on around the love triangle.  If anything it feels as though she was aiming to be the exception to the rule.  And it is only after reading the novel and reminding yourself of the realities of the time does it occur to you that Madame de Lafayette is ostensibly describing the life of a sixteen year old.  That realisation is quite an eye-opener, rather than the young woman’s struggle to maintain her set of morals in the face of high passion.

I can’t, in good conscience, suggest that you should head out and get a copy.  However, it is not overly difficult and would probably be of interest if you understand the historical periods it is set in (and written in) or generally enjoy historical novels.

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