Note to readers: You may choose to read this analysis of La Princesse de Clèves here or listen to it on the audio file at the end of the article.
While so many of us are confined to our homes, we thought that this would be the ideal time to discuss works of French literature that some of you may not have gotten around to reading. I’m going to start off the series by talking about a 17th-century novel, La Princesse de Clèves, which came out in 1678 and is generally believed to be by Madame de Lafayette, who was very much part of Louis XIV’s court and was a great friend of many prominent literary figures of the time, especially the celebrated writer of Maxims, François de La Rochefoucauld. There is even some evidence that he and Madame de Lafayette collaborated in the writing of La Princesse de Clèves.
The entire book is framed by the presence of the young princess in the 16th– (not 17th-) century French royal court of Henri II. At the beginning, she arrives, unmarried, with her widowed mother, Madame de Chartres, effectively on the market for a husband. Apart from the Princesse de Clèves herself, almost all the characters in the book are historical figures from the royal court of that time.
What makes La Princesse de Clèves so extraordinary – and it has been called the first psychological novel in France – is that we get to follow the inner workings of the princess’s mind. It’s fascinating to have a central female character whose thoughts and reactions we can explore as the narrative evolves. In this way, it differs from previous novels, which explored pastoral idylls or were set in ancient times or were parodies of these kinds of prose narratives, but which rarely took the reader into the mind and thoughts of the central character.
Another aspect of the book that makes it so interesting is its use of the classic theme of appearance versus reality. The first few pages of the novel present the many figures of the 16th-century court, with all its magnificence and all the intrigues that take place in it.
What is so brilliant about Lafayette’s writing is that everything is described in hyperbolic language. All the courtiers are described as the most beautiful people imaginable, all the passions that the characters experience are the greatest that one could possibly have.
At first, we think that this is an uncritical hymn of praise to the court, but slowly, as we continue reading, the glamour of both the language and the court gets stripped away, and we find ourselves looking beneath the surface. It’s such a clever device to have a young, innocent girl coming into the court who has been raised outside of it, since it allows us to see this extraordinary world through her eyes and to learn about all its codes and machinations.
Throughout the book, we find a number of tales being told to the princess by other people, and almost every story revolves around the duplicity of the courtiers and the affairs that are going on. One story is about a woman who is managing to juggle two lovers at once. The Duchesse de Valentinois (Diane de Poitiers), the king’s mistress, is the person who really holds the reins of power within the court, and yet that power relies entirely on the surface structures. The moment the king dies, she immediately loses all control.
The central paradox of the book is that the princess’s mother, Madame de Chartres, warns her daughter of the extreme dangers of the court and yet decides to introduce her to that same court. It is a world where extramarital affairs are expected and, above all, where marriages are political or financial arrangements, completely unrelated to love.
It is particularly telling that the first time the princess’s husband-to-be sets his eyes on her, it’s in a jewelry shop, as if she were a commodity to be bargained over and then possessed.
This man is described as being prudent – damning him with faint praise. He is clearly a decent man, but there is nothing remotely sexy about him. His decency will make him a very good husband in some ways. One of the tragedies of the book is that it’s about a man who actually does love his wife. However, into this glamorous court comes the most handsome man of all, who attracts everybody’s attention – the Duc de Nemours. We are told that many women fall in love with him, and he tends to discard them once he’s had them. And yet he is entranced by the princess because she does not immediately succumb to him.
There is a wonderful scene when they first set eyes on each other at a ball, and he leaps over chairs to reach her and dance with her. Quite unlike the first matter-of-fact meeting with her husband-to-be, here we have an encounter fizzing with erotic possibility.
We are allowed to follow the workings of the princess’s mind as she falls in love with Nemours, but she is constantly reminded of the fickleness and duplicity of court life and is torn between her attraction to the most glamorous man in the court and her moral duties as a wife.
I don’t want to reveal the ending, but it is fascinating to see how all the different characters respond. There is a terrible but also beautifully drawn scene in which the princess admits to her husband that she loves somebody else. The whole question, the whole tension in the book, hinges upon whether she will actually succumb to the Duc de Nemours’ charms. He remains interested in her quite possibly because she doesn’t give into him in the way that other women have. When both her mother and then her husband die, the path to a happy marriage with Nemours would seem to be open.
La Princesse de Clèves is not a long novel, but it beautifully captures the inner workings of a central female character’s mind, portraying a world that seems to be beautiful and perfect and yet gradually shows itself to be more complex than it seems. It’s also a book where you have everybody trying to decode what other people are thinking: everybody in the court knows that they are being watched by everybody else, and people control their actions and words in order to conceal their real feelings. But the true feelings of this young, innocent princess, who is torn between her moral obligations and her love, are often revealed by her inability to prevent herself from blushing, allowing others to discover what she is really thinking.
This is a deeply moving book that will stay with you for a long time, with an ending that is subtle and complex.
If you have good French, obviously I would recommend that you read it in the original French, but if you need to read it in translation, I would recommend Terence Cave’s translation (Oxford World Classics), which is accurate, flows very well and has an excellent introduction and useful footnotes.