1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die lists The Princess of Cleves by Marie-Madelaine Pioche de Lavergne, Comtesse de La Fayette (though it was published anonymously) as book number 12. I looked forward to this book and was very interested in finding a female writer and female main character from this time period (1678 is the publication date) because there are so few.
The editors describe the book as follows: “This profound story of forbidden love enflamed and then resisted until it dies an unnatural death takes place in the court of Henry II of France during the last years of his reign (c. 1558)” (36). 1001 Books goes on to write that this text “offer[s] the modern reader an experience of compelling narrative and emotional complexity” (36), which is why one should read it. It is also important, though, because it can claim to be the “first” in two areas. It is the first historical novel based upon true research and incorporating true events from the French Court of the mid-1500s. In fact, every character except the hero is supposed to be based on a historical figure during the real reign of Louis XIV. It is also supposed to be the first roman d’analyse (novel of analysis), including a skillful breakdown of emotions and attitudes. The roman d’analyses is the precursor to the modern psychological novel and was the primary mode of French fiction from this point until Romanticism took over (revelling in emotions). Instead of assuming that love is a great emotion and conquers all, the author presents love as difficult, complicated, and even fearsome.
The book focuses on Mademoiselle de Chartres, a sheltered 15-year old, who is presented at court to find a good husband. Unfortunately for her, rumors about her family abound and no good prospects are made. The young girl then marries a lesser candidate under her mother’s recommendation, the Prince of Cleves.
After her marriage, though, she falls in love with the Duc de Nemours, but she limits her visitation to an occasional moment in her salon so that she does not behavior inappropriately or act on that love. The Duc, though, is involved in a scandal at court, and the Princess believes he is unfaithful after finding a letter from a former mistress. She doesn’t know that the letter is really to the Duc’s uncle, the Vidame de Chartres, who has some kind of relationship with the Queen going on. (Confused yet?) The Princess won’t believe this until the Duc brings her a letter from his uncle to convince her that his love is hers.
In the meantime, though, the Prince of Cleves figures out that his young wife is in love with another man. She confesses, and then he hounds her to tell him who it is and eventually tricks her into revealing the Duc’s identity. The Prince sends spies to watch over the Duc, and believing his wife to be unfaithful, becomes sick and dies. As his dying wish, he asks the Princess not to marry the Duc.
The Princess is torn between that dying wish and her love who is pursuing her openly. She decides that she must reject him and chooses to enter a convent. Eventually, the Duc falls out of love and the Princess dies at a young age.
In contemporary times, the novel was evidently very popular. It regained a resurgence just last year, though, as public reading of it were held all over France. Evidently, the French President declared a need to education reform, citing the current system as “old and dusty” because civil services exams included questions on La Princesse de Clèves. Some took his comment to mean that university education should focus more on skills for business rather than teaching literature. University professors began rallying against this proposal with the public readings, and sales were huge. In addition, a film was made called La Belle Personne which was basically the story of the Princess of Cleves set in a modern-day high school.
I confess that I do not know the history of King Louis XIV’s court well enough to see the historical comparisons without a read along manual of some kind. And, the love interests and complications were extreme. But, the Princess herself has some interesting characteristics, defined mostly by her struggle choosing between duty and love.