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Madame de La Fayette (Wikipedia)

Madame de La Fayette, born Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, is the author of La Princesse de Clèves, published anonymously in 1678. Madame de La Fayette married an older gentleman, François Motier, Comte de La Fayette and bore him two sons. The Comte de La Fayette preferred to live at one of his country estates in Auvergne and the Bourbonnais, but Madame de La Fayette was born in Paris and remained her native city.

La Princesse de Clèves is Madame de La Fayette’s third novel. In 1662, she published La Princesse de Montpensier, anonymously, and is also believed to be the author of Zaïde which appeared under the name of Academician Jean Regnault de Segrais. Writing was not considered an appropriate occupation for a woman “of quality.” Yet, in Salons of the first half of the 17th century, love was forever discussed and writing was a favourite pastime.  

As we know, Mlle de Scudéry wrote lengthy novels, one of which, Clélie, histoire romaine, features the Carte de Tendre, a map of love engraved by François Chauveau. Tendre was Préciosité’s country of love. So, women wrote, but rank may have been problematical. Honnêteté was not necessarily aristocratic. At any rate, Madame de La Fayette’s teacher was Gilles Ménage, a grammarian.

Henry II of France, d’après François Clouet (Wikipedia)

Diane de Poitiers

A Historical Novel

  • the French Wars of Religion
  • the end of the House of Valois
  • the House of Bourbon will reign

The action of La Princesse de Clèves is set in 16th-century France, during the French Wars of Religion. It is considered a historical novel, a form of ailleurs (elsewhere), hence more fictional. We are at the court of Henri II, the second son of François 1er of France. François is married to Catherine de Médicis, but his mistress is Diane de Poitiers. Henri II died accidentally, jousting in 1559. His three sons would reign. Francis II reigned very briefly. He was King of France for a year and five months. He developed and ear abcess that killed him. He was sixteen and had reigned for about 17 months. Charles IX died of tuberculosis in 1574, and Henri III, King of Poland and King of France, who was assassinated, and had not produced a heir to the throne. The death of Henri II’s male children ended the House of Valois. Henri IV, King of Navarre and a Bourbon king, converted to Catholicism and became Henri IV, King of France and Navarre. He took an interest in New France and inspired Voltaire‘s Henriade. Henri IV is the father of Louis XIII.

Catherine de Médicis, her three sons, and Marguerite de Valois

A Psychological Novel

Madame de La Fayette’s Princesse de Clèves is also, and mainly, a psychological novel. There may have been a co-author, François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld. He and Madame de La Fayette met daily when she was writing her Princesse de Clèves. But François was writing his Maximes denouncing human behaviour which, in his opinion, was steeped in self-interest, including virtue. One suspects the influence of Jansenism, which suggests that if one cannot atone for the original sin during one’s life, one may expect a pitiless and eternal afterlife.  

Frontispice de La Princesse de Clèves de Mme de La Fayette, coll. Les Chefs-d’Œuvres illustrés, Éditions de la pléiade, J. Jiffrin 1929

La Princesse de Clèves was Madame de La Fayette’s third novel and it is about love, but love impossible. The main notion underlying Madame de La Fayette’s portrayal of love is that love is in no way possible if it is reciprocated. Madame de Clèves’ husband dies of jealousy. He loves her, but she does not love him. One therefore indulges in petits plaisirs.

Once Dom Juan has seduced a woman, he no longer loves her. If a father is killed avenging his daughter, God strikes.

Sources and Resources

La Princesse de Clèves is a Librivox and Internet Archive Publication FR
The Princess of Cleves is a Wikisource publication EN
La Princesse de Clèves is a Wikisource publication FR
La Princesse de Clèves is Gutenberg’s [eBook # 18797]FR
La Princesse de Clèves is Gutenberg’s [eBook # 467] EN
La Princesse de Clèves is a Librivox and Internet Archive Publication

© Micheline Walker
15 December 2020