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Madame de La Fayette,
gravure de 1840 d’après Desrochers.

We know the immediate historical background of the Princesse de Clèves, and I have suggested intertextuality. Marguerite de Navarre’s L’Heptaméron features intrigues and disloyalty at court. But the discourse on love takes us back to the ancient Roman poet Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, and it may have antecedents such as extremely distant fairytales. These will be refined in seventeenth-century French salons. Charles Perrault’s Tales of Mother Goose are “re-told” tales.

However, let us return to our narrative. The Princess of Cleves and the Duc de Nemours have fallen in love. It is the coup de foudre, or love at first sight, à première vue. In Jansenist France, this is l’amour fatal, as fatal as Tristan’s love for Iseult and Iseult’s love for Tristan, but without recourse to a magical potion. They have seen one another and fallen in love. But the Princess of Clèves has married and she has been taught loyalty to one’s husband. A liaison with the Duc de Nemours would be illicit. Therefore, she must suppress and hide her feelings, which is not possible.

The Mareschal de St. André’s Second Ball

The mareschal de St. André’s will host a second ball which the Princess is expected to attend. However, after hearing that the Duc de Nemours would not want his mistress to attend a ball he is not hosting, she feigns illness not to attend the ball. She has betrayed herself.  

Vous voilà si belle, lui dit madame la dauphine, que je ne saurais croire que vous ayez été malade. Je pense que monsieur le prince de Condé, en vous contant l’avis de Nemours sur le bal, vous a persuadée que vous feriez une faveur au maréchal de Saint-André d’aller chez lui que vous feriez une faveur au maréchal de Saint-André d’aller chez lui, et que c’est ce qui vous a empêchée d’y venir. Madame de Clèves rougit de ce que madame la dauphine devinait si juste, et de ce qu’elle disait devant monsieur de Nemours ce qu’elle avait deviné. (ebooks, p. 19)
[You look so pretty, says the Queen-Dauphin to her, that I can’t believe you have been ill; I think the Prince of Conde when he told us the duke de Nemours’s opinion of the ball, persuaded you, that to go there would be doing a favour to the mareschal de St. André, and that that’s the reason which hindered you from going, Madam de Cleves blushed, both because the [Q]ueen-[D]auphin (Marie Stuart), had conjectured right, and because she spoke her conjecture in the presence of the Duke de Nemours.] (Wikisource [31])

Madame de Chartres has accompanied her daughter and vows that the Princess was genuinely ill, but le Duc de Nemours is not convinced. Madame de Clèves has behaved the way he wants his mistress to behave. Besides, Madame de Clèves blushes in the presence of the Duc. As she is dying, Madame de Chartres tells the Princess of Clèves that she is “sur le bord du précipice” (ebooks, p. 21), “on the brink of a precipice.” (Wikisource [35-36])

Mademoiselle de Chartres is so beautiful that when she arrives at court she appears as in the word “apparition.”

Il parut alors une beauté à la cour, qui attira les yeux de tout le monde, et l’on doit croire que c’était un beauté parfaite, puisqu’elle donna de l’admiration dans un lieu où l’on était si accoutumé à voir de belles personnes. Elle était de la même maison que le vidame de Chartres, et une des plus grandes héritières de France.
(ebooksgratuits, p. 7)
[There appeared at this time a lady at Court, who drew the eyes of the whole world; and one may imagine she was a perfect beauty, to gain admiration in a place where there were so many fine women; she was of the same family with the Viscount of Chartres, and one of the greatest heiresses of France, (…)]
(Wikisource [8])

As for the Duc de Nemours, he is described as “perfection” itself. Therefore, a worried Madame de Chartres tells her daughter that he Duke of Nemours is incapable of falling in love.

Elle se mit un jour à parler de lui ; elle lui en dit du bien, et y mêla beaucoup de louanges empoisonnées sur la sagesse qu’il avait d’être incapable de devenir amoureux, et sur ce qu’il ne se faisait qu’un plaisir, et non pas un attachement sérieux du commerce des femmes. (ebooksgratuits, p. 20)
[One day she set herself to talk about him, and a great deal of good she said of him, but mixed with it abundance of sham praises, as the prudence he showed in never falling in love, and how wise he was to make the affair of women and love an amusement instead of a serious business.] (Wikisource [32])

The Death of Madame de Chartres

After her mother dies, the princess of Clèves leaves court. Given that she is mourning her mother, her absence is motivated. The Prince of Clèves returns to “faire sa cour,” but should his wife delay her return to Paris, suspicion would arise. Many of the denizens of Henri II’s court may discover why the Duc de Nemours no longer behaves as he did. The Duke is expected to marry Elizabeth Ist of England, and the time has come for him to meet Elizabeth in person or face her scorn. The Court speculates that he is in love, but no one can tell whom he so loves that he would lose interest in marriage to Elizabeth. Marie Stuart, the Queen-Dauphin, cannot wait to tell her friend, the princesse de Clèves.

No, the Queen-Dauphin cannot wait:

Dès le même soir qu’elle fut arrivée, madame la dauphine la vint voir, et après lui avoir témoigné la part qu’elle avait prise à son affliction, elle lui dit que, pour la détourner de ces tristes pensées, elle voulait l’instruire de tout ce qui s’était passé à la cour en son absence ; elle lui conta ensuite plusieurs choses particulières. — Mais ce que j’ai le plus d’envie de vous apprendre, ajouta−t−elle, c’est qu’il est certain que monsieur de Nemours est passionnément amoureux, et que ses amis les plus intimes, non seulement ne sont point dans sa confidence, mais qu’ils ne peuvent deviner qui est la personne qu’il aime. Cependant cet amour est assez fort pour lui faire négliger ou abandonner, pour mieux dire, les espérances d’une couronne. (ebooks, p. 29)
[The evening of her arrival the queen-dauphin made her a visit, and after having condoled with her, told her that in order to divert her from melancholy thoughts, she would let her know all that had passed at court in her absence; upon which she related to her a great many extraordinary things; but what I have the greatest desire to inform you of, added she, is that it is certain the duke de Nemours is passionately in love; and that his most intimate friends are not only not entrusted in it, but can’t so much as guess who the person is he is in love with; nevertheless this passion of his is so strong as to make him neglect, or to speak more properly, abandon the hopes of a crown.] (Wikisource [48])

L’Amour fatal: Two Moral Compasses

Madame de Clèves is perturbed. Who is this woman who would make the Duke de Nemours abandon his marriage with Elizabeth 1st of England? If she, the Princess of Cleves, is the cause of such changes in the Duc de Nemours, he is “in love,” l’amour fatal. But although she is powerless, she feels guilty. She has been raised by a virtuous mother, but at court liaisons are acceptable. Princes and princesses marry to perpetuate a lineage. Therefore, they may have liaisons. However, Madame de Clèves has been taught virtue. When she hears that the Duc de Nemours is no longer interested in marrying Elizabeth 1st of England, which is a huge sacrifice, the Princess feels extremely distressed. The Duc de Nemours has fallen in love and it is l’amour fatal, Tendre-sur-Inclination. The seventeenth century in France was largely Jansenist. One cannot choose; one is chosen: predestination. The Princess and the Prince are powerless.


Sources and Resources

La Princesse de Clèves is a Librivox and Internet Archive Publication FR.
La Princesse de Clèves is an ebooksgratuits.com 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.

Love to everyone 💕

Elizabeth I of England (rmg.co.uk)

© Micheline Walker
8 January 2021
revised 12 January 2021