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La Princesse de Clèves (Gallimard)

Main Characters

  • the Princess of Clèves.
  • Madame de Chartres, the Princess’s mother.
  • the Prince of Clèves, the Princess’s husband.
  • the Duke of Nemours, the man who falls in love with the Princess, illicit love.
  • the Vidame de Chartres who lies to Catherine de Médicis, the Queen.
  • Marie Stuart, the Princess’s friend and the future Queen of France.

Before her death, Madame de Chartres warns her daughter. Appearances are deceptive. This could be looked upon as a lieu commun, a common assumption. In his Pensées, Blaise Pascal also warns that we may be the victims of a deceitful environment. In other words, court is not as it appears. Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, Henri II’s mistress had been his father’s mistress. For the Princesse de Clèves, these dramas are very real. She and the Duc de Nemours have fallen in love. She knows therefore what kind of sentiments the Prince of Clèves expected of his wife.

Elle vit alors que les sentiments qu’elle avait pour lui étaient ceux que monsieur de Clèves lui avait tant demandés ; elle trouva combien il était honteux de les avoir pour un autre que pour un mari qui les méritait. (ebooks, p 20)
[…she then found, that the sentiments she had for him were such as the Prince of Cleves had required of her; she perceived how shameful it was to entertain them for another man, and not for a husband that deserved them …] Wikisource [32-33])

As we enter Part Two, the Prince of Clèves tells his wife about his friend Sancerre who fell in love with a widowed woman, whose feelings started to change. She had fallen in love with another man, Etouteville (Estouteville). This tale is a long digression on the topic of disloyalty and the pain that ensues. However, we must skip the details and return to La Princesse de Clèves’ main narrative. Madame de Clèves has returned to court, only to learn from the Queen Dauphin that the Duke of Nemours is in love, that he has not told anyone the name of the person he loves, but that his love is so powerful that he has lost interest in marrying Elizabeth of England.

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. (eBooksgratuits, p.28)
[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])

Her husband has spoken, so Madame de Clèves remains at Court, a prey to dangers. Court is hell because she is the woman the Duke loves to the point of losing interest in Elizabeth I of England. By the Duke’s standards, Madame de Clèves may be at fault. But what would life be if she gave in? Allow me to quote my former classmate and colleague, Dr Ellen Hunter-Chapco.

Madame de La Fayette invite son public lecteur à une remise en question du rôle de la femme mariée tel
tel qu’élaboré dans la littérature prescriptive des années 1630 et 1640, et, aussi, à une réflexion sur le décalage entre le statut officiel du mariage et les attentes des femmes de son époque.
[Madame de La Fayette invites her readers to reassess the role of the ill-wedded woman as it develops in the prescriptive literature of the 1630s and 1640s, and, also, to reflect on the discrepancy between the official status of marriage and the expectations of the women of her time.] [1]

See footnote [1]

The Letter

I must end this post. I will discuss l’aveu (the confession) in another post. Moreover, I have left out the tale of Ann Boylen, Elizabeth I of England’s mother. It is a digression and it is not. The letter episode is central. The Queen-Dauphin gives the Princess a letter which, reportedly, fell out of the Duke’s pocket after un jeu de paume, tennis. The letter has been written by a woman who has been betrayed. The grief that arises in the Princess’ mind is the worst of torment.

Jamais affliction n’a été si piquante et si vive : il lui semblait que ce qui faisait l’aigreur de cette affliction était ce qui s’était passé dans cette journée, et que, si monsieur de Nemours n’eût point eu lieu de croire qu’elle l’aimait, elle ne se fût pas souciée qu’il en eût aimé une autre. Mais elle se trompait elle−même ; et ce mal qu’elle trouvait si insupportable était la jalousie avec toutes les horreurs dont elle peut être accompagnée. Elle voyait par cette lettre que monsieur de Nemours avait une galanterie depuis longtemps. (eBooksgratuits, p.38)
[Never was affliction so cutting as hers; she imputed the piercingness of it to what had happened that day; and believed that if the duke de Nemours had not had ground to believe she loved him, she should not have cared whether he loved another or not: but she deceived herself; and this evil which she found so insupportable was jealousy, with all the horrors it can be accompanied with. This letter discovered to her a piece of gallantry the duke de Nemours had been long engaged in.] (Wikisource [68])

The following morning, the Duke goes to see the Princess. The letter did not fall out of his pocket. The letter was written to the Vidame de Chartres who has come to him because the Queen, Catherine de’ Medici, would like him to be her confidant if he is not engaged in a galanterie, an affair. Earlier, he has lied to the Queen.

C’est parce que je vous parle sincèrement, Madame, lui répondis−je, que je n’ai rien à vous dire ; et je jure à Votre Majesté, avec tout le respect que je lui dois, que je n’ai d’attachement pour aucune femme de la cour. (eBooksgratuits, p. 41)
[It is, madam, answered I, because I deal sincerely, that I have nothing more to say; and I swear to your majesty, with all the respect I owe you, that I have no engagement with any woman of the court.] (Wikisource [75])

Madame de Clèves will not speak with the Duke. She thinks that she has been betrayed. Consequently, the Duke of Nemours asks the Prince de Clèves to lead him to Madame de Clèves’ room. The Princess is so broken that she can barely believe the Duke is not the recipient of this letter. She has experienced jealousy and, by the same token, she has discovered that she loved. She and the Duke must rewrite the letter, so no one recognizes the handwriting. These are happy moments, but they cannot last.

_____________________________
[1] Homo narrativus – La cour et le cabinet : l’espace-femme dans La Princesse de Montpensier, La Princesse de Clèves et La Comtesse de Tende de Madame de La Fayette – Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée
(openedition.org)

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

© Micheline Walker
12 January 2021
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