Henri II of France died in 1559, at the age of forty. He was celebrating the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis. That conflict had lasted 65 years, but peace had come. When he was dying, Henri II made sure his sister Marguerite, Duchess of Berry, married Emmanuel Philibert, Duc de Savoy.
However, the Dauphin, the heir to the throne of France, was sixteen-year-old François II who died of otitis at the age of sixteen. Charles IX who succeeded him was ten years old. Members of the Guise family took over and fought Huguenots bitterly until the end of the 16th century. Madame de La Fayette’s Princesse de Clèves takes place in 1559 and she simply alludes to the events that followed the death of Henri II.
The first paragraphs of Part Four of La Princesse de Clèves reveal that members of the Guise family, who were enemies of the Huguenots, took over the government of France and were its absolute masters. The Cardinal the Lorraine is a Guise.
Le cardinal de Lorraine s’était rendu maître absolu de l’esprit de la reine mère : le vidame de Chartres n’avait plus aucune part dans ses bonnes grâces (…) Enfin, la cour changea entièrement de face. Le duc de Guise prit le même rang que les princes du sang à porter le manteau du roi aux cérémonies des funérailles. (ebooksgratuits.com, p. 63).
[The Queen-mother (Catherine de’ Medici) was now wholly governed by the cardinal of Loraine; the viscount de Chartres had no interest with her (…) In a word, the complexion of the court was entirely changed; the duke of Guise took the same rank as the princes of the blood, in carrying the king’s mantle at the funeral ceremonies…]
In 1572, Protestants were massacred on St Bartholomew’s Day, in the night of 23-24 August. Newly-wed Marguerite, Dumas père‘s Reine Margot, protected her husband, the future Henri IV of France. The scene is portrayed above, in a painting by Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard.
L’AVEU: THE CONFESSION
As for our Princess, she has told her husband that she is in love with another man, an episode known as l’aveu. L’aveu follows the letter episode, or the episode in which the Princess learns the pain betrayal can inflict. Moreover, the Duc de Nemours has foolishly told the Vidame de Chartres about her confession. Could the Vidame be trusted? The Queen, Catherine de Médicis, wanted a confident and would choose the Vidame de Chartres, if after two days he could swear he had no galanteries, affairs. He 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.
(le Vidame de Chartres à Catherine de’ Medici, 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.]
(the Vidame de Chartres to Catherine de’ Medici Wikisource .) (Part Two)
The letter the Princess reads was addressed to him, the Vidame, not to the Duc de Nemours. The letter and l’aveu, the confession, are central to the plot of the Princesse de Clèves. Not that there is much of a plot, but 1) the Prince meets and marries the Princess, 2) she falls in love with the Duc de Nemours, 3) she reads a letter that awakens what she calls jalousie, and 4) she tells her husband that she is in love. But the letter (3) and, above all, l’aveu 4) (ebooksgratuits.com, p. 49) constitute La Princesse de Clèves‘s dominant episodes as a psychological novel.
The letter episode had taught Mme de Clèves the pain betrayal could provoke, which she had not experienced before:
Elle avait ignoré jusqu’alors les inquiétudes mortelles de la défiance et de la jalousie,” (ebooksgratuits, p. 47).
[Never till then was she acquainted with the dreadful inquietudes that flow from jealousy and distrust…] (Wikisource ).
Madame de Clèves has not engaged in a galanterie. She has in fact avoided the Duc de Nemours. However, telling her husband that she loves another man burdens him with the inquiétudes mortelles, the letter episode inflicted on her. Monsieur de Clèves knows he has a rival and he wants to know who is the man his wife loves:
Et qui est−il, Madame, cet homme heureux qui vous donne cette crainte ? Depuis quand vous plaît−il ? Qu’a−t−il fait pour vous plaire ? Quel chemin a−t−il trouvé pour aller à votre coeur ? Je m’étais consolé en quelque sorte de ne l’avoir pas touché par la pensée qu’il était incapable de l’être. Cependant un autre fait ce que je n’ai pu faire. J’ai tout ensemble la jalousie d’un mari et celle d’un amant ; mais il est impossible d’avoir celle d’un mari après un procédé comme le vôtre.
(ebooksgratuits, pp. 49-50).
[… and who is he, madam, this happy man that gives you such apprehensions? How long has he charmed you? What has he done to charm you? What has he done to charm you? What method has he taken to get into your heart? When I could not gain your affections myself, it was some comfort to me to think, that no other could; in the mean time, another has effected what I could not; and I have, at once the jealousy of a husband and lover. But it is impossible for me to retain that of a husband after such a proceeding on your part…
Looking back on her confesson, the Princess is of two minds. She has been sincere, but she also believes that she has taken away from herself the love and esteem of her husband:
Elle trouva qu’elle s’était ôté elle−même le cœur et l’estime de son mari, et qu’elle s’était creusé un abîme dont elle ne sortirait jamais. Elle se demandait pourquoi elle avait fait une chose si hasardeuse, et elle trouvait qu’elle s’y était engagée sans en avoir presque eu le dessein.
(ebooksgratuits, p. 51).
[She found she had deprived herself of the heart and esteem of her husband, and was involved in a labyrinth she should never get out of; she asked herself why she had ventured on so dangerous a step, and perceived she was engaged in it almost without having designed it…]
At first, Monsieur de Clèves admires his wife’s sincerity:
Je n’ai nulle inquiétude de votre conduite, lui dit-il ; vous avez plus de forces et plus de vertu que vous ne pensez. Ce n’est point aussi la crainte de l’avenir qui m’afflige. Je ne suis affligé que de vous voir pour un autre des sentiments que je n’ai pu vous donner.
(Le Prince de Clèves à la Princesse de Clèves, ebooksgratuits.com, p. 53).
[I am not alarmed as to your conduct, said he, you have more strength and virtue than you imagine; I am not alarmed with fears of what may happen hereafter; what troubles me is that I see you have those sentiments for another which you want for me.]
(The Prince to the Princess, Wikisource ).
However, he will be alarmed. Having learned that the Duc de Nemours was seen in the garden at Colomiers, the Prince refuses to hear the gentleman’s report in its entirety. The Duc de Nemours was seen, which, in the Prince’s eyes, is proof his wife has committed adultery. L’aveu has affinities with “noise” in the information theory. It conditions information and behaviour and may thwart the truth. Yet, the Prince presses his wife to reveal the name of the person she loves.
Yet, Monsieur de Clèves has no proof that his wife was unfaithful. The gentleman who followed the Duke has nothing to report. L’aveu suffices.
Je n’ai rien à vous apprendre, répondit le gentilhomme, sur quoi on puisse faire de jugement assuré. Il est vrai que monsieur de Nemours a entré deux nuits de suite dans le jardin de la forêt, et qu’il a été le jour d’après à Coulommiers avec madame de Mercœur.
(ebooksgratuits.com), p. 70).
[I can acquaint you with nothing, said the gentleman, upon which one can form any certain judgment; it is true, the duke de Nemours went two nights successively into the garden in the forest; and the day after, he was at Colomiers with the duchess of Mercœur.]
Later, the Prince will even wish the Princess had never told him that she loved another man. Would that he had been treated like other husbands. Appearances are deceptive.
Que ne me laissiez−vous dans cet aveuglement tranquille dont jouissent tant de maris ? J’eusse, peut−être, ignoré toute ma vie que vous aimiez monsieur de Nemours. Je mourrai, ajouta−t−il ; mais sachez que vous me rendez la mort agréable, et qu’après m’avoir ôté l’estime et la tendresse que j’avais pour vous, la vie me ferait horreur.
(Le Prince de Clèves à la Princesse de Clèves, ebooksgratuits.com, p. 71)
[Why did not you leave me in that blind tranquillity which so many husbands enjoy? I should perhaps, have been ignorant all my life that you [were] in love with monsieur de Nemours; I shall die, added he, but know, that you make death pleasing to me, and that, after you have taken from me the esteem and affection I had for you, life would be odious to me. What should I live for?]
(The Prince of Cleves to the Princess of Cleves, Wikisource ). (Part Four)
Appearances are deceptive, but Madame de Lafayette seems to upend what the Princesse’s mother taught her. The Duke has told about a woman who confessed to her husband that she loved another man, but a fable can be used to correct matters. All appearances are deceptive.
Il [le Prince] alla trouver madame de Clèves, et lui dit qu’il ne s’agissait pas de démêler entre eux qui avait manqué au secret ; mais qu’il s’agissait de faire voir que l’histoire que l’on avait contée était une fable où elle n’avait aucune part…
(ebooksgratuits, p. 58).
[He went to his wife, and told her, that what they had to do was not to debate between themselves who had discovered the secret; but to make it appear, that the story which was got abroad, was a business in which she had no concern…]
The Princess denies having spent two nights with the Duke de Nemours at Coulommiers (Colomiers). She has proof that she has not committed the “crime” her husband believes she has committed, but it is too late. He will not live. Her only “crime,” is to have fallen in love with a man other than her husband, before marrying. Why did she not love the Prince de Clèves, instead of the Duke of Nemours?
Destiny willed that she marry before knowing love. But she did not reap the happiness love should have brought her.
After her husband’s death, Madame de Clèves is free to marry, except that her behaviour is consistent with her mother’s teaching. L’aveu was nearly pried out of her, but the Duc de Nemours himself is sorry she told Monsieur de Clèves that she loved another man. He also bemoans her letting him know she loved him.
Tout ce que je puis vous apprendre, Madame, c’est que j’ai souhaité ardemment que vous n’eussiez pas avoué à monsieur de Clèves ce que vous me cachiez, et que vous lui eussiez caché ce que vous m’eussiez laissé voir. (ebooksgratuits, p. 76).
[… all I can tell you, madam, is, that I heartily wished you had not acknowledged to monsieur de Clèves what you concealed from me, and that you had concealed from him what you made appear to me.](Wikisource ).
But to what extent is she guilty? The Duke overheard l’aveu and he tried to see the Princess. La Princesse de Clèves resembles Jean Racine‘s Phèdre. Destiny rules and never did the princess’s love bring her happiness. Besides, she cannot marry the Duc de Nemours. Monsieur de Clèves has died, but the letter episode has taught her that if love is reciprocated love dies. She thought the Duke loved her, which was not true.
An unkind destiny willed that the Princess marry before knowing love and a similar destiny also willed that the Prince of Clèves refuse to hear a full account of the two nights the Duke of Nemours was in the garden. He will not allow the gentleman who followed the Duke de Nemours to provide a full account of the two nights the Duke of Nemours was in the garden. For her part, the Princess, who is now “free,” will not marry the Duke. She will tell him once, just once, that she loves him.
Je crois devoir à votre attachement la faible récompense de ne vous cacher aucun de mes sentiments, et de vous les laisser voir tels qu’il sont. Ce sera apparemment la seule fois de ma vie que je donnerai la crois devoir à votre attachement la faible récompense de ne vous cacher aucun de mes sentiments, et de vous les laisser voir tels qu’ils sont. Ce sera apparemment la seule fois de ma vie que je me donnerai la liberté de vous les faire paraître ; néanmoins je ne saurais vous avouer, sans honte, que la certitude de n’être plus aimée de vous, comme je le suis, me paraît un si horrible malheur, que, quand je n’aurais point des raisons de devoir insurmontables, je doute si je pourrais me résoudre à m’exposer à ce malheur.
(ebooksgratuits, p. 78).
[I think I owe the affection you have for me, the poor recompence not to hide from you any of my thoughts, and to let you see them such as they really are; this, in all probability will be the only time I shall allow myself the freedom to discover them to you; and I cannot confess without a blush, that the certainty of not being loved by you, as I am, appears to me so dreadful a misfortune, that if I had not invincible reasons grounded on my duty, I could not resolve to subject myself to it… ]
She couldn’t tell: l’aveu. Love dies if is reciprocated.
Love to everyone 💕
 We have three Marguerites. Marguerite de Valois-Angoulême, the author of l’Heptaméron, was an aunt to Henri II. Marguerite de Valois, Duchesse de Berry, was Henri II’s sister. Marguerite de Valois, Dumas père‘s Reine Margot, was Henri II’s daughter.
© Micheline Walker
23 January 2021