La Princesse de Clèves

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La Princesse de Clèves is a French novel which was published anonymously in March 1678. It is regarded by many as the beginning of the modern tradition of the psychological novel, and as a great classic work. Its author is generally held to be Madame de La Fayette.

The action takes place between October 1558 and November 1559 at the royal court of Henry II of France. The novel recreates that era with remarkable precision. Nearly every character – except the heroine – is a historical figure. Events and intrigues unfold with great faithfulness to documentary record.

Plot summary[edit]

Mademoiselle de Chartres is a sheltered heiress, sixteen years old, whose mother has brought her to the court of Henri II to seek a husband with good financial and social prospects. When old jealousies against a kinsman spark intrigues against the young ingénue, the best marriage prospects withdraw. The young woman follows her mother's recommendation and accepts the overtures of a middling suitor, the Prince de Clèves. After the wedding, she meets the dashing Duke de Nemours. The two fall in love, yet do nothing to pursue their affections, limiting their contact to an occasional visit in the now-Princess of Clèves's salon. The duke becomes enmeshed in a scandal at court that leads the Princess to believe he has been unfaithful in his affections. A letter from a spurned mistress to her paramour is discovered in the dressing room at one of the estates—a letter actually written to the Princess' uncle, the Vidame de Chartres, who has also become entangled in a relationship with the Queen. He begs the Duke de Nemours to claim ownership of the letter, which ends up in the Princess' possession. The duke has to produce documents from the Vidame to convince the Princess that his heart has been true. Eventually, the Prince de Clèves discerns that his wife is in love with another man. She confesses as much. He relentlessly quizzes her—indeed tricks her—until she reveals the man's identity. After he sends a servant to spy on the Duke de Nemours, the Prince de Clèves believes that his wife has been unfaithful in more than just her emotions. He becomes ill and dies (either of his illness or of a broken heart). On his deathbed, he blames the Duke de Nemours for his suffering and begs the Princess not to marry him. Now free to pursue her passions, the Princess is torn between her duty and her love. The duke pursues her more openly, but she rejects him, choosing instead to enter a convent for part of each year. After several years, the duke's love for her does finally fade, and she, still relatively young, passes away in obscurity.

Characters[edit]

  • Mademoiselle de Chartres/Madame de Clèves - The Princess around whom the story is told. The daughter of Madame de Chartres and the niece of the Vidame de Chartres, she struggles throughout the novel with her duty as a wife to Monsieur de Clèves and her untimely love for the Duke de Nemours.
  • Madame de Chartres - The mother of the Princess of Clèves. She supports the marriage between her daughter and Monsieur de Clèves and warns her daughter against loving the Duke de Nemours. Her death marks a turning point for the princess as she struggles with her love.
  • Monsieur de Clèves - The husband of the Princess de Clèves. He is described in the novel as having "prudence rare in the young” and, although lacking in exciting characteristics in comparison with the Duke de Nemours, has financial and social stability in the court. These characteristics make Monsieur de Clèves an attractive suitor in the eyes of Madame de Chartres, the mother of the Princess. Although the Princess is never truly in love with him, Monsieur de Clèves is madly in love with the Princess, which ultimately leads to his despair after finding out about the Duke de Nemours.
  • The Duke de Nemours - The dashing "chef d’oeuvre de la nature" with whom the Princess de Clèves falls madly in love. His own obsession with the Princess drives him to take many advances, despite the fact that she is already married to Monsieur de Clèves. (The historical Duke at the time of Henri II was Jacques of Savoy, 2nd Duke of Nemours.)
  • The King Henri II - The King of France. This character is believed to be a representation of King Louis XIV.
  • Chevalier de Guise - A young knight who is madly in love with the Princess de Clèves.
  • Madame de Tournon - A lady of the court who manages to have an affair with two men, Estouteville and the Count de Sancerre.
  • Vidame de Chartres - The uncle of the Princess de Clèves and a friend of the Duke de Nemours. The Duke often uses the Vidame as a way to his niece, the Princess, and in one case, takes blame for a letter that had fallen from the Vidame's pocket in order to secure his good grace.

Contemporary reception[edit]

The novel was an enormous commercial success at the time of its publication, and would-be readers outside of Paris had to wait months to receive copies. The novel also sparked several public debates, including one about its authorship, and another about the wisdom of the Princess' decision to confess her adulterous feelings to her husband.

One of the earliest psychological novels, and also the first roman d'analyse (analysis novel), La Princesse de Clèves marked a major turning point in the history of the novel, which to that point had largely been used to tell romances, implausible stories of heroes overcoming odds to find a happy marriage, with myriad subplots and running ten to twelve volumes. La Princesse de Clèves turned that on its head with a highly realistic plot, introspective language that explored the characters' inner thoughts and emotions, and few but important subplots concerning the lives of other nobles.

In popular culture[edit]

Beginning in 2006, before he became the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy had made some negative comments about the book, arguing that it was ridiculous that civil service entrance exams had included questions on La Princesse de Clèves. His comments were interpreted as an indication of his opinion that universities should prepare people for life in business, and not "waste" time with such things as literature. As a result, during the long movement of university lecturers in 2009 against his proposals, public readings of La Princesse de Clèves were held in towns around the country. Sales of the novel rose rapidly.[1]

In relation to this, the novel is used by French filmmaker Christophe Honoré for his 2008 film La Belle Personne. The plot of the film roughly follows that of the novel, but changes the setting to that of a modern-day French lycée (high school), thus referencing both the novel and the reason for its contemporary fame.

The novel was also the basis of Jean Delannoy's 1961 film of the same title (adapted by Jean Cocteau), Manoel de Oliveira's 1999 film The Letter, and Andrzej Żuławski's 2000 film Fidelity (starring Sophie Marceau).

The novel is the basis of Regis Sauder's 2011 film Nous, princesses de Clèves, in which teenagers in an inner city school are studying the novel for their Baccalaureate exam.

The novel was dramatised as a radio play directed by Kirsty Williams broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 28 February 2010 – see La Princesse de Clèves (radio play).[2]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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