The princesse de Clèves

by Madame de. La Fayette

Other authorsRobin Buss (Translator)
Paperback, 1992





London : Penguin, 1992.


Perhaps one of the greatest works of French literature is Madame de Lafayette's The Princess of Cleves, often described as the first of all "modern" novels. This classic translation, with an introduction, by the late English novelist and biographer Nancy Mitford, was first brought out in 1951 by New Directions. It is now made available as a New Directions Paperbook. Published in 1678 and written by Marie Madeleine Roche de la Vergne, Countess de Lafayette - a Parisian lady of fashion and great wit, who probably received help from her friend the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, author of the famous Maxims - it recreates with matchless vitality the lives and loves of the sixteenth-century courtiers of King Henry II of France. In her exquisite tapestry, we encounter such historic figures as Diane de Poitiers, the king's mistress; Catherine de Medicis, his queen; the doomed Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland. It tells the story of the consuming passion of the young Duc de Nemours for the beautiful wife of his friend the Prince of Cleves. Madame de Sevigne, the great letter writer and life-long friend of Madame de Lafayette, called Th e Princess of Cleves "one of the most charming things." It is still that - and it is also one of the truly great love stories of all literature. Book jacket.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member stacyinthecity
This book is arguably the beginning of the modern novel. It was written in the 17th century and takes place in the 16th century, so it is also the birth of historical fiction.

The book is about a young woman who grows up with a very strict code of honor. She goes to court and is married to Monsieur de Cleves, but shortly thereafter she ends up falling in love with the Duc de Nemours. He is in love with her too, but they do not yet fully realize each other's affections for each other. The Princess is terribly upset by her feelings and ends up in much inner turmoil over them.

The plot has few complications and the writing and dialog seem rather stilted. This is not a novel with a lot of action, and it does a lot of "telling" and not "showing," which got old after a while.

Still, I found it interesting to see how the modern novel began and the description of court life was fascinating.
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LibraryThing member Kristelh
Written in 1678, this novel can claim to be the first historical novel of the French court of the preceding century and it is also a novel of analysis examining emotions and attitudes. The primary object of the novel is morals but it avoids over simplification of judgments. Love in marriage was a novel idea. Marriage was for social status and mistresses were for love. This book is relatively short and addresses marriage, love and doing the honorable thing. The Princess of Cleves falls in love with a man not her husband, she confesses. Her husband even though he has said that a husband should understand these things becomes horribly jealous. He dies from the emotional disturbance. The princess feels unable to marry the man she loves because this love is the cause of her husband’s death. She dies pious and virtuous. I found the story interesting in looking at court behavior, ideas of love and marriage and that this early historical novel was written by a woman. It's a quick read.… (more)
LibraryThing member nmhale
I've had this book sitting on my shelf since a college Humanities course, and it tickled my fancy for a heavier holiday read. Once I began reading the introduction and some of the analytic essays, I discovered that this book is an acclaimed French classic, considered one of the forerunners of the novel genre. I really need to brush up on my French literature.

The story is about Mademoiselle de Chartres, who quickly becomes the Princess de Cleves when she marries Monsieur de Cleves, who is smitten with her at first sight. The lady is described as being a woman without equal, brilliant and virtuous. For her part, Madame de Cleves is not in love with her husband, though she appreciates his good qualities and considers him a noble person. She has never hidden these feelings, and although Monsieur de Cleves is dissatisfied with her feelings, he knows he is a lucky man for loving and marrying the woman of his dreams. This stable and content state of affairs may have continued for the duration of their lives, but fate intervenes; the Princess de Cleves meets Monsieur de Nemours for the first time several months after her marriage, and falls in love with him.

The story may begin like a medieval romance, with the star-crossed lovers meeting too late and tragically separated, but the plot takes a divergent course from there. Instead of making efforts to be with the man she loves, the Princess de Cleves
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LibraryThing member nielspeterqm
Classic & entirely superb early modern French novel, set a further century back, during the French renaissance. Despite very pronounced historical accuracy, the story is probably more revealing of the author's own times, or even of days soon to come - notably in its introspective, "psychological" approach to plot & characters.… (more)
LibraryThing member CBJames
he Princess of Cleves by Madame de Lafayette is a 350-year-old piece of historical fiction. Does that qualify as a sub-genre of sorts? Historical historical fiction?

Written in the 1670's by a member of the French court, The Princess of Cleves describes the romance between its title character and a man who is not her husband, set in the court of Henri II, some 100 years earlier. In her introduction, Ms. Mitford states that it is historically accurate based on what was known at the time, but can one ever fully trust a Mitford sister?

Nancy Mitford's own life is apparent in both Madame de Lafayette and her creation the Princess of Cleves. Both authors were part of a glittering social and literary set that did not include their husbands. Both wrote of love and lived lives rumored to be full of affairs. The Princess of Cleves is a woman both might pretend to admire to her face, though they had little in common with her.

The Princess of Cleves marries a man she does not love, though he passionately loves her. Soon after her marriage she meets a man who she falls in love with, as he does with her, though neither speak to each other, nor inform the other of their shared love until late in the novel. The Princess remains true to her wedding vow, chaste up to the end of her own life. Even after her husband dies, she refuses her lover's advances, preferring life in a convent where she can remain true to her husband repenting the fact that she did not love him and betrayed his love in spirit if not in deed.

Neither a 20th century woman like Nancy Mitford, nor an 17th century woman like Madame de Lafayette would ever consider doing such a thing.

So why did one write about it? The other feel compelled to translate it into English?

Perhaps someone more familiar with their biographies has a more definitive answer. I can only guess, and guessing would reveal more about me than it would about either woman. My Yale professor was fond of saying that while we read the tales, they also are reading us. But, I'll take that risk.

Image from Wikipedia
The Princess of Cleves is not about physical passion; the love it portrays is a spiritual one. But even this spiritual passion is one that must be resisted in order to stay true to one's self. If one is devoted to a higher cause or believes in the primacy of one's word, then love must sometimes be sacrificed, even spiritual love. Keep her vow is more important to The Princess of Cleves than even her own happiness. In our time, as it certainly was in Ms. Mitford's and probably in Madame de Lafayette's, sacrificing happiness for the sake of an ideal would be look upon as ludicrous. There are no children to consider in the novel, nor are there parents to take care of or disappoint. The Princess of Cleves clings to her ideal, simply because it is her ideal.

I'm not saying it's something I would do, just that it's something I admire. Maybe Ms. Mitford and Madame de Cleves did as well.

And I know that by saying so, I'm letting The Princess of Cleves read me when I should be reading it instead. I fall into that trap again and again.
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LibraryThing member readingrat
A 17th century historical fiction that is purported to be the first of its kind.
LibraryThing member Joshette
A classic to understand the birth of the antagonism : social laws / heart's desires in the novel... What a big issue! The birth of a new and intemporal literary form.
LibraryThing member MarysGirl
From the back

Published near the end of the seventeenth century, Madame de Lafayette's story is set a hundred years earlier, in the reign of Henri II. In her tale of an aristocratic love affair between the most beautiful and virtuous woman and the most chivalrous knight at court, she achieves a magnificent contrast between the shallow, self-seeking motives of the majority of the royal circle and the unselfish delicacy of the lovers.

My comments:

One of the 1001 Books You Should Read Before You Die, this is a fun read to see the style of writing from the late 1600's. Writing has certainly evolved! The story is simple - forbidden love in a royal court - and the consequences predictable.
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LibraryThing member David_Cain
During the seventeenth century, England was full of Puritans and France was filled with naughty people. However, The Princess of Cleves is a wonderful novel about the passions of not having an affair, while everyone else is. Strange and delightful.
LibraryThing member stillatim
The nice thing about reading early specimens of what later become modes or genres is watching the problems that people will keep dealing with come up and be solved with elegant simplicity. So here, Lafayette wants to distance her stories from the romance tradition, without getting rid of all the fun stuff about the romance tradition (e.g., the idea of chivalric love and the turmoil it causes). She does it very easily, by turning to history. Her characters are for the most part historical figures who played very important roles in sixteenth century geopolitics, which leads to bizarre moments in which some guy falls in love with some woman but needs to be removed from her immediate vicinity for plot reasons... so he gets sent to Spain to negotiate for the King. The romantic plot intersects with the historical plot in such a way that you can get all the frisson of a soap opera, while being constantly reminded that the crazy things people are driven to do by 'love' often have massive, world wide repercussions: a marriage to a Queen has to be put off because the suitor falls for another woman; this causes diplomatic strain, which leads back to war.

So Lafayette avoids the big problem of the twentieth century novel (the domestic novel is opium for the masses; political novels are often very dull) by writing quite stylishly about high political figures and their love affairs. The same solution isn't open to writers today, of course, since we (sadly?) no longer have courtly centers of power.

On the other hand, Lafayette solves a number of other problems with equal elegance. Her characters tell a number of stories that either explicitly or implicitly comment on the main narrative strand, so she can have variety without disunity.

And she writes about the sixteenth century court from the perspective of the seventeenth century court, and so she can use each time period to comment on the other (e.g., using seventeenth century forms of speech), while also positing a higher ideal that neither court ever approached. (Plot Spoiler:) That is, if you accept that an intelligent woman realizing she doesn't need a man to live out her life in pleasure and peace is an ideal. Some, I imagine, more turbulently inclined than I am, would wish to see her ignore duty and tranquility for the sake of some super hot bonking with the dashing, if flighty, M. de Nemours.
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LibraryThing member AnnB2013
Had to read this for a romance fiction class. Don't remember much other than it was better than I had expected.
LibraryThing member encephalical
Court intrigue on being trapped by roles, societal and self-imposed, and how decisions get made vis-à-vis desire or conscience.
LibraryThing member amerynth
I really enjoyed Madame de Lafayette's "The Princess of Cleves," which is considered a classic of French literature. The fact that my copy was translated by Nancy Mitford was almost a bonus... I find the Mitford sisters so bizarrely interesting.

Considered one of the first "psychological" novels, "The Princess of Cleves" is the tale of love, jealousy and a woman's efforts to remain faithful to her husband, even though she is in love with another man. Most of the characters (with the exception of the title character) were actual people so there are some great historical roots here.

This novel was definitely going to appeal to me... set in France during the Elizabethan age in England, which is another obsession of mine. I found Madame de Cleves' confession and its ramifications to be an interesting storytelling device. Overall, a fun read.
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LibraryThing member wealhtheowwylfing
I can easily see why someone would enjoy this--court politics! beautiful clothes! rakish love interest! verbal fencing!--but I found it hard reading. Everyone seems to have a nickname, a full name, several titles, etc, and they're referred to each indiscriminately. Plus, I have a hard time with any novel that assumes that just thinking about another person is The Worst Adultery Ever, so the ending (where the Princess's husband finally dies, but the Princess feels so guilty that she retires to a convent, does not marry her love, and they both die unhappy) dissatisfied me. I didn't feel like the Princess had done anything wrong, so the idea that she had to be punished felt alien.… (more)
LibraryThing member MartinBodek
There is nothing of value here for the reader, nothing interesting, nothing compelling. There is no reason to turn to the next page. As a matter of fact, it violates every rule of good storytelling, the most noted of which is: make the reader care. I didn't care. There is nothing even at stake. Nobody's life is on the line, just their reputation, in lives that are apparently cut short all over the place because of broken hearts. Everyone in this story is pining for everybody else who isn't their spouse. Nobody is satisfied with their lot. All the passions are based on superficiality as well. It is the shallowest book I've ever read. It wants to be a Shakespearean tragedy. It's not even close. It's not in the same galaxy. It's garbage.… (more)
LibraryThing member wealhtheowwylfing
This was written in the mid-seventeenth century, so I shouldn’t have expected much from it. Nevertheless, the stilted, utterly artificial dialog, the smothering moral tone, and the rampant historical inaccuracies were even worse than I’d thought. By the end of the first chapter, I gave in and looked up the plot.

Yes, it is true: having lived completely blamelessly in an arranged marriage, the main character (for whom I never felt anything but amused contempt) does indeed DIE in a CONVENT because she had loved another man. She never acted upon it in any way, but because she had feelings for some other dude, she had to die. Le sigh. The one fun bit is reading Tudor politics from a French perspective, which gives the whole thing an intriguing twist.… (more)
LibraryThing member zeborah
Studied this in university back when I hadn't figured out I was asexual so had a tricky time explaining to my boyfriend that the reason I loved it so much was that the girl decided not to get with the guy (whom a friend and I had dubbed the Jerk de Nemours). Lol, good times.

Still remember all the literary discussion about the significance of watching/seeing, and all that guff; and still love it. The Jerk de Nemours strikes me even more now as a creepy stalker dudebro. Her husband also comes across as more controlling and sulky. Retiring to a Pyrenean convent remains the best possible solution.… (more)
LibraryThing member Kuiperdolin
A good novel for trump. it's about how if your too much of a cuck u can literally die from it
LibraryThing member featherbear
Short but for me a slow read. The story itself is a sort of Mean Girls high school relationships situation (does he/she really "like" me?), and I was cheering when the Princesse finally blew off Nemours. (My sense was that Nemours does not know himself while the Princesse knows herself profoundly) What demands attention is the extreme inwardness of the narrative, mostly focusing on moral scruples associated with the disclosure of feeling, so different from the courtly love/allegory model from which it descends. To the point of claustrophobia, at times. Although the moral framework differs radically, the inwardness reminded me a bit of Virginia Woolf.… (more)


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