We must beware of standard accounts. In tracing the development of the novel, or perhaps its fall, from idealized romances to particularized realism, literary historians have too often overlooked one of the most significant and enthralling novels of the seventeenth century. Madame de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves was published in 1678, halfway between Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe. Abstract terms like duty, gallantry, and esteem, which characterize its formal style, make the novel sound more like an episode from King Arthur’s court than like the investigation of everyday life it really undertakes.
We know that it was written by an enthusiastic Sunday novelist and salon hostess linked to the court of Louis XIV. Having borne two children, Madame de Lafayette settled in Paris in 1659. Her husband remained in distant Anjou. At age twenty-five she considered herself exempt from the inconveniences of love and gallantry. Yet she had an enduring fondness for the great composer of maxims, the duc de La Rochefoucauld. He probably helped her write the novel. It appeared anonymously with a note saying “he” (the author) would reveal himself if the book succeeded with the public. It made a great splash, both before and after publication, but the author clung to anonymity.
Behind its historical façade, La Princesse de Clèves explores an eternally contemporary subject: love fright, wariness of deep emotion and of its expression in sexuality. The heroine lives through the essential saga of forbidden knowledge in the domain of romantic love.
Ian Watt in The Rise of the Novel has a lame explanation for why he fails to discuss this French novel. He acknowledges its “elegance and concision” and goes on to say: “French fiction from La Princesse de Clèves to Les Liaisons dangereuses stands outside the main tradition of the novel; we feel it is too stylish to be authentic.” It is precisely because her stylishness accomplished an authentic portrayal of the women and men of her milieu that we should be impatient with Watt’s summary dismissal.
One further reason why a history of the novel is incomplete without Madame de Lafayette’s masterpiece lies in its challenging action. Every detail and digression in La Princesse de Clèves helps explain how a woman’s aching indecisiveness about her life moves gradually toward the resoluteness she finally achieves. Carefully trained and educated before being presented at court at age sixteen, the Princesse de Clèves marries an excellent man who loves her very much and wins her esteem, not her love. Later she meets the Duc de Nemours, the most gifted and attractive nobleman in the King’s entourage. Though they barely exchange a word during the balls, jousts, and salon gatherings of life at court, these two paragons fall in love “by fate.” In a scene that has become famous, the Princess brings herself to confess her love to her husband without naming its object. One implausibility is matched by another: the Duc de Nemours himself is eavesdropping outside the window. Great tension builds up on both sides of the marriage. Nevertheless when the Prince de Clèves finds out from other sources that his rival is the Duc de Nemours, the discovery leads to another astonishing exchange, or rather to an unforgettable silence. The Prince de Clèves is speaking to his wife while they are alone in her room.
“Of all men Monsieur de Nemours is the one I was most afraid of, and I see your danger. You must control yourself for your own sake and, if possible, for love of me—I don’t ask it as a husband, merely as a man whose happiness depends on you and who loves you even more tenderly and passionately than you love that other man.”
As he spoke, Monsieur de Clèves broke down and could hardly finish what he was saying. His wife was penetrated to the heart, and bursting into tears she embraced him with such tender sorrow that his mood changed a little. They stayed like this a while and separated without having spoken again; indeed they had no more strength for words. 1
A confident author knows when to renounce the lifeblood of narrative: words. Here that authorial renunciation relates closely to the action unfolding around the stricken Princess.
False information implying his wife’s unfaithfulness causes Monsieur de Clèves to fall ill. Before he dies, she almost convinces him of her virtue. In due course the Duc de Nemours presses his suit again. Nothing now stands in the way of Madame de Clèves’ accepting the pleasures of reciprocated passionate love under favorable conditions and with everyone’s approval, even the King’s—nothing, that is, except her remorse over having contributed to her husband’s distress and death, and her sense of duty. Her “scruples” go very deep.
The Duc de Nemours arranges a surprise meeting with Madame de Clèves alone. Summoning all her courage, she acknowledges that she returns his love but that she cannot face the possibility of seeing his sentiments for her diminish with time. At the climax she hides nothing and refers loyally to her husband, who has died of love for her. She is pleading for something as rare in life as in fiction: integrity of feeling, a blend of passion and lucidity. It controls the smoldering words Madame de Clèves addresses to Monsieur de Nemours during this final interview.
“Monsieur de Clèves was perhaps the sole man in the world capable of sustaining his love in marriage. My fate did not see fit to let me enjoy that happiness. His passion may also have continued because he found none in me. But I would not have the same means of conserving yours: I even believe that all the obstacles you have met in me have produced your constancy up to now.”
Her controlled impetuousness hits every nail on the head. She holds firm against the Duc’s impassioned pleading for their marriage and maintains that by renunciation her feelings for him will not die. As in the story of Héloïse’s violently enforced separation from Abelard, this elected separation leads not to the displacement of feelings we call sublimation but to an intensification of response related to fanaticism and idolatry.
That night Madame de Clèves examines her situation. Some of the analytical language in this passage has been used earlier to describe how someone falls in love, especially the word étonnement, astonishment. It means a sudden and wrenching self-beholding. We are almost at the end of the novel.
Madame de Clèves was not in a state to sleep. It was such a new experience for her to have relinquished the constraint she had imposed on herself, to have for the first time in her life allowed someone to tell her he was in love with her, and to have said the same to him, that she did not recognize herself. She was astonished [étonnée] at what she had done. She repented; she was happy: all her feelings were full of murkiness and passion. Once again she examined the reasons of duty which opposed her happiness. She was pained to find them so strong and repented of having shown them so completely to Monsieur de Nemours.
It is not difficult to see why this has been called the first psychological novel, a category usually reserved for the following century. This kind of introspective analysis takes the place of the classic scene with a confidant and anticipates the probings of interior monologue. Madame de Clèves is amazed at herself, even irritated with herself, on two counts. She has told the truth to the very person from whom decorum requires she withhold it. Equally remarkable, she has acknowledged most of the truth to herself. Her feeling of “astonishment” represents the shock of self-consciousness. That state does not free her to follow her inclinations; it obliges her to recognize how complex her inclinations have become. In these concluding pages, she finds a higher selfishness (to remain a widow rather than to risk the pangs of jealousy in marrying Monsieur de Nemours) that coincides with a higher duty (to shun the man implicated in the death of her husband). To realize her love would, she fears, destroy it. She will preserve it by suspending it in the amber of her past. The novel ends undramatically with a long journey followed by a longer illness and partial retreat to a nunnery. In calm formal sentences we are informed that Madame de Clèves finds peace of mind before she dies.
Soon after publication in 1678 La Princesse de Clèves was engulfed in two vigorous controversies. One concerned its genre. The roman, or romance, dealt usually with high chivalric or pastoral adventures in an inflated style and often included implausible and supernatural episodes of shipwreck and families miraculously reunited. The nouvelle favored simpler, shorter narratives that developed less extravagant codes of conduct. This anonymous story presented the seemingly fantastic action and personages of a roman in the down-to-earth settings and style of a nouvelle. The controversy about the book’s vraisemblance (plausibility, believability, verisimilitude) covered much the same ground and focused on a few celebrated scenes, most of all on the scene of the avowal. Would or should a well- behaved wife ever confide to her husband that she had fallen in love with another man? Contemporary maxims could be quoted on both sides: a wife should never alarm her husband; a wife should tell her husband everything. To this day critics do not agree to what extent Madame de Lafayette’s episodes overtax our credulity and weaken the novel.
Behind its reliance on psychological and narrative conventions still far removed from realism, I find La Princesse de Clèves revealing and convincing as a kind of pedagogical novel. The resolute character of the Princesse de Clèves and the recognition of her virtues by two exceptional men throw into relief the importance of her education. Innocence must be prepared for the trials and corruptions of life at court through the telling of appropriate stories fortified by maxims and rules. Accordingly the book is full of narrative digressions, which are really cautionary tales about the depredations of love. How much should an aristocratic young girl be told? Does knowledge about the temptations of the world temper the passions or arouse them? Madame de Lafayette believes in full disclosure. Therefore, with all its stylization, the novel tells a great deal about life at the French court in the seventeenth century.
Madame de Clèves is not a saint. Her asceticism owes more to psychology than to religion. Human, not spiritual, motives impel her to renounce what she most passionately desires. She will not choose pleasure in the short run because, if she does so, she foresees suffering and despair in the long run. Her difficult yet resolute decision springs as much from an instinct for survival as from strong moral feelings. This residual, self-protective selfishness esteems the mysteries of love more than it rejects them.
Madame de Lafayette, The Princess of Clèves, translated by Nancy Mitford (New Directions, 1951), pp. 132-133, my modifications. All the other quotes used are from Mitford's translation, sometimes with modifications.↩
Madame de Lafayette, The Princess of Clèves, translated by Nancy Mitford (New Directions, 1951), pp. 132-133, my modifications. All the other quotes used are from Mitford’s translation, sometimes with modifications.↩