The Pleasures of Abstinence

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…

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