La Fayette, Segrais, J. R. d., & La Rochefoucauld, F. (1951). The Princess of Clèves. New York: New Directions.
So, I’ve been trying to climb onto the 1001 Books wagon again. A Pre-1700s title stood out to me – The Princess of Clèves. After requesting it through interlibrary loan (ILL), I found myself reading La Fayette’s The Princess of Clèves.
Before I mention the plot, let me explain some of the context. The book was published anonymously in March 1678 and the events took place in 1558. Some say this is the first work of historical fiction in that someone such as La Fayette researched another day and time and then wrote the novel. Most remarkably, this novel of Henry II’s French Court faithfully adheres to French historical record.
La Fayette brings us to the court of French Henry II. We meet the “who’s who” and become acquainted with the intrigues and the precarious nature of royal favor. Madame de Chartres brings her beautiful ingenue daughter to this very court as a wide-eyed fifteen year old. Her mother seeks out a husband for lovely, virtuous daughter. The de Chartres don’t do so well thanks to seemingly petty jealousies. Nonetheless, the Prince de Clèves has come into his own inheritance and can do as he pleases. . . He wants the lovely Mademoiselle de Chartres for his wife. Although he’s second-rate, the de Chartres accept his offer. Soon, the Prince of Clèves finds himself disappointed. While she’s nice about his affection, Madame of Clèves does not return them.
Matters aren’t helped when the handsome Duc of Nemours comes onto the scene. The Duc of Nemours and the Princess of Clèves fall in love. The titular character has a dilemma between remaining true to the Prince of Clèves or running off with her perfect match, the Duc of Nemours.
I was happy that the version of book I read had a list of characters in the back. Not knowing much about this part of French history was a bit of a loss for me. Yet, I admired how closely observed the history was in the book. I did research as I read and could appreciate all La Fayette said in this regard. Let me say that her main character was fictitious.
Also outstanding is the psychology of a book from the 1600s! There’s drama and such internal conflict. The emotions and the dilemmas of these characters are very modern.
One thing which bothered me was a lack of names. Okay, she’s Mademoiselle de Chartres and then she’s the Princess of Clèves. Could we at least give her one constant – a name? How about Marie?
Four out of Five Pearls
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