This edition of La Princesse de Clèves also includes two earlier works written by Madame de Lafayette – La Princesse de Montpensier published in 1662, and La Comtesse de Tende published posthumously in 1718 although this is probably the earliest of Madame de Lafayette’s works. Both are short, no more than thirty pages and deal with love, honour and despair at the French court and neither ends happily.
La Princesse de Clèves, a very early example of the novel, was published anonymously in 1678 and is a much more developed work than either La Princesse de Montpensier or La Comtesse de Tende. Considered a French literary classic, it is set at the court of Henri II in 1558 and 1559. Nearly every character, with the exception of the Madame de Clèves herself, is drawn from history – Mary Stuart, the Reine Dauphine, plays a significant rolee and there is a point in the story where the possibility of marriage between the Madame de Clèves love interest, the Duc de Nemours, and Elizabeth I of England is considered.
Madame de Clèves is a beautiful and virtuous young woman in an arranged marriage. Her husband, unusually for the time, is in love with his wife and disturbed that she does not respond with equal ardour. Madame de Cleves is secretly in love with the Duke de Nemours. The novel traces Madame de Clèves battle to remain a virtuous dutiful wife at the same time as yearning for true love. As well as being France’s first historical novel, it one of the first psychological novels with its emphasis on Madame de Clèves interior struggles and the motivations that drive her actions.
While the historical chronology on which La Princesse de Clèves relies is not very accurate, the novel itself says far more about the attitudes to love and marriage in the period in which Madame de Lafayette was writing than the period in which the story was set. The character of Henri II in the novel owes far more to Louis XIV than to the historical Henri II. If there is one message I would draw from all three stories, it is that love and passion bring nothing but unhappiness to those involved – very much in keeping with the attitudes of the period.
This is one book where I would recommend reading the Introduction first and of making use of the notes as you read particularly as there is vast array of historical characters involved. The Introduction by Terence Cave is excellent in not only discussing the authorship of the works but also of placing La Princesse de Clèves in the history of the novel form.