The 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, Nancy 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 whom 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.
It’s hard to imagine a 20th century woman like Nancy Mitford, or 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.
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. Keeping 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.
This review first rand in late 2010 on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. To be honest, all I remember of this book now is what I read in the review above. It’s been interesting migrating all of my old reviews to this new site, discovering that I’ve forgotten so much of what I’ve read. I remember quite a bit, too, by the way, but I’ve forgotten much more.