One of the finest literary works ever written in French is a historical novel, The Princess de Clèves, published in 1678. I first read it in high school, because it was part of the curriculum. Truth be told, I found Princess rather dry and uninspiring at the time.
Clouet Mary StuartAnd then one night, many years later, I flew to France from California and was suffering from a bad case of jetlag. I rose and went to the bookshelves in my aunt and uncle's home, searching for something to while away the hours that still separated me from daylight. I happened upon La Princess de Clèves, and started reading.
And I was amazed! I was a grown woman now and I found the story of the heroine heartbreaking.
The plot is very simple: a young noblewoman, Mademoiselle de Chartres, marries the Prince de Clèves, a man she esteems and respects but does not love. This is not a forced marriage as in Mistress of the Revolution, not even an arranged marriage.
Madame de Chartres, the heroine's mother, is a caring parent, though she is also ambitious and wants the best possible match for her daughter. The husband, the Prince de Clèves, is a completely decent man, very much in love with his young bride.
What is tragic here is that the heroine does not even suspect that something is missing from her marriage. She is, in a way, happy in her naiveté.
And suddenly, her universe collapses when she meets, and falls passionately in love with the dashing Duke de Nemours. She is torn between her passion and her high religious and moral standards.
I said earlier that Princess is a historical. It has all the makings of one. The setting is the French Court in the 16th century, during the final years of the reign of Henri II. The author lived 120 years later and she thoroughly researched the period.
Many historical characters appear in the novel: Queen Catherine de Medici, her fearsome rival, the King's mistress, Diane de Poitiers, and Mary Queen of Scots (pictured here.) Young Mary was then married to the Dauphin, future François II. The intrigues and shifting alliances between the followers of these three powerful women form a complex web that surrounds the heroine.
I will simply translate the first sentence: "Magnificence and chivalry have never appeared in France with such brilliance as in the last years of the reign of Henri Second."
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