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The Princesse de Cl`eves: with `The Princesse de Montpensier' and `The Comtesse de Tende' Paperback – Sep 15 2008
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'His well-judged introduction and his notes are angled towards a student readership ... He also, and this gives his translation a definite edge, includes two important shorter stories by Madame de Lafayette. His translation offers a fair equivalent of Lafayette's careful, often knotty, phrasing, which plunges the reader into the perpexities of amorous feeling and moral choice.' Times Literary Supplement
About the Author
Terence Cave is a Professor of French Literature, University of Oxford; and Fellow at St John's College, Oxford.
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But is a classic in Mark Twain's sense of the word, the sort of book everyone wants to have read but nobody actually wants to read?
I agree with another reviewer that this isn't beach blanket fare. Readers of early English literature will find it more palatable than Samuel Richardson's "Pamela" and better plotted than anything by Defoe. Although Mme. de Lafayette is not the first important female writer in French - Christine de Pizan comes to mind - this highly original work outdoes Aphra Behn, Fanny Burney, or any other English woman before Jane Austen.
If those comparisons bring a sparkle to your eye then prepare for a treat. The central figure is a sixteen-year-old girl fresh from a sheltered childhood in the countryside when her mother decides to deal for a prestigious son-in-law. Except for the fictional protagonist every figure in this late Renaissance setting is historically accurate. The jousts, the love affairs, the betrayals, and the shocking death of one pivotal figure all happened. De Lafayette presents the French royal court at its most glamorous, then peels away the facade to reveal ambitions that corrupt or destroy everyone who remains in their spell.
Women's fictions from this era were expected to be love stories. This one succeeds at that well enough to woo modern readers while it levels a scathing attack on the French aristocracy in the tradition of Moliere.
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."
You read the rest...
What else is good to know before you pick up the book? It's a historical novel, set 100 years before the writer's lifetime. Historians who read this confidently write that Madame de Lafayette (or Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne) was extremely faithful to the time period of the book. I don't know enough about the court of Henri II to be able to do anything except report those claims.
It is also possibly good to know what the book is about. The Princess de Cleves is a kind of a romance-- contrasting the duties of formal marriage with the pressures of romantic love. Its main character is a lovely young woman who is untouched emotionally by any man and who is tragically awoken by the Duc de Nemours only after her marriage to the Prince de Cleves.
How is it for the modern reader to read?
(Note: this review refers to the Penguin Classics edition which was translated by Nancy Mitford and revised by Leonard Tancock.)
Well, I'd recommend that you take the time to find out for yourself. So that's one point. It is easy enough to see the influences that this book has had when you read it and for that alone is worth the time to read. The plot is one that will also have relevance today and should readily draw readers into the story. The value given to romantic love is naturally very different than it is today, so it may even appear bleak or shocking to the modern reader. All that is naturally good.
I felt frustrated because I felt I was far enough away from the time that I was missing some of the book's conversation. Much seemed to turn on courtly manners-- point and counterpoint. I'm not educated enough in the etiquette of the time to really appreciate it and so sections of the book went on over my head. I could have done with an edition that explained some of that-- or at least more than this Penguin Classics edition achieved.
(One funny thing about this edition was listening to Leonard Tancock in his foreword struggle to explain how he had to revise basically everything about the translation without coming right out and criticizing Mitford.)
The court intrigue reminds of Dumas, and the interior monologues remind me of Austen, but of course those came later and look back at texts like this one. Once you get settled into the world of the court, the plot takes off, and though the twists are simple, the pathos of the characters as they react to each revelation is what makes it work so well. I knew the plot summary when I picked up the book, and there are still some major zingers that surprised and delighted me!
Like I've said, getting started takes some patience and attentiveness, but The Princesse de Clèves is totally worth that small initial investment. I recommend it highly!