Some Penguin Classics feel like perpetual surprises – a bomb in a hymnal, as Sir Kenneth Clark might have written – and that certainly applies to Madame de Lafayette’s 1678 novel The Princess of Cleves, the short but untiringly punchy story of the elegant Mme de Cleves, a fixture at the splendid court of the French king Henri II. It’s a setting our author wastes no time in setting up as almost parody-worthy:
At no time in France were splendour and refinement so brilliantly displayed as in the last years of the reign of Henri II. The monarch was courteous, handsome and fervent in love; though his passion for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, had lasted for above twenty years, it was no less ardent, and the tokens he gave of it were no less exquisite.
Since he excelled at every sort of physical exercise, he made that his main occupation. Every day there was hunting and tennis, dancing, tilting at rings or similar pastimes. The colours and ciphers of Mme de Valentinois were everywhere to be seen, as she was herself, attired in a manner that might have befitted her grand-daughter, Mlle de la Marck, who was then of marriageable age.
Reading or re-reading The Princess of Cleves after a setup like that always, as noted, brings surprises. I just recently re-read the book and was struck by this fact over and over; our clever author is forever establishing the tableaux of a proto-romance and then sweeping those tableaux aside with a well-mannered ironic chuckle. The book’s main character, Mme de Cleves, is tormented by her ungovernable passions for a man who’s not her equal nor suitable for her, and both she and her intended husband and the object of her passion, the Duc de Nemours, are politely tortured by Mme de Lafayette for the 150-something pages of a book so quietly unnerving that she found it expedient to deny her authorship rather strenuously.
The more one considers the moral of this book, the less ‘moral’ it seems. Like affairs of state, which are subject to sudden and disastrous change as the result of a trivial accident such as the death of Henri II, the lives of individuals are tragically determined by fate and by circumstance. Within these constraints, people act, driven by egotism and impulse, rather than by virtue or moral imperatives, and are punished for disregard of social, rather than religious taboos. If Mme de Cleves is heroic, it is not because she is virtuous, but because in the end she chooses the one course that will permit her to preserve her integrity and to remain, relatively, free.
Buss was entirely too eager to draw connection-lines between The Princess of Cleves and the gloppy bouillabaisse of Proust, and there’s a bit of that even in this Introduction – but actually Mme de Lafayette is the progenitor of an entirely different, entirely opposite genealogy of French literature: the bearable branch. And SO much of that starts with this book, plainly writing things that aren’t plain, and calmly developing into things that are entirely predictable and yet continue to surprise.
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