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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

This is La Princesse de Cleves


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[Sidenote: Mme. de la Fayette and _La Princesse de Cleves_.]

But the last of this batch is the most important and the best of the whole. This is _La Princesse de Cleves_, by Marie Madeleine Pioche de Lavergne, Comtesse de la Fayette, friend of Madame de Sevigne and of Huet; more or less Platonic, and at any rate last, love of La Rochefoucauld; a woman evidently of great charm as well as of great ability, and apparently of what was then irreproachable character. She wrote, besides other matter of no small literary value and historical interest, four novels, the minor ones, which require no special notice here, being _Zaide_, _La Comtesse de Tende_, and (her opening piece) _Madame de Montpensier_. Their motives and methods are much the same as those of the _Princesse de Cleves_, but this is much more effectively treated. In fact, it is one of the very few highly praised books, at the beginnings of departments of literature, which ought not to disappoint candid and not merely studious readers.

It begins with a sketch, very cleverly done, of the Court of Henri II., with the various prominent personages there--the King and the Queen, Diane de Poitiers, Queen Mary of Scotland ("La Reine Dauphine"), "Madame, soeur du Roi" (the second Margaret of Valois--not so clever as her aunt and niece namesakes, and not so beautiful as the latter, but, like

both of them, a patroness of men of letters, especially Ronsard, and apparently a very amiable person, though rude things were said of her marriage, rather late in life, to the Duke of Savoy), with many others of, or just below, royal blood. Of these latter there are Mademoiselle de Chartres, the Prince de Cleves, whom she marries, and the Duc de Nemours, who completes the usual "triangle."[272] As is also usual--in a way not unconnected in its usuality with that of triangular sequences--the Princess has more _amitie_ and _estime_ than _amour_ for her husband, though he, less usually, is desperately in love with her. So, very shortly, is Nemours, who is represented as an almost irresistible lady-killer, though no libertine, and of the "respectful" order. His conduct is not quite that of the Elizabethan or Victorian ideal gentleman; for he steals his mistress's portrait while it is being shown to a mixed company; eavesdrops (as will be seen presently) in the most atrocious manner; chatters about his love affairs in a way almost worse; and skulks round the Princess's country garden at night in a manner exceedingly unlikely to do his passion any good, and nearly certain to do (as it does) her reputation much harm. Still, if not an Amadis, he is not in the least a Lovelace, and that is saying a good deal for a French noble of his time. The Princess slowly falls in love with him (she has seen him steal the portrait, though he does not know this and she dares say nothing for fear of scandal); and divers Court and other affairs conduct this concealed _amourette_ (for she prevents all "declaration") in a manner very cleverly and not too tediously told, to a point when, though perfectly virtuous in intention, she feels that she is in danger of losing self-control.


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