I’m not a re-reader but I have read Mme de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves at least four times. It is my favourite novel. For its style as well as for the story. There is something in the way Mme de Lafyette describes feelings that touches me profoundly. She wasn’t a very prolific writer. Before publishing La Princesse de Clèves (1678) she published La Princesse de Montpensier (1662) anonymously and later La Comtesse de Tende. Zaïde (1670/71) was published shortly after La Princesse de Montpensier. Although Zaïde was published under a pseudonym, it seems to be sure that it was also written by Mme de Lafayette.
Generally I’m not so much into the literature of the 19th century, I often feel that earlier writers, especially some of the French ones, are far more modern and original. This is certainly the case of Mme de Lafayette. Until a few days ago I had not read anything else by her but I bought a book called Nouvelles galantes du XVIIè siècle (it contains stories by Mme de Lafayette, Saint-Réal, Du Plaisir and Catherine Bernard) and finally read La Princesse de Montpensier.
It is a short novella but it’s as wonderful and as astonishing as her masterpiece. Her style is flawless, it is pure perfection. I particularly like her use of the passé simple and the indirect speech. The language is as fresh as a newly cut rose, it hasn’t aged one day.
Mme de Lafayette was an innovator. Before her most of the baroque novels, like d’Urfés L’Astrée, were thousands of pages long. To be this concise and precise like she was, was unheard of before. She was also one of the first to write historical fiction. The people in her books did exist, however the story is invented.
La Princesse de Montpensier is set during a very tumultuous period of French history. It starts 1566, during the civil war in which Catholics and Protestants fought a bloody battle, and ends in 1572 at the time of the horrible massacre of the Nuit de La Saint-Barthélemy or The St.-Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
La Princesse de Montpensier and the Duc the Guise are secretly in love with each other. They are very young and hope to get married but for political reasons her family decides otherwise and marries her to the Prince de Montpensier. This is a great tragedy for the princess. She doesn’t love her husband and when conflict breaks out she is glad to see him go to war. Montpensier leaves the Comte the Chabannes with her, not knowing how much in love the Comte already is with the princess as well.
This is a time in which women do hardly ever choose their husbands and adultery is very common. The princess is an extremely beautiful woman and it isn’t surprising that there are many men falling for her. She fights them all off until the day when she sees the Duc de Guise again. A qui pro quo and the intense jealousy of her husband accelerate the story. The end is somewhat unexpected and tragic.
I was thinking of Kleist while reading this novella and saw once more how much German changed while French has pretty much stayed the same since the 17th Century. La Princess de Montpensier is 150 years older than Kleist’s The Duel but it feels so much more modern.
I really loved this story and will soon read La Comtesse de Tende as well. I cannot believe that this was only 50 pages long, it feels as if I had read a novel, it is so rich. The five main protagonists are all equally well developed. All five of them are hurt and we feel for all of them. We know the society is to blame for their tragedy but Mme de Lafayette wouldn’t be Mme de Lafayette if she didn’t pick one particular person and blame her.
Still, if you have never read anything by her, I would recommend to start with The Princesse de Clèves but this little book is very beautiful as well.
I would love to watch Bertrand Tavernier’s movie La Princesse de Montpensier. Has anyone seen it?