Madame de Lafayette: The Princesse de Monpensier – La Princesse de Montpensier (1662)

The Princess of Montpensier

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?

47 thoughts on “Madame de Lafayette: The Princesse de Monpensier – La Princesse de Montpensier (1662)

  1. I’m so glad you mentioned La Princesse de Clèves as it’s on my bookshelf (I purchased it in Paris directly as a result of Nicolas Sarkozy’s notoriously condescending and dismissive comment about people who read it). Of course, I haven’t read it yet, but this reminds me that it’s waiting and gives me even more incentive to get to it.

    • I have browsed the books you have read list the other day and there are soe many that are among my favourites that I thnk you should like Mme de Lafayette. I would suppose Sarkozy has not read it or I wouldn’t know, not even coming from someone like him why anyone one could make a condescending remark. You will read it in French, of course and that’s perfect as she writes the most beautiful French I could think of. But I must admit, I like it when prose is so crystal clear and sober.

  2. I have a copy of this on my kindle, but as usual haven’t got to it yet.

    Yes, I’ve seen the film. The first disc was faulty and I had to return it–half way through too–very frustrating. I love some of Tavernier’s films–but this is not unilateral. I thought this film was better than just ok but not his best. Its depiction of the ST B Massacre is excellent. Marvellous costumes and settings, but for me, the character of the husband wasn’t developed enough. The Princess was well-realised as was de Guise, but the husband was two-dimensional. Can’t say how this compares to the book, of course.

    • I would very much like to watch it but I could imagne you would see a Colonel Chabert case here, in the sense of the movie being more satisfying. St. Barthélémy is not described, it is mentioned in the book, for example. She isn’t an explicit writer but since her use of language is so precise, one word sets the tone. That’s similar fro the characters. There are no long descriptions. La Princesse de Clèves is the superior work but only because it is longer. This is her first try.

  3. I think the movie is floating around on Netflix – certainly sounds familiar. I now want to see it for sure, but more importantly I definitely want to read something by the author. Thanks for the introduction. She hadn’t crossed my path before.

    • I would be interested to see what you think of her. I know of a very few people who were disappointed but she is a “cool” writer. I find her emotional because I prefer when things are not too outspoken.

  4. I haven’t read any Madame de Lafayette yet, but I’ve been meaning to for a while. Your enthusiastic post makes a 2012 encounter much more likely now. As far as the film adaptation goes, I saw it earlier in the year at my fave local moviehouse and enjoyed it much more than I thought I would based on the publicity campaign (i.e. it was pitched to U.S. audiences as a run of the mill costume drama). Mélanie Thierry and Lambert Wilson, the leads who played the Princesse de Montpensier and the Comte de Chabannes, did really nice work bringing their characters to life, but basically I agree with Guy that overall the movie was “better than just OK but not [Tavernier’s] best.” Of course, I’d watch it again just to daydream about the very lovely Mélanie Thierry!

    • She is a rather lovely choice but judging from the trailer I think I will find a few visually appealing men in it as well. I like Tavernier as well and thought this looked like a good one. The Comte de Chabannes would be an interesting character, I’m sure. He has a very unfortunate role in the novella.
      I hope you will read and like Mme de Lafayette. I think there is a movie as well but it’s much older. I was never tempted to watch it.

    • I like that it’s often very short, concise but there are huge differences but I like the literature from the Middle Ages, Chrétien de Troyes, Marie de France and Renaissance as well.
      I often think that some of the 19th century novelists are too long.
      But then I like short stories and novellas maybe more than novels, and I like poetry, essays and memoirs…

            • One of the reasons why I haven’t read him yet.
              There are a few huge books I’d like to read and maybe next year will be a yera for reading War nad Peace and also Vanity Fair. And at least one Dickens.
              On the other hand I survided Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir and really hated it and also survived Hugo’s Notre Dame the Paris and hated it even more. I have a feeling Dickens and probably Trollope are more engaging than that.
              On the other hand I don’t mind Proust’s length at all.

  5. I haven’t read many books from the Middle Ages. I should. Maybe in 2013 we can do a challenge. I’m a little overwhelmed right now with my challenges. But it would be fun to read with someone who knows about the writers and time period.

    Are you saying that Dickens is long winded? 🙂

    • Since I have only read A Christmas Carol, I’m no expert.
      I start to enjoy 19th century literature more now, so maybe I’m a potential Dickens fan, who knows?
      I often like that there is hardly any author cult with these early writers. Often we do not know all that much pretty much like with the painters and other artists. It was about the books they wrote and not a lot about themselves. This coming from a woman who loves memoirs must of course sound like a contradiction…
      I can see why you wouldn’t want to jon another challende in 2012.
      I have afeeling that a pre-19th century challenge wouldn’t be a huge succes but I’m equally sure, if it was the idea would be stolen right away. 🙂 Maybe I should adopt Lizzy’s view and see the stealing as a compliment…

      • I also love memoirs, especially about everyday people. I would love to join a pre-19th century challenge, but I’m not sure how many others would. Hopefully more than I think, but that’s the historian in me talking. Lizzy is right, it is a compliment. However, I don’t know much about the situation, but I think the way it was handled was wrong. Stealing is just wrong.

  6. I loved La Princesse de Clèves and want to read it again. It’s a beautiful story and you’re right, the novel aged well.

    I have La Princesse de Montpensier on the shelf, I’ll get to it next year probably. I’m happy to know it’s a good one. I haven’t seen the film.

    I wonder why the French language hasn’t changed that much. Is it because people spoke patois and proper French was for literature? Or because of the Académie Française which rules words and grammar?
    However, your version (and mine too) is probably re-written in modern French, i.e. the “ois” are replaced by “ais” etc…

    • The Grammar the Port-Royal has been written in 1660 but Vuagelas, one of the first memeber of the Académie française wrote his grammar even before that and that’s why it hasn’t chnaged much. It was a conscious decision to standardize it in a very strict manner and must have caused quite some reactions at the time.
      I’m not sure about the re-writing in this case. In the case of Marie de France I have a bilingula version, that’s very different French and quite hard for us to understand.
      I need to read la Comtesse de Tende now.
      The endings of La Princesse de Montpensier and La Princess de Clèves are very different, it’s far more a moral than a philosophical ending like in the Princesse de Clèves.

  7. Interesting read…as always. There’s always something new about the old that I learn from your review. I have heard this mme De Lafayette so often but never really know what she had written.

    aha…I am so different with you 😉
    I am a hardcore rereader…every year, there’s always a book I reread, most often more than 1. This year alone, I have reread 2 graphic novels and 1 thick novel (which I am currently rereading). For me, reread is like re-watching a movie.

      • the difference, for me, is only in the amount of time I spend. Book will take weeks while movie only 2hours…but the sensation is the same. I like repeating the same story over and over again if I really like it.

    • I adore this book. I think it should be read in French. I’m pretty sure, you can translate the content but beauty lies also in the language.
      I absolutely want to watch the movie. Let me know what you think of it, should you watch it.

  8. By reading book blogs you come across books and authors you have never heard of. This sounds a remarkable read but it completely new to me. I’m amazed that I’ve never heard of her so thanks for writing your article!

    • You are welcome, Tom. I have a feeling you would really like The Princess of Clèves. You will find that it has barely aged. I hope you will give it a try, I would love to hear what you think of it.

  9. I must confess I tried to read The Princess of Cleves but found it hard going and set it aside. It may, however, been a matter of timing or just a clunky translation. I should really dig it out again and give it another go. The story has always appealed to me–it was on my shelf for ages!

    • I remember you said that, Danielle. All those who commented on this thread have read it in French. I really think it doesn’t work too well in the translation. Too bad as it’s an amazing book.

    • Poor you, there is nothing more terrible than being forced to read a book one hates. I haven’t heard that anyone hated it so far but I could imagine that this is either a love or hate book and nothing in between. I suppose you refer to The Princesse de Clèves and not to The Princesse de Montpensier? I loved everything about it. Just in case you haven’t read la Princesse de Montpensier… Don’t bother it’s very similar to La Princesse de Clèves.

  10. Beautiful review, Caroline! The name Mme de Lafayette rings a bell, but I don’t think I have read any book by her. Your mention of passé simple made me remember my French classes at school 🙂 I liked very much your observation “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 something that I have been discovering recently to my pleasant surprise. It is amazing that some of the things which look innovative today have been written by French writers all those years ago. Your mention of the St.Bartholomew Day’s massacre, made me remember a short story by Rafael Sabatini that I read sometime back. It was called ‘The Scapulary’ and it was set during that time and it was quite nice. Thanks for this wonderful review, Caroline! I will add this and the other Mme Lafayette book to my ‘TBR’ list.

    • Thanks, Vishy, I hope you will like it. She was quite the innovator. You can get copies with all of her stories in it. Maybe not Zaïde but the other three.
      Rafael Sabatini rings a bell as well but I cannot place him. I have to look it up.
      I watched the movie Henri de Navarre or Henri IV earlier this year and the massacre is also depicted.It’s a great movie btw.What a horrible, horrible night. Thousands were killed.

      • Thanks for mentioning that, Caroline. I will search for that omnibus edition of Mme Lafayette’s work.

        Rafael Sabatini wrote many adventure novels like Alexandre Dumas. The most famous ones were ‘Captain Blood’ and ‘Scaramouche’, both of which were made into Hollywood movies. In ‘The Scapulary’, the main character is a Huguenot and so is his wife and they are estranged and the wife has a new lover. The three of them are in the house while the killing is going on outside, and there is a way for two of them to escape. What the three decide to do forms the rest of the story. Just tempting you with the plot 🙂

        • I think the book that I linked to in the post should be the omnibus of her work.
          This sounds interesting, yes, you are tempting me with the story…I’ll look him up. I have heard of Scaramouche.

  11. Hi Caroline,

    The film version was on the French TV last night. I watched it. Don’t bother, it’s not worth it.
    It’s long (2:15) and the actors sounded fake, they didn’t convey the feelings I expect to find in the book. (I’m going to read it soon) The landscapes are beautiful though. I also thought that it’s probably difficult to understand fully without knowing that part of French history. There aren’t much explanations about the context and who the characters are. (That Anjou will be Henri III, who is l’amiral de Coligny and the role of the Guise family)

    In a way, la princesse de Clèves learnt her lesson from la princesse de Montpensier and it sheds a new light on her decision. Now I want to re-read La princesse de Clèves.

    • Too bad. I’m going to watch it today. I hope I didn’t raise your hopes too high, the book is very short, I suppose they had to add a lot. There is indeed a development from here to the Princess de Clèves. The ending shows it. It’s a very clear statement from MMe de Lafayette as the society at that time or hers didn’t condemn adultery. It was too universal a thing. But in both stories is a very pessimistic view of love. Since I haven’t seen the movie, I’m not sure they chose the exact same reason. I’ll let you know once I’ve seen it.

  12. Pingback: 2014 – Some Fanciful Reading Plans | Vishy's Blog

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