Mademoiselle de Chartres is a sheltered heiress ("in her sixteenth year", i.e. aged 15) whose mother has brought her to the court of Henri II (a disguised version of the court of Louis XIV) to seek a husband with good prospects, financially and in society.
Old jealousies against a kinsman spark intrigues against the young ingenue, and the best marriage prospects withdraw. She accepts her mother's recommendation and the overtures of a middling suitor who admires her, the Prince de Clèves. However, after her marriage, she meets the dashing Duc de Nemours, and the two fall in love, yet do nothing to pursue their affections, limiting their contact to an occasional visit in the now-Princess of Clèves' salon.
The Duc becomes enmeshed in a scandal at court that leads the Princess to believe that he has been unfaithful in his affections. A letter from a spurned mistress to her paramour is discovered in the dressing room at one of the estates. The letter is actually to the Princess' uncle, the Vidame de Chartres, who has also become entangled in a relationship with the Queen.
The Vidame begs the Duc de Nemours to claim ownership of the letter, which ends up in the Princess' possession. The Duc has to produce documents from the Vidame to convince the Princess that his heart has been true.
Eventually, the Prince of Clèves discerns that his wife is in love with another man. She confesses it to him, and he relentlessly quizzes her until he learns the man's identity, eventually resorting to trickery to get her to reveal it. After he sends a servant to spy on the Duc de Nemours, Monsieur de Clèves believes that his wife has been unfaithful in more than just her emotions...
The novel was an enormous commercial success at the time of its publication, and would-be readers outside of Paris had to wait months to receive copies. The novel also sparked several public debates, including one about its authorship, and another about the wisdom of the Princess' decision to confess her adulterous feelings to her husband.
One of the earliest psychological novels, and also the first roman d'analyse (analysis novel), La Princesse de Clèves marked a major turning point in the history of the novel, which to that point had largely been used to tell romances, implausible stories of heroes overcoming odds to find a happy marriage, with myriad subplots and running ten to twelve volumes.
La Princesse de Clèves turned that on its head with a highly realistic plot, introspective language that explored the characters' inner thoughts and emotions, and few but important subplots concerning the lives of other nobles.
A wonderful, well-written thrilling and vigorous novel. A must-have for classic epic romance fans!
About the Author
Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne was born in Paris in 1634. in 1656 she married the Comte de Lafayette, had two sons, and lived on his country estate. She then returned to Paris, and the couple remained largely separate from then on. She started a literary salon with her close friends Madame de Sevigne and the Duc de la Rochefoucauld. She also mixed in court circles and wrote a biography of her friend Henriette, wife of the Duc d'Orleans, after her death. She is mostly remembered for her novels. She died in 1693.
Robin Buss is a writer and translator who works for the Independent on Sunday and as television critic for the Times Literary Supplement. He has published on Vigny and Coteau and written three books on European cinema.