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Charming 17th century French love story
on 24 November 2008
Said to be the earliest French novel, this is a charming story of a virtuous married woman - the Princess de Cleves - at the 17th century French court of Henry II. She is wooed by the Prince de Nemours, the most charming man at court and remains faithful in body to her husband whilst falling in love with Nemours. Desperate to get away from temptation she confesses to her husband so that he will permit her to retire to the country but he erupts with fierce jealousy that ultimately leads to the ruin of their marriage and his death. Although theoretically free now to marry Nemours, the Princess retires instead to a nunnery to live out her life.
This is a terrific restrained love story and Lafayette brilliantly plays the power of the lovers' emotions against their understanding of the conventions of society and their place in it. The second half of the book is very tender and draws the reader into the unfolding tragedy. However, the first part, setting up the scene, is very densely written and assumes a knowledge of the court, its characters and manners that a modern reader struggles with. I had to re-read much of this material in order to follow who was who and how it all fitted together. Some of this is simply background of the nature of gossip and does not directly relate to the matter at hand, although it does provide wonderful colour. I found the book a slow read even though it is a very short and I often had to put it down to take stock.
Overall, it is more of historical interest than ideal for a modern reader, what it really deserves is a contemporary retelling because the story at the heart of the book is genuinely human.