“The Princess of Cleves” by Madame de la Fayette (1676) – 202 pages Translated by Nancy Mitford
“The Princess of Cleves” gives us an inside view of the French royal court in the sixteenth century. Although Madame de la Fayette wrote the novel around 1676, the time portrayed in the novel is about 1558 when Henry II was king of France and Elizabeth was just beginning her reign as Queen of England. In fact one of the main characters of “The Princess of Cleves”, the Duc de Nemours, is considered a major potential suitor for Elizabeth. However he turns away from Elizabeth due to his magnetic attraction to the great beauty of the Princess of Cleves.
The novel is quite historically accurate about this time in French history, yet much of the novel is made up of court gossip. It seems that nearly all the men and women in the royal court of France, including the King himself, have someone on the side besides their husband or wife.
“The Court gravitated round ambition and love, the chief occupations of men and women alike, for there were so many factions and intrigues, and the women played so large a part in them, that love and politics were inseparable. Tranquility, indifference, boredom, and idleness were unknown; everybody was busily trying to better their position by pleasing, by helping, by hindering somebody else. The occupations of the day were pleasures and plots.”
For many of the women, love and sex were a strategy for improving their position within the Royal Court.
Our heroine marries a man who is deeply in love with her and she thus becomes the Princess of Cleves. However she is somewhat apathetic toward her new husband. She likes him, doesn’t love him. However when the Princess meets the other young gentleman, the Duc de Nemours, the night before her wedding, they both fall deeply in love with each other immediately on sight. Yes the Duc falls in love with her too, but you really must question his motives. Is he just playing with the Princess’s affections? He is a single man about town who could have any woman he wants, even the young Queen of England. He constantly puts the Princess of Cleves in embarrassing compromising situations, and her husband soon suspects that there is an attraction there. Duc de Nemours follows the Princess around almost to the point of stalking. The Princess resists his advances, but he can tell by her blushes that she is strongly attracted to him.
For us United States readers who probably grew up on “Little House on the Prairie” and “The Scarlet Letter”, the novel “The Princess of Cleves” is quite raunchy stuff. It is hard for us to imagine that back in the sixteenth century these men and women of the royal court were having so many of these not-so-secret love affairs. Yes, this is a raunchy sexy French novel. In a way it is quite interesting that there were times in world history when the Puritans were not in the ascendancy.
In 2005, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy said, “A sadist or an idiot, you decide, included questions about ‘La Princesse de Cleves’ in the exam for public sector jobs…. “ In protest, there were mass readings of “The Princess of Cleves” at the Sorbonne and other major French universities. Sales of the novel soared.