The Princess of Cleves
”The Princess of Cleves” is a French romantic novel from 1678 that takes place at the French court about 100 years earlier. While the main characters are invented, all surrounding characters are real historic individuals.
Mademoiselle de Chartres is a young lady who is being introduced to the court. She is the innocent girl who is being fed to the sharks and immediately a number of aristocratic young men fall in love with her, among them the Prince of Cleves. When the plans for an arranged marriage collapse the Prince of Cleves steps in and offers to marry her. Mademoiselle, or rather her mother, accepts and the girl becomes the Princess of Cleves.
Soon after however, the Casanova of the court, The Duke de Nemours sets his eyes on her. He has quite a reputation with women, to the extent that the king intends to send him to the English court to seduce the British Queen Elizabeth. Instead the Duke forgets all other girls in his attempt to seduce the Princess. The seducing part is quickly achieved because the Princess also falls in love with the Duke, but there is just that thing that she is already married…
So, will the Princess and the Duke get each other, or will the girls virtue prevail to keep her faithful to the Prince? Or a third outcome?
People can usually be divided into two groups: Those who believe that love will and should prevail and carries its own justification, in which group most Hollywood productions belong, and those who take a more practical point of view. I unfortunately belong in the second group.
For a reader in the first group this novel would be heartbreaking. The love that cannot be fulfilled because of a girl’s virtue and men that die of jealousy. From my point of view, it seems to me that the aristocrats at court had way too much time on their hands and spent way to much time being nosy in other peoples affairs. Wait, are we talking about the French court in the 16th century or the rich and famous today?
In any case, it is hard for me not to be annoyed with the Duke who is setting out to ruin a marriage and at the girl for not making it clear early enough that this is impossible when she so clearly sees what a charlatan De Nemour is.
Having said that this is a surprisingly detailed novel with a much deeper sense of the characters than anything I have read so far on the list. That alone sets it apart as a surprisingly modern novel. It also avoids some of the romantic tropes by emphasizing the problems facing especially women who dabble with adultery. It would have been too easy to give this a Hollywood ending, but, without saying too much, this novel takes a different road.
Still, I feel I belong to the wrong demographic reading this novel. There may be something I am missing, but it very much seems as if ALL these people are doing is having illicit affairs with each other or gossiping about them. Don’t they do any real work? But then, what sort of work would an aristocratic lady do in the 16th century? They have maids for anything resembling work and were probably busy looking pretty.
While I recognize the significance and quality of this novel, I doubt it would ever be a favorite of mine. It is one I am happy to have read and on to the next one.