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Monday, May 14, 2012

Madame De Lafayette

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From the pages of Madame de Lafayette’s 1678 French novel, La Princesse de Cleves, one can ascertain that life within the royal court was much different than the life, which was portrayed publicly. The binary oppositions of reveal and conceal as well as the difficulty and importance of sincerity between a man and a woman are integral parts of this French “love” story. Madame de Lafayette’s expertise in describing the personal anguish and feelings of futility experienced by the Princess, while engaging in an “adulterous” relationship, are at the least, wonderfully articulated. Mme Lafayette also describes the princess’s attitudes regarding courtly life and all that it encompasses with an unequaled style during the period in which her novel was written. Many of the events within the text directly coincide with events, which took place in the life of Madame de Lafayette herself. Did Madame de Lafayette intentionally juxtapose her life and the life of the Princess or was it totally coincidental? Based on my studies of Madame de Lafayette and my reading of La Princesse de Cleves, I believe that the novel is semi-autobiographical and much more than a fictional work.


Beginning with the family life of both Madame de Lafayette and the Princess de Cleves, family structure and the role of their mothers are extremely similar. Both Madame de Lafayette and her character the Princesse were brought up in homes in which their mothers were their primary caregivers. Attempting to become more prosperous financially and socially, both mothers encouraged their daughters to become deeply involved with the royal court. Madam de Chartres, the mother of the Princesse de Cleves, goes so far as to set up the marriage of her daughter to the Prince de Cleves despite the fact that there was no genuine love between them. The marriage was sanctioned for the sole purpose of raising her daughter’s social status. Just as the Princesse had an arranged marriage of convenience, Madame de Lafayette too was placed in a similar situation. According to Janet Riatt, Marie- Madeleine (Madame de Lafayette) was married to the comte de Lafayette who was of much higher social standing than she and the marriage was beneficial to both sides she would attain a more notable name and he (with her sizable dowry) would be able to recover his family property (4). In conjunction with gaining higher social status, both mothers raised their daughters to have disdain for love.


Madame de Lafayette is quoted as saying “One is so weak when he falls in love” (Haig 5). Her belief, based on her mother’s teachings, was that love was a force, which when fully accepted, can lead to devastating consequences such as jealousy, despair, and hopelessness. This principle was directly expressed in La Princesse de Cleves after the Princesse becomes enamored with a man other than her husband. Her infatuation with the Duke of Nemour brings into existence these very same feelings as well as guilt. Though never letting the relationship materialize, the fruits of her “love” overcome the Princesse. The correlation between the situation regarding the Princesse and the Duke of Nemours unequivocally mirrors the questionable relationship between Madame de Lafayette and the Duc de La Rouchfoucauld. It was rumored that the two shared more than the platonic relationship they carefully cultivated. Many believe that the close relationship the two shared was one of love and passion but as Stirling Haig states, “There is nothing we can conclude in the absence of gossip” (4). Aside from the speculations surrounding Madame de Lafayette’s relationship with the Duc de La Rouchfoucauld and the Princesse of Cleves’ concealed love for the Duke of Nemours, the similarities between the two are exhibited in their ability to understand and publicly conform to their social environment while inwardly denouncing it.


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Madame de Lafayette recognized the royal court as a place full of duality. Using the character of Madam de Chartres, Lafayette conveys her own sentiments. Madam de Chartres says of the royal court,” If you judge from appearances in a Court, you will often be deceive; truth and appearances seldom go together” (17). In her own life, she seemingly enjoyed courtly life and still remained somewhat alienated. Mme de Lafayette became very good friends with many prominent women within the court. She was then made privy to the private affairs of such women as Mme de Montespan, the king’s mistress among others. In spite of her favored position within the Court, Madame de Lafayette preferred to indulge in friendships which contributed to her own personal growth. Similar to Lafayette, the Princesse de Cleves also existed in close proximity with women important to the Court. The Princesse’s beauty and demeanor were traits which drew others to her but the reality of the friendships were unveiled by Lafayette in her novel with the acknowledgment that


Ambition and gallantry were the soul of the Court, and employed both sexes equally; there were so many different interests and so many cabal, and the ladies had so great a share in them, that love was always mixed with business, and business with love nobody was easy, or indifferent; their business was to raise themselves, to be agreeable, to serve or disserve; and intrigue and pleasure took up their whole time (8).


This very statement along with the notion that people within the Court very seldom showed or spoke their true feelings( as was the case with the Princesse regarding her love for the Duke), exhibits that both Lafayette, and her character the Princesse, understood the duality of self needed to successfully navigate within the Court. The need to maintain this duplicity in character to uphold “virtuous” appearances while neglecting self becomes the downfall of both the Princesse de Cleves and Madame de Lafayette.








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