Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Madame de la Fayette and "La Princesse de Clèves"

Madame de la Fayette (Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne, comtesse de la Fayette, baptized 18 March 1634) 

Born in Paris, educated in Greek, Latin, and Italian, appointed maid of honor to the French queen, Anne of Austria, and married to a widowed nobleman, the comte de la Fayette, Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, madame de la Fayette, became one of the foremost cultural figures in seventeenth-century Paris. While literary history has often focused on male writers as originators of the novel, Madame de la Fayette has been frequently been called the creator of the modern novel.

Madame de la Fayette's first published work, a novella, La Princesse de Montpensier, was published anonymously in 1662. In 1669, the first volume of her historical romance, Zaïde, appeared. Set in Spain, the novel was published under the pseudonym Segrais; the second volume was published two years later, in 1671.

La Fayette's most important--and influential--work is also attributed to "Segrais." Published in 1678, La Princesse de Clèves is a historical novel, set in the mid-sixteenth century at the court of Henry II of France. The novel was enormously popular, both a critical and commercial success.

I like its presentation of a young, married woman who is awakened to romantic love--but who also has a strength of character and sense of self that allow her to act honorably. She is neither faithless to her worthy husband nor a victim of her own desires and passions.

Three additional works were published after Madame de la Fayette's death on 15 May 1693: a novel, La Comtesse de Tende (1718), a memoir of her friend, Queen Henrietta Maria of England, Histoire d'Henriette d'Angleterre (1720), and Mémoires de la Cour de France (1731), her memoirs of the court of Louis XIV.

The Princess of Montpensier and The Princess of Clèves are both available online, in the original French or in English, at Project Gutenberg and at the Internet Archive.

But there's nothing like a real book, in my estimation, and so I'd recommend an affordable, accessible paperback edition--Penguin and Oxford's Worlds Classics both have editions for under ten dollars. 

There is no full-length biography of Madame de la Fayette in English, but there is an excellent biographical essay by Elizabeth Goldsmith in Europe, 1450-1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World, which you can access by clicking here.

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