Madame de Lafayette wrote “The Princess of Cleves” as a comment upon society during the reign of King Louis XIV (though she masks her true intentions by veiling King Louis XIV as a fictional King Henry II). It is well-known that her cast of characters are based upon real people (except the heroine who is purely fictional) and that the events told within are based, to an accurate degree, upon the events during the time. If anything, Lafayette’s work can be read as one of the first published works of historical fiction. With that said, a look will now be taken into the context of “The Princess of Cleves” to determine the realities of life that noblewomen faced while serving in the court of King Louis XIV.
The true plot of the story begins with a young Mademoiselle de Chartres who has been brought, by her mother, to the court of King Henry II to find a suitable match. Indeed, “this heiress was, at that time, one of the greatest matches in France, and though she was very young several marriages had been proposed to her mother; but Madam de Chartres being ambitious, hardly thought anything worthy of her daughter” (Lafayette, Part I). And so the dance for the best marriage proposal was at hand. And, it is in this plot device that the nature of the court, and the fate of women, is revealed by Lafayette. In introducing a purely fictional character into her world, she can insert her own commentary upon the history of the time and the court of King Louis XIV. Further, Lafayette is revealing, especially in the candid moments of Madam de Chartres, the pure ambition that drives noblewomen to attain their desires at any cost; the cost here, being her own daughter’s life.
The very next day after her arrival at court, Mademoiselle de Chartres heads out to acquire jewelry fitting her station in court. There, she meets (or, rather, is drooled upon by) the Prince of Cleves who simply cannot take his eyes from the fair beauty, and “could not dissemble his surprise” (Part I). Indeed, he stares at her so unabashedly that she becomes embarrassed by his goggle-eyes and leaves, while he is left to ponder her anew—for, as he has found in the past, most women of the court “always behold with pleasure the effect of their beauty” (Part I), and it is this that makes Mademoiselle de Chartres all the more intriguing. In this, Lafayette turns her literary gaze to the attitude of men in the court of the King. Able to take what they want, knowing that any woman can be theirs; all the while knowing, too, that the women of the court are only there to be chosen for their place of standing within the fickle society of the court.
The Prince is so beside himself, having fallen instantly in love with the Mademoiselle that he heads off to court and can speak of nothing else. The very next day, after her mother’s meddling in that very court, Mademoiselle is brought to meet the Prince and is greeted “with such admiration by everybody else, that nothing was to be heard at court but her praises, which she received with so agreeable a modesty, that she seemed not to have heard them, or at least not to be moved with them” (Part I). Once again, Mademoiselle demonstrates her nature as an heiress, and not a noblewoman, as she, unlike any other woman in the court, is not swayed by false praises or kind admiration for her beauty. Clearly, Mademoiselle de Chartres has become accustomed to the attitudes of her previous suitors and relationships as an heiress that she understands the ways of the court far better than the women within it—for, in refusing to acknowledge such false adoration (while she might be beautiful, all praises in a court are meant to serve a higher purpose), she is deliberately setting herself above everyone within the court.
Mademoiselle’s mother knew that she had to work to entice her daughter into marriage with the Prince, knowing too that “ambition and gallantry were the soul of the court, and employed both sexes equally…love was always mixed with business, and business with love: nobody was easy, or indifferent…and intrigue and pleasure took up their whole time” (Part I). With this insight, Lafayette is revealing exactly what she felt about the court of King Louis XIV. The life of a noblewoman, while from the outside might seem to have its advantages, was actually a harsh life of deceit, treachery, false praise, and ultimate deception to retain one’s position within the high society. Women, especially women who have something to gain (or even worse, something to lose) will stop at nothing to achieve their ends; and the political maneuverings of life within a court, detailed as clearly as Lafayette has done, demonstrate this concept with clever dialogue and royal intrigue.
Eventually, Mademoiselle finds herself married to the Prince of Cleves, and she the new Princess. Their marriage was not a happy one, and the Prince found himself thwarted and utterly flummoxed by her nonexistent love for him, having “preserved for her a passion full of violence and inquietude, but without jealousy, which had no share in his griefs” (Part I). But, what she was instead was the perfect example of a lady of the court. Her attitude “had an air which inspired so great respect, and had in it something so distant from gallantry” (Part I) that other men of the court began to fancy her from afar. Mademoiselle was far different from the other women striving for their place within society in that she was placed within the court with no desire for what it might do for her. Truly, she was, for all intents and purposes, a pawn in her mother’s plan for a high-born marriage.
Then the Duke de Nemours enters the court and Mademoiselle and he are instantly infatuated with each other. Though they never do anything that would enter them into an adulterous relationship, they are like the fabled Guinevere and Lancelot: lovers from afar. Though, in court, all good things must come to an end and eventually scandals occur which leads to a lovers’ quarrel resulting in a jealous letter to the Duke from Mademoiselle. Of course, the letter falls into the wrong hands and ultimately the Prince learns that his wife’s heart belongs to another man and he falls into a deep illness, eventually dying of his broken heart.
The Duke and Mademoiselle never actually consummate their relationship and she, instead of being an adulteress in the court (even though, with the death of the Prince she is free to do so), she enters the sanctity of a convent. More, she “lived in a manner that left no probability of her ever returning to court; [and] continued the austerity of retirement, and constantly employed herself in exercises more holy than the severest convents can pretend to and her life, though it was short, left examples of inimitable virtues” (Part IV). In the end, even having spent life in the society of court, Mademoiselle never became one of the noblewomen within it. She was married into the court, and played the game of the court, but, when given an open opportunity to participate in the scandal of the court (as much of Lafayette’s story is dedicated to the tales of real people participating in real scandal, like Anne Boleyn), she entered herself, instead, into a covenant and lived a life much more holy and virtuous.
Indeed, from the start, the Mademoiselle, being entirely fictional, was used as a clever plot device to demonstrate the fallacies of life within the court of King Louis XIV. As Mademoiselle was fully entrenched within society, she never found herself fawning at the feet of other noblewomen, nor playing their games. In court, she was a beautiful enigma, drawing the attention of both men and women because she was something that neither had ever experienced before—a genuine, virtuous human being.
Overall, Madame de Lafayette wrote “The Princess of Cleves” as a comment upon the realities of life as a noblewoman in the court of King Louis XIV. With her clever banter and literary devices, Lafayette demonstrates that the life of a noblewoman within the court of King Louis XIV was one of pure ambition and false adoration. In this, her historical fiction can nearly be read as a parody or observation upon the fallacies that noblewomen must endure to retain their successful positions within the court society.
Lafayette, Madame de. “The Princess of Cleves.” Project Gutenberg. 27 September 2008.
Accessed 11 July 2009. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/467/467-h/467-h.htm>.