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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Princesse de Clèves

Madame de Lafayette
(transl. Robin Buss)

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To purchase The Princesse de Clèves

Title: The Princesse de Clèves
Author: Madame de Lafayette
Genre: Novel
Written: 1678 (Eng. 1992)
Length: 176 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Princesse de Clèves - US
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The Princesse de Clèves - Canada
La Princesse de Clèves - Canada
The Princesse de Clèves - India
La Princesse de Clèves - France
Die Prinzessin von Clèves - Deutschland
La principessa di Clèves - Italia
La Princesa de Clèves - España
  • French title: La Princesse de Clèves
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Robin Buss
  • Previously translated anonymously (1679, 1720, 1777), by Thomas Sergeant Perry (1892), H.Ashton (1925), Nancy Mitford (1950, rev. by Leonard Tancock, 1978), Walter J. Cobb (1961), and Terence Cave (1992)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : well-presented tale of the times, but the fine touch loses something in translation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS* . 19/2/1925 Cyril Bentham Falls
TLS . 1/1/1993 Peter France
* Review of a previous translation

  From the Reviews:
  • "There is a simplicity in the style of Mme. de La Fayette, very agreeable, but hard to reproduce." - Cyril Bentham Falls, Times Literary Supplement

  • "His lightly annotated version, less obviously designed for university use than Cave's, sometimes scores with a deftness of touch which comes from simplifying the French construction, but at other times falls into infelicities. Though readable enough, it is a somewhat unsatisfactory half-way house between Mitford's stylish but free rendering (subsequently partially corrected by Leonard Tancock) and Cave's more scrupulous translation." - Peter France, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Princesse de Clèves, set in the sixteenth century and written in the seventeenth, is a court (melo-)drama that, while in many respects very old-fashioned, holds up surprisingly well.
       The story is fairly simple: Mlle de Chartres is introduced to the French court in her sixteenth year and attracts a lot of attention because of her great beauty. Among the first to be taken by that beauty is the Prince de Clèves -- but this is a time when:

Ambition and gallantry were the heart and soul of the court, preoccupying men and women equally. There were so many different factions and parties, and the women played so great a role in them, that love was always allied to politics and politics to love.
       The prince is a good match, and eventually Mlle de Chartres does become the Princesse of Clèves. Alas, the feelings of the lass, in turn, do not: "go beyond respect and gratitude" -- and she remains: "unchanged in feeling after her change of name." Worse yet, another man captivates her (and she him just as much) --the Duc de Nemours.
       Nevertheless, the princesse knows where her duty lies, and she fights her feelings as much as she can. Nemours, too, proceeds cautiously, but as they constantly bump into one another at the court they figure out how strong their feelings for each other are. But the princesse knows she can't act on her passion. As her mother warns her:
You are on the brink of the precipice: you will need to make an immense effort against your own inclinations to hold back. Think of your duty to your husband, think of your duty to yourself, and consider that you will lose the reputation you have gained and which I so much desired for you.
       The princesse is nothing if not dutiful, so even as it tears her (and, eventually, her marriage) apart, she remains true to her true course, and does not betray her husband. (This despite living at a court where everyone seems to be sleeping with everyone, and where it's taken for granted that, even as they are passionate about Mme de Clèves, both her husband and Nemours are going through any number of mistresses.)
       It's pretty hard to keep all these feelings suppressed, however, and slowly it comes evermore out into the open that Mme de Clèves and Nemours are passionately in love. Naturally, the fact that his wife loves another displeases M. de Clèves -- but at least she can reassure him that she hasn't compromised herself or him yet. Begging him to send her away from court, to make it easier to resist temptation, she reminds him:
I beg you a thousand times to forgive me, if my feelings displease you, but at least I shall never displease you by my actions.
       Not surprisingly, that's a very small consolation for the unloved M. de Clèves. After a while he is, to put it mildly, pretty torn about things:
I adore you, I hate you, I offend you, I beg your forgiveness; I am filled with wonder and admiration for you, and with shame at these feelings. In brief, there is no longer tranquility or reason in me.
       Pointing out that she has made him: "the unhappiest man in the world" -- while at the same time neither finding happiness for herself, or Nemours, either -- leaves this trio a pretty sorry lot of lovers.
       Finally, Mme de Clèves and Nemours have an opportunity to find happiness with one another -- but even at this point she remains dutiful (as well as having her doubts about the constancy of Nemours' love in the future, when there are no more impediments to it).
       The Princesse de Clèves is very much a romance of words, rather than action. The lovers (in the broadest but not narrower sense of the word) talk a great deal out -- but are also repeatedly prevented from readily communicating; at several points Mme de Clèves essentially turns a deaf ear to all entreaties and information (eventually going so far as to forbid anyone from even telling her who has tried to call on her when she has given a standing order for all visitors to be turned away). Ultimately, too, the love between Mme de Clèves and Nemours remains entirely theoretical and verbal, without any true physical intimacy.
       Yet the damage is still done: M. de Clèves is undone by his understanding of his wife's feelings, and their object (though it is what amounts to a misunderstanding that finishes him off). And neither Mme. de Clèves nor Nemours find any satisfying happiness.
       Along the way other fates and intrigues also come up at court, with far more terrible consequences; it's amusing how Madame de Lafayette presents many of these almost incidentally -- recounted as gossip, or simply summed up in a few background-sentences -- despite the stakes and costs. Much here too is set in motion by misunderstandings (willful and otherwise) and the whims of the too-powerful-for-their-own-good. But then even decent and proper Mme. de Clèves arguably erred in sharing too freely with her husband -- as, despite her dutiful devotion, she nevertheless can't help but allow her own passion to get in the way of things.
       It makes for an interesting frustrated-lovers tale, with its fair share of suspense, as Madame de Lafayette cruelly teases her characters by putting them in a variety of awkward and temptation-stimulating situations. The question of will-they-or-won't-they remains open until close to the end, but there's also more depth to Mme de Clèves than the usual noble (or coy ...), chaste maiden (in no small part no doubt because she isn't actually chaste, no doubt performing all her matrimonial duties, determinedly dutiful as she is ...)
       Because The Princesse de Clèves is so much a verbal -- rather than action-oriented (despite the jousting ...) -- novel, the role of language is even more significant than in most romances, and Mme. de Lafayette's artful, simple, and clear prose contribute a great deal to the success of the novel. Simple though it may be, it proves difficult to render in English with the same effect. Robin Buss' translation (the current Penguin Classic standard) is certainly fine, but as the many other translations suggest, there are a lot of ways of doing this, and none quite match the French accomplishment.

- M.A.Orthofer, 31 July 2012

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The Princesse de Clèves: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Madame de Lafayette (Marie-Madeleine de la Vergne) lived 1634 to 1693.

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