Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Most junior French classes at St. John's read Madame de Lafayette's Princesse de Cleves at some point, as an example of French literature and fairly straightforward translation. As with most of the books I encountered at SJC, reading them now is so much more pleasant since I don't have to 1), think of something to say about them but rather think of what interests me about them, and 2), listen to other people's inane comments. And no, I'm not putting down St. John's. I really did love it there.

My point is that I found it terribly frustrating to have a discussion about The Princesse de Cleves because of my classmates' inability to fathom virtue. They accused Mme de Cleves of being boring and spineless for not giving in to her passions, when she is one of the few truly virtuous literary characters. I find it refreshing to read about someone who doesn't give in to temptation despite their constant barrage, and I would think others would feel the same. Apparently not.

Anything written about the French court is pretty weird, and serves to make me eternally grateful for not having been born into that time, but this book seems to me particularly steeped in gossip and intrigue. It's the story of a young noblewoman who marries a prince madly in love with her, who (unlike all other husbands of the time) continues to be in love with her throughout their marriage, despite her return of only mild affection. She believes herself to be incapable of love (and is hardly devastated by that belief, seeing the affairs and scandals going on daily around her), until M de Nemours, a dashing rake of a nobleman, appears on the scene. They are immediately mutually attracted, but she (unlike all other wives of the time) refuses to enter into an affair with him. Nemours does everything he can to persuade her, but she is steadfast even though every thought of him is a temptation. Finally she is so frightened by her passion that she confesses everything to her husband in the hopes that he will keep her away from the court and society. M de Cleves is overcome by the knowledge that, although she has not had an affair, she still is capable of being in love--just not with her husband. He eventually dies, supposedly of a broken heart, and because Mme de Cleves believes that Nemours was ultimately the cause of his death, she refuses to remarry despite her new freedom. After discovering the extent to which Nemours has been following and watching her (which touches her, oddly--in this day and age we'd call that stalking, but whatever), and enters a convent.

What's missing from this summary is the true accessibility of the characters--because of them, it's not just a French soap opera. Mme de Cleves is one of my favorite characters, and her husband is not the milksop he sounds. He loves his wife more than one would think possible, and that seems to me just as admirable as her strength. Nemours, on the other hand, is creepy and weird--Mme de Cleves is finally a little disturbed at the knowledge that he spied on her and then told what he heard to everyone at court--and it's rather incomprehensible to me that this was not her reason for rejecting him rather than the fear of betraying her dead husband.

It's really a fascinating book, in many ways, and I highly recommend it.

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