The Art and the Literary Style of Mme de Lafayette

We might identify three elements in this masterpiece by Mme de Lafayette:
1 The HISTORICAL novel
2 The PRECIOUS novel
3 The ANALYTICAL novel - achieving the sober eternal truth of CLASSICISM



This has been dealt with in a previous essay.  As the subject forms just one aspect of the current essay, the coverage will be more concise and more general.  Essential points will be:

A) The effective portrayal of a period of history in the novel
i) The description of a precise moment of French history 1558 - 1559
ii) The accurate picture of the court intrigues of these years
iii) The portrayal of true historical characters – with two exceptions.
iv) The moving and lucid presentation of the moral dilemmas caused by the contemporary practice of arranged marriages – marriages of reason.
B) The possible shortcomings of this account
We acknowledge:
(i)  Some minor inaccuracies
(ii) That it is not a complete history.
(iii) and that the atmosphere of the period has been refined (This point will be dealt with more fully later in this essay)

C) We admire the art of the authoress of this historical novel for:
The skilful interweaving of fact and fiction.


A ) Typical features of precious literature found in the novel

(i)  The stock scenes of Précieux literature.

(a) The stolen portrait. (Page 15 & 16 Summary Notes)
The relationship of Mme de Clèves and Nemours takes an important step forward when Nemours steals the miniature of Mme. de Clèves that her husband has lent to Mary Stuart.  By his act, Nemours makes an open display to Mme de Clèves that he is in love with her.  As he knows that she saw the theft and did not protest, she became his accomplice.  The situation is natural and the psychology accurate; nonetheless, an incident of a stolen portrait is a stock device of precious literature.
(b) The lost letter: (Page 17 &18 Summary Notes)
Another typical device of precious literature is the lost letter.  Nemours is associated with a love letter which  Châtelart picked up from the court after the King, Nemours, the Chevalier de Guise and the Vidame de Chartres had been playing tennis,  Châtelart, besotted with Mary Stuart, and knowing her interest in Nemours’ love life gave it to her. Mary Stuart slipped the letter, supposedly written by Nemours, to Mme. de Clèves to see if she knew the handwriting.  Reading the letter gives Mme de Clèves the shattering conviction that Nemours has another mistress and she is forced to take further steps along he education sentimentale as she learns the helpless insecurity and the cruel torment of jealousy, a lesson that will guide her future decisions.  Again this is a stock precious incident but it occurs naturally and is fundamental to the progression of the story.


(ii) In Précieux literature there is a tendency to complicate situations to the point of improbability. 

In “La Princesse de Clèves”, there are examples of this at very crucial points in the story. The circumstances of the overheard confession are based on very contrived coincidence. (Page 23-24 Summary Notes)

We can accept the reasons why Mme de Clèves needed to go away to the country away from the emotional pressures of the court and, equally, we can accept that a lover like Nemours would do his utmost to be with her again.  However, the likelihood that that Nemours could be in the next room at the moment when Mme de Clèves confesses to her hus­band and in a position to hear clearly all their conversation is difficult to accept.

Most readers will find the account improbable. We are told that, while at his sister’s house, Nemours lost his way during a stag hunt. He discovered then that he was near to Coulommiers and found his way to a pavilion in the grounds of the château of Mme. de Clèves. The reason that he had gone inside uninvited was that he wished to admire the beauty of the salon.  At that point, M. and Mme. de Clèves approached up the drive.  Embarrassed to be found there so unaccountably, Nemours had hidden in. the back room. He remained there unable to make an exit to the salon where M. & Mme. de Clèves were alone, and also curious to hear Mme. de Clèves’ conversation with her husband. 

The eavesdropping Nemours was also anxious to hear the name of the man, for whom Mme de Clèves was declaring her love, but was unable, not because the wife was speaking these confidences in a quiet, nervous voice or because of the separating partition but because Mme de Clèves refused to give the name.
Afterwards, Nemours is able to leave, just as he had entered, totally undetected.

Similar improbabilities are surround the subsequent return of Nemours to Coulommiers to see Mme de Clèves.  (Summary notes page 28)

The latter had gone to her country to relieve the turmoil of her emotions, caused by her passion for Nemours. Inexplicably she chose to take with her a reproduction of a large historical portrait belonging to Diane of Poitiers, depicting the siege of Metz..  She had chosen this because Nemours featured on it and the artist had achieved a striking likeness. It seems inconsistent that Mme. de Clèves should have taken this effort to torment her heart further and also that she should risk provoking even more the jealous anguish of her husband.

The detachment from reality is shown by the total disregard for the privacy and security of Mme de Clèves by herself, by her husband and by their servants.  Nemours is able to enter and leave the estate with total liberty.  He is able to watch the young lady in her bedroom in a state of undress,. Anyone else could have shared the spectacle.  Admittedly no other man would have shared the unique coincidence with Nemours of being there at the precise moment, when the young woman he loved gazed , lovesick at his own portrait and lovingly dress a walking stick with the colours he chose to represent him at the Royal tournament.. 

It was an improbable chance that Nemours, who was hiding, gave a glimpse of himself, just when Mme. de Clèves looked out of the window.

The whole episode is perhaps the least satisfactory part of the novel and in it we see Mme de Lafayette move artificiliality and exaggeration, which were the pitfalls of the Précieux movement.  An associated fault was over-sentimentatality.   This too is found in this episde as Mme de Clèves gazes at the pictue and dresses the walking sick.

(iii) The Quest for refinement. The Précieux aimed at the refinement of manners and literary expression.
In this book we see that the less seemly events of history are either not emphasised or excluded completely.. (The following is taken from the previous essay on history essay on history):
This was the period of the wars of religion with their bigotry and savagery. We are told that Catherine of Medici will revenge herself against the disloyal Vidame: (Page 104):
"Leur liaison se rompit, et elle le perdit ensuite a la conjuration d'Amboise, où il se trouva embarrassé."

She does not elaborate that there was a conspiracy by French Huguenots and others opposed to the Guises.  The conspirators planned to seize the King and Queen at the court of Amboise. The Reformation gets a very brief mention in the book.
Her history concentrates on princely diplomacy and noble galanterie.  Some historians criticise Mme de Lafayette  for presenting a 16th Century society that is too refined and too polite. She has certainly toned down the harshness of the account given by Brantôme.

For example: She tells us with lady-like restraint that Châtelart was smitten with a love for
Mary Stuart “which took away his reason and cost him his life.” Brantôme tells us the more lurid details that Châtelart hid in her room on two occasions, was discovered each time and was finally executed for his audacity.

All the characters are uniformly beautiful, noble in heart, noble in breeding.

(iv) The digressions
As in the novels of the Précieux there are secondary episodes grafted onto the story. (But here they have a relevance illustrating the disorders of love)
(v)  Examples of précieux language are found

Mme de Lafayette’s language, although generally very sober betrays at times features of Précieux style :
(i) The taste for euphemism – “ne point hair” -  means in fact : “aimer”
(ii) The taste for superlatives – Of Nemours shr writes: "Ce prince était un chef d'oeuvre de la nature; ce qu'il avait de moins admirable était d'être l'homme du monde le mieux fait et le plus beau."


(B) The Precious View of Love

(i) Love is seen in terms of the Précieux
a)  Mme de Lafayette follows the Précieux in carefully defining the nuances of love. A distinction is made between the:
'tendresse- reconnaissance - estime - inclination between amitié and passion
(ii) Love is an irrational passion which strikes one like a thunderbolt.
E.g. Monsieur de Clèves loves Mlle de Chartres at first sight at the jewellers: "il demeura si touché de sa beauté, et de l'air modeste qu'il avait remarqué dans ses actions, qu'on peut dire qu'il conçut pour elle dès ce moment, une passion et une estime extraordinaires"
E.g. Mme de Cléves and Nemours are mutually captivated from their first meeting: for Nemours Mary Stuart was now pushed into the background:
"de tout le soir, il ne put admirer que Mme de Cléves"


(ii) The “questions d’amour” that preoccupied the Précieux

The Précieux had a taste for the discussion of “questions d'amour”.
Mme de Lafayette shares this taste. In a letter to Mme de Sévigné she contrasts two maxims:
"One pardons unfaithfulness but one does not forget it"
"One forgets unfaithfulness but one does not pardon it"

The novel offers us a subtle discussion of a number of “questions d'amour”, which could have been topics in the salons of the Précieuses ladies.

The drama which takes place in the heart of the heroine can be summed up by two maxims  of Madame de Lafayette’s close friend le Duc de La Rochefoucauld:

"La même fermeté qui sert a résister à l'amour sert aussi à le rendre violent et durable"
"Qu'une femme est à plaindre, quand elle a toute ensemble de l'amour et de la vertu. »

The book poses a number of questions of love:
The story of Sancerre poses the question: If one learns at one and the same time of the death and of the infidelity of the person one loves, which emotion will be dominant - sorrow or resentment?

Another question - Should she protest about Nemours stealing her portrait?

Nemours raises a question of love with his subtle discussion of whether a lover should wish his mistress to go to a ball.

The principal scene of the book in which Mme de Clèves let her husband know of her love for another man became a famous question d'amour. The editor of a contemporary review asked for hie readers' opinions, whether Mme de Clèves should have confided the truth. (In fact an overwhelming number of readers criticised her action).

Usually in dealing with these topics she avoids the artificiality and contrivance for which the Précieux are often criticised.  The letter lost by the Vidame might be seen to illustrate these characteristics however (Pages 17 & 18)
The lady who wrote the letter was reproaching her lover having discovered that while they were apparently sharing a mutual love, he had in fact another mistress.

Thinking him unworthy, the writer of the letter decided to hide her sorrow from him and to feign indifference. She did not break with him, but believed that her coldness would hurt him and rekindle his love.

The stratagem worked and her lover returned to her with more passion than before. But as he had deceived her once, she will not now take him back and she is writing to let him know the whole truth.

(N.B. The letter is a model of precious style with an excessive elaboration of the sentiments of love).
jealousyThe Vidame de Chartres also passed an anxious night. The letter had in fact belonged to him and he only discovered its loss when he started to boast about this extremely pretty letter to his young nobleman friends 




Mme de Lafayette provides an object lesson in how features of the Précieux movement became transformed into the glories of French classical art.

(A)  The classical sobriety of her writing
(H Ashton) "The style of this novel shows the state of the French language after the reforming efforts of the Précieux and of the Académie Française. The poetry and the picturesqueness have dis­appeared"
Compared with the accounts of the historians who were her sources, Mme de Lafayette history is very concise and very sober. There is only one exception - she very much enjoys ceremony and magnificence of dress. In this novel, ceremonies receive a full share of attention and details of sumptuous apparel are carefully noted.
(B) Otherwise the book concentrates on the abstract not on the concrete. N.B. 1 Abstraction of writing -

How little physical detail we have of La Princesse de Cléves
Page 11 "La blancheur de son teint et ses cheveux blonds lui donnaient un éclat que l'on n'a jamais vu qu'à elle, tous ses traits étaient réguliers, et son visage et sa personne étaient pleins de grâce et de charme."

N.B. 2 The abstract vocabulary -

(Moore) "It is the vocabulary of the emotions, not of things outside man, nor of events that happen to man. The reader may note the frequent recurrence of such words as:
calme - repos - trouble - aigreur - passion - embarras - agité - triste malheureux - aveu - persuasion - prédiction - prétexte - rigeur


(C ) The psychological truth found in great classical works

(i) "The abstraction of Mme de Lafayette's vocabulary is accounted for because the

essential action of the story takes place not in a concrete setting at a tem­poral point of history but on a moral plane, a universal plane in the bewildering complexities of the human heart" (D Yendley 1981:)

The Questions d'Amour of the Precieux were often just a frivolous parlour game. However, the Precieux also revealed an intense interest in human behaviour and contemporary morality. They focused the attention on man and the nature of his love, which was the subject of the great works of the classical period. The clever subtleties of the Precieux have become in Mme de Lafayette an accurate psychological insight of fascinating complexity.

(ii) The complex psychology

Professor Jules Brody says of Nemours:
Not even from the readers' omniscient vantage-point does Nemour's character ever really emerge,-with total clarity. Daring, cunning, and egotism mix constantly
and randomly with self-effacement, submissiveness and ascetic devotion. Brantôme's exclusive insistence on aggressive sensuality (in Nemours) is absorbed into a further, infinitely more complex picture. Equally irresistible as his historical model, he is also smooth, gentle, socially a catch, and so discreet, presumably, that none can penetrate the secrets of his heart."

Mme de Cléves' behaviour is also very complex. Those who would see her rejection of Nemours as a Cornelian decision for virtue, ignore the many different impulses which complement and contest this decision.

(iii) The Passion

In spite of the restraint of the book - much of the story being told in formai dialogue.

In spite of the understatement - see for instance hôw Mme de Cléves' confession is little more than an allusion. (One exception is a passage of Cornelian rhetoric when Mme de Cléves deplores her fate; unable to marry Nemours. Page 170

"Pourquoi faut-il, s'écria-t-elle que je vous puisse accuser de la mort de Monsieur de Cléves? Que n'ai-je commencé â vous connaître depuis que je suis libre, ou pourquoi ne vous ai-je pas connu avant que d'étre engagée? Pourquoi la destinée nous separe-t-elle par Un obstacle si invincible?"

In spite of the fact that the characters, just as those in a play of Racine remain lucid and can rationally examine their feelings even at the moments of greatest despair - e.g. Monsieur de Cl éves after the confession.

In spite of this, this novel like the other classical masterpieces brings over to us with astonishing force the sense of the tragic implications of humanity. As in Racine we see the ravages of passion.

Lagarde and Michard say:

Mme de Clèves refuses to belong to Nemours as much out of concern for her repose as out of respect for her duty; she feels a "fear of love" of which one could not say whether one should attribute it rather to a private experience of the authoress, to a Précious tradition or to that pessimism which, under Jansenistic influence, penetrates French literature during the second half of the 17th Century.