The Princess of Clèves

by Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne

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The court of Henry II of France is filled with many intrigues, as much of the heart as of anything else. The court itself is divided into several groups. One group is partial to the queen, who is at odds with Henry because he chooses to be guided in his personal life and in his government by Diane de Poitiers, the duchess of Valentinois, who had been his father’s mistress and is now a grandmother in her own right. A second group is that which surrounds the duchess of Valentinois. A third group is that which has as its center Princess Mary, wife of the dauphin, the beautiful and brilliant young woman who is also queen of Scotland.

Into this scene of rivalry comes Madame de Chartres, with her very beautiful daughter, to be married to a nobleman with a rank as high as possible; Madame de Chartres hopes even for a prince of royal blood. Unfortunately for the mother’s hopes, the intrigues of the court keep her from arranging a match so brilliant or advantageous. A marriage with either monsieur de Monpensier, the chevalier de Guise, or the Prince de Clèves seems the best that could be made, and there are obstacles to a marriage with either of those, as Madame de Chartres discovers. Each of the groups at the court is afraid that such a marriage would upset the status of the powers as they stand.

Finally, arrangements are made for a marriage to the Prince de Clèves. The gentleman, however, is perturbed by the attitude of his bride. He loves her greatly, and she seems to love him dutifully but without the abandon for which he wishes. He tries to be satisfied when she tells him that she will do her best to love him, but that she feels no real passion for him or any man. The marriage is celebrated in grand style, and a fine dinner party, attended by the king and queen, is given at the Louvre.

For many months no one at the court, where extramarital attachments are the rule rather than the exception, dare to say anything about the young wife. Thanks to her mother’s solicitude and her own lack of passion where men are concerned, the Princess de Clèves keeps a spotless reputation. Her mother, who soon is on her deathbed, knows from various conferences with the princess—unusual conferences for a married woman to have with her mother, for in reality they are confessions—that the princess has no inclinations to stray from her marital vows.

One evening, however, a court ball is given in honor of one of the king’s daughters, whose marriage is pending. A late arrival at the ball is the duke de Nemours, the most handsome and gallant courtier in France. At his entrance, the Princess de Clèves, who had never seen the duke before, is ordered by the king to dance with him.

Queen Elizabeth of England has taken an interest in the duke de Nemours and has expressed the wish that the young man would visit her court, but the duke remains where he can be near the Princess de Clèves. Even the repeated requests of the French king, who sees in Nemours a possible consort for Queen Elizabeth, cannot remove the duke from her side. Meanwhile, the Princess de Clèves does everything she can to conceal her love for the duke from everyone, even from her lover himself. She is determined to remain a faithful and dutiful wife.

One day, while the princess and the duke are in the apartments of the Queen Dauphine, the...

(This entire section contains 1136 words.)

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princess sees Nemours steal a miniature portrait of her. Although she has ample opportunity, the princess says nothing to stop him from taking her picture. Sometime later, the duke is injured by a horse in a tournament, and several people note the look of distress on the face of the Princess de Clèves. The court is beginning to realize that love is blossoming between the two.

As soon as she realizes what is happening in her heart, the Princess de Clèves goes to her husband and asks him to take her away from Paris for a time. They go to an estate in the country. While there, the princess confesses to her husband that she is falling in love with someone. Admiring her candor, he promises to help her overcome the passion. Although she refuses to name the man she loves, the Prince de Clèves guesses that it is one of three men, a trio that includes the duke de Nemours, but he has no proof. Although neither knows it, while the princess is confessing her love, de Nemours is hiding so close to them that he can overhear what is said.

Months go by, and gradually, despite her efforts to keep away from him, the princess indicates to her husband that the duke de Nemours is the man she loves. The prince is torn by jealousy, but his wife’s confession and her obvious efforts to curb her love prevent him from taking any action in the matter. His only recourse is to accuse her at intervals of not being fair to him in loving another.

The strain becomes too much for the Princess de Clèves, and she asks her husband’s permission to retire to a country estate near Paris. He yields graciously but sends one of his own retainers to make sure of her conduct while she is away. The retainer returns to report that twice, at night, the duke de Nemours had entered the garden where the princess was; the retainer does not know and so cannot report that his mistress had refused to see the man who loves her.

After the retainer has made his report, the prince falls ill of a fever. When the princess returns, she is unable to convince him that she has not been unfaithful, even though he wants to believe her. Rather than stand in the way of her happiness, he languishes and dies.

Some months after her husband’s death, the duke de Nemours prevails upon the princess’s uncle, the vidame de Chartres, to intercede for him with the princess. The uncle agrees and arranges for an interview between the two. At this time, the princess tells the duke that, in spite of her love for him, she could never marry him. Soon afterward, she retires to her estate in the Pyrenees. She falls gravely ill there and, during her recuperation, experiences a religious conversion. She spends six months of each year praying in a convent and the remaining six months doing charitable work in her parish. Several years later she dies, although she is still quite young.

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