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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Madame de La Fayette (1634–1693)

IN the history of French fiction the work of Madame de La Fayette marks the beginning of a new era. Her work is the first which relies for its interest upon the truth of the emotions. For the impossible romances of heroic gallantry to which Cervantes had already given the death-blow, and for the picaresque tales of adventure which were to find their chief exponent in Defoe, she substituted the novel in which the study of character and the analysis of motive were to be the main sources of interest. Her immediate successors in the next century were the Abbé Prévost in France and Samuel Richardson in England. She raised the tone of fiction by simplifying motives, by deepening the characterization, and by adhering more closely to the facts of history and to the truth of nature. To these improved methods of treatment was added a distinction of style, and a carefully chosen but direct and unassuming language. The work in which her finest qualities are exhibited in combination is the ‘Princess of Clèves,’ upon which two centuries have placed the indelible mark of a great French classic. With this work the analytical novel of modern times may be said to have had its origin; and if the texture of motives in the ‘Princess of Clèves’ seems thin in comparison with the complicated and closely woven web of ‘Madame Bovary’ or ‘Middlemarch,’ it must be remembered that Madame de La Fayette’s book appeared thirty years before ‘Gil Blas,’ and nearly half a century before the time of the great English novelists.

Marie Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne was born in Paris in March 1634. Her brilliant qualities of mind were early displayed in the literary circle of the Hôtel Rambouillet; but after her marriage in 1655 to the Count de La Fayette, her own home became one of the chief literary centers of Paris. Madame de Sévigné, La Fontaine, and Segrais were her close friends; and after the early death of her husband she established an intimate friendship with the Duke de La Rochefoucauld. Her character was highly estimable, though long misunderstood. She survived La Rochefoucauld by thirteen years, which she was reported to have devoted to a life of penance. In 1880 hitherto unpublished letters were brought to light, which show that during those years Madame de La Fayette continued to play an important rôle at court, and was active for good in many a court intrigue. She was sincerely attached to her friends, of a restless activity, honestly frank, and possessed of a keen understanding.

At the time when Madame de La Fayette began to write, women of talent and learning were in disrepute; ecclesiastics had denounced them; Molière had ridiculed them. Her first story, ‘The Princess of Montpensier,’ appeared anonymously and made no stir. Her second, ‘Zayde,’ bore the name of her friend Segrais, and immediately attracted attention. ‘The Princess of Clèves,’ published in the spring of 1678, made a sensation. There was in this case no such close concealment of the authorship, but there was considerable mystification. Many believed the book to be the work of La Rochefoucauld. In one of her letters Madame de Scudéry wrote, “The book is an orphan disowned both by father and mother.” ‘The Princess of Clèves’ was the first novel in literature that could be called the romance of a married woman. There can be no doubt that although the scene is laid at the court of Henry II., the heroine is Madame de La Fayette herself; the Prince de Clèves, the Count de La Fayette; and the Duke de Nemours, La Rochefoucauld. The inner workings of a woman’s life are here portrayed with purity of feeling and faithfulness of observation. The Princess’s confession to her husband of her love for another man is related without dramatic fervor, but with a graceful certainty of touch. Two other works require only passing mention: ‘The History of Henrietta of England,’ published in 1720, and the ‘Mémoires of the Court of France,’ published in 1731. It is the ‘Princess of Clèves’ alone that renders Madame de La Fayette pre-eminent among the many brilliant women of France in the seventeenth century. “In order to produce it,” says her biographer, “there were needed a court and a country like the court and France of Louis XIV. Let us give greeting to these graces that we shall see no more; but since this flower is not yet faded, let us breathe its perfume which awakens in us the dreams of that brilliant time, and let us admire its undying freshness.”

Madame de La Fayette died in Paris on May 25th, 1693.