Reading Challenge, book 12, a classic romance: The Princess of Cleves by Madame de Lafayette
Who doesn’t love a good romance during the most romantic month of the year? I picked this particular love story based on suggestions from Goodreads and the fact that it is on my 1001 books to read before you die list. All things considered, it seemed like a good fit.
The setting of the story takes place in 1558-1559 at the royal court of Henry II of France. It’s considered a marvelously accurate account of France during this era. All of the characters are real historical figures with the exception of the titular Princess. Confession time: the only reason I knew any of the many, MANY characters mentioned throughout the first portion of the book is because I had a brief romance with the show Reign. I recognized several of the historical figures and their brief background stories from that show. I would say this was the toughest bit to get through; you suffer through a historical ‘who’s who’ guide and it’s hard to understand how these people are important to the plot (most of them aren’t). Once you sift past that part, things get a little less murky and it’s smooth sailing ahead.
Mademoiselle de Chartres is a young heiress who has been “brought out” to court in search of a suitable husband. Due to some unforeseen drama, her best suitors withdraw from her, leaving only subpar level matches. She does eventually decide to marry, and chooses the Prince of Cleves. Unfortunately, shortly after her marriage, she meets a man with whom she falls desperately in love. Unlike most romance novels, the two do not act on their feelings. The Princess remains faithful to her husband. Her lover becomes implicated in some scandal, in which he takes the fall for the Princess’ own relative, but she believes him to have been unfaithful in his feelings for her. Unfortunately, the Princess’ husband discovers her love for the other man, and believes her to be unfaithful (even though she truthfully never cheated on him). He dies shortly after out of grief, but begs his wife not to remarry the man she truly loves out of duty to his memory. She is then left with the choice: love or duty?
Most people consider this a must read since it is noted as the first novel to have a realistic plot. Rather than focus on roof, over-the-top romance where “all’s well that ends well,” this novel explores the reality of unrequited love. The novel is also noted for being the first to explore characters’ inner thoughts. As modern readers, we take both of these things for granted, but really without literature such as this novel, who knows where our literary tradition would have taken us? It’s definitely worthy of your time, and it’s really a very short read.