Monday, October 28, 2019

The 17th century French novel – “May God defend all decent people against such a woman as Madame de Lafayette.”

The French 17th century was an age of novels, a heap of novels that nobody reads anymore and one that everyone reads.  “Nobody” and “everyone” are exaggerated, but only for emphasis, not to distort the truth.

The lone survivor is The Princess of Cleves (1678) by Madame de Lafayette, a historical novel set 120 years earlier in the court of Henri II.  The characters are almost all real figures; the surrounding incidents are real; the central romance is a novelistic invention.  Why is this book, preceding Walter Scott by 140 years, not the first historical novel?  Because there was no such thing as a “historical novel” and this book did not invent the category; Scott’s novels did.

Why is this book, among the dead novels of its time, still read?  Because it looks like a novel as we know it.  Characters have depth and the plot turns on a couple of seemingly minor but psychologically true moments.  It is not just a series of adventures tacked together, although there is a dramatic joust at one point.

Why is this novel so important, on the Baccalaureate exam and the French civil service exam?  Why has it become a symbol of Frenchness?  I do not know.  It is a good novel, but its status comes from something else.

Lafayette is herself a figure of high interest, or at least Nancy Mitford’s little biography that introduces her 1951 translation makes her seem so.  That line in my title is from p. xxvii, and the context is Mme de Lafayette’s strongarm tactics to get an heiress to marry her son.  She was ruthless.

The composition of the novel is of interest.  It was collaborative, in some way.  It was, as we would say now, workshopped.  Lafayette ran one of the great salons of her time.  It is where the Duc de la Rochefoucauld brought his maxims to be polished and perfected; they too were workshopped.  Members of the salon worked on not just the story and prose but on the research, supplying historical details of all kinds.  Too bad we don’t know more.

What I think of, perhaps incorrectly, as a more typical novel of the time is a monster like Artamène, or Cyrus the Great (1648-53) by Madeleine de Scudéry, possibly in collaboration with her brother.  Ten volumes; 13,000 pages; over two million words; among the longest novels ever written; likely the longest French novel.

A prince, the son of Cyrus the Great, spends a lot of time wandering the Mediterranean trying to rescue the princess he loves, who is kidnapped three times – only three times, given that page count, but my understanding is that much of the bulk is filled with digressions and inset stories.  A new character appears and recounts all of his many adventures.  The last chunk of the first volume of Don Quixote (1605), where the phony shepherds tell their boring stories, is likely how I should imagine things going, except at much greater length.

My other understanding is that many or most of the characters are clear stand-ins for people in the court and the salons of the time.  The novel was a big hit, but I wonder what that meant.  How many people could possibly be reading it?  How many could afford it?  A thousand, more, less?  No idea.  But one reason a certain crowd was so eager to read each new volume was because they were in it.  The nobility read the novel to read about themselves.  Talk about identifying with a character.

Scudéry followed the success of this colossus with another ten volume novel, Clélie (1654-61), and then several more novels of a mere eight or four volumes.

The Princess of Cleves is only two hundred pages!  No wonder everybody reads nobody reads etc. etc.  Both Artamène and Clélie are in print today, but in drastically condensed four hundred page editions.  Somebody is in some sense reading them.  Graduate students?  The French equivalent of bookish lunatics like me?

The “longest novel” business is so arbitrary.  How big have our long-running detective and fantasy series gotten?  Why don’t they count as one gigantic novel?  The odd thing is I know Madeleine de Scudéry not as a novelist but as a pioneering lady detective, as recounted in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Mademoiselle de Scudéry (1819), where Hoffmann invents the detective story, with numerous elements that later become widespread, yet somehow does not write the first detective story because, see above, there is as yet no such thing.  Literary history works backwards.


  1. An interesting post, even to those like me, not so knowledgeable in literary material.

  2. Part of the fun of literary history is learning about all the wild and crazy books that I will never read.

  3. I have a fondness for La Princesse de Cleves as it was the first book I read in French. The vocab is fairly repetitive, which was nice for me, and there were, as you say, some clever psychological moments.

    Now reading Tartuffe and trying to read Michon's Les Onze, but alas the vocab in the latter remains beyond my level.

  4. That is an impressive "first book in French." Les Onze looks interesting, but yes, with contemporary books just figuring out the reading level is a challenge. It is easy to be wrong.

  5. I loved La Princesse de Clèves when I read it. My daughter had to read it in high school.

    I only learnt about Mlle de Scudéry because Molière makes fun of her crowd in Les Précieuses ridicules.

  6. Scudéry is so interesting as a figure, but I can hardly imagine reading her books. If you come across the Hoffmann story sometime, I think you will find it interesting.