Introduction: She is one of the fictitious characters in this historical novel


In this historical novel, almost every character has a real historical model, however the central character
the heroine and her mother, appear to be completely  fictitious. However, one critic believes that a historical model for the Princesse de Clèves can be found in Anne d'Este who was courted by Nemours while she was married to the Duc de Guise, and who married Nemours after her husband's death.

At all events Mme de Lafayette is careful to put La Princesse de Clèves into the real historical noble family of Chartres. As a result she is a very rich heiress and her mother regarded few men in France worthy of her daughter's hand. Thus she sought a marriage with a royal prince.

1 Her education
(Page 3 Summary notes) We are told, rather quaintly, that Mile de Clèves widowed mother had paid great attention to her education while they had lived away from the court, cultivating not only her wit and her beauty but also a respect for virtue.

(Page 3 Summary notes)
Elle lui contait lé peu de sincérité des hommes, leurs tromperies et leur infidélité, lés malheurs domestiques ou plongent les engagements; et elle lui faisait voir, d'un autre coté, quelle tranquillité suivait la vie d'une honnête femme, et combien la vérité et la vertu donnaient d'éclat et d'élévation a une personne qui avait de la beauté et de la naissance.

Her mother's gave her daughter her final lesson in virtue on her death bed:
(Page 9 Summary notes)  
Songez ce que vous devez a votre mari; songez ce que vous vous devez a vous-même, et pensez que vous allez perdre cette réputation que vous êtes acquise et que je vous ai tant souhaitée -


Her moral standards were instilled in her both by these teachings and by the examples that  the court offered of the disastrous effects of sexual intrigue.  The court gives her countless examples of the complications of illicit affairs.


2 Her beauty and modesty

The description which we are given of Mlle de Chartres gives very little detail, but with superlatives typical of the precious novel we are assured of her unique beauty:

(Page 3 Summary notes)  La blancheur de son teint et ses cheveux blonds lui donnaient un éclat que l'on n'a jamais vu qu'a elle; tous ses traits étaient réguliers, et son visage et sa personne étaient pleins de grâce et de charme.

Although a beauty, she retained a charming modesty and when M de Clèves met her by chance at the jeweller’s he was struck by both these qualities in her:
(Page 3 Summary notes)   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.

Her beauty was universally admired. When she was introduced to court, the three Queens admired her beauty.  The effect of her beauty and charm on Nemours was such that he fell in love with her on first seeing her at the ball.  Later he was to spurn his opportunity to become the consort to Queen Elizabeth I of England, because of his  attraction to the young wife of  the Prince de Clèves .

3 Her youth and inexperience

Mlle de Chartres was only a young girl when she underwent the trials described in the book. We are told (Page 3 Summary notes)  that she was in her sixteenth year when her mother brought her to court. In view of her youth­ is not surprising that her closest personal friend at the court should have been the teenage Dauphine, and that she was particularly popular with the King's teenage daughter. Later, she behaves like like a teenager in love, when she shuts herself away in the summer house at Coulommiers, mooning over mementoes of Nemours and his portrait.

For a young girl like Mlle de Chartres, the court with its complicated web of intrigues was a fascinating place, but her mother had to warn her of the dangers.
(Page 6 Summary notes)   Si vous jugez sur les apparences en ce lieu-ci, répondit Madame Chartres vous serez souvent trompée; ce qui paraît n'est presque jamais la vérité.

She is too young to know what love is. When before their marriage, M de Clèves laments to her that she responds to his love with only sentiments of esteem and gratitude, he is forced to accept that she cannot understand anything about these distinctions of the conditions of emotion:

(Page 5 Summary notes).   Mlle de Chartres ne savait que répondre, et ces distinctions étaient au-dessus de ses connaissances.

It is when her mother tells her of the rumours of an affair between Nemours and Mary Stuart that Mme de Clèves moved by jealousy recognises that the feelings she has for Nemours are those her husband has so often asked her for.  (Page 8 Summary notes). 

4 Her struggle against her illicit love

She recognises that she will never conquer the fatal passion which she feels for Nemours, but she steadfastly refuses to become involved in an adulterous love affair with him.
When Mme de Clèves returns to court after her period of mourning for her mother, Mary Stuart tells her that Nemours has turned his back on the court of England for some secret love. At this the Princesse de Clèves is forced to recognise that her love for Nemours is still strong. However she determines to give him no mark of her love and to avoid his company as far as possible:
(Page 12 Summary notes). 
Elle ne se flatta. plus de l'espérance de ne le pas aimer; elle songea seulement à ne lui en donner jamais aucune marque.

As in the tragedies of Racine, cruel tricks of fate cheat the virtuous resolu­tion of the hero/ heroine and she gives to Nemours an involuntary indication of her love on four occasions:

i) When Nemours is severely concussed by a fall from his horse, Mme de Clèves is so distressed that she does not think to hide her anxiety - and Nemours recognises her feelings.
ii) When Nemours steals her miniature, she avoids protesting and thus bringing out into the open Nemours love for her. Yet by keeping silent she makes herself the accomplice of Nemours - which he quietly underlines to her.
iii) Her cold reception of Nemours when she believed the letter was his, revealed her sense of betrayal and her love.
iv) Mme de Cléves and Nemours are shut away in an intimate tête à tête as they compose a new letter to cover up for the incriminating letter lost by the Vidame. It is a happy and amusing interlude for Mme de Clèves. It is only after the departure of Nemours that Mme de Clèves realises how far she has forgotten her virtuous resolution:
(Page 18 Summary notes).   elle trouvait qu'elle était d'intelligence avec M de Nemours, qu'elle trompait le mari du monde qui méritait le moins d'être trompé, et elle était honteuse de paraître si peu digne d'estime aux yeux même de son amant.

Recognising her weakness, Mme de Clèves asks to stay away from the court. When her husband insists on her staying at the court, Mme de Clèves has recourse to one desperate step to defend her virtue. She confesses to her husband.

After the death of her husband, her strict conscience attributes the responsibility for his death to herself and to Nemours:
(Page 28 Summary notes). 
elle né trouvait guère moins de crime a epouser M de Nemours qu'elle en avait trouvé à l'aimer pendant la vie de son mari.
After her husband's death she effectively avoids meeting Nemours and thus final meeting is brought about by a trick on Nemours' part with the connivance of the Vidame.
Her resolution for virtue is such however that she takes refuge in her estates in the Pyrenees and partly in a convent and the final comment on her life is on her virtue:
(Page 31 Summary notes). 
 sa vie, qui fut assez courte, laissa des exemples de vertu inimitables.


5 She has the sound judgement and composure of a mature woman

If we examine the reasons for her choice of the path of virtue, we recognise that she chose this path because it was the path of "raison" that much admired 17th Century concept of good sense. We have previously looked at the Princesse de Clèves as a young inexperienced girl, however throughout the book her composure and the soundness of her judgement are rather those of one mature lady.

Sound practical and human reasons explain Mme de Clèves conduct and we would be wrong to put too much emphasis on Christian morality. She rejects Nemours not primarily because her Christian conscience tells her this would be a sin, but because her reason warns her about the consequences of this action.
We can identify three rational causes for the heroine's rejection of Nemours:
1 The threat of Nemours' inconstant nature
In the education of her daughter Mme de Chartres had emphasised the fickleness of men and the distress which acts of infidelity brought into families:

(Page 3 Summary notes). 
 elle lui contait le peu de sincérité des hommes, leurs tromperies et leur infidélité, les malheurs domestiques ou plongent les engagements.

With one of its cruel tricks, fate decreed that Mme de Clèves should fall in love with a notorious philander. Mary Stuart says of Nemours that before going to Brussells:
(Page 9 Summary notes). 
il avait un nombre infini de maitresses, et c'était même un défaut en lui; car il ménageait également celles qui avaient du mérite et celles qui n'en avaient pas.

Mme de Clèves experienced first-hand the torments which a woman suffers when betrayed by the man she loves. The letter which Mary Stuart gave her, purportedly to Nemours from another lady made her experience pain such as she had never known before:
(Page 15 Summary notes). 
- elle tenait cette lettre avec une main tremblante; ses pensées étaient si confuses, qu'elle n'en avait aucune distincte, et elle se trouvait dans une sorte de douleur insupportable qu'elle né connaissait point, et qu'elle n'avait jamais sentie.

She shares her mother's opinion of the reliability of men. On finding that Nemours, having got hold of the story of her confession (she knows not how) has recounted it at the court, believes that he is only like all other men who need to boast of their conquests - and she is deeply disappointed in him.
(Page 22 Summary notes). 
 J'ai eu tort de croire qu'il y eût un homme capable de cacher ce qui flatte sa gloire.

In her last interview with Nemours, she suggests that it would be a miracle if a man was capable of lasting love:
(Page 29 Summary notes). 
.. mais les hommes conservent-ils de la passion dans ces engagements eternels? dois-je espérer un miracle en ma faveur .
In spite of her love for Nemours, her judgement is sound. She recognises that Nemours is a handsome man, attractive to all women, who loves the company of women. One day he will not be satisfied with her anymore and look elsewhere:
(Page 29 Summary notes). 
..  les passions peuvent me conduire; mais elle ne sauraient m'aveugler: rien ne me peut empêcher de connaitre que vous êtes né avec toutes les dispositions pour la galanterie, et toutes les qualités qui sont propres â y donner des succès heureux; vous avez déjà eu plusieurs passions, vous en auriez encore, je ne ferais plus votre bonheur.

After this final interview with Nemours, she had time in the solitude of her mourning to reconsider marriage with Nemours but it was fear of Nemours' infidelity which still dissuaded her from accepting his hand:
(Page 30 Summary notes). 
 La fin de l'amour de ce prince et les maux de la jalousie qu'elle croyait infaillibles dans un mariage lui montraient un malheur certain ou elle s'allait jeter.

On her deathbed Mme de Chartres talks to her daughter
(Page 46 Summary notes). 
Songez ce que vous devez à votre mari.

M de Clèves had loved her from the start and he had married her at a time when no other suitor dared any longer to think of her. He showed his wife extreme con­sideration and devotion during the illness and after the death of her mother, never leaving her side. This made Mme de Clèves even more determined to fulfil her duty towards him.
Although she does not feel love for her husband, she does feel esteem, gratitude and friendship. It constantly hurts her that she has to hide from her husband the problem of her relationship with Nemours and she is constantly on the verge of telling him something before the final confession. Mary Stuart finds this confidence between husband and wife odd -
 il n'y a que vous de femme au mondé qui fasse confidence a son mari de toutes les choses qu'elle sait.

After her tête à tête with Nemours composing the letter, Mme de Clèves believes she has unfairly deceived her husband:
(Page 18 Summary notes). 
…  elle trouvait qu'elle était d'intelligence avec M de Nemours, qu'elle trompait le mari du monde qui méritait le moins d'être trompé.

Her confession to her husband is a measure of the esteem and affection which she feels towards him and she reminds him of this:
(Page 19 Summary notes). 
  Songez que, pour faire ce que je fais, il faut avoir plus d'amitié et plus d'estimé pour un mari que l'on n'en a jamais eu: conduisez-moi, ayez pitié de moi, et aimez-moi encore si vous pouvez.

The confession serves to make Mme de Clèves feel an even stronger sense of responsibility towards her husband. He is deeply in love with his wife, and the knowledge that she loves someone else, inflicts upon him days of cruel suspicion, insecurity and jealousy, which even this profoundly decent man has difficulty in controlling.
(Page 24 Summary notes). 
 Je vous adore, je vous haii, je vous offense, je vous demandé pardon.

A cruel trick of Fate makes her the innocent instrument of her husband's death. Circumstantial evidence that she has spent two nights with Nemours at Coulommiers, shatters his morale and undermines his health. On his deathbed he tells her that she is responsible for his death:
(Page 26 Summary notes). 
Vous versez bien des pleurs, madame, lui dit-il, pour une mort que vous causez, et qui ne vous peut donner la douleur que vous faites paraître.

In spite of the reassurances Mme de Clèves is able to give at the final moments, the illness of the Prince de Clèves is already too advanced and he dies.
After his death the Princesse de Clèves accepts that she was the cause of her husband's death and that she had betrayed a deserving and loving husband:
(Page 27 Summary notes). 
 quand elle commença d'avoir la force de l'envisager, et qu'elle vit quel mari elle avait perdu, qu'elle considéra qu'elle était la cause de sa mort, et que c'était par la passion qu'elle avait eue pour un autre qu'elle en était cause, l'horreur qu'elle eut pour elle-même et pour M de Nemours ne se peut représenter.

One consolation which she now felt after the death of her husband was that she now missed him as much as he deserved. On his deathbed he had warned her against men who
(Page 27 Summary notes). 
 en vous témoignant de l'amour ne cherchent que l'honneur de vous séduire.

After his death Mme de Clèves is determined to show her affection and loyalty to her late husband by acting for the rest of her life as he would have wished.  She makes it clear to Nemours that loyalty to her dead husband, prevents her from accepting him as her husband:
(Page 29 Summary notes). 
  Il n'est que trop véritable. que vous êtes cause de la mort de M de Clèves; les soupçons que lui a donnés votre conduite inconsidérée lui ont coûté sa vie, comme si vous la lui aviez ôtée de vos propres mains.

Although anxiety about Nemours' fidelity predominate in her mind, the Princesse
of Clèves finds that the principle of loyalty to a loving husband comes again to the forefront when a serious illness and the prospect of death lead her to view events in a more detached way:
(Page 30 Summary notes). 
  Enfin, elle surmonta lés restes de cette passion qui était affaiblie par les sentiments que sa maladie lui avait donnes lés pensées de la mort lui avaient reproche la mémoire de M de Clèves.

6 Her mature dignity

A final reason why she rejected Nemours before and after the death of her husband was her self respect.
Although the Princesse is only a girl of 16-17 we are impressed constantly by her mature composure. She is no timid shrinking young girl!