La Princesse de Montpensier, 1662 (novella; as Segrais; The Princess of Montpensier, 1666)
Zayde, 1670-1671 (2 volumes; as Segrais; also known as Zaïde; English translation, 1678)
La Princesse de Clèves, 1678 (published anonymously; The Princess of Clèves, 1679)
La Comtesse de Tende, 1724 (novella; as Segrais)
Histoire de Madame Henriette d’Angleterre, 1720 (Fatal Gallantry, 1722)
Mémoires de la cour de France pour les années 1688 et 1689, 1731
Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne, later the Comtesse de La Fayette (lah fah-yeht), was the daughter of Marc Pioche de la Vergne, a gentleman of Paris who was important enough to have a Marshal of France and a niece of Cardinal Richelieu as his daughter’s godparents. Marie, born in Paris in March, 1634, was educated privately but evidently was educated well; later, as lady-in-waiting to the queen, and as a member of the most intellectual circles of the capital, she was known for her wit and for her ability to converse freely in Latin. She was married to François, Comte de La Fayette, when she was twenty-two years old. The couple lived for a time at the count’s country estate in Auvergne, but after she had borne her husband two children Madame de La Fayette returned to Paris, to remain there for the rest of her life.
Her literary interests soon brought her to the attention of her most talented contemporaries; she became acquainted with Molière, for example. In her own court circles she was one of an intimate group that included Madame de Sévigné and the Duc de La Rochefoucauld. Her best books were written during this period of literary and personal association.
It has been established beyond doubt that Madame de La Fayette wrote the novels ascribed her, even though she denied them explicitly. Her second book, Zayde (or Zaïde), could possibly have been the work of Segrais, a scholar who served in her household until 1676 and who put his signature to the work, but modern scholarship doubts even that. Certainly The Princess of Montpensier, The Princess of Clèves, and La Comtesse de Tende, which, unpublished in her lifetime, were discovered in an eighteenth century magazine and printed in book form in 1927, show too great an understanding of court life and too great a restraint to have been written by anyone but this keenly intelligent and marvelously talented Frenchwoman who was literally a hundred years ahead of her time. Her masterpiece was clearly The Princess of Clèves, the first fully successful psychological novel written in France. This novel, which takes place at the French royal court during the middle of the sixteenth century, describes the moral and spiritual development of the title character. Madame de La Fayette died in Paris on May 25, 1693.