Places: The Princess of Clèves

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: La Princesse de Clèves, 1678 (English translation, 1679)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological

Time of work: Mid-sixteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Louvre

*Louvre Princess of Clèves, The (lew-vruh). Parisian palace that is the mid-sixteenth century site of the royal court of King Henri II in which the novel unfolds during the last years of the king’s reign. Madame de La Fayette opens her novel with an account of the king’s twenty-year relationship with his mistress, quickly establishing the public nature of romance in this glamorous, pleasure-oriented environment.

Most of the novel’s court scenes take place in the Louvre, the royal French residence until King Louis XIV moved to establish a new palace at Versailles in 1682. Giving almost no physical descriptions of the palace, the novel concentrates instead on its moral-social ambience, summed up at one point as “a sort of ordered agitation” that makes “it all quite pleasant, but also precarious, for a young lady.” So important are decorum, masks, and dissembling at court that “appearances seldom lead to truth.” After King Henri’s accidental death at a tournament, the growing estrangement between the princess and her husband plays out against a court destabilized by major power shifts.


*England. Under Queen Elizabeth I, England is an ally of France during the period in which the novel is set, and the country figures into the novel as the source of a prestigious marriage for the duke de Nemours. De La Fayette establishes her fictional hero’s extraordinary worth by having him court the new English queen, with every chance of success, before falling in love with the French princess.

One of several stories embedded in the novel recounts the romance of Queen Elizabeth’s father, King Henry VIII, with her mother, Anne Boleyn. Boleyn had lived at the French court before becoming Henry’s second wife in 1533. This episode not only roots her Protestantism in her French life but also uses the political and sexual intrigues of Henry’s reign to mirror the scheming at the Louvre.


*Brussels. Belgian city that is the duke’s base for his courtship of Queen Elizabeth. His residence here during princess of Clèves’s first arrival at the French court means that he meets and pursues her only after her marriage.


*Spain. Roman Catholic country that is France’s enemy at the beginning of the novel and that becomes its ally. In Book 3, the French court celebrates the wedding of King Henri’s daughter, Elizabeth of Valois, to Philip II of Spain (by proxy). The widower of Mary I of England, who died in 1558, Philip chooses Elizabeth as his third wife to commemorate a treaty he signed earlier with France. As political alliances, such marriages in the novel contrast not only with the duke’s passion for the princess but also with her husband’s unusual marital love.


Coulommiers (kew-lom-YAY). Estate of the prince and princess of Clèves, located a day’s journey from Paris. As a country retreat, Coulommiers enables the princess to obey her mother’s dying wish that she leave the court to protect her virtue and reputation. Twice the duke invades her refuge, his secret presence suggesting the danger his forceful eroticism poses to the princess’s integrity. From an alcove in a pavilion in the château’s gardens, he eavesdrops on the princess’s confession to her husband that she is resisting her love for another man.

Later, when the princess again adjourns from the court to preserve her honor, the duke returns to Coulommiers at night and–while being observed by the prince’s servant–watches the princess sitting in an alcove, knotting ribbons on his former walking stick. After rejecting the duke’s proposal of marriage, the widowed princess retreats entirely from court, first withdrawing to her estate in the Pyrenees, then dividing her time between Coulommiers and a convent.

Merchant shops

Merchant shops. Early in the novel, the prince first sees the princess–still Mademoiselle de Chartres–in an Italian jeweler’s shop. At the end of book 4, the duke rents a strategically situated room from a silk merchant for spying on the princess in Paris. In both scenes, valuable merchandise serves as a backdrop for intrusive male appreciation of female beauty.

BibliographyDanahy, Michael. The Feminization of the Novel. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1991. A long chapter on The Princess of Clèves in this book focuses on gendered spatial archetypes and patterns of communication.DeJean, Joan. Tender Geographies: Women and the Origins of the Novel in France. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. The extensive chapter “Lafayette and the Generation of 1660-1689” places The Princess of Clèves in a broad historical context and situates it with regard to politics and to other French women writers of the period.Haig, Stirling. Madame de La Fayette. New York: Twayne, 1970. Contains a very thoughtful overview of Madame de La Fayette’s career as a novelist. Haig describes very well her place in the development of the historical novel as a genre in seventeenth century France.Henry, Patrick, ed. An Inimitable Example: The Case for “La Princesse de Clèves.” Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1992. Includes twelve excellent essays which illustrate feminist, sociocritical, psychological, and religious interpretations of this novel. Contains a thorough bibliography of critical studies on The Princess of Clèves.Kamuf, Peggy. Fictions of Feminine Desire: Disclosures of Heloise. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. Analyzes a number of novels, including The Princess of Clèves, in which the author focuses on the role of Madame de Chartres in “constructing” her daughter.Kaps, Helen Karen. Moral Perspective in “La Princesse de Clèves.” Eugene: University of Oregon Press, 1968. Contains a thoughtful analysis of the moral dimensions of the major and secondary characters in this novel. Kaps explains Madame de La Fayette’s subtle and effective use of many different narrative techniques in this novel.Lyons, John D. “1678: The Emergence of the Novel.” In A New History of French Literature, edited by Denis Hollier et al. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989. A brief but useful article that situates the novel in its historical literary context.Miller, Nancy K. Subject to Change: Reading Feminist Writing. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. This book reprints Miller’s seminal article “Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women’s Fiction.” Miller takes up the question of verisimilitude (“plausibility”) to offer a new interpretation of the Princess’ choice as an act of desire rather than renunciation.Raitt, Janet. Madame de La Fayette and “La Princesse de Clèves.” London: Harrap, 1971. Contains a very clear introduction to this novel. Raitt describes very well the true originality of The Princess of Clèves.Stanton, Domna C. “The Ideal of ‘Repos’ in Seventeenth-Century French Literature.” L’Esprit Createur 15 (Spring/Summer, 1975): 79-104. Stanton traces the origins and meaning of the term “repos,” one of the key values in the Princess’ moral code.Tiefenbrun, Susan W. A Structural Analysis of “La Princesse de Clèves.” The Hague, The Netherlands: Mouton, 1976. Contains an excellent study of the formal structure of this novel. Tiefenbrun clearly explains the complicated relationships among the princess, her husband, and the Duke de Nemours.
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