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Comtesse de La Fayette

Comtesse de La Fayette

Marie Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne, Comtesse de La Fayette (1634-1693), French novelist, revolutionized the 17th-century novel by abandoning the excessive length and extravagance of précieuse romance for a concise and coldly rational vision of love.

Madame de La Fayette was born Marie Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne in Paris to a family of the lesser nobility. Her mother's remarriage in 1650 provided Marie Madeleine with brilliant court connections, and at 16 she became a maid of honor to the Queen, enjoying warm association with Henriette (sister of Charles II of England) and Madame de Sévigné, as well as the tutelage of Gilles Ménage, Pierre Daniel Huet, and Jean Regnault de Segrais, respected literary arbiters of the time. Married in 1655 to François Motier, Comte de La Fayette, she bore him two sons; in 1659 the couple separated amiably, the count preferring country life to his wife's taste for the bustling capital.

Madame de La Fayette's first novel, actually a short story, was L'Histoire de la Princesse de Montpensier (1661), a rather somber tale of violent passion and jealousy set in the fateful triangle of love that would be her constant theme. Ménage corrected her uncertain style, and even broader collaboration brought about the second novel usually attributed to her, Zaïde (1669), a series of "Spanish" tales grouped after the manner of traditional romance. In accordance with proper usage of the times, none of her works appeared under her own name.

In 1665 Madame de La Fayette began her long association with the Duc de La Rochefoucauld; whether platonic or otherwise, their relationship endured until the moralist's death in 1680. She almost surely had a hand in correcting later editions of his Maximes, and he is usually credited with greatly influencing her masterpiece, La Princesse de Clèves (1678), often referred to as the single most important novel of the century. In a bare, voluntarily unornamented style, Madame de La Fayette related the tragic confinement of a young woman's love. Unfree, the heroine can only hope to defeat forbidden desire by avowing her weakness to her husband; after his death, she persists in her retreat before this love, once found impossible and so doomed to be forever untrue. Critics have seen in the novel an image of the closed universe of late-17th-century Versailles, as well as that trace of darkening pessimism related to the thought of La Rochefoucauld, Blaise Pascal, and the Jansenist movement. The brief Comtesse de Tende and some historical writings were published after Madame de La Fayette's death in Paris on May 25, 1693.

Further Reading

Translators of The Princess of Clèves include Nancy Mitford (1951) and Walter J. Cobb (1961), both editions containing useful introductions. Martin Turnell's The Novel in France (1951) includes a chapter on Madame de La Fayette. □

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