La Fayette, Marie-Madeleine De (Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne, Countess of la Fayette; 1634–1693)

views updated

LA FAYETTE, MARIE-MADELEINE DE (Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne, countess of La Fayette; 16341693)

LA FAYETTE, MARIE-MADELEINE DE (Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne, countess of La Fayette; 16341693), French novelist. Born in Paris to a family of the lower nobility with close ties to the court of King Louis XIII (ruled 16101643), Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne became a lady-in-waiting at the age of fifteen to Anne of Austria, the French queen. She received a broad education in the classics and languages, was an enthusiastic reader of the popular new novels of her day, and, from an early age, was close to prominent figures including the moralist and philosopher François de la Rochefoucauld, the cardinal of Retz, and the writers Gilles Ménage and Madeleine de Scudéry. In 1655 she married Francis Motier, count of La Fayette, and moved with him to his property in the Auvergne. The first of her two sons was born in Poitou in 1658, but after three years in the provinces Marie-Madeleine moved back to Paris, leaving her husband behind to manage his country estates. She lived independently in Paris for the rest of her life in her home next to the Luxembourg palace, where she remained closely involved with the intellectual and political life of the court and the salons of the capital.

Literary history has traditionally designated Madame de La Fayette as the originator of the modern novel. She turned to writing fiction soon after her return to Paris, and in 1662 anonymously published a short historical fiction, La princesse de Montpensier (The princess of Montpensier) followed by two novels, Zaïde (1670) and La princesse de Clèves (1678; The princess of Clèves). La Fayette's great innovation was her particular way of blending history, romance, and psychological analysis. In her fiction she incorporated some of the features of pastoral and epic narrative into a framework more closely resembling memoirs and historical documents. In her most important and influential novel, La princesse de Clèves, she designed a plot drawn from events at the French court of the sixteenth century. Into a group of characters including Catherine de Médecis, the duc of Guise, and the young Mary Stuart, she placed a central figure of her own invention, presenting the story of the psychological development of a young woman maturing in the oppressive atmosphere of courtly intrigue. Madame de La Fayette's first readers recognized in her novel more a reflection of their own time than that of history. The book precipitated a major literary quarrel, conducted in print via a popular gazette of the day, Le Mercure galant (The gallant Mercury). Readers argued passionately about the novel's realism, the plausibility of the heroine's behavior, and the moral implications of her story. The controversy extended to La Fayette's readers in England, where each of her novels was published in translation within a year of its appearance in France.

Themes central to La princesse de Clèves are examined in all of La Fayette's fiction: the difficulty of sincere communication, the fugitive quality of love, the tensions between religious principles and worldly demands, and the constraints of marriage. Retreat from the world is the solution that holds the strongest appeal for her female characters, but the difficulty of decisions such as these, and their slow maturation in the minds of the protagonists, are what most fascinate La Fayette: exemplary behavior is achieved at a great cost. In the darkest of La Fayette's scenarios, as in the posthumously published La comtesse de Tende (1724; The princess of Tende), the heroine's urge for escape is suicidal. In La princesse de Clèves, retreat is a solution that is closer to a form of religious devotion.

Also published posthumously were historical memoirs of the court of King Louis XIV, Mémoires de la cour de France (1731; Memoirs of the French court). La Fayette used the memoir genre to dramatize the inevitable confrontation with death in her more personal historical memoir, Histoire de Madame Henriette d'Angleterre (The Story of Madame Henrietta of England) begun as a biography at the request of her friend Henrietta of England and transformed by the princess's abrupt death in 1670.

In the last decade of her life Madame de La Fayette withdrew from Parisian society but continued to engage in social life through letter correspondence. Her closest friend, after the death of her companion La Rochefoucauld, was Madame de Sévigné, whose letters are an important source for our knowledge of La Fayette's life. Their correspondence also provides documentation of Madame de La Fayette's ambivalent attitude toward her own status as an author and her strategic use of the practice of anonymous publication. Sévigné's letters record the popularity of La Fayette's writings.

Madame de La Fayette has remained a canonical figure in French literary history. The innovative aspects of her fictional plots are increasingly explored in literary criticism, with particular interest in her invention of new models for describing women's psychological and social development.

See also French Literature and Language ; La Rochefoucauld, François, duc de ; Louis XIII (France) ; Scudéry, Madeleine de ; Sévigné, Marie de.


Primary Sources

La Fayette, Madame de. La princesse de Clèves; La princesse de Montpensier; La comtesse de Tende. Translated by Terence Cave. Oxford and New York, 1999.

. The Secret History of Henrietta, Princess of England, First Wife of Philippe, Duc d'Orléans; Together with, Memoirs of the Court of France for the Years 16881689. Translated by J. M. Shelmerdine. New York, 1993.

Secondary Sources

Green, Anne. Privileged Anonymity: The Writings of Madame de Lafayette. Oxford, 1996.

Henry, Patrick, ed. An Inimitable Example: The Case for the Princesse de Clèves. Washington, D.C., 1992.

Elizabeth C. Goldsmith

About this article

La Fayette, Marie-Madeleine De (Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne, Countess of la Fayette; 1634–1693)

Updated About content Print Article