La Fayette, Marie-Madeleine de (1634–1693)

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La Fayette, Marie-Madeleine de (1634–1693)

French writer and memorialist whose prose work was a landmark in the history of the novel. Name variations: Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne; Madame de La Fayette; Comtesse de La Fayette; Lafayette. Born Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne in Paris on March 18, 1634; died in Paris on May 25, 1693; eldest daughter of Marc Pioche, sieur de la Vergne, and Isabelle (Péna) Pioche de la Vergne; studied Greek, Latin, and Italian in her youth; married François de Motier, count or comte de La Fayette, in 1655 (died 1683); children: Louis (b. 1658); Renaud-Armand (b. 1659).

Spent early childhood in Paris and French countryside; appointed lady-in-waiting to queen-regent Anne of Austria (1650); developed close friendship with poet Giles Ménage (1652); joined her exiled step-father in Anjou (1653); lived with her husband and two sons in Auvergne (1655–61); returned to Paris and spent the rest of her life there (1661–1693); befriended Henrietta Anne, wife of Louis XIV's brother (1661); ran her own salon and visited the royal court frequently; published first novel anonymously (1662); formed a close relationship with the Duc de La Rochefoucauld (1660s); suffered health deterioration and died (1693).

Selected publications:

La Princesse de Montpensier (1662); Zaide (1670); La Princesse de Clèves (1678); Histoire de Madame Henriette d'Angleterre (1720); La Comtesse de Tende (1724); Memoires de la cour de France (written 1688–89, published 1731). Several of her written works were published posthumously.

In April 1678, all of Paris was discussing the recently published La Princesse de Clèves. The novel concerned the plight of a young, unhappily married aristocratic woman, living at the court of King Henry II of France, whose love for a noble caused her great mental anguish and despair. The inclusion of emotional issues and a strong focus on the private lives of the fictional characters was unusual at this time. Nevertheless, the novel provoked much controversy and was an instant success. For several months after its publication, numerous Parisian newspapers published letters from readers who debated the motivation behind the heroine's confession to her husband of her attraction to another man. The author of this work, which is now considered to be a landmark in the history of the novel, remained anonymous, and only her closest friends knew of her literary talents. The life that Madame de La Fayette chose to expose to the world was one of devoted wife and mother rather than that of historical novelist.

Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne was born on March 18, 1634, in Paris at the Petit Luxembourg palace. Her father Marc Pioche, sieur de la Vergne, was a mathematician and military engineer, while her mother Isabelle Péna Pioche came from the minor nobility and was lady-in-waiting to the Duc de Richelieu's niece. Marie-Madeleine's birth was followed by two others, both girls who were later forced to give up much of their lives for their eldest sister. Their parents had strong intellectual interests and entertained several of the most important French writers, philosophers and scholars in their house on the rue de Vaugirard. Her father, however, was often absent from home on military campaigns, and increasingly more so once he became tutor to Richelieu's nephew. The entire Pioche family left Paris when the aristocratic rebellion against the crown, known as the Fronde, broke out in 1648. One year later, Marie-Madeleine's father was dead. At age 15, she was now expected to enter Parisian society and find an eligible husband.

Her mother remarried a year after Marie-Madeleine's father died. The circumstances surrounding Isabelle's marriage proved to be the first and last time that Marie-Madeleine faced public embarrassment. The significance of this event also shaped much of her later personality. When Isabelle Pioche married Renaud-René de Sévigné in December 1650, many people in Paris were surprised. They had thought that he would marry Isabelle's daughter, 16-year-old Marie-Madeleine. The embarrassment of this assumption led her to develop a strong, resourceful and independent character as well as a reluctance to show her emotions publicly. Marie-Madeleine's marriage prospects, however, were the predominant motivations behind her mother's decision to place her two younger sisters in a nunnery, thereby enlarging the eldest daughter's dowry. The search for a husband, as well as her entrance into court society, began in 1650 when Marie-Madeleine obtained a position as lady-inwaiting to the queen-regent, Anne of Austria .

During her years at court, Marie-Madeleine met and formed two friendships that were to last for the rest of her life. Her stepfather's niece, Marie de Sévigné , was one of Marie-Madeleine's lifelong friends, as was Giles Ménage, a cleric and poet. During the early years of their friendship, Ménage acted as her unofficial tutor by encouraging her to read widely in both French and Italian. Among his numerous publications were several poems that he dedicated to her.

Marie-Madeleine's enjoyment of court life ended abruptly in 1653, when she was forced to join her stepfather at his country estates. He had been exiled the previous year for his participation in, and loyalty to, the Fronde. Not wanting to spend his exile in solitude, Renaud-René demanded that his wife and stepdaughter accompany him. This move temporarily ruined any prospects Marie-Madeleine had for a good marriage and social career.

Although she missed the excitement of Paris and the intrigues of life at court, Marie-Madeleine was able to endure her enforced exile in the countryside by keeping in close contact with Ménage, who not only provided her with the latest gossip from Paris, but forwarded several books and poems to stimulate her intellectual curiosity. Perhaps in reaction to her enforced exile, or as a result of an increasingly cynical attitude about love and marriage, Marie-Madeleine wrote the following to Ménage in December 1653: "I am so convinced that love is unpleasant that I'm glad that my friends and I are free of it." Her words proved strangely prophetic as within two years she was married to a man whom she did not love. More significantly, the plight of unhappily married upper-class women became a predominant theme in her novels.

In the autumn of 1654, Marie-Madeleine fell seriously ill for the first time in her life. Although the details are vague, it appears that she suffered from a pain in her side and a high fever. In December, she returned to Paris with her mother where it was hoped that a cure could be found. Three months later, on February 15, 1655, Marie-Madeleine married François de Motier, comte de La Fayette, a man 18 years older than she and in poor financial circumstances. The couple had not met before December 1654, François was in danger of losing his estates, and the marriage was concluded in haste. These circumstances have led at least one historian to suggest that Marie-Madeleine may have been pregnant by another man and François agreed to marry her in return for a large down payment. For whatever reasons, Marie-Madeleine Pioche was now Madame de La Fayette and returned with her husband to his estates in Auvergne.

During the early years of her marriage, Madame de La Fayette was relatively happy. She enjoyed running her husband's household and appears to have had a satisfactory relationship with him. She kept up her correspondence with Ménage, who continued to provide her with news from Paris. Madame de La Fayette also gave birth to two sons, Louis in March 1658 and René-Armand in September 1659, to whom she remained devoted. However, her husband's financial troubles, including several lawsuits, occupied much of Madame de La Fayette's time and brought her back to Paris on several occasions between 1656 and 1659. From 1661, her return to Paris became permanent, and she took up residence in her childhood home on the rue de Vaugirard. Her husband returned to his country estates and left his wife to deal with his financial affairs. Although they remained on good terms, they never again lived together as husband and wife. By all accounts, the situation was mutually accepted.

Upon her return to permanent residence in Paris, Madame de La Fayette not only reintroduced herself into court life, but began to embark on a lengthy, albeit anonymous literary career. As a result of her friendship with Henrietta Anne (daughter of Henrietta Maria and Charles I of England and now wife of Philip, duke of Orleans, brother of Louis XIV), Madame de La Fayette had free access to court society. She composed the history of their friendship and memoirs of Henrietta Anne sometime between 1665 and 1670, although they were not published until 1720. At court, Madame de La Fayette was a keen observer of the rituals and etiquette that surrounded Louis XIV, known as the Sun King. In addition to running her own salon, she made frequent visits to other salons and used her experiences there to construct an accurate and incisive commentary on French court life.

Madame de La Fayette's first novel, La Princesse de Montpensier, was published anonymously in August 1662. That she wished her identity to remain unknown is clear from a letter she wrote to Ménage shortly after the book was released. "Happily, it is not under my name," she wrote. "I beg you, if you hear of it, to act as if you had never seen it, and to deny that it comes from me if by any chance this were said." Her reasons for remaining anonymous were due neither to modesty nor to vanity. Rather, she knew that the constructs of her society not only discouraged court women from writing but, more important, actively disparaged those women whose work was read in the public domain, outside the confines of the court. These restrictions did not deter Madame de La Fayette's literary ambitions or her social acceptability, but did serve to keep her literary career unknown to most of Parisian society during her lifetime.

Madame de La Fayette's life at court and in salon circles enabled her to form friendships with several well-known French writers. Pierre-Daniel Huet succeeded Ménage as her mentor and friend and her second literary work, Zaide, published in 1670, was written jointly with the poet Segrais and François, duc de La Rochefoucauld. After the death of Henrietta Anne in 1670, Madame de La Fayette turned to de la Rochefoucauld for support. From this point on, they maintained a close friendship although the duc was 20 years her senior. It is not known if their relationship was sexual, but they certainly shared common intellectual interests; de la Rochefoucauld remained the most important person in Madame de La Fayette's life.

Find me another woman with a figure like mine, with a taste for wit like the one you inspired in me, who has done as well for her household.

—Madame de La Fayette

Following Henrietta Anne's death, Madame de La Fayette's access to the royal court declined; she attended fewer social occasions, and her health began to deteriorate. She was not a great beauty, but her wit and intelligence attracted significant scholars, poets, and writers to her salon, including Molière and Racine. Although her dislike of hypocrisy and vanity led her to be critical of others and to voice her opinions openly, she remained kind and loyal to the few people she truly loved. She continuously sought to promote and secure the careers of her sons, and was successful in obtaining several ecclesiastical appointments for Louis and military commands for René-Armand.

Madame de La Fayette's devotion to her family did not interfere with her writing. After the publication of Zaide, her publisher extracted a promise from her that she would write another novel. What was to become her greatest work took six years to complete. Set one hundred years before her time in the court of Henry II, La Princesse de Clèves tells the story of a beautiful aristocratic woman who married for social and political advancement but not for love. When she falls in love with another man, she confesses to her husband and ultimately chooses to exile herself in a convent rather than compromise her honesty and reputation. This work was one of the first novels to focus on the private and emotional lives of its protagonists. More significantly, it was one of the first works of fiction that looked at the concerns and feelings of women. The novel was a commentary on court society, the place of women, and their use of informal power within that society. La Princesse de Clèves revolutionized 17th-century novel writing, and Madame de La Fayette is considered to have invented the psychological novel. Through the use of interior monologues, she broke away from the action-oriented model of earlier prose fiction and replaced it with an intensely intimate portrait of court life. Based upon her personal observations of Louis XIV's court, Madame de La Fayette implied in this novel that the truly virtuous woman could remain so only by living as far away from court as possible.

Despite its new style and use of hitherto-ignored themes, the book was an instant success, although Madame de La Fayette continued to deny that she had played any role in its production. Her personal life suffered a blow when the duc de La Rochefoucauld died in 1680. Although she was devastated by the loss of her closest companion, her strength of character prevailed. Three years later, in 1683, her husband died. She took control of his estates and ensured that her sons were well taken care of. This devotion to her family, as well as her business skills, were well-known to her contemporaries, one of whom remarked: "Never has a person, without leaving her place, done such good business. See how Madame de La Fayette is rich in friends on every side and of every rank: she has a hundred arms, she reaches everywhere. Her children appreciate this and thank her daily for having such a winning nature."

In addition to the duties of family life, Madame de La Fayette continued to write. The majority of the works she composed during the later years of her life were not published until after her death. Thus, the novella she wrote sometime between 1680 and 1688, entitled La Comtesse de Tende, was not published until 1724. Similarly, the memoirs she wrote of court life during the years 1688 and 1689, Memoires de la Cour de France pour les annees 1688 et 1689, were published in 1731. Finally, the Histoire de Madame Henriette d'Angleterre, which was de La Fayette's homage to her close friend, was only published in 1720.

In the remaining years of her life, Madame de La Fayette suffered from ill health, though her mind remained active. When her long-time friend Giles Ménage died in 1692, her strength began to falter. She withdrew from public life and turned to religion for solace. Her health rapidly deteriorated, and she died, at age 59, on May 25, 1693. The woman who had so changed the face of 17th-century prose fiction was buried in the church at Saint-Sulpice, the same church where she had been baptized and married.


Haig, Stirling. Madame de Lafayette. NY: Twayne, 1970.

Levi, Anthony. "Madame de Lafayette" in Guide to French Literature: Beginnings to 1789. London: St. James Press, 1994.

Raitt, Janet. Madame de Lafayette and "La Princesse de Clèves." London: George G. Harrap, 1971.

Margaret McIntyre , Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

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La Fayette, Marie-Madeleine de (1634–1693)

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