The ladies did not take as kindly to the classic canons of reason, moderation, and restraint as old Corneille and young Racine. Their world was a realm of feeling and romance, and the mariages de convenance that they contracted stirred rather than checked the fantasies of love. Alongside the classic drama the romantic novel grew to immense proportions, wide acclaim, and international influence. The ladies of France never had enough of such novels, and never found them too long. When Gauthier de La Calprenède stopped his Cléopâtre after ten volumes (1656), his fiancée refused to marry him until he had concluded it in two more. 56
Mile. Madeleine de Scudéry enslaved half of France with her ten-volume novels, Artamène, ou le Grand Cyrus (1649–53) and Clélie (1654–60). French society was flattered to find that in these romantic proliferations the characters, under pseudonyms, described and revealed the celebrities of the time. Soon the ladies and gentlemen of the salons called themselves by names from the romances, and learned to sigh and deny like their heroes and heroines; Mlle. de Scudéry herself became Sappho, and was so addressed in the salons to the end of her ninety-four years. She wrote to please her brother Georges, published her books under his name, and preferred his surveillance to marriage. Her reign over literate women and perfumed men continued until Molière’sPrécieuses ridicules andFemmes savantes changed literary fashions; then Madeleine bravely kept the last of her ninety volumes from the press. Those who suffer from leisure may still locate in the fifteen thousand pages of Le Grand Cyrus, or the ten thousand of Clélie, passages distinguished by the delicacy of their sentiment, or remarkable for their analysis of character. And La Scudéry deserves remembrance, too, for having labored to advance the education of women in France.
Marie Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne, who became by marriage the Comtesse de La Fayette, is a more attractive figure because she not only wrote a famous romance, but lived one more famous still. She received an unusually full education. After her marriage (1655) she went to live in Auvergne. Finding life dull there, she arranged an amicable separation from her husband (1659), came to Paris, and joined the circle that met at the Hôtel de Rambouillet. She became lady in waiting to Madame Henrietta, and later commemorated her in a loving memoir. She was a relative but friend of Mme. de Sévigné, who, after forty years of intimacy, wrote of her: “Never did we have the smallest cloud upon our friendship; long habit had not made her merit stale to me; the flavor of it was always fresh and new.” 57 This is an exceptional compliment to both parties, for friendships are as mortal as romantic love. We shall find a rare union of love and friendship in Mme. de La Fayette’s relations with La Rochefoucauld.
When she decided to cross pens with Mlle, de Scudéry she hit upon a revolutionary innovation: she wrote a romance in one volume only two hundred pages long. She adopted the principle that, other things equal, the best book is that which omits most of its original form; every sentence omitted, she said, added a louis d’or to the value of the book, and every word omitted added twenty sous. After some minor products she composed (1672) and published (1678) her chef-d’oeuvre, La Princesse de Clèves. The plot (to mix figures) was a triangle with a tangent. Mlle, de Chartres is so modestly beautiful that the Prince de Clèves becomes her slave at first sight. On her mother’s advice she marries him, but with no warmer sentiment than respect. Soon thereafter the Duc de Nemours sees her and falls precipitately in love with her. She repels him virtuously, but his feverish persistence touches her; and gradually her pity turns to love. She confesses this development to her husband, and begs him to take her away from the court and temptation. He cannot believe that she is faithful, and worries himself to death, gored, so to speak, with his own imaginary horns. The Princess, in remorse over his death, repulses the Duke, and devotes the rest of her life to charity. The skeptical Bayle remarked that if so pure and faithful a woman could be found in France he would walk twelve hundred miles to see her. 58
The book was published anonymously, but the literary world soon decided that it was one result of an already famous intimacy. Said Mlle, de Scudéry, “M. de La Rochefoucauld and Mme. de La Fayette have written a novel . . . which I am told is admirably done”; 59 but she added, “They are no longer of an age to do anything else together.” 60 Both the alleged authors disclaimed authorship. “The Princesse de Clèves” wrote La Scudéry, “is a poor orphan, disowned by father and mother.” In any case there was general agreement that this was the finest novel yet written in France. Fontenelle confessed to having read it four times, and Boileau, foe of romance, judged Mme. de La Fayette “the finest spirit and best writer among the women of France.” History recognizesLa Princesse de Clèves as one of the first, and still one of the best, psychological novels. It is the only French novel of that age that can still be read without pain.