Literary Miscellanea: La Princesse de Clèves

This week’s Literary Miscellanea is the continuation of a discussion started last week about the role of the novel on literary criticism. Willa Cather in her 1933 speech said that “The novel is the child of democracy and of the coming years”, thus framing discussions about the rise and popularity of the novel in the context of increased democratization. Today, I will be using an example from French literary history (the debate surrounding La Princesse de Clève) to illustrate her point. My information comes from chapter two of Joan deJean’s How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City.

The debate surrounding Marie de La Fayette’s romance novel La Princesse de Clèves must be viewed against the backdrop of the Culture Wars and the Battle of the Books (between the Ancients and the Moderns) at the end of the 17th century. Boileau, who represented the side of the Ancients, decried the replacement of the play (the dominant literary form of much of the 17th century) with the novel. The Ancients praised the classical authors for having mastered all the genres of literature. Why stray from the well-worn path? The Moderns, such as Charles Perrault in his poem Le Siècle de Louis le Grand, put individual taste and judgement over tradition. The “I” replaced the “we”.

Boileau’s criticism of La Princesse de Clèves centered on his fear that the public was replacing the “experts” in literary criticism. Often, when we think of literary history we consider how the politics of a time period influenced a particular work. We do not, however, consider the effect of the book industry on intellectual movements. The novel (as Cather indicated in the speech I discussed last week) democratized literary criticism. In the case of La Princesse de Clèves, the newspaper Le Mercure galant had a column dedicated to readers’ reactions to the novel. Jean Donneau de Visé, the editor of the newspaper, came up with discussion questions for La Princesse de Clèves and encouraged readers of the novel to meet in groups and send him answers to his reflection questions. The reactions of the readers were then published in Le Mercure galant. Donneau de Visé, thus, guided the discussions but allowed the ordinary reader to contribute to literary criticism. By publishing contradictory views about the novel, Donneau de Visé gave the impression that there was a vibrant debate surrounding the novel. By choosing La Princesse de Clèves, Donneau de Visé made that book the center of a controversy surrounding the novel as a new literary form.

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