Had the translator note at the beginning of this graphic novel adaptation for Madame De La Fayette’s The Princess of Clèves not suggested that this story was still relevant within modern audiences, I imagine I might have given it a little more leeway as far as the historical context goes. That being said, I did not like the story at all. While Catel and Claire Bouilhac’s artwork did wonders for the portrayal of this rather tragic and scandalous tale, the overall plot of the story was one that I found quite awful.
Fortunately for this story, the artwork was equisite and very enjoyable to flip through. In fact, I consider the art the saving grace of the story as a whole.
The Princess of Clèves begins with a young woman outed in Parisian society whose beauty basically causes flocks of men from all over to fall heads over heels in love with her. This alone is frustrating and annoying to read in 2019, but I’ll accept that it’s a fair assumption for how men tend to act and the societal situation and expectations were far different back in the time period this is set in than it is today. The story progresses and the Princess is basically forced via societal pressure and the desires of her mother to see her wed to marry a man she feels literally nothing for.
This lack of ardor is something her husband regularly comments on throughout the course of the story whilst lamenting how much he loves her, yet he had the audacity to basically give her no choice in the union. His love for her as a result of her beauty was far more important to him than her true feelings as I suppose he merely expected that once they were wed she would love him by default. Her own mother even admits that while she may not feel for the man now, surely that will be something she’ll develop after they are married.
And thus lies the pure toxicity of this graphic novel as a whole for as the story progresses, the Princess does one day meet a man for whom she feels such emotions. But as it is not her husband, whom again she was pressured into marrying, her response is to stifle those emotions, hide herself away from society and court to avoid this man, and even to beg her husband to assist her in keeping away from the very person she is certain she would feel tempted by should she be required to spend more time in his company.
And I just…what?
So, the basic premise of this novel is to say that this woman is virtuous and good because she does everything within her power to ignore her own feelings in favor of the extremely unfair expectations set upon her by the world and the stupid man she had the misfortune of being pressured into marrying. She lives a miserable life with a man she never wanted in the first place, feels guilty for having emotions for another man, and sequesters herself away for not only the duration of her marriage but even after her husband dies of an illness continually refusing to actually do anything for herself. Somehow, both she and her husband blame her feelings for this other man for his death. And so she proceeds to live out the rest of her life with unreasonable and ridiculous guilt that prevents her from ever feeling any sort of happiness in her life.
Perhaps, for its time period, this was a brilliant novel. And maybe I am missing something from the original by having only read the graphic novel version. But honestly? This story sucked. It was horrendously sexist, perhaps just as society was back then. But The Princess of Clèves wasn’t a virtuous and good young woman, she was a victim of her world who was treated horribly and lived horribly as a result. Thanks, but I hate it.
I was provided a free copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.