Yet, this problem is far from new. Social media only serves to exacerbate a fear that stems from mankind's ability to perceive and desire relationship. The Princess of Cleaves, written in 1678 and attributed to Marie-Madeleine De Lafayette, rather than discussing this fear of missing out creates the petri dish for this fear to germinate. 400 years later this fear has blossomed into an invasive species that entwines it's tendrils around our hearts and cripples our ability to commit to love.
The novel opens with an immediate thrust at the contemporary court of Louis XIV setting the stage that what is to follow is more a parable of the human dilemma than an historical account of the court of Henri II:
"There never was in France so brilliant a display of magnificence and gallantry as during the last years of the reign of Henri II. The monarch was gallant, handsome, and amorous; although his love for Diane de Poitiers, Duchess of Valentinois, had lasted twenty years, its ardor had not diminished, as his conduct testified.”
We are then quickly introduced to the court in what feels more like a guest list than a narrative, a flurry of descriptions leaving the reader feeling lost and ill-informed of the contemporary names and mores. We are not alone. Our heroine suffers the same fate, for while she has been well educated she has the provincial naiveté of a 16 year old being presented for the first time at court. The little preparation her mother has given her for the dog-eat-dog world of social politics is a short lecture of virtue:
“Most mothers imagine that it is enough never to speak of gallantry to their daughters to guard them from it forever. Madame de Chartres was of a very different opinion.; she often pictured love for her daughter, showing her it’s fascinations, in order to give her a better understanding of its perils. She told her how insincere men are, how false and deceitful; she described the domestic miseries which illicit love-affairs entail, and, on the other hand, pictured to her the peaceful happiness of a virtuous woman’s life, as well as the distinction and elevation which virtue gives to a woman of rank and beauty. She taught her, too, how hard it was to preserve this virtue without extreme care, and without that one sure means of securing a wife’s happiness, which is to love her husband and to be loved by him.”
Thus armed with her pursuit of virtue, Mademoiselle de Chartres make her way into the narrative, first stopping at a jewel shop to pick out gems for her upcoming presentation at court, a detail that Madame Lafayette’s contemporaries found to be as ridiculous as comparing the court of Henri II to Louis XIV. In a letter from Jean-Baptiste-Henry Du Trousset De Valincour to the Marquise about The Princess of Cleaves, he says that even the most perfect of things have there shortcomings, and in detail discusses the shortcomings of this sensational novel that had provided so much controversy at court. He finds this opening scene to lack verisimilitude, why would a 16 year old girl be left to pick out gems by herself? Where is her mother?
“Practical minded women say that no one ever let a 16 year old girl choose gems and that all a girl can manage at that age is to choose ribbons and trimmings.”
But it is here, in this little shop picking out ribbons, that Mademoiselle de Chartes meets our hero, the dashing and stalwart Prince of Cleaves, who is at once completely in love with this blushing vision of a girl. She leaves before he catches her name and spends the next few pages wandering around telling everyone at court he has seen a vision of beauty.
Just to set the stage, the Prince of Cleaves is not some anemic poet with a nice personality. He’s the whole package. “He was brave and grand, and was endowed with a prudence rare in the young…he was handsome, brave, generous; all his good qualities were distinct and striking - in short he was the only man fit to be compared, if such a comparison be possible, with the Duke of Nemours. This nobleman was a masterpiece of nature…”
So the Prince of Cleaves is a pretty good catch. Eventually he discovers who the vision in the gem shop was, Mademoiselle de Chartes, a young woman of considerable fortune and good standing. After a bit of confusing court politics all the young suitors have been demurred from their pursuit of the young woman, all but the Prince of Cleaves. He proposes at the moment when all other suitors have vanished into the wood work and Madame de Chartes recommends that her daughter except his offer. The problem is that our young heroine isn’t in love with her Prince and believes herself incapable of such an emotion. The Prince is obviously very steadfast and determined, so she accepts his proposal with the hope that maybe someday she’ll learn to love her spouse.
A nanosecond after they are married, who should finally get back to court from his long journey abroad trying to woo the new Queen Elizabeth, but the masterpiece of nature himself, the Duke of Nemours. They catch glances of each other at a ball and both are overcome with the other’s perfect and harmonious beauty.
If only the new Princess of Cleaves had held out just a little longer, maybe she would have met the Duke unattached and this whole book of missed opportunities and relational frustration would be moot. But no. She took the first opportunity offered and now has missed out on her true soulmate and one true love.
Which brings us to page 40. While other loose women of the court would have begun an affair posthaste, our Princess is steeped in the lessons of virtue, and so every time her heart flutters or she finds herself aware of the Duke’s presence at an almost cellular level, she catches her breath and reminds herself of her vows. The Duke, on the other hand, at once smitten by this vision of beauty, interprets her reluctance to acknowledge his presence as playing hard to get.
And thus begins the annoying part of the book. Instead of being satisfied with the man that genuinely loves her, the Princess is infatuated with the man she can never have. Like Phaedra, she is caught in a trap laid by Venus and now a plaything of her feral emotions and untamed heart. She decides the only way to truly keep herself in check is through a certain level of accountability. And what better accountability partner than her husband? After making excuses to be absent from court they make there way to their country house, where at dusk, in the garden, the Princess reveals a somewhat redacted version of her problem. She tells the Prince she is in love, but refuses to say how far this love affair has gone or who the lucky man is, ending her monologue with:
“Whatever the dangers of the course I take, I pursue it with pleasure, in order to keep myself worthy of you. I beg your pardon a thousand times if my feelings offend you; at any rate I shall never offend you by my actions. Remember that to do what I am now doing requires more friendship and esteem for a husband than anyone has ever had. Guide me, take pity on me, love me, if you can.”
As one would expect, this is devastating for the Prince. Not once has he abated in his desire or actions to pursue his wife. He has known from the beginning that her heart was always out of reach, but now he fears it might forever be out of his grasp. While the Princess defends her virtue, he fears it is not long before her temptations might prove to be too great.
In a moment only constructed in works of fiction, who should have snuck through the garden and heard this profession of love? Why the Duke of Nemours! So now he can confidently interpret every action, every hasty retreat as a symptom of a greater cause. “In a word, he felt a hundred times happier and unhappier.” Having proof of her love is one thing, but will she be able to quench it and remain faithful? The chase is more than half the fun and the Duke decides he will pursue ever diligently.
She mentioned she likes yellow, he wears yellow in the jousting competition. She makes excuses to leave the court and he makes excuses to find her. Eventually the game of cat and mouse culminates in some peeping tom behavior by our Duke. As he once again creeps through the bushes to look in on the Princess, hoping to have an opportunity to talk with her since she has avoided him. This time he is followed by one of the Prince’s guardsmen who watches the Duke creep into the garden.
As the Duke sees the Princess in her sun room, she is preoccupied with tying yellow ribbons onto the Duke’s walking stick, and is gazing longingly at a portrait of him at the victorious defeat of Metz. What could be more incriminating! As he moves toward the window the sudden movement catches the eye of the Princess and she hurries away fearing that she has recognized the Duke in the bushes. She immediately goes to her room and shuts all the windows and doors and thus remains for the rest of the night. The Duke waits patiently, but at last at dawn, makes his way back. The report the Prince’s man has to give, ie. the Duke snuck into the garden and emerged at dawn…is incriminating to say the least.
The Prince immediately falls ill, his wife’s brazen unfaithfulness the salt rubbed into the open wound of his heart. He has no desire to recover. He has been vanquished by an assumption and no matter what the Princess says she has lost his respect.
Eventually the Prince dies. But instead of waiting the appropriate amount of time designated for mourning and then marrying her one true love, the Princess is overcome with guilt. She decides she will live a life of celibacy, even as the Duke promises he will pursue her to her dying day.
Is this genuine remorse? Or simply FOMO in a different color? What if after she complies he grows bored? What if the lack of a chase and conquest removes the buttresses of their intimacy? The Princess admits that Monsieur de Cleves was perhaps “the only man in the world capable of keeping his love after marriage”. She is certain if she were to marry the Duke she would always be suspicious of infidelity. If he could pursue a married woman so diligently and one with an unprecedented amount of self control, what would he do when his flirtations were reciprocated. Perhaps her actions are dictated by the fear that the only way love can remain alive is by being unsatisfied.
Millennials aren’t the first to be crippled by the fear of missing out, rather this fear has been alive and well and diligently tended to by books like this. Why would anyone choose the super great guy that is the full package and happens to pursue you and love you and be devoted to you…when there might be a vision of nature right around the corner that is your one true soul mate.
I have always held the myth of the “illusive soul mate” somewhat reprehensible and destructive, feeding the FOMO flames rather than providing any semblance of reality. This theory, fed by the Hollywood world of misconception and unreality, keeps perfectly compatible people waiting for the “spark” or the moment their soul windows open and they reach across the void to embrace. Blah. I’ve always been more of a fan of Claude Lévi-Strauss and his theory of structuralism. Relationships are primarily based on proximity and secondarily based on need thus creating a system of reciprocity or teamwork, that if done right can cement even the unlikeliest of pairs. It is through this work, alongside another, that one begins to appreciate all the myriad of qualities not immediately apparent on match.com etc.
The tragedy of The Princess of Cleaves is that at 16 she was supposed to know what she wanted without having a construct of what that was. She didn’t know she was looking for someone, but rather thought she was frigid and incapable of affection. I thought that too at 16. A lot can be said for not rushing into things, taking your time, getting to know people in groups, playing a little ultimate frisbee, unfortunately for the Princess, time to grow up wasn’t an option. For today’s young people “growing up” has become almost as illusive as the mythical soulmate. My advice? Find the hardest worker you know and go for it. And then take a warning from the Princess and learn to love whoever that person is, that person is fundamentally more alive and intriguing then the hope that the Duke of Nemours exists and is waiting just around the corner.
The fact that I found and then married my own vision of Nature is besides the point…