The Princess of Clèves: A Lively Retelling of a Classic Tale

The Princess of Clèves Cover. Claire Bouilhac. Catel Muller. Dargaud (French), Europe Comics (English) 18 September, 2019

The Princess of Clèves

Claire Bouilhac (Writer), Cromatik Ltd (Letters), Madame de La Fayette (Writer), Marie-Anne Didierjean (Colours), Mercedes Claire Gilliom (Translation), Valérie Michaux (Colours), Catel Muller (Writer and Artist)
Dargaud (French), Europe Comics (English)
18 September, 2019

Madame de La Fayette’s classic story The Princess of Clèves is given new life as a graphic novel for modern readers. Adapted by Claire Bouilhac and Catel Muller, the book manages to capture much of the old-world charm of the original story with just a hint of modernity in its colour and stylization.

The Princess of Clèves Cover. Claire Bouilhac. Catel Muller. Dargaud (French), Europe Comics (English) 18 September, 2019

The Princess of Clèves tells the unconventional tale of Mademoiselle de Chartres, a young woman growing up in 16th century France. Raised by her loving and ambitious mother, Mademoiselle de Chartres is presented at court and immediately becomes the talk of the town because of her beauty and charm. The young de Chartres catches the eye of Monsieur de Clèves who presents himself as a suitable match. But Mademoiselle de Chartres has no strong affection for this man. Eventually, she does marry him and they become happy together as Monsieur and Madame de Clèves. Until the arrival of Monsieur de Nemours, that is. The handsome prince catches Madame de Clèves’ eye, and vice versa. Madame de Clèves’ simple life soon becomes complicated as her husband becomes more suspicious of her passions. How will she manage these new and dangerous feelings?

The introduction for The Princess of Clèves, written by Mercedes Claire Gilliom, sings the praises of Madame de La Fayette’s original French book and how important a text it is in the feminist canon. I can see where Gilliom is coming from with her opinion. Madame de Clèves isn’t your average female protagonist. Though she does marry for reasons other than love—her lack of passion for Clèves is noted not only by her, but also by her mother, and Monsieur de Clèves—she is steadfast in her resolution to be a good partner.

And the Clèves couple are a formidable pair. They rise up in the royal court far faster than one would expect, both becoming essential to the inner circles of the king and queen of France. It is the arrival of Monsieur de Nemours that throws a spanner in the works. Madame de Clèves is immediately taken with him but doesn’t know if he feels the same way. Nevertheless, she tries her utmost to keep her distance lest she make an error that will harm her marriage.

It is Madame de Clèves’ determination that I found charming in The Princess of Clèves. She isn’t written as a damsel in distress who needs to be rescued from her own passions by her husband or her potential lover. She is more than capable of keeping a hold of her own emotions. Though we do get others’ points of views in the book, this story is very much Madame de Clèves’. The book never strays from its central mission: to show how Madame de Clèves is a fully-fleshed out character.

She isn’t pure as driven snow; she likes the attentions Nemours gives her, and is probably a bit too forgiving of her husband’s suspicions. But I like that she isn’t bound by her virtuousness. There is more to women of the ancient times than their virtue, and this book exemplifies that concept. Instead, Madame de Clèves’ steadfastness and her determination to do right—or at least, her version of what is right—is at the core of this book. We may not completely agree with everything she does in The Princess of Clèves, but we can never fault her reasons.

What is truly startling for readers of this book is knowing that the original was written sometime in the 17th century. Madame de Clèves does not come across as a character who was written so long ago. She is outspoken, knows her mind, and gets her way. One can clearly understand why the book has stood the test of time. I also like that the English translation has managed to capture some of the archaic writing style of the original French; it lends itself to the authenticity of the tale.

I enjoyed the art in this book. Catel Muller ensures that each character has distinctive features and style, making them immediately recognisable whenever they appear on page. Valérie Michaux’s colours are gorgeous and despite her muted palette, she expertly captures the grandeur of 16th century France.

The Princess of Clèves Page 164. Claire Bouilhac. Catel Muller. Dargaud (French), Europe Comics (English) 18 September, 2019

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this unusual story, but The Princess of Clèves’ protagonist won me over. She is level-headed and quite modern in her candour and approach to life. This is the kind of book that one could easily see young adults reading and marveling at, and makes me hope that there are more books like The Princess of Clèves out there that will also be brought to the attention of contemporary readers.

Louis Skye

Louis Skye

A writer at heart with a fondness for well-told stories, Louis Skye is always looking for a way to escape the planet, whether through comic books, films, television, books, or video games. E always has an eye out for the subversive and champions diversity in media. Louis' podcast, Stereo Geeks, is available on all major platforms. Pronouns: E/ Er/ Eir