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concerning Olympe de Clèves

     Alexandre Dumas wrote "Olympe de Clèves" in 1852. "Olympe de Clèves" is a lengthy, vividly written historical romance set in Avignon, Lyon, and Paris in 1727-1729. In the fictional actress Olympe, Dumas created one of his most vividly realized and "modern" female characters, a woman of personal integrity and independent means who can live and love as she sees fit. In the words of the Duc de Richelieu, "These infernal theatrical women, when they have once lowered themselves, are unmanageable. Ah! the woman who emancipates herself is worth ten men; but she has treated you badly, my poor friend."
     The novel opens in Avignon with the young Jesuit novice, Bannière, being spotted by his superiors reading a play, by the proscribed author Voltaire. Confined to a cell to encourage repentance, Bannière escapes and makes his way to a theatre which, coincidentally, is presenting Voltaire's play. The theatrical troupe has been thrown into confusion by sudden departure of a key actor, and Bannière, having read the play so often that he has it memorized, is pressed into service to play the part of the missing actor.
     Bannière meets his leading lady, the actress Olympe de Clèves, but is forced to flee when two Jesuit fathers, attending the play to gain intelligence on the works of the devil, recognize him on stage. Olympe is at loose ends, having just been dumped by her lover, the Comte de Mailly, who has elected to get married. Olympe is taken with Bannière, and the couple decamp to Lyon, where they earn a comfortable living in the provincial theatre.
     However, Bannière becomes addicted to gambling. Dumas' description of Bannière's addiction is strikingly vivid and realistic, and parallels a similar description in La femme au collier de velours. Olympe becomes estranged from Bannière, and one of his rivals, the corrupt Abbé d'Hoirac, arranges for Bannière arrested as a Jesuit escapee. When the Comte de Mailly returns, having tired of his new wife, Olympe and the Count depart for Paris, and Bannière escapes jail by joining the Army as a dragoon. Learning that Olympe has left, he deserts from the dragoons, sells his horse and equipage, and himself heads for Paris.
     The second half of the novel is set in Paris, where Olympe makes her debut on the Parisian stage just in time to be noticed by the 18 year-old, recently married, Louis XV (1710-1774). Louis' wife, Queen Marie (1703-1768), is frigid, and various groups of courtiers abetted by the Prime Minister, Cardinal André-Hercule de Fleury (d. 1744), conspire to provide him with a mistress with the right combination of pliability and influence.
     The candidate of the corrupt Duc de Richelieu (1696-1788, one of Dumas' favorite historical characters) was none other than Louise-Julie, the neglected wife of the Comte de Mailly. The candidate of the Captain of the King's Guard, the Duc de Pecquigney, is Olympe. The courtiers maneuver to bring their respective candidates to the attention of the King, while the Comte de Mailly goes crazy alternately trying to prevent the attentions paid to his wife and his mistress.
     Meanwhile, Bannière, having arrived in Paris, tries to force his way into the theatre where Olympe is playing, and finds himself condemned to Charenton as a madman.
     Dumas collects the scattered threads of his plot at the end. Louis XV is corrupted, but gets the Countess de Mailly, the Duc de Richelieu gains favor with the King, Bannière and Olympe are reconciled and wed, the Comte de Mailly is made Ambassador to Vienna. However, just as the curtain is about to fall, Bannière is arrested as a deserter from the dragoons, and sentenced to death. oh-oh...better keep reading 'til the final page.

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