Some books seem to have a universal value that transcends the time in which they were written. Others seem to be particularly representative of their epoch and eventually stand as a milestone in the development of a genre. Artamenes belongs to the latter category. It consists of ten volumes, each in two books. Despite its length, it has a remarkable unity of interest, if not of plot. The author indulges in lengthy stories within the story. These successive stories are ingeniously knitted together, one character being introduced casually in one, and being caught up with later in another. The organization of the novel is such that it is actually quite difficult to read only parts of it and still understand it. This type of novel was expected to provide a pastime, in the literal sense of the word. Although this may seem ironic in view of its length, Artamenes fulfilled this purpose. It provided noble sentiments together with a little learning. It is still possible to understand why it was such a great success.
Madeleine de Scudéry, known to her contemporaries as the “illustrious Sappho,” founded the most important salon in the Paris of the 1640’s. She belonged to the precieux, women who consciously tried to reestablish the courtly manners and language of the Italian Renaissance. Her novels—better characterized as “heroic romances”—helped to spread this tradition by means of both plot and language. Writing anonymously or with a pseudonym, Mademoiselle de Scudéry became enormously successful both because of her own popularity and because her works were romans a clef, which included thinly disguised portrayals of her readers.
Though hardly read today, the incredibly prolix Artamenes (which runs to some twelve thousand pages) is a landmark work in terms of the development of the novel. The heroic romance represents an important development over earlier stages of prose fiction, the pastoral romance and the historical chronicle. In Artamenes, plot is made central, even in so long a work. In the “Address to the Reader,” Mademoiselle de Scudéry makes clear that she understands the uniqueness of her method, for she says she chooses incidents from her various classical sources not for their historical accuracy but for the purpose of interest. The plot has a central idea, even though interspersed with every possible type of digression—subplots, stories within stories, recitis, elaborate explanation, long description, introduction of minor characters, dramatic “business,” ad infinitum.
One can note how far behind drama was fiction in the creation of character. There still are no real characters in Artamenes such as one later finds in fiction, but the people do have “qualities”; still, the personages are more “types” than characters. One does find hints of character in two maids, Martesie and Doralise. There is almost no real dialogue, but only, in George Saintsbury’s words, “harangue, narrative, soliloquy, and passing of compliments.” Both French and British fiction were greatly influenced by this work: Madame Marie de Lafayette’s The Princess of Cleves (1678) owes much to Artamenes, as does Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1747-1748).
After the French Revolution, women lost many rights—the Napoleonic code decreed that women were economically and legally dependent on men—but since Scudéry’s time, women novelists have been producing some of the most popular “period” or “historical” fiction.