Hélisenne de Crenne Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Hélisenne de Crenne c. 1510-c. 1560

(Pseudonym of Marguerite de Briet) French novelist, poet, and translator.

Although little can be confirmed about the life of the author known as Hélisenne de Crenne, her works reveal a strong woman who spoke powerfully against the restrictions placed on women in sixteenth-century French society. Drawing on classical and Christian literature, medieval theology, and contemporary debates known as the “Quarrel of Women,” de Crenne addressed questions about women's nature and the effects of male domination and the marginalization of women. In her novel Les Angoysses douloureuses qui precedent d'amours (1538; The Torments of Love), the first French sentimental novel, and her semifictional letters, Les Epistres familieres et invectives (1539; Personal and Invective Letters), she points out how marriage constrains and subjugates women and argues that women should have access to intellectual pursuits no less than men. However, there is also a conservative element to de Crenne's writings; she writes too from the perspective of a Christian woman with traditional ideas of virtue. Modern critics are divided over to what extent de Crenne might be called a feminist, but they agree that her works are some of the finest examples of the use of humanist ideas to promote the notion of women's worth. Critics have also found particularly interesting de Crenne's fashioning of her persona in her works and her exploration of the idea of writing as a means of liberation for women.

Biographical Information

Little is known with certainty regarding de Crenne's life, and the few known facts of her life are reconstructed from miscellaneous documents. She was most likely born Marguerite de Briet in Abbeville in Picardy, France, around 1510, to a wealthy, upper-middle-class family. Most probably she was taught at home by tutors, as was the norm with young women of her class. Around 1530 she married a country squire named Phillipe Fournel, Seigneur de Crasnes (or Crenne), and it was from him that she took the name, de Crenne, that she would later use as a pseudonym. Between 1538 and 1541 she published all her works, and in 1543 they appeared in one volume as the oeuvre of the “Dame de Crenne.” It is thought that de Crenne had a son or stepson who was studying at the University of Paris around 1548. By 1552 de Crenne was legally separated from her husband and living near Paris. Documentary evidence shows that around that time de Crenne “donated” an annual income and a portion of one of her houses to one Christophe Le Manyer as payment for “good and pleasant services.” No details are available about the man or the services rendered, but there has been some speculation that Le Manyer is the model for the lover featured in her novel and letters. Nothing is known of de Crenne's later years, and there is no record of her death. Some scholars use 1560 as the year of death simply because it is the last year in which her works were printed.

Major Works

De Crenne's best-known work, Les Angoysses douloureuses, is a novel in three books, or parts. Book 1 is a first-person account by a young woman, Hélisenne, who at the age of eleven is married to a much older old man. At first the marriage is harmonious, but after some years, when Hélisenne's husband hears of his young wife's relationship with a young man named Guénélic, he reacts brutally. He beats her and locks her in her room. Later, when he finds that the affair (which is never actually consummated) has not ended, he imprisons her in one of his castles, where she writes her story. This first book is addressed by de Crenne to female readers, and the emphasis is on the characters' emotions rather than their actions. Most of the second and third books of the work are also in the first person, but told from the point of view of the lover who rescues his beloved. Books 2 and 3, which consist mainly of tales of chivalry and adventure, are directed to a mixed audience. At the very end a narrator describes what happens after the deaths of the two lovers.

A year after the appearance of Les Angoysses douloureuses, de Crenne published Les Epistres familieres et invectives, a collection of eighteen letters, seventeen of them from the character Hélisenne of the novel and one of them from her husband. Hélisenne responds to the situation described in Book 1 of Les Angoysses douloureuses, giving advice to women in similar situations, answering her husband's slanderous accusations of her infidelity, and attacking her critics.

De Crenne's lesser-known works are Le Songe (1540; The Dream), an allegorical poem describing a dream of the character Hélisenne in which she sees Venus, Pallas, and Reason involved in the ending of a love affair, and Les quatre premiers livres des Eneydes (1541), a translation of the first four books of Virgil's Aeneid.

Critical Reception

De Crenne's works were bestsellers in France during her lifetime; her collected writings were printed seven times between 1543 and 1560. However, by the end of the sixteenth century, they were largely forgotten. One French study of her works appeared in the nineteenth century, and in the first decades of the twentieth century several European scholars began to reappraise her literary contributions. The appearance of new editions of Les Angoysses douloureuses in the 1950s and 1960s brought her work to the attention of more critics, and since then there has been a profusion of critical commentary on her writings. Most critics agree that the voice of the pseudonymous author Hélisenne de Crenne is powerful and that the strong persona she creates in her writings is unusual for the period. She was a writer at a time when most women had few possibilities beyond the domestic sphere, and she demonstrates a profound understanding of medieval theology, Christian and classical literature, stylistics, and humanist ideas. Her works reflect the tastes and concerns of her day, she speaks out in defense of herself and her gender using the language of Renaissance humanism, and she makes reference to contemporary arguments about the nature of women. Critics consider Les Angoysses douloureuses to be the first sentimental novel in French, and while they acknowledge its similarities to novels of chivalry, they show how more complex is its treatment of character and psychological development. Feminist scholars see de Crenne as espousing feminist ideals because of her insistence on the inherent worth of women, with some venturing to show that she was a champion of women's rights. Commentators also speculate on the autobiographical element in de Crenne's work and discuss her use of anger in her critiques of male domination, her notions about the destructiveness of love, her use of classical mythology and Christian doctrine, the construction of her self-portrait in her work, and her use of writing as an act of liberation.