Hélisenne de Crenne Essay - Critical Essays

Hélisenne de Crenne


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.

Principal Works

Les Angoysses douloureuses qui precedent d'amours [The Torments of Love] (novel) 1538

Les Epistres familieres et invectives [Personal and Invective Letters] (fictional letters) 1539

Le Songe [The Dream] (poem) 1540

Les quatre premiers livres des Eneydes [The First Four Books of the Aeneid] [translator; from Virgil's epic poem] (poetry) 1541

Les Oeuvres de Ma Dame Hélisenne de Crenne [Works of Hélisenne de Crenne] (novel, poetry, letters) 1543


M. J. Baker (essay date January 1974)

SOURCE: Baker, M. J. “France's First Sentimental Novel and Novels of Chivalry.” Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance 36, no. 1 (January 1974): 33-45.

[In the following essay, Baker argues that Book 2 of Les Angoysses douloureuses is more clearly linked to Book 1 than most critics have assumed, and claims further that the work differs significantly from the novels of chivalry with which it has been categorized because of its focus on love and emphasis on character determining the outcome of events.]

France's first sentimental novel, Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent damours (1538), and its author, best known as Hélisenne de Crenne, have...

(The entire section is 6507 words.)

Anne R. Larsen (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Larsen, Anne R. “The Rhetoric of Self-Defense in Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent damours (Part One).” Kentucky Romance Quarterly 29, no. 3 (1982): 235-43.

[In the following essay, Larsen analyzes de Crenne's apologetic and combative intent in Les Angoysses douloureuses, exploring the author's portrayal of herself as a victim of love and her conception of writing as a self-justifying act.]

Recent criticism on Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent damours (1538), the first French sentimental novel, has centered on its structure. Against the view that it is without unity,1 several critics have sought to discern a...

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Kittye Delle Robbins-Herring (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Robbins-Herring, Kittye Delle. “Hélisenne de Crenne: Champion of Women's Rights.” In Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation, edited by Katharina M. Wilson, pp. 177-218. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

[In the following excerpt, an introduction to a translation of excerpts from de Crenne's works, Robbins-Herring contends that de Crenne is a true Renaissance feminist and that her works—which are sometimes conventional, sometimes avant-garde, and which often theorize on morality and the nature of men and women—show her to be an early advocate for women's rights.]

Hélisenne de Crenne, the name that Marguerite Briet chose to use for...

(The entire section is 10055 words.)

Jean-Philippe Beaulieu (essay date fall 1989)

SOURCE: Beaulieu, Jean-Philippe. “Erudition and Aphasia in Hélisenne de Crenne's Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procèdent d'amours.L'Esprit Créateur 29, no. 3 (fall 1989): 36-42.

[In the following essay, Beaulieu argues that in Les Angoysses douloureuses de Crenne employs an often speechless protagonist who is at the same time the erudite and articulate narrator, and in doing so is able to report the limitations imposed on women as well as overcome them.]

The first French novel written by a woman, Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours, composed by Marguerite Briet and published for the first time in 1538 under the nom de plume...

(The entire section is 3092 words.)

Barbara Ching (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Ching, Barbara. “French Feminist Theory, Literary History, and Hélisenne de Crenne's Les Angoysses douloureuses.French Literature Series 16 (1989): 17-26.

[In the following essay, Ching maintains that in Les Angoysses douloureuses de Crenne writes of her imprisonment in the female body that is used by men to make her an object, but then uses that status to express her subjectivity.]

The despairing claim of Luce Irigaray that “any theory of the ‘subject’ has always been appropriated by the ‘masculine’” (133) raises the despairing question of the status and history of her own discourse (Felman 4). If women are categorically and...

(The entire section is 3507 words.)

Jerry Nash (essay date winter 1990)

SOURCE: Nash, Jerry. “‘Exerçant oeuvres viriles’: Feminine Anger and Feminist (Re)Writing in Hélisenne de Crenne.” L'Esprit Créateur 30, no. 4 (winter 1990): 38-48.

[In the following essay, Nash shows how in her letters de Crenne uses anger to offer a feminist critique and to revise and rewrite literary, cultural, and intellectual history.]

The claim has often been made that women in early modern literature, both those writing it and those being written about or depicted in it, have very seldom explored the subject of “women by women,” a seemingly modern subject of inquiry and revisionary writing so central to the feminist movement as we know it...

(The entire section is 4718 words.)

Robert D. Cottrell (essay date January 1991)

SOURCE: Cottrell, Robert D. “Female Subjectivity and Libidinal Infractions: Hélisenne de Crenne's Angoisses douloureuses qui procèdent d'amours.French Forum 16, no. 1 (January 1991): 5-19.

[In the following essay, Cottrell examines the issues of female authorship and female readership in Les Angoysses douloureuses, focusing on the problem of female subjectivity as it relates to the female narrator and to the text itself.]

Several claims have been made for Hélisenne de Crenne's novel Les Angoisses douloureuses qui procèdent d'amours, published in 1538 and reprinted at least eight times by 1560. Gustave Reynier, whose 1908 study on Le...

(The entire section is 6460 words.)

Diane S. Wood (essay date summer 1991)

SOURCE: Wood, Diane S. “The Evolution of Hélisenne de Crenne's Persona.” Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Literatures 45, no. 2 (summer 1991): 140-51.

[In the following essay, Wood examines how de Crenne fashions her self-portrait in her novel and letters.]

The innovative nature of france's first sentimental novel has been examined during the past few years in numerous doctoral dissertations and scholarly articles. The present study is concerned with the author's acquisition of writing techniques and traces how Hélisenne de Crenne creates her own persona in the reader's mind from a collage of elements. A multifaceted view of the...

(The entire section is 5239 words.)

Jerry C. Nash (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Nash, Jerry C. “The Rhetoric of Scorn in Hélisenne de Crenne.” French Literature Series 19 (1992): 1-9.

[In the following essay, Nash argues that de Crenne angrily but effectively attacked male domination and marginalization of women in her writings—in a restrained manner in her novel but bluntly and with clear scorn in her letters.]

As a Renaissance female writer, Hélisenne de Crenne was deeply and extensively involved in the “querelle des femmes,” the heated debate in the early sixteenth century on the nature and status of woman. This is the subject that virtually every study of her writings over the past decade and even beyond has pursued to one...

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Diane S. Wood (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Wood, Diane S. “Dido as Paradigm of the Tragic Heroine in the Works of Hélisenne de Crenne.” Explorations in Renaissance Culture 18 (1992): 125-36.

[In the following essay, Wood contends that de Crenne's works offer a singular vision about the destructiveness of love that take inspiration from the story of Dido in the Aeneid.]

The popularity of the tragic story of Dido during the French Renaissance is reflected not only in many translations and in the theater, but also in popular fiction by Hélisenne de Crenne who utilizes the figure of Dido as inspiration for her female characters.1 In her writings Dido symbolizes an example of great feminine...

(The entire section is 3618 words.)

Katharine Ann Jensen (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Jensen, Katharine Ann. “Writing Out of the Double Bind: Female Plot and Hélisenne de Crenne's Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours.Oeuvres & Critiques 19, no. 1 (1994): 61-67.

[In the following essay, Jensen discusses the general assumption that Les Angoysses douloureuses is autobiographical, maintaining that this belief has obscured de Crenne's text.]

In her “First Invective Letter,” published in 1539 in the collection Epistres familieres et invectives, Hélisenne de Crenne struggles to correct a misreading of her novel, Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours, published a year before in 1538....

(The entire section is 3152 words.)

Jerry C. Nash (essay date summer 1997)

SOURCE: Nash, Jerry C. “Renaissance Misogyny, Biblical Feminism, and Hélisenne de Crenne's Epistres familieres et invectives.Renaissance Quarterly 50, no. 2 (summer 1997): 379-410.

[In the following essay, Nash discusses de Crenne's use of the Bible as a source of arguments and anecdotes to refute misogynist views, reject male arguments about female inferiority, and portray women as moral exemplars.]

And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.

—Mark 14:91


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Megan Conway (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Conway, Megan. “Classicism and Christianity in Hélisenne de Crenne's Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours.Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association 18 (1997): 111-31.

[In the following essay, Conway examines de Crenne's combining of the traditions of classical mythology and Christian doctrine in Les Angoysses douloureuses.]

Although Renaissance philosophers and theologians like Marsilio Ficino strove mightily to show Plato and Plotinus compatible with Saint Paul, writers of popular prose and poetry suffered no such qualms. While it appears curious and often shocking to modern readers to find references to the...

(The entire section is 7615 words.)

Jerry C. Nash (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Nash, Jerry C. “Constructing Hélisenne de Crenne: Reception and Identity.” In “Por le soie amisté”: Essays in Honor of Norris J. Lacy, edited by Keith Busby and Catherine M. Jones, pp. 371-83. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi, 2000.

[In the following essay, Nash asserts that misreadings of de Crenne's Epistres by her contemporaries as well as modern scholars have generated misperceptions about her identity.]

It would be of no small interest to discover what early modern readers really thought of Hélisenne de Crenne's Epistres familieres et invectives, and, in particular, of this early modern author's concern for questions of female...

(The entire section is 5050 words.)

Leah L. Chang (essay date November 2001)

SOURCE: Chang, Leah L. “Clothing ‘Dame Helisenne’: The Staging of Female Authorship and the Production of the 1538 Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours.Romanic Review 92, no. 4 (November 2001): 381-403.

[In the following essay, Chang examines how the narrative of Les Angoysses douloureuses as well as the process of printing the text of the 1538 edition of the novel contributed to the construction of the authorial figure of Hélisenne de Crenne.]

In Les Angoysses Douloureuses qui procedent d'amours (Paris, 1538), the protagonist Dame Helisenne owns a white cloak of which she is particularly fond: “J'estois fort curieuse en...

(The entire section is 10070 words.)

Further Reading


Archambault, Paul J. and Marianna Mustacchi Archambault. “Hélisenne De Crenne (c. 1510-c. 1560).” In French Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book, edited by Eva Martin Sartori and Dorothy Wynne Zimmerman, pp. 99-107. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Overview of de Crenne's life and career, discussing her major themes and surveying the critical commentary on her writings.

Conley, Tom. “Feminism, Écriture, and the Closed Room: The Angoysses douloureuses procedent d'amours.Symposium 27 (1973): 322-32.

Discusses the problematic of writing in Les Angoysses douloureuses....

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