Madeleine de Scudéry Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Madeleine de Scudéry 1607-1701

French novelist and essayist.

The following entry provides recent criticism of Scudéry's works. For additional information on Scudéry's career, see LC, Volume 2.

Although Madeleine de Scudéry was one of the best-known and most influential writers of romance tales in seventeeth-century Europe, many critics suggest that neither her talent nor the extent of her influence was recognized until the twentieth century. In part, her gender was to blame for her undeserved poor reputation: in Scudéry's time, writing for pay was considered an unworthy occupation for either sex, and in the case of women writers, often led to accusations of immorality and sexual licentiousness. It was perhaps for that reason that Scudéry published under the name of her brother, Georges, until his death, even though it was widely known that she was largely responsible for such romantic novels as Ibrahim; ou, L'illustre Bassa, Artamène; ou, Le grand Cyrus, and Clélie. Scudéry received an unusual honor as the only woman in the seventeenth century to be acknowledged by the Academie Français, for her essay Discours sur la gloire. Notions of gloire and galantarie—honor and gallantry—distinguish Scudéry's work, and were drawn from the exquisite politeness and delicate manners of the world of the Paris salons Scudéry frequented. This type of mannered behavior, which in later years became codified and exaggerated to a somewhat ridiculous degree, was known as préciosité, and Scudéry's widely read novels did much to popularize it. Recent critics, however, have suggested that Scudéry's connection to préciosité has been overestimated or simply misunderstood. Scudéry was also influential in England; some critics have demonstrated that her work was familiar to Samuel Richardson, who is considered one of the foremost creators of the English novel. Scudéry's revisions of the romance genre, focusing on the inner life of her characters and drawing material from contemporary society, have enhanced her modern reputation as one of the key early contributors to the development of the novel.

Biographical Information

Scudéry was born in the northern French city of Le Havre in 1607. Her father, a southerner from the Midi region, was the captain of ports in that city; her mother was of Norman ancestry. Madeleine and her brother, Georges, were the only two of the Scudéry's five children to survive infancy, and they remained close to each other throughout their lives. In later years this was due as much to economic necessity as to their mutual interest in literature. In literary histories their names are usually discussed together, although few of Georges's works have survived, and Madeleine was by far the more famous of the two.

In 1613, when Madeleine was six years old, both of her parents died, and she went to live with her mother's brother near Rouen. Her uncle had been a courtier, and from him Scudéry learned a great deal about the fashionable world of Paris. She was also taught writing, painting, dancing, and handicrafts—all of which she later found useful when composing her voluminous fictions. Georges, in the meantime, became first a soldier and later a dramatist. In this latter capacity he went to Paris and took up residence in the Marais, a district inhabited primarily by writers and theatrical people. The theater was becoming both an important artistic force and a fashionable pastime in France at this time, and Georges de Scudéry was able to gain success and recognition as one of “Richelieu's five,” a band of Parisian dramatists known for writing plays that flattered the policies of the king's minister, Cardinal Richelieu. Georges's theatrical successes soon brought him social prestige as well, and he began to frequent the famous “blue room” salon of Madame de Rambouillet. In 1638, when Madeleine followed him to Paris, she was also welcomed into this select company, which included such noted men of letters as the poets François de Malherbe and Vincent Voiture; the grammarian Valentin Conrart, one of the founders of the Academie Français; and the moralist François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld. As the blue room meetings declined due to Madame de Rambouillet's failing health, many of these same artists and scholars began attending salon gatherings held by Scudéry—evidence of her popularity and unqualified acceptance into this circle.

At her salons, Scudéry attempted to recreate the atmosphere of the Hotel de Rambouillet, where, as Dorothy McDougall has noted, “the process of ‘civilizing’ went on without effort” and “pleasure and recreation went hand in hand with the improvement of the mind.” However, although Scudéry herself was known to be a refined, well-educated, and modest woman, the phenomenon of préciosité, which her salon and novels did much to propagate, soon degenerated among certain of her followers into priggishness and ridiculous excesses of delicacy. Both Molière and Nicholas Boileau satirized the exaggerated posturings of these overly zealous précieux in works such as Les Précieuses ridicules and Dialogue des héros de roman, although there is evidence that both of these authors respected Scudéry herself, and did not wish to offend her personally. Bolieau, in fact, delayed publishing the Dialogue until after Scudéry's death for this very reason, and critics now believe it likely that Molière himself was impressed and influenced by Scudéry's feminist ideas. Although Scudéry's salon ended in 1659, at approximately the same time that Molière's play appeared, critics no longer believe that the play was responsible for the salon's demise. Rather, it appears that the salon was taken over by Madame Fouquet and moved to the more luxurious surroundings of the castle of Vaux, where it continued for several more years. Scudéry survived to an illustrious old age, and although some critics contend that her novels had ceased to be popular long before her death in 1701, translations of her novels were still being issued as late as 1682.

Major Works

Scudéry's first novel, Ibrahim; ou, L'illustre Bassa, was published in 1641 under her brother Georges's name. However, Scudéry was not reluctant to reveal her authorship to friends, and by the time her second novel, Artamène; ou, Le grand Cyrus, appeared in 1653, it was well known in Paris circles that Madeleine, not Georges, was the author. Although most of the early criticism of Scudéry's works reflects confusion over Georges's role in the composition of the romances, later scholars have concluded that Georges's contributions to Ibrahim, Artamène, and Clélie were probably limited to the battle scenes, the prefaces, and the letters of dedication. The only one of Scudéry's works on which brother and sister are thought to have collaborated extensively is Les femmes illustres; ou, Les harangues heroiques, a collection of imaginary monologues or speeches by famous women from history in which questions of manners and morals—favorite topics among the précieuses—are discussed. Nicole Aronson, a modern biographer of Scudéry, has argued that it was Georges and not Madeleine who wrote Almahide; ou, L'esclave reine, a late novel that is most often attributed to Madeleine, but one that never achieved the popularity of Artamène or Clélie.

Ibrahim was an immediate success, as were Artamène and Clélie. Clélie was probably the most popular and widely translated novel of the seventeenth century. Scudéry included both original elements and features borrowed from earlier romances when writing these works, and followed the same basic formula in all her novels, including the use of noble characters, a complex plot, numerous subplots, an exotic setting, and a peculiar approach to chronology, copied from Honorlé D'Urfe's novel L'Astrlée, that allowed for a great deal of jumping back and forth in time. She researched her plots exhaustively; her familiarity with the classics and with foreign languages gave her access to a wide variety of excellent historical sources in which she found the characters and incidents on which she based her novels, and which provided details for vivid descriptions of exotic locales. Her subplots also derived from such sources, ranging from the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega to the Roman author Livy. The noted English critic George Saintsbury suggested that Scudéry was the first novelist to attempt to connect the subplots to the main action of the story. In comparison to earlier prose romances, Scudéry's works have a more cohesive organization, making them an important link between prose romances and the modern novel. Scudéry was also the first writer of romances to banish monsters and magical occurrences from her adventures. Her heroes face only human antagonists, and conflicts are resolved through skill or cleverness rather than magical intervention—another step in the development of the more realistic modern novel.

Scudéry began portraying her friends and acquaintances from the Paris salons and the royal court in her first novel, Ibrahim. It was not until she wrote Artamène, however, that she began using this device extensively. Artamène thus created a sensation among her friends, who anxiously awaited each volume for an opportunity to study these flattering “portraits.” The reading public also became intrigued by these characterizations of the elite, and a “key” revealing the identities of all those depicted in the novel was circulated among many of its readers. This key was lost, however, and not rediscovered until nineteenth-century critic Victor Cousin published a copy he found in an old edition of Artamène. The long, analytical conversations about the psychology of love, manners, and morals that abound in the novels are precisely the sort of discussions that were favored by Scudéry and her friends in the Paris salons. These conversations were, in fact, later excerpted from the novels by Scudéry and published separately as Conversations sur divers sujets and Conversations nouvelles sur divers sujets—volumes intended to assist young people in acquiring social finesse and high moral standards.

One of Scudéry's most influential writings was her “Carte de tendre,” a map of the mythical “country of tenderness” found in her immensely popular novel Clélie. “La Carte de tendre” is a step-by-step guide to the emotional stages of platonic love, and demonstrates Scudéry's analytical approach to dealing with “tender” emotions in fiction. Many critics suggest that this analytical technique, which was a part of all her novels, became one of the most characteristic features of the French novel, and was an important influence on major writers including Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux and Samuel Richardson.

Critical Reception

Although Scudéry was immensely popular during her lifetime and into the early eighteenth century, by the time of the nineteenth century popular consensus had changed. Her novels were considered ridiculous and unreadable, even by some who professed to admire her. One of her most important nineteenth-century critics, Victor Cousin, praised her contributions to French literary history but found much of her work insipid. Her connection to “Les femmes savants,” mocked by Molière and other contemporaries, though perhaps unfounded, also damaged her reputation.

More recent scholarship, however, has focused on Scudéry's contributions to the development of the novel, her depiction of and interaction with her social world, and her status as an early woman writer. In recent criticism, including that of James F. Gaines, Scudéry's emphasis on the psychology of her characters has been cited as a significant innovation that came to define the genre of the novel. Some critics, including Caren Greenberg and Elizabeth Goldsmith, have argued that in her novels and in the Conversations Scudéry created a kind of utopian society in which women were free to reinvent themselves. Harriet Stone has further argued that the foreign settings of some of her works create opportunities for self-invention. Scudéry's role as a model for women writers and for women's education has also been an important topic of recent criticism. Critics including Jane Donaworth and Patricia Hannon have discussed her as an important influence on later women authors and even as a proto-feminist. Helen Osterman Borowitz has attempted to draw direct connections between Scudéry and the great French novelist Germaine de Staël. Critics have long acknowledged, however, that Scudéry was not only an influence on women novelists. Some have suggested that she also opened up new political possibilities. For example, Leonard Hinds has claimed that the collaborative model of authorship that existed in the salons was also a model for an alternative to absolutism, while Joan DeJean has suggested that her work can be seen as a response to political events of her age.