Madeleine de Scudéry Essay - Critical Essays

Scudéry, Madeleine de


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.

Principal Works

Ibrahim; ou, L'illustre Bassa [Ibrahim; or The Illustrious Bassa] 4 vols. [as Georges de Scudéry] (novel) 1641

Les femmes illustres; ou, Les harangues héroiques [Les femmes Illustres; or, The Heroic Haragnues of the Illustrious Women] 2 vols. [as Georges de Scudéry] (fictional lectures) 1642-44

Artamène; ou, Le grand Cyrus [Artamenes; or, The Grand Cyrus] 10 vols. [as Georges de Scudéry] (novel) 1649-53

*Clélie: Histoire romaine [Clelia] 10 vols. [as Georges de Scudéry] (novel) 1654-60

Almahide; ou, L'esclave reine [Almahide; or, The Captive Queen] 8 vols. [as Georges de...

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Caren Greenberg (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “The World of Prose and Female Self-Inscription: Scudéry's Les Femmes illustres,” in L'Esprit Créateur, Vol. 23, No. 2, Summer 1983, pp. 37-44.

[In the following essay, Greenberg proposes that the literary culture of late seventeenth-century France was characterized by a kind of free play with social systems that enabled an active feminine authority. Focusing on Les Femmes illustres, the critic finds that Scudéry took this opportunity to write her own place in history.]

The use of language by educated groups such as libertines or precious writers during the baroque period reveals the uncertainty of changing codes and shifting referential...

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Elizabeth C. Goldsmith (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “‘L'art de detourner les choses’: Sociability as Euphoria in Madeleine de Scudéry's Conversations,” in Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature, Vol. XIII, No. 24, 1986, pp. 17-24.

[In the following essay, Goldsmith examines Scudéry's Conversations in light of modern theories of sociability. She argues that, by establishing in this work a utopian arena for conversation set apart from social limitations, Scudéry enabled the creation of a conversational model that could be a new standard for society.]

The writings of Madeleine de Scudéry are often cited as textual enactments of seventeenth-century codes of politesse and...

(The entire section is 3839 words.)

Joan DeJean (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “The Politics of Genre: Madeleine de Scudéry and the Rise of the French Novel,” in L'Esprit Créateur, Vol. 29, No. 3, Fall 1989, pp. 43-51.

[In the following essay, DeJean argues that Artamène was a response to contemporary political events. As such, she suggests, Scudéry's work helps demonstrate how the novel as a genre was a response to the French political climate of the seventeenth century.]

Historians and literary historians have for some time asserted that the earliest types of prose fiction developed in 17th-century France played a central role “in the development and diffusion of feminist ideas.”1 Without exception, the...

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James F. Gaines (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Lucrèce, Junie, and Clélie: Burdens of Female Exemplarity,” in Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Western Society for French History, Vol. 17, 1990, pp. 515-23.

[In the following essay, Gaines compares Scudéry's rendering of violated feminine honor in Clélie with other contemporary French revisions of Livy's story of the rape of Lucretia. The critic suggests that by emphasizing the feelings and inner life of women, rather than the actions and honor of men, Scudéry grants women a greater power to shape both their own lives and history, and she helps clear the path for the modern psychological novel.]

Of all the Greco-Roman heroines that...

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Harriet Stone (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Scudéry's Theatre of Disguise: The Orient in Ibrahim,” in L'Esprit Créateur, Vol. 32, No. 3, 1992, pp. 51-61.

[In the following essay, Stone maintains that the Orient depicted in Ibrahim “is the medium through which the European (hero and reader alike) comes to understand himself and to know his place in the world. … The Orient thus serves as a theater for the European's play, a device used to display him to himself.”]

It is hardly surprising that Scudéry's Ibrahim (1641), despite a verisimilar and largely favorable description of Turkish history and culture, depicts an Orient more European—serving the Western world...

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Ruth Carver Capasso (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Sun, Veil and Maze: Mlle de Scudéry's Parthenie” in Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature, Vol. XX, No. 38, 1993, pp. 97-111.

[In the following essay, Capasso analyzes the character of Parthenie in Artamène, utilizing techniques derived from “constructivist” psychology, an approach, she maintains, that approximates seventeenth-century understanding of character.]

Mlle de Scudéry is best known for her analyses of love in the abstract, as illustrated by the famous “Carte du Tendre,” and for her creation of certain famous characters or types, such as Sapho and Mandane in Artamène. Yet her work in creating individual...

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Patricia Hannon (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Desire and Writing in Scudéry's ‘Histoire de Sapho,’” in L'Esprit Créateur, Vol. 35, No. 2, Summer 1995, pp. 37-50.

[In the following essay, Hannon illuminates Scudéry's depiction of desire in her “Histoire de Sapho,” from Artamène. Employing the insights of the twentieth-century French feminist Hélène Cixous, Hannon explores how Scudéry's writing about the female body in her amatory fiction imagines a place of greater freedom for women.]

Scudéry scholarship often focuses on her 1654 novel Clélie, which contains the “Carte de Tendre,” the best known of the many amorous geographies in vogue during the second half of the...

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Anne E. Duggan (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Lovers, Salon, and State: La Carte de Tendre and the Mapping of Socio-Political Relations,” in Dalhousie French Studies, Vol. 36, Fall 1996, pp. 15-22.

[In the following essay, Duggan argues that the social model Scudéry put forth in La Carte de Tendre applied not only to romantic interactions, but also to political concerns. Focusing on the structure of the French salons, Duggan suggests that Scudéry and other salonniers created a kind of utopian society in which the women were free to re-create themselves without regard to the limitations of either gender stereotypes or socio-economic status.]

The Carte de Tendre remains as...

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Leonard Hinds (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Literary and Political Collaboration: The Prefatory Letter of Madeleine de Scudéry's Artamène, ou le Grand Cyrus,” in Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature, Vol. XXIII, No. 45, 1996, pp. 491-500.

[In the following essay, Hinds asserts that the “ambiguous authorial figure” adumbrated in Scudéry's dedicatory letter to the Duchess de Longueville preceding Artamène models an alternative to absolutist political leadership.]

The prefatory letter of Artamène, ou le Grand Cyrus (1649-1653) treats the politically charged figure of the Duchesse de Longueville by means of literary investment performed by an ambiguous authorial...

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Jane Donaworth (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “‘As Becomes a Rational Woman to Speak’: Madeleine de Scudéry's Rhetoric of Conversation,” in Listening to Their Voices: The Rhetorical Activities of Historical Women, edited by Molly Meijer Wertheimer, University of South Carolina Press, 1997, pp. 305-19.

[In the following essay, Donaworth focuses on Scudéry's art of conversation, arguing that her rhetorical skill granted her more social freedom than was usual for a woman of her time, and that it created a model for other women.]

Madeleine de Scudéry, the most popular novelist of seventeenth-century Europe, was also, I shall argue, a rhetorical theorist. She was the first of a series of women in the...

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Robert Nunn (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “The Rape of Lucretia in Madeleine de Scudéry's Clélie,” in Violence et fiction jusqu'à la Révolution, edited by Martine Debaisieux and Gabrille Verdier, Gunter Narr Verlag, 1998, pp. 245-49.

[In the following essay, Nunn examines Scudéry's adaptations of Livy's story of the rape of Lucretia, both in Les femmes illustres and in Clélie. The critic finds that Scudéry's presentation of the rape is restrained by the culture of polite society that suffuses her historical novels.]

The rape of Lucretia by Sextus Tarquin and her subsequent suicide is one of the most well-known legends of antiquity. Over the centuries it has inspired...

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Further Reading


Jensen, Katharine Ann. “Madeleine de Scudéry (1607-1701).” In French Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book, edited by Eva Martin Sartori and Dorothy Wynne Zimmerman, pp. 430-39. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Offers a short biography related to Scudéry's work and surveys her critical reception from the seventeenth century to 1990.

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