Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Marguerite Yourcenar presents the novel Memoirs of Hadrian as an extended letter written by the dying emperor to his adopted grandson Marc. The reader is assumed to be knowledgeable about Hadrian and his empire as well as about the general outlines of the later life of Marcus Aurelius, unknown to Hadrian. The novel is a first-person narrative, its tone is warmly intimate, and it presents an enormous amount of historical detail as realistic, individual, personal material.

Exiled from Europe by World War II, Yourcenar wrote her novel in the United States in the years immediately following the liberation of France. She was independently educated and saw herself as a humanist writing in a tradition that began in antiquity, and thus as an intellectual descendent of Hadrian. An eccentric thinker isolated from the French literary establishment, she produced an intellectual best-seller that dazzled critics with its lapidary style. The work established Yourcenar as a force in world literature and paved the way for her election in 1984 as the first female member of the prestigious Académie Française.

The general temporal outline of the novel is to be found in any standard encyclopedia article about Hadrian. Yourcenar’s attention to historical detail is evident throughout the novel; an epilogue specifies which personages and events are fully documented and which she has added speculatively or simply to advance her plot. Nevertheless, Memoirs of Hadrian is not a standard historical novel. The true flesh of the novel is the musing self-analysis of the narrator, who reveals the most intimate emotions of his private life, his political theories and personal bereavements.

Yourcenar’s narrative is arranged in short blocks clustered under Latin headings, beginning with the first line of a poem addressed by Hadrian to his soul and continuing with phrases that served as mottoes for coins or watchwords for action during Hadrian’s life. The smaller subdivisions fall in chronological order and explore both historical events and personal thematics evoked for the narrator by specific events. Several continuing subjects...

(The entire section is 882 words.)