Academic and novelist Madeleine de Scudéry (1607-1701) is widely credited with being France’s first woman to publicly achieve a highly educated status. She founded her own salon, the Société du Samedi, and quickly became Paris’ leading literary hostess. She was an advocate of classical rhetorical theory and an important figure in the push for female education. She published many works during her long life, originally under her brother’s name and later as herself, or under the pseudonym Sapho.
Madeleine de Scudéry was born in Northern France on 15 November 1607, the second child of a port captain and his wife. Madeleine and her brother Georges were orphaned around 1613, with Madeleine still a small child, and both children were placed in the care of their loving uncle, who made a point of educating both of his young charges to a very high level.
At first, Madeleine was taught the typical subjects a young lady would need to know, including dancing, needlework, drawing and painting, along with writing and spelling practice. She took to her studies with gusto and picked up further subjects under her own steam, like agriculture, medicine, and cooking, ancient European history, and a range of languages including Greek, Latin, Spanish and Italian.
Georges de Scudéry went on to become a playwright. His sister Madeleine also pursued a literary line of work, at first publishing under her brother’s name before later adopting a pseudonym, Sapho. In her later years, she also wrote under her own name. Today, Madeleine’s books have survived the test of time far better than her brother’s efforts – much of the writing by Georges was either deliberately destroyed or carelessly lost after he was exiled back to Normandy. Novels by Madeleine are still studied by literature scholars to this day.
One of her more notable works was the novel Artamène, ou le Grand Cyrus, written between 1648 and 1653 with some editorial input by her brother. It is known to be one of the longest novels ever published, with the ten volumes consisting of an incredible 1,954,300 words.
In 1642, she published the Les Femmes Illustres, a composition of speeches by powerful females which was aimed at showing women their power in literature, and giving them a voice in a male-dominated society. Much of her work focused on the theme of classical rhetorical discourse, and on the benefits of conversation and letter writing as a dispersion method for knowledge, particularly where women have control of that intellectual conversation.
Similar novels by Madeleine include:
- The Slave Queen (1660)
- Mathilda of Aguilar, a Spanish Tale (1667)
- The Versailles Promenade, or the Tale of Celanire (1669)
Introducing the roman à clef
Though her politically charged works for women were among her most notable achievements, it is for her ‘Roman à clef’ novels that Madeleine was best known during her lifetime. She invented this now often seen genre as a means of introducing real historical figures into a fictitious environment, often borrowing tales from Roman and Greek history and positioning them against the real lives of political and social figures from France at the time.
This gave an element of gossip to her books, and this thrilled her audience. She wrote about the people she knew as well, disguised as recurring characters who dwelled within the classical world she painted with her pen. One common character was Herminius, who represented Madeleine’s long-term lover Paul Pellisson. She also appears herself, in the guise of her pen name Sapho, in the novel Celanire.
Société du Samedi
On arriving in Paris with her brother, Madeleine de Scudéry was quickly welcomed into the Hôtel de Rambouillet literary salon hosted by Madame de Rambouillet herself. However, she preferred discourse based on conversation, rather than structured and limited debate, so she established her own salon – the Société du Samedi, or Saturday Society. This raised Mademoiselle de Scudéry’s profile and she soon became Paris’ leading female literary hostess.
In her late life, as the influence of her salon waned, Madeleine de Scudéry retained a close but small circle of friends and enjoyed regular discussions and meetings with her peers. She lived to be 93, outliving her older brother by 30 years, and surviving her lover Paul Pellisson by eight years. However, for the last four decades of her life Mademoiselle de Scudéry suffered from almost total deafness, which affected her public speaking and conversational abilities. She dedicated much of her later years to publishing conversations, her own and other people’s, and anthologising her own works.
Madeleine de Scudéry was a rarity in her time: an educated, intellectual woman who preferred the pleasures of the mind and who wasn’t afraid to share her opinions. She led one of Paris’ busiest literary societies, often as keynote speaker herself, and she published a great many works which focused on women’s education, ultimately reclaiming the concept of classical rhetorical theory for the purposes of women’s literary discussions. Though her works have frequently been criticised and satirised (often by male writers who were critical of her feminist themes), she developed a new genre of literature: her romans à clef novels were hugely popular in France during the late Renaissance period. She paved the way for a genre of literature that now includes works by Sylvia Plath, George Orwell, Philip K. Dick, Victor Hugo and Bret Easton Ellis.
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