Madeleine begins with a quotation in French:
Aux faiseurs ou faiseuses de Romans,
l’histoire de ma vie et celle de ma mort.
Le Testament de Clyante.
“Le Testament de Clyante,” or “The Will of Clyante” is a piece in a 17th-century collection of poetry and prose called Recueil des pièces en prose, published by Charles de Sercy in 1638 and reissued with additions by Charles Sorel in 1644 and 1658 as the Recueil de Sercy (Sercy’s Collection). “Le Testament de Clyante” is apparently found only in the 1658 edition, and is one of a series of comic send-ups of the last will and testament. Mirrlees’ quote is a bequest, and it means something like:
To the authors and authoresses of novels,
the history of my life and that of my death.
I haven’t found a copy of the Recueil itself, but I did find a reference to another of its mock-bequests, which is certainly related to the world of Madeleine: “aux Précieuses cinq cents annees de sévérité et d’orgueil.” My French is worse than bad, but that means something like “to the Précieuses 500 years of austerity and pride.”
Mirrlees’ quotation serves two main purposes: it introduces a theme that will be central in Madeleine—the interaction of art and life—and it invokes the world of the 17th century précieuses, a world that will form half the novel’s backdrop. It’s with the précieuses, therefore, that I’ll begin: this entry, like those that will follow, is intended to serve both as a record of my study of the novel and—I hope—a list of possible routes into the text for other readers who may not have time to do the background research.
The précieuses were a group of mostly female writers, artists, and wits who gathered at the salon held by Catherine de Vivonne, the marquise of Rambouillet, commonly known as Madame de Rambouillet, whose story is charmingly told in a brief article published in the New York Times in 1873—it’s a PDF from the Times site, but it’s free and substantially tastier than the Wikipedia article about her. Mme de Rambouillet is a character in Madeleine, as is the salon’s most well known writer, Madeleine de Scudéry, more frequently called Mademoiselle de Scudéry. (She’s not the Madeleine of the novel’s title, but do keep the coincidence in mind.) Mlle. de Scudéry wrote a number of sometimes very long novels, the bulk of which consisted of intense conversations between characters.
From the précieuses’ gatherings also emerged a series of French fairy tales written for adults, most notably by Madame d’Aulnoy (some of whose fairy tales can be found in English at Sur la Lune); this tradition continued for about a hundred years and produced some of the most famous fairy tales in the European tradition, including Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s “Beauty and the Beast” and Charles Perrault’s very famous tales. This has nothing at all to do with Madeleine, but it’s nice to know.
The most relevant points about the précieuses for readers of Madeleine is that the salon at the Hôtel de Rambouillet was made up of intellectuals and artists who made a strenuous effort to demonstrate in their art and conversation a set of neo-classical virtues: elegance, gallantry, correct language, and especially wit. Moliére made them the target of satire in Les Précieuses ridicules, the play that made his name, and if you’ve read or seen Cyrano de Bergerac, you’ve met another caricatured précieuse in the character of Roxane.
Wikipedia’s article in English on the précieuses is very basic, so I recommend a quick look through the delightfully typeset Hôtel de Rambouillet and the Précieuses (1900) on Google Books if you’re interested in more on the salon and its brightest lights. (The Wikipedia article in French is also pretty good—much better than the English.)
Some readers of Madeleine, most notably the late literary critic Julia Briggs and fantasy writer Michael Swanwick, have read Madeleine as a roman à clef. Briggs suggests that the novel “records” Mirrlees’ disillusionment with Natalie Barney, “the Sappho of her day” and her “circle of latter-day précieuses,” while Swanwick questions this point and considers the book a transparent picture of Mirrlees’ own family life. More on that in the next post.
Roy, Emile. La vie et les œuvres de Charles Sorel, sieur de Souvigny (1602-1674). Hachette 1891.