Mlle. de Scudery, Clelie (1657-1661): a feminist literary and political landmark

Mlle. de Scudery, Clelie (1657-1661): a feminist literary and political landmark

Scudéry, Madeleine de (1607 – 1701). Clélie, histoire romaine dediée à Mademoiselle de Longveville. Par Mr de Scudery, gouverneur de Nostre Dame de la Garde. 10 volumes. Paris: Chez Augustin Courbé et Amsterdam: Jean Bleau, 1657-1661. Imprint dates vary, as is customary with this set (details provided below). Carte de Tendre lacking. A very attractive set in a contemporary uniform binding. Provenance: “Mad[ame] van Rask [?]. 1680.” (signature at v. 8, fol. DDddiv, p. [151]). Tchemerzine, X.282.


[v. 1] Paris : Chez Augustin Courbé, 1660. [9]+1-604 pp. ; 3 plates (frontis, portrait, illustration), two of which are colored. Carte de tendre lacking. [v. 2] No title page. Pp. 605-1443 + [4]; 2 plates (illustrations). [v. 3] Paris : Chez Augustin Courbé, 1657. Pp. [1]-630; 2 plates (frontispiece, illustration) [v. 4] Paris : Chez Augustin Courbé, 1661 Pp. 609-1481 + [7]. Title page repaired. [v. 5] Paris : Chez Augustin Courbé, 1657. Pp. [1]-604; 1 plate (frontispiece), chipped. [v. 6] No title page. Pp. 607-1604 + [2], 1 plate [frontispiece]; last leaf torn, with early repairs. [v. 7] A Paris : Chez Augustin Courbé et Iean Blaeu à Amsterdam, 1658. Pp. 1-614 ; 1 plate (frontispiece). [v. 8] No title page. Pp. 617-1464 + [2] ; 2 plates (illustrations). [v. 9] A Paris : chez Augustin Courbé et à Amsterdam: Jean Blaeu, 1660. [1]-544 p., 1 plate (frontispiece). [v. 10] A Paris : Chez Augustin Courbé et Iean Blaeu à Amsterdam, 1660. Pp. 545-1156 + [8]. 2 plates (illustrations). 


     Weighing in at over 13,000 pages, Clélie was the most influential novel by Madeleine de Scudéry, one of the luminaries of French intellectual life in the seventeenth century. A central figure among the lively and educated women known as les précieuses, Scudéry advanced a social vision that balanced feminine elegance and courtly etiquette with radical demands for women’s equality. For example, as one of the characters in Clélie argues, until marriage can be redefined to preserve women’s personal freedom and financial independence, the institution should be replaced with contractual civil unions.

     Clélie is also a roman-à-clef of sorts, with disguised portraits of real people with distinctly drawn character traits, most of whom were contemporaries of the author. Many of the ideas in her novels were developed and refined through the conversations Scudéry hosted every Saturday at her salon. In her close analysis of the book, Chantal Morlet-Chantalat suggests also that Scudéry’s salon served as a school for tolerance, providing “an opening to the diversity of opinions that, in many ways, announce the best of the eighteenth century.” In a very recent article, Allauren Samantha Forbes agrees: “Ultimately, Scudérian conversation is a kind of feminist praxis that flies under the radar in virtue of appearing to be merely a social art.”

     Literary historian Joan DeJean offers a concise summary of Clélie:


     The work, now called a roman héroïque, often resembles romance more than novel. Clélie begins in medias res, just before the marriage between Clélie and Aronce. Suddenly, an earthquake separates the lovers. After many fantastic adventures (Clélie is repeatedly kidnapped by Aronce’s rivals, for example), they are eventually reunited. However, that happy end is delayed by a variety of intercalated narratives: one character tells another’s life story; groups embark on lengthy discussions of themes ranging from the qualities of successful letter-writing to the value of inclination or sudden passion. Despite its setting in classical Rome, Clélie was very much a novel for its times.

     The best-seller of the century, Clélie was the favourite reading of the précieuses. Much intercalated material was borrowed from their actual discussions …. [T]he issues Clélie raises, in particular its critique of marriage as legal ‘slavery’ for women, were hotly debated in the salons. Contemporary readers praised Scudéry’s intimate knowledge of the human heart. In fact, Clélie inaugurates the French novel’s close association with psychological realism.


     Not surprisingly, Scudéry faced vicious criticism for her views. Molière lampooned her in Les Précieuses ridicules, and the critic Nicholas Boileau decried her works as shallow and immoral. Many women readers, however, recognized its merits. "There will be no talking to your sister when she has read Clélie," wrote Lady Russell to her daughter, "for the wise folks say it is the most improving book which can be read." In his critical work De l'usage des romans (1734), Lenglet du Fresnoy praised the author in fulsome terms, listing her among France's greatest novelists. On the endpapers of vol. 10 a reader has copied an appreciative passage by the critic:


[Q]uand je prens la Clélie, je me dis à moi-même, entrons dans le Païs des réveries & des fables, égayons notre espirit, réjoüissons notre imagination; mais en même-tems prenons des mœurs & de la politesse, voyons common il faut éviter les piéges qui me seront tendus: Examinons aussi de quelle manière on peut se mettre en bonne posture auprès des Dames; c’est ce qu’il y a de plus essentiel dans la vie, & nous le trouverons ici. On m’assure cependant qu’il y a bien du vrai dans ce Livre. Tenez, me dit-on, voilà celui de l’infortuné M. Fouquet; cet autre vous peint Madame Scarron, qui a depuis été la celebre Madame de Maintenon; c’est ici une avanture très-réelle arrivée à Madame de Montausier; enfin vous allez trouver dans ce Livre toute la vielle Cour. Cela me fait un double plaisier; je crois n’y trouer que du fabuleux & j’y trouve du vrai.


It is a testament to Scudéry's work, notes Lenglet du Fresnoy, that the bibliographer Jacques Lelong incuded Clélie in his Bibliothèque historique de la France (1719).

     Although Clélie is one of Scudéry's most important works, it is also one of her rarest, seldom offered complete. It is much less common than her earlier 10-volume novel, Artamene ou Le Grand Cyrus (1648-1653). We find no auction records, and few records of earlier sales.


Works cited

  • Burch, Laura J. “Madeleine de Scudéry : Peut-on parler de femme philosophe?” Revue philosophique de la France et de l’Etranger, 203 (2013): 361–375.
  • DeJean, Joan. Tender Geographies: Women and the Origins of the Novel in France. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
  • Forbes, Allauren Samantha. “Madeleine de Scudéry on conversation and its feminist ends,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 30 (2021):1-23.
  • France, Peter, ed. The new Oxford companion to literature in French. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Morlet-Chantalat, Chantal. La Clélie de mademoiselle de Scudéry: De l'épopée à la gazette : un discours féminin de la gloire. Paris : Champion, 1994.
  • Nunn, Robert R. “Mlle. de Scudéry and the development of the literary portrait: some unusual portraits in ‘Clélie.’” Romance Notes 17 (1976): 180–84

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    Mlle. de Scudery, Clelie (1657-1661): a feminist literary and political landmark


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