Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Madeleine de Scudéry, "the Incomparable Sappho"

Madeleine de Scudéry (born 15 November 1607)

Ridiculed and satirized by many of her male contemporaries, Madeleine de Scudéry was, despite her critics, a wildly successful novelist whose works were quickly translated and published in England, Germany, Italy, and Spain.

Madeleine de Scudéry
The daughter of a minor aristocratic family, Scudéry was orphaned at the age of six. She was raised by an uncle who provided her with an extraordinary education: in addition to reading, writing, painting, dancing, and music, he exposed her to the study of agriculture, medicine, and "domestic economy." On her own, seemingly, she learned Spanish and Italian and developed an interest in philosophy.

After her uncle's death in 1637, Scudéry left Normandy for Paris, where she joined her brother, the playwright Georges de Scudéry, who introduced her into the vibrant salon life of the city. Her "pretensions" in becoming a regular figure in the salons--and then in establishing one of her own--are what seems to be the source of the ridicule directed at her.

Or at least one source. She also dared to write, at first using her brother's name as her pseudonym. Her first two works, the historical novel Ibrahim, ou l'illustre Bassa (Ibrahim or the Ilustrious Basa,1641) and the series of angry orations delivered by famous women, Les femmes illustres, ou Les harangues héroïques (Illustrious Women or Heroic Harangues, 1642), were both published under Georges de Scudéry's name.

Her Artamène, ou le Grand Cyrus (Artamène or the Great Cyrus), published in ten volumes (over two million words!!!) between 1648 and 1653 brought her fame and acclaim (and the subsequent ridicule).* The historical romance was set in ancient Assyria and featured fictionalized versions of her contemporaries, with Scudéry writing herself as Sappho. 

After 1653, the Scudéry siblings moved to the Marais, where Madeleine established her Saturday salon, which she called her "Société du samedi." There the group discussed many literary works, including those of Marguerite de Navarre. Among those who regularly attended was a writer whom we have met before, Madame de la Fayette. (Her work was also appreciated and praised by another woman we've met, Madame de Sévigné.)

She continued to publish fiction, both multi-volume novels and novellas, but Scudéry also published philosophical dialogues (such as Conversations sur divers sujets, [Conversations upon Several Subjects, 1680] and Conversations morales [Moral Conversations, 1686) and epistolary fictions, following the model of Ovid's Heroides, in her Lettres amoureuses de divers autheurs de ce temps (Amorous Letters from Various Contemporary Authors, 1641).

More recently, Scudéry's philosophical achievements have come to be recognized. In the introduction to his entry on Scudéry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, John Conley notes,
A prominent novelist, Madeleine de Scudéry (1607–1701) composed a series of dialogues dealing with philosophical issues. Primarily ethical in focus, her dialogues examine the virtues and vices proper to the aristocratic society of the period. They also explore questions of moral psychology, in particular the interplay between temperament and free will. In the area of epistemology, Scudéry analyzes the problem of certitude and self-knowledge. Theologically, she defends cosmological arguments demonstrating God's existence. Her aesthetic theory endorses the mimetic thesis concerning art as the imitation of nature but the individuality of artistic perception also receives attention. In her philosophical speculation, Scudéry stresses questions of gender; the relationship of philosophical theories to the condition of women receives substantial analysis.
Long framed by her critics as a pedantic précieuse, Scudéry has only recently attracted the interest of professional philosophers. . . . In the recent feminist expansion of the canon of humanities . . . the philosophical significance of her writings has emerged. Her literary corpus presents a novel version of the ancient philosophical method of dialogue; it also expresses original, sophisticated theories concerning the ethical, aesthetic, and theological disputes of early modernity.
For a wonderful introduction to Scudéry's diverse work, Jane Donawerth's Selected Letters, Orations, and Rhetorical Dialogues offers an excellent sampling. And if you're not up to tackling the two million words of Scudéry's Artamène, Karen Newman's The Story of Sapho offers a "self-contained section" of the historical romance:
The Story tells of Sapho, a woman writer modeled on the Greek Sappho, who deems marriage slavery. Interspersed in the love story of Sapho and Phaon are a series of conversations like those that took place in Scudéry's own salon in which Sapho and her circle discuss the nature of love, the education of women, writing, and right conduct. This edition also includes a translation of an oration, or harangue, of Scudéry's in which Sapho extols the talents and abilities of women in order to persuade them to write.
Madeleine de Scudéry died on 2 June 1701, at the age of ninety-three. To her friends, she was "the incomparable Sappho." (When they are not being described as a "tenth muse," women seem to be identified as a new Sappho . . . )

*When I was in graduate school, my professors went on and on about Samuel Richard's Clarissa, estimated to be 984,870 words long. Ha!!!!! Less than half as long as Artamène!