French novelist, poet, essayist, dramatist, world traveller, and translator Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987) was the first woman elected to the French Academy.
Marguerite Yourcenar was born on June 8, 1903, and baptized Marguerite Antoinette Ghislaine. Her father, Michel de Crayencour, was a native of Lille and a restless traveller, and it was by chance that she was born during her family's brief sojourn in Brussels. Her mother, Frenande de Cartier de Marchienne, a Belgian, died ten days after the birth of her daughter of puerperal fever. As a young girl Marguerite lived frequently with an aunt in Belgium and with family friends in northern France until 1912 when she and her father settled in Paris. She was educated by a professional teacher, but she was in large measure self-educated by visits to museums, the classical theaters, and extensive reading.
Her first trip beyond the continent was to England in 1914 where she spent a year learning English and visiting famous museums and historical sites. The remaining years of World War I she passed in Paris with her father, who began her instruction in ancient Greek, or in Provence where her father after suffering serious financial losses, attempted to recover his fortune by gambling at Monte Carlo and elsewhere. She continued her education with various private tutors and received a Baccalaureate degree in 1919. At this point her formal education ended.
Between the ages of 19 and 23 she began writing and, with a subsidy from her father, published two books of poems: Le Jardin des Chime‧res (1921) and Les Dieux ne sont pas morts (1922). Equally with the aid of her father she worked out the anagram that became Yourcenar, her pen-name, which became her legal name in 1947. She composed several hundred pages of manuscript during her early years, threw most of them away, yet preserved fragments that she would turn into complete books 30 or more years later. The lucubrations of her youth were seedbeds for her fertile, restless imagination. So were certain events: a visit to the Villa Adriana was the inspiration for her most famous novel, Mémoires d'Hadrien, which was not completed until 1951.
The 1920s were years of continuous travel. In Italy she witnessed Mussolini's march on Rome. Her knowledge of fascism derived from her acquaintance with Italian life and conversations with Italian intellectuals exiled in Switzerland and southern France. From these experiences she published her novel Denier du rêve (1934), revised in 1959. For Yourcenar, a republication became the occasion for rewriting her text, so a new edition was frequently a new book. She travelled extensively in Switzerland, Germany, and Eastern Europe where political transformations were having a degrading effect on the classical culture that had formed the basis of her education. She published several articles in prominent reviews deploring the decline of European culture; she also published several short stories, mostly in the classical style. However, her reading now included contemporary authors as well as the theories of socialism and anarchy, with the result that her outlook assumed a leftward orientation. She even published a story, thanks to Henri Barbusse, in L'Humanité, the French Communist Party's newspaper.
Politics, however, rarely made up the substance of her compositions. In these years she wrote a story—Alexis ou le traité du vain combat (1929)—about a young musician, married and father of a child, who renounced his family in order to follow his bent toward homosexuality. In the 1920s this was a delicate subject, also taken up by André Gide. Its use in fiction was still unusual and provoked perhaps more outrage than her novel Denier du rêve about a failed plot to assassinate Mussolini. Il Duce had many backers in France.
Yourcenar was remarkably prolific, finding time to think, read, and write while travelling extensively in Greece where she wrote the manuscript of Feux, a series of aphorisms and personal impressions on the subject of passion— above all, carnal passion. A visit to London in 1937 led her to Virginia Woolf, whose novel The Waves she translated into French. Two years later she translated What Maisie Knew by Henry James. Back in Paris she made the acquaintance of an American, Grace Frick, who became a life-time friend and the translator of her major novels. In September 1938 she left for the United States, settled in New Haven where Grace lived, and came to love New England. She also travelled extensively in the upper South, became aware of the condition of the African American population, and began collecting and translating African American spirituals in an anthology which she later published under the appropriate title Fleuve profond, sombre rivie‧re (1964).
In 1938 she settled in a villa on the Isle of Capri where she composed Le Coup de Grâce (1939), a novel based on an event that occurred during the civil war in Russia between the Reds and the Whites. She continued her travels in Europe, returning to the United States when war broke out. She established a residence there for 11 years, meanwhile travelling to Chicago and the Mid-West to lecture and accepting a part-time teaching job at Sarah Lawrence College from 1942 to 1949.
She undertook extensive reading in the libraries of Yale University and other research centers to expand her knowledge of classical antiquity and finally completed the original manuscript of Hadrian's Memoires, first sketched in 1937-1938 and published in 1951. Her second historical novel, L'Oeuvre au noir (1968), came to dominate the historical novel school in France. About her family's origins she published Souvenirs pieux (1974) and Archives du Nord (1977). Her writings represent a form of modern classicism. Her language shows a "favorable inclination toward the soft, fluid French of the century of Versailles that gives to the least word the retarded grace of a dead language."
Yourcenar was the recipient of many awards, including the Prix Femina-Vacaresco (1952) for Mémoires d'Hadrien, for which she was also honored by the French Academy; the page one award of the Newspaper Guild of New York in 1955 for Frick's translation of Hadrian's Memoires; the Prix Combat for Sous bénéfice d'inventaire in 1962; the Prix Femina for Oeuvre au noir in 1968; Legion of Honor and officer of the Order of Leopold of Belgium in 1971; the Grand prix national de la Culture in 1974; and the Grand prix de l'Académie Française and the Grande Médaille de Vermeil of the City of Paris in 1977. She received honorary doctorates from Smith College, Colby College, and Harvard University and was a member of the Belgian Academie Royale de Langue et de Littérature Française (1979), the Académie Française (1980), and the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1982).
Yourcenar died December 17, 1987, at Mount Desert Island Hospital of complications following a stroke. French premier Jacques Chirac said, "French letters has just lost an exceptional woman."
The best English language introduction to the writings of Yourcenar is Frederic Farrell, Marguerite Yourcenar: Criticism and Interpretations (1983). The following sources are all in French: M. Yourcenar, Oeuvres romanesques (Gallimard, 1982), which provides a chronology of events in her life; J. Blot, Marguerite Yourcenar (Seghers, 1971), a useful biographical portrait; R. de Rosbo, Entretiens radiophoniques avec Marguerite Yourcenar (Mercure de France, 1972), an extensive interview; and B. Vercier and J. Lecarme, editors, La Littérature Française depuis 1968 (Bordas, 1982), which is the best study of her writings and her place in French classical literature.
Savigneau, Josyane, Marguerite Yourcenar: inventing a life, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Yourcenar, Marguerite, Dear departed, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1991. □