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The Politics of Genre: Madeleine de Scudery and the Rise of the French Novel Joan DeJean H is to ria n s a n d li t e r a r y h is to ria n s have for some time asserted that the earliest types of prose fiction developed in 17th-century France played a central role “in the development and diffusion of feminist ideas.” 1Without exception, the strains of prose fiction in which today’s readers would recognize the emerging modern novel were the creation of women writers, a literary fact the theoretician Huet underscored as early as 1670 in a lengthy preface to Lafayette’s Zayde. It is only by attempting to view the novelistic struc­ tures developed by these early women writers as a response to the con­ temporary political situation that we can come to an understanding of just what the adjective “feminist” can mean when applied to the context of 17th-century France. In a short article, I will be able to offer only a small illustration of the type of double reading I have in mind. However, every exploration of the politics of women’s writing in classical France teaches the same basic lesson: at the intersection of gender and genre that produced the modern French novel is always located a meditation on the making of history in 17th-century France. ♦ # * “Rien n’est si contraire au bel esprit que la guerre civile.” This maxim was formulated by a noted purveyor of belesprit of the mid-17th century, Sarasin, when he found himself in circumstances that could hardly have failed to inspire meditation on the incompatibility of intel­ lectual activity and that particular form of armed conflict in which aggressor and defender share the same nationality.2At the time when he coined the aphorism, the loyal retainer of the house of Conde had fol­ lowed the duchesse de Longueville to Stenay, the last stronghold then resisting the royalist forces. On December 30, 1650, when Sarasin wrote, the situation in the rebel camp was grim: with her brothers, still prisoners in Le Havre, unable to come to her defense, the duchesse had just learned that Stenay was being marched upon by a royal army fresh from Vol.XXIX, No. 3 43 L ’E sprit Créateur its victory at Réthel. Nevertheless, Sarasin testifies to the survival, even when the Fronde was at its least romantic, of at least one extravagant literary pleasure. He was writing to thank Madeleine de Scudéry for the fifth volume of her Artamène, ou le Grand Cyrus, which had just reached the rebel outpost, where, as Madame de Longueville herselfsoon explained to the author in a personal note, “ [ses ouvrages] adoucissent si agréablement l’ennui de ma vie présente” (Cousin 1: 48). Sarasin describes how, at the end of a long day preoccupied with military mat­ ters, “bedtime” (le petit coucher) at Stenay was devoted to “conversa­ tion” with Scudéry’s heroes. Today’s critic does not find it easy to reconcile the heated impatience with which this initial public awaited each installment of Artamène’s 13,000 page total with the reaction of terminal boredom that seems to have been the dominant response to the novel since the early 19th cen­ tury. 3The enthusiasm inside Stenay should not be mistaken for merely the welcome relief from unpleasant reality provided by escapist fiction. At least in the Fronde’s early years, Sarasin’s dire pronouncement about the scarcity of wit seems exaggerated: according to Lever’s bibliography of 17th-century narrative fiction, prior to 1652 novelistic production continued at a respectable pace. 1651 was even a very good year, with the appearance of both Le Roman comique and a prominent succès de scan­ dale, the Histoire des amours du grand Alcandre. The political crisis finally takes its toll on literature in 1652 and 1653, the only two years in the entire century when a lone novel is being published, the successive volumes of Artamène. In 1650, therefore, readers in the Condé camp would not yet have been forced to turn to Scudéry’s new volume solely out of desperation...


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pp. 43-51
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