Yourcenar, Marguerite

views updated May 21 2018

Marguerite Yourcenar

BORN: 1903, Brussels, Belgium

DIED: 1987, Mount Desert Island, Maine, United States

NATIONALITY: Belgian, French, American

GENRE: Drama, fiction, poetry, nonfiction

Alexis (1929)
Fires (1936)
Coup de Grâce (1939)
Memoirs of Hadrian (1951)
Dear Departed (1974)


Marguerite Yourcenar was the first woman elected to the prestigious Académie française. A self-taught scholar, novelist, poet, dramatist, essayist, and translator, widely traveled and well read, Yourcenar brought a broadly based sensibility to her literary work. Her writings treat the dawn of time and the future; the physical and the spiritual worlds; characters ranging from peasants to emperors, courtesans to Hindu gods; nature and civilizations; and the arts and religion. Although she frequently ignored or defied literary styles, the advice of critics, and the conventions of Parisian literary life, Yourcenar managed to reach and appeal to a wide audience in France and throughout the world. A woman who worked for conservationist and ecological causes, consumer

protection, and civil rights, as well as a writer whose scholarship, command of her craft, and far-ranging knowledge in many fields were very striking, she occupies a privileged place in twentieth-century letters.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Life without a Mother, but in a Lovely World Marguerite Antoinette Jeanne Marie Ghislaine Cleenewerck de Crayencour was born on June 8, 1903, to a French father, Michel, and a Belgian mother, Fernande de Cartier de Marchienne, both of whom came from old and influential families in Belgium—from Flanders and the Walloon section of the country, respectively. Because of her mother's wish to be near her relatives, Yourcenar was born in Brussels, although she was immediately registered as a French citizen.

Following her mother's death (ten days after Yourcenar was born), Yourcenar was brought to Mont-Noir, the ancestral home of the Crayencour family, where she spent the summers during her childhood; winters were spent in Lille for the first two years and afterward in the south of France. At Mont-Noir Yourcenar made contact with the land, with country people, and with animals—all of which had an influence on her life. When she was nine, Yourcenar and her father moved to Paris, where the world of books, museums, and art expanded her environment.

Fleeing War, an Invitation to India, and the Death of Her Father Yourcenar's first contact with war and exile came in 1914 when, while visiting Ostende, Belgium, she and her father had to flee from the advancing German armies across the channel to England. There, they lived for a year before making their way to southern France for the remainder of World War I (1914–1918) and beyond. During these years at Aix-en-Provence, Yourcenar completed her early education. By the age of sixteen, she had already begun to write. Her first publication, privately printed, came in 1921, and for it she and her father invented the pen name Yourcenar, a near anagram of Crayencour. The Garden of Chimeras proved her able to interpret and expand myths in order to express her own views. This work shows the aspirations of a young person, as Icarus is drawn to Helios, in contrast to the archetype of the wise old man, Daedalus. The volume had a certain caché, attracting the attention of the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote to the young poet, inviting her to visit him in India.

In 1929, three events occurred that would alter the course of Yourcenar's life. The first, in January, was the death of her father after a long illness. The second was the Wall Street crash, which caused Yourcenar to lose most of the fortune she inherited from her mother and signaled the approaching end of the privileged existence she had enjoyed. The third, and perhaps most important, was the publication of her first novel, Alexis; in desperate times, she had been confirmed as a member of that mythical tribe: she was a writer.

The Touch of Grace and a New Life in the States The 1930s were the period in which Yourcenar's life and talents took on new dimensions and found new means of expression. During this decade Yourcenar, although in the orbit of Paris as much as any young French writer, spent much of her time living and traveling in Italy, Germany, and, especially, Greece. This was a time of challenge, a time to try new methods, to publish what she had already written, to discover herself as she discovered the world she had loved in books.

In 1939, Yourcenar completed her novel Coup de Grâce, considered by many to be among her finest, but when World War II (1939–1945) began, she once again found herself trapped. Low on funds, unable to find a position, and prevented from returning to Greece as she had planned, she accepted the invitation of her American friend and translator Grace Frick to join her in the United States. Although Yourcenar would subsequently travel abroad for periods as long as two years, she established her permanent home in the States at that time.

The break with her past around 1940 was profound. Not only did she suffer, as did many exiles, from a forced separation from the places and people that had been part of her life, but she was also obliged for the first time to earn a living, taking jobs in journalism and commercial translation before accepting a position as a part-time instructor at Sarah Lawrence College in 1942. In 1947 she became an American citizen and, at the same time, took Marguerite Yourcenar as her legal name. This shift in identity was further reinforced in 1950 when she, with her long-time partner Grace Frick, moved to Mount Desert Island in Maine, where she lived until her death.

Finding a Home in Activism In 1951, the publication of Memoirs of Hadrian brought unexpected international success and served to establish Yourcenar firmly in the line she would follow over the next decades. During this decade also, Yourcenar became ever more concerned about social evils and involved herself in groups and programs aimed at combating them. She joined both American and European societies fighting for civil rights, world peace, protection of the environment, endangered or mistreated animals, and consumer protection, as well as groups against nuclear proliferation and overpopulation.

Following the death of Grace Frick in 1980, Yourcenar embarked once more on her world travels, this time accompanied by Jerry Wilson, an American. She traveled often: to France, England, the Low Countries, Denmark, North Africa, Spain and Portugal, Italy, Egypt, Greece, Canada, Japan, Thailand, India, and Kenya, visiting some more than once. Throughout these travels, she was ever concerned with the plights of the oppressed, and her contact with different cultures broadened the scope of her social concerns.

Struggling against Illness, for Justice During a stop in Nairobi in 1983, the year after Yourcenar was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she and Wilson were hit by a police car. The next year the flu interrupted her work for a considerable time. In 1985 Wilson was diagnosed as having tuberculosis, and, in September, Yourcenar suffered a heart attack, necessitating surgery. She recovered, but Wilson died of viral meningitis in February of 1986.

Yourcenar maintained her activist and scholarly interests to the end. In the last three months of her life she gave two speeches, one in Canada on “superpollution” and one at Harvard on Jorge Luis Borges. She had planned to travel to Paris and from there to India and Nepal, but on November 8, 1987, she suffered a stroke, which led to her death on December 17. Her grave, near the memorials to Grace Frick and Jerry Wilson, is in the cemetery at Somesville, Maine, close to the first house where she lived on Mount Desert Island.

Works in Literary Context

The Many Forms of Love Fires (1936) illustrates or underscores most of Yourcenar's themes. It was written in part to get over an unhappy love affair with the nameless “man I loved.” Passages from her diary alternate with prose poems whose protagonists are primarily mythical women. Mary Magdalene goes beyond physical love to a love for Christ, while Antigone devotes herself to an ideal. Sappho closes this collection, and she is saved from her suicide attempt by the safety net of her art. Her lover, Attys, leaves her; and she begins to prefer a young man, who has just enough feminine qualities to be attractive. This blend of the sexes is very common in Yourcenar's work and may reflect Yourcenar's own romantic experiences.

History Rewritten Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) is an imagined first-person narrative in epistolary, or letter form, written by the Roman emperor Hadrian shortly before his death, when action has had to yield to contemplation and analysis of his accomplishments. Yourcenar's attempt to “redo [history] from within” shows Hadrian primarily as good; his meditations on classical art, dreams, destiny, religions, women, freedom, and so forth make him an extremely well-rounded character. Similarly, the events of his life in politics, love, and war are documented, chronicling the self-improvement that allows him to realize his own potential and his plans for the Roman Empire.

Yourcenar frequently used historical or legendary events and figures as the basis for her creative works. This is also seen in Fires, which includes figures such as the ancient poet Sappho, and The Abyss (1968), a tale that takes place in sixteenth-century France.


Yourcenar's famous contemporaries include:

Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977): A Russian American novelist most famous for his extremely controversial novel Lolita.

Pablo Neruda (1904–1973): A Chilean poet and writer and political Communist; his 1971 receipt of the Nobel Prize in Literature caused much controversy.

Erich Fromm (1900–1980): A renowned German American social psychologist.

René Magritte (1898–1967): A Belgian surrealist painter known for his plays on words and pictures, particularly The Treachery of Images.

James Baldwin (1924–1987): An African American writer who lived in France and explored issues of homosexuality and politics; Yourcenar translated one of his plays into French.

Works in Critical Context

Despite Yourcenar's prediction that Memoirs of Hadrian would find an audience of “a few students of human destiny,” it is her best-known work. But for several reasons, recognition as one of the leading figures of modern French literature was a long time coming for Yourcenar. She refused to be lionized; she lived from 1939 until her death in 1987 in the United States and ignored popular trends in order to write about what seemed important to her.

Dear Departed A series of autobiographical books published by Yourcenar focus less on herself than on her family. Dear Departed (1974) chronicles the story of Yourcenar's mother, Fernande de Crayencour, and her family, tracing them back over several centuries in Belgium. Of her effort, Harold Beaver writes in the New York Times Book Review: “Anyone who has ever tried to sort out boxes of family effects will be astounded at what Yourcenar has achieved. For she reoccupies the past, as it were, nourishing it with her own substance to bring it alive once again.” But for New York Review of Books contributor John Weightman, the series is disappointing in its lack of information on Yourcenar herself. He concludes, “In her family saga, she traces the strands which crisscrossed to form … her unique identity and then, almost perversely, leaves that identity unexplained, presumably for all time.”

Memoirs of Hadrian In the Spectator, Miranda Seymour calls Memoirs of Hadrian “arguably the finest historical novel of this century.” Likewise, New York Herald Tribune Book Review contributor Geoffrey Bruun notesthat Memoirs of Hadrian “is an extraordinarily expert performance…. It has a quality of authenticity, of verisimilitude, that delights and fascinates.” Mavis Gallant feels that Yourcenar “stands among a litter of flashier reputations as testimony to the substance and clarity of the French language and the purpose and meaning of a writer's life.” The author continued to write, travel, and contemplate historical and philosophical issues central to the human condition into her eighties. In his Saturday Review essay, Stephen Koch concludes:

As an artist and thinker—for Yourcenar's novels must be regarded as simultaneously art, scholarship, and profound philosophical meditation—Marguerite Yourcenar writes squarely in defense of the very highest standards and traditions of that enlightened humanism which Hadrian promulgated for an empire and to the agonized rebirth of which her Zeno dies a martyr. It is, to say the least, heartening to find a writer so deeply committed to that humanism who is producing major art at this moment in our own history. It is, in fact, inspiring.

Responses to Literature

  1. Yourcenar was the first woman to be in the Académie française. Research the institution and explain why you think she, unlike any women writers before her, received this honor.
  2. Yourcenar lived in and traveled to many different places. How do these different landscapes show up in her works? Does she seem attached to any one sort of place?
  3. Yourcenar spent many years working on Memoirs of Hadrian. What can this fictional treatment of history tell us about history itself? Are there ways in which fiction can communicate more truth than nonfiction? If you think so, how and why? If you think not, what is the value of doing historical research to write fiction? Or is this valuable? Support your position with detailed analyses of specific passages from Memoirs of Hadrian.
  4. Consider Yourcenar's treatment of her family in Dear Departed. What stylistic techniques does she use to evoke an emotional response from readers, and what is that response? How does this emotional charge affect the overall message of the work itself?


Yourcenar draws on history to add density to her works. With the help of actual events, her fiction becomes richer and more complex. Here are a few other works that use real occurrences to emphasize their central themes and embellish their characters:

A Tale of Two Cities (1859), a novel by Charles Dickens. Beginning with 1775, this novel explores the events leading up to the French Revolution.

The Name of the Rose (1980), a novel by Umberto Eco. Set in a monastery during the middle ages, this story, in which a murder takes place and must be solved, is among Eco's most famous.

The Remains of the Day (1989), by Kazuo Ishiguro. An English butler struggles to maintain his professionalism at the expense of his humanity in this novel set during the tense times prior to World War II.

Braveheart (1995), a film directed by Mel Gibson. Set in the thirteenth century, this film focuses on William Wallace, a Scot who attempted to overthrow King Edward I of England.



Farrell, C. Frederick, Jr., and Edith R. Farrell. Marguerite Yourcenar in Counterpoint. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983.

Horn, Pierre. Marguerite Yourcenar. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

Howard, Joan E. From Violence to Vision: Sacrifice in the Works of Marguerite Yourcenar. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.

Savigneau, Josyane. Marguerite Yourcenar: Inventing a Life. Translated by Joan E. Howard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.


Royer, Jean-Michel. “Marguerite Yourcenar.” Actualité, March 1972: 64–72.

Rutledge, Harry C. “Marguerite Yourcenar: The Classicism of Fires and Memoirs of Hadrian.” Classical and Modern Literature 4 (Winter 1984): 87–99.

Soos, Emese. “The Only Motion Is Returning: The Metaphor of Alchemy in Mallet-Joris and Yourcenar.” French Forum 4 (January 1979): 3–16.

Watson-Williams, Helen. “Hadrian's Story Recalled.” Nottingham French Studies 23 (October 1984): 35–48.

Whatley, Janet. “Memoirs of Hadrian: A Manual for Princes.” University of Toronto Quarterly 50 (Winter 1980/1981): 221–37.

Marguerite Yourcenar

views updated May 23 2018

Marguerite Yourcenar

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."

Further Reading

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.

Additional Sources

Savigneau, Josyane, Marguerite Yourcenar: inventing a life, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Yourcenar, Marguerite, Dear departed, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1991. □

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