Villedieu, Catherine des Jardins, Mme de (c. 1640–1683)

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Villedieu, Catherine des Jardins, Mme de (c. 1640–1683)

French novelist and playwright . Name variations: Madame de Villedieu; Marie Catherine Desjardins or Marie-Catherine Desjardins; Marie-Catherine Boesset; Marie-Catherine de Chaste. Born Marie-Catherine Hortense Desjardins or des Jardins around 1640, probably in Alençon, France; died in 1683 in Paris; daughter of Guillaume Desjardins and Catherine (Ferrand) Desjardins; associated with Antoine de Boesset de Villedieu; married Claude-Nicolas de Chaste, in 1677; children: Louis de Chaste (b. 1678).

The celebrated writer known to contemporaries as Madame de Villedieu was born around 1640 into a poor family of Alençon, France, where she lived until 1655. In that year, she fell in love with her cousin. They planned to marry but her father opposed the match, filing a lawsuit to break off the engagement. Villedieu's mother Catherine Ferrand subsequently left her husband and moved with her two children to Paris, where she became a maid in the household of Madame de Montbazon . It was in this household that Ferrand's daughter, the young Catherine, was educated, an unusual privilege for a girl of her class, and discovered a talent for composing poetry. In 1658, she met a lieutenant in the regiment of Picardy, Antoine de Boesset, sire of Villedieu, and they fell in love. The next year marked the beginning of her literary career at age 18, with the publication of a sonnet, "Jouissance," in a Parisian journal, followed by the publication of several essays and more poetry. In 1661, she published to critical success Alcidamie, an unfinished romance. Her increasing popularity led to the publication of a collection of poetry in 1662, along with two plays, both tragedies. A prolific writer, Villedieu completed her second novel in 1663. Its success led to an invitation to meet King Louis XIV at Versailles.

In 1664, Catherine solemnized her relationship with Antoine de Boesset with a formal engagement, just as he was leaving France with his regiment. On his return in 1667, however, de Boesset disavowed his promise of marriage and married another before following the army to Flanders. Catherine continued to consider his promises binding, and insisted that she still be referred to as Madame de Villedieu, the title she had taken for herself in 1664.

Her third play, Le Favori (The Favorite), completed in 1664, brought her the friendship and support of the well-known playwright Moliére, who staged the drama to great success at the Palais Royal in 1665. It was the first by a female playwright to be honored by a command performance by the king, who had it staged at Versailles. The play also brought its author the patronage of Marie d'Orleans , duchess of Nemours, who would remain a good friend and patron of Madame de Villedieu for many years.

Following her final break with de Boesset in 1667, Villedieu left France for the Netherlands. Despite her literary success, she faced financial difficulties at home, and hoped to win a property lawsuit she had pending in the Netherlands. While staying in Belgium, she was shocked to learn that de Boesset had sold her personal letters to him, and despite her efforts she was unable to prevent their publication. In August 1667, she learned that de Boesset had died in battle, at the same time that she lost her lawsuit and learned of the death of her father. Heartbroken and impoverished, Villedieu stayed with the duchess of Nemours for almost a year, returning to Paris in 1668.

There she began the most important phase of her literary career, permanently adopting Madame de Villedieu as her public name. Her first major novel, Cléonice, was published in 1669, earning her a place among France's most popular writers. Whether prose or poetry, Villedieu's works were always concerned with issues of love, romance, and gallantry, using strong and outspoken female protagonists, often based on historical figures and events, to portray the desires and emotions of women. Modern critics now credit her with creating a new kind of French novel, the "nouvelle galante" (gallant novel), which broke away from the predominant genre of heroic adventure novels set in exotic lands.

Although her works were widely read and translated, Madame de Villedieu chose to retire to a convent in 1672, at the height of her popularity. Monastic life soon proved too constricting for her, however, and in 1673 she returned to Paris and took up her writing again. The year 1675 saw the publication of the last of her works to appear during her life, Les desordres de l'amour (The Disorders of Love). In 1676, she was granted a royal pension by Louis XIV in recognition of her literary contributions to her country. The next year she married formally, about age 35, to 55-year-old Claude-Nicolas de Chaste, sire of Chalon. It seems to have been a marriage of convenience, Villedieu still seeking financial security and the stability of permanent home life. They had one son, Louis, born in 1678.

About two years later de Chaste died, leaving Villedieu again with pressing financial needs. Louis XIV granted her son a modest pension in addition to her personal pension, but she was still unable to make ends meet and retired to her family's farm in Clinchemore. There she died in 1683, about age 43. The Parisian bookseller who had published her private letters to de Boesset collected her manuscripts and published some of her unfinished works in 1685. Villedieu's works continued to be printed and sold widely throughout the 18th century and into the 19th century. In recent years many of her writings, including some of her letters to other prominent French literary figures, are again becoming available.


Klein, Nancy D., ed. Selected writings of Madame de Villedieu. NY: P. Lang, 1995.

Wilson, Katharina M. Encyclopedia of Continental Women Writers. NY: Garland, 1991.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

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Villedieu, Catherine des Jardins, Mme de (c. 1640–1683)

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