Marguerite Yourcenar, Author of Memoirs of Hadrian
By Elodie Barnes | On July 7, 2021 | Updated August 25, 2022 | Comments (0)
Marguerite Antoinette Jeanne Marie Ghislaine Cleenewerck de Crayencour (June 8, 1903 – December 17, 1987) was a French short story writer, novelist and essayist known as Marguerite Yourcenar.
Best known for her novel Memoirs of Hadrian, she was the first woman to be elected to the Académie Française.
From the beginning of World War II, she lived in the United States with her partner, the American professor Grace Frick. She took American citizenship and died in Maine at the age of eighty-four.
A nomadic childhood
Marguerite was the child of a Belgian mother, Fernande de Cartier de Marchienne, and a French father, Michel-René Cleenewerck de Crayencour. The family lived in Brussels, Belgium, where Marguerite was born at home. Ten days after her birth (which Marguerite later described with characteristic unsentimentality: “the pretty room looked like the scene of a crime”), her mother died from puerperal fever.
Not long afterward, her father took her to his family estate near Lille, France, where she lived until the age of nine. She remembered these as largely happy years, with nature on the doorstep, a pet lamb and goat that she adored, and a devoted nursemaid called Barbe.
According to Marguerite’s first biographer Josyane Savigneau, she later scandalized French readers by claiming that she never regretted not having a mother.
Barbe, together with her loving but largely absent father, was a good enough substitute — at least until Barbe was sacked for taking Marguerite with her to ‘houses of assignation,’ where she went to supplement her income. It was a shock for the young Marguerite, who was not even allowed to say goodbye. After this, her father sold the family château and moved the two of them to Paris.
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Michel was a man of leisure and a prolific gambler, who was very rarely at home. Marguerite was mostly left to fend for herself in the city, wandering the streets and visiting museums and bookstalls. She was educated sporadically at home with a succession of tutors, but it was through her own reading that she became proficient in Latin, ancient Greek, English, and Italian.
This self-styled education was augmented by extensive travel with her father: in a later interview, she recalled several months lived in Richmond, near London, when she would spend days walking in the park or visiting the London museums.
“I saw the Elgin Marbles at the British museum. and went to the Victoria and Albert frequently. I used to drop my sweet wrappings in a porcelain dragon there…”
She anticipated a literary career and was encouraged in this by Michel. They moved to Monte Carlo in 1920 so that he could further indulge his love of baccarat, and Marguerite recalled reading English and French classics together in the heat of the Riviera, passing the books back and forth between them.
It was Michel who helped her work out the pen name of Yourcenar (an imperfect anagram of Crayencour), who wrote to publishers under her name to submit her writings, and who paid for her first two books of poetry to be published.
He also gave her the first chapter of an unfinished novel of his own, telling her to do what she wanted with it: the result was “The First Evening,” a short story about a joyless wedding night.
A writing career and a tangled personal life
Michel died in 1929, having gambled away much of his fortune and leaving Marguerite nothing. She did, however, have a small inheritance from her mother, which she used to support a continuation of their nomadic and dissipated lifestyle. She drank a little, traveled a lot, slept with both men and women, and wrote prolifically.
Later, she said that everything she ever wrote was already in her mind by the age of twenty; all that remained was for her to polish her method and put the words onto paper. “Books,” she claimed, “are not life, only its ashes.”
It was during this period, then, that she refined the style that would become her own: a classical style that was considered old-fashioned, with a lack of sentimentality and deep psychological insights, that drew comparisons with Racine.
Her first novel, Alexis, was published not long after her father’s death in 1929, followed by Denier du Rêve (translated as A Coin In Nine Hands) in 1934. Her work was largely well-received, although critics tended to comment that she wrote like a man: one wrote that her words were “clasped by an iron gauntlet,” and that he could not find in her work “those often charming weaknesses … by which one identifies a feminine pen.”
Marguerite’s personal life was no less colorful. During this period, she fell for her homosexual editor at Éditions Grasset, André Fraigneau, who loved her intellectually but had no interest sexually.
Her passion for him, though, lasted for several years and overlapped the start of what would be a lifelong relationship with American English professor Grace Frick. The two women met in the bar of the Wagram Hotel in Paris in 1937, where Marguerite was drinking with a friend and discussing the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Grace, so the story goes, overheard their conversation; she walked over to Marguerite’s table and proceeded to correct them on aspects of Coleridge that she felt they had misunderstood.
It could have been an inauspicious start to a relationship, but later that year Marguerite sailed to the U.S. to spend the winter in New Haven with Grace, who was working on her dissertation at Yale. On returning to France in the spring, Marguerite faced a choice between her unrequited love for Fraigneau and her blossoming passion for Grace, which was very much reciprocated.
The short novel Le Coup de Grâce was largely a product of this situation (the storyline involves a love triangle between two Prussian soldiers, Erich and Conrad, and Conrad’s sister Sophie).
Shortly after the novel was published in 1939, Marguerite returned to the U.S. Later, she claimed that she only planned to spend another winter with Grace, but the war prevented her from returning and by the time it was over she had decided to stay. For the next forty years, Grace Frick would be her secretary, translator, manager, lover, and companion.
For the first few years in the U.S., Marguerite found herself unable to write. She turned to teaching instead: she and Grace lived near Hartford in order to be near to Grace’s work at Hartford Junior College and Connecticut College, and Marguerite commuted to teach French and Italian at Sarah Lawrence, just outside New York.
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Memoirs of Hadrian
In 1949, a trunk of possessions belatedly arrived from Lausanne, Switzerland, where Marguerite had stored them when she left Europe at the outbreak of war.
Most of the valuables were missing and all that was left were old papers, most of which she burned. While sorting through them, she came across a draft of a novel about the Emperor Hadrian that she had started when she was twenty-one and later abandoned. At that moment, she later said, her mind “more or less exploded.”
In a state of “controlled delirium,” she wrote Memoirs of Hadrian from this early draft in two years. It was a formidable feat considering the amount of research it entailed.
There were seventeen pages of bibliographical sources appended to the novel, including histories in English, French, and German, archaeological treatises, and ancient Latin texts — plus the time to physically write the book.
Published in 1951, Memoirs of Hadrian was her first big success, but it was a book that she did not think she could have written when she was younger. “There are books,” she said later, “which one should not attempt before having passed the age of forty.”
She regarded historical novels generally as, “merely a more or less successful costume ball,” and believed that recapturing the spirit of the past required rigorous and detailed research, alongside a kind of spiritual identification that was hard to pinpoint.
She described her own historical writing as the “passionate reconstitution, at once detailed and free, of a moment or a man out of the past.”
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Marguerite Yourcenar in 1982, photo by Bernhard De Grendel
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Writing success, and life in Maine
During the 1950s and 1960s, Marguerite wrote several critical essays, many of them linked to her research on Hadrian, and collected them in The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays (1962).
Here, as with Memoirs of Hadrian, the extent of her reading and self-directed learning is apparent. The essays deal with subjects as wide-ranging as Constantine Cavafy and Michelangelo, the venerable Bede, and James Joyce.
Her main project during the 1960s was another novel. The Abyss, published in 1968, is an imaginary biography of a 16th-century scholar and alchemist, and although it is another historical novel the tone is very different from that of Memoirs of Hadrian.
Marguerite felt closer to the main character Zeno than she had ever felt to Hadrian, and described him as a brother to her: once, she even recollected ‘leaving’ him at a bakery, and having to go back to collect him. Like Memoirs of Hadrian, the novel was a great success.
Much of this writing work was done at Marguerite and Grace’s house on Mount Desert Island, Maine; an old weatherboarded house that they called Petite Plaisance. Moving here entailed giving up their teaching jobs in Hartford and New York, but Marguerite was busy writing and Grace soon took over everything else, including translating Marguerite’s work into English.
Marguerite spoke fluent English, and translated several English and American novels, including Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, into French herself, but refused to write in English; she remained devoted to her native French tongue until she died.
At Petite Plaisance, they would sit facing each other across a large custom-made table in the study, surrounded by books, writing, and translating together.
But life in this isolated part of the world was not easy. Marguerite developed cancer in 1958, and fought it, on and off, for the next twenty years. She still had a passion for travel, a pursuit that was curtailed more and more by her illness.
Unable to visit Europe or other parts of the U.S., as she had been used to doing, she found herself feeling trapped and bored, and her relationship with Grace suffered as a result. When Grace died, also suffering from cancer, in 1979, Marguerite took up the nomadic lifestyle of her younger years and never lived in Maine again.
With the final love of her life, a twenty-nine-year-old American photographer called Jerry Wilson (she was seventy-four when their relationship began), she traveled to Europe, Asia and Africa.
French honors, and later years
In 1980 Marguerite was elected to the Académie Française, an exclusive French literary institution that had existed since 1685 without ever including a woman in its number, and to which nomination and election required French citizenship.
Marguerite had taken American citizenship in 1949. To get around the problem, the president of France granted her a dual U.S.-French status in 1979.
It was a huge honor that didn’t escape the media, and the attention surrounding her election prompted a resurgence of interest in her early works, none of which had yet been translated. She was happy, after some revision, for most of this work to be published, but none of it (in the critics’ view, at least) measured up to Memoirs of Hadrian or The Abyss.
Despite the recognition of her achievements, Marguerite never really settled to writing again. Her last big project, a three-volume biography of her family entitled Le Labyrinthe du Monde, was never completed.
While packing for a trip to Europe, she suffered a stroke and was taken to hospital. She never recovered and died the night of December 17, 1987. She was buried next to Grace in Somesville, across the sound from Petite Plaisance, with a memorial marker alongside for Jerry Wilson, who died of AIDS in 1986.
Her obituary in the New York Times described her as a “cosmopolitan, versatile woman of letters,” and President Jacques Chirac said that “French letters has just lost an exceptional woman…[who] used a very personal tone to find, thanks to history, the occasion for a strong reflection on morality and power.”
Petite Plaisance is now a museum, and home to a conservation fund for the maintenance of the building.
Contributed by Elodie Barnes. Elodie is a writer and editor with a serious case of wanderlust. Her short fiction has been widely published online, and is included in the Best Small Fictions 2022 Anthology published by Sonder Press. She is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform, she is also co-facilitating What the Water Gave Us, an Arts Council England-funded anthology of emerging women writers from migrant backgrounds. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, and when not writing can usually be found planning the next trip abroad, or daydreaming her way back to 1920s Paris. Find her online at Elodie Rose Barnes.
More about Marguerite Yourcenar
Many of Yourcenar’s works are still only available in French, although some of her essays and short stories have been posthumously translated and collected. See her full bibliography here.
Selected works available in English
- Coup de Grace (1939; English translation, 1957)
- Memoirs of Hadrian (1951; various editions starting from 1954)
- The Abyss (1982)
- That Mighty Sculptor, Time (1992)
- A Blue Tale and Other Stories (1995)
- Marguerite Yourcenar: Inventing a Life by Josyane Savigneau (1993)
- Marguerite Yourcenar: A Biography by George Rousseau (2004)
- Becoming the Emperor: How Marguerite Yourcenar Reinvented the Past
- The Art of Fiction No. 103 on Paris Reviews
- Reader discussion on Goodreads