Marguerite Yourcenar
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeMarguerite Yourcenar - Credit: Anefo / Croes, R.C.

Marguerite Antoinette Jeanne Marie Ghislaine Cleenewerck de Crayencourt (8th June 1903 - 17th December 1987) was born in Belgium, but moved to the USA as Europe was descending into the chaos of the Second World War, and spent most of her adult life there. "Yourcenar" was the nom de plume she adopted from the outset, based on an anagram of her family name.

Her first novel, Alexis, was published in 1929, and she went on to publish a prose poem, Feux (translated by Dori Katz as Fires), in 1936, and a French translation of Virginia Woolf's The Waves in 1937. A collection of short stories, Nouvelles Orientales (based on myths and legends from around the world), followed in 1938, and then a second novel, Le Coup de Grace, in 1939. She was, by this stage, living in Maine with the translator Grace Frick, her life partner until Frick's death in 1979 and the translator of Yourcenar's works.

Yourcenar kept most aspects of her private life very much to herself. Although living openly with another woman, she rarely commented on "gay" or "women's" issues. She said little about the Second World War, and the impact it had on her family relationships. There are hints, in her "Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian," of the difficulties she experienced, having been uprooted from the world in which she had grown up, but she is rarely specific. She talks about "hours of apathy and dejection," and about the "lapse into despair of the writer who does not write," but it is unclear to what extent this was the result of the upheavals in her personal life, and to what extent she was daunted by the sheer ambition of the project that was growing in her mind, the project that became Memoirs of Hadrian.

Given how prolific she had been at the beginning of her literary career, Memoirs of Hadrian was much longer in the gestation. She began work on it in 1924, ceased work on it in 1927, left the manuscript in Europe when she left for America and only picked it up again in 1948. It was first published in French in 1951, and in Grace Frick's English translation in 1957. It set a new standard for historical fiction. "There are books," she tells us, "which one should not attempt before having passed the age of forty," and perhaps this was simply the case with Memoirs of Hadrian. Perhaps, in her twenties and thirties, she simply had not lived enough, loved enough, or suffered enough of fortune's slings and arrows, to be able to conceive of such a work as this, the imagined autobiography of a truly great man, a man who was "almost wise" (but she and her character are writing, here, of the wisdom of the immortal gods), looking back on his life from the perspective of old age.

With Memoirs of Hadrian, and with her subsequent historical novel, The Abyss (translated as Zeno of Bruges), set in the 16th Century, she assured her place in the first rank of European writers. Although resident in America she continued to write in French and never became, in any sense, "an American writer." Her influences were Racine and Shakespeare, Flaubert and Proust, rather than Melville or Faulkner. She won the Prix Femina in 1968, for The Abyss, became the first woman to be elected to the Academie Francaise in 1980, and was awarded the Dutch Erasmus Prize in 1983 for a lifetime of literary achievements.

Marguerite Yourcenar was a teacher as well as a writer, delivering courses in Comparative Literature at New York City University and Sarah Lawrence College. In addition to her fiction and poetry, her legacy includes a number of essays, some of which offer practical advice to those embarking on a literary career, and especially to writers of historical fiction: "Strive to read a text of the Second Century with the eyes, soul, and feelings of the Second Century...Keep one's own shadow out of the picture...". 

It adds up to a new model of what it means to write a novel - the idea of the author as method actor: "The utter fatuity of those who say to you 'By Hadrian you really mean yourself!' Almost as unsubtle as those who wonder why one should choose a subject so remote in time and in space. The sorcerer who pricks his thumb before he evokes the shades knows well that they will heed his call only because they can lap his blood."