Clélie (1654-61) is not now very widely read, though it was, in the words of one biographer, ‘the best-selling book of the 17th century’ – and Mme de Scudéry was known as ‘the Tenth Muse’ (ie. in addition to the traditional nine Greek muses; probably a seventeenth century back-of-book blurb). The name of the heroine conceals a pun: clé or clef means ‘key’, and the novel is itself a highly complex roman à clef or ‘key novel’ in which the characters represent contemporary celebrities. This spot-the-celebrity game, substantially invented by Scudéry, was crucial to her success, and she used it in all her other major productions, including such classic sextuple-deckers as Cyrus and Ibrahim.
The key novel went on to be developed by writers such as Thomas Love Peacock, who satirized Coleridge, Byron and Shelley in Nightmare Abbey, and Aldous Huxley, who satirized DH Lawrence in Point Counter Point: other examples of key novels are legion, and a good guide to them can be found in William Amos’s The Originals: Who’s Really Who in Fiction and Alan Bold and Robert Giddings’s almost-identically-entitled Who Was Really Who in Fiction.
McDougall, Dorothy: Madeleine de Scudéry: Her Romantic Life and Death (1972)
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