The first woman to be elected to the French Academy, Marguerite Yourcenar (yewr-suh-nahr) was one of the most original writers of post-World War II France. She was born in Brussels, Belgium, on June 8, 1903, the only daughter of aristocratic and wealthy parents, Michel and Fernande de Crayencour. Several days after her birth, her mother died of puerperal fever and peritonitis; Marguerite was raised then by a series of nurses and maids, as she and her father moved from Belgium to northern France to Paris. Her father, as she lovingly and admiringly portrays him in her autobiographical Archives du Nord (northern archives), was an adventurous and unconventional man who loved the cosmopolitan excitement of European casino and spa towns. Well-read in literature, he revealed to his daughter the beauty of French, English, Latin, and Greek masterpieces, while private tutors taught her the other school subjects. She was thus able to pass the baccalauréat examinations in 1919.
Two years later, at age eighteen, she published Le Jardin des chimères (the garden of chimeras) at her father’s expense, under the pen name Marguerite Yourcenar (an incomplete anagram of her surname), followed the next year by another work of poetry, Les Dieux ne sont pas morts (the gods are not dead). The publication in 1929 of her novel Alexis not only saw the first favorable reviews but also was followed in quick succession by other novels and short stories, mostly written in the confessional letter-monologue genre. These involve psychological studies of men in conflict with their sexuality, with life and art, and with love.
In 1939 Yourcenar, who had come to the United States on a lecture tour, could not return to Nazi-occupied Europe. At the recommendation of the English poet Stephen Spender, she was able to secure a part-time instructorship in French and art history at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York (a position she held until 1950), while she contributed articles and poems to émigré periodicals. At the end of the war, she decided to remain in the United States and became an American citizen in 1947, at the same time officially changing her name to Marguerite Yourcenar. In 1950 she moved to Mount Desert Island, off the coast of Maine, with Grace Frick, her longtime friend and cotranslator.
The first work to be a critical and popular success was the 1951 prizewinning Memoirs of Hadrian, the fictional first-person narrative of the great Roman emperor. In an altogether different style, the dark and brooding The Abyss, published in 1968 and translated into eighteen languages, received the coveted Prix Fémina and finally brought Yourcenar fame and recognition. It was made into a film by André Delvaux in 1988. In between had appeared essays, plays, and translations, including an anthology of Negro spirituals titled Fleuve profond, sombre rivière (wide, deep, troubled water)–to be followed in 1984 by Blues et gospels (blues and gospels).
In recognition of her literary contributions, Yourcenar was awarded honorary degrees from such prestigious institutions as Harvard University, elected to the Belgian Royal Academy (1970), honored with numerous prizes, decorated with the rank of officer (promoted later to commander) in the prestigious French Légion d’Honneur. On March 6, 1980, by a vote of twenty to twelve, she became an “Immortal” member of the French Academy, thereby breaking an all-male tradition dating back to 1635. Despite increasingly severe pulmonary illnesses, she continued to write, mainly essays, short stories, translations, and critical studies. She died at her Maine home on December 17, 1987.
During a 1968 interview with the noted French author Françoise Mallet-Joris, Yourcenar declared, “I believe in the nobility of refusal.” Indeed, all of her protagonists rebel against moral or cultural limits and engage in deviant behavior or radical thought, but they often find themselves unable to resolve the conflicts between society’s demands and their passions. Yourcenar is recognized for the loftiness of her thought, the breadth of her culture, and the humanity of her creations, and her works continue to enjoy great popularity.