After 300 Years, a Woman Writer (from Maine, 'Mon Dieu') Joins 'The Immortals' of France

updated 05/05/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/05/1980 01:00AM

To some in the august councils of the Académie Française the idea was unthinkable. "A woman simply has no place in the Academy," sniffed 79-year-old classicist Jean Guitton. "The Academy has survived 300 years without women, and it can survive another 300 years without them." Alas for Guitton and his fellow anachronisms, the venerable Academy came face to face with the 20th century this year. Marguerite Yourcenar, a French novelist—who, astonishingly, has lived in the U.S. for the past 30 years and has even become an American citizen—was elected its first woman member. The battle was fierce—she won with only one vote to spare. Ironically, the event does not strike Madame herself as earthshaking. "There are more important things," she says quietly, pointing to the garden of her home on Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine. "Look at my tulips—how beautifully they're growing. I planted them myself."

The Academy, a convocation of 40 aged intellectuals and artists whose reputation, like very old Bordeaux, tends to travel poorly, is charged with maintaining the purity of the French language. Through a periodical, Dictionnaire, and other exemplary publications, it attempts to purge such anglicisms as "le drugstore" from lalangue. Since its founding by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635 the Academy has boasted some illustrious members—Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Ionesco—and the French refer to the 40 as "the Immortals." Yet none of the great women writers—George Sand, Colette, Simone de Beauvoir—was ever considered seriously for election. "Not admitting women is an old and bad habit," says Yourcenar briskly. "I would not ennoble it by calling it a tradition."

Breaking that habit has endowed Yourcenar, at 76, with some of the fame in her adopted country that she has enjoyed in France for years. There she is best known for her historical novels—only three of which (Hadrian's Memoirs, Coup de Grace and The Abyss) are available in English—and for her translations of Henry James and Virginia Woolf. Fame, however, has never been her goal—as might be expected of an author writing in French on classical themes in a New England fishing village called Northeast Harbor. "Here in my tiny corner of Maine the people are as simple, unaffected and lovable as those of any small French village," she says happily. "The women bake, and the men get together at a bar to tell fish stories." She has no intention of spending more time in France on the Academy's account—"If I happen to be there on a Thursday, I'll attend the Academy's weekly meeting, but that's it." Although her written French conforms to the Academy's notion of purity, she dots her conversation with such Franglais as "part-time job." "If there are better words in English than in French, why not?" Moreover, she says she will not wear the formal green uniform called I'habit vert that the Immortals fancy for welcoming new members and other special occasions. Though a French designer has already suggested ways the uniform could be modified for her, she snorts, "Ridiculous. I'll wear a long black skirt—and maybe a green blouse to go with it."

Independence has been a hallmark of Yourcenar's extraordinary life. The daughter of Michel de Crayencour, an aristocratic landowner, young Marguerite dropped the "de" and made an anagram of her family name to distance herself from its class implications. (She never knew her mother, who died just a few days after she was born.) Instead of being enrolled in school, she was given tutors in Greek, Latin and English. In her 20s she traveled and wrote prodigiously. Trapped in the U.S. by the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, she became a professor of writing at Sarah Lawrence, assumed American citizenship in 1947 and moved to Maine three years later. For 40 years she shared her life with Grace Frick, a Barnard College professor who acted as her translator and companion until her death from cancer last November. "She was sick for 10 years," says the author, whose works remained largely untranslated as a result. "It would have been too cruel to take her work from her. Then she would have known that her disease was incurable."

Though still deeply grieved by the death of Grace Frick, Yourcenar faces her own old age with a certain relish. A Roman Catholic by birth, she comforts herself neither with the certainty of an afterlife (God to her is "not a divine being but a sense of the Universe") nor with prayer, though she meditates to "help find a kind of inner tranquillity." By no means indifferent to the contemporary world, Yourcenar has long been an ardent environmentalist, is fiercely opposed to drafting women ("Having women in the Army would create more soldiers and therefore more catastrophes") and is still pondering the ERA. "If it means equal pay for equal work, or free choice to have an abortion, I'm for it." She is content to leave no heirs ("Leaving behind books is even more beautiful—there are far too many children") and to have spent her life as she did—in rigorous service to her unique, very personal vision of humanity in history. "I have never clung blindly to some idea for fear of the perplexity into which I should fall if I let go," as the alchemist hero of The Abyss puts it. "I have never seasoned a truth with the sauce of a lie in order to digest it more easily...I shall die a little less witless than I was born."

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