The Modernist roman à clef and Cultural Secrets, or I Know That You Know That I Know That You Know

Roman a clef, a French term meaning 'novel with a key', refers to fictional works in which actual people or events can be identified by a knowing reader, typically a member of a coterie. The invention of the genre is attributed to seventeenth-century writer and salonniere Madeleine de Scudery (1607- 1701) who created it to disguise from the general reader the public figures whose political actions and ideas formed the basis of her fictional narratives. In taking up the genre a number of modernist women writers, including Djuna Barnes and Hope Mirrlees, reflected and reinterpreted this era in the early twentieth-century avant-garde salon culture of Paris. From an early date the salon had developed into 'a tool of survival in a time of adversity' (Kale 142) so it is no surprise that salons and coteries in modernist Paris, such as those of Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney, flourished in a climate in which lesbian/ queer identities were increasingly being rendered secret in dominant medical and legal discourses. The roman a clef appealed to these coterie audiences who were able to discern in the texts information which to the unknowing reader remained obscure or hidden.

Recent studies of coterie formations such as Lytle Shaw's have examined both 'the force of cultural marginality of the coterie and the authority of deeply established cultural interest' found in them (4). Deriving from the Old French word cotier, coterie originally referred to a collective formed by tenants in order to challenge landlords over the run-down condition of their 'cots' or 'cottages'. Shaw points out that 'as the term gets used to designate privileged circles devoted to covert political or literary activity, the force o f marginality associated with the medieval term gives way to the modern connotation of the clique' (4). The roman a clef is emblematic of coterie writing in controlling both the scope of its audience and the way in which its meanings are potentially located and interpreted. Circulating within the coterie environment ofthe salon and associated with secrecy and revelation, the roman aclefcould be seen as a kind of currency, according value to its writer and readers, much as earlier forms of courtly poetry had done.

The full text of this essay is available to ALS subscribers

Please sign in to access this article and the rest of our archive.

Published 1 November 2009 in Manifesting Australian Literary Feminisms: Nexus and Faultlines. Subjects: Feminism, Modernism.

Cite as: Boyde, Melissa. ‘The Modernist roman à clef and Cultural Secrets, or I Know That You Know That I Know That You Know.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 24, no. 3-4, 2009, doi: 10.20314/als.dfae519805.