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Marguerite Yourcenar: Mémoires d’Hadrien (Memoirs of Hadrian)

This is the best-known of Yourcenar’s works. Indeed, in the Anglo-Saxon world, it is virtually the only one of her works that is known. It was a huge (and unexpected) success when it came out which is rather surprising, as it is not, as the title might imply, a blood and guts story of the Roman Empire but, rather, a very thoughtful reflection on a life well-lived, with little plot, little action and much philosophy. It is written in the form of a letter to Hadrian‘s seventeen-year old cousin and future successor, Marcus Aurelius. What makes the novel so worth reading are Hadrian’s musings on life in all its richness. He has lived life to the full and is now writing both to show to his successor what he has achieved but also to better understand himself.

He touches on all the aspects of his life, his career and his reign. Of course, he discusses the politics but he also talks about religion (he is a humanist), astrology, the broad range of arts and sciences and, in a frank way, his love for his favourite and lover, Antinous. Yourcenar’s skill is not only to have done the research (she spent many years doing it) so that we get all the details of his life but also to paint a superb portrait of the complete man who is much more than your standard Roman emperor.

Incidentally, while most critics praised the novel, Gore Vidal who had, of course, written his Roman novel, savaged it. He said that Yourcenar painted Hadrian as herself and gave him too much modern sensibility, unlike, naturally, his own Julian. For what it’s worth, I preferred Yourcenar’s novel.

Publishing history

First published in French 1951 by Plon
First published in English 1954 by Farrar, Straus