Celebrating World Book Day

Celebrating World Book Day

Four black and white printed images of Greek gods: clockwise from top left, Harmonia, Athena, Hermes and Apollo. Each carries a banner bearing the title of the book "Artamene ou le Grand Cyrus".
The frontispieces of volumes 1-4 of Artamène by Madeleine de Scudéry, depicting the Greek gods and goddesses Harmonia, Athena, Apollo and Hermes.

In celebrating World Book Day on 3 March 2022, many people will reflect on their favourite book. It is hard to say what the Dean and Canons of the past liked to read best. The 6,000 volumes in the Chapter Library at St George’s Chapel represent a fascinating variety of subjects, including theology, history, Classics, geography, topography, navigation, bibliography, mathematics and medicine.

As well as this scholarly material, the library holds four of the novels penned by renowned seventeenth-century French author, Madeleine de Scudéry. This strong showing amid Ancient Greek philosophers and Reformation theologians suggests that, at least sometimes, the Dean and Canons read for enjoyment as well as for study.

Not all of de Scudéry’s novels could be considered “light reading”, however. Artamène [SGC RBK S.170], first published between 1649 and 1653, is around 2 million words long, making it one of the longest novels ever published. By comparison, the three volumes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings come to a little short of 500,000 words. It was published in ten volumes and the frontispiece of each volume depicts a different figure from Greek mythology. This Image of the Month shows the figures from the first four volumes: Harmonia, Athena, Apollo and Hermes.

Three book shelves in a library. The central shelf contains ten matching volumes bound in dark brown leather with 'Artamene' picked out in gold on the spine.
All ten volumes of Artamène in the Chapter Library of St George’s Chapel.

Artamène is a tale of drama, romance and noble deeds. Its hero, Artamène (who is really Cyrus, heir to the throne of Persia, under an assumed name) is on a quest to rescue Mandane, whom he loves, while she is subjected to a sequence of terrible events including fire, shipwreck, multiple kidnappings, imprisonment, mistaken identity and the threat of execution. Happily – spoiler alert – the pair are reunited and their marriage celebrated in the final chapters. You can read a synopsis of the plot (or the entire novel, if you are tempted) at www.artamene.org.

In addition to their own trials and tribulations, the story of Artamène and Mandane is frequently interrupted and embellished by love stories which Artamène is told by the people he meets in his quest. This adds to the complexity of the tale and its length. In total, the novel contains around 400 characters. This sounds exhausting to the modern reader, but was much enjoyed by de Scudéry’s contemporaries. Scholars think this may have been influenced by the different reading habits of the time: it was more common that a novel would be read aloud by a group enjoying it together than privately and silently by a single reader.

De Scudéry also employed a technique that encouraged intrigue, and therefore greater popularity, to grow around her books. She developed what became known as the roman à clef (a novel with a key). Although her characters and plotlines were typically set in the Classical world, they were widely understood to represent current public and political figures. This enabled her to satirise and gossip about her contemporaries with limited fear of repercussion. She sometimes portrayed aspects of her own life and thoughts through the character of Ancient Greek poetess, Sappho.

Born in 1607 at Le Havre, Normandy, Madeleine de Scudéry was said to have been a very plain woman and without fortune. However, she was raised by an uncle who ensured that she received a very good education alongside her elder brother Georges, who also became a novelist. In adulthood, de Scudéry established herself in Paris with her brother and she was quickly admitted to high society literary salons.

De Scudéry is acknowledged as a forerunner of the educated and intellectual women of the eighteenth century Blue Stockings Society. Her books demonstrate a strong understanding of Classical history as well as how to behave to succeed in society, a testament to her intelligence and her education.

In addition to Artamène, the Chapter Library holds copies of Ibrahim, ou l’illustre Bassa (4 vols., 1641), Clélie (10 vols., 1654-61), and Almahide, ou l’esclave reine (8 vols., 1661-3).

Kate McQuillian, Archivist & Chapter Librarian

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.