The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"Mademoiselle de Scudéry" (1819)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“Mademoiselle de Scudéry” (original: “Das Fräulein von Scuderi”) was written by E.T.A. Hoffmann and first appeared in Taschenbuch der Liebe und Freundschaft Gewidmet (1819). Hoffmann (1776-1822) was a major figure of the German Romantic movement and is now remembered for his music and fiction, which is regarded highly. Hoffmann is an important historical figure, both in the Romantic movement and in the history of fantastic fiction.
There was a historical Mademoiselle de Scudéry (1608-1701). She was the most successful and prolific French novelist of the seventeenth century.
“Mademoiselle de Scudéry” begins late one night, when a man bangs on the door to Mlle. de Scudéry’s house, demanding to see her. Scudéry’s lady’s maid lets the man in but refuses to allow him to see Scudéry, so he is forced to leave his package with the maid rather than give it to Scudéry directly. The package is a small casket. When Scudéry opens the box she finds a gorgeous pair of bracelets and an equally stunning necklace inside. At this time Paris is suffering from a plague of crime and men and women are assaulted in the streets, robbed, and often killed. Accompanying the jewelry is a note which reads, “We only exercise the right of the stronger over the weak and the cowardly in order to appropriate to ourselves treasures that would else be disgracefully squandered.”1 Scudéry is convinced that the jewelry is the product of crime and refuses to accept them. She shows the jewelry to a friend, who tells her that they must have been made by the brilliant, eccentric goldsmith René Cardillac. Cardillac is notorious for being reluctant to give up the jewelry he has been paid to make. Cardillac is sent for and admits that the jewels are his, but insists that Scudéry keep them, since she inspired their creation. She accepts, reluctantly. Some months later Scudéry and her maid are riding in a coach when a man runs up to the coach, pulls its door open, throws a piece of paper on to Scudéry’s lap, and then runs away. The man was the same one who delivered the casket to her, and the note tells her that she must return the necklace and bracelets to Cardillac. The note says further that her life depends on returning the jewelry to Cardillac, and that if she hasn’t done so in forty-eight hours the writer of the note will go to her house and kill himself.
Scudéry is delayed in going to Cardillac, and by the time she arrives at his shop she discovers a crowd gathered there. Cardillac has been murdered and his assistant, Olivier Brusson, has been arrested. Oliver is the man who gave Scudéry the note demanding the return of the jewelry. Olivier’s lover and Cardillac’s daughter, Madelon, is in tears; she is sure Olivier is innocent, and manages to convince Scudéry of his innocence. But when Scudéry meets with the dreaded La Regnie, the president of the Star Chamber-like Chambre Ardente, he describes the evidence against Olivier, which is damning. Scudéry’s faith in Olivier’s innocence is shaken, so she asks to see him. He is brought to her house, and once there he reveals that he is the son of an old friend of hers and that she knew him when he was a boy. He tells her his life’s story. He was apprenticed to Cardillac but was fired for his love affair with Madelon. Olivier then discovered, by accident, that it was Cardillac who was murdering Parisians for their jewels. Cardillac knew that Olivier knew about his murderous propensities and so rehired him. Cardillac smugly told Olivier that no one would believe him if he claimed that Cardillac was the infamous murderer, and since Olivier wanted to be with Madelon, he returned to Cardillac’s service. They worked well together, if coldly, but one day Cardillac decided that it was safe to tell Olivier about the cause of the robberies. Cardillac related the story of his life: while pregnant, his mother had become fixated on the jeweled chain of a cavalier. He had “clasped her passionately in his arms, whilst she laid hold of the handsome chain.”2 Their struggles resulted in the cavalier’s death, and “the terror of that fearful moment had left its stamp upon me. The evil star of my destiny had got in the ascendant and shot down its sparks upon me, enkindling in me a most singular but at the same time a most pernicious passion.”3 Since that time Cardillac had been stealing jewels, and when he became a goldsmith an evil voice began whispering in his ears to take the gems: “what does a dead man want diamonds for?”4 He began with breaking and entering and moved up to murder, which was the only act which silenced the voice and produced “a calmness, a satisfaction in my soul, which I had never yet experienced.”5 It was Cardillac’s destiny to kill, and “I had either to yield to it or to perish.”6
Mademoiselle de Scudéry was given the bracelets and necklace because of Cardillac’s admiration of her goodness, but once the jewels were out of Cardillac’s possession he began to lust after them. Olivier became afraid for Scudéry’s life, so he ran to her carriage and gave her the seemingly threatening note. The day that Cardillac was planning to attack Scudéry he attacked another man first. However, this man was a police officer, and it was Cardillac who was mortally wounded. The officer fled, and Olivier took the dying Cardillac back to his house, and was then arrested for murder. This story convinces Scudéry, and she sets out to help him. She writes a letter to La Regnie explaining that Olivier is covering a secret “which would entail disaster upon virtue and innocence,”7 but La Regnie does not believe her and tells her that the rack lies in Olivier’s immediate future. Scudéry writes to the best advocate in Paris, but he tells her that there is no way to save Olivier. Finally, the officer who killed Cardillac approaches Scudéry and tells all. The officer, Count de Miossens, kept quiet about his fight with Cardillac because La Regnie would not have believed him. Scudéry decides that the only thing to do is get the King, Louis XIV, to take action. She approaches him, and such is the respect with which she is held that he listens to her. She tells the entire story from beginning to end, and he believes her. He has Madelon brought to him, and he believes the petition she gives him (that she looks like one of his former mistresses does not hurt) and has the Chambre Ardente examine the case. The Count de Miossens testifies for Olivier, the people of Paris begin rooting for Olivier, and eventually the King decrees that Olivier be set free. The King gives Olivier and Madelon a handsome wedding present, but also orders that Olivier and Madelon leave Paris.
“Mademoiselle de Scudéry” is entertaining, to a limited degree. Hoffmann was a skilled writer and could make use of many different methods to tell a story, so “The Sandman” is almost hallucinogenic, “The Entail” is told in a more straightforward fashion, and “Mademoiselle de Scudéry” is told in the Gothic mode. Hoffmann wrote it relatively late in the life of the Gothic genre, after all the landmark works in the genre were written, with the exception of Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer. Hoffmann does not make of “Mademoiselle de Scudéry” a full-blown Gothic, but instead uses many of its tropes in the telling of the story. So there is no crumbling castle or pursuit of a threatened maiden through an underground passage, but there is a Hero-Villain of sorts in the figure of Cardillac, and there is a story-within-a-story narrative structure and a persecuted victim figure in Olivier.
But “Mademoiselle de Scudéry” also has some of the drawbacks of the Gothic, and these limit the modern reader’s enjoyment of the story. The characters are stereotypical, from Mademoiselle de Scudéry’s superhuman virtue and grace to Madelon’s innocence to the tortured evil of Cardillac. The dialogue is monologic, long-winded, and melodramatic. The narrative style is old-fashioned and occasionally slow-going. There is a great deal of historical detail, and while much of the story is not boring, it cannot be said to be a page-turner.
However, “Mademoiselle de Scudéry” is interesting for reasons that have nothing to do with its lack of enjoyability. Although not a horror story, it has horrific elements, especially in Cardillac’s idée fixe and the mania which drives him to kill. Cardillac is a version of the Romantic artist, whose genius places him above ordinary morals. However, unlike Schiller’s Karl Moor (see: The Robbers) Cardillac is in the grip of a compulsion and has no volition or control over his actions, and his description of his lack of control is disquieting.
Most interesting is the story’s role as a Proto-Mystery. “Mademoiselle de Scudéry” is not a full-fledged mystery, although it is close to a kriminalgeschichte (see: Detectives) and shows a definite influence of the Pitaval narratives (see: Proto-Mysteries), nor is Mademoiselle de Scudéry an actual detective. But she anticipates the female detectives to come. Of course, the idea of a woman being involved in a mystery and helping to solve that mystery was a staple trope of the Gothics, so it can’t be said that Hoffmann exactly broke new ground with the character of Mademoiselle de Scudéry. Nor can she be described as a great crime-solver. She does no legwork, she makes no brilliant deductions, and the solution to the mystery is given to her rather than discovered by her. By today’s standards she is not much of a detective. But when Hoffmann wrote “Mademoiselle de Scudéry” the detective genre hadn’t yet been invented, much less codified, and the tropes and motifs of the genre weren’t established and standardized. Hoffmann was not consciously writing a detective story. He was writing a Gothic-influenced story, using Gothic tropes. But Hoffmann stripped away the Gothic architecture (literal and figurative) and placed the story in the Paris of salons and Charles XIV, not the decaying, corrupt city of some Gothics, like the Philadelphia of George Lippard’s Quaker City. The dynamic of “Mademoiselle de Scudéry” is not of a woman pursued, as in so many Gothics, but of a woman to whom people and a mystery come. The heroine is not threatened sexually, emotionally, or physically. The heroine’s affliction is not supernatural, but spiritual, in her temporary loss of faith in humanity’s goodness because of Olivier’s plight. And while there is a ghastly family secret uncovered, the heroine, Mademoiselle de Scudéry, is not a part of it. “Mademoiselle de Scudéry” is in effect a transitional story, carrying Gothicisms with it but moving from the Gothic to the as yet unformed detective genre.
In her way Mademoiselle de Scudéry is as much of a detective as one of the heroines of the Mary Roberts Rinehart “Had I But Known” books. To put it in the simplest terms: in “Mademoiselle de Scudéry” there is a series of crimes for which a (mostly) innocent man is imprisoned. Scudéry becomes an advocate for the innocent man, receives (but does not actively acquire) information crucial to the case, and convinces the Powers That Be to reconsider the case. The innocent man is freed thanks to her efforts. Again, Mademoiselle de Scudéry does not do any actual detecting, but she is primarily responsible for the resolution of the case. So just as “Mademoiselle de Scudéry” is a transitional story from the Gothic to the detective story, Mademoiselle de Scudéry is a transitional figure from the Gothic heroine to the female detective.
Some critics go beyond this, and point to Mlle. De Scudery as not a transitional figure but as the first detective, and “Mademoiselle de Scudéry” as the first detective story:
Beginning with the mysterious break-in of an unidentified masked stranger, "Mademoiselle Scuderi" subsequently weaves a tale of inexplicable crimes and of competing investigations to solve them. The story ends with a triumphant performance that affirms the detective's interpretation of the crime and her method of investigation. The narrative structure of Hoffmann's story thus exhibits the detective story's characteristic threefold schema: crime, detection, and resolution. The plot of "Mademoiselle Scuderi" likewise showcases many familiar traits of detective texts: the locked-room mystery, the innocent accused along with the least likely guilty party as suspect, a series of clues that continually challenge the reader's interpretations, as well as a group of classic characters such as police and detectives, victims and perpetrators.8
This is certainly an arguable point, although there is a significant difference between a passive crime-solver, which Mlle. De Scudéry is, and an active detective, which Poe’s Dupin (see The C. Auguste Dupin Mysteries) is. More importantly, though, whether or not “Mademoiselle de Scudéry” is the first detective story, it was Poe rather than Hoffmann who was widely imitated by and influential on later mystery and detective authors. While “Mademoiselle de Scudéry” was first translated into English in 1826, and first published in America in 1829, Hoffmann’s influence on Victorian American and English fiction was comparatively slim.
There has always been some debate about Hoffmann’s influence on Poe. Partisans for both sides have vehemently argued their cases. It is clear that Poe had read Hoffmann and had Hoffmann in mind while writing his early stories. Given Poe’s tastes in reading and the respect with which the French (who Poe himself esteemed) held Hoffmann in the late 1820s, it would be surprising if Poe had not read Hoffmann. And the influence of Hoffmann on Poe’s early horror stories is clear. But it is one thing to say that Hoffmann influenced Poe’s horror stories and another to claim that Hoffmann influenced Poe’s stories about Dupin. There is nothing of Hoffmann in the Dupin stories, especially so in the case of “Mademoiselle de Scudéry.” That Hoffmann influenced Poe at the beginning of the latter’s career should not be doubted. That Poe was brilliant enough to make Dupin out of numerous elements, none of which was “Mademoiselle de Scudéry,” should also not be doubted.
Print: E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Tales of Hoffmann, transl. R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Penguin, 1982.
1 E.T.A. Hoffmann, “Mademoiselle de Scudéri,” in Weird Tales, transl. J.T. Bealby (London: J.C. Nimmo, 1885), 219.
2 Hoffmann, “Mademoiselle de Scuderi,” 264-265.
3 Hoffmann, “Mademoiselle de Scudéri,” 265.
4 Hoffmann, “Mademoiselle de Scudéri,” 266.
5 Hoffmann, “Mademoiselle de Scudéri,” 268.
6 Hoffmann, “Mademoiselle de Scudéri,” 268.
7 Hoffmann, “Mademoiselle de Scudéri,” 276.
8 Anita McChesney, “The Female Poetics of Crime in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s ‘Mademoiselle Scuderi,’” Women in German Yearbook 24 (2008): 2-3.