Publication Details

Boyde, MJ, The Modernist roman a clef and Cultural Secrets, or, I Know that You Know that I Know that You Know, Australian Literary Studies, 24(3-4), 2009, 155-166.


Roman à 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. Seventeenth century writer and salonnière Madeleine de Scudéry (1607–1701) is attributed as the innovator of the genre creating 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 early on 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 where lesbian/queer identities were increasingly being rendered secret in dominant medical and legal discourses. The roman à clef appealed to these coterie audiences who were able to discern in the texts information which to the unknowing reader potentially remained obscure or hidden.