Most people, when they come to write their memoirs in later years, naturally place themselves at the center of the story: how I rose from rags to riches, how I discovered the true faith, how my views were correct, although events may seem to have proved me wrong. Dear Departed, the first of Marguerite Yourcenar’s three autobiographical volumes, is not at all like this. The author, rejecting the self-centered approach, sets out to describe the hereditary influences and the social milieu which contributed to her personal identity. For the purposes of the literary life, she rechristened herself Yourcenar (a near anagram of her real name, Crayencour) and became the world-famous author of Les Mémoires d’Hadrien and of other richly imaginative historical novels, thanks to which she was also the first woman ever to be elected to the Académie Française, yet she claims to see herself not as an all-important subjectivity, but as no more than a provisional, contingent phenomenon in the ever changing play of natural and historical forces—a genetic and cultural nodal point, as it were, only to be defined in relation to the multifarious past from which she sprang. Consequently, all three of these memorial volumes—Souvenirs pieux, Archives du nord, and Quoi L’éternité—purport to deal with her family and her background rather than with herself.
She is lucky to be able to adopt this approach. Most of us know little or nothing of our family history beyond our grandparents or great-grandparents, whose predecessors are lost in the anonymity of the common herd. But Mlle. de Crayencour was an aristocrat, although of a minor sort, and as such could trace her lineage back to the fourteenth century, thanks to records in the public archives, and family papers such as wills, marriage contracts, letters, diaries, and amateur literary compositions, preserved in the surviving châteaux of her many relatives.
She realizes, of course, that an ancestral line plotted in this way according to the transmission of a name is to some extent arbitrary, and even perhaps in places a fiction. It’s a wise child that knows its own father and, in any case, since the number of our forebears increases by geometrical progression with each step backward in time, even aristocrats are descended from thousands and millions of unknowns, and we must all, ultimately, be interrelated. Even so, lineage has a certain reality. Yourcenar lays stress on the eminent, named family as being essentially a cultural unit attempting to survive from generation to generation. While not ignoring the unpredictable character of physiological heredity, in the nature-versus-nurture controversy she is rather more on the side of nurture. An aristocratic or bourgeois family, strongly aware of its identity, is obeying a more or less conscious urge to control the vagaries of human nature, to struggle against genetic accident and social chaos, by transmitting possessions that give power and freedom of choice and, along with these possessions, certain beliefs and standards which are meant to keep civilization …