roman à clef

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roman à clef

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sun Oct 18, 2015 9:03 pm

“. . . his gaze fixed on a blue plaque fixed to a house opposite commemorating the tenancy of Lady Ottoline Morrell, literary hostess. Doubtless scabrous romans à clef [[plural]] had once been discussed within those walls, too . . .”—The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter Fame), page 56>
No idea! And since the mystery literary phrase is a romans à clef, I thought it might be wise to find out what it means from those who know.


Roman à clef (French pronunciation: [[(rō-mäɴ′ ä klā′)]] French for novel with a key, is a novel about real life, overlaid with a façade of fiction. The fictitious names in the novel represent real people, and the "key" is the relationship between the nonfiction and the fiction. This "key" may be produced separately by the author, or implied through the use of epigraphs [[see below]] or other literary techniques.

Created by Madeleine de Scudery in the 17th century to provide a forum for her thinly veiled fiction featuring political and public figures, roman à clef has since been used by writers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Victor Hugo, Phillip K. Dick, Bret Easton Ellis, Naguib Mahfouz, and Malachi Martin.

The reasons an author might choose the roman à clef format include satire; writing about controversial topics and/or reporting inside information on scandals without giving rise to charges of libel; the opportunity to turn the tale the way the author would like it to have gone; the opportunity to portray personal, autobiographical experiences without having to expose the author as the subject; avoiding self-incrimination or incrimination of others that could be used as evidence in civil, criminal, or disciplinary proceedings; and the settling of scores.

[[epigraph noun:
1) An inscription on a building, statue, or coin.
2)A short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book or chapter, intended to suggest its theme.]]

In this mystery novel it appeared that someone was so incensed by their demeaning depiction, and there were many such depictions of various people, in this roman à clef that they murdered its 'supposed' author. Dum de dum dum!

The following quotes are from the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources:
<1882 “That art of mystification which the authors of both English and French romans a clef have since practised with so much transient success.”—Dickens by A. W. Ward, V. Page 117>

<1893 “Her books of fiction are a tissue of personalities of this hideous roman-à-clef kind.”—Henry James Letter 23 January in Vernon Lee (1964) by P. Gunn x. page 138>

<1940 “They pass at last. . . into more or less honest fact telling, into ‘historical reconstruction’, the roman à clef, biography, history and autobiography.”—Babes in the Darkling Wood by H. G. Wells. Page 5>

<1977 “A roman à clef whose skeleton key would seem to be the unsavory case of Alice Crimmins and her two murdered children.”—New Yorker, 24 October, page184/2>

<2003 “The young dirt-disher reads from her thinly veiled roman-à-clef, The Devil Wears Prada.”—New York Magazine, 5 May, page 96/3>

<2005 “‘Rumor Has It’ was the title of his newspaper novel based on life at the Sun-Times, remembered still for its roman a clef razoring of several employees who desperately deserved it.”—Chicago Sun-Times, 21 December>

<2009 “No doubt some will see Cut & Run as a roman-a-clef, and for all I know it may well be. But whether the characters are based on real people, or are pure inventions or hybrids, this bleak, topical novel is a substantial achievement . . .”—New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 24 October.>

<2013 “Discretion, which was no doubt a crucial aspect of her receptionist job, leads at times to frustrating circumspection, with more disguised identities than in a roman a clef.”—Washington Post, 21 August>

<2015 “Many have said she [[Hillary Clinton]] was the inspiration for Kathy Bates' political enforcer character in the novel and movie Primary Colors, a roman E clef [sic] on the Clintons.”—States News Service, 16 May>

Kensington Greene – October 18, 2015

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