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Roman a clef

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Roman a clef

Roman à clef is a term used for a genre of novels that portray real-life events under a veneer of fiction. These kinds of novels have been of particular interest due to the reality of their subject, often relating to the author themselves.

Let's find out more about roman à clef!

Roman à clef: definition

We must first consider the definition:

Roman à clef is the term used to describe a biographically inspired novel: real-life events are overlaid with fictional elements to create a narrative that closely resembles reality. The term is French for 'novel with a key'.

Characteristics

The term was first used by French author Madeleine De Scudéry to create a way in which she could include public figures, mainly members of Louis XIV's court, in her writings. These political figures became disguised in her narratives with altered attributes and pseudonyms (fictitious names), crucial characteristics of roman à clef novels.

Another important feature of the genre is the 'key', which is the relationship between the fictional and non-fictional aspects of the novel. Authors sometimes include an explicit guide, but in an effort to remain subtle, a metaphorical key can be implied, perhaps using an epigraph or other narrative techniques.

An epigraph is a phrase or short quotation at the beginning of a book or chapter to suggest its themes. Sometimes this can even be a poem.

Roman à clef in literature

In literature, the genre creates a space for authors to speak freely through their writing whilst maintaining a level of anonymity where the line between fact and fiction can be blurred.

Types of roman à clef novels

Authors may choose to write a roman à clef for a plethora of reasons, due to the genre's adaptable form and its unique ability to provide a forum for sensitive, sometimes private, information without revealing the whole truth.

One of the most popular ways the genre has been used is in satire.

Satire is the use of humour and irony to criticise contemporary political figures, situations or systems.

Satirical romans à clef often involve real-life people, particularly those in powerful positions, depicting actual events as well as sensitive information.

Using the roman à clef may help to protect an author from potentially dangerous consequences that could come from writing about powerful people, especially if the novel portrays them in a negative light or reveals certain details that were meant to remain hidden. Legally, authors can also use the genre to protect themselves from being prosecuted for libel by claiming their works to be fictionalised accounts, inspired by some aspects of real life rather than a non-fiction depiction.

Libel is a published statement that publicly damages someone's reputation.

Roman à clef also allows for artistic freedom. In adopting the form, authors may choose to adapt facts and meld them with fiction, creating a narrative that is more interesting and compelling to readers.

Writers can invoke creative licence by taking certain events, people or subjects from real life and adding some embellishments or bending them to fit into the narrative. Roman à clef novels create a façade of fiction that is more interesting for a writer to play around with rather than to transcribe a non-fiction account of what happened in reality.

In both of these cases, the roman à clef genre can protect authors by lending a level of protective ambiguity. In fictionalised accounts of real life, such as romans à clef, writers need not reveal which aspects of their works are fact and which are fiction.

Roman à clef: novel examples

Some of the most important and most celebrated novels of the 20th century are romans à clef. Let's consider some examples:

  • Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell. This famous novella is an allegorical narrative that depicts the 1917 Russian Revolution. Orwell transposes events from real life into the setting of a barnyard with animal characters resembling important figures, including Stalin, who Orwell particularly criticises.

  • The Sun Also Rises (1926) by Ernest Hemingway. Like in much of his work, Hemingway draws from his personal experiences to create the narrative of this novel. His account of aimless American expats in Europe is somewhat based upon his own travels and observations about the Lost Generation and post-World War I society.

  • The Bell Jar (1963) by Sylvia Plath. Initially published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, Plath's novel is said to be semi-autobiographical. The narrative's portrayal of the main character's struggles with depression and mental illness as a woman in 1960s America is based on Plath's own experiences.

  • The Devil Wears Prada (2003) by Lauren Weisberger. This novel, now known most famously for its 2006 film adaptation, is based on Weisberger's own experiences with the elite members of the fashion industry in Manhattan, New York City. The titular 'devil' is based upon Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, to whom Weisberger served as an assistant.

Roman à clef - Key takeaways

  • Roman à clef is a French phrase meaning 'novel with a key'.
  • The phrase refers to a narrative genre that portrays real-life events overlaid with fictional elements.
  • It was first used by French author Madeleine De Scudéry.
  • Romans à clef can be used by authors to reveal sensitive information without disclosing whether it is fact or fiction.
  • Important examples include Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell and The Bell Jar (1963) by Sylvia Plath.

Frequently Asked Questions about Roman a clef

Roman à clef is a French phrase meaning 'novel with a key'. It is a literary term used to describe a narrative genre that portrays real-life events overlaid with fictional elements.

In French, the phrase translates to 'novel with a key'.

The main characteristics include altered characters based on real people, usually with pseudonyms and slightly changed attributes, as well as the 'key' which might be explicit, or implicit by using epigraphs or other methods.

In literature, an example of a roman à clef is the novella Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell.

A roman à clef is a narrative that borrows certain events or characters from reality. To write a roman à clef, simply consider an important moment or person in your life and create a narrative from there. What follows can be a mix of fact and fiction.

Final Roman a clef Quiz

Question

What does roman à clef translate to?

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Answer

'Novel with a key'.

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Question

What is roman à clef?

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Answer

A literary genre that uses some aspects of real life blended with fictitious elements to create a narrative.

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Question

Who was the originator of the genre?

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Answer

Madeleine De Scudéry

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What was the genre first used to write about?

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Answer

The court of King Louis XIV and its members.

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What is the 'key'?

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Answer

The 'key' is the relationship between the fictional and factual elements of the novel.

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Question

What is a narrative technique an author might use to create an implied 'key'?

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Answer

An epigraph

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What is an epigraph?

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Answer

A short quotation, phrase or even poem placed at the beginning of a book or chapter to suggest its themes.

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Question

What is an important example of a political roman à clef from the 20th century?

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Answer

Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell

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Question

How can the genre protect authors?

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Answer

Roman à clef allows for a level of protective ambiguity in which authors need not clarify which aspects of their narrative are factual and which are fiction.

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Question

What is a modern example of a roman à clef?

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Answer

The Devil Wears Prada (2003) by Lauren Weisberger

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