Roman à clef translates as "novel with a key." A novel written in this style refers to a fictional work that hides a bit of a secret. It may be a satire about real people like political figures or celebrities, that actually serves as an autobiography or semi-autobiographical novel. Roman à clef may also be used to completely insult and denigrate someone else’s character, but since it is supposedly “fiction” the author avoids charges of libel.
There are examples of the roman à clef that predate the advent of the novel in Europe. It’s interesting to see, for example, the verse work of Dante, The Divine Comedy since he places key political figures of his day in Hell. Yet since this is fictional, it doesn’t actually libel these characters. To understand the full weight of Dante’s charges, you’d have to understand quite a lot about 14th century Italian politics.
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Other examples of roman à clef predate most European verse work. Some of the first novels ever written in the 10th and 11th century, Japanese pillow books, and most especially Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji, which is often considered the first novel ever composed, depict court life and do draw on real characters for inspiration. Lady Murasaki’s novel, at least in part, accurately depicts court life through the romances and tales of Prince Genji, and many scholars have argued that much of the material of the book is partly autobiographical.
When the true European novel first took form in the early 17th century, the roman à clef was an early recognized style. Novels depicted French nobles and the French court, especially those of Madeleine de Scudery. By the 18th century, roman à clef was a popular form, and authors at least in part employed satire in their works, whether to criticize people or social institutions. The 1749 Henry Fielding novel, Tom Jones is rich with satire, and criticizes virtually every social convention of the English middle class, and the novel form in general.
In the 19th century many novels were partly autobiographical. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre references her time spent at a charity school similar to the one Jane attends. Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield has distinct references to Dickens’ life. Even the name, David Copperfield and its initials DC, are the reverse of Dickens initials, CD. Dickens’ work brings up an interesting aspect of the roman à clef. Some novels, though based primarily on an author’s life are used by the author to change things about his/her life. Dickens’ work clearly does this, detailing the marriage to Dora, who was modeled on Dickens’ sister-in-law, for whom he nurtured a passion, and also referencing with the same character how unhappy he was in his own marriage, which later ended in divorce.
A roman à clef doesn’t have to reference the current time period. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind though one of the most popular books ever written, is viewed by many as a keenly crafted defense of slavery. Written from the Southern point of view, some of Mitchell’s criticisms hit home, especially those that deal with how the Northerners were sometimes afraid of, or had no interest in employing former slaves, and that reconstructive efforts in the South were exploitative to former slaves. However, Mitchell contrasts this with the “kinder, gentler” relationship between master and slave, which bears some scrutiny.
Other books that fall into this genre include Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the 1990s novel, Primary Colors which details and satirizes the Clinton presidential campaign, and the 2003 novel The Devil Wears Prada, which references Vogue’s chief editor, Anna Wintour. Roman à clef also occurs in film and music. The lyrics of the rapper Eminem, for instance, are significantly autobiographical. Writer and music artist Sting uses satire in the song St. Augustine in Hell, and places popes, cardinals, lawyers and music critics as residents of Hell.
Sometimes an author denies that aspects of a book are autobiographical. J.R.R. Tolkien, for instance, heatedly argued that the battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings were not based on his own experiences as a soldier. There’s significant evidence from Tolkien’s other writing that this is not the case, but an author may not always realize he or she has written a roman à clef. Private experiences have a way of leaking into books without authorial intent.