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A LITERARY TOUR DE FRANCE: THE WORLD OF BOOKS ON THE EVE OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

By Robert Darnton

Oxford University Press. 358 pages. £25.49. ISBN 978-0-19-514451-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

On the 5th of July, 1778, a young man named Jean-François Favarger left his home town of Neuchâtel in Switzerland and started on what was to become a five-months tour of bookshops in France. He was employed by the Sociétié  typographic de Neuchâtel (STN), “a Swiss publishing house across France’s mountainous eastern border”. STN “did a large wholesale trade everywhere in the kingdom while also producing its own editions”.

As Robert Darnton describes, Favarger’s journey involved him in various matters: “He sold books, collected bills, arranged shipping, inspected printing shops, sounded markets, sized up businesses, and assessed the character of more than a hundred booksellers”. 

How does he know this? Darnton, the leading historian when it comes to the complexities of the printing, selling and buying of books in eighteenth century France, found that the STN archives still existed, whereas those of many other similar firms had long since disappeared or been destroyed. Using the STN material, and some available in Paris and other locations, he set out to construct a picture of the book trade during the period 1769 to 1789. And to do it by following in Favarger’s footsteps, or perhaps that should be his horse’s hoofmarks. Favarger did not travel by coach. He went horseback all the way, even if at one point he was forced to sell his ailing steed and purchase another one.

A reader unfamiliar with the territory that Darnton, and Favarger, cover might well wonder why a sales representative from Switzerland was making such an effort to canvas French booksellers for orders. The basic reason was fairly straightforward. Books could be printed cheaper in countries outside France, and even with the costs of transporting them across the mountains they could still be sold at prices below those charged for books from Parisian publishing houses. For a company like STN it was advantageous to produce pirated editions of books published in Paris and smuggle them into France.

Darnton points out that books “required special attention by the French authorities, because the state, under pressure from the booksellers’ guild in Paris, took various measure to block the importation of pirated as well as prohibited works. In order to favour the Parisian publishers, it even imposed a stiff tariff on all book imports”.

There were other reasons. Censorship was tighter in France, but there was a market for “illegal” material. This didn’t necessarily mean pornography, though there was a thriving trade in such items, and some religious and political texts were proscribed. There were many Huguenots in areas that Favarger crossed, and copies of the Protestant Bible, and other books of a religious nature, were in demand. And, as Danton has observed in his other books, pornography and politics could sometimes be brought together to lampoon the monarchy, aristocracy, and the church.

It was, of course, to the advantage of the government, and the established booksellers, especially in Paris, if shipments of books from Switzerland could be intercepted and inspected to ensure that they didn’t contain either banned texts or pirated editions. There were border checks, and theoretically all bales of books also had to cleared by the chambres syndicales (the inspection offices of the provincial guilds) in major towns and cities. Border guards could be bribed to turn a blind eye to bales slipping through inspection. As for the chambres syndicales, they were formed from local booksellers and consequently could be persuaded to carry out only a perfunctory check on what was in a particular shipment. Their members may well have been booksellers waiting for books they had ordered from STN.

It needs to be noted that, on the whole, books were not sent in a completed way. Only the printed sheets that would comprise the interior were packed for shipment. When they reached their destination it was necessary for the bookseller to have them bound. Some booksellers traded as printers, so binding probably wasn’t too much of a problem. Others would have contracted out the necessary work. Sending the sheets only could be a useful way of smuggling in banned items. The inspections of consignments were often cursory, if they took place, and packing suspect material at the bottom of a bale meant that it could be overlooked.

Darnton points out that booksellers “appear only as shadows, if at all, in the history of literature”. But as Favarger begins to move across France their variety and importance in terms of what they made available to readers becomes apparent. One of the most sought after items was the Encyclopédie (the key work of the Enlightenment), which, as Darnton says, “no longer horrified the French authorities as it had in the 1750s”. Versions published outside France were technically illegal, but more for commercial reasons. Publication in France had been authorised, so French publishers and booksellers were naturally keen not to have their sales affected by cheaper imported editions.

Favarger kept a record of his impressions of the booksellers he encountered, and fed the information back to his employers. In Lons-le-Saunier, for example, he noted that there were only “two booksellers. One is Delhorme (a printer-bookseller), who sells no books other than those he produces. Gabriel is a decent fellow, but poor. His shop consists of nothing but prayer books, etc. and isn’t worth 500 livres. Nevertheless, I left a catalogue and a prospectus of the Description des arts with him. We should only deal with him for cash”.

That crisp summary was typical of Favarger. He didn’t waste words, nor did he refrain from making blunt observations about how much credit, if any, should be extended to a certain bookseller. And he warned against doing any business at all in some cases. In Orléans, he said that “Widow Rouzeau is very good, but she deals only in religious works. Perdroux is mediocre, found some items in our catalogue that are to his taste but he only wants to deal in exchanges for religious works, which are about all he carries”.

The reference to Perdroux only wanting to “deal in exchanges” is intriguing, and relates to an arrangement that appeared to be fairly common practice at the time. A bookseller would agree to order books provided the seller was prepared to take items from his stock. This could be beneficial to the seller if the items he took were considered likely to sell to other booksellers. Favarger’s employers did not only trade in books they published. They carried stocks of other publications, and were prepared to deal in items to order by buying them in from different publishers. From the booksellers’ point of view it enabled them to obtain fresh material for their shelves while hopefully passing on items they may have overstocked.

I referred to the ways in which, earlier in the seventeenth century, the government and the Parisian booksellers’ guild had co-operated to the extent that Paris had a virtual monopoly of the book industry. Provincial printing was reduced largely to “local and ephemeral publications”. But by 1750, “cheap, pirated books had flooded the market in the French provinces, and the booksellers in Lyon had established a network of alliances with the publishers in Switzerland”. The government, in an attempt to disrupt the flow of pirated books, but unable to easily confiscate current stocks held by French booksellers, granted a “grace period” during which they could have them stamped by the chambres syndicales, and then sell them legally. After a certain date, any unstamped publications would be seized. 

It’s doubtful if it was a scheme likely to succeed. Looking at Lyons as a particularly important outlet for bookselling, Darnton says that “the legal market was dominated by a few wealthy houses that produced editions of their own, suitably protected by privileges. But most Lyonnais booksellers lived off the trade in pirated books and many of them also dealt in livres philosophiques”, the name given to often politically or philosophically dubious and sometimes pornographic literature. Even if they had their existing stocks stamped, booksellers were not going to stop importing cheap editions from abroad.

Darnton mentions Avignon as a “pirate’s paradise” and describes how, although “French in culture and surrounded by French territory, it owed allegiance to the papacy”. This was due to the popes having “made Avignon their seat during the political upheavals of the fourteenth century”. Because French law did not apply there, publishers in Avignon could reprint books and sell them at prices below those charged for the original editions: “By 1769, Avignon had twenty-two booksellers and printers and forty active presses – an enormous number for a city with only 24,000 inhabitants”. Faverger had to work hard to make an impression in Avignon, where he was looked on as a competitor in the marketing of pirated books.

He did better in Nimes, a city with a thriving silk industry and a large number of Protestants. Religious and Enlightenment material was favoured: “Protestantism, a religion of the book, created fertile territory for the reception of philosophic ideas”. At least one of the booksellers Favarger visited was probably a Hugeuenot, and is described as “sober, strict, and a hard bargainer, but scrupulously honest about paying bills and settling accounts”. His business was valued by STN for that reason. The system the company operated meant that their customers, when they received a shipment, “paid with money orders (bills of exchange or other kinds of drafts), which usually became due in twelve months”. Obviously, this involved a great deal of trust on the part of STN and, as we have already seen, Favarger sometimes recommended that a bookseller should only be dealt with on cash terms. Darnton narrates how STN occasionally had to take legal action when booksellers defaulted on their debts.

The list of places Favarer visited is quite astonishing, considering he was travelling on horseback. Bordeaux had twenty-five booksellers, and Marseilles nineteen. Some of his comments about those in Marseilles in the report to the STN head office are worthy of note: “Allemand: a young man who inherited his father’s stock of books but made poor use of it. Bad reputation. Best not to deal with him”. Three others were dismissed as “all untrustworthy”, and another as “mediocre, acceptable to deal with him for cash”. As for Boyer, the terse “Disappeared, gone to America”, summed him up.

Favarger eventually began his return to Neuchâtel and arrived home in either late-November or early-December, 1778. Just in time to avoid the winter snow that would have blocked the passes in the mountains. 

There are several questions that arise from Darnton’s investigations into Favarger’s experiences. One relates to the readers of the books that booksellers had sent from Switzerland. STN were not the only suppliers, nor were they all based in Switzerland. Other countries bordering France provided bases for publishers keen to smuggle pirated editions through the relevant customs posts. But if the STN archives are taken as being broadly typical of the sort of books involved, then the likely readers were. as Darnton notes, “composed of mixed groups in the upper and middle ranges of society: noblemen, magistrates, administrative officials, military officers, clergymen, lawyers, doctors, merchants, well-off landowners in the country, and perhaps some relatively wealthy tradesmen in towns and cities”.

Their wives and daughters would also have read the sentimental novels that were popular. History, travel, religious texts, and children’s books were ordered in some quantities. And, as previously mentioned, there was a demand for the Encyclopedie, as well as works of the Enlightenment that questioned the power of the state and its institutions, and the church. These included the salacious and pornographic books that purported to tell what the King and Queen and their courtiers got up to.

This leads into the next question, which relates to what effect such material had in terms of influencing the “ideological origins of the French Revolution?”  As Darnton stresses, “Few of the books made direct connections with contemporary politics……..Rather than explicit political messages, the books most in demand communicated a general outlook that was at odds with the established order……these books conveyed a view of the world imbued with an implicit message: the world as it is is not the world that has to be. An alternate reality was thinkable. In 1789 in the wake of the books that had circulated through the channels of commerce since 1769, thought would turn into action”.

It does need to be said that there appears to be little evidence to indicate if any of the booksellers were importing banned or contentious books because of their own political convictions. Or did they simply function in a commercial way by responding to what their customers wanted? It’s certain that the directors of STN had no interest in sowing the seeds of discontent in France when they pirated books and smuggled them across the border. They did it to make money: it was “the moving force of everything”.  

A Literary Tour de France is a fascinating book, packed with information, and like a good historian Robert Darnton knows how to tell a story. The booksellers that Favarger encountered on his travels were a lively bunch, with more than a few rogues and rascals among them. Darnton brings them to life in an engaging way.