Nothing Sacred

Robert Darnton, the distinguished historian of the Book, and author of The Great Cat Massacre, has now produced his long-awaited study of the best seller in eighteenth-century France: or rather of a peculiar kind, the “forbidden” best seller, belonging to the class (a very extensive one, containing a large part of the books the modern reader is likely to have heard of) of books banned by the authorities. His work is an attempt at a new answer to an old question: namely, Was it the books and ideas of the mid-century that caused the French Revolution, and if so, which books? Daniel Mornet, writing in 1910, argued that the Revolution could not have been, as the song has it, the “fault of Rousseau” or the “fault of Voltaire,” since the French on the whole did not read Rousseau (not, at least, the Contrat social) nor, most probably, did they read Voltaire either. They spent their leisure hours on the sentimental novels of Mme. Riccoboni and the adventure stories of Thémiseul de Saint-Hyacinthe.

Mornet lacked a system as a historian of the Book and he got various things wrong. There is a popularized version of the Contrat social in Book 5 of Emile, and this people certainly did read: it became a best seller. Nevertheless, says Darnton, Mornet’s question “What did the French read?” remains the right one; and his own inquiries into a kind of literature that Mornet neglected—pornography, muckraking chronicles, and the like—lead him to the conclusion that books, this kind of books, were a precipitating cause of the Revolution. They were so, not by advocating a revolution, but by discrediting the existing regime. “The ideological origin of the Revolution was a matter of deligitimating the Old Regime rather than anticipating a new one. And nothing sapped legitimacy more effectively than the literature of libel.” When, in 1787, the controller-general Calonne put forward a progressive tax plan that would solve the Crown’s financial problems, it was scurrilous libelles, and antiquated fantasies about the sex life of the departed Louis XV, that decided public opinion against him.

For twenty-five years, Darnton tells us, he has spent every spare summer and sabbatical in the archives of booksellers, but especially those of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN) in Switzerland. The STN, a publisher and wholesale supplier to the book trade, occupied an ideal situation for producing illicit French books and shipping them down the Rhône or the Rhine or across the Jura mountains, and its voluminous archives have survived more or less complete. No other such archive exists; but there are reasons, says Darnton, why the picture that it gives of the trade in forbidden books might be considered representative. It was, for one thing, the usual practice of publishers and booksellers of the time to take one another’s books in exchange, treating a sheet of one book as the equivalent in value of a sheet in another.1 As a result, the stocks of such …

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  1. 1

    The sheet, folded once to form a folio, twice to form a quarto, etc., was and is the normal basis for calculations of this kind.