Some fifty years ago, the historian of intellectual life Robert Darnton, after finishing his doctoral work at Oxford, was researching the writer and Girondin leader Jacques-Pierre Brissot.

Very much a man of his time, Brissot had composed various political tracts in the 1780s as well as a spicy libel about the Queen of France, called Passe-temps d’Antoinette— Antoinette’s Pastimes (the coyness of the genre’s titles has little changed over the centuries)—earning him a spell in the Bastille. Years later, as a member of the Convention and naively believing that France’s Revolutionary atmosphere was less threatening, he found himself on the wrong side of Maximilien Robespierre, a mistake that earned him a more permanent spell in the grounds of the Chapelle expiatoire after a brief stop at the Place de la Concorde. In happier days, though, Brissot published through the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (stn), a publisher and bookseller located in Switzerland, a few miles east of the French border.

The stn dealt in clandestine literature. Not only was it in the pirated-edition business, it also published so-called livres philosophiques, a euphemism covering seditious books like Mercier’s utopian L’An deux mille quatre cent quarante (In the Year 2440) and Voltaire’s Questions sur L’Encyclopédie, political slanders (libelles) like Brissot’s own Passe-temps d’Antoinette and Pidansat de Mairobert’s Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry, pornographically anticlerical (Thérèse philosophe) and irreligious works, books on freemasonry and the occult, and tittle-tattle (chroniques scandaleuses) like L’espion anglais (The English Spy). It was a huge business—France’s reading classes loved their livres philosophiques—and the stn was one of a number of presses that sprang up (“like mushrooms,” says Darnton) along the Swiss border. To get them to their readers, these firms would arrange for their books to be smuggled across the border to individual booksellers for sale sous le manteau.

The stn’s niche existed because of pre-Revolutionary France’s highly restrictive copyright laws, trade restraints, and government censorship that severely curtailed what could be printed and distributed. Were it located in France, the stn could have had its stock lacerated and burned by the public executioner and its owners bankrupted. If caught, smugglers could be branded with the letters gal (for galérien, galley slave) and packed off to the ships at Toulon where they would row the next nine years of their lives away.

While researching Brissot’s letters, Darnton uncovered an even bigger prize in Neuchâtel. He realized that the stn’s collection, with its tens of thousands of letters from all number of book-trade hangers-on, publication catalogues, advertising sheets, publishing and supply contracts, account books, and diaries, was a matchless resource into the thinking and practices of some of the very people that influenced, nourished, and abetted France’s intellectual life on the eve of the Revolution. Though other sources exist, there was nothing on the scale of the stn’s archives.

By 1965, when Darnton first began his work, scholars like E. P. Thompson, Richard Cobb, and Georges Lefebvre had developed a new type of “history from below”—a Marxist- informed historical method based on evidence from the lives of everyday people, rather than their leaders. Darnton’s inspiration was to adapt this approach to the analysis of historical events through the lens of the book world, his theory being that the history of the book and the history of ideas are inseparable. He realized that this new discipline, now known as l’histoire du livre, could enlarge not only our general understanding of the pre- Revolutionary book trade, but more importantly our understanding of the everyday customs and practices of contributors to the long chain extending from author to reader. It might also shed light on the unfolding of great events by revealing how, through the medium of books, Enlightenment ideas diffused through France, leading to the tantalizing, but still unanswered, question of how those books and ideas might have actually led to the Revolution.

A single-volume treatment of these issues was impossible, but in his first book that examined them, The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 1775–1800 (1979), revision history and lively account of the re-publication of d’Alembert’s and Diderot’s Encyclopédie (1751–1772), Darnton indicated that it would be the first in a series. The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre- Revolutionary France (1995), an exploration into the more recherché literature so popular in the second half of the eighteenth century, was the second volume. Now, with A Literary Tour de France: The World of Books on the Eve of the French Revolution (2018), the trilogy is complete.1 It’s a good read on its own, especially with the foundational research reproduced on the accompanying website (, but familiarity with the first two works in the trilogy makes A Literary Tour even more immediate.

With contributors like Voltaire, Rousseau, d’Holbach, and Diderot himself, the Encyclopédie was a primary vector for the propagation of Enlightenment ideas. Its introduction or “Preliminary Discourse,” written by d’Alembert, featured a chart classifying human knowledge as a function of memory, reason, and imagination. Theology (artfully described as “science de Dieu”) was tucked away in the “reason” column, squeezed in alongside “science de la nature” and “science de l’homme.” This, of course, was scandal of the highest order, and the Church listed the Encyclopédie on its index librorum prohibitorum (where it lingered until Pope Paul VI discontinued the list in 1965—even the Marquis de Sade’s Justine and Juliette were removed before then). But while it caused uproar in government circles, the Encyclopédie nevertheless had sufficient support through Madame de Pompadour and the exceptionally well-placed Lamoignon de Malesherbes of the Direction de la Librairie (the regulator that granted permission to print) that it could appear in France without the executioner being summoned.

By 1772, Diderot had tired of the work on which he spent a quarter century, describing it as a “sink into which [were] haphazardly tossed an infinite variety of poorly digested, good, bad, disgusting, true, false, uncertain, but always incoherent bits.” The reading public, however, shared none of those misgivings, nor did the canny publishers that served them. One was the colorful and unscrupulous Charles-Joseph Panckoucke, the official bookseller of the Imprimerie Royale, who purchased what he believed were the publication rights to all future editions of the Encyclopédie. In The Business of Enlightenment, Darnton tells of Panckoucke’s efforts to persuade the government to allow the new quarto edition, his dealings with the stn to print it, and their disruption by the even-more-devious Joseph Duplain, who, after creating his own unauthorized edition, effectively forced Panckoucke (who failed to rouse the authorities against Duplain’s piracy) to join him in the venture—giving Duplain the perfect opportunity to embezzle from him. As a counter-narrative, Darnton describes the world of the chiffoniers (ragpickers) who collected the bits of linen needed to make the enormous amounts of paper required by the edition, the desperate underworld of printing, the editors, the travails of the commis voyageurs (salesmen) who sold the new edition, and the smugglers who got it across the border. The Business of Enlightenment shows that, despite its considerable birthing pains, the edition sold many thousands of copies at a fraction of the price of the original set, and, in a vivid illustration of the principle that no good turn goes unpunished, also shows how the recipients of this new edition—nobility, landowners, and clergy—were, despite their openness to the Encyclopédie’s progressive thinking, the first to fall victim to the Revolution’s excesses. Even Malesherbes, without whom the original Encyclopédie would never have been published, ended up under le rasoir national.

In The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre- Revolutionary France (1995), Darnton reminds us that what the French read before the Revolution continues to be of considerable historical interest. While research into the entire corpus of eighteenth-century literature is impossible, Darnton quotes the words of Malesherbes to argue that illegal literature, the very stuff published by the stn, is an excellent proxy: “a man who had read only those books that appeared with governmental approval would be almost a century behind his contemporaries.”

One of The Forbidden Best-Sellers’sinteresting themes is how clandestine literature helped shape public opinion about the monarchy, and how that opinion deteriorated from the mid-eighteenth century. The ground was prepared by a number of Louis XV’s self- sabotages: setbacks in foreign wars, even more taxes, his loss of touch with the public and his abandonment of crucial public rituals—such as taking the sacraments and physically ministering to his subjects, who believed in the curative power of his touch—and his flagrant and serial liaisons with the unbridled de Nesle sisters, Madame de Pompadour, and Madame du Barry.

Public reaction to these and other royal missteps were the subject of much negative street noise (mauvais bruit), reported by the government’s network of police informers. These reports still exist and are candid indeed, with “the king didn’t give a fuck about his people” and “the ministers and that whore Pompadour were making the King do unworthy things” being two examples. Then, as now, this was strong language, and the increasing bad-mouthing of Louis XV (ironically once known as “le Bien-Aimé”—“well-beloved”) had a corrosive effect on public opinion of the monarchy. The corrosion increased through the reign of his son Louis XVI: “There was a general feeling that decadence had set in, and the monarchy had degenerated into a despotism.”

The stn’s anticlerical libelles disparaged the great and the good, and they were further amplified by their outrageous humor and titillation. Thérèse philosophe, oumémoires pour servir à l’histoire du Père Dirrag et de Mademoiselle Éradice, for example, contains the stories of the corruption of a young girl (Éradice) by her much older confessor (Père Dirrag), as well as the solo adventures of Éradice’s girl friend with a member of the aristocracy. The early action is related by the girl friend who, unbeknown to Père Dirrag, has been hidden away in a conveniently positioned closet to observe the priest’s ministrations a tergo. All the stock components are there: ingénue, fallen-but-plucky friend (“tart with a heart”), vile priest, effete aristocrat, and unsparing first-person narration of the action, all relentlessly hammering the message of depravity in high places. Equally effective was the Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry,one of the great bestsellers of pre-Revolutionary France. “It reads like an off-color Cinderella . . . , ” muses Darnton, “because du Barry sleeps her way from a brothel to the throne.” These and hundreds of other libelles flooded into France during the reign of Louis XVI, helping make France’s revered institutions appear hopelessly corrupt or, at a minimum, weak and incompetent. Indeed, writes Darnton, these libelles helped bring Louis XVI down.

With the enormous market in France for clandestine literature, what could be easier than satisfying that demand and raking in the profits? In A Literary Tour, Darnton explains that despite its easy-money lure, the clandestine book business was fraught with peril: salesmen’s arduous and uncertain journeys (they often went armed), iffy customers, fake bankruptcies, the complexities and expense of effective smuggling, the rapacity of other publishers, and the vigilance of the French publishing guilds and customs and tax authorities made it a highly risky business. As The Business of Enlightenment was woven around the devious Panckoucke and Duplain, Darnton builds A Literary Tour around a July 1778 sales trip into France by an stn salesman, one Jean-François Favarger. At each sales destination, a facet of the book business is explained or elaborated. The result is a wryly amusing view into this Balzacian world.

Favarger, twenty-eight when his sales trip began, had been hired “from behind the plough” by one of the stn’s directors. He was a self-effacing, hardworking man who carried out his employers’ instructions and who kept them informed of his progress. The six-month trip, done in all weather and mostly on horseback, began with a traversal of the Jura mountains into France at Pontarlier, moved southwest to Vienne and then to Grenoble, southwest again down to Montpellier, over to Toulouse and up to Bordeaux and La Rochelle, then northeast through the Loire valley to Orléans, then into Lorraine and down to Besançon before returning to Neuchâtel.

After crossing into France, the Pontarlier territory was the first stop on the book smuggling circuit. Smuggling routes often changed so that the book porters had a better chance of avoiding the Ferme générale, the government’s privatized tax collection and border patrol service. Darnton explains that the stn jobbed the work out to specialist “insurers” that would bear the loss if a book shipment were intercepted. Darnton describes the complexities and economics of smuggling, including hiring the insurer, compensating the porters (drink was an important component), persuading the government inspectors to look the other way through payment of “palpable civilities” (the Calvinist directors of the stn paid bribes in specie and in kind), and even how, during cheese-smuggling season, book shipments were unavoidably delayed. In the small towns of Lons-le-Saunier and Bourg-en-Bresse, we see how Favarger, often with the help of what Darnton calls the “Huguenot diaspora,” did quick studies of the market for the stn’s clandestine books (many small-town booksellers were only interested in religious tracts) and the credit of individual booksellers, assigning grades of “good” (maybe some form of credit), “mediocre” (probably cash sales only), and “not good” (be nice, but beware). Favarger seemed to have had a good eye for credit, but was perhaps a bit of a rube in literary matters. One of his duties was to discover new titles for the stn’s consideration. After a seller in Bourg-en-Bresse, surely as a joke, suggested that The Laws and Constitutions of Pennsylvania would be a blockbuster, Favarger patiently queried his clientele at every stop on the way down to Lyon. Not a soul expressed interest.

If Paris was the capital of France’s legal book business, then Lyon was the capital of its seamier trade. Decades of living at the fringes of the law had transformed Lyon’s booksellers into a class of super-sharks. Though the stn had standard commercial terms, much was negotiable, and negotiating with Lyon’s booksellers was a supreme test. The slipperiest of these was the hard-bitten Joseph Duplain, the Encyclopédie speculator, who ran circles around everyone he came across. Favarger was asked to approach Duplain but was amply warned that dealings with him were to be done with extreme care. A 1777 edict allowing for the confiscation of illegal books (in which almost every bookseller dealt) made sales there even more difficult.

In towns like Avignon, distant from regional money centers, the scarcity of cash as a medium of exchange tested Favarger’s skills in le commerce d’échange, the practice of swapping books published by the stn for books of another press. Much of what we know about this and other aspects of the business comes from the stn’s correspondence with Favarger. In Toulouse, he noted the lack of prosperity among booksellers, despite the town’s good demographics, which he attributed to booksellers’ distrust of each other, and, more specifically, their habit of ratting each other out to the authorities. In Loudon, we meet the roguish and likeable Jean-François Malherbe, defaulter, bankrupt, and wheeler-dealer who provided the stn information on the best shipping routes, the best “insurers” in his region, ways to avoid confiscation, and toll road prices in the hope of getting price concessions on books for resale to his street peddlers. In La Rochelle, Favarger processed a soup-to-nuts order from one Pavie that included a sampling of Bibles, psalms, catechisms, and sermons, as well as La Putain errante (The Wandering Whore) and La Nouvelle Académie des dames (The New Academy of Ladies). And in Besançon, justice was tempered by mercy when, after the intendant condemned a bookseller’s shipment of livres philosophiques, the intendant allowed himself to be persuaded to have the executioner burn the bookseller’s sale-less Dissertation on the Founding of St. Claude Abbey instead. Though these and other incidents are lightly told, there is no escaping that life in the book trade, if not outright Hobbesian, was nevertheless hard and luck-dependent.

ALiterary Tour ends with Darnton returning to an issue he raised early on: do the stn’s records give an accurate picture of France’s pre-Revolutionary reading appetites, or do they represent too small a sample (of a larger mass of data which has largely disappeared) to be reliable? His careful, and complex, answer is that a quantitative analysis of the stn’s sales records along with a more qualitative analysis of correspondence and other records can lead to general inferences about the demand for books.

But should the general reader, in contrast to the historian, worry overmuch? Absent the discovery of new research material, Darnton’s droll reconstruction of this world with all its fascinating and colorful vignettes is likely to remain the best there is, and we are fortunate to have it. Why in particular? In yet another of his works, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, Darnton reminds us of the importance of reconstructing the past:

[The historian] undertakes it not from some strange urge to dig up archives and sift through old paper, but because he wants to talk with the dead. By putting questions to documents and listening for replies, he can sound dead souls and take the measure of the societies they inhabited. If we lost all contact with the worlds we have lost, we would be condemned to live in a two-dimensional, time-bound present, and our own world would turn flat.

1A Literary Tour de France: The World of Books on the Eve of the French Revolution, by Robert Darnton; Oxford University Press, 376 pages, $34.95.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 6, on page 23
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