From libertines to liberty

The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France
July 19, 1996

There was a moment in the 1960s when people really believed that sexual promiscuity and revolutionary fervour were inextricably entwined - free love would bring about the revolution. The shadowy presence of such belief can still be detected in the work of liberal cultural historians and commentators: an almost nostalgic hope that "the libertine is the last possible hero" (as the late Dennis Potter once wrote).

In this book, Robert Darnton presents a carefully sifted and analysed body of material to suggest that in the years leading up to the French Revolution there was indeed a link between the erotic and the subversive, undermining the repressive absolutism of the old regime.

By the middle of the 18th century the book trade in France was booming, and with it a brisk trade in forbidden books - a category which, in an age of surveillance and censorship, included most of the titles that continue to interest intellectual and social historians today.

The forbidden sector was enormous. In fact, it contained almost the entire Enlightenment and everything that Mornet later came to identify with the intellectual origins of the French Revolution. To French readers in the 18th century, illegal literature was virtually the same as modern literature.

This "forbidden sector" was known in the trade (rather charmingly) as "philosophical books". When a bookseller wrote asking his supplier for a list of the philosophical books he had in stock, the supplier responded with a selection of titles in pornography, political satire, and scandalous journalism - a selection whose cost reflected the risks he and his agents took in delivering orders to their purchasers. Around these titles a vigorous and lucrative clandestine business developed.

To investigate the ways in which these "philosophical books" circulated, how readers responded to them, and how they contributed to the forming of public opinion, Darnton continues to draw on the same source he has been working on fruitfully for more than 20 years: the papers of the Societe Typographique de Neuchtel, a major publisher and wholesaler located in the principality of Neuchtel on France's eastern border with Switzerland, a remarkable collection of documents, accidentally preserved intact from the ravages of time. Crucially, that unique archive provides a substantial body of evidence for the historian as to what a range of people were reading during the third quarter of the 18th century.

Darnton is able to demonstrate convincingly that pre-Revolutionary readers in France had a voracious appetite for forbidden books of all kinds, and - this is the important intellectual discovery - apparently regarded everything that came under the rubric "philosophy" in the booksellers' argot as equivalently daring and subversive. Thus smutty pre-Revolutionary pornography and serious pre-Revolutionary social satire provoked the same kind of response from their readers as did salacious and presumably largely fictitious gossip about the sexual antics of those at court. Since Darnton provides translations of long extracts from each of his three categories of "philosophical" books in an appendix, we can judge for ourselves the curious effect it might have had on a reader to imagine that salacious smut about Jesuit priests' fondness for arse-holes and innocent virgins and excoriating prose about the appalling conditions in which the poor struggled to survive, had some kind of seditious message in common. And if we add the "real" philosophers - Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire - also banished by the old regime to the "forbidden books" category, we are clearly in need of a radical reassessment of the current version of intellectual precursors to (and influences upon) the French Revolution.

The difficulty Darnton faces, scrupulous historian that he is, is in deciding whether all his work in the Neuchtel archives adds up to the discovery of a significantly new cause of the French Revolution. In other words, do books cause revolutions? At regular intervals in his book, Darnton suggests that scandal-mongering about the sexual mores of the monarchy had the potential for revolution - that in some sense "forbidden books" contributed to the storming of the Bastille. On each occasion he quickly retreats from such a suggestion. Nevertheless, the urge to make the history of the printed book part of intellectual radicalism in the third quarter of the 18th century persists. As Darnton understands, such a link is as difficult either to prove or disprove for the 18th century as it would be in any analysis of a comparable 20th-century example of seditious sexual slander. Are the tabloid press libellistes who peddle gossip about the Prince and Princess of Wales seditious radicals, trying to destroy the monarchy, or are they merely providing cheap, popular entertainment? And if they are simply pandering to popular taste, might that nevertheless ultimately foment revolution despite their intentions and herald in a British Republic? Faced with very similar questions with his material, Darnton is obliged scrupulously to equivocate: "By 'revolutionary', however, I do not mean that they anticipated or promoted anything like the French Revolution. I mean they attacked the legitimacy of the Bourbon monarchy at its very foundation."

Already in 1984, in The Great Cat Massacre, Darnton proposed that the forbidden books "delegitimised" the status quo, opening the way to radical change and revolution. In the end, though, now as then, he cannot bring himself to indulge in the kind of theoretical speculation that would entitle him to venture a causal explanation: "To attach priority to one element or the other would be to lose one's way in a chicken-and-egg hunt for an original cause."

The book is written with all Darnton's customary vigour and provides us with a gripping and colourful account of the varied and vibrant intellectual life that preceded the turbulent days of the 1790s. Because he is at once scholarly and compellingly readable, the urge to compare Darnton's work with that of Simon Schama on the same period of intellectual and social ferment in France is almost irresistible. In his bestselling book, Citizens, Schama (duly acknowledging Darnton's scholarly work in the field) suggested that Jean-Jacques Rousseau's hugely popular narratives concerning the moral education of the young helped shape the mental outlook of those who overthrew the old regime: "Rousseau's works dealing with personal virtue and the morality of social relations sharpened distaste for the status quo and defined a new allegiance. He created, in fact, a community of young believers. Their faith was in the possibility of a collective moral and political rebirth in which the innocence of childhood might be preserved into adulthood and through which virtue and freedom would be mutually sustained. What he invented was not a road map to revolution, but the idiom in which its discontents would be voiced and its goals articulated."

It is characteristic of Schama's bold style of historical analysis that he risks attributing to the book trade a seismic shift in emotional and intellectual outlook, which on his account was part of a package of cultural changes that made the French Revolution possible. It is equally characteristic of Darnton to hold off from making such explicit connections, even though the reader is bound to find that the thrust of his narrative leads in that direction.

Lisa Jardine is professor of English and dean of arts, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France

Author - Robert Darnton
ISBN - 0 00 255636 7
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £25.00
Pages - 440

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