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Reviewed by:
  • Dictionnaire des femmes libraires en France (1470–1870)
  • Jim Chevallier
Dictionnaire des femmes libraires en France (1470–1870). By Roméo Arbour. Geneva, Switzerland: Librairie Droz, 2003. 750 pp. €83,23. ISBN 2-600-00827-6.

This is largely a book about widows not only before the French Revolution, when women were limited to taking over a deceased husband's business, but often after as well. The brief (nineteen pages) but useful introduction paints a poignant picture of aged women requesting licenses to open bookstores only because they had no other means of support. Before and after the Revolution, too, it seems that many women booksellers barely made a living.

Among other things, these facts tinge a rather dry and summary catalog of names and facts with a faint sense of loss. In the 495 (of 750) pages that make up the dictionary proper, it is rare to find one where the mention Vve (veuve, meaning "widow") does not appear after most names. More concretely, the data for [End Page 97] each entry frequently reflect this in several ways. In most cases, the entry is under a husband's name, with the maiden name following immediately after. Frequently, only the husband's name or even last name appears. In general, too, it is not clear when the business itself was established. When dates are given, they most often indicate only when a woman took over the business.

Arbour notes that other women were involved in the book business even before the Revolution, notably, the daughters and wives of printers, but that they are not included here. After the Revolution many more women started their own bookstores. For a long time this required a license, ensuring that selling books was indeed the holder's primary activity (at least in Paris—authorities in the provinces seem to have been less strict). But after about 1860 or so these bookstores were often combined with unrelated businesses, resulting in a fragmentation that made the label "bookseller" increasingly fluid. Finally, in August 1870 this requirement was abolished, and the book takes this as the end date for its data.

The data are derived from a number of sources: archives of booksellers' and printers' associations, ministerial records, notarial documents, inspectors' reports, printers' depositions, applications, authorizations and refusals for licenses, archives of the Bastille, and so on. The introduction outlines an ideal format for each entry: the woman's professional name (often her husband's), her maiden name, the business locality and address or addresses, the nature of the business, the date this woman assumed control, the date of marriage, the date of death of the original owner (usually a husband or another male relative), special functions ("King's Printer," etc.), professional associations, representative titles published, key career events, activity end date, and references. This, the author notes, is an ideal format, subject to the vagaries of research and to the constraints of the genre. Sources, the author notes, tend to be more substantial for the ancien régime than after, and some entries list no more than a name, a place, and a date of activity. Even when the available data allow this format to be followed completely, it is necessarily a sober one, leaving no place for anecdotes or any discussion of the relative importance of the business in one town or of other elements that might offer more color or context. Arbour cites a figure of 6,434 women, all of whom presumably are listed in the main directory as well as the appendixes and index. This single volume seems comprehensive—if necessarily incomplete—as a catalog. As the author himself says, "Developed from an often deficient documentation . . . this dictionary of woman booksellers is presented as a first effort that other researchers, undertaking further canvassing and research into the records of Parisian notaries, departmental archives, and municipal libraries, are invited to complete" (26, my translation).

Should anyone "complete" this work, however, it will necessarily be in several volumes. Within the confines of one, the current work provides a solid and useful reference to its subject. The one missing piece, for those whose interest is local or regional, is an index by place...


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pp. 97-98
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