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The Circulating Library Catriona Seth BEFORE SUCCUMBING TO THE VICOMTE DE VALMONT'S CHARMS, the Présidente de Tourvel removes two books from her shelf in order, one supposes, to read them. The first is a religious text, the Pensées chrétiennes. The second is Richardson's Clarissa, a work with which the vicomte is familiar and in which the prototype for many a seducer, Lovelace, abuses a hapless and virtuous woman. These books tell a tale in themselves. The Presidenten past and future life is all but contained in them. The books seem to characterize Mme de Tourvel and, indeed, her very existence , torn as she is between duty and love. Reading, fiction teaches us, is dangerous. It can lead one to give away too much about oneself or indeed to abandon one's usual behaviour. We all know the scene from Dante's Inferno in which a mediaeval romance about Sir Galahad , read by Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, leads them to kiss and, subsequently, to commit adultery. Noi leggevamo un giorno per diletto di Lancillotto, come amor Io strinse; soli eravamo e senza alcun sospetto. Per piu fiate gli occhi che sospinse quella lettura, e scolorocci il viso; ma solo un punto fu quel che si vinse. Quando leggemmo il disiato riso esser baciato da cotanto amante, questi, che mai da me non fia diviso, La bocea mi bació tutto tremante; Galeotto fu il libro, e chi Io scrisse; quel giorno più non vi leggemo avante.1 In the eighteenth century, one would hardly have found a mediaeval tale of chivalry to be particularly erotic, but the scene would have presented many a familiar aspect to the reader. Let us turn once again to the novel referred to initially, Les Liaisons dangereuses. In the 10th letter thereof, the most famous of all libertine heroines, Laclos' marquise de Merteuil, recounts how she prepares for a night of passion with a lover. Her servant Victoire is entrusted with the material details so she can turn her mind to pleasure: "je lis un chapitre du Sopha, une Lettre d'Héloïse et deux Contes de La Fontaine, pour recorder les différents tons que je voulais prendre." Héloïse's letters offer the epitome of Vol. XLIII, No. 4 73 L'Esprit Créateur passion. La Fontaine and Crébillon, the author of Le Sopha, show us the variety of the marquise's references. Both wrote what were considered to be models of libertine texts. While it could easily be overlooked by the casual reader, this allusion to reading is all but fortuitous. Indeed such scenes are frequent and often essential in libertine novels. A recent conference organised in Grenoble in September 2002 by JeanFran çois Perrin and Philip Stewart asked: "Existe-t-il un genre libertin?" The question begs other more specific ones such as "What is a libertine novel?" It seems hard, at times, to find any factors to unite the elements that make up such a diverse genre. Clandestine pamphlets which could be hidden and circulated literally sous le manteau, poorly printed on rough paper as though their message was too urgent to justify any care being taken to produce them, pornographic classics, whether illustrated or not, boxed like prayer books or morocco bound and tooled with erotic designs. Variety seems to characterize libertine novels as objects. Their external appearance is not sufficient to define them. The answer has to be in their contents. Books are an ideal object with which to confront the character. They allow him or her to decide between active and passive behaviour and, indeed, even an active character can be impelled by specific texts, that is to say the words of others. Quoting a specific libertine text can help the author to define a character. He or she will react to the book in a variety of ways, as a naive untutored first-time reader, as a pupil being taught by the text, as a libertine knowing what to expect— and indeed searching for it—or as a roué caught off-guard, unsuspecting. Reading can be solitary or a joint or group practice. Books condition reading characters and...