- Nelson’s Victory: A Scottish Invasion of French Publishing, 1910–1914
In his unfinished autobiographical novel Le Premier Homme, Albert Camus remembers the municipal library of his Algerian childhood in the 1920s: “Every book had a special smell from the paper it was printed on, a subtle, secret smell in each case, but so singular that J. could have told a book from the Collection Nelson from the popular editions published by Fasquelle with his eyes shut.” 1 Camus could hardly have known that this special Nelson smell linked his cultural upbringing to distant Scotland. The Collection Nelson, which he thought of as a French product, was in fact manufactured in Edinburgh, at the Parkside Works of Thomas Nelson and Sons. How did books produced in Scotland find such a familiar place in French cultural life? This is one of the questions we shall seek to answer by exploring an extraordinary entrepreneurial venture.
The first four volumes of the Collection Nelson were launched in June 1910. With their famous cream and green design, these small but capacious clothbound books, illustrated in color, were sold at the surprisingly low price of 1.25 francs (equivalent to just under one British shilling at the time). Sales were excellent, and the collection grew rapidly, reaching a total of more than three hundred volumes by the 1920s, and more than four hundred by 1939. The list included standard French classics, from Pascal to Balzac, but many more recent titles and translations.
Our conversations with readers of Camus’s generation or later, both French and British, have often revealed nostalgic affection for these little books, whose durability has saved them from the fate of their paperbound French equivalents. French readers are often surprised to discover that the familiar series was not produced in France. Conversely, British readers assume that they were intended for a British market, in particular for pupils [End Page 166] learning French in school or college, rather than for a mass readership in France. We may think of France as a country that exports its culture, but the Collection Nelson was an unprecedented foreign invasion of the French book market: a remarkably successful one, both in terms of sales and in providing French families with an essential element of their home libraries.
The Nelson firm went on to create similar, if smaller, collections in Spanish, German, and Hungarian. It also diversified its French operation to include a variety of children’s collections, together with games, wall charts, and dictionaries. This study will be confined to the original Collection Nelson itself, with some mention of its companion series, the classical Collection Lutétia, and the complete works of Victor Hugo: these were issued simultaneously with the Collection, are similar in appearance, and were often assimilated to it in publicity and negotiations.
The history of the collection has been pieced together essentially from several important archival holdings in Edinburgh University Library. The basic source is the Nelson company archive, totaling more than eight hundred files. Most of this material consists of business correspondence bearing on publishing and book production. For the years when the collection was being launched, the key documents are letters between the Nelson brothers; George Brown, who was their partner and effectively managing director; John Buchan, the writer, who acted as their literary and legal adviser in the London office; Charles Sarolea, the first director of the Collection; and James Hutton, the manager of the “Paris house.” The Nelson archive proper is supplemented by the separately catalogued subseries containing many personal papers of John Buchan, by the complete papers of Sarolea, and by further Nelson records recently acquired by Napier University Library. 2
The Nelson family firm was already well established when these half-dozen men embarked on their new venture. 3 In 1910, the firm was controlled by the two Nelson brothers, Ian and Thomas Arthur (Tommy). The latter, who was more involved with the French Collection, was killed at the battle of Arras in 1917, after which Ian took over the firm. Their father, Thomas Nelson, had died in 1892, when the brothers were still boys, so their Canadian cousin and...