- Livres vus, lives lus: une traversée du roman illustré des Lumières
Nathalie Ferrand's previous book, Livre et lecture dans les romans français du siècle (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2002), focused on the theme of books and reading in the eighteenth-century novel. In Livres vus, lives lus she looks at the same subject from a different perspective: that of book illustration. This anthology, containing over one hundred illustrations, sets out to fill a significant gap in our knowledge. If the scene of reading was a common and powerful trope for novelists, as Ferrand convincingly argued in Livre et lecture, then, somewhat surprisingly, she establishes early in the present study that similar representations in novel illustration were relatively rare compared with previous centuries. Of the six hundred volumes and two thousand three hundred illustrations that she perused for her preparatory research, only seven per cent of the illustrations contained some allusion to books or reading. Ferrand's suggested reasons for this paucity relate to the nature of visuality, as distinct from the written word, and also to the medium — prints. In visual terms, she argues, reading is a 'non-action', not well suited to the lively, small-scale format of book engravings; conversely, the novelist can devote pages to the reader's inner machinations. Moreover, she argues, the subtleties of facial expression are not as easily rendered through engraving as they are in the typically larger, looser medium of paint. But all is not as unpromising as it first seems. Ferrand organizes her anthology in five thematic sections. She is careful to point out the liberties taken by illustrators — inventing scenes that are not in the novel (as with the 1726 French translation of Robinson Crusoe), or implying future events through the inclusion of details (Marguerite Gérard's 1796 illustration of the présidente de Tourvel's seduction by Valmont). In a section devoted to [End Page 486] the Bible, Ferrand suggests that the holy book served to remind the protagonists of a prevailing moral code against which their actions might be measured. Yet the Bible also features in more desacralized ways: in d'Argens's pornographic novel Thérèse philosophe (1785) the Bible, perched on a prie-dieu, literally serves as a site for sexual activity. Eighteenth-century book illustrators tended to use books as accessories and not as vaunted objects that idealize reading. This is especially apparent in the section devoted to bookshelves and libraries, where books are found to indicate status, wealth, and erudition. In a 1795 edition of Lesage's Gil Blas the protagonist's social ascent is documented through his acquaintances' interiors as he moves from modest bookshelves to the gilded libraries of ministers. An anthology such as this also throws up visual curiosities, such as an imaginary library down a Swedish mine from a 1784 edition of Prévost (not alluded to in the text). Ferrand's thematic approach enables her to give equal weight to well-known and anonymous illustrators. She is wisely cautious to avoid being too schematic, for overall one gains a sense of the plethora of meanings held by books and reading in book illustration of the period. This well-conceived anthology serves to widen access to many illustrated novels of the period, and hopefully it will stimulate further investigation in what remains an under-researched area.