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Juliette Atkinson, French Novels and the Victorians

Oxford: Oxford University Press for The British Academy, 2017, 344 p. ISBN 978-0-19-965524-3
Richard Hibbitt
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Juliette Atkinson, French Novels and the Victorians. Oxford: Oxford University Press for The British Academy, 2017, 344 p. ISBN 978-0-19-965524-3

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1What do we understand by the term ‘French novel’? Beyond the denotation of novels written in French, the connotations of the term vary according to time, place and the motive of the speaker, be it aesthetic, commercial, moralising or political. Concerning the nineteenth century, the simplistic assumption is that Victorian Britain was prudish in comparison to post-revolutionary permissive France; as a result, ‘French novels’ became shorthand for questionable morals in regard to the overt representation of sexuality, especially with regard to adultery. This view is both epitomised and partially created by articles such as John Wilson Croker’s 1836 survey piece ‘French Novels’, which systematically lambasted the louche mœurs of Paul de Kock, Hugo, Dumas père, Balsac [sic], Michel Raymond, and George Sand (147). Juliette Atkinson’s informative and engaging account of the British reception of French novels in the nineteenth century successfully debunks any assumption that Croker’s view was representative of the majority of critics and readers; the reality was of course far more complex and contradictory, conditioned by vested interests on both sides of the Channel and contingent on factors including class, gender, politics, snobbery, hypocrisy, competition, protectionism and good old-fashioned fake news. Atkinson shows how much of the criticism of French literature was also applied to domestic literature—English novels—, unearthing numerous points of both convergence and competition. Her analysis of the field draws on an impressive range of public and private sources, encompassing articles, reviews, surveys, letters, library reading data, sales figures, book clubs, translations, and fictional representations of readers in the novels themselves. This extensive and meticulous research, fruits of a British Academy postdoctoral award, allows her to construct a nuanced picture of the multi-faceted reception of French novels and the different networks of dissemination, circulation and discussion, considering not only the question of morality—their content—but also the related question of form, insofar as British writers borrowed techniques from their French counterparts. If one sentence in the book acts as an abstract for the whole project, it might be this: ‘Hostile articles such as “French Novels” do not accurately reflect contemporary reading habits’ (13).

2Part I, ‘Disseminating French novels’, explores the way in which readers were able to obtain these works, either through shops or from the growing number of circulating libraries, which were often restricted to members of a club. London’s Holywell Street, parallel to the Strand, became a metonym for immoral books, predominantly French, with its reputation shifting gradually from sedition to pornography as the century progressed. Atkinson shows how different libraries provided access to different readers: the London Library was the brainchild of Thomas Carlyle, who was frustrated by the fact that books could not be borrowed from the British Museum; moreover, Carlyle was not a member of the Athenæum Club, whose aristocratic and upper-class male members benefited from a substantial library. In the London Library a rule that readers could borrow only one recent English novel at a time encouraged readers to take out French novels, thereby providing increased exposure. Paul de Kock, the Jilly Cooper of his day and the most popular French novelist of the mid-nineteenth century, was read either in French or in cheap translations by readers of both sexes from different social—and therefore educational—backgrounds. Circulating libraries in towns and cities including Ludlow, Liverpool and Reading offered popular titles by writers such as Eugène Sue and Alexandre Dumas père, as did the libraries of working-class establishments such as the Glasgow Mechanics’ Institution. The booksellers themselves were often reviewers who naturally took a keen interest in publicising their wares: reviewers could act as a ‘cordon sanitaire’ preventing contagious material from infecting their customers, unless it suited them otherwise. French critics such as Jules Janin and Désiré Nisard also wrote for journals such as The Athenæum and London Review, which allowed them to continue the debate between Classicism and Romanticism for a different readership. Such practices led to interesting cases of alleged duplicity: in 1843 Balzac complained about a critic (apparently Janin) who would happily praise you in a Paris journal then stab you in the back in a London one. Atkinson also provides some illuminating examples of censorship in translations, such as the omitted reference to a husband eagerly groping his wife’s knees in de Kock’s Physiologie de l’homme marié (1841). But the gatekeepers for British readers were not only worried about sex; an 1847 piece in the London Journal criticized various French writers of the ‘Romantic school’ for the ‘unmanly and ungodly idea of suicide being a justifiable act’ (74). Brazen liberties were often taken with the French source material: in 1835 Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine published a five-page story entitled ‘Père Goriot: A True Parisian Tale of the Year 1930’, omitting any reference to Balzac and presenting the condensed treatment of his novel as a ‘sketch’ of contemporary Parisian life. It was often cheaper to publish translations of French fiction, which didn’t entail paying an author; moreover, the appearance of Belgian pirate copies of French novels created a further supply and a further distance from source text and publisher.

3Part II, ‘The dangers of French novels’, begins with an analysis of the difficulty in defining immorality. Croker’s critique of French novels was rejected on both sides of the Channel by critics such as George Reynolds and Sainte-Beuve, but questions of art and morality were also being discussed in France (in the 1850s Camille, the stage version of Dumas filsLa Dame aux camélias, would be banned in both countries on moral grounds). Croker’s piece was itself more nuanced, praising the literary merit of Balzac while warning against the dangerous society described in La Peau de chagrin; the question of the relationship between mimesis and morality anticipates Zola’s defence of Naturalism three decades later. Atkinson provides a sensitive contextual reading of Croker’s article, positing it as an example of transnational debate rather than kneejerk insularity. She also draws on discussions of French literature in readers’ letters and diaries, revealing familiar double standards: many readers enjoyed the guilty pleasure of reading Paul de Kock, although they did not admit it in public. Queen Victoria’s own journal refers to her reading George Sand’s Consuelo in 1844, describing it as ‘very interesting & finely written, “mais tant soit peu scandaleux”’ (167). The use of French here hints at rehearsed propriety, as if any mention of French literature had to come with a health warning. From her correspondence with Mary Russell Mitford, Elizabeth Barrett Browning reveals a great admiration for the work of Sand and a desire to ‘define herself as an avant-garde reader in opposition to middlebrow England’ (170); here we see how French novels could represent both artistic and social liberation for readers and writers hidebound by Victorian society, especially women. But such ideas of equality were not always free from interesting intersectional prejudice: Barrett wrote to Mitford in 1842 that this new French literature should not be read much in England, except by ‘that small class of persons who can abstract the art of books from their moral expression’ (172). A taste for French literature was also attributed to a certain type of aristocratic young man—a wealthy idler—whose pleasures combined reading French novels with smoking and lying in bed, an activity that one might see as a variation on the Grand Tour. One chapter of Atkinson’s study is devoted to fictional readers of French literature in novels such as Thackeray’s Pendennis (1850), which enabled writers to consider these questions from different perspectives. The novelist Ouida, pseudonym of Maria Louise Ramé, bilingual daughter of an English mother and a French father, also wrote what might be seen as ‘French novels in English’, considering how exposure to French ideas was a kind of male bonding ritual for certain young men. Atkinson draws our attention to a whole raft of interesting Anglo-French hybrids, including Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Doctor’s Wife (1864), her ‘adaptation’ of Madame Bovary, and Emma Robinson’s Madeleine Graham (also 1864), where a young English woman is corrupted by her French teacher, aided and abetted by her reading of La Dame aux camélias.

4Part III, ‘National literary identities’, considers how some of these myriad examples relate to debates concerning so-called national characteristics. Atkinson shows how claims for a clear contrast between French and English novels belie the fact that many English novels were not only influenced by French ones—some were simply uncredited translations. Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens were among many British novelists explicitly or implicitly influenced by French literature in the 1860s, as reviews began to place novels side-by-side rather than in separate columns, sometimes under such appealing headings as ‘The Dregs of French and English Romance’. As with all hybridity, this gradual cross-pollination calls into question the distinction between foreign and domestic. That said, there were still some interesting differences, including what might be called ‘the adultery taboo’: one British critic pointed out the absurdity that ‘English morality only allows a novelist to kill his neighbour—not to meddle with his neighbour’s wife’ (248). The use of bigamy as a plot device to allow divided loyalties without introducing adultery led another critic in 1864 to wonder if ‘people, in the best regulated families, were in the habit of marrying two wives, or two husbands, as the case might be’ (249). On the other hand, English novels often allowed for more positive models for women, especially with regard to opportunities for education and choice of marriage. At this point in the analysis Atkinson refers to the painting on the book’s cover, Augustus Egg’s Past and Present, No. 1 from 1858, part of a triptych on the theme of the fallen woman. She offers an intriguing new reading of the family scene, which depicts a woman prostrate on the floor, while a pensive man and two little girls look on. A detail on a book spine in the painting shows that it is by Balzac, but Atkinson suggests that we might also read it as a veiled critique of Victorian marriage, rather than a critique of dissolute French novels. She also shows how the distinction between French and English novels was partly subverted by emerging debates about the aesthetic value of literature, which harked back to Sainte-Beuve’s disparaging reference to ‘la littérature industrielle’, irrespective of its source. One interesting part of this debate was that French novels were seen by many to have better plots; the reasons for this apparent national difference were hard to gauge, but seemed to combine tradition and recent history—revolutionary fervour—with vitality, even virility, suggesting that the relative freedom of content had an advantageous effect on the form. Hippolyte Taine’s 1863–64 study Histoire de la littérature anglaise, a landmark of serious comparative criticism, also contributed to the view that literature was socially and therefore nationally conditioned, based on a priori characteristics: ‘Autant les Anglais l’emportent comme moralistes et satiriques, autant les Français l’emportent comme artistes et romanciers’ (336). In the 1870s both Balzac and Hugo emerge as models for the novel as a serious art form; Hugo in particular is held in high esteem, viewed as the successful combination of artistry and popularity, but as Atkinson points out in her conclusion, both Dumas and the detective novel still kept selling well; there was never simply one conception of the French novel. The conclusion suggests that gradually the fear of immoral influences was seen as less problematic as the century progressed, although censorship in late-Victorian Britain was still influential, as shown by references to organisations such as the SSV (Society for the Suppression of Vice), or the NVA (National Vigilance Association), created in 1885, whose actions led to Henry Vizetelly being fined and imprisoned for translating and publishing Zola.

5This book is an impressive achievement, always sensitive to counter-arguments, exceptions and caveats. My one reservation concerns the title, which should really be ‘French Novels and the Victorians: 1830-1870’, despite the references to Zola and others in the conclusion. It would have been very interesting to read more about the reception of Zola, Huysmans, Gyp, Daudet, Maupassant, Bourget, Rachilde, Mirbeau and all of the other novelists working in the last three decades of Victoria’s reign, as well as about the nexus of Aestheticism-Decadence-Symbolism, or the influence of the Dreyfus Affair and the trial of Oscar Wilde, for example. But this is not so much a criticism as a plea for a sequel on the fin de siècle and beyond: what is the relationship between Mirbeau and John Galsworthy, for example? It would also have been interesting to consider this material in the light of Bourdieu’s views of the nineteenth-century literary field, especially since Atkinson’s empirical sociological approach has much in common with Bourdieu’s own methods; similarly, Moretti’s work on travelling plots in the novel would cast an interesting light on the British reception of French literature. I would also have liked to see ‘middlebrow’ in the index. But these are minor quibbles: it’s an excellent book and a good companion piece to Elisabeth Jay’s 2016 work British Writers and Paris 1830-1875. It is also distinguished by moments of wry humour: my favourite one comes on p. 189, when the juxtaposition of advertisements for racy novels with one for ‘French Letters, or Capotes Anglaises . . . These perfect checks to impregnation and disease’ is described as ‘[m]oving from theory to practice’. We may never know exactly what the past was like, but this type of historiography makes much clearer.

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Richard Hibbitt, « Juliette Atkinson, French Novels and the Victorians », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 88 Automne | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 11 décembre 2019. URL :

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Richard Hibbitt

University of Leeds

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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