Some Remarks on the Reading Culture of the
Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries
(Including a Supplementary Bibliography of English Translations (with Swedish Equivalents) of August Lafontaines Fiction, Compiled by M. Björkman, P. D. Garside, and A. A. Mandal)
There are books we look upon with great respect and others we simply consider like any other commodity. Until now this dichotomy has been both fundamental and characteristic of the way the booktrade and the literary system has worked. This paper will examine the turn of the eighteenth century, when this dichotomy came about and will deal with three different components: novels, circulating libraries, and readers. My aim is to draw attention to some of the underlying factors that conditioned that split between high and low which came about at this time and also to pinpoint some of the actors that were involved in this process. Novels will be represented by the works of the German author August Lafontaine, the libraries I shall refer to are the eighteenth-century circulating libraries in Stockholm, and the readers are the early Swedish Romanticists and two women readers with no particular literary connections. The attitudes, judgments and opinions of the Romanticists served as a ferment for the development of a split of the earlier unrestricted literary field into two: one high or élitist where the dominant position was won by means of a symbolic capital and the other low or popular where the economic capital decided who was to dominate. I shall proceed by presenting each of these three entities in order to clarify to what extent they were important to the establishment of the new popular or large field. For alongside the canonization of a national literature and the establishment of a restricted literary field, where authors with a fully aesthetic approach to their work were engaged, another literary field, more commercialized because more dependent upon the judgment of the readers, came into being. Here quantity was decisive, because quantity equalled economic success.
August Heinrich Julius Lafontaine’s literary production largely exceeds what one would have thought was possible for one man. Dirk Sangmeister, Lafontaine’s bibliographer and biographer, counts sixty-three different titles, which is all the more overwhelming considering the number of volumes and pages: 50,815 pages in 146 volumes! Lafontaine’s energy seems unequalled: only in 1810 five novels in ten volumes were published. If one also takes into account the number of pirated editions that flooded the bookmarket it becomes obvious that the sheer quantity of Lafontaine volumes on the market had a considerable effect on the growth of the reading public. The ordinary edition has been estimated at 1,500 copies.
Today readers and even literary scholars scarcely know of any other Lafontaine than the French fabulist of the grand siècle. This is by no means surprising. It is not my task to argue for a(n aesthetic) revaluation of an author who was extremely time-bound. However, in order to understand the implications of that early media revolution which brought about the split between high and low at the turn of the eighteenth century the vicissitudes of Lafontaine’s reputation are fundamental. They give us vital insights into the shaping of not only two literary fields but also of a reading culture which today has vanished. Lafontaine cannot be classified as a typical writer of his timehe was acting on too large a scale for thatnor is he totally exceptional. He had colleagues in the same trade, many of them successfully living by their pen. Lafontaine is precious to the literary historian, however, because he gives her the opportunity to study, as through a magnificent magnifying-glass, the effects of his writing on the booktrade, on readers and on the literary field. Therefore, I shall start by briefly discussing this pivotal author.
Lafontaine was born in 1758 in Brunswick, near Hannover. In 1789, his first fictional work was published and from 1800 onwards he lived by his pen. Lafontaine had been to university, he had studied theology, and like so many poor students of the time he had ended up as a private tutor. Colonel Thadden, his employer, was happy to have found not only a teacher for his children but also an agreeable, intelligent conversation partner. During the military campaign against revolutionary France, Lafontaine accompanied Thadden; he was engaged as an army chaplain and stayed out with his regiment from 1792 to 1796. In the field he preached to and raised the morale of the soldiers. The war ended and Lafontaine returned home to Halle where his sermons drew crowds of churchgoers. But he reached still larger crowds with his fictional writing. He wrote a seemingly endless row of sentimental novels, historical novels and novels in contemporary setting. Among the early admirers of his literary work were the Prussian king and queen, Johann Gottfried Herder, and Christoph Martin Wieland. From the beginning of Lafontaine’s career there was a large consensus about the value of his work.
Lafontaine’s novels hardly reflect the society of the time, not even when he treated current themes. What he created was a sort of petty bourgeois utopia: in contemporary or in historical settings he pictured a patriarchal society free from conflicts, with a static hierarchy. Virtues like fidelity, obedience and contentment are praised. Love is the core of this utopia and has the redeeming capacity to heal the breaches that sometime come up, if only for the sake of creating an intrigue. Lafontaine was contemporary with the German Spät-Aufklärung and his ethos emanates from an exclusive combination of sentimentality and rationality. Among the novels once so much in demand across the whole of Europe, the most popular ones are worthy of closer consideration. Klara du Plessis und Klairant. Eine Familiengeschichte französischer Emigrierten (Berlin, 1795) is an example of how Lafontaine caught up with the current political development by treating the theme of French aristocrats forced to exile. Leben und Thaten des Freiherrn Quinctius Heymeran von Flaming (Berlin, 1795–6) shows how Lafontaine was able to exploit the new wave of Ritterromane, and at the same time could refer to and profit from the already firmly established popularity of Siegfried von Lindenberg (1779) by Johann Gottwerth Müller, the so-called ‘Itzehoe-Müller ’, as he critically dealt with the controversial ideas about physiognomy. Leben eines armen Landpredigers (1800–1) is another example of how Lafontaine managed to recycle current literary themes and plots. The allusion to Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield is obvious already from the title. This way of profiting from earlier success stories was one important aspect of Lafontaine’s own success. He never aspired to create originally conceived works and did not wait for an inspirational impetus: he was an extraordinarily hard-working man who made his living out of writing. Furthermore, he made clever use of what was to be one of the fundamental characteristics of the popular literary field: the principle of repetition.
Lafontaine would not have had such a massive impact on so many European reading publics had it not been for the translations. The bibliography of Dirk Sangmeister accounts for translations into no less than fourteen different languages. It is evident that Lafontaine primarily appealed to the North European countries, those where literacy, thanks to the Protestant church, was most deeply implanted. The first translation was Danish and was published in 1794. Next came translations into Swedish and French in 1796, and in 1797 the first English translation was published: Clara Duplessis, and Clairant: The History of a Family of French Emigrants in three volumes was published by Longmans in London. That William Lane’s Minerva Press became the principal publisher of Lafontaine’s novels in English is hardly surprising. Of the twenty-three translations into English published between 1797 and 1813, eight came from Minerva: the character of the Lafontaine novels suited the Minerva Press excellently, and one could easily have expected an even more dominant Minerva participation.
Certainly, twenty-three Lafontaine translations during a period of seventeen years was an important German contribution, but in relation to the total of British domestic production it was not overwhelming. The British market never experienced the same kind of invasion of Lafontaine novels as did, for example, the Danish and Swedish bookmarkets. From 1794 to 1833 there were altogether sixty-seven different works published in Danish. It is obvious that the percentage of the whole production that was made up by works originating from the prolific author was far larger in such a small country as Denmark than in England or France.
Even more eager consumers of Lafontaines fiction than the Danes, however, were the Swedes. In fact, more Lafontaine titles (sixty-nine) were translated into Swedish than into any other of thirteen languages. Swedish was only surpassed by French, but some of the French translations were actually published in Germany. In Sweden the first translation came in 1796, and even though the most intensive publishing period was right at the turn of the century (1799 nine titles, 1800 fifteen titles) there were only four years between 1796 and 1823 that were totally ‘free’ from Lafontaine publications (1797, 1811, 1812, 1814). The last publication in Sweden by this favourite author came in 1827; by then the reading public had discovered a new favourite: Sir Walter Scott. I shall not expand on the reasons that conditioned this extraordinary interest in the German author, but wish to point to the lack of contemporary Swedish domestic prose fiction. From the readers there was a growing demand for entertaining literature, which Lafontaineand also his German colleaguesresponded to: they filled the void of the domestic production. Swedish readers, eager to gain access to the world of fiction, had the choice between novels translated into Swedish or foreign novels in their original language. Lafontaine’s novels, like many of the other German novels, were also read in French translations. This state of affairs made the presence of Lafontaine and his German colleagues on the Swedish bookmarket even more noticeable.
The high number of translations into so many different European languages support the former widely accepted but today sometimes contested idea of a reading revolution that started during the last decades of the eighteenth century. The apparently unending number of translations meant that readers of different social backgrounds, nationalities, and mother tongues took part of the same reading materials at the same time. In fact, these readers, although they were hardly aware of it themselves, formed an early European community. Other questions that to mind when confronted with the figures of translation are: Why did Lafontaine never fully convince the English readers of his entertaining qualities? How does it come that the French, though in most respects belonging to that other Catholic part of Europe, were so quick to translate Lafontaine fiction thus giving their readers access to a Lafontaine universe?
But the ‘phenomenon’ of Lafontaine must also be related to the important growth of the contemporary bookmarket. Lafontaine himself supplied this market with his works. At the same time, however, there was a parallel growth of distributorsmore books were distributed by more booksellersand of readers, who were from then on also recruited from new social groups. The community of readers extended into lower-middle social ranks. This led to a breakthrough for light reading: it was the one of the first manifestations of that leisure civilization, which later became so typical of the societies of the western hemisphere.
The booksellers alone, however, did not swallow the large production: the great quantities of books called for new and efficient systems of distribution. A new institution for distribution of books was established in all those countries where reading had becomeif not a necessity of lifeat least a highly favoured pastime. The circulating libraries very soon turned into establishments with a suitable capacity for delivering books to readers demanding new entertainment. Circulating libraries meant a new concept for the distribution of books. These were commercial enterprises which aimed at making a profit by lending books for a fee and they were open to the public. In fact, the study of circulating librariesthe institution in itself and their stocksoffers unequalled opportunities to understand the vanished reading culture of the turn of the eighteenth century. These libraries occupy a key position within the literary system of the time. Before public libraries, they offered access to books to that expanding group of readers of fiction. Being commercial, the libraries had to supply the books their borrowers asked for, at least in the long run.
The first Swedish circulating library was founded in 1757. The extant catalogues reveal a library which offered a wide variety of genres. There were learned books, religious books, manuals and novels; this early library can be called encyclopaedic. This was still the case with the library that was set up by the academic bookseller Magnus Swederus in 1784. Unfortunately extant loan registers are almost non-existent, so that it is hard to tell with absolute certainty what was actually loaned out. However, in my doctoral thesis, Läsarnas nöje. Kommersiella lånbibliotek i Stockholm 1783–1809 (1992; ‘The Joy of Reading’), I have made as much as possible out of the extant catalogues from the Stockholm libraries of the late eighteenth century. By examining the catalogues, it has been possible to discern the changing character of these libraries. Proprietors of the circulating libraries soon abandoned an original ambition to supply all sorts of books and specialized in light literature: novels, travel literature, memoirs and biographies. In the library owned and run by Friedrich August Cleve, also a teacher and cantor at the German grammar school in Stockholm, entertaining literature prevailed by 1790. One of the earliest mentions of Lafontaine’s name in Sweden can be traced to Cleve’s library: in a catalogue from 1793 there is an entry for a German magazine, Zeitschrift für Gattinnen, Mütter und Thöchter, which was edited by the famous Dr Bahrdt (1740–92). There it was announced, in German, that Lafontaine was to take over the magazine. Judging from the wording, it is obvious that the name of Lafontaine was supposed to have an even greater appeal than that of Dr Bahrdt. Soon, however, Lafontaine’s prose narratives were for hire in Mr Cleve’s library, first in German editions and French translations. A decade later the existence of Swedish translations made Lafontaine’s name even more predominant in the catalogues of the circulating libraries. Carl Conrad Behn’s library offered no less than 148 volumes of Lafontaine’s publications in his Swedish catalogue dating from the first years of the nineteenth century. All of the titles were available in at least duplicate copies, some of them had been quintupleda sure indicator of popularity among the borrowers.
August Lafontaine might thus have been the first modern fiction author. His activity as an extremely prolific author had repercussions on the book trade and on the reception by readers. It would be false to claim a linear cause-effect process with the author/producer as a starting point: I would rather stress the closely interrelated connections, going both back and forth, between these instances. It is now worth turning to the readers themselves. Memoirs from this period often give evidence of reading of novels and if authors are named at all one can be almost certain of coming across the name of Lafontaine. I mentioned above that when Lafontaine’s first narratives appeared they were received favourably by a practically unanimous reading public. Among those who eagerly read his novels were the Swedish Romanticists, and they devoured them while young. As they belonged to a generation born during the last decades of the eighteenth century these novels belonged to their youth: the books had at one time roused their literary appetites. Their memoirs and letters bear witness of enthusiastic and excited reading of such authors as Lafontaine, Kotzebue, and Spiess; but the constitution of a new Romantic concept of an autonomous literature also meant that they dissociated themselves from those novels. According to their ideals literature sprang from the original creation by individuals to whom literature was a manifestation of art.
These young men met at the University of Uppsala to pursue their studies when Swedish literature was at an interregnum. Most of the Gustavian poets had died. Those who still survived were particularly odious to the young because of their conservatism in literary matters. Theirs had been a period of strict classicism: genres, metres and formalities set strict limits to literary creation. The new generation reacted violently against all sorts of outer restraint and planned for what was to become known as a Romantic upheaval. When one of the young members of their group bought the Academic printer’s shop, they were in possession of the most strategic of all arms, when it comes to making literature. They henceforward became independent of the arbitrariness of outside publishers, and the idealistic aim to raise literature from the sphere of daily humdrum was pursued by every means available, which meant that all sorts of trivial schemes had to be considered.
In 1818 one of the Romanticists, Lorenzo Hammarsköld (1785–1827), wrote a history of Swedish literature, in which he gave his view on the influence of Lafontaine on the Swedish reading public. According to Hammarsköld the following vital change had taken place: Kant had first inspired young Swedish students to study German, with the Swedish translator of Kotzebue novels, Gabriel Eurén, paving the way for Lafontaine. In the books of the German novelists the readers had imbibed the demagogic ideals proclaimed by the French Jacobins, where all of high rank were vicious and ‘virtuous thinking and acting could be sought only within those circles to which corporals and foresters belong’. The leap from Kant to Kotzebue and Lafontaine may seem vertiginous, but in fact the way Hammarsköld connected philosophy and entertaining reading indicates that in that past he referred to there had been only one field where philosophers and novelists competed for a dominant position. However, when Hammarsköld wrote his history, the Romanticists were already victorious; they had their own press and they took advantage of the situation and wrote the history of Swedish literature. Now they were merciless when they looked back on the reading they had cherished during their first youth. The Swedish Romanticists followed their German brothers in condemning the novels of their youth. The general attack on Lafontaine, launched by August Schlegel in the Athenäum of 1798, was published in Swedish translation in one of the Romantic periodicals in 1811.
One outcome of the victorious Romantic concept of literature was thus the splitting of the literary field into two: one high, élitist sphere where the national canon was singled out, where literature and literariness were discussed by members who never really bothered to make their arguments known beyond their own circles. Their field became a restricted one. What had been discarded from the élitist field then made up another field: low, popular for large scale production, where non-professional readers decided the hierarchy, and their preferences were quite obviousnovels. But as there were not yet any Swedish novelists around, they read translations and often originals in German and French.
What happened during the first decades of the nineteenth century was not exclusively the effect of the questioning by the Romanticists. It is a well-known fact that the status of the novel has been the subject of many a heated debate during the whole of the eighteenth century. But the imperative claims raised by the Romanticists for aesthetical originality gave a new turn to the discussion; novels and other genres of light literature were, as mentioned above, guided by a principle of repetition. And the majority of those who were eager readers of light literature preferred recognition to surprise; they were mainly indifferent to new subject-matters, new techniques, and they were also mostly indifferent to the aesthetics of their reading.
Märta Helena Reenstierna (1753–1841) kept a diary between 1793 and 1839 where she annotated her reading. She lived with her husband, a captain twenty years older than her, in a manor house just outside Stockholm. She gave birth to seven children of whom only one survived to adult age. The family belonged to the Swedish nobility, lived on the revenues of the agriculture and led a simple and rustic life on their estate, where they continually received friends and relatives on visit from Stockholm. Mrs Reenstierna was forty years old when she started to write down her daily annotations. Her living conditions allowed her to organize her time which meant that she was free to read when she wanted to do so. Her sex and her social belonging made her a typical representative of these non-professional readers, who realized that reading could be for pleasure. In 1798 she read her first Lafontaine novel, the newly published Skämta icke med kärleken (‘Don’t Play with Love’). She noted: ‘[a]n amusing novel’ (9 Sep 1798). (Her annotations are always very matter of fact.) She read Famillen von Halden, which she had borrowed from a bookseller. Her enthusiasm was great enough to infuse her diary: she wrote that she had read ‘in the splendidly beautiful piece Famillen von Halden, which, in the highest possible degree was written according to my liking’ (29 Jan 1801). From then on, her reading of Lafontaine reached its highest peak during the first years of the nineteenth century: in 1801 she read six different novels by Lafontaine, in 1802 four, in 1803 only one. Although she had fairly solid knowledge of French and German, she preferred to read these novels in their Swedish translations. The frequency of her reading of Lafontaine’s novels accurately reflects the publishing speed. It is obvious that she wanted to read what was new and also that she managed to keep pace with the publishers. It is also evident that Mrs Reenstierna made reading a source for recreation. Reading could thus be used as a pretext for withdrawing for a while from the tiresome chores of the household work. It is interesting to see that Mrs Reenstierna did not read any of the canonized literatureneither from the early Gustavian period nor from Romanticism. Although she had been sent to school, learnt languages, and as a young girl of the upper circles of society had been received as a member of exclusive fellowships, she never seemed to aspire to be a ‘literary’ person. She made reading her favourite pastime and chose her books from the popular range of the lending shelves of her bookseller. There was another genre, however, apart from the light literature, which she kept reading all her life. That was, of course, religious literature: she studied catechisms and devotional manuals with increasingly intensive attention towards the end of her life.
There are interesting observations about intensive and extensive reading that can be made from Mrs Reenstierna’s diary. When she started Famillen von Halden she did not have all the volumes at hand. While waiting for the last volumes to arrive, she began rereading the first two parts before she got hold of the continuation thus practising intensive and extensive reading at the same time (5 Feb 1801).
In Denmark a young Anna Christine Drewsen (b. 1776), married at the age of fifteen to a man of forty-seven, wrote down what books she read between 1796–1802. She was then in her early twenties. Her rate of reading exceeds that of Mrs Reenstierna but follows the same order of progress. Mrs Drewsen also favoured the same genres of light literature, and like Mrs Reenstierna she was a devoted fan of Lafontaine. Of all the books she read between 1796 and 1801, twenty-one were works by Lafontaine. There was practically no canonized literature among her reading: although some Schiller plays were read, and in 1801 it is possible to trace a tentative interest in Danish Romanticism with representatives like Oehlenschläger and Rahbek. No religious books were noted, presumably because Mrs Drewsen noted books she had read, not books she had read into.
These are but two examples of female reading; however the results of other studies, such as for instance Erich Schön’s Der Verlust der Sinnlichkeit oder Die Verwandlungen des Lesers. Mentalitätswandel um 1800 (Stuttgart, 1987), support the view of female readers as addicted to reading for pleasure. As such they inhabited the large popular field and very seldom dared to venture into that other high sphere of literature.
My sketches of Lafontaine, circulating libraries and readers around 1800 can only give hints of how three domains, essential for the establishment of the reading culture, converged. Novels (and related genres) were at the centre, the circulating libraries became efficient distributors of light literature, and the greatest consumers of these genres were the non-professional readers: namely, young people and women.
FIG 1. ENGLISH & SWEDISH TRANSLATIONS OF LAFONTAINES FICTION, 1796-1827
In the case of Swedish translations, some of the publication dates for titles span two or more imprint years: for the purposes of this chart, they are included in the yearly total for the earliest date of publication for the first volumes. These spreads occur in the following spans (no. of such titles given in parentheses): 17991800 (3) = 1799; 18001 (3), 18007 (1), 18008 (1) = 1800; 18012 (2) = 1801; 18023 (1) = 1802; 18034 (1) = 1803; 18056 (2) = 1805; 181516 (1) = 1815; 181617 (2) = 1816; 181718 (1), 181719 (1) = 1817; 181821 (1) = 1818; 18202 (1) = 1820. For English translations, data has been collected from the forthcoming Bibliography of Fiction Published in the British Isles, 17701830, general editors Peter Garside, James Raven, and Rainer Schöwerling (Oxford, forthcoming; 2 vols.). The source for Swedish translations is Dirk Sangmeister, Bibliographie August Lafontaine (Bielefeld, 1996; Bielefelder Schriften zu Lingustik und Literaturwissenschaft 7).
BIBLIOGRAPHY OF ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS, WITH SWEDISH EQUIVALENTS
Below is a chronological listing of English translations of the fiction published by August Lafontaine, to which are appended any details of Swedish translations when possible. Entries are prefixed with ‘E:’ for information about English translations, and with ‘S:’ for Swedish versions (whenever located). Details include full title, year of publication, publisher, and for English translations details in brackets of holdings listed in the Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Short Title Catalogues [ESTC/NSTC]. The presence of copies in the Corvey Microfiche Edition (CME) is also indicated when possible. The letters BI before a list of holding libraries denotes that they are to be found in Britain and Ireland, and similarly the letters NA denote libraries in North America. For the purpose of consistency the abbreviations for holding libraries are the same as those used in the ESTC, even when the source of the holding is the NSTC. Also note that only principal holding libraries listed in the ESTC and NSTC are given belowfor a comprehensive listing of other depositories, please consult the catalogues as appropriate. Where the edition which provides the entry does not appear in the ESTC or NSTC, this will be denoted by a preceding ‘x’ (e.g. xESTC).
As far as Swedish translations of Lafontaine’s work are concerned, the degree of interest in particular titles by Lafontaine was virtually identical to that in Britain. The works listed below can be taken as the ‘bestsellers’ of the Lafontaine canon, although the enthusiasm of the Swedish market was more intense and more translations were made than in the British Isles. The source for details of Swedish translations is the SB17 (Svensk bibliografi 1700-1829), which serves as the national bibliography of Sweden for 1700–1829.
Information about the source text appears at the end of each entry, preceded by an asterisk.
This article is copyright © 1999 Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research, and is the result of the independent labour of the scholar or scholars credited with authorship. The material contained in this document may be freely distributed, as long as the origin of information used has been properly credited in the appropriate manner (e.g. through bibliographic citation, etc.).
REFERRING TO THIS
M. BJÖRKMAN. ‘High and Low: Some Remarks on the Reading Culture of the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries’, Cardiff Corvey: Reading the Romantic Text 3 (September 1999). Online: Internet (date accessed): <http://www.cf.ac.uk/encap/corvey/articles/cc03_n01.html>.
This article is a revised version of a paper originally presented at the ‘Scenes of Writing, 1750–1850’ conference, held 20–23 July 1998, in Gregynog Hall, Wales.
Margareta Björkman (PhD, Uppsala, Sweden, docent Uppsala) is a Researcher in the Department of Literature at Uppsala University. A dix-huitémiste, her research focuses on the material aspects of the eighteenth century Swedish publishing world: Lasarnas nöje. Kommersiella lånbibliotek i Stockholm 17831809 [The Joy of Reading] (Uppsala, 1992) examines the circulating libraries of Stockholm during the late eighteenth century.
Other published works include a study of two translations of novels by Restif de la Bretonne, in which their development is analysed from original publication to later diffusion amongst Swedish readers, as well as articles on Swedish translations of novels published during the latter part of the eighteenth century. Her latest book is a reader in book history, Böcker och bibliotek (Lund, 1998), which includes her survey of Swedish research in this field. She is currently working on a monograph on Catharina Ahlgren, best called a learned woman of the eighteenth century, who published a womens magazine, translated a number of novels, and led a turbulent life always threatened with complete destitution.
Last modified 31 December, 2001 .