Electronic Enlightenment colloquium on the sociology of the letter

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre tales control: some aspects of self-publishing in 1783–1784 — Noëlle McCavana, Queen's University, Belfast


Note on primary source references

The Letters quoted from or referred to have been prepared for electronic publication by Malcolm Cook et al as part of the The Bernardin de Saint-Pierre Project.

At the end of 1783 Bernardin de Saint-Pierre was ready to publish his major work Études de la nature, the culmination of ten years’ effort, and the exposition of his theories about the world as an interconnected system designed by a benevolent supreme being. The process by which he brought the Études to publication is detailed in his correspondence, especially in his letters to his friend Pierre-Michel Hennin.

Saint-Pierre's correspondence - around 2,500 letters, is housed in the Bibliotheque municipale in Le Havre, his birthplace, and fortunately his correspondence with Hennin survives in the Institut de France. The letters are being published online as part of the Electronic Enlightenment project.

Hennin and Saint-Pierre had first met in Poland in 1760, when both were young men trying to forge successful careers, Hennin in diplomacy and Saint-Pierre, frankly, as an adventurer. When Hennin's posting took him away from Poland, Saint-Pierre looked after the winding-up of his affairs there. The relationship which they formed at that time was strong enough to last for decades. Hennin was, at the height of his career, one of two premier commis in the French government's department of foreign affairs, and consequently one of the two most important men after the Minister. At the time of the exchanges under consideration in this paper, Hennin was in Versailles, working long hours, and Saint-Pierre was in Paris, too poor to afford the hire of a horse or vehicle to Versailles, and too proud to accept lifts with no means of repaying the favour.

I would like to give a brief account of Saint-Pierre's progress up to 1783, and then to highlight some aspects of the process by which he brought the Études to publication in 1784. I would also like to venture one or two remarks on the relevance of this part of his correspondence to the sociology of the letter.

The correspondence for the year 1783 is rich and frequent, particularly with Hennin, and its account of the pitfalls faced by an author in charge of his own publication is detailed and informative. Space only permits brief consideration of a few aspects of the process, so I will highlight firstly Saint-Pierre's surprisingly positive experience of censorship in this case, and then the issues of provision of free copies, and of publicity for the published work.

Saint-Pierre's first publication in 1773, his Voyage a l' Île de France, was an account of his journeys to and from, and of his time as a government engineer on Mauritius, then in French hands and known as the the Île de France. He published it anonymously and, although not a significant success, it was not a complete failure. A copy found its way into the hands of Oliver Goldsmith, who was said to admire it greatly.1

To Saint-Pierre, however, becoming a published author was a great disappointment. He had sold his manuscript outright- most likely on the advice of d'Alembert - to the printer Merlin. Voltaire had had great hopes of Merlin as 'Printer to the Enlightenment' but their relationship soured when Voltaire accused him of pirating his play Les lois de Minos. Voltaire later referred to him as 'un pauvre diable nomme Merlin, libraire qui ne sait pas lire'.....2

Saint-Pierre's relationship with Merlin was also stormy, ending in a court case which Saint-Pierre won, but the whole episode left a nasty taste. Particularly galling was the fact that very little money came his way as a result of his efforts. Money was always a problem to Saint-Pierre, who had no independent means.

Thus when it came to the publication of what he considered his life's work, his Études de la nature, Saint-Pierre was determined not to make the same mistakes again.

An important question to be considered at the very beginning of the project was censorship. Saint-Pierre always sought the official privilège for his work, and had no involvement with clandestine publication sous le manteau.

The system of censorship under Louis XV has been the subject of much criticism, and indeed it was intrusive and sometimes arbitrary, but there were some positive aspects, particularly for an author like Saint-Pierre, who had not much experience of the publishing world. Experienced censors knew what would be deemed appropriate, and were expert in the ways of the book trade.

In a foreward written by Saint-Pierre for his luxury 1806 edition of Paul et Virginie, dedicated to Jerôme Bonaparte, a foreward verging in its sycophancy on the nauseating, and obviously distorted to discredit the ancien regime, Saint-Pierre berated his censors, but as we shall see, the contemporary correspondence tells a different story.3

Two censors were normally required. One was if possible an expert in the field of the work under scrutiny, and the other was the theological censor, whose duty it was to ensure that nothing heretical or irreligious received royal approval.

For Saint-Pierre the beginning was auspicious, as he was allowed to choose his own censor.

J’ai eu le bonheur de trouver dans M. de Villedeuil, nommé à la place de M. de Néville, l’homme du monde le plus honnête, il m’a donné un censeur à mon choix, et j’ai choisi M. Sage.4

Saint-Pierre chose a scientist of high standing. Balthazar-Georges Sage was a member of the Académie des sciences, professor of mineralogy at the hôtel des Monnaies and founder of the École des mines, but when Saint-Pierre visited his laboratory to submit the first part of his manuscript, he was not impressed by Sage’s experiments, and wondered if he was the right man to appreciate a work which advocated such a different scientific approach.

j’ai vu son magnifique laboratoire, et à la vue de cette multitude de petites fioles, j’ai douté en moi-même qu’un savant qui décompose ainsi la nature, fût bien favorable à un ouvrage qui blâme les procédés partiels, et qui veut qu’on l’étudie, non pas dans les causes et en détail, mais dans l’ensemble et dans les résultats.

— Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre to Pierre Michel Hennin (Sunday, 25 January 1784)
(EE letter id: sainjaVF0020557a1c)

He realised that his views were completely opposed to those of Sage. Saint-Pierre took an all-encompassing view, and regarded detailed experiments as useless tinkering. ‘Chacune de nos sciences n’est qu’un cul-de-sac, qui mène au matérialisme’. He goes on in the same letter to express doubts as to the ability of a specialist to understand his work.

Il me semble donc que d’être examiné sur un ouvrage sur la nature par un chimiste, un botaniste, un astronome, ou un géomètre, c’est comme si, ayant écrit sur la politique, on donnait mon Mémoire à examiner à un marchand, à un laboureur ou à un marin.

The reader wonders where Saint-Pierre would have found a censor he considered equal to the task of appreciating his work. Optimism, however, prevailed.’Cependant j’augure bien de sa réputation et de son nom’.

Hennin, too, was hopeful about his friend’s future. He had agreed to be one of Saint-Pierre's financial backers. He was, however, not sanguine about Saint-Pierre’s business acumen.

S’il etoit possible que votre livre vous ouvrît une nouvelle carrière vous aurez encore le tems de jouir d’une meilleure fortune. Je suis persuadé de l’effet qu’il doit produire si votre Docteur de Sorbonne ne l’estropie pas, mais il ne s’agit pas seulement de la gloire, c’est le moment de songer a l’utile et je ne vous crois pas fort habile en matiere d’interet.

— Pierre Michel Hennin to Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (Monday, 22 March 1784)
(EE letter id: sainjaVF0020572a1c)

Saint-Pierre was hypersensitive to any criticism, even from Hennin, and he could be relied upon not to forget the comment. Hennin suggested to Saint-Pierre in the same letter that he take advice from M. Sage: 'Consultez quelques gens de lettres, M Sage lui même sur la meilleure maniere de tirer parti de votre ouvrage'.

Saint-Pierre estimated that his work would be in four volumes, and he took Hennin’s advice and questioned one of his censors.

mon ouvrage doit faire quatre volumes à ce qu’on m’a dit mon censeur theologien qui m’a donné de bons renseignments sur son impression

— Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre to Pierre Michel Hennin (Tuesday, 6 April 1784)
(EE letter id: sainjaVF0020577a1c).

In his letter of 6 April he reported on his progress with his censors.’enfin me voila tiré des mains des censeurs’. The outcome could have been much worse. Most of the cuts required by the censors would have been made in any case.

il m’en est advenu a peu pres autant en quantité et en qualité, au reste j’aurois fait de moi même une partie des retranchements. je n’ai pas besoin de me faire d’ennemis, et je n’ai entrepris mon ouvrage que pour raprocher tous les corps de la nation les uns des autres et sur tout du prince.

— Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre to Pierre Michel Hennin (Tuesday, 6 April 1784)
(EE letter id: sainjaVF0020577a1c)

The theological censor, whose name, unfortunately, is not recorded, had given a most favourable opinion of the Études.

Mon vieux censeur théologien qui a eté mon seul déprédateur m’a protesté qu’il n’avoit jamais vu la phisique traitée ainsi, que j’avois fait de veritables decouvertes, et m’a donné plusieurs fois les epithetes de delicieux et de devin.

Saint-Pierre knew not to set too great store by such praise, but he was gratified. He regarded his work as something which it was his duty to accomplish.

je scais combien il faut rabattre de ces eloges mais ils me font plaisir. pour etre utile il faut etre agréable et j’ose esperer que le tribut que je devois a dieu et aux hommes plaira a mon siècle.

In the same letter Saint-Pierre had gone into great detail about his negotiations with his printer to show Hennin how he could be an astute businessman if required, and how Hennin’s earlier comment was unjustified.

Meanwhile in Versailles Hennin had not been idle. He was buoyant.

Je vais Monsieur et ancien ami vous dire en bref ce que j’ai fait pour vous

— Pierre Michel Hennin to Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (Sunday, 13 June 1784)
(EE letter id: sainjaVF0020589a1c)

Saint-Pierre had had the idea of asking for a government loan towards publication costs, to be paid out of profits. Here the reader is made aware of the advantages of having a friend such as Hennin. The official position was that M. Blouin, premier commis for Castries, the ministre de la marine, had reported on Saint-Pierre’s letter to his superior and that the answer was negative. Hennin's letter goes on:

Samedi dernier j’allai chez M. le M.al de Castries. J’y trouva M. Blouin qui me dit qu’il avait rendu compte de votre lettre et que la réponse etoit negative.

Under normal circumstances that would have been the end of the matter, but Hennin, because of his position, was able both to influence Blouin as a colleague and to see Castries personally to put his friend’s case.

Je lui rappellai ce que vous aviez fait et les titres que vous aviez aux graces du departement et lui dis que j’allois presser M. le Marechal de vous faire l’avance dont vous aviez besoin.

Hennin asked Blouin not to reply to Saint-Pierre until he (Hennin) had spoken to Castries. ‘Je le priai en même tems de ne pas vous faire la reponse que je ne l’eusse vû’. Hennin’s good relationship with his colleagues in other ministries gave him the ability to influence them. He saw Castries, and observed carefully the effect his appeal had on the Marshal. The reaction seemed to be positive at that stage.

J’entrai chez M. le Marechal auquel je retracai vos services et votre voyage en lui peignant votre situation actuelle. Lorsque je lui parlai de votre ouvrage il me parut que l’approbation de M. Sage faisoit impression sur lui. Il finit par se montrer disposé a vous aider.

Hennin, an experienced diplomat able to interpret the nuances of conversations, was able to pick up on the part of his plea which interested the Marshal. He advised his friend accordingly. He should ask M. Sage the censor to write to Castries. Hennin even made some suggestions about the wording of the letter.

Je pense qu’il seroit bon que vous engagassiez M. Sage a ecrire a M. le M.al de Castries ce qu’il pense de votre ouvrage pour soutenir sa bonne volonté. La lettre devroit etre fort simple. Il diroit que scachant que vous vous etes addressè a ce Ministre pour etre aidé à publier cet ouvrage, il peut attester qu’il y a trouvé beaucoup de choses interessantes et faites pour en assurer le succes &c.

Unfortunately at this point Saint-Pierre was in serious difficulties. His deal with his printer had fallen through due to a misunderstanding over credit.

This was a low point indeed, if Saint-Pierre was seriously contemplating abandoning his efforts to find another printer after all the difficulties he had already been through. The solution came in the form of a return visit to Didot le jeune, where Saint-Pierre was able to conclude a deal with the foreman — the prote — after the latter had consulted his employer.5 Some of the money would be paid up front, with the rest payable from the proceeds of the book.

enfin je balancois si je ne vous renvoyerois pas votre billet de 25 louis et à M.r Mesnard pareille somme qu’il ma envoyée lors que je me suis avisé de retourner ches didot le jeune ou j’avois eté en premier lieu et ou on avoit offert de m’imprimer a raison de 32 livres j’ai proposé 27 livres, de payer la rame de papier onze francs, et de donner 500 livres comptant au commencement de l’impression de chaque volume, mon edition faisant bon pour le reste du payement. le prote a porté mes propositions à l’imprimeur qui les a acceptées.

— Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre to Pierre Michel Hennin (Tuesday, 15 June 1784)
(EE letter id: sainjaVF0020590a1c)

Perhaps this would be the turning point. On his return home, Saint-Pierre had made an encouraging discovery, as he related to Hennin in the same letter. He had proofs of two in-12 pages, and he was able to work out that the Études would fill three volumes, not four, if he left out one extra study which he had been having difficulty placing.

de retour chés moi jai vu d’après une epreuve de deux pages in 12. qui avoit eté faitte sur une de mes cahiers que mon manuscrit ne fournissoit que trois volumes, et en retranchant une derniere etude qui y est en hors d’oeuvre et qui m’apportait beaucoup d’obstacles pour la division de mes volumes en trois, sans qu’elle put faciliter la division en 4 etant beaucoup trop insuffisante.

Coming down from four volumes to three released extra funds, so he was able to offer 700 livres in advance per volume instead of 500. Needless to say the prote was delighted.

je me suis donc fixé à trois volumes, et au lieu de 500 livres j’en ai promis 700 d’avance par volume, ce qui a eté fort agréablement reçu du prote.

The next stage was for Saint-Pierre to approve the typeface to be used and the quality of the paper. This was the stage he had reached when he received Hennin’s letter relating his progress with Castries. At once he went to see his censor, but he was away, so Hennin’s letter was sent to him the next day. Saint-Pierre's letter continues:

pendant que le prote faisoit imprimer quelques pages d’epreuves afin de determiner le caractere et le papier qui doit servir à l’impression j’ai reçu votre agreable lettre. je l’ai portée sur le champ à M.r Sage qui étoit à la campagne. je viens de la lui envoyer aujourdhui, nous verons à quoi il se determinera et l’effet que va produire son suffrage auprès du Ministre.

Still hoping that Castries would approve the loan, he had already made plans as to how it would be spent. Extra copies would be printed, increasing the print run from 1500 to 2000, and engravings would be included.

si j’ai de l’argent contant pour tout l’ouvrage je ferai tirer a deux mille. ce qui ne me coutera que 3 livres 12.S de plus par feuille. je ferai faire aussi quelques gravures.

M. Sage did all that was asked of him and more. He sealed his letter with a cachet volant, a seal which could be removed and replaced, so Saint-Pierre could read his exact words.

M.r Sage m’a envoyé hier une lettre sous cachet volant pour M.r le M.al de Castries. il y entre parfaittement dans vos vues. il lui rapelle en peu de mots que jai donné au public un ouvrage sur l’isle de france auquel il donne l’epithete de très interessant, quil espere que celui dont il a etè le censeur ne sera pas moins bien accueilly du public, et quil l’assure qu’il est digne d’interesser un ministre aussi eclairé que lui, il finit, en termes certainement trop obligeans, par faire un eloge de mes qualités personelles qu m’ont acquis dit il son estime particulière.

— Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre to Pierre Michel Hennin (Thursday, 17 June 1784)
(EE letter id: sainjaVF0020591a1c)

Saint-Pierre was extremely gratified. He had sent the letter off, but he knew that Hennin, sur place in Versailles, would know the answer before he did.’vous voyés bien que c’est me servir sur les toits. jai fait partir la lettre dont vous aurés la reponse avant moi’.

Saint-Pierre, in spite of the advice of his censor, was still set on including some illustrations. He recognised that the cost would be high, but he had economised, and he had a good relationship with Moreau le jeune, the engraver with whom he had worked ten years previously on the illustrations for the Voyage.6 He was sure that Moreau would extend credit and would wait for payment until the Études were on sale. His letter continues:

je vais passer aujourdhui, chès Mr Moreau graveur afin d’avoir au moins quelques planches d’histoire naturelle de sa main. c’est une marchandise chere, mais comme je me menage six cents livres sur mon capital de cent louis, j’en reserve une centaine d’ecus pour cet objet ne doutant pas que M.r Moreau qui a gravé les planches de mon ouvrage a lisle de france ne me fasse un peu de credit.

He was at pains to let Hennin know that the engravings were necessary and not just decoration.’ces planches me seront necessaires pour l’intelligence de quelques parties de mon ouvrage, pour empêcher les contrefactions &c’.7

He still hoped for the loan from the ministry, which he would use to obtain discount from the printer, and he would increase the print run to 2000.

si le ministre de la marine m’avance de l’argent, j’obtiendrai des remises de l’imprimeur et du graveur, et je ferai tirer a deux mille exemplaires.

At this point in the letter Saint-Pierre expressed his gratitude to Hennin, but as so often before he spoiled the effect by stating his determination to carry on whatever happens, and by assuring Hennin that all is going well.

je vous en remercie de tout mon coeur, mais quand vos demarches aux quelles je suis tres sensible seroient sans effet, mon affaire ira toujours, et elle est en bon train.

Indeed, he was about to cash Hennin’s promissary note, to spend it something which Hennin had counselled against in the first edition, i.e. the engravings.

je n’ai point encore Realisé votre billet, mais je le porterai cet après midy chès votre banquier, afin davoir du comptant pour le graveur.

One week later, Saint-Pierre was feeling the strain. He had so many things to remember that he had forgotten whether he has already sent Hennin a receipt.

j’ai touché le montant de votre billet de six cents livres chès M.rs Rilliet banquiers. je vous envoie une reconnaissance de cette somme ne scachant plus si je ne vous en ai pas envoyé une á la reception du billet meme. en ce cas vous brulieriés une des deux.

— Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre to Pierre Michel Hennin (Thursday, 24 June 1784)
(EE letter id: sainjaVF0020593a1c)

He had to cope with domestic problems as well, as his housekeeper was ill.’j’ai mille choses dans la tête qui me font perdre la memoire. j’ai les soins de mon petit ménage, la femme qui en ètoit chargé ètant tombée malade’. The printing process was a complex one, especially in a situation where money was so tight. ‘d’ailleurs c’est un opera de faire imprimer, surtout avec peu de credit et de moyens’.Progress was nonetheless being made, as the proofs of the first two pages were almost ready, with printing, if all went well, to begin in a week’s time.’ l’imprimeur m’a promis deux planches à la fin de cette semaine, et de les tirer au 1.er juillet’

Saint-Pierre’s dealings with his engraver had been very successful, both from the point of view of financing the work, and also as far as the illustrations themselves were concerned. Moreau was pleased with Saint-Pierre’s ideas for the frontispiece and was looking forward to executing it.

M.r Moreau dessinateur du cabinet8 me grave un frontispice et trois planches d’histoire naturelle pour la somme de vingt a vingt deux louis, dont je lui payerai dix louis comptant et le reste à loisir. ces gravures sont necessaires, et le sujet du frontispice a paru si interessant à M.r Moreau par la nouveauté des effets naturels dont je lui ai donnné un prospectus, qu’il m’a assuré qu’il vouloit me traitter a cette occasion bien plus favourablement que toutte autre personne, et je ne doutte pas qu’il ne rende mon idée avec tout le talent qu’inspire à un artiste un sujet qui lui fait plaisir.

Saint-Pierre, still mindful of the earlier comment from Hennin that engravings were an unnecessary expense in the first edition, reinforced his argument that they were essential. He suggested that the public might buy his work for the illustrations alone.

ainsi ce n’est pas une depense superflue, encore que cette planche in 12 revienne a elle seule a 14 ou 15 louis, puis qu’il est possible que bien des gens achettent mon ouvrage pour l’estampe seulement, ainsi qu’il est arrivé à d’autres.

This uncharacteristically modest comment must be to placate Hennin. The Études were of vital importance to Saint-Pierre as they contained all his theories and were the result of ten years’ intensive effort. His suggestion could hardly be serious that he would find it acceptable for his work to take second place to Moreau’s engravings.

The inclusion of the engravings would also bring the advantage of enabling him to increase the price of his work.’d’ailleurs j’en augmenterai le prix de mon edition, de maniere a recueillir plus que je n’ai semé’.

The publication went ahead, in spite of the advice of the censor and of Hennin, with the engravings Saint-Pierre wanted. No money was forthcoming from the government, but the minister subscribed for a considerable number of copies. Saint-Pierre had been able to turn the censorship process to his advantage by obtaining support from Sage.

I would now like to mention briefly the need for provision of free copies. Saint-Pierre intended to set aside no less than 45 copies of the Études to give as presents or to comply with official requirements. The variety of recipients gives a useful insight into the factors which an author needed to take into account in order to ensure that his or her work received the attention it deserved. Copies were spoken for before the edition even left the printing shop.

il en faut seulement pour l’imprimerie huit a dix,

— Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre to Pierre Michel Hennin (Monday, 13 September 1784)
(EE letter id: sainjaVF0020606a1c).

Then there were the copies which the holder of a permission was required to deposit. ‘autant pour la chancellerie, police &’. These were ordinary copies, but the most important recipients were to receive luxury bindings. ‘il en faut 5 reliés en maroquin, armoiriés, dorés Sur tranche, dont trois pour les ministres ...un pour vous et un pour Mr Mesnard’. Saint-Pierre included Hennin and Mesnard (his other financial backer) with the ministers because he wanted to show his appreciation for those who had helped him financially. Next the censors required copies, and some had to go to journalists as review copies. There were social obligations to be met, with in some cases two copies for one household.’pour plusieurs dames, meme aux maris desquels j’en donnerai, car elles ont leur bibliotheque a part’. Then there were the copies to be given as tokens of gratitude to the officials who had helped with the subscriptions ‘il en faut pour plusieurs commis des finances qui ont concouru a me faire avoir la souscription, et a la faire payer, pour plusieurs autres de la marine, des secretaires’. Some copies were to be reserved for persons as yet unknown. Saint-Pierre remembered his experiences at the time of the publication of the Voyage, where he learned the hard lesson that a person feeling slighted may act spitefully. Saint-Pierre disliked this aspect of society, but experience had made him sufficiently pragmatic to make provision for it.

il en faut pour plusieurs personnes que je ne prevois pas, dont mon malheureux sort peut dependre et qui croyent faire honneur a un autheur de lui temoigner l’envie d’avoir son ouvrage et qui deviennent ses ennemis sil ne le lui donne pas, comme je l’ai eprouvé. quand je donnai mon voyage je distribuai cinquante exemplaires, et je n’en avois pas la moitié de ce qu’il m’en falloit; je fus obligé d’en acheter cinq, et encore le libraire qui faisoit les frais de l’impression avoit fourni les exemplaires qui sont de droit.

He also needed money for ‘les gratifications de diverses especes, a donner aux ouvriers pour les hater et les engager a se prester a mes changements, pour les protes de qui depend entierement la propreté et la diligence de mon edition’. It was in an author’s interest to keep on good terms with the workers in the print shop, on whose goodwill the whole enterprise depended.

Hennin had already advised his friend not to go overboard by spending too much of his money on grand gestures.

hors ce qui est du pour le privilege je ne scais pas a qui vous avez à en donner. prenez garde de ne pas faire le magnifique

— Pierre Michel Hennin to Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (Friday, 10 September 1784)
(EE letter id: sainjaVF0020605a1c).

Only Vergennes and Castries, as ministers, needed their copies bound for presentation. ‘un Exemplaire relié pour M. le C. de Vergennes et un pour M. le Mal de Castries voilà tout ce que vous devez’.

Saint-Pierre was not so easily discouraged. On 25 October 1784 he asked for the seals of three ministers and especially that of Hennin himself,

ne vous refusés pas a une legere marque d’amitié et de reconnaissance...

— Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre to Pierre Michel Hennin (Monday, 25 October 1784)
(EE letter id: sainjaVF0020610a1c).

His friend explained why it is not necessary to give copies already bound to all the ministers. There was a government bindery which took care of all the work in connection with the large quantity of volumes involved.

Vous ignorez que les relieurs ont un Dépot des armoiries de tous les Ministres. autrement il en couteroit beaucoup à chacun d’eux s’il falloit faire graver ces armoiries pour quelques reliures qu’ils auroient à faire’.

— Pierre Michel Hennin to Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (Thursday, 28 October 1784)
(EE letter id: sainjaVF0020612a1c)

For his own part, Hennin did not yet have a personal cachet. He was still deciding on what form the identification of the books in his personal library would take, binding or bookplate.

D’ailleurs j’ai dessein de me procurer ce moyen de reconoître mes livres soit par la couverture, soit par une planche gravée collée en dedans, mais je ne suis pas encore décidé sur la forme.

Not for the first time, his advice to his friend, as to the form in which the Études should be handed over, i.e. unbound, had been sound, as Saint-Pierre recounted.

...on m’a dit à l’imprimerie qu’on prèfereroit en feuilles dans les bureaux. En effet M.r de la Roche commis aux Souscriptions du Contrôle Général m’a dit qu’il ne les vouloit pas autrement et qu’il desiroit même y comprendre celui que je devois presenter à M.r le Contrôleur general.

— Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre to Pierre Michel Hennin (Saturday, 13 November 1784)
(EE letter id: sainjaVF0020613a1c)

However de la Roche’s advice had its price, and Saint-Pierre wanted everything to be done properly. ‘ce qui m’engagera a en donner un relié à M.r de la Roche lui même, afin de n’etre pas en retour d’honnetteté’.

Saint-Pierre had come a long way, but there were still areas where he was inexperienced, and where he relied on his friend for advice. Did the sample volumes which would be used to promote the subscription need to be bound? He needed a quick answer, so that any such volumes may be bound at the same time as the presentation copies.

mais ne differés pas a me repondre sur les choses que je vous demande, car si les exemplaires de souscription doivent etre brochés, j’y ferai travailler en même tems qu’aux relieures pour les Ministres.

With publication immanent, Saint-Pierre needed to consider how he would ensure that his work was brought to the attention of readers. Hennin, in his letter of 28 July 1784, had already thought ahead. Once again he would be able to use his influence, this time to have the work publicised in the Mercure de France.9

J’ai quelque credit sur le Mercure et j’ai pris mes mesures pour qu’il vous annonce promptement et de maniere a faire desirer de vous lire.

— Pierre Michel Hennin to Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (Wednesday, 28 July 1784)
(EE letter id: sainjaVF0020600a1c).

Saint-Pierre would also like coverage in the Courrier de l’Europe, edited at the time by the vitriolic Théveneau de Morande. The Courrier was originally published in England and had been allowed distribution in France by the ministry of foreign affairs.

n’avés vous pas quelque influence sur le redacteur du Courier de l’Europe et ne pourriés vous lui faire parvenir en Angleterre l’Exemplaire que je lui destine?

— Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre to Pierre Michel Hennin (Saturday, 13 November 1784)
(EE letter id: sainjaVF0020613a1c).

Hennin suggested that Saint-Pierre take a copy to the Paris office of the Courrier, and reminded him to send a copy to the Mercure

Il me semble que le plus sûr pour faire parvenir votre ouvrage au redacteur du Courier de l’Europe est de sed remettre au bureau qu’il indique a Paris. si on ne vouloit pas se charger de le lui faire passer je trouverois quelque occasion. N’oublies pas d’ene envoyer un au Redacteur du Mercure.

— Pierre Michel Hennin to Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (Monday, 15 November 1784)
(EE letter id: sainjaVF0020614a1c).

Saint-Pierre returned to the question of publicity in his letter of 27 December 1784, listing the publications where he thought Hennin might have some influence.

employés je vous prie l’influence que vous pouvés avoir sur quelques journalistes, tel que celui de paris, du merure, du courier de l’europe, de freron, des scavans, des petites affiches, ce dernier en a dit un seul mot. il le qualifie d’interessant à la verité i promet d’y revenir.

— Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre to Pierre Michel Hennin (Monday, 27 December 1784)
(EE letter id: sainjaVF0020629a1c)

As well as the Mercure and the Courrier, Saint-Pierre mentioned the Journal de Paris, the Année littéraire, founded by Elie Fréron, the Journal des savants, and the Affiches de Paris, which was connected to the Gazette de France.10

Coverage in the Journal des savants would have been of particular interest to Saint-Pierre, as its editors were mostly drawn from the ranks of the Académie des Sciences, men whom he would have wanted to examine and appreciate his theories.

Why did Saint-Pierre write so often to Hennin in 1783, and how does the correspondence contribute to consideration of the sociology of the letter? As well as sustaining the friendship, the exchanges enabled Saint-Pierre to gain a second opinion - even if he disagreed with it - and receive support for his efforts. The letters were a substitute for face-to-face contact. Saint-Pierre's part of the exchange also leads the reader to consider if he was able to use the letters as a means of clarifying his thoughts, exploring possibilities and bringing some order to what was a complicated process.

The exchanges also shed useful light on many aspects of 18th century French society - the situation and attitudes of a high-ranking civil servant and an impecunious but proud author, as well as the wealth of detail about the publication process. We are fortunate to have access to letters which, by virtue of their informal and private nature, provide insights which would otherwise have remained hidden.

— Noëlle McCavana, Queen's University, Belfast


1 Voyage to the Isle of France, the Isle of Bourbon and the Cape of Good Hope; with observations and reflections upon Nature and Mankind by J.B.H. de Saint Pierre, trans. from the French (London: Vernor and Hood , 1800), p. XX.

2  Complete Works of Voltaire, ed. by T. Besterman and others, 142 vols (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1970–2008) , vol CXVIII, p. 342. D 15518 15 March 1759 to Alexandre Marie François de Paule de Dompierre d’Hornoy.

3 Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Paul et Virginie (Paris: Didot, 1806).

4 Pierre-Charles Laurent de Villedeuil succeeded de Néville in early 1784.

5 The prote was an important member of staff in an eighteenth century French printing firm. His duties were those of an office manager. He kept the business running from day to day and had responsibility for the printers and the quality of their work. He also liaised with authors.

6 Jean-Michel Moreau, known as Moreau le jeune, was one of the most well-known and respected engravers in Paris.

7 Saint-Pierre is perhaps over- optimistic in his assertion that engravings in a work prevent counterfeit editions. The bestseller Bélisaire, by Marmontel, for example, was pirated, illustrations and all, to the chagrin of none other than Saint-Pierre’s old adversary, Merlin. See David Adams, ‘Illustration and interpretation: the frontispiece to Marmontel’s Bélisaire’, in Voltaire and the 1760s: Essays for John Renwick, ed. by Nicholas Cronk, SVEC 2008:10 (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2008), pp.35 - 46 (p. 38).

8 One of Moreau le jeune’s official titles was ’dessinateur du cabinet du roi’.

9 The Mercure de France newspaper was run with government approval by Charles-Joseph Panckoucke.

10 For more detailed information on these publications, see the Dictionnaire des journaux 1600–1789, ed. Jean Sgard, 2 vols. (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1991).

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