Johnson on Atkinson (2017)


Atkinson, Juliette. French Novels and the Victorians. Oxford UP, 2017, pp. x + 426, ISBN 978-0-19-726609-0     

Warren Johnson, Arkansas State University

A specter haunted Victorian England: the corruption of proper young ladies by wicked French novels. An influential 1836 Quarterly Review article by John Wilson Crocker that roundly castigated the immorality of French fiction was the most extreme expression of this Grundyism, but reflected a widespread concern, on both sides of the Channel, with the perils of a type of reading that might fall into the hands of impressionable young female readers, for example: Emma Rouault. The imperative to shield the supposedly innocent from the thematics of sex, largely absent in Victorian novels until later in the century, and consequently the need to keep French novels out of the hands of the gentler gender, created the erroneous impression, promulgated even by recent critics, that French fiction was little read in nineteenth-century England until the fin de siècle. It is this preconception that Juliette Atkinson, in a meticulously researched and fascinating study of how the French novel was read and assimilated in England during the period from 1830–70, definitively debunks, showing instead that Gallic fiction enjoyed a fairly wide English readership, although in different ways for different social groups and at different times. Contrasting public condemnation and private delectation, Atkinson demonstrates that the fluid boundaries between serious and popular fiction during the first half of the century meant that even sophisticated readers would enjoy works whose dubious morality was thought dangerous, leading to a “tension between attraction and distrust” (6), or less charitably stated, another example of Victorian hypocrisy.

The reception of French fiction during these forty years divides into two distinct halves on either side of the 1851 Anglo-French copyright treaty and the 1852 International Copyright Act. Before 1851, popular Romantic authors such as Alexandre Dumas père, Eugène Sue, Frédéric Soulié, and especially Paul de Kock dominated along with Honoré de Balzac, appealing in particular to a lower-class audience, at least for those reading them in periodical translations that were frequently abridged, bowdlerized, and otherwise adapted to English sensibilities. However, a number of specialized bookstores stocked the latest Parisian publications in the original, as did a number of London and provincial circulating libraries, for the better-educated who could read French. After the 1851 agreement, which henceforth required English publishers to pay for translation rights, and after the flood of cheap Belgian reprints was stemmed by the 1854 Franco-Belgian copyright treaty, more authoritative and complete translations became the norm, and newer trends in French fiction, including writers such as Edmond About and Erckmann-Chatrian, appealed increasingly to a middle-class and feminine audience. Unlike in France, however, no official prosecution impeded the dissemination of novels until Henry Vizetelly was imprisoned for publishing works by Émile Zola. Instead, the Victorians relied on the creation of a climate of shame to police literary expression, abetted, in particular, by critical commentary in the press.

This awareness of literary currents in France touched English writers as well. Charles Dickens admired Victor Hugo and met Dumas père and Sue, but did not necessarily champion their works, preferring instead Balzac and Alphonse Daudet. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, an avid reader of French fiction, enjoyed, in particular, the works of George Sand, whom she also met. Parisian and London soirées and clubs brought Victorian authors and certain cosmopolitan readers in contact with their French counterparts. These personal contacts and preferences had their impact on English fiction, notably in the case of the sensation novel, sometimes thought a second-rate imitation of French popular Romanticism, even though Sue and his ilk drew on the tradition of the Gothic, itself related to earlier French models. Thus, while it was a critical commonplace to differentiate French and English fiction—the latter being considered safer for young female readers, since it was inaccurately assumed that the predominate readership for novels in France was masculine—the Victorians would, for instance, borrow ideas for plots, an area in which the French were widely acknowledged to be superior, and constant interchanges blurred sharp boundaries between the two national traditions.

Drawing on a number of archival sources such as circulating library registers, correspondence, and a vast collection of published texts, including reviews and translations in periodicals, Atkinson’s highly detailed historical study approaches the question of the impact of the French novel in England from multiple angles, affording a fascinating perspective from the outside on how the French novel evolved and was read in mid-century England, one that should be of interest to any dix-neuviémiste.