The Top 20 French Authors in Eighteenth-Century Irish Private Libraries.

Throughout Europe in the eighteenth century French began to replace Latin as the scholarly and cultural language of the educated. Ireland was no exception to this general trend. From the late seventeenth century French was a significant language among certain sections of the population, most notably the scholarly community and the upper levels of the Catholic and Protestant aristocracies. From the middle of the eighteenth century the use of the French language as a cultural, and indeed fashionable, accomplishment, was spreading to the metropolitan and provincial middle classes. French was taught in private schools and academies to both boys and girls, not only as a social accomplishment, but as a desirable skill for business, the army and navy.

French language books were imported into Ireland from the late seventeenth century. Importation of continental literature in French from Paris, Amsterdam, The Hague and London characterized the foreign language book market in Ireland. French language titles were printed in Dublin and other Irish cities also. In the early decades of the eighteenth century they were mainly produced for the Huguenot population in Dublin, Portarlington, Lisburn, Cork, and other areas of settlement. In the last three decades of the century French language reprints of more popular works for a general audience were issued by Dublin booksellers.

Specialization in the foreign language booktrade in the last quarter of the century provides evidence of a sufficient demand for such literature among bookbuyers. It also points to the diversity on offer to the Irish reading public as booksellers sought to import the latest and best publications from the continent. Expanded importation from printing centres in Europe, through personal and business contacts, was initiated by Dublin wholesale booksellers, who in turn distributed their imports to centres around the country. Thus the importation of French language books developed from the direct importation by major booksellers for their own clientele, to a more streamlined entrepreneurial wholesale trade by the 1780s. Luke White had an account with the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel, while R.E. Mercier traded with Wild and Altheer at Utrecht, and John Archer and Antoine Gerna travelled abroad to purchase books and negotiate terms in person.[2]

A sample of 193 catalogues of Irish private libraries has been used to compile the Top 20 list.[3] The catalogues date from 1715 to 1830. They were mainly issued as auction catalogues for the sale of the library, though in some cases a listing of a library was made as an inventory by the owner. Only catalogues of named private owners were used, as anonymous sale catalogues do not necessarily represent the holdings of a single individual library. The readers represented by the book sale catalogues are the nobility and landowners, clergy and professionals, whose libraries were mainly auctioned after the owner’s death, thus indicating a certain value accorded to the collection. Full coverage of all relevant readers is not possible in this situation, as the less well off segment of the population is not represented. All inferences concerning the diffusion of books drawn from auction catalogues must be tempered by the knowledge that the source is limited, unevenly representative, and weighted in favour of the more prestigious collections. By their nature book sale catalogues are oriented in their descriptions towards saleable books, lots of lesser value are often not described or itemized. Thus, bundles of pamphlets or plays, schoolbooks and cheap quality books are not included in the sale, or else are sold together as a lot. This results in a gap in our knowledge of ephemeral or cheap material and an over-emphasis on special editions and fine bindings.

Top-20-tableThe level of education of readers is significant for the ownership of foreign language books. Only those with a good level of post-elementary education, or those privately educated to a certain standard could read French or Italian. 40% of the library owners in the sample were educated at Trinity College Dublin or the King’s Inns in Dublin, and a further 6% at Oxford or Cambridge. The 16% with a continental education comprised Catholic clergy trained in the Irish colleges in France, Spain and Italy; doctors and Catholic gentry educated in continental universities. Several of the library owners, especially the nobility, did not attend university, but were privately educated by tutors and often went on the Grand Tour to complete their education. The readership under consideration therefore is that of the higher socio-economic groups, the educated segment of the population, those who were highly literate and had the financial means necessary to assemble a collection of books.he French books most widely held in the private libraries examined were French Dictionaries, in 73% of libraries, and French Grammars, in 64% of libraries. They were written and compiled by a wide range of authors, and published in France, the Netherlands, London or Dublin. In the majority of cases French was an acquired and not a native language for book purchasers in Ireland, especially in the second half of the century, therefore dictionaries and grammars were not discarded, but retained as working tools in a library. Similarly, many of the most frequently occurring French titles were those chosen by readers wishing to perfect their French by reading works renowned for the style and quality of the language or for their appeal to younger readers. Henry Joy McCracken, the United Irishman, and his family learned French from an old weaver, a native French speaker in Belfast. Henry’s French however must never have been perfected, as his sister, Mary Ann, advises him in a letter: ‘Do not neglect the use of your French dictionary and grammar – John Templeton keeps his always either in his hand or in his pocket’. While in jail in Dublin he read Fénélon’s Les Avantures de Télémaque but he had to receive assistance from a French prisoner, arrested for spying.[4] Mrs Mary Delany of Delville, in a letter to her niece Mary Dewes, in September 1760, advised: ‘I shall be very glad to receive your French performances, and if you write or translate but six lines every day it will improve you very much, and at least keep what you have learnt’.[5]

The Top 20 list shows a strong preference on the part of library owners for French Classicism. The French language gained prestige across Europe during the reign of Louis XIV, both for the style of the language and its literature, and this reputation persisted into the eighteenth century. Works of French Classicism were present in private libraries throughout the century. These works were not superseded by Enlightenment authors in the course of the century, but retained their popularity, and co-existed with them. The reading of Enlightenment literature did not occur in Ireland as a new radical introduction, it developed and grew out of the existing tradition of reading French authors. French texts found in Jonathan Swift’s library of 1715 remained an integral part of a cultured library of the 1790s.

The four works of literature most in evidence in the sample examined were the Oeuvres of Boileau in 81 collections, the Oeuvres of Molière in 80 collections, Les avantures de Télémaque by Fénélon in 78 collections, and Les avantures de Gil Blas de Santillane by Le Sage in 55 collections. Boileau was among the great representatives of French Classicism, who published widely as a poet. Eighty five of the libraries examined held at least one work by him, and many held several. Copies of the Oeuvres were beautifully illustrated by Picart or Moreau, and in fine bindings. Henry Grattan’s copy of the Oeuvres in four volumes, (Amsterdam 1729), was awarded to him by Trinity College Dublin as a premium in 1765.

Molière became famous for his comedies of manners, the style of his writing was esteemed and considered worth imitating in speech and reading. Extracts from his plays appeared in anthologies and in textbooks. His plays were not printed in French in Ireland but were imported from the continent and from London. In September 1782 Le medecin malgré lui was one of six French language plays performed at a public reading in the Exhibition Room in William Street, Dublin.[6] The Oeuvres were present in handsome and costly editions in Irish libraries with plates after Boucher (Paris 1734), Coypel (Paris 1734), and Moreau (Paris 1773).

The two individual titles most notably present in libraries throughout the century were Fénélon’s Les avantures de Télémaque, (1699), and Le Sage’s Les avantures de Gil Blas de Santillane, (1715-35). Both books were used as readers by those learning French, and both appear in multiple copies in private libraries. Fénélon, Archbishop of Cambray, was well known for his spiritual writings, but in Irish libraries his importance lies primarily in the authorship of Les avantures de Télémaque. It was favoured reading in most European countries and was the standard text for teaching manners and language. It worked for readers on several levels, closely paralleling Virgil’s Aeneid and fulfilling readers’ classical expectations in its imitation of the ancients; the fineness of the writing also appealed to those improving or perfecting their French. Its appeal spanned the denominational divisions in Ireland, appearing in both Protestant and Catholic libraries. It remained popular until the end of the century, being published in a parallel text in Cork in 1800.

Le Sage drew his inspiration from the Spanish picaresque novel, adapting it to mirror the manners of the French society of his day. Gil Blas earned him his fame, it was considered suitable for the instruction of children in the French language, though later in the century it was thought a little too colourful. Its success in Ireland can be measured by the number of local printings in French, several Dublin editions of 1763 and later, and a Belfast edition of 1798. Le Sage’s other novels also had a following, especially Le Diable boiteux, (1707), but none had the mass appeal of Gil Blas.

Racine and Pierre Corneille, writers of tragedies, are often considered the precursors of Classicism. Their works are derived from classical models, but they were in advance of the main age of Classicism, which reached its apogee during the personal reign of Louis XIV (1661-1715). Racine achieved success as a tragic poet with his plays Andromaque (1667), Iphigenie (1674), and Phèdre (1677). Maria Edgeworth went to a performance of Andromaque in Brussels in 1802, with Madame and Monsieur Talma in the leading roles, she writes: ‘we read the play in the morning, an excellent precaution otherwise the novelty of the French mode of declamation would have set my comprehension at defiance’.[7]

Pierre Corneille, the elder of the Corneille brothers, was more prolific and achieved greater success than Thomas, and his works were more numerous in Irish libraries. Though he began his career by writing comedies, it is as a tragic poet that he was best known, with plays in the classical style such as Medée (1635), Le Cid (1636-7), and Polyeucte (1642). Henry Grattan’s son writes that Grattan:

‘laid aside the cultivation of the language [French] for a considerable time, but in the latter part of his life he amused himself translating into French Miss Edgeworth’s Tales and other light works. He admired Racine and Corneille, and used to read them with much pleasure’.[8]

La Bruyère’s Les caractères de Théophraste (1688-1696), originally translated from the Greek of Theophrastus, mirrored the foibles and vanities of his own time, with portraits of many living people, under disguised names. It was popular in England, having been translated into English in 1699. It retained its popularity in Ireland throughout the eighteenth century, and was printed in French by William and Henry Whitestone in 1778, to supply their extensive wholesale market in Dublin and the provinces.

The Abbé Vertot, the French historian, is probably best known for his History of the Knights of Malta. His main works present in the libraries examined were Les révolutions de la république romaine (1719), Histoire des révolutions de Suède (1696), and Histoire des révolutions de Portugal (1689).

La Fontaine made his reputation with his Fables, the first collection of which appeared in 1668, and his Contes et nouvelles en vers, (1664-1666), based on the tales of Boccaccio and Ariosto. Even though La Fontaine produced a great variety of work it is the Fables and Contes that were purchased and produced in very many editions, often beautifully illustrated. One of the most lavish editions was the 4 volume set of Fables with 246 plates by Oudry offered to the public by Luke White in 1777 at the remaindered price of £9.2.6. The presence of so many luxury editions, illustrated and in fine bindings, in the private libraries examined, points to the perception that these works were of lasting quality, to be read and re-read, given as gifts and school premiums.

The French Enlightenment is well represented in the libraries in the sample. Irish printers responded to the demand for Enlightenment literature in the last quarter of the century by the domestic printing of some of the more popular titles. The catalogues, however, show that a great number of Enlightenment works were imported from the early years of the century. Continental imprints, led by Paris and Amsterdam as centres of publication, were by far the most numerous.

Two of the authors on the list mark the early phase of the Enlightenment, Bayle and Fontenelle. Bayle, with his critical and scientific approach, a belief in reason, political reform and religious toleration, is considered one of the earliest exponents of the philosophical writing which characterized the French Enlightenment. His Dictionnaire historique et critique, (1695-1697), was the most widely held in Irish libraries, but his Oeuvres were also present. Fontenelle’s Oeuvres were the most commonly held, followed by Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes, (1686), a popular non-specialist introduction to astronomy, and Dialogues des morts, (1683), an attack on preconceived ideas.

Voltaire was the most owned author in Irish libraries, but no one single work predominated. Several editions of Oeuvres and Oeuvres complètes were present in 35 collections, many of them illustrated and in costly editions. One of the most prized sets was the 70 volume octavo edition of the Oeuvres complètes, published at Kehl in 1785-89 by the playwright Beaumarchais, using the printing equipment purchased especially for the purpose from the widow of John Baskerville, the celebrated English typographer. This work was also printed in a 90 volume duodecimo edition by Beaumarchais. Several editions of Voltaire’s works, sold in sets or in separate volumes, were on sale in Dublin from the late 1770s. Voltaire’s epic La Henriade, first published in Rouen in 1723 under the title La ligue, began to be published under the new title in 1728. The French language London edition of 1728 was published by subscription, and in December 1727 Voltaire wrote to Jonathan Swift from London requesting him to solicit subscriptions in Ireland:

‘In the mean time can j make bold to intreat you to make some use of yr interest in irland about some subscriptions for the henriade, which is almost ready and does not come out yet for want of little help the subscriptions will be but one guinea in hand’.[9]

After its publication in March 1728 Voltaire wrote that he had sent ‘a cargo of French dulness (sic.)’ to the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Carteret. Swift retained a copy of La Henriade in his library, and it appears in the sale catalogue of his library in 1745.

Candide ou l’optimisme by Dr Ralph was first published surreptitiously in Geneva in January 1759. In February 1759 Voltaire wrote to Gabriel Cramer, his Genevan publisher, informing him that: ‘il s’est vendu six mille Candide’. By mid March it was available in French in London from John Nourse, and two weeks later the English translation appeared. English booksellers, such as Nourse, would purchase a holding edition in French of a book likely to be popular and reprint it in England, as this was cheaper than importing in bulk. This was the case with Candide which was immediately reprinted in French in London. For all its popularity at the time of publication Candide was held as an individual title in only five of the libraries, though it was also present in most Oeuvres and in the Romans et contes. Individual titles by Voltaire and Rousseau, known to have been purchased, are present in very small numbers and are greatly outnumbered by sets of Oeuvres. This can be attributed to the more lasting quality of a set of Oeuvres, but also to the saleability factor in an auction catalogue.

Three titles by Voltaire were printed in French in Dublin, La Tragédie de Sémiramis in 1750, Lettres curieuses et intéressantes de M. de Voltaire in 1781, and Mémoires de M. de Voltaire écrites par lui même in 1785, and very many appeared in translation. While these three titles were printed for the home market there is little evidence for them in the private libraries examined. Voltaire’s works were present in private libraries of both Anglican and Catholic owners and clergy of both denominations. However, it is clear that the historical and dramatic works were often held when the anti-religious works were absent, and a number of those works which denounced his anti-religious beliefs occur in the libraries. For instance, both Les erreurs de Voltaire, written by the Abbé Nonotte, and Lettres de quelques Juifs à M. de Voltaire, attributed to the Abbé Guenée, were held in Irish libraries, and a subscription edition of Claude Duplain’s La réligion vengée des blasphèmes de Voltaire was published in Dublin in 1783, attracting 154 subscribers.

Montesquieu was well represented in Irish libraries, with four of his works occurring frequently in the sample. De l’esprit des lois (1748), was the most widely owned of his works, followed by sets of Oeuvres, Les causes de la grandeur des Romains (1734), and Lettres Persanes (1721). In De l’esprit des lois Montesquieu examined the nature of human and natural laws in the widest sense including different forms of government, questions of major interest to eighteenth-century thinkers. This broad philosophical treatment appealed to a wide readership, and De l’esprit des lois was translated into English as The spirit of laws and published in Dublin in 1751 and later years. Henry Grattan owned a copy in French which he received as a premium from Trinity College Dublin in 1765. De l’esprit des lois was the most widely owned of the French language works on jurisprudence. Significant reading for professional career purposes is of particular interest as it shows that the reading of works in French was not simply a fashionable pastime for the dilettante, but also a serious activity necessary for those wishing to be to the fore in their professional knowledge.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s novel La Nouvelle Heloïse (1761), is considered by Robert Darnton to have been the ‘biggest best-seller’ of the century:

‘the demand for copies outran the supply so badly that booksellers rented it out by the day and even by the hour, charging twelve sous for the sixty minutes with one volume, according to L-S Mercier. At least seventy editions were published before 1800 – probably more than for any other novel in the previous history of publishing’.[10]

In Irish libraries La nouvelle Heloïse was marginally more popular than Émile ou l’éducation (1762), while 67% of readers of Rousseau had a set of Oeuvres. There was no Irish edition in French of either title, however, suggesting that they were not so popular in Ireland. Rousseau was very much admired by certain circles in Ireland, in fact most of his readers held several titles by him. Emily, Duchess of Leinster, and her family were among his readers. In her library at Carton, however, only the Collection complète des oeuvres in the four volume London edition of 1774, with 2 plates after Moreau, remained, while initially individual copies of the separate titles were present. Émile had been purchased in London from Mrs Dunoyer in 1762 and read immediately.

The works of Crébillon fils are far more evident in Irish libraries than those of his dramatist father, the latter represented only by his Oeuvres. The erotic novel had immense popularity during the eighteenth century, and Crébillon fils was one of the most successful writers in this genre. His novel Le Sopha, a licentious tale which satirized contemporary manners and morals, was much imitated in his day. His Oeuvres were most commonly found in the Irish libraries examined, followed by Les égarements du coeur et de l’esprit, ou Mémoires de M. de Meilcour (1736), L’écumoire ou Tanzaï et Néaderné, histoire japonaise (1734), and Le sopha, conte moral (1740).

Marmontel’s Contes moraux (1761), and Nouveau contes moraux (1789-92), first published individually in the Mercure, were the most popular of his works in Irish libraries, followed by Bélisaire (1766), and Les Incas (1777). One of his tragedies, Aristomène, was published in French in Dublin in 1750. His moral tales were sufficiently popular to be reprinted in translation in the Freeman’s Journal in the spring and early summer of 1788.

The Abbé Raynal is best known for his Histoire philosophique et politique des deux Indes (1770), which was very successful when it was first published, and went into several editions during the eighteenth century. It is Raynal’s most frequently occurring title in Irish libraries, although his other works are also present, most notably La révolution de l’Amérique (1781), and Anecdotes historiques, militaires et politiques de l’Europe (1753). La révolution de l’Amérique was printed in French in Dublin in 1781. Several translations of The philosophical and political history appeared from Dublin printers, and a copy in French was possibly also printed, but there are no extant copies.

Evidence of reading in the realm of literature is extremely difficult to determine, the use of correspondence and diaries is valuable but it only gives evidence of reading among certain groups and anecdotal information is not transferable to the wider reading public. The correspondence of Emily, Duchess of Leinster, Maria Edgeworth, Jonathan Swift, and Mrs Mary Delany, in which they discuss books and reading gives a clue as to the books read by those in their circle and their opinions on authors read. This perspective is by its nature narrow and weighted in favour of certain groups, who may not be at all representative. However, it does show that the French books present in Irish private libraries could be read by their owners, and in some cases at least, were read, understood, discussed and quoted. Evidence exists for reading in French among professional and middle class readers, showing that it was not confined to the more rarified Carton-Castletown circle. The provenance of surviving eighteenth-century editions of French books shows signatures or bookplates of readers who were not major collectors, and for whom we have no evidence of a private library. Contemporary signatures on French language books also indicate readership among women, which is not reflected in the book sale catalogues. This points to a more widespread diffusion among the general reading public which is suggested by the booksellers’ stocks.

The later years of the eighteenth century saw a movement away from the dominance of religious works in private libraries. The large number of clerical libraries in the sample, (30.5%), however, ensured the popularity of a wide range of religious works, and it can be seen that throughout the century a place, albeit less prominent, was given to religious material in all private libraries. A number of authors had cross-denominational appeal while others appealed only to their co-religionists. Huguenot exiles in Ireland carried on their public worship in the French language until the early nineteenth century, Protestant religious works in French were to be found in Irish bookshops, and were published by Irish printers for this market. Among the wider Anglican educated readership too the works of Protestant religious writers were owned in French. Up to 1795 Catholic clergy were trained on the continent, books of continental origin in Latin, French, Italian and Spanish were a prominent feature of these clerical libraries, especially in the areas of divinity and Catholic devotional literature. Copies of La Sainte Bible and separate editions of Le Nouveau Testament were present in 81 of the libraries in the sample. Both Protestant and Catholic Bibles and Nouveau Testaments were present, the Protestant Bibles were more common, Martin’s, Diodati’s, Ostervald’s and Des Marets’; while the Catholic versions, the Vulgate and De Carrière’s Bible were less common. Most of the Protestant Bibles in Irish libraries originated in Amsterdam and most Catholic Bibles in Paris.

Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux and preceptor to the Dauphin, was probably the most celebrated pulpit orator of his time. In Ireland his books were owned by all denominations, though as a theologian his doctrinaire Catholic views did not endear him to Protestants. However, his works such as Discours sur l’histoire universelle (1681), written for the instruction of the Dauphin, gained a wide readership, 62% of readers of Bossuet in Ireland. He was appreciated for his Sermons and especially for his Oraisons funèbres. Also present were his Histoire des variations des églises protestantes (1688), and Exposition de la doctrine de l’église catholique (1671).

Blaise Pascal, who also wrote under the pseudonym Louis de Montalte, is most widely represented by his literary works. Other than his scientific and mathematical works his main published work during his lifetime consisted of a series of 18 letters, supposedly written to a friend in the provinces, Les Lettres provinciales (1656-7). At the time of his death he was working on a defence of the Catholic religion entitled Apologie de la religion catholique. It was not far enough advanced, however, to be fit for publication, but his fragmentary notes were published under the title Pensées de M. Pascal sur la religion (1670). Voltaire dates the commencement of the modern French language to the prose style of Les provinciales. Pascal’s works were held by all denominations in Ireland, Les lettres provinciales was the most widely held, in 40 libraries, while Les pensées was held in 36 libraries.

The book sale catalogues reveal a fairly homogeneous, cultured, well-educated segment of the population, comprising Protestant and Catholic readers of the middle and higher socio-economic levels. This is clearly a very limited profile, denying the complexities and variety of the multi-layered society that was eighteenth-century Ireland. Yet, as the most comprehensive source available to the researcher of the history of the book in Ireland, the evidence they produce has to be considered seriously, while acknowledging the major deficiencies which they present.

The bulk of French language reading matter evident in the catalogues is imported, Paris provides the greatest frequency of imprints, closely followed by Amsterdam, with London and The Hague also significant. Ireland’s situation on the periphery of western Europe allowed its book importers a choice of several centres of production. Centres in the Netherlands rivalled those in France for cost and availability of titles, and London and Dublin printers also figured in the reprint trade. The catalogues point to an interest in French Classicism among private library owners, developing to include works of the French Enlightenment as they were published. By the end of the century works of Classicism and the Enlightenment shared an important place in Irish libraries. The French Enlightenment in Ireland was represented not just by the publications issued with a privilege from Paris, but by the broader cosmopolitan publications of the philosophes scattered across Europe, purveying a more diverse Enlightenment. Religious works were evident in all libraries examined, and one of the most noteworthy features of these works was the cross-denominational appeal of many religious authors.

All images courtesy of Dublin City Library & Archive ( )

[1] This article was first published in Linen Hall Review, 12, no. 1 (Spring 1995), pp 4-8.

[2] Máire Kennedy, ‘The domestic and international trade of an eighteenth-century Dublin bookseller: John Archer (1782-1810)’, Dublin Historical Record, XLIX, no.2 (Autumn 1996), pp 94-105. Also available as a post on

[3] See Máire Kennedy, French books in eighteenth-century Ireland (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, 2001) for the complete list of catalogues.

[4] Mary McNeill, The life and times of Mary Ann McCracken 1770-1866: a Belfast panorama (Dublin, Allen Figgis & Company Ltd, 1960), pp 40, 128, 139.

[5] Mary Delany, Letters from Georgian Ireland: the correspondence of Mary Delany, 1731-1768, ed. by Angélique Day (Belfast, The Friar’s Bush Press, 1991), p.285.

[6] Freeman’s Journal, 5-7 September 1782; 12-14 September 1782; 19-21 September 1782.

[7] F.V. Barry, Maria Edgeworth: chosen letters (London, Jonathan Cape, 1931), pp 103-4.

[8] Henry Grattan, Memoirs of the life and times of the Rt. Hon. Henry Grattan. By his son Henry Grattan, Esq., M.P. 2 vols (London, Henry Colburn, 1839), i, p.248.

[9] Harold Williams, ed. The correspondence of Jonathan Swift, 5 vols (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1963).

[10] Robert Darnton, ‘Readers Respond to Rousseau: the fabrication of Romantic sensitivity’ in The great cat massacre and other episodes in French cultural history (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1985), pp 209-49.



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