In this post, the editors and translators of Popular Literature from Nineteenth-Century France explain why they decided to create this anthology and what kinds of courses might benefit from teaching the works collected in it.

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Like many specialists of nineteenth-century French culture, we have long found it rewarding to expand our teaching repertoire beyond the literary canon. Works such as the physiologies from the 1840s or chapters from literary guidebooks such as Les Français peints par eux-mêmes, published in 1842, have become fun and enriching additions to more traditional reading lists for the last fifteen or so years. It’s been exciting to introduce our students to these often quirky, humorous texts, which nevertheless teach us a great deal about nineteenth-century French culture. Luckily, although the great majority of these popular texts have not been reissued in modern editions, many of them have become available, thanks to digitization, through sites such as Gallica (the online database of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France) or the Médiathèque André Malraux de Lisieux. Yet using these online resources can prove rather frustrating. To begin with, anyone who has used Gallica can attest that the format of these facsimile editions can be unwieldy, and logistic issues like printing these works or handling their large-file sizes can at times be challenging. But more important, without extensive annotation, the myriad cultural references that make these texts so rich and appealing would be difficult for our undergraduate students to understand. Would they know that a reference to “Asmodeus” meant a minor demon from Alain-René Lesage’s Le diable boiteux (The Devil upon Two Sticks) who was rescued from an enchanted glass? Would they understand that when a character is being carted off to the “rue de Clichy,” it refers to the location of a debtor’s prison? Or that the terrasse des Feuillants was a fashionable place for high-society ladies to see and be seen? In fact, even as specialists of nineteenth-century French literature, we ourselves were often stumped (What exactly is a pannier skirt? What’s with so many male characters wearing yellow gloves?) More broadly, we felt that without an introductory knowledge of the mid-nineteenth-century literary marketplace these key texts were hardly legible to today’s reader. And so the idea for this volume was born out of both our excitement for the material and a frustration with its current presentation and accessibility.

The works in our anthology, Popular Literature from Nineteenth-Century France, may be less well-known today than their more canonical nineteenth-century counterparts, but at the time of their publication they were extremely popular. Thanks to developments in print technology, new education laws, and a changing literary marketplace, literacy and readership drastically expanded throughout the nineteenth century, and authors eagerly responded and adapted to the needs of the bourgeois reading public. Some of the authors in this volume, such as Paul de Kock or Eugène Scribe, enjoyed much broader popularity than writers like Stendhal or Gustave Flaubert, whose works are taught more readily in courses on nineteenth-century France today. They were printed as inexpensive books whose cost made them accessible to less elite readers or were performed before large groups of spectators. The works in our volume appealed to readers wanting to understand the social and urban landscape of nineteenth-century Paris, which was experiencing rapid changes in the 1830s and 1840s. The city was influenced by multiple revolutions and political uprisings, a population boom, and the rise of the bourgeois class; this literature helped Parisians make sense of their shifting urban environment. Reading these popular works alongside canonical texts offers a fuller and more nuanced picture of nineteenth-century literary culture.

One of the reasons we found these texts so appealing is their humor, and we hope that the students reading them will appreciate it as well. Because these texts were meant to attract a bigger, more diverse audience, entertainment was one of their key goals. In these popular texts, humor is omnipresent: from slapstick comedy in the vaudeville play—complete with cross-dressing, sexual innuendos, and quid pro quos—to highbrow wordplay and puns found in literary guidebooks. For example, on the first page of Delphine de Girardin’s Letter XXVII, Girardin personifies the clothes she describes and exaggerates the dangers that walking on a Parisian street represents for a lady’s elegant outfit (“There is the washerwoman with an enormous square basket! Lacy mantelets, quiver in fear!” [110]). Other texts spend a great deal of time relentlessly mocking the very character they seek to present; such is the case of the bourgeois in the Physiologie du bourgeois (Physiology of the Bourgeois), by Henry Monnier, who’s depicted as an utterly ridiculous figure: he falls asleep while getting his portrait “done”; talks nonstop during a theater performance and aggravates his seatmates; and is characterized as a profoundly ignorant “naughty little monkey” (235, 234). We feel that bringing out the funny side of nineteenth-century French culture is crucial because understanding humor offers a unique window into a culture (and here our volume can help explain why something is funny), and at the same time, reading an amusing text makes for a more pleasurable and effective educational experience.

The works from Popular Literature from Nineteenth-Century France would fit nicely into any survey course on nineteenth-century French literature or history as they lend themselves to discussion of gender, social types, class relations, and the changing urban environment. Specialized courses on the history or literature of Paris would also benefit from the inclusion of these works as they present examples of such quintessential urban types as the flaneur and the grisette. The volume would also work well in courses on women in nineteenth-century France, class dynamics, popular literature and culture, the press, or even humor in literature. We have taught these texts in the following courses: Windows on Paris: Literature, Art, and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century; “High” Culture and “Low” Culture in Nineteenth-Century France; Women in Nineteenth-Century France; Nineteenth-Century French Best Sellers; Nineteenth-Century Paris Underworlds; Victor Hugo and the Nineteenth Century; and Power, Politics, and the Press in Nineteenth-Century France. Students responded well to the materials, often found them amusing and interesting, and enjoyed putting them into conversation with the other texts on the syllabus. On the one hand, works like Charles Lambert d’Outrepont’s “Gamin de Paris” (“The Gamin of Paris”) or Louis Huart’s “Physiologie de la grisette” (“Physiology of the Grisette”) help illuminate characters from more canonical works like Victor Hugo’s Les misérables or Honoré de Balzac’s Ferragus. On the other hand, they are worthy of study in their own right and should be approached like any other work of literature through attention to style, language, and character development. Overall, they offer a fresh perspective on the well-known themes of nineteenth-century French literature.

Course Materials

The sample syllabi below provide examples of how the texts might be incorporated into various courses.

Être femme au XIXe siècle

Nineteenth-Century Paris Underworlds

Paris in the Nineteenth Century: Art, Urbanism, and Modernity

Windows on Paris: Literature, Art, and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century

Photo of Masha Belenky

Masha Belenky

Masha Belenky is professor of French at George Washington University. She is the author of The Anxiety of Dispossession: Jealousy in Nineteenth-Century French Culture (2008) and Engine of Modernity: The Omnibus and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris (2019). She is the editor, with Kathryn Kleppinger and Anne O’Neil-Henry, of French Cultural Studies for the Twenty-First Century (2017).

Photo of Anne O’Neil-Henry

Anne O’Neil-Henry

Anne O’Neil-Henry is associate professor of French and francophone studies at Georgetown University. Her work focuses on nineteenth-century French popular literature and culture. She is the author of Mastering the Marketplace: Popular Literature in Nineteenth-Century France (2017) and the editor, with Masha Belenky and Kathryn Kleppinger, of French Cultural Studies for the Twenty-First Century (2017).