A Literary Tour de France

          La Rochelle, famous for its port and its Protestants, might seem to have been a promising market for books when Favarger arrived in October, 1778.  Its merchants had prospered from the Atlantic trade: exports of paper, textiles, and wine; imports of sugar from Saint Domingue and furs from Canada; and horribly profitable stopovers in Africa to pick up slaves for the plantations in the Caribbean.  But La Rochelle never went through a boom period comparable to that of Bordeaux and Nantes.  In fact, its population grew slowly.  It contained only 16,200 inhabitants in 1780, ranking 50th among all the cities in France.  The government’s book-trade survey of 1764 noted that La Rochelle had merely two booksellers and two printers—not enough to warrant the establishment of a chambre syndicale.  The local intendant was responsible for overseeing their activities, and that did not require much effort: “Ils sont tous honnêtes gens, très sages et se conduisant bien.  Ils n’ont d’autre fortune que le fruit de leur travail, et il n’est pas considérable.”

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 When Favarger surveyed the trade, he, too, found that it did not amount to much.  The number of booksellers had expanded to three.  One, Pentinelle, belonged to the lowest category, “pas bon.”  A second, Chaboceau, qualified as “bon” but did not want to order books from suppliers located as far away as Switzerland.  That left Pavie, also “bon” but a tough customer, as the STN had learned from dealing with him since 1772.

          The firm was formally known as “Pavie père et fils.”  “Pavie second fils” wrote most of its letters, using correct but somewhat awkward turns of phrase scattered with mistakes in spelling.  His first letter, dated February 8, 1772, suggested that the shop catered to La Rochelle’s large Huguenot community—and perhaps, too, that Protestantism led to sympathy for the Enlightenment.  It inquired about the STN’s ability to provide Protestant Bibles and sermons, and it also showed interest in “des ouvrages philosophiques comme le Système de la nature.”  The duty on book imports of 68 livres per hundredweight had recently been reduced to 28 livres: “C’est bien cher encore, mais du moins cela commence à se civiliser en termes de justice.”  Pavie expected the STN, like his other foreign suppliers, to split the cost of the duty, but what would be the best route?  Shipments via Nice and Marseille were very expensive, so he hoped the STN could get its bales cleared through Lyon at a reasonable price. 

In that case, Pavie indicated in his next letter, he would take two liturgical works, a dozen copies of Mercier’s utopian L’An 2440, and 10 copies of Système de la nature, provided the quality was adequate.  He knew of four editions of the Système, the most notoriously atheistic that had recently been published: a magnificent Dutch printing, two acceptable versions, and one on such “detestable” paper that he would not take it.  (As other booksellers mentioned, the quality of paper was crucial in satisfying the eighteenth-century reading public.)  In a letter of April 25, he asked the STN to add an assortment of other titles to the shipment, if it could be sent safely and at a reasonable cost.  They included Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique, some political tracts, and “les Lettres de Mme de Pompadour qui ne font que de paraître, ainsi que les autres articles que vous pouvez avoir dans ce genre.”  Evidently, Pavie was well informed about the latest works to appear on the market, and he did not hesitate to order the kind that were most illegal. 

For the next two years Pavie continued to sound out the STN on its ability to provide him with books, mostly religious works along with several on history and travel and various “livres philosophiques.”  But it was not until March, 1776 that he sent a firm order, which was to be shipped through Lyon to Orléans, where he had an agent who could forward it safely to La Rochelle.  It had 23 titles, some from the STN’s catalogue and some that he expected it to procure for him from other Swiss publisher-wholesalers.  In a subsequent order, he indicated that his choice of books depended, at least partly, on what his customers asked him to provide: “On me demande les articles suivants que vous m’enverrez si vous les avez.”  The orders arrived regularly for the next twelve months, and the STN filled them without mishap, assuming costs and risks as far as Lyon. 

By that time, the STN also sent some small shipments to private individuals in La Rochelle.  They were merchants, including one Huguenot, Jean Ranson, who had studied in Neuchâtel at the college run by Frédéric-Samuel Ostervald and his son-in-law, Jean-Elie Bertrand, before they founded the STN.  Ranson maintained friendly relations with Ostervald and ordered several books for himself and his friends.  Pavie objected to this informal trade, because it might cut into his market: “Ces amis en demandent pour d’autres amis, de façon que d’amis en amis, la ville en sera fournie, et ceux des libraires resteront.  C’est à quoi je vous prie de faire attention ; autrement nous nous brouillerons. »  In fact, this small-scale trade among amateurs never amounted to much, but Pavie’s reaction illustrates a widespread concern of the established booksellers, who were often eager to deal in forbidden books (provided they did not run serious risks) but hated competition from interlopers—peddlers, binders and individual entrepreneurs. 

The main difficulty that hampered Pavie’s relations with the STN was the increased severity of the government’s attempts to repress the trade in pirated and forbidden books.  The edicts of August 30, 1777, which were aimed primarily against piracy, required the creation of new chambres syndicales and the reinforcement of the old ones.  Already in the summer of 1776, Pavie reported a new threat of rigorous inspection in Orléans.  Four shipments to him made it past that dangerous commercial crossroads point in 1777, but he advised the STN to switch to a safer route.  It favored the relatively cheap inland waterways, which led down the Saône to Lyon, across to Roanne and then down the Loire to Orléans and various points in Western France.  Pavie recommended the more direct route to Limoges, which was safer yet much more expensive, because the books had to travel along mountainous trails on the backs of mules in packs that could not weigh more than 150 pounds.  Although it occasionally resorted to mule trains, the STN preferred to rearrange its smuggling operation in Lyon, where its agents and allies among the local booksellers kept creating possibilities of opening up new supply lines. 

Faced with a decline in Pavie’s business in 1778, the STN offered to cover costs and risks as far as Orléans, where he had a reliable agent.  This proposal, it emphasized, represented a large concession on its part, “…parce que nous sommes obligés de payer gracement [sic] les personnes que nous employons, et cela nous emporte une bonne partie du bénéfice.”  Pavie’s orders then resumed, mainly in Protestant and pornographic works, which formed a large part of his trade.  (He also ordered the same books from other suppliers and demonstrated considerable expertise about conditions in the underground trade.  In August 1776 he bargained down the STN’s price for La fille de joie from 36 to 30 sous and for La Contagion sacrée from 40 to 30 sous.)  In July, 1779, however, the STN informed him that it no longer would procure “livres philosophiques” for its customers.  It had run into too many difficulties, both on the supply side (quarrels with marginal Genevan publishers who had the books printed) and among its customers (refusals to pay bills and to share the cost of confiscations.) 

Pavie’s reply sounded almost too pious to be true:

Je vous loue beaucoup d’avoir retranché de ma demande certains articles.  Je me disposais même de vous écrire à ce sujet, ne voulant absolument tenir que du bon, qui reprendra son cours par les précautions qu’on prend à anéantir les ouvrages qui ne tente [sic, for « tendent » ?] qu’à troubler l’ordre de la société, surtout quand ils sont lus par des esprits qui ne sont pas assez instruits pour mettre à part ce qui se trouve de vicieux.  La sagesse de notre gouvernement paraît prendre cette partie à cœur, à quoi il réussira par les précautions qu’il prend, ce que je désire beaucoup.

It was always good to have a copy of such a letter in one’s records in case the police might raid the shop.  In fact, some booksellers sent “lettres ostensibles” full of pious sentiments to serve as evidence in case they got into trouble with the authorities.  By this time, however, the main attention of the book police had shifted to the confiscation of pirated works, which formed the bulk of Pavie’s trade with the STN.  The edicts of 1777 were strictly enforced in his area, he wrote on July 31, 1779.  All bills of lading on the bales had to specify that the goods had been inspected and repackaged with lead seals at a chambre syndicale.  Of course, the STN’s agents had ways of coping with this problem in Lyon, and so did Pavie’s other Swiss suppliers, including two Neuchâtel publisher-wholesalers who were rivals of the STN: Samuel Fauche and the independent firm of his son, Fauche fils aîné et Cie. But the shipping costs continued to mount.  In December, 1779, Pavie complained that he had just received a bale whose transport came to 36 livres for books worth 169 livres.  In August, 1780, he settled his account for 515 livres 5 sous, and he did not order any more books for nearly four years.

Trade between foreign suppliers and provincial booksellers suffered from a further disruption in 1783.  On June 12, the French minister of foreign affairs issued an order that required all book shipments, no matter what their destination, to pass through strict inspection in the Paris chambre syndicale.  This new measure, which was intended to stifle the trade in forbidden books, made it prohibitively expensive as well as dangerous for foreign publisher-wholesalers to ship books to retailers located far from Paris.  Pavie informed the STN on February 21, 1784 that he had stopped ordering books from Switzerland: “Les difficultés qu’il y a actuellement de tirer de l’étranger doit porter un grand préjudice à votre débit.  La rigidité avec laquelle sont exercés ces ordres [orders of June 12, 1783 sent from the ministry of foreign affairs to customs officers who worked for the General Tax Farm]  m’a fait suspendre toute correspondence dans vos cantons.”  A month later, he wrote that the STN should be able to overcome this obstacle by hiring a Parisian bookseller to get its shipments through the chambre syndicale.  He dealt with everyone in the book trade of Paris, he said, but he could not handle the arrangements himself.  He would pay 10 livres per hundredweight for the undercover service and the transport costs from Neuchâtel to Paris, provided the STN assumed all risks.  He was particularly eager to get 50 copies of the Vie privée ou apologie de Mgr. le duc de Chartres, a libelous work that was much in demand.

By September, 1784, Pavie had given up hope that the order of September 12, 1783 would be revoked, and nothing could be done to arrange smuggling through the chambre syndicale of Paris.  The STN raised the possibility of sending its bales to Lyon, where its agents could repackage them and forwarded them to La Rochelle disguised as domestic shipments.  But that serviced would cost 15 livres per hundredweight.  Pavie was eager to get a new edition of Mercier’s An 2440.  When he calculated the expenses, however—15 livres for smuggling and 25 livres for transport, totaling 40 livres per hundredweight—he concluded that each book would cost him 6 to 8 sous more than its wholesale price, “…ce qui dégoûte.”  The Lyonnais managed to get Swiss books to him, he insisted; so the STN should be able to do so as well, while paying half of the 15 livres smuggling charge.

On October 24, 1784, the STN replied that no such arrangement was feasible: “Le passage par Lyon est dangereux; on y visite rigoureusement; il faut l’esquiver, comme celui par Orléans, et traverser l’Auvergne et le Limousin où les chemins sont mauvais… »  Although Pavie and the STN continued for a year to discuss various possibilities—smuggling through Lyon, boats along the Rhine to Holland, mule trains in Auvergne and the Limousin—nothing worked out.  They settled accounts in December 1785 and never restored their trade.

          As Pavie made clear in his letters, he wanted a great many Protestant works and “livres philosophiques.”  His orders were somewhat less varied than those of other provincial booksellers, perhaps because he concentrated, at least at first, on the forbidden books that the STN kept in stock or procured by exchanges with publishers who specialized in the underground trade.  On the list of the fifteen titles that he ordered most, the top three were editions of the Bible, the psalms, and a catechism.  Two others were collections of sermons—two of nine books of sermons that he ordered on different occasions.  To the modern reader, they look out of place on a list next to works that would be considered pornographic today (the term pornography was not widely used before the nineteenth century): Histoire galante de la tourière des Carmélites, ouvrage fait pour servir de pendant au Portier des Chartreux, La Putain errante, and La Nouvelle Académie des dames.  But to eighteenth-century booksellers, literature aimed at Huguenots was as dangerous as works that were merely salacious, even if they mixed sex with anticlericalism.

Among the other works that Pavie ordered most often were many that figured prominently in the trade of other booksellers, notably Mercier’s utopian best-seller, L’An 2440 and the scandalous Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry.  L’Adoption, ou la Maçonnerie des femmes, fifth on his list of most-ordered books, illustrates the widespread fascination with free masonry among French readers.  Judging from the pattern of Pavie’s orders, the demand for it remained strong among his customers.  He sent for 12 copies on March 16, 1776 ; 39 on July 27, 1776 ; 12 on January 19, 1779; and 6 on September 18, 1779.  He also ordered a dozen copies of Les Devoirs, status, ou règlements généraux des francs maçons on March 16, 1776.  Among other tendencies, the orders suggested a strong demand for political tracts such as Catéchisme du citoyen by Joseph Saige and Essai sur le despotisme by the comte de Mirabeau.  And they included a sizeable proportion of Enlightenment works, from Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques, which had lost much of their shock value by 1770, to d’Holbach’s brazenly atheistic Système de la nature.  Pavie ordered up a spicy diet of literature for his customers, and he would have provided them with more had he been able to establish stable supply lines.