A Literary Tour de France
Couret de Villeneuve

          A bustling commercial and administrative center at a strategic location on the Loire, Orléans developed an important book trade.  Its chambre syndicale, established after the reorganization of the book-trade administration in 1777, had jurisdiction over Blois, Bourges, Chartres, and Montargis—that is, a large section of the greater Loire region—and Orléans itself had eleven booksellers in 1781.  One can enjoy a close view of their operations from the correspondence of the two who traded most extensively with the STN: Louis-Pierre Couret de Villeneuve and Jean-Baptiste Letourmy.  Couret’s letters have a further interest.  Like many prominent booksellers, he also functioned as a printer, producing local ephemera and publishing some books.  But unlike the others, he was an author.  He wrote and edited several volumes of poetry and belles-lettres.  By studying them along with his commercial correspondence, it is possible to form an idea of the literary taste of a bookseller and the extent to which it affected his orders for the books he sold from his shop.

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          Louis-Pierre Couret de Villeneuve came from a family of printers and booksellers that went back to 1582.  He succeeded his father as a master bookseller in 1772, having acquired the position of “imprimeur du roi” the previous year, when he was only 22.  The printing shop with four presses and the bookshop at the sign of “l’Immortalité” in the rue des Minimes (later the rue Royale) at the heart of the city probably kept many family members busy.  According to the royal survey conducted in 1764, Couret père had a good reputation, worked hard, and seemed to be wealthy.  When Couret fils took over from him, an older brother, François, was associated in some way with the business.  A printed circular and catalogue dated May 14, 1772 carried the signature “frères Couret de Villeneuve.”  But François is not mentioned in any letters after that date, which are usually signed by Louis-Pierre as “Couret de Villeneuve fils, libraire imprimeur du roi.”  Their sister married Charles-Joseph Panckoucke, the wealthiest and most powerful publisher in Paris.   Louis-Pierre referred to his brother-in-law several times in his letters to the STN and printed some of the volumes of Pancoucke’s enormous Encyclopédie méthodique on his own presses.  Few if any provincial booksellers had better connections in the publishing industry.   

          Two of Couret’s printed catalogues appear in his dossier in the STN archives.  They give a good idea of the books that were for sale in his shop.  The first, which is dated May 14, 1772 and lists 169 titles, covers a wide variety of literature.  Religious works—Bibles, devotional treatises, and especially sermons—predominate.  The secular works consist mostly of dictionaries, history books, and serious non-fiction on subjects such as botany and medicine.  Among the books in belles-lettres and fiction, the authors that stand out are the great figures from the seventeenth century—Corneille, Racine, La Fontaine, La Rochefoucauld, Fénelon, and Bossuet.  The Enlightenment philosophes occupy only a minor place on the list, although it contains some moderate works by Voltaire (La Henriade), Montesquieu (Lettres persanes), and Rousseau (La Nouvelle Héloïse).  Thirteen of the books were published by Couret himself.  Of them, most were devotional works such as Epîtres et évangiles avec des réflexions, Etrennes du chrétien and La journée du chrétien.  The second catalogue, from May 1774, contains 38 titles, most of them published by Couret and most of them religious.  Le Philosophe moderne, ou l’incrédule condamné au tribunal de la raison suggests the tone of several of the works.  Letourmy sent the catalogues through the mail to other booksellers and bookseller-printers—that is, publishers, although the term “éditeur” had not yet come into use.  In a printed circular that accompanied the second catalogue, Couret presented himself as someone of some standing in the world of publishing.  He produced well-printed books which were sure to sell, he claimed, and they could be had on reasonable terms or by exchange for books that he would choose from the stock of others. 

          Catalogues of this sort circulated constantly among booksellers.  They provided useful information about the character of a publisher’s trade, but to assess the soundness of any business, the professionals relied on information that reached them through the trade gapevine and on what they could surmise by corresponding directly with the firm in question.  Couret’s letters resembled those of other bookseller-printers, except in one respect: they were so well written, or at least so  florid.  He took great care with his phrasing.  His concern for language—and the way he used it—stood out in a letter he sent in May 1774: “Je serais trop flatté si mes loisirs peuvent vous procurer quelques bribes poétiques que peut-être par indulgence vous daignez regarder comme pouvant tenir place dans votre agréable journal périodique. »  In other words, Couret was a poet, and he wanted the STN to publish his verse in the monthly journal that it produced.

The STN’s Journal helvétique was a carefully edited periodical, which carried belletristic essays and light verse of the kind Couret submitted.  He, too, published a periodical, although his Affiches de l’Orléanais, a continuation of his father’s Annonces de l’Orléanais, was mainly a vehicle for local advertising.  He offered to exchange journals and assured Frédéric-Samuel Ostervald, the principal director of the STN, that the Journal helvétique deserved to be better known in France: “Le défaut de publicité est une privation pour notre littérature” (April 19, 1774).  Although Couret adopted the tone of a fellow printer-bookseller-man of letters, his situation differed greatly from Ostervald’s.  In 1774, Ostervald was 61; he enjoyed a reputation as a littérateur and civic leader in Neuchâtel; the STN produced books on a large scale; and it sold them everywhere in Europe.  Couret, then 25, was trying to expand the modest business he had inherited from his father, while making a name for himself in Orléans. 

From what can be gleaned from local sources, he participated actively in the town’s cultural life.  He was a founding member of the Société royale de physique d’Orléans, which developed into the town’s academy.  He pursued an interest in botany as a supporter of the local Jardin botanique, became an enthusiastic member of a masonic lodge, and churned out many volumes of poems and essays, which he printed himself, probably after declaiming them in salons and literary circles.  (See H. Herluison, Recherches sur les imprimeurs et libraires d’Orléans (Orléans, 1868); the article on Couret by an anonymous contemporary who apparently knew him in J. F. Michaud and L. G. Michaud, Biographie universelle ancienne et modern (Paris, 1811-1862); and an undated manuscript « Bio-Bibliographie du Loiret » by a certain Cuissard in the Archives du Loiret.)      

          Couret published his first work, Les Troglodites, a five-act tragedy written in classical alexandrines, at age 21.  It appeared with a censor’s approbation in 1770 “à Orléans, de l’imprimerie de Couret de Villeneuve, imprimeur du roi. »  As he explained in a preface, he took the basic idea from Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes with the intention of demonstrating “…que les dieux protègent la vertu et qu’une nation corrompue sera tôt ou tard la victime d’un peuple qui a de bonnes mœurs. »    The theme of virtue appeared in a more sentimental vein in Recueil pour servir de suite aux lectures pour les enfants et les jeunes-gens, ou choix de petits contes, également propres à les amuser et à leur inspirer le goût de la vertu (1782).  In explaining the rationale for his choice of these texts, Couret stressed the themes of simplicity, naturalness, and the innate innocence of children.  Another anthology, L’Anacréon français, ou recueil de chansons, romances, ariettes, vaudevilles, et à propos de sociétés (1780) featured light verse of the sort that Couret wrote himself and that he evidently recited at social gatherings.  It began with a gallant poem that he addressed to “Mme de C ****” and went on for two volumes full of frothy vers de circonstance, which, he claimed, expressed the “gaieté franche” of the French character.   

The worldly side of Couret’s writing receded before a tide of Rousseauistic sentiment in Discours sur l’amitié, suivi de quelques poésies fugitives, par M. Couret de Villeneuve, auxquelles on a réuni les Sentiments de reconnaissance d’une mère, addressés à l’ombre de Rousseau de Genève, par Madame P*** (1782).  The main part of this little volume was the text of a speech that Couret had delivered at a meeting in his masonic lodge.  Speaking as a “parfait Maçon,” he invoked the “Grand Architecte de l’univers” without the slightest reference to Christianity, and he proclaimed the principle of equality as the basis of all social virtues—“la charité, la bienfaisance, l’amour de la patrie et du prochain.”  Far from being mere abstractions, those concepts, as Couret expounded them, challenged the hierarchical order of the Ancien Régime.  The nobility was not entitled to a superior rank in society, he insisted, and any aristocrat who claimed special privileges deserved nothing but contempt: “Si vous n’avez point de mérite personnel, …je vous verrai sans cesse perchés sur votre arbre généalogique, crainte de ramper dans la boue. »   The accompanying essay by Mme P***, who turned out to be Couret’s sister, the wife of the publisher Panckoucke, reinforced this message.  She celebrated Rousseau as the champion of natural sentiments and social relations, especially within the family.  Yet the volume ended incongruously with one of Couret’s most worldly vers de circonstance: “A Madame de … en lui donnant dans un bal une orange sur laquelle étaient écrits ces mots : à la plus belle. »

It may be pointless to expect much coherence or a consistent political message in such a motley group of publications.    They show a young writer chasing disparate themes and trying to win some recognition in his small corner of the republic of letters.  Couret resembled many other aspiring authors of his generation, except that he printed and sold the books he wrote.  Although a few booksellers, including Ostervald, published an occasional volume, Couret was the only one who tried to pursue a literary career while running a book business—at least, the only one in France; Samuel Richardson in England and Christoph Friedrich Nicolai in Germany combined both roles with great success.  Couret published so much, in fact, that one can see where he stood amidst the conflicting literary trends of his time.  He aligned himself with the Enlightenment.  His ideas derived explicitly from Montesquieu and Rousseau, and he expressed them in a way that sounded quite radical.  Did his personal convictions and taste determine the choices he made when he ordered books to sell in his shop? 

Judging from his printed catalogues, the answer is no.  As already explained, they suggest that his stock consisted primarily of orthodox religious books and serious non-fiction with an admixture of standard literary works, mainly by authors from the seventeenth century.  Of course, Couret could have kept illegal Enlightenment works for sale under the counter, and he would not be likely to list them in a printed catalogue with his name on it.  But if he wanted to sell them secretly, he could have ordered them from the STN.  The pattern of his orders shows little that can be considered radical.  The book at the top of the list of the works he ordered most often was Millot’s popular and inoffensive Eléments d’histoire ancienne et moderne.  Next came Raynal’s Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes, an important Enlightenment treatise which included many contributions by Diderot, but Couret ordered all his copies before the book was condemned in 1781 and none of them afterwards, when it became a best-seller in the underground trade.  Nearly all the other books on the list were utilitarian in character—tracts on treating ailments, caring for horses, and dressing hair.  Couret ordered a comparatively large number of Lectures pour les enfants, which served as a model for his own anthology of stories for children.  Aside from Raynal’s Histoire philosophique, the only Enlightenment work on the list was the STN’s edition of Voltaire’s Questions sur l’Encyclopédie.  Rousseau’s writings are conspicuously absent.

In the detailed list of all the books he ordered, Couret’s personal interests might be represented by three works on free masonry.  The list contains some Voltaire; one radical treatise, d’Holbach’s Système de la nature published by the STN; and two political libels about Louis XV and his ministers published soon after his death in 1774.  Yet these illegal works look like exceptions to a rule: Couret dealt in the ordinary variety of literature that circulated openly everywhere in the book trade. The Enlightenment had a place amidst the books on his shelves, but it was a minor place.  Although his personal convictions included some radical ideas, they had little or no effect on the literature that he offered to the public.

Couret’s business also looks unexceptional if studied as a commercial operation.  After establishing relations with the STN, he sought to develop a steady flow of provisions—and to build up its “confiance” in him as a regular customer—by placing a succession of small orders and paying for them on time.  He had to overcome the obstacles encountered by all provincial booksellers who drew supplies from Switzerland: shipping costs, delays, difficulties with chambres syndicales at inspection points like Lyon, and the “vigilantes incursions [des] libraires de Paris pour empêcher le débit et le cours des contrefactions” (February 10, 1774).  Couret dealt so heavily in pirated editions that when he learned of the government’s intention to reorganize the administration of the book trade, he dreaded a catastrophe.  Imports of books had not been subjected to inspection in Orléans, but the regulations, which were issued on August 30, 1777, created a new chambre syndicale in the city, and its primary mission was to eliminate piracy.  Couret informed the STN that rather than run any risks, he would cease importing books from abroad.  In January 1778, he confirmed that the new chambre syndicale was as severe as he had feared, because it operated under close surveillance by the government.  Five years later, however, he was serving as its adjoint and was soon to become its syndic or chief officer, a position that would make it possible, he promised, to favor shipments from the STN. 

The main difficulty that limited Couret’s dealings with the STN was economic, not political.  In January 1775 he sent the first of a long series of letters that complained about hard times in the book trade, and he refused to pay a note that the STN had written on him.  Payments by booksellers normally came in notes (billets à ordre) that functioned like negotiable checks.  After receiving a shipment, a bookseller would write a note to the STN promising to pay the bearer a certain sum on a certain date, usually 12 months after the goods had arrived.  The STN could endorse the note to its own creditors, and the last of the endorsees would present the note to the bookseller for acceptance and payment in cash when it became due.  But when the STN worried that a client was falling behind in his account, it sometimes wrote a note on him.  He could refuse to accept it without violating his obligations as a debtor, but refusals could damage the confiance that underlay his credit.  Couret refused such a note from the STN in a letter of January 12, 1775.  In its place, he sent a note of his own but for a later date of maturity and with a new order.  The succession of notes and orders continued throughout the next three years, accompanied by refusals of acceptance, squabbles over the dates of maturity, and disagreements about the balances due in Couret’s account.  The exchanges became so acrimonious that Couret announced in a letter of July 25, 1779 that he would settle his account and stop ordering books from the STN: “Le peu de terme que vous accordez, le peu de facilité que vous donnez dans un commerce aussi dur que le nôtre, m’ont forcé à quitter votre correspondance très peu fructueuse pour nous. » 

In fact, the correspondence continued intermittently until June 1787, when the last letter from the STN shows that it was still dunning Couret for an old debt of 233 livres.  Although his last letters are missing, it is clear from the STN’s responses that he disputed its version of his account.  He may have been justified in protesting against its inflexibility, but the STN did not become involved in such quarrels with truly “solid” booksellers, who protected their reputations—and, as they put it, the honor of their signatures—by paying their bills on time.  When Favarger inspected Couret’s business in 1778, he concluded: “Couret de Villeneuve, malgré qu’il soit bien brilliant, ne doit entrer que dans la classe des médiocres.”  In closing Couret’s dossier, one is left with the impression of a commercial relationship that had the potential to open up a large market in the midst of France fizzling out in disappointment and recriminations.

According to the local historians mentioned above, Couret’s business collapsed when the Revolution broke out in Orléans.  He then left for Paris and found employment in the revolutionary administration responsible for overseeing printing shops.  How he fared under the Terror is unknown, but his revolutionary career eventually led to Ghent, where he took up a position as a professor of grammar in one of the Revolution’s new écoles centrales and died by drowning in the River Leie in 1806.