Class control starts with the book

Part 2 of Booknotes' look at a French literary revolution.

Mike Selby

In 1849, the government of France took the first in a series of steps to eradicate the Bibliothèque Bleue — the favorite reading material of the peasant underclass.

The only thing worse than subordinate masses learning to read was their fondness for the Bibliothèque Bleue — poorly written erotic romances named after the inexpensive blue sugar paper the books were bound in. The peasants demand for these books created a publishing boom all across France, and by mid-century the government felt it was time to put a stop to it.

The majority of the blue books came to the peasants via travelling book peddlers. So the government created a series of licenses needed by the peddlers so complex it eradicated the entire profession. They followed this in 1852 with a censorship act, making it illegal for a book to be sold in France that didn’t carry the government’s stamp of approval. Not only was this sure to eliminate what was left of the blue book trade, but also took care of any unapproved of foreign books finding their way into the countryside.

The biggest boost in their quest for culture control came in 1863, and the arrival of Le Petit Journal — a daily newspaper. As railways began to crisscross across France, more and more rural inhabitants had access to inexpensive dailies, many of which contained soap opera-like serialized stories. Although quite vanilla compared to the blue book stories, the readers could not get enough of these stories. Many cut them out and sewed them together, effectively making a homemade book.

As popular as these stories were, none of them compared to the real life exploits of Jean-Baptiste Troppmann, a convicted spree killer. After killing his business partner, Troppman began to kill members of his partner’s family, one per day until all eight were dead. By the time of his execution, Le Petit Journal was experiencing unheard of sales figures of over half-a-million.

Of course all these were merely temporary measures; the government still needed a permanent way to control and inculcate the lower classes. At first, libraries appeared to be a good place to control what was read, but the finances required to completely control reading material in all public and school libraries made this plan extremely unrealistic. It wouldn’t have worked anyway. Literacy was spreading further and faster than the government’s ability to direct into approved of channels. By 1880, an unheard of amount of the peasant class was literate, and a new regime had been in place for almost a decade. No longer did anyone fret over what the disenfranchised was reading. By the end of the century, they became some of France’s best writers.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library