by Kathleen Scalise
Love is timeless and Berkeley's Bancroft Library has recently acquired the books to prove it.
Sixty worn French texts, described disparagingly in their day as "childish stories, gossip and witchery," have recently been acquired as an addition to the library's 18th-century holdings.
From medieval versions of romance novels to marriage advice books and love poems to a combination astrological chart and personal hygiene guide, "the variety of texts in the purchase is wonderful," said Anthony Bliss, Bancroft's rare book curator.
Originally, "they were hawked on the streets of Paris and in the lanes of provincial villages from the Ardennes to the Pyrenees," said Bliss, who describes them as "ugly little volumes" whose popularity with the common folk appalled the high minded leaders of the French revolution.
Though most of the recently acquired volumes are inexpensive productions that sold originally to common folk for pennies, the latest text received by the Bancroft is a work once owned by Madame de Pompadour, the exquisitely refined and worldly mistress of Louis XV, king of France from 1715 to 1774. Though de Pompadour's book is a modest work of fiction called a "dance of death and romance of chivalry," the volume is bound extravagantly in polished calfskin stamped with the arms of the royal mistress.
Bliss points out this delicious irony: a woman who could have bought any book she wanted and who lived in an era of classic literature opted instead for "pop" fiction.
"We still love these kinds of stories," said Charles Faulhaber, director of the Bancroft. "They're Star Wars exactly, the same story line."
The texts belong to a genre of once popular reading material called the Bibliothèque Bleue, or the "blue library," in reference to the blue paper wrappers that usually covered the booklets. They add to Berkeley's substantial holdings of early romances.
For most of the texts, "what we're looking at is a real inexpensive production," said Bliss. "Crummy paper...bad type, worn. It's not a beautiful production. I could show you things from exactly the same era that would knock your socks off."
One devoted lover's words translated, "If I had a crown, I would make a present of it to you. But I am so embarrassed. I have nothing. To offer you my loving heart would only be giving back to you what you already own."
In general, Bliss said, the stories are anonymous works strong on plot, weak on character. "There's lots of cutting to the chase," said Bliss.
Though their value as literature was once considered dubious, today they are a precious find.
"They were not collector's items, they were not prized valuables. They'd get read to bits by everyone, so that's why they're so rare today. Nothing becomes so rare as the commonplace," said Bliss.