June 2011 - unique edition of Richardson's "Lettres Anglaises"

One of the BNU's many treasures is a unique edition (called a "unicum") of Richardson's Lettres Anglaises, prefaced by Diderot.Portrait frontispice de RichardsonPortrait frontispice de Richardson1751 saw the first publication of a French translation of Richardson's major novel, entitled Lettres anglaises, ou Histoire de Miss Clarisse Harlove. It was an instant success, and it was not until the publication about ten years later of La Nouvelle Héloïse that an epistolary novel had as much success. The Abbé Prévost's translation was a substantial contributory factor. Written in elegant prose and adapted to suit French taste yet remaining scrupulously attached to recreating the rhythm of the English phrasing, it is at times as worthy of admiration as Richardson's original inventiveness. It was republished in 1766 with the addition of more translated letters and a number of additional accompanying texts, including above all Diderot's famous Éloge of Richardson.

The next edition of the translation, which appeared in 1770, is little known, and indeed is sometimes left out of bibliographies; it adopts the same configuration of texts. The BNU owns an exceptional copy, since it is a unicum, precious for any specialist in the eighteenth-century novel. This is the only copy of this edition currently known to exist.
Readers must demonstrate a degree of courage to follow a plot that is in itself somewhat conventional, going back to 1747 and the start of this copious fictional correspondence in London: the fall of a virtuous young woman, victim of both her cynical family and the traps laid by a libertine, the aptly named Lovelace. The exceptional length of the work (13 tomes, 6 volumes) of one of the thickest novels in English literature also calls for a degree of endurance. The fervent admirers of the work (including Balzac) were sometimes forced to concede that this was true, but they saw in that above all proof of literary quality: the wealth of detail in describing facts and behaviour, explanations and narrations of the same event by the comparison of epistolary points of view inaugurated a form of virtuoso writing that was to remain popular in the eighteenth century.
This edition also makes it possible to appreciate the truly creative work of Prévost. He does not merely translate - he deletes, summarises and corrects. It could even be said, as a number of critics commented when the translation was published, that it prolongs its own fictional universe. His choice of letters, for example, is significant. It is the second part of the novel that he reduces most, the part describing the redemption of Clarissa after she has been raped by Lovelace. He also cuts out the religious references, thereby warping the edifying aspect of Richardson's text, although the humanity of the characters, and in particular Lovelace, is enhanced. So much so, in fact, that at the end of his eulogy, Diderot felt some sympathy for the odious libertine, contrary to the unambiguous moral effect that the English novelist sought to have on his readers.

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Diderot's eulogy of Richardson is indeed a highlight of this edition. The text was published in 1761 in the Journal Étranger on the occasion of the writer's death before being included in the edition of Clarisse Harlove. Because of the circumstances, it necessarily obeys the rules of the genre, namely the use of sometimes emphatic rhetoric and its expression of admiration. It is a short text with a free structure and a free association of ideas and even provocation which praises the strength of the truth in Richardson's writing, and his talent for breathing life into the various epistolary characters. Diderot claimed that had made them larger than life, and that their humanity made them seem as familiar as the reader's own acquaintances. His praise was not merely in keeping with convention. By showing himself as an enthusiastic reader, Diderot was not far different from Prévost in that he also appropriated Richardson's text in order to incorporate it into his own personal approach as a novelist. In La Religieuse and later in Jacques le fataliste and in his short stories, the mystifications of the fiction of novels are constantly highlighted and considered. The eulogy exposes for us the process of this illusion: Diderot himself adopts the role of test reader; Richardson's novel is the experimental ground.

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By making us hear the voices of Richardson, Prévost and Diderot, this edition of Clarisse Harlove rightly deserves its place among the novels of the eighteenth century. Even Rousseau is indirectly present; although Diderot does not mention the author of Nouvelle Héloïse which contemporaries often compared or contrasted with Richardson's Clarisse, he refers to him indirectly by emphasising the abundance of characters, so brilliantly portrayed, and on the rich matter of the realistic facts - pointing to the things that it was felt Rousseau had neglected in his novel. In Volume XI of his Confessions, Rousseau picks up Diderot's cutting remark and defends his vision of the novel centred on the interior story of a number of characters "with no kind of malice", so that neither "the variety of the tableaux" nor the "multitude of characters" could divert attention away from his moralism.

Jean-Louis Elloy


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