Beyond the Text: Illustrations in Eighteenth-Century French Novels

Restif de la Bretonne

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<td style="height: 15pt; width: 460pt;" width="613" height="20">Title-page of the   second book, &lsquo;&rsquo;Ursule arrivante&rsquo;&rsquo;</td><br />
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Title-page of the second book, ‘’Ursule arrivante’’, Designer Binet, Engraver Berthet, La paysanne pervertie, volume I.

Restif de la Bretonne (1734 – 1806) was a colorful and picturesque author. He first came to Paris in order to work as a printing-shop apprentice but soon started to write. He produced a multitude of texts, all related to Paris and to what he could observe around him, but also dealing with sexual fantasies. For example, he wrote The Pornographer, a plan for regulating prostitution that advocates state-run brothels. Later he turned into a historiographer of the Parisian streets and their public during the Revolution with his book Les Nuits de Paris, ou le Spectateur nocturne. A lot of his novels, including Le Paysan perverti et La Paysane pervertie, tell the stories of young men or women of well-to-do peasant families who come to Paris in the pre-Revolutionary period to seek their fortune, exactly mirroring Restif’s own life.

In order to prevent his books being pirated, Restif decided to have the novels illustrated.  He started with Le Paysan et La Paysane pervertie, and soon both of these novels were published with high quality engravings, which enabled buyers to recognize that these were the real editions and not pirated copies.

Restif had very precise ideas about the illustrations and strongly insisted that the plates should highlight key moments, but also reveal the characters’ hidden qualities As a result, some engravings are a mixture of heavily symbolic signs and precise details. The best example is probably the series of title pages, which open each book of La Paysanne pervertie. The evolution of the various details on each page underlines the moral fall of Ursula, the young girl.

Restif de la Bretonne, La paysane pervertie ou les dangers de la ville, La Haie: Duchesne, 1784.

Restif became famous in 1775 with the publication of Le Paysan perverti, a morality novel on the corruption of a young peasant boy after moving to the dangerous and lustful world of Paris. After the success of this novel, he added a complement to it - a series of letters written by the peasant’s sister, La Paysane pervertie, which describe the slow but certain perversion of a young, fresh, and innocent peasant girl as she goes to Paris to help her brother.

The first title-page illustrates the arrival of Ursula in Paris. She is still pure and fresh, and this is why the word ‘’paysane’’ is more prominent that the word “pervertie” in the title-banner at the top of the image. But of course, the snake at the back of the engraving–reminiscent of the Snake which tempted Eve in the Bible–already announces Ursula’s future corruption, just as does the very down-to-earth piece of advice the old woman on the boat gives her as she goes ashore: “Be careful, Ursula.” This advice can of course be understood in a figurative sense.