French fiction: Monash Rare Book Collection 2 November 1995 - 4 March 1996


French fiction: Monash Rare Book Collection 2 November 1995 - 4 March 1996



The exhibition was held in the Rare Books Exhibition space, Sir Louis Matheson Library, Monash University from 2 November 1995 - 4 March 1996. French literature has been part of the curriculum at Monash University since 1961. The collections in the Rare Book Room reflect quite accurately the way in which teaching and research in the subject have developed. Over the first twenty-five years there was a strong emphasis on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Latterly there has been more focus on developments since 1830, even if earlier periods have not been neglected. Thus, alongside the modern critical editions and reprints in the Library's undergraduate and research stacks, there are materials, essentially original printings, that enable students and scholars to examine the production, distribution and reception of many French literary works. The present exhibition is concerned with narrative fiction from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century. From the chansons de geste and the romans courtois of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries on to the novels and short stories of our own time, there is a long, continuous history in France of these genres. Inevitably, given the unevenness of the Rare Book Room's own holdings, some eras are better represented than others. Nonetheless, it is our aim to show something of the great diversity of what was published and read in France and in all the other places where French was taught to and effectively used by the educated. A substantial public in Britain and other English-speaking countries was part of the world audience for what emanated from Paris. Whether in the original or in translation, many French authors were directly available in local printings to readers in London, New York, and even Melbourne. The works exhibited show this dimension of the impact of French fiction quite clearly. Medieval romances and the novels of the Renaissance are here represented for the most part in editions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although Romantic rediscovery of the Middle Ages was responsible for many pseudo-facsimile reprints, it is important to note that the Enlightenment period was not totally oblivious of literary traditions that were out of fashion. The Library's real strength in narratives from the 150 years encompassing the reigns of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI can be displayed only selectively. Samples are provided of some of the great names from the canon, including authors like Fenelon and Le Sage from whom schoolchildren the world over learnt French for several generations. In addition, the massive publishing enterprises of the 1770s and 1780s that brought together whole libraries of fairy stories, imaginary voyages and digests of fiction of all kinds are given due prominence. Literary history in France did not have to wait until recent decades to recognize the major role played by women writers from the Middle Ages onwards. Marguerite de Navarre, Mme de Lafayette, Mme de Genlis, Mme Cottin, and Mme de Stael are just some of the figures whose success was solid and durable long before the international triumphs of a Marguerite Yourcenar and a Marguerite Duras in our own time. The last two centuries appear here more through English translations than original editions. In a roll-call that includes Eugene Sue, Gustave Flaubert, Jules Verne, Emile Zola and Marcel Proust distinctions between the popular and the recherche are not always meaningful. What is certain is that the French novel since Romanticism has an assured place in the imaginative world of readers everywhere. Beyond misunderstandings, quarrels and temporary discords in politics this is the permanent reality of French fictions.

Some items kindly loaned by private collectors








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Kirsop, Wallace et al., “French fiction: Monash Rare Book Collection 2 November 1995 - 4 March 1996,” Monash Collections Online, accessed April 4, 2020,

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