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La France classique – The French Tauchnitz

Tauchnitz made its name publishing contemporary English literature in Germany and selling it throughout continental Europe, in a series that ran to over 5000 volumes over a period of 100 years from 1841.  Publishing contemporary French literature might have seemed a natural brand extension, but they never tried it.

In modern day terms, the reasons may seem obvious.  English is much more widely spoken than French, particularly as a second language, so the market for French literature would be much smaller.  But it’s not obvious that would have been so much the case 175 years ago, when Tauchnitz launched.  You only need to read Tolstoy to know that in the early 19th century, French was the second language for many educated Europeans.  And the Napoleonic Wars had left much of Europe under French control, barely 30 years before Tauchnitz started publishing.

Napoleon

Nor is it obvious that French literature would have been any less popular, or less widely read.  The romantic novels of Walter Scott had been successful in Europe and with the rise of  Charles Dickens, English literature was perhaps entering a golden age.  But in France, writers such as Victor Hugo and Alexander Dumas were similarly popular.  Was there not a market for publishing their works in the original language in other countries in Europe, including Britain as well?

There almost certainly was a market, but not it seems one where Tauchnitz felt he could achieve any competitive advantage.  The difference seems to have been that French literature was already widely available throughout Europe in cheap editions.  These were often pirated by Belgian publishers, but even the French originals were significantly cheaper than British novels.  Given the very public stance that Tauchnitz had taken on paying authors for copyright in respect of English language novels, they could hardly take a different approach with French authors, and they perhaps saw no easy way to compete.

La France Classique 16 Corneille I front cover

Instead Tauchnitz tried for a period to sell classic French works, from long-dead authors, where the question of copyright payments was no longer relevant.   Their series ‘La France Classique’ was launched in 1845, just 3 years or so after the ‘Collection of British Authors’, but ran to just 18 volumes over a 14 year period, so presumably was not a success.

Half of those volumes appeared in the very first year, 1845, including works by Racine, Voltaire and Rousseau, as well as an edition of the fables of La Fontaine.   1846 saw a four volume edition of the works of Molière, but after that there was nothing further until two single volumes in 1849 and 1850.  It was clear by then that there was little interest in extending the series, although a two volume edition of Corneille was published in 1852 and a final volume of Voltaire’s ‘Henriade’ in 1859.

La France Classique 9 Saint-Pierre title page

The first printings of all bar the final volume showed the publisher’s name on the title page as ‘Bern. Tauchnitz Jeune’.  The final volume and reprints of earlier volumes show the publisher as ‘Bernard Tauchnitz’ (using the French, rather than German spelling of Bernard).  I haven’t seen enough copies to be able to distinguish any other variants, although as always paperback copies can be distinguished by which other volumes in the series they advertise on the wrappers.   It seems likely that the series continued to be sold even after the final volume appeared in 1859, although possibly only until stocks were exhausted.

La France Classique spines

Like other Tauchnitz Editions, the French volumes are now found in a wide variety of bindings

Having failed to achieve any competitive advantage in publishing French literature, Tauchnitz then retired from the fray and concentrated on English literature.  The firm did eventually return to publishing in French many years later, but not until the Second World War.  By then the circumstances were very different, and that’s another story.