This Just In: A Peek Inside the Maurice Lévy Collection of French Gothic

In a previous post Nicole Bouché, Director of the Small Special Collections Library, related the story of how the Maurice Lévy Collection of French Gothic arrived at its permanent home under Grounds.  Thanks to the magnificent gift of the Sadleir-Black Collection of Gothic Novels received in 1942, U.Va. has world-renowned holdings in the English Gothic novel, now wonderfully augmented by the Lévy Collection.  Here is a brief peek at a few of its riches.

A shelf of Ann Radcliffe in French translation.

At the core of the Lévy Collection are its many contemporary French translations of English Gothic novels.  Here, for instance, is a listing of the Ann Radcliffe works to be found in the Lévy Collection:

  • Les châteaux d’Athlin et de Dunbayne. Paris: Testu, 1797.
  • Le couvent de Sainte Catherine, ou les moeurs du XIII° Siècle. Paris: Renard,1810.
  • Eléonore de Rosalba, ou le confessionnal des pénitens noirs. Paris: Lepetit, 1797.
  • La forêt, ou l’Abbaye de Saint-Clair. Paris: Denne, 1796.
  • La forêt, ou l’Abbaye de Saint-Clair. Paris: Maradan, 1798.
  • La forêt, ou l’Abbaye de Saint-Clair. Paris: Lévy, 1880.
  • L’italien, ou le confessionnal des pénitens noirs. Paris: Maradan, 1798.
  • L’italien, ou le confessionnal des pénitents noirs. Paris: Lévy, 1873.
  • Julia, ou les souterrains de Mazzini. Paris: Maradan, 1798.
  • Julia, ou les souterrains du château de Mazzini. Paris: Lévy, 1897.
  • Les mystères du château d’Udolphe. Paris: Lévy, 1874.
  • Le tombeau. Paris: Lerouge, 1812.
  • Les visions du château des Pyrénées. Paris: Lévy, 1896.

Le moine, comédie en cinq actes (Paris, an VI [1797/98])

The Gothic novel proved so popular with readers that it quickly penetrated popular culture in both England and France, attracting a wider audience.  Consider, for example, Matthew Gregory Lewis’s novel, The Monk.  It created a sensation when first published in London in 1796. The following year it was translated into French and published in Paris as Le moine, and the Lévy Collection contains a copy of the first French edition. In December of 1797 Lewis’s novel was adapted for the Paris stage, in true French fashion, as a “comédie en cinq actes, mélée de chants, danses, pantomime.” The Lévy Collection includes a fine copy of the rare printed text, which contains a cast list for the  premiere performance at the Théâtre de l’Émulation, together with, intriguingly, “des changemens et un nouveau denouement.” (Please, not a happy ending!)

Matthew Gregory Lewis, Le moine (Paris, 1797)

Reversed positions: Matthew Gregory Lewis, Le moine (Paris, an VI [1797/98])

As Nicole Bouché has noted, Maurice Lévy was fascinated by the illustrations found in French Gothic novels, and in 1973 he published a book on the subject, Images du roman noir.  Illustrations may reveal unexpected things about a publication.  For example, the first French translation of The Monk (Paris, 1797) includes an etched frontispiece depicting one of the novel’s most dramatic moments.  The translation sold so well that the same publisher issued a new edition later that same year.  But in that edition’s frontispiece, the characters switch positions.  It is likely that the publisher, not anticipating the need for a second edition, neglected to save the copperplate and therefore had to commission a new plate of the same image.  In copying the original frontispiece (which printed in reverse orientation from the design as etched on the copperplate), the etcher necessarily reversed the image!

The castles of Montreuil & Barre (London, [ca. 1820])

For those English readers who could not afford the cost of a multi-volume novel, publishers offered Gothic fiction in shorter, less expensive form.  The castles of Montreuil & Barre was first serialized in The Lady’s Magazine during 1797-1798, then printed in chapbook form (“price sixpence”) with a lurid hand-colored frontispiece to attract purchasers. Special Collections already possesses two early chapbook editions of this work, courtesy of the Sadleir-Black Collection, and the Lévy Collection contributes a third, published by W. Mason and dating to ca. 1820. This copy is in its original blue paper wrappers, which feature on the inside a list of the various chapbooks available at “Mason’s Pamphlet Warehouse” on Clerkenwell Green.

Because many of the Lévy volumes are two centuries old, they display interesting evidence of ownership and use by multiple generations of readers and collectors.  Two works in the Lévy collection, for instance, bear the booklabel of noted artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901).  It is shown here (above Maurice Lévy’s booklabel), pasted into a copy of the intriguingly titled Miss Glamour, ou les hommes dangereux (Paris, an IX [1800/01]).  Styled on the title-page as a ‘free translation from the English’ by Théodore-Pierre Bertin, the original English novel has yet to be positively identified. Perhaps Bertin, who self-published this very rare edition, was actually its author?

Emanuella, ou la découverte premature (Paris, an IX [1800/01]) is a French translation of Eliza Haywood’s The rash resolve, or the untimely discovery. First published in 1724, decades before the heyday of the Gothic novel in England, its plot nonetheless contains some Gothic elements, and it is interesting to see it revived at this time for the French market. Also interesting is the provenance: this copy bears the booklabels of (at top) prolific author Paul Lacroix (“Bibliophile Jacob,” 1806-1884) and (at bottom) the founder of Surrealism, André Breton (1896-1966).  Fittingly, Breton’s arresting booklabel was designed by Salvador Dalí.

This Just In: The Maurice Lévy Collection of French Gothic

This week Nicole Bouché, Director of Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, relates the story of how a major new acquisition came to U.Va.:

Maurice Lévy in his Toulouse study, seated before the glass-front bookcase containing his French Gothic collection.

“I have now reached a time in life where one inevitably ponders over the fate of the books one may have had the good fortune to collect over the years.”  —Maurice Lévy

Serendipity often plays a role in building great library collections, and a chance encounter between an institution and a scholar can yield an extraordinary and wholly unanticipated legacy years, sometimes decades, later.  Such is the story of the Maurice Lévy Collection of French Gothic, a recent bequest of over 450 rare books now housed in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

Sometime in the early 1960s, Maurice Lévy (1929-2012), then a graduate student of English Literature at the Sorbonne in Paris, proposed to write his dissertation on the American writer, William Faulkner.  “Ah, but we don’t write dissertations on living authors” was the (predictable) reply from the French academy.

Instead, the young scholar was assigned to write about English gothic literature. With the help of a summer fellowship Lévy found his way to U.Va., where he spent three months immersed in an intensive study of the Sadleir-Black Collection of Gothic Fiction, among the world’s finest collections on the gothic genre. Lévy’s dissertation, Le Roman “Gothique” Anglais, 1764-1824, became a standard source and helped to revive scholarly interest in the field, and Lévy became a recognized authority on the gothic genre. Maurice’s final work, a scholarly edition of Matthew Gregory Lewis’ classic gothic tale, The Monk, was published posthumously in 2012.

Maurice Lévy’s doctoral dissertation, based in part on research done with U.Va.’s Sadleir-Black Collection of Gothic Fiction.

At the end of his fellowship, Lévy returned to France, never to return to Charlottesville, but with fond memories of his summer on Grounds. By his own account, he was never again in contact with the U.Va. Library, or with the Rare Book Department staff that had been so welcoming and helpful during his stay.

Jump forward several decades:  Lévy, now an emeritus professor of the Université de Toulouse, “pondered” what do with the treasured collection of French editions of gothic novels that he had painstakingly assembled.  An American colleague recalled how Maurice frequently spoke with deep appreciation of his summer spent in Charlottesville. Might U.Va. be a possibility?  And thus, in the fall of 2009, an e-mail arrived in Special Collections from an “unknown” French scholar, inquiring whether the library might perhaps be interested in acquiring his collection.

most of them first or early editions: about 60 titles, representing something like 200-250 volumes …. which compose, literally speaking, the French side of the same literary movement and could perhaps be considered by future researchers as a helpful complement, however modest and limited in size, of the prestigious Sadleir-Black collection.

I am currently looking for a home for this collection, which, although relatively modest in size when compared to others, has the advantage of illustrating the extraordinary vogue of the “roman noir” during the French Revolutionary period, and of including volumes which offer the distinctive feature (not shared by corresponding English volumes) of being individually illustrated with frontispieces by (most of them) reputed engravers. To pay homage to their talent, I published Images de Roman Noir in 1973 [Paris, Losfeld].

Should you be interested in this donation, I would take the necessary legal steps to ensure that they eventually come into your possession after my demise, so that they may be made available to future students.

If, on the occasion of a visit to France, you wished to inspect the books, you would be very welcome to do so.

Lévy’s letter included a detailed title list. We were instantly intrigued, and our interest was quickly echoed by members of the English and French faculty. Whatever the likely costs (not to mention bureaucratic hassles) associated with shipping a large antiquarian book collection from overseas, this offer clearly merited serious consideration.  A site visit was definitely in order.  Happily, I had already planned a visit to France; a detour to spend a few days in Toulouse with Professor Lévy and his wife, Ellen (an American) was easily added to the schedule.  Professor Lévy would meet me at the train station in Toulouse, where I would recognize him by the sign (“GOTHIC”) that he would be carrying.

As we conversed on our first evening together at the Lévy home, warm memories of Charlottesville, surrounded by the riches of the Sadleir-Black Collection and the gracious hospitality of then Rare Book Librarian John Cook Wyllie and his colleagues, were still vivid in Maurice’s mind.  It took very little time to confirm our interest in accepting the Lévy collection. And so we spent two enjoyable days reviewing and inventorying a seemingly endless stream of compact little volumes from the late 18th and early 19th century, almost all in their original, often quite striking French bindings.

“Oh, the horror!” groan the sagging shelves of Maurice Lévy’s bookcase.

The large, glass fronted, wooden book cabinet in which they were stored occupied an entire wall of his study. It was tightly packed two, sometimes three, rows deep, and its thick wooden shelves were so full that they bowed at the center, giving the impression that the entire bookcase was weighed down by the burden of keeping these precious volumes safe from harm.

Maurice removed each work as though he were encountering an old friend. He would pause for a moment to recall the circumstances of their first acquaintance: when, from whom, and where had he acquired the title? What drew them together, and what special significance justified the volume’s retention and inclusion in the “special” bookcase?  After a moment’s quiet reflection, Maurice would “introduce” the book to me, and we would add it to our growing list of titles destined for Virginia.

As our work progressed, it became clear that Maurice’s collection of French gothic accounted for only a small portion of the overtaxed bookcase’s contents. The remaining titles, he explained, were not his “French gothic collection” and would no doubt eventually find a home in France.  There was neither time (nor encouragement) to explore these volumes: Maurice, after all, was still consulting his library for ongoing research.

I devoted a return visit in 2011 to assessing Maurice’s extensive reference library on the gothic. No further reference was made to the other, intriguing “old” volumes, which remained undisturbed in the bookcase. However, Maurice had decided that it was nearly time to see the French gothics safely installed at U.Va.  We therefore said our good-byes with the understanding that I would return the following summer to oversee packing and shipment. Tragically, Maurice did not live to see the final transfer of his collection to U.Va.  He succumbed to a long illness only weeks before my return to Toulouse in the summer of 2012. It remained for his widow, Ellen, his children, and the U.Va. Library to follow through on the terms of Maurice’s bequest.

But there was a new twist.  Shortly before his death, as Maurice still had not arranged for the disposition of the remaining rare books in the old bookcase, his wife Ellen asked him about them. What should she do with them? “Offer them first to Virginia,” was his reply.  And so she did. It was an interesting prospect, but just what books were they? Ellen could tell me little, occupied as she was with other family and personal matters. And so I arrived in Toulouse late last July to arrange for the final packing and shipment of the ca. 250 volumes in the Lévy French gothic collection, and to ascertain which, if any, of the remaining books might be of interest to the U.Va. Library.

What I encountered was a revelation and delight!  As I made my way systematically through the bookcase, a pattern slowly but unmistakably emerged.  This was not a miscellaneous assortment of old books, but a complementary collection of rare (some extremely rare) and early works of gothic literature, many in  English, augmented by various 18th-and 19th-century source materials used and cited in Maurice’s scholarly writings.  The supplementary material included such works as Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Idea of the Sublime and the Beautiful (London, 1801), and Edward Mangin’s An Essay on Light Reading, as it May be Supposed to Influence Moral Conduct and Literary Taste (London, 1808). Maurice’s copy of the Dictionnaire royal françois-anglois, et anglois-françois (London, 1773) would have been an invaluable resource for study of translations, and then there was L’Art de former les jardins modernes; ou l’art des jardins anglois (Paris, 1771). What gothic novel doesn’t have a garden as a significant “setting”!

We were delighted by the new discoveries, and the possibilities that this expanded universe of resources would offer to students of gothic and related themes. It was quickly decided that virtually the entire contents of the bookcase would be packed and shipped to Charlottesville.  In due course, and with only the usual customs and other delays, the collection arrived last fall at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, where it now waits patiently in the cataloging queue.

Special Collections staff unload the Maurice Lévy French Gothic collection, October 9, 2012.

The Lévy family, for their part, was delighted and relieved to see Maurice’s treasured “rare book cabinet” transferred virtually intact to its new and permanent home at U. Va., where it will be consulted by future generations of students and scholars of the “gothic,” and serve as a permanent tribute to Maurice’s life and career as a scholar, teacher, and mentor.  Nothing, they felt, would have pleased Maurice more. And like many other collections “under Grounds,” the Lévy collection also serves as an instructive reminder of how great library collections may be built, to a significant degree, by the cumulative legacies of chance encounters.

(A future posting will feature more highlights from the Lévy collection.)

The Maurice Lévy French Gothic collection as it looks today, under Grounds.