Taine’s Pyrenees: Useful and Beautiful
The distinctive bookmark caught my eye on eBay. Its handsome design of gold gilt ornate letters on thick matte black card made it stand out from the usual Victorian fare of flowers, pretty ladies in big hats and pastel colors. And I wondered what was special about this book that led the publisher to produce a bookmark of such quality.
I recognized the name of the illustrator, Doré, presumably Gustave Doré, and the publisher. But the author and title were not familiar. A quick look in Google Book Search identified the book as A Tour Through the Pyrenees by Hippolyte Taine, translated by John Safford Fiske, illustrated by Gustave Doré, and published by H. Holt and company in 1874. The book cover (viewed by scrolling back from the title page) has the same black background with gold letters that are not as ornate as those on the bookmark but that do have a similar feel. I was pleased to see “Original from the University of California, Digitized Jan 16, 2008, 523 pages” since it came from one of my institution’s libraries. By jumping to p. 356, it is possible to view a sort of abstract, wavy record of its circulation history with dates visible from 1949 to 199?, a good fifty years of travel to and from the library.
Google Book Search also includes citations to other works that mention the book which led me to a review in the New York Times dated Dec 13, 1873. A good portion of the review comments on Doré’s illustrations, and the following statement stood out: “An engraving of the village of Gedres will attract attention here, not only on account of the extreme delicacy of execution, but also as presenting some of M. Doré’s most prominent peculiarities. Careful examination will lead to the detection of much beauty and humor in all the illustrations.”
After searching in vain for illustrations, I decided to look at some of the other editions offered by Google. Eventually I came upon another edition scanned from the University of Michigan. Its description was the same with the exception of an 1875 publishing date. The mismatch in descriptions of the two versions is one of the caveats in using Google as sometimes the editions don’t match correctly to the bibliographic information. But persistence paid off; this edition contained some of Doré’s engravings featured on the “About this Book” tab. I found the illustration of Gedres mentioned above on p. 333. Doré’s images are intricate, arresting and worthy of a better view than the Google scan can provide. The “Find in a Library” link easily leads to nearby libraries, and copies of the work appear frequently in used book sources.
I then began to look for other reviews of the work during the period and came across the following from “Review of Taine’s Pyrenees,” (1874, January), New York Evangelist (1830-1902), 45(2), p.22:
Messrs. Henry Holt & Co. having sold the entire edition of Taine’s Pyrenees illustrated by Doré, will immediately publish the text separately. It will be in a Library edition, something like the same author’s Notes on England, and will be sold at not over one quarter the price of the illustrated edition. It is remarkable that in the illustrated edition the work of the author has attracted possibly more attention than the embellishments furnished by the artist and publisher. This fact indicates a large sale for the Library edition.
Here then is an explanation for the edition without illustrations. While it is common for a publisher to produce a less expensive version of a work, often with a less durable binding or a smaller format, it is unusual to completely eliminate illustrations of a well-known artist. Indeed, another review from Literary Notes. (1873, December). Appletons' Journal of Literature, Science and Art (1869-1876), VOL. X (No. 248), p. 796 specifically highlighted the value of the illustrations:
Messrs. Henry Holt & Co. have combined a literary work of high rank with an equally valuable artistic one, in their very beautiful edition of Taine’s ‘Pyrenees,’ with Gustave Doré’s illustrations—the whole prepared with great skill of printer and binder. This makes a volume that has a more permanent value than that of a merely attractive Christmas present.
The illustrated volume was a big as the coffee table book of its time, and the bookmark’s tag line encourages buyers to consider it “The Gift Book of the Season.” The New York Times review hints at a bit of controversy about Doré, however: “The names we have upon this title-page should be, and are, a guarantee for a large degree of excellence. We are not quite sure whether that of M. Doré will be so accepted by everybody. That artist has, we fear, been presuming on his earlier reputation so much that everybody has not the same faith in him that they used to have.”
Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, (1874, February), 48 (285), p. 450 commented that the book is “a fine contribution to the literature of the season, whether it be estimated by its art or its literary characteristics,” while noting that it is more superficial than Taine’s book on Rome. As for Doré, the reviewer believed that the illustrations “are a curious admixture of the beautiful and the humorous, with almost nothing of the melodramatic and the sensational, such as we should expect to find in his work.” This last comment suggests the nature of some of the criticism leveled at Doré during his lifetime, a critique that many artists today probably would welcome.
Another reviewer commenting on the version sans illustrations in the Atlantic Monthly 33 (1874), p. 626, had a different opinion about the value of the text versus the illustrations: “It seems as if this bright M. Taine had said to himself that he would paint a series of pictures which should appeal to the literary perception as landscape paintings do to the eye; and he has produced a whole gallery in proof of the impossibility of doing anything of the kind.” Although the reviewer acknowledged that Taine’s descriptions of local life, legends and history were “always done with grace and point,” he felt that “In the illustrated edition, where Doré’s wonderful pencil helps out the descriptions of nature, you do not feel how tedious they are; but in the later edition this fully appears.”
The debate over Taine’s and Doré’s talents continued as a reviewer in The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature (1844-1898), (1874, January), 19(1), p. 118 praised Taine’s “trained powers of observation, and the wonderful picturesqueness and flexibility of his style” and claimed that his writing makes good English even when translated. This reviewer provided an enticing catalog of the Doré illustrations, numbering over two hundred and sixty in various sizes:
Majestic mountain scenes, grand architectural monuments, wide-spreading valleys, peaceful stretches of river and meadow, wild Pyrenean storms, knights and ladies of the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, modern tourists and commercial travelers, medieval combats and banquet scenes, Spanish peasants in their quaint and picturesque costumes, fantastic fairy revels, and grotesque conceits of the well-known Doré type pass before us, as we turn the leaves, in an apparently exhaustless panorama.
Still another view of the interplay between author and illustrator was offered by a review in Old and New (1870-1875), (1874, January), 9(1), 138. The reviewer noted that Taine, in his dedication statement, encouraged readers to think of the book as a series of letters written on a rambling tour of the region. The reviewer asks us to imagine Doré accompanying him, working in various moods as he records the journey. “Perhaps he is full of fun, and with the spirit of Rabelais, satirizing the very people he sees in travel” or “perhaps he is the careful student of the nice detail of history,—such details as ruffs, collars, frogs, and button-holes” and so on. In a scene on p. 66 of a man described as a doctor with his hand on a manual of canon law, the satire is evident in Doré’s rendition of a plump man whose fur-trimmed coat only accentuates his girth. The detail comes in the form of multiple bookmarks extending from the equally hefty volume on his desk.
The reviewer asserted that the book was light and sketchy but not superficial, offering “suggestive and even important” studies of history on topics such as Henry of Navarre or the fortunes of the Huguenots. But he firmly concluded that the “English text is not as good as the print, paper, or pictures and is not fair to the French.”
Perhaps Taine loses the contest after all, at least in the English version. His words, whether translated or not, may sound overblown to the modern ear or quaint at best. Doré’s engravings are timeless and allow the viewer to interpret, imagine, and travel further into the scene. In the Life of Gustave Doré by Blanchard Jerrold and Gustave Doré, published by W.H. Allen, 1891, the author states that “some of Doré’s most delicate and finished pencil studies of scenery” are found, including “an exquisitely and truthfully penciled woodland corner” (p. 79) where Taine claims that the dreamer may “forget the useful and think only of the beautiful.”
Thanks to the bookmark that endured and the text and illustrations that enjoy new exposure in digital form, I was able to rediscover this book. It would make a fine companion to anyone traveling in the Pyrenees who wishes to combine the useful and the beautiful, as was the intent of the book in its day.
Bookmark specifications: The Gift Book of the Season: Taine’s Pyrenees
Laine Farley is a digital librarian who misses being around the look, feel and smell of real books. Her collection of over 3,000 bookmarks began with a serendipitous find while reviewing books donated to the library. Fortunately, her complementary collection of articles and books about bookmarks provides an excuse for her to get back to libraries and try her hand at writing about bookmarks. Contact Laine.