La Bruyère’s Caractères: the 8th known copy of the earliest issue (1688)

[LA BRUYERE, Jean de]

Les Caractères de Théophraste traduits du grec. Avec les Caractères ou les Moeurs de ce siècle

Published: Paris, Estienne Michallet

Date: 1688

12mo (92 x 156 mm), [60], 53-360 p., privilege leaf [errata not called for in this issue], marginal tear (no loss) in B2 otherwise fine, contemporary calf, hinges and corners perfect but gilt on spine indistinct, small repair in upper compartment, modern title label

18th-century English provenance, Grimston (signature) with printed label ‘Gorhambury St Alban’s’ (the viscountcy created 1719), 19th-century booklabel ‘George Harwood’ within a wreath

En français dans le texte 124.

Jean La Bruyère’s only book has long been recognised as of crucial importance in the development of a certain French prose style, whose reverberations can be traced through, for example, Marivaux, Balzac, Proust. The ordinary first edition is itself an uncommon book, but the earliest (extant?) state which we offer here is a black tulip of French bibliophily. Tchemerzine, III, p. 791 sq. knows 5 such copies; Scheler can add one; another, apparently the first at auction, was sold in 2016 (from the auctioneer’s description a less good copy than ours). The present copy would be the eighth. La Bruyère reworked and enlarged the book through five successive editions, and the same editorial zeal is shown in this first edition. Le Petit pp.428-432 distinguishes 3 ‘tirages’ Of the first, with no cancelled leaves, no copies are known, and it is very likely a chimera: we cannot know why the three leaves cancelled in all known copies were cancelled, but there is no reason to suppose the cancellanda ever left the printing shop. The third tirage has (normally) 16 cancelled leaves, several with more than one revision of text, recto and verso; as is usual with such operations occasionally the odd uncancelled leaf is not noticed - but there is still clear water between second and third tirages: it is clear that La Bruyère halted the publication after a handful had been issued, in order to make (mostly) small stylistic revisions. Our copy has two variations not known to Le Petit. The one at page 222 is a trivial typo, ‘livrer’ for ‘livres’ Our copy retains the broken ‘e’ of the original, and the ‘r’ is replaced by a slightly oversized ‘s’. This does not look like a reset page, but a correction in the forme during the printing run. Page 274 is more interesting, and we can compare it with the facsimile of the BnF copy of this issue reproduced by Wikisource . Le Petit shows two whole paragraphs completely rewritten between second and third tirages. Ours, exactly like the BnF copy, has the original text of the first paragraph, the revised text of the second. So La Bruyère took two bites at the cherry. This shows that already in the printing of the second tirage he is at work revising.

Fine internally, binding very good

contemporary sprinkled calf


Offered by Sevin Seydi Rare Books