Wednesday, January 20, 2021

An Engraved Book: Fleur de Myrte, [1821]

Fleur de Myrte
(Paris: Janet, 1821)

In a previous post, I showed a document printed to look like a manuscript; this post will look at a little book I came across recently the bulk of which was printed entirely from engraved plates, without type.

And when I say "a little book," I truly mean a little book, as it measures about 3 7/8" tall. 

It is an example of a particular kind of book that I can't seem to stop myself from buying now and then: the almanac. In particular, it's one of a fairly extensive group of French almanacs from roughly the 1810s to the 1830s. They take the generic name of almanacs because they almost always have a little calendar included, but really they are little gift books, often aimed at an audience of girls or women, and they usually have French poetry as the bulk of the content. Like this one, they generally seem to have been issued in matching slipcases. They must have been aimed at the aspiring classes: filled with poetry, and available at a variety of price points: the present example is cheaply bound, but fine binding options seem to have been available, including leather, hand-painted silk bindings, and even the occasional binding in glass.

Bound in green card covers
with matching slipcase or etui.

In short, French almanacs of the period are tiny, cute, sweet, and can be found in a variety of bindings and treatments, and they are often at least somewhat rare. What's not to love about them?

Rare, of course, is a relative term. But these books, naturally enough, often seem to have been treated as ephemeral by their original owners, and many titles are fairly rare on the market these days. This particular little book, titled "Fleur de Myrte" doesn't seem to be available online at all (neither on ABEbooks nor on Addall), and only two copies are reported in institutional collections on OCLC/WorldCat: one at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, and one at Yale.

First half of 1822 calendar tipped in before title.

WorldCat does not give a definite date; Yale estimates the date as "181-?" My copy must have been offered for sale in 1821 or 1822: there is a calendar present (six months at the front cover, and six months at the rear) and the calendar is for 1822. Presumably, the book might have been printed up some years earlier, and calendars added as needed; notably the Yale copy does not seem to record the presence of a calendar at all.

And the book, as noted above, is interesting in one other way, too: not only the title page, but all of the text pages of Fleur de Myrte are entirely engraved, and some are faced by engraved illustrations. Note that here, on the right hand page, the punctuation at the end of the second poetic line goes beyond the bounding line: impossible, really, if typeset, but no problem for an engraver!

Engraved illustration page and engraved text page.

I am always astonished when I buy a book which turns out to be held in so few major libraries across the world. (And I'm even more surprised when it happens that I get a printed book recorded in no libraries in WorldCat.) And that's one of the fun things about being a bookseller: here, with this little book, I can help pin down the date of publication for a book--it's not a major addition to our knowledge of French literature, but when Yale and the Bibliotheque Nationale don't know the date, it's a useful crumb of knowledge to contribute, even so.