chapter  1
24 Pages

Reading, Writing, and Seduction

More people were reading in eighteenth-century France than at any other period in the ancien régime. With very few exceptions, literacy had increased steadily in every region of France since the seventeenth century, a rise that would continue unabated even throughout the Revolution.1 Although the nation as a whole was making progress in literacy, the ability to read and write was still divided along certain lines; city dwellers were more literate than those who lived in the country, the well-to-do were more literate than the poor, and more men read than did women. Historically, literacy in France was also divided along a line running roughly from Saint-Malo to Geneva, with the inhabitants of the northern, and northeastern regions of France being more literate than their counterparts in the southern and western parts of the country.2 For the most part, those who could read had at least some access to books. Although many books would remain luxury items, in the eighteenth century the bibliothèque bleue published a corpus of works that ran the gamut from novels, to lives of the saints, fairy tales, and even collections of Christmas carols, in editions that were easy to read and affordable.3 In major urban areas such as Paris, readers could gain access to best-selling titles through any number of libraries, some of which charged patrons a modest sum by the hour.4