Books and Borrowing 1750-1830: Il étoit une fois…: The Advocates Library and the ‘Le Cabinet des Fées’

Original post from: Books and Borrowing 1750-1830: An Analysis of Scottish Borrowers’ Registers

When I began transcribing the borrowing registers of the Advocates Library, I expected to find that law reports, Session Papers, periodicals, and books of law were popular with the erudite lawyers of the Faculty of Advocates. I took stock upon the completion of the transcriptions for two registers covering the period from 1 April 1788 until 24 February 1791 (F.R. 262.a/15 and F. R. 262.a/16). These registers were chosen in accordance with our policy of focussing on particular decades as described here.

It was a surprise to find that the most-borrowed title was not a legal text or a work of history or philosophy. It was Le cabinet des fées, ou collection choisie des contes des fées, et autres contes merveilleux, ornés de figures a work of 41 duodecimo volumes published between 1785 and 1789.

Fifteen advocate borrowers between them borrowed 159 volumes from Le cabinet des fées between April 1788 and February 1791 This is nearly double the circulation of the next most-popular work, the Annual Register, another multi-item work which had a mere 76 loans in the same period.

It was clear that I needed to find out more about this collection of fairy tales and why the advocates were so interested in it.

The Book

There is a kind of Writing, wherein the Poet quite loses sight of Nature, and entertains his Reader’s Imagination with the Characters and Actions of such Persons as have many of them no Existence, but what he bestows on them. Such are Fairies, Witches, Magicians, Demons, and departed Spirits. This Mr. Dryden calls the Fairy way of Writing, which is, indeed, more difficult than any other that depends on the Poet’s Fancy, because he has no pattern to follow it, and must work altogether out of his own Invention. 

— The SpectatorNo. 419 (12 July 1712)

In August 1773, the Curators of the Advocates Library submitted a report to the Dean of Faculty about the results from their survey of the collection. They found several faults, including that the Library was ‘remarkably deficient in the modern classics’ and had ‘commissioned from abroad a very complete Collection of the most approved French and Italian authors’.[1] This marked a change in policy from 1757 when Library Keeper David Hume resigned his position over a conflict about his purchase of French stories and satires.[2]

Engraved portrait of Marie Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, comtesse d'Aulnoy (1650-1705)
Marie Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, comtesse d’Aulnoy (1650-1705).

French literary fairy tales emerged in the salons of Paris and the court of Versailles in the late seventeenth-century. They were inspired by Italian stories that featured ‘fairies, chivalry, and star-crossed lovers’.[3] Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, a novelist, memorialist, and travel writer was first to publish a French literary fairy tale, ‘L’Île de la félicité’, in her novel L’Histoire d’Hypolite, comte de Duglas in 1690. She went on to be one of the most prolific writers of fairy tales.[4] Between 1690 and 1715 the majority of French fairy tale writers were women.[5] Their stories featured elaborate descriptions and the assurance that the hero – or more frequently heroine – will prevail.[6] The stories could also be subversive and and satirical. D’Aulnoy’s ‘Belle Belle’, for example, has a heroine who disguises herself as a man and tricks a corrupt king into restoring property he has stolen.[7]

Charles Perrault’s Histoires ou contes du temps passé of 1697 included elements of folklore to his stories and increased their appeal for child readers by adding the character of Mother Goose as the supposed story teller.[8] Perrault, along with his niece Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier, an author fairy tales in her own right, championed the French literary fairy tale as superior to the Greek and Roman tales of the ancients.[9]

Table of contents from the Cabintet des Fees showing stories by Madame d'Aulnoy
Table of Contents page from the second volume of Cabinet des fées showing stories by d’Aulnoy, including one of her most famous tales, ‘The Blue Bird’ and her ‘Les Contes des Fées’, which gave the genre its name.
Table of contents page from Cabinet des Fees showing stories by Charles Perrault
Charles Perrault’s stories in the first volume of Cabinet des fées, including such classics as ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, ‘Puss-in-Boots’, ‘Cinderella’, and ‘Bluebeard’.

The translation of the Arabian Nights into French by Antione Gallard from 1704 to 1717 provided fairy tale writers with new ‘oriental’ motifs including genies and exotic locations.[10]

Stories from the Arabian Nights inspired the addition of ‘oriental’ character and themes to French fairy tales as well as being included in the Cabinet des fées

The French fairy tale proved to be an almost endlessly adaptable format encompassing a ‘myriad of forms, including oriental, sentimental, philosophical, parodic, satirical, pornographic, and didactic tales’.[11] The genre became more male-dominated as the decades passed. Jean-Jacques Rousseau used ‘La Reine Fantasque’ to promote his thoughts, but, for the most part, the stories came to be seen as more for pleasure than for instruction.[12]

The Cabinet des fées so popular with the advocates of Edinburgh in the late 1780s was the brainchild of its editor Charles-Joseph Mayer. Mayer collected and published what he saw as the best French literary fairy tales of the past century. He preferred moral tales with instructive messages and excluded tales that he identified as lewd or parodic.[13] Readers of the Cabinet des fées would find classic tales by d’Aulnoy, Perrault, and many others packaged in an accessible pocket-sized format with illustrations.[14]

The Borrowers

Ten of the fifteen advocate borrowers of the Cabinet des fées were mostly admitted to the Faculty in the 1780s. They would therefore have been young and starting in their legal careers. Others, such as John Maclaurin, who became Lord Dreghorn in 1788 having been admitted to the Faculty in 1756, were more established. Maclaurin’s interest in the tales may stem from his studies of ‘the language and literature of France’.[15] William Miller of Glenlee, the future Lord Glenlee (admitted 1777), married in 1778 and had nine children so it may be that he shared the tales with his growing family.[16] Half of the borrowers, however, were unmarried at the time of the borrowings so it seems likely that the fairy tales were borrowed for their own enjoyment. Perhaps they borrowed the tales to improve their knowledge of French culture and language just as the Curators of the Advocates Library had envisioned a decade before.

Borrowing record of Alexander Irving for three volumes of the Cabinet des Fees
Mr Alexander Irving – admitted to the Faculty in 1788 and the future Lord Newton – borrows three volumes of the Cabinet des Fées, 13 July 1790. F.R. 262.a/16, f. 171

Scotland, of course, has its own history of fairy belief and fairy writing. There is not the space to explore this here, but it will be interesting to see of another advocate, admitted in 1792, will borrow any volumes of the Advocate Library’s copy of the Cabinet des fées. I mean, of course, none other than Walter Scott who would become no stranger to ‘the fairy way of writing’.

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  • [1] The Minute Book of the Faculty of Advocates, Vol. 3: 1751-1783, ed. Angus Stewart (Edinburgh: Stair Society, 1999), p. 246.
  • [2] For this controversy see Brian Hillyard, ‘The Keepership of David Hume’, in For the Encouragement of Learning: Scotland’s National Library, 1689-1989, ed. Patrick Cadell and Ann Matheson (Edinburgh: HMSO, 1989), pp. 103-109.
  • [3] The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, ed. Jack Zipes (Oxford: OUP, 2000), pp. 174-5.
  • [4] Her tales were frequently translated into English and she influenced British novelists including Clara Reeve and Ann Radcliffe. Christine A. Jones, ‘Madame D’Aulnoy Charms the British’, Romantic Review, Vol. 99, nos. 3-4 (2008), pp. 239-56.
  • [5] Oxford Companion, p. 175.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Christine P. Makward and Madeline Cottenet-Hage, Dictionnaire littéraire des femmes de langue française (Paris: Karthala, 1996), p. 38.
  • [8] Oxford Companion, p. 177.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Marina Warner, Once Upon a Time: A short history of fairy tale, pbk edn (Oxford: OUP, 2016), pp. 47-49.
  • [11] Oxford Companion, p. 178
  • [12] Ibid, pp. 178, 180. For Rousseau, see Patricia Murphy, ‘Fantasy and Satire in Rousseau’s La Reine Fantasque’French Review, Vol. 47, no. 4 (1974), pp. 757-66.
  • [13] Oxford Companion, p. 181.
  • [14] The National Library of Scotland has digitised the copy of Cabinet of fées in its J. F. Campbell Collection. NB: This is not the copy borrowed by the advocates. <>accessed 26 Feb. 2022. The images that accompany this article are taken from this digital copy.
  • [15] Lionel Alexander Ritchie, ‘MacLaurin, John, Lord Dreghorn (1734–1796), judge and writer’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: OUP, 2004). <> accessed 26 Feb. 2022.
  • [16] G. F. R. Barker and Anita McConnell, ‘Miller, Sir William, second baronet, Lord Glenlee (1755–1846), judge’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: OUP, 2004). <> accessed 26 Feb. 2022.

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