The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard

IMG I know that Rupert Brooke’s Poems was supposed to be the next publication under consideration. I have started on it, and there is a chance that I may warm to it, but it’s on the backburner at present, so to speak.

The Brooke’s book that I have is actually the 2nd edition which was likely issued in 1955 (item 86.5 in Folio 60), so I can rationalise leaving it aside for the time being.

So the subject of this post is The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard. It was first published in French in 1881, and, published in 1948, is the tenth Folio Society book.

The Book

Printed by W. S. Cowell in 10/12 pt. Plantin. Illustrations printed by Cowell. Bound by Mackays of Chatham. There was an Introduction by the translator.

The Story

The book is divided into two separate stories. The first is called “The Log” and the second “The Daughter of Clementine”.  Bonnard is the central character in both books, but it takes a little while to understand the other connections between the stories. Bonnard is an academic bibliophile who lives in an apartment in Paris surrounded by his books. He has never married. His closest companions are his cat Hamilcar and his world wise, but joyless housekeeper Therese.

In “The Log”, Bonnard takes pity on a neighbouring young impoverishered couple and child and gives them wood to put on the fire for Christmas. This little act of kindness is repaid years later. The father dies and  the widow remarries a rich aristocrat. A book, which Bonnard has long coverted, is given to him by Madame Trepof, his former neighbour, as a gratitude.

The next section of the book is entitled “The Daughter of Clementine”. We learn more of Bonnard’s background. In his youth he had fallen in love with Clementine, the daughter of one of his father’s friends. The friendship between the father and friend broke down over a matter of politics, and Bonnard never saw Clementine again. She married a banker and they had a daughter Jeanne. Although once rich, Clementine and her husband die impoverished while Jeanne is still a child. By chance Bonnard meets Jeanne at the estate of the de Gabry’s where he is to catalogue the library. Bonnard becomes determined to take an interest in the child and arranges to make regular visits to the school where she boards.

During these visits it becomes apparent that Jeanne is treated more as a servant than a pupil. Eventually Bonnard’s vists are stopped after he rebuffs attempts by the Mme Prefere, the head of the school, to marry. He later learns that Jeanne is being treated badly and Bonnard rescues her from the school. However this is a crime because Jeanne is underage according to the laws of the time and he would be liable to be charged with abduction and corruption of a minor. Fortunately for Bonnard, Jeanne’s legal guardian has suddenly left France after defrauding his clients, and no charges are laid.

Bonnard becomes her legal guardian and she lives with him in Paris. There she becomes reaquainted with a young man whom Bonnard was mentoring. Their love grows and they become betrothed. To give Jeanne a dowry, Bonnard decides to sell all his books, barring those given to him as souvenirs, including the book given to him by Madame Trepof as a mark of gratitude for his kindness when she was a new mother. However, while the rest of the household is asleep, he adds another rare volume to his already sequestered keepsakes, thus committing another “crime” by reducing the value of the dowry.

The book ends with the death of his young godson but with Jeanne and her husband still much in love and old Bonnard’s wishes for God’s blessings blessing upon them and their children and their children’s children.

The Author

Like the central character, Bonnard, Anatole France (1844 – 1924) was a bibliophile. He worked in his father’s bookshop, and later as a librarian. As a writer The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard brought him fame. This and other works led to a Nobel Prize in 1921. The presentation speech is here

The Illustrator

Harold Hope Read (1881 – 1959) provided the illustrations. He lived a precarious Bohemian existance in a flat in Tunbridge Wells with Hilda, his housekeeper, mistress and model. This is the only book he illustrated for The Folio Society.

The Illustrations