Forgotten Best-Sellers: Alain-René Lesage, Gil Blas (1715-35)
Over the past few weeks, prompted by seeing a copy of it in Walter Scott’s library during our trip to Abbotsford, I have been enjoying reading another forgotten best-seller, Alain-René Lesage’s L’Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane. I’ve been reading it in the 1748 translation by Tobias Smollett, The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane, on the basis that this was the edition most often known to our borrowers. Gil Blas is another of those books, like Henry Brooke’s The Fool of Quality (1765-70), discussed by Matt here, that was ubiquitous in the eighteenth century and on into the nineteenth, but is now almost entirely consigned to oblivion, even in departments of literature.
So popular was it, in fact, that George Saintsbury, as late as 1881, in his ‘Biographical and Critical Notice of LeSage’, which precedes the 1881 edition of Smollett’s translation, wrote confidently of Gil Blas:
One generation may make egregious mistakes, and constantly does make egregious mistakes, about an author, leaving him to unjust neglect, or awarding to him still more absurd triumphs. Subsequent generations may, in a way, continue the mistake by leaving the justice of the verdict, for or against, undisturbed, because the evidence is undisturbed likewise. But when a book has actually been read by half-a-dozen successive sets of the inhabitants of the earth, when its most remarkable incidents and characters have become part of the common stock of furniture possessed even by a very modest housekeeper in things literary, then there is not much reason for questioning the value […] Its best things are as fresh as ever and are likely to continue so as long as human nature exists.
Saintsbury’s confidence in Gil Blas’s popularity with six generations was entirely justified. The Reading Experience Database records a variety of different readers’ interactions with the book. Gertrude Savile, sister of George, 7th Baronet Savile, read the book late at night in bed on consecutive nights in December of 1728, until on 28th December she ‘made an end of Gil Blas’. James Lackington, who would later become a successful bookseller and found the famous ‘Temple of the Muses’ (pictured), read Lesage when he was a journeyman shoemaker in the middle years of the eighteenth century.
In the early nineteenth century, governess Ellen Weeton, staying with demanding relatives, who didn’t appreciate her bookishness, read it in the mornings before they got up, while Frances Burney d’Arblay read it in the original French with her husband’s family in France. William Wordsworth remembered reading it as a child, while his sister Dorothy read Benjamin Heath Malkin’s translation in 1810, but found it to be ‘vulgar’. In August of 1815, Thomas Babington Macaulay recorded having read Gil Blas ‘with unbounded admiration of the abilities of Le Sage’. In Melbourne, Australia, prison Governor John Buckley Castieau read Gil Blas on a variety of occasions between July of 1871 and December 1872. John Ruskin compared the book favourably to Fielding’s Amelia, while, like Wordsworth, Joseph Conrad read it as a child – in his case in the 1860s.
In our own library records, Gil Blas also appears to have been popular, particularly at St Andrews, but also at Craigston Castle and at Orkney, where it appears in the catalogue in both the original French, and in a German translation (as yet unidentified – it appears simply as ‘German Gil Blas’). The novel was turned into a play by Edward Moore in 1751, performed at Drury Lane with Garrick in the title role. Two French operas of the 1790s with the same title – La Caverne – were based on Gil Blas. John Hamilton Reynolds produced a 5-act farcical opera entitled Gil Blas in 1822, and two further operas – Gil Blas (1860) and Gil Blas von Santillana (1889) – bear tribute to the work’s enduring popularity in theatrical form until the end of the nineteenth century. The book was often imitated – either blatantly, as in Vasily Narezhny’s A Russian Gil Blas of 1815 and the (much later) Confessions of Con Cregan, the Iris Gil Blas by Charles James Lever (1849) – or more subtly, as in Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1772) and Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random (1748), the latter of which directly acknowledged its debt to Gil Blas in a preface.
What was the secret of the work’s enduring appeal to its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century audiences? The first thing to say is that it is an easy and enjoyable read. It is packed with adventure and excitement, and its picaresque form gives the author plenty of scope for novelty and variety. The novel is written in the first person, in the voice of the titular character, whose observations about the world are often humorous and occasionally trenchant. Leaving home at the age of seventeen to seek his fortune at the University of Salamanca, Gil Blas is distracted on the way by a series of adventures. Having been robbed of his money by a troupe of robbers, who imprison him in a cavern, he then escapes with a wealthy lady, and then becomes a servant. As a valet to a large number of different employers, both male and female, he meets a vast cast of characters, including innkeepers, corrupt officials, young men-about-town, rich old men, maidservants, actresses and great ladies. His position as a valet allows him to comment on both high and low life, and he does so with enjoyment. He is the epitome of the lovable rogue – he lives by his wits, and his morals don’t always hold up to the strictest scrutiny – but he somehow manages to retain the reader’s faith in his inherent goodness, perhaps because he is always entirely candid about his own faults and motivations. After a series of further adventures, Gil Blas finally ends up at the royal court, where he becomes secretary to the prime minister. In the final volume he is able to retire and finally live an honest life.
There’s much to like about the novel, and there are some genuinely memorable scenes and characters in the book (nineteenth-century readers particularly liked his encounters with the Archbishop of Grenada – which take place in three chapters of the second volume). Both dialogue and description are surprisingly modern. Gil Blas himself is a lot of fun as a travelling companion through the text. The book is probably too long for contemporary tastes, really, but for quick readers there’s a great deal of enjoyment to be got out of it. Lesage himself wouldn’t have claimed it for an accurate depiction of Spanish life, but there are some fascinating descriptions of places, manners, food, drink and clothing that give an air of verisimilitude to some parts of the work. More broadly, even the most unpleasant and venal of human beings are depicted with a tolerance that I found very appealing. I was sorry to say goodbye to Gil Blas in the last volume – which, after nearly 700 pages of close type, was quite some achievement on the part of the author! I’m sure Gertrude Savile felt the same way as she ‘made an end’ of the book in 1728.
 Reading Experience Database, https://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/reading/UK/record_details.php?id=523 [accessed 24 June 2022]
Reading Experience Database https://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/reading/UK/record_details.php?id=8578 [accessed 24 June 2022]
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Reading Experience Database, https://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/reading/UK/record_details.php?id=4542 [accessed 24 June 2022]
 Reading Experience Database, https://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/reading/UK/record_details.php?id=992 [accessed 24 June 2022]
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