Forgotten Bestsellers: George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle (1749-88)

Frontispiece and Title Page of the Library of Innerpeffray’s Copy of Buffon’s Natural History

In our series on Forgotten Bestsellers, we have tended so far to focus on works of fiction, which I fear may perhaps have given loyal readers a slightly false impression of the genres most often borrowed from our libraries. In fact, although fiction does become very popular in the early nineteenth century, it is not really one of the more borrowed genres in the eighteenth century (sermons, controversial theology, history and travel writing are all borrowed much more widely than fiction in the majority of our libraries before 1800). So I thought it was time to redress the balance, and to write a blog about a very popular work that isn’t a novel. I therefore gave myself the thoroughly enjoyable task of reviewing the work of George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, and more specifically his Histoire Naturelle, Generale et Particuliere (published 1749 to1788 in thirty-six volumes; an additional volume based on his notes appeared in 1789). This was first translated into English in 1775-6, as Natural History: General and Particular, by William Kenrick, with three further translations following in 1780-5 (William Smellie), 1792 (J.S. Barr) and 1812 (W. Wood, although this was based on Smellie’s translation rather than being a complete retranslation).

Buffon’s original work aimed to contain all known knowledge about the natural world. Beginning with a comprehensive History and Theory of the Earth, the work goes on to cover areas of knowledge we would now designate as biology, anatomy, geography, material science, physics, chemistry, astronomy, technology and medicine, among others. The pictures below show the Contents pages for the first and third volumes respectively of Smellie’s translation, and give some sense of the range and variety of topics covered.

Volume I Contents Page

Vol III Contents Page

The Natural History was borrowed from four of our libraries – Edinburgh University Library, St Andrews University Library, Westerkirk Library and the Library of Innerpeffray. It circulated modestly from the two former, but it was extremely popular at both Westerkirk and Innerpeffray (and, in fact, tops the charts at the latter as the most borrowed book by all borrowers across the full period covered by our dataset, 1750-1830). Inspired by this fact, I decided to take a trip to Innerpeffray to have a look at their copy, and see whether anything more could be found about the extraordinary popularity of the Natural History in rural Perthshire.

Innerpeffray’s copy is the 1780 edition of Smellie’s translation, published by William Creech in Edinburgh in eight volumes. Nine further volumes would follow in 1792-3 (on the natural history of birds); it appears that Innerpeffray did not acquire these. The eight volumes are still in the original binding, and they are beautifully illustrated, containing, as the title page boasts, ‘above 260 copperplates’. All eight volumes show signs of significant use (as you might expect, from the library’s most borrowed book!) in the shape of dog-eared pages, stains (water, ink, food, blood, tallow, wax and soot are all identifiable), finger prints, loose pages and even some marginalia. This takes the form mainly of pencil crosses and marginal lines, and the odd emendation or correction made by hand in the margins of the text. On p.444, of Volume I, for example, in the chapter entitled ‘Of New Islands, &c’, there is a passage about the ‘great fire’ on the 10th October 1720 near the island of Tercera. In the lefthand margin, below a substantial black stain that I think is probably soot, there is a correction in ink, in what may be an early C19th hand. The sentence reads ‘Navigators being sent, by order of government, to examine it, they perceived, on the 19th of the same month, an island, consisting of fire and smoke; and a prodigious quantity of ashes, through to a great distance, as from a volcano, accompanied with a noise similar to that of thunder’. ‘Consisting of’ is crossed out and ‘covered wt’ is in the margin, as shown in the photograph below.

Marginalia in Vol. I of Innerpeffray’s copy of the Natural History

There are scattered pencil lines and pencil crosses in the margins of all the volumes, but they cluster in the chapters on Shells and on Volcanos and Earthquakes in Volume I. The other marginalia (corrections and emendations) are most common in Volume III, and are in what seem to be three separate hands, all of which are different from the one above. These occur as follows: on p.173 there is a grammatical correction, where a comma and ‘which’ are added next to ‘Besides’ to improve the syntactic flow of a sentence. On p.211 the incorrect ‘walking’ is corrected to ‘waking’ in the phrase ‘waking or sleeping’; on p.304 ‘he behoved to be’ is corrected to ‘he must have been’, and on p. 387 the word ‘pocks’ is corrected to ‘bags’.

The photograph below shows an example of these corrections, made in one of the hands.

Marginalia in Vol III of Innerpeffray’s copy of the Natural History

The evidence in the volumes themselves, therefore, bears out the work’s popularity in the borrowing registers. It’s also clear that the borrowers engaged with it in a number of different ways, with at least some of them reading it carefully enough to add in their own emendations to the text.

Flicking through the ‘above 260’ plates of the Innerpeffray edition, it’s clear that these illustrations must also have attracted readers. Their scope and diversity is fascinating. They range from illustrations of spermatozoa, through maps of newly discovered islands, to a vast variety of different animals. Readers in rural Perthshire would have encountered in the pages of the Natural History both wild creatures that they knew well, such as badgers and foxes, and those that must have seemed unimaginably exotic, such as giraffes (or cameleopards, as they were known in the eighteenth century). While the accuracy of some of the illustrations is questionable (I found the hippopotamus below delightful, but I suspect the artist had never seen one), in the majority of cases they are both artistic and fairly accurate.

Plate CLXXXIV: Hippopotamus, from Vol. VI of Innerpeffray’s copy of the Natural History

Readers could also learn more about their own livestock and working animals, such as horses, and dogs. The section on breeds of dogs is unusually comprehensive, even if what it contains might surprise modern dog breeders on occasion, while the diagram of the points of the horse would be entirely useable even today.

Plate XI: The Horse, from Vol. III of Innerpeffray’s copy of the Natural History

Plates XVI and XVII: He-Goat and She-Goat, from Volume III of Innerpeffray’s copy of the Natural History

While I certainly couldn’t call the Natural History a quick read, or indeed an easy read, it is absolutely fascinating. I left Innerpeffray wishing that I’d had a week there to read it properly, rather than having to condense my reading into only a day! For anyone who wants a real comprehension of the ways in which eighteenth-century people understood the world around them, it is essential reading. If you are lucky enough to have easy access to a copy, I would definitely recommend dipping into it – on almost every page there is something to either delight or instruct the reader.

 I am very grateful to Lara Haggerty, Keeper of Books, and the volunteers at the Library of Innerpeffray for facilitating my access to the Library’s volumes of the Natural History. All photographs are © Katie Halsey, taken by kind permission of the Trustees of Innerpeffray Library.