For sixty cents per volume, readers could walk away with now-classic works by Charles Dickens, Johnathan Swift, Victor Hugo, and Sir Walter Scott.
They could also find authors less familiar today (at least to me), like Jane Porter, Regina Marin Roche, Anne Bowman, Holme Lee, and Jane R. Sommers (humph…the women seem to be the ones whom history let fade into the mist).
All book images above are from HathiTrust, where modern-day readers can find and freely download most, if not all, of the books in the BC Stationery Company list.
One of the books for sale at BC bookstores in 1888 caused a great deal of hand-wringing and finger-wagging among members of the book trade—and, no doubt, a large number of discrete purchases by curious and more adventurous readers.
The book was Émile Zola’s The Soil, the English translation of his La Terre, first published in France by Charpentier in 1887.
The novel’s graphic violence and sexual content, although pretty tame by today’s standards (I’ve just finished it and was quite moved by it…more on that in a moment), caused quite a sensation on its initial publication in Europe.
The novel’s graphic violence and sexual content, although pretty tame by today’s standards, caused quite a sensation.
In anticipation of an English translation coming to the shores of British Columbia, the Daily Colonist asked in October 1887 if such a book indicated an undesirable change in literary tendencies.
“Zola’s work will, of course, be translated for perusal in this country…it will be read all the more eagerly as it is declared to contain matter which…is unfit for publication,” the newspaper predicted. “In [Victoria] book-sellers tell us that seventy-five per cent of the books read are novels, and novels of the sensational order; they expect a lively demand for ‘La Terre.’ The question arises whether our taste is drifting into the direction of impropriety.”
A book’s suitability to be read at girls’ boarding schools seemed to be the Daily Colonist‘s standard for respectable literature.
“In [Victoria] book-sellers tell us that seventy-five per cent of the books read are novels, and novels of the sensational order.” [Daily Colonist, October 15, 1887]
In 1888, the London publisher Vizetelly & Co. released the English translation of Zola’s novel as The Soil, and soon Canadian and American book industry publications came out against the book’s importation. “It would appear that ‘La Terre’ is even more nasty than Zola’s other novels, although that was needless,” sniffed Books and Notions in Toronto in December 1888.
Noting that Vizetelly had been fined $500 for publishing the translation and that the New York Post Office and US Customs authorities had refused it admission to the US, the Books and Notions article concluded, “We might ask does it ever pay a Bookseller to have this class of books on his shelves? They do sell, but do they attract or do they drive away the best class of trade?”
“We might ask does it ever pay a Bookseller to have this class of books on his shelves? They do sell, but do they attract or do they drive away the best class of trade?” [Books and Notions, December 1888]
In the following months, the publication provided an update that Vizetelly had been imprisoned for publishing Zola’s novel and that Canadian Customs officials had seized a shipment of Zola’s works bound for a Hamilton bookseller.
Meanwhile, at least one Victoria bookseller, Robert Jamieson, stocked the novel, and in fact highlighted its controversial nature in his promotions.
“Public curiosity alone will give it an immense number of readers in this country,” the Jamieson ad declared.
The ad went on to praise the novel and its author. “It is certainly a great novel, powerful in the highest degree, and absorbingly interesting. Zola may well be proud of his latest production, for it is the crowning triumph of his literary career.”
I have just finished the 1888 translation published by Vizetelly, and was gobsmacked. Where has Zola been hiding on me all this time?
It turns out that La Terre is the fifteenth novel in a twenty-book series set during the Second French Empire (1852-70). La Terre takes place in rural France, and its characters are mainly farming peasants whose lives feature endless drudgery just to get enough to eat and to clothe and shelter themselves.
“Whole years were necessary for the accomplishment of any really perceptible change in that weary, dull life of work and toil, which began afresh with every returning day,” one passage reads.
Most of the characters are completely miserable, and there are, indeed, several difficult scenes of physical and sexual violence, particularly against women and the aged. But there’s a raw realness to the story that drove me through page after page.
Perhaps it was the glimpse into these peasants’ impossible and violent lives that made the book so objectionable to the establishment of the day.
In 1894, Publisher’s Weekly reported that US Customs authorities in New York had decided to admit La Terre into the state at last, “though the book in question is one that must be handled with care, if it be not avoided altogether.”
It is BC Book Day and International Women’s Day, and what better way to honour both than to highlight this milestone in BC’s bookselling history: the 1895 release of Lions’ Gate and Other Verses by Lily Alice Lefevre, the first book (I believe, though I stand to be corrected) written by a woman and published by a BC publisher, Province Publishing (1).
Calling the book “a little work of about a hundred pages,” the review in the Daily Colonist was full of praise: “The title poem and some twenty-eight others are the products of the pen and the genius of Mrs. Lily Alice Lefevre of Vancouver” (2).
Born in Kingston, Ontario, in 1854, Lily Lefevre came to Vancouver in 1886 with her husband, CPR district surgeon Dr. John Lefevre (3) (whose surgery on Carrall Street was just down the block from Seth Thorne Tilley’s first Vancouver bookstore).
The title poem of her book first appeared in the Vancouver Daily World on December 31, 1889, as “The Lions’ Gateway,” published under her nom de pleume, Fleurange. The first stanza is shown here, but the entire poem (and the complete book) can be viewed and downloaded at the Internet Archive.
One of the things that touched me most when I looked through her first volume of poetry was Lily’s dedication of the book to her mother:
In a 1909 Daily Colonist article entitled “Women Writers of the Coast,” Lefevre is featured as “a clever polished writer of either prose or verse.” The article also notes that one of her sonnets was included in a volume of poetry compiled by Lord Dufferin (former governor general of Canada) due to his admiration of Lions’ Gate and Other Verses. “Among the eminent contributors to this book were Tennyson, Browning, Sir Edwin Arnold and Rudyard Kipling, so the honor paid the Canadian lady was a very high one,” the passage adds.
After her husband died in 1906 (they had no children), Lily became a great patron of the arts in Vancouver. She “helped found the Vancouver Art Gallery, and made her home, ‘Langaravine,’ a local gathering spot for writers, painters and academics,” notes the entry about Lefevre in SFU’s digital collection, “Canada’s Early Women Writers.”
In addition to Lions’ Gate and Other Verses and a few publications of the title poem in other forms (such as in a limited-edition album of scenic Vancouver photos), Lefevre published a book of poetry in London with A. L. Humphreys in 1921; a Toronto publisher released the book a year later. “Despite this,” notes Glennis Zilm, “knowledge of her work is not common today even among students of B.C. literature” (4).
(1) In her master’s thesis, Glennis Zilm includes a chronological list of the books published in British Columbia. Lily Lefevre’s Lions’ Gate is the first listing by a female author (Glennis Zilm, “An Overview of Trade Book Publishing in British Columbia in the 1800s with Checklists and Selected Bibliography related to British Columbiana” [master’s thesis, Simon Fraser University, 1981], 277). ABC BookWorld notes that Lefevre “qualifies as the second female author who lived in B.C. [emphasis added] after Althea Moody had a book published anonymously in London in 1894.” Since Lefevre’s book was published by Province Publishing, this corroborates the fact that she the first female author to be published in British Columbia.
(2) “The Lions’ Gate,” Daily Colonist (July 25, 1895): 8.
(3) “Lefevre, Lily Alice Cooke,” SFU Digitized Collections, http://digital.lib.sfu.ca/ceww-718/lefevre-lily-alice-cooke.
(4) Zilm, “An Overview of Trade Book Publishing in British Columbia,” 143.
Chambers’s Information for the People, one of the volume sets featured in an 1861 ad for Seth Tilley’s Colonial Book Store in New Westminster, offered everything “that is requisite for a generally well-informed man in the less highly educated portions of society”—or so claimed the book’s preface.
“Designed in an especial manner for the People, though adapted for all classes,” the preface continued, “the work will be found to comprise those subjects on which information is of the most importance … The ruling object, indeed, has been to afford the means of self-education, and to introduce into the mind, thus liberated and expanded, a craving after still further advancement.”
Astronomy, geology, meterology, geography, botany, zoology, natural philosophy, mechanics, optics, acoustics, electricity, chronology, chemistry, textile manufacturing, mining, metals, the steam engine, engineering, architecture, agriculture, animal husbandry, health, food preparation, and more: all these were covered in volume 1 alone, which ran to a hefty 824 pages:
(Source: Hathi Trust.)
Volume 2 packed a similar wallop, covering topics such as history, language, society, military and naval organization, countries, the human mind, phrenology, logic, theology and major religions, morality, political economy, commerce, education, social statistics, grammar, mathematics, drawing, gymnastics, indoor amusements, rhetoric, printing, engraving, and household hints.
The regularly updated reference work was edited by brothers William and Robert Chambers and was targeted at the working and trade classes. It played a role in the increasing influence of science and philosophical thought as a challenge to religion. To put the 1860 edition shown above in context: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published only one year before, in 1859.