Thursday, April 1, 2010

17th Century Scandal: 14 Yr Old Girl Falls for Baron; Writes Rare Tell-All

The modern world's embarrassing, cringe-worthy, candid memoir-as-novel that dumps upon an ex-lover/spouse is nothing new.

In 1931, Jack Kahane, a writer of novels that nobody read, launched Obelisk Press. In a few years the imprint  would gain international notoriety for publishing Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. In the interim, it stayed afloat with  racy fluff such as Daffodil by Cecil Barr (Kahane’s pseudonym), one of the imprint’s best-selling titles.

But before Kahane got Obelisk Press off the ground he had to get Henri Babou off his back.

He had entered into an agreement with Babou, “a short, well-groomed Frenchman with a goatee beard and a thick Southern (France) accent” (Pearson) who published coffee-table art books, in an effort to get his dream of becoming a publisher in gear. The partnership did no go well or last long. While Kahane was recuperating from illness, Babou emptied the company coffers by publishing works of dubious commercial potential. Kahane was broke. How he recovered from his disastrous partnership with Babou to found Obelisk Press is another story. Here, we deal with one of the books that wrecked the Kahane-Babou partnership, even though Kahane had a strong hand in its choice and production.

It’s the story of a fourteen year old girl who falls for a much older man, told through a series of letters and narrative.

Cléante and Bélise: Their Loves and Their Letters, was issued by Babou and Kahane in October 1930. “Bélise,” the writer of the letters and heroine of the narrative, was the pseudonym of a real person, Anne de Bellinzani présidente Ferrand, daughter of François Bellinzani, originally of Ferrara, and an agent of Colbert, Louis XIV's great Finance Minister.

When she was fourteen years old, she met 'Cléante' - Louis Nicolas Le Tonnelier (1648-1728), Baron de Preuilly and of Breteuil - an officer in the royal household of Louis XIV - and fell in love.

"First published as Histoire nouvelle des amours de la jeune Bélise et de Cléante, par Mr. D*** in Paris in 1689, the letters which comprise the final section of the novel were added to the second edition (1691)" (Pearson). That first edition is quite a rare book; no copies have come to auction within the last thirty-five years. This, the first translation into English, is also rare, particularly the vellum and "specially bound" copies; examples of those in the publisher's original box are scare.

Their scandalous love affair led to an unhappy marriage that ended with her confinement in a convent. You surely read about it; it was in all the tabloids. L'Enquireur broke the story: “14 Yr Old Girl Gone Wild: Teen Temptress Ensnares King’s Courtier. ‘I couldn’t help it. One look, one touch.’ ‘He stole my virtue. I am bereft. I shall retire to contemplate my wickedness.’”

"Such were our lovers" (From the translator's Preface). It was a mess. So much for abstinence-only sex education. At the time, convents often provided the same career-move boost as rehab does today: Dirty laundry in by nine, out by five, wrinkle-free and rarin' to go.

Those expecting 17th century porn will be disappointed. This is galant literature, meaning it suggests, teases, leads yet averts direct, graphic gaze; it charms rather than titillates, as do the drypoint etchings by Jean Dulac (1902-1968).

The Special Binding and accompanying box.

"With Cléante and Bélise, Kahane aimed to produce a book whose contents would be sufficiently rarefied to cultivate a reputation for himself as a serious publisher, sufficiently risqué to ensure healthy sales, and yet sufficiently demure to avoid police attention. In this Kahane was 'moderately successful; one of the engravings had a little too much Gallic freedom for English and American custom agents who could not appreciate the delicious wittiness of it. But we got most of our money back' [Kahane, Memoirs of a Booklegger]" (Pearson, p. 482). In other words, the book was a moderately successful failure, not as big a failure as it could have been but as failures go, not too bad.

There were three different issues of the book in a total edition of 320 numbered copies: 20 on Imperial Japanese vellum in full morocco, with hand-colored illustrations and an uncolored duplicate suite, in a box for 1300 frs. or 10 guineas; of the 300 paper copies, an unknown number were “Specially bound”(seen here) in "half morocco" (actually, sheep not goatskin) in a box for 390 frs. or 3 guineas; the remaining paper copies were issued in wrappers for 160 frs.  This sort of extravagant, limited edition was the downfall of the Babou-Kahane partnership.

The book was advertised in the Times Literary Supplement (London) on 6 November 1930.  It was also advertised in Kahane's Obelisk Notes and News, no. 1 (summer 1935).

Kahane dissolved his partnership with Babou in the summer of 1931 and took as his share the unsold copies of the English books that they had published together.  In the fall of 1931 Kahane formally founded the Obelisk Press which in 1934 would boldly publish Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and become the home for some of the most daring and controversial novels of the era.


[FERRAND, Anne de Bellinzani]. [DULAC, Jean, illustrator]. Cléante and Bélise. Their Loves and Their Letters. Translated by Eric Sutton. Embellishments by Jean Dulac. Paris: Henry Babou and Jack Kahane, n.d. [1930].

First edition in English, limited to a small, unknown number of specially bound copies on hand made Montval,  this being copy #35 out of a total edition of 320, Octavo (7 3/8 x 4 1/2 in; 187 x 115 mm). 239, [1, blank], [1, colophon, [1, blank] pp. Eleven dry-point etchings in elegantly erotic galante style, including six plates, four headpieces, frontispiece and title page. Woodcut tailpieces. Marbled copper and gold end papers.

Half deep maroon sheepskin over patterned boards with antelope brown pigskin and gilt morocco inlays in Art Deco motif. Top edge gilt.  Publisher's original box.

Pearson A4.

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