Senate House Library treasures volume: featuring French didacticism



In 1689 Fénelon was appointed tutor to the bright but ‘terrible’ young Duc de Bourgogne, grandson of Louis XIV. It is for him that Fénelon composed Les Aventures de Télémaque, Fils d’Ulysse around 1694. The tale narrates the moral and political education of a young prince destined to rule. Influenced by the great classical writers, Télémaque fills the gap between Odyssey IV and XV by imagining the adventures of Telemachus and his tutor Mentor (actually the goddess Minerva in disguise). Télémaque was both pedagogical novel and political treatise. It theorised a ‘republican’ monarchy based on simplicity, moderation, pacifism, and wisdom.

Although enjoyed by his grandson, Télémaque did not amuse the Sun King, who read it as a satire on his bellicosity and luxuriousness. The first printed edition, produced in Paris in 1699, was halted by ‘ordre superieur’ before the completion of the fifth book. Having already attracted Louis’s displeasure through his controversial espousal of a ‘disinterested love of God’, Fénelon was stripped of his tutorship and never set foot in Paris again. Louis’s grandson died in 1712, and with him Fénelon’s dream of an enlightened ruler.

Télémaque was spectacularly successful. At least two hundred editions were printed prior to the French Revolution, and it was translated into no fewer than forty languages. Most of Senate House Library’s copies are in the original French, several of them duodecimo editions from the Crofton Collection of little books, with a couple of English translations. This 1717 Italian edition is based on the 1701 French edition of Adriaen Moetjens. The Senate House Library copy is the only recorded copy in any English-speaking country. It formerly belonged to Frederick Stroud Read, first Warden of the University of London Union and an avid book collector.


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