What did French kids read in the nineteenth century?

posted by Alina Ruiz

blog1Typical title page of the Magasin d’éducation et de recreation, the era’s most popular children’s periodical.

What kind of books defined your childhood? In Canada where I’m from, it was all about Robert Munsch, but I personally also enjoyed Franklin, Horrible Harry, Goosebumps, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and of course Harry Potter. When you’re a Master’s student in literature at university, you can feel nostalgic about your childhood reading practices; mostly the fact that you didn’t feel compelled to analyse every passage until all pleasure was lost from reading! Remember when going to the library was part of the class schedule in elementary school and for literally two hours a week the librarian would read to you? Yes, you didn’t even have to read the books yourself! Those were the days!

Fast forward to 2016, and yours truly needed to find a nifty topic for her History of the Book project. I combined my nostalgia with my period of specialization and BAM! the topic ‘Children’s Literature in the Nineteenth Century’ was born. It was a good thing I’m a nineteenth century enthusiast, because as I conducted my research, I found out that Children’s literature didn’t even exist prior to this period. ‘But how is this possible,’ you ask? Surely kids were reading before then? The answer is yes – but they were reading books that were originally destined for adults! Even the Fables by Lafontaine were written for adults (if you ever get a chance to read Émile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he goes on quite the spiel about how inappropriate it is for children to read the Fables).

blog2Remember this song from when you were a kid? They were teaching it in the 19th century too!

At the end of the eighteenth century, the literature available to children ranged from school books dealing with arithmetic, grammar and history, didactic short stories and dialogues written by (mostly) governesses, or whatever kids could find in their parent’s library (they took a strong liking to Robinson Crusoe). Among the literary circles of high society, it was generally accepted that children were not worth writing for. Furthermore, those authors that did write stories for children were not considered ‘real’ writers, and were often ridiculed for their incompetence or shunned from literary gatherings.

blog3Learn about France’s heritage in this segment called ‘Vues et monuments de France’.

Two things happened in the nineteenth century that were to change the way people perceived children and writing. Firstly, the literacy rate amongst the young was skyrocketing due to the introduction of new education laws that established new schools, subsidized the costs of supplies, secularized the curriculum and introduced mandatory attendance. Children suddenly became thirsty for new books, and publishers took the opportunity to monetize on the phenomenon. This brings us to point number two: industrialization. Thanks to inventions of new presses and cheap paper, books could now be mass-produced at lower costs. A new network of railways made transporting these inexpensive books to eager children all over France much easier and sooner than later, books for children were the era’s top bestsellers.


Issue in memorial to P.-J. Hetzel, following the editor’s death.

During my research, I kept coming across the name of one specific publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel. Out of all the publishers specializing in children’s book, he stood out for me due to his respect, genuineness, and compassion for his audience. Remember how I said that children’s authors were perceived as ‘inferior’ to other writers? Hetzel worked very hard to change that consensus in France. As a publisher of books destined for adults as well, Hetzel commissioned some of the greatest writers of the period to write children’s stories for his first magazine: Nouveau magasin des enfants. Surely you’ve heard of George Sand, Alfred de Musset, and Balzac, but did you know that they wrote stories for children too? Yup! And it may have never happened without Hetzel’s determination to change the face of children’s literature in France.

blog5Notice the footnotes designed to help the young readers with new vocabulary.

Hetzel was a fascinating man and I encourage you to read about his life. For the purpose of my study, I concentrated on what is arguably his greatest accomplishment as an editor: the Magasin d’éducation et de récréation. The title says it all: Hetzel wanted to create a publication that would combine practical information with entertainment. He wanted it to be a high quality project written by renowned authors and academics, and illustrated by the best artists in France. It is important to note that while children’s literature was expanding as a genre, most publishers were purely profit-driven, using the smallest fonts, the cheapest paper and certainly not spending the money to commission illustrations. But not Hetzel. He felt that children deserved better and would be more inclined to learn if you gave them quality material. The paper he used was thick and glossy. The size of his books was large in-8o and hundreds of pictures were featured in each volume. Hetzel’s books were literally works of art.

So what could you read about in this magazine, you ask? Literally everything regarding the arts and sciences. Top academics from the nation’s most reputable schools were invited to contribute factual articles and entertaining fiction. Over the course of nearly forty years of existence, the Magasin included numerous topics including architecture, astronomy, anatomy, geography, family life, history, chemistry, folklore, charity, poetry… you name it! One thing you wouldn’t find, however, was detailed discussion about God and religion. This was demonstrative of Hetzel’s republican values, and his promotion of a secularized society long before the Ferry Laws made it common practice. Another unique aspect of this magazine was that it contained content for all reading levels, meaning that the whole family, from newborns to parents, would enjoy and benefit from it. The most successful writer Hetzel discovered was undoubtedly Jules Verne whose scientific novels first appeared in the Magasin in serials before later becoming classics in their own right. Verne was a perfect example of an author who could appeal to both younger and more mature audiences.

Typical title page of the Magasin d’éducation et de recreation, the era’s most popular children’s periodical
Typical title page of the Magasin d’éducation et de recreation, the era’s most popular children’s periodical

Short poems to teach the letters of the alphabet. Can you see the letters hidden in the pictures?

As you can probably imagine, the Magasin was an immense project that consumed Hetzel until the day he died. But why did he care so much about it? Why did he personally check every manuscript submitted and rework it until he thought it was absolutely perfect? Considering the success of the publication, he probably could have retired early and moved to some exotic, sunny place, right? Well, that was inconceivable for Hetzel. The man was a fervent republican and truly believed in the progress of humanity through literature. He saw that science and knowledge were the avenue through which people would make the world a more comfortable and just place to live in. He also saw that children, if given a good education and taught to respect and help each other, would be the ones capable of bringing real change in the world. Sounds like someone should be giving this man a peace prize!

I’m not sure about you, but to me this magazine seems pretty downright cool! Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong era and fear for my own future kids who will be reading books on tablets! They will never know the joy of unwrapping a beautifully illustrated keepsake book on Christmas day (and actually being happy to receive it) or waiting by the mailbox for the next chapter of a Jules Verne novel. Or maybe you think I’m crazy and just want to surf the internet. Regardless of how you read literature, hopefully this little post has enlightened you on children and their literature in nineteenth century France. Don’t forget to let us know your favourite book from your childhood by leaving a comment!

P.S. If the Magasin d’éducation et de recreation sounds really neat to you, you may wish to check out Volume I available for free online through Google Books. While you’re at it, why not check out the Bodelian Library Special Collections website to find out what other gems of the past are hiding in the basements of Oxford.

Alina Ruiz is a postgraduate student in French at Oxford University. This post was developed from her research into the History of the Book as part of her Masters degree.


Top Five Universities in the World for Modern Languages

The Library in the Modern Languages Faculty, Oxford
The Library in the Modern Languages Faculty, Oxford

posted by Simon Kemp

So, the annual QS World University Rankings have been published for 2016. One of the most respected and widely noted university rankings, QS independently rates over 900 universities around the world on their academic reputation and the employability of their students, and ranks them overall and for the individual subject they offer.

Modern language departments are rated for the ‘academic reputation’ of their teachers and researchers, and the ’employer reputation’ of the students who graduate their courses, and the two ratings are then combined to provide a Top Fifty ranking of modern languages around the world. You can see the full list of fifty here, but shall we just take a peek at the Top Five?

OK, in ascending order, at Number Five we have…


Stanford University in the US. Up from 8th place last year, it has an Academic Reputation score of 92.3 and an Employer Reputation score of 86.4. Its overall score is 90.5.

In fourth place we have…


UCB, the University of California, Berkeley. Holding steady in 4th place for the second year running, it has an Academic Reputation score of 95.7 and an Employer Reputation score of 83.6. Its overall score is 92.1.

And then in third place…


Harvard University, ranked the best university in the US for modern languages. Unchanged from last year in third place on the global rankings, it has an Academic Reputation score of 99.9 and an Employer Reputation score of 95.5. Its overall score is 98.6.

In second place…


Cambridge University, here in the UK. Steady in 2nd place from last year, it has an Academic Reputation score of 99.7 and an Employer Reputation score of 99.3. Its overall score is 99.6.

Which leaves the QS-ranked Number One modern languages faculty in the world…


Yes, it’s us. Oxford University is number one in the world for the fourth year in a row. Our Modern Languages Faculty has an Academic Reputation score of 100.0 and an Employer Reputation score of 100.0, giving an overall score of 100.0.

We offer a world-class education from world-leading academics. And we’d like you to come and study with us. You can check out our courses here. You can find details of open days and summer schools here if you’d like to check us out in person. And all the information on how to apply to study with us is here. We’re waiting to hear from you.

Crash Course III: Vandertramping


posted by Simon Kemp

Some verbs are special. Learning French, you soon get to know about the small list of verbs that don’t behave like the others when you put them in the passé composé. They conjugate with être instead of avoir, and their past participle agrees with the subject of the verb. So rather than ‘ils ont donné’ or ‘elle a fait’, you get ‘ils sont partis’ or ‘elle est tombée’. They are the Mrs Vandertramp verbs, and they are these:

Monter (elle est montée)

Retourner (elle est retournée)

Sortir (elle est sortie)

Venir (elle est venue)

Aller (elle est allée)

Naître (elle est née)

Descendre (elle est descendue)

Entrer (elle est entrée)

Rester (elle est restée)

Tomber (elle est tombée)

Rentrer (elle est rentrée)

Arriver (elle est arrivée)

Mourir (elle est morte)

Partir (elle est partie)

Good old Mrs Vandertramp, the helpful mnemonic-lady made up of the initial letters of all the special verbs. Except… something about her has always bothered me. Why is there only one ‘D’ in the name, when both descendre and devenir are on the special-verb list? Presumably it’s because devenir is just venir (which is in the name), plus a prefix. But in that case, why does the mnemonic include both entrer and rentrer? And if it includes rentrer, why not revenir, remonter, redescendre, redevenir, retomber, repartir, ressortir (note the extra ‘s’ in that one), and renaître? Adding in Mrs Vandertramp’s husband to make ‘Dr & Mrs’ (as in the image at the top of the post) is hardly going to solve that problem.

No, if you want a mnemonic that covers all the subject-agreeing être-conjugating verbs, you’re going to have to memorize this one:

Arrrrrrrrrrr, Stamp DVD Men !

…which, funnily enough, is also the official motto of the International Association for Video Piracy.

video pirate
A video pirate yesterday


There is another version of the Mrs Vandertramp mnemonic which I learned at school: the less memorably named Mrs Daventramp, who just includes a letter for each of the thirteen basic verbs, missing out any which are the same with an added prefix. It means you don’t have to include any of  the endless ‘re-‘ prefixes, but also means you still have to be careful not to forget about devenir and redevenir (to become again or turn back into), which are included in the V for venir. Alternatively, if you want to strip out all the ‘re-‘ prefixes and leave in all the rest, you could acquaint yourself with Mr D. M. Vaderpants, who has descendre and devenir in his name, but none of the superfluous ‘re-‘ derivatives.


Vaderpants (2)
Mr D. M. Vaderpants yesterday.


The problem with all of these mnemonics is that in some ways they actually make things more difficult than they really are. The special verbs naturally form into groups, either by being opposites in meaning or by adding prefixes, and the mnemonics split up these groups and shuffle everything around randomly. In fact, with a bit of fiddling about, we can reduce the Mrs Vandertramp verbs to a simple list of five, plus the related verbs to each of them. The verbs are Naître, Sortir, Partir, Aller and Monter. Behold, the N-Spam verbs!

Naître, plus its opposite, mourir, and with a prefix, renaître.

Sortir, plus its opposite, entrer, and their prefixed versions, ressortir and rentrer.

Partir. What’s the opposite of depart/leave/go? Obviously, it’s arrive/return/stay. The three verbs arriver, retourner and rester are all opposites of partir. Plus, there’s the prefix version, repartir (to set out again, not to be confused with répartir, to share out).

Aller, plus its opposite, venir, and the two prefixes, devenir and revenir.

Monter means to rise or ascend, and also has two opposites: fall (tomber) or descend (descendre), plus a prefixed version of all three: remonter, redescendre, retomber.


N-Spam. Like N-Dubz, but with spam.

Really though, unless you’re going to carry a piece of paper around with you and refer to it whenever you need to say something in the passé composé,  these lists are only useful to get you started. What you need to do is keep speaking, listening, and reading in French until ‘elle est tombée’ sounds right and natural to you, and ‘elle a tombé’ sounds weird and wrong. Once you get to that point, you’re thinking like a French person. Mrs Vandertramp has become a part of you, and will live somewhere inside your head for evermore.



To finish with, a few extra notes and complications, as Mrs Vandertramp is never quite as straightforward as people might like her to be.

1. All the Vandertramp verbs are intransitive, meaning they don’t have an object: you can go, but you can’t go something, in the way that you can do something, eat something, see something. Some of the verbs on the list in fact have a transitive version. ‘Monter’ can be used intransitively as a Vandertramp verb, ‘elle est montée’ (she went up), but also transitively, meaning either to go up something, or to take something up. In that usage, it’s no longer a Vandertramp verb, but conjugates with avoir: elle a monté l’escalier;  elle a monté les valises dans la chambre. You can also use five other verbs from the list in the same way: (re)descendre quelque chose (go/bring down something), remonter quelque chose (go back up something/wind something up), rentrer quelque chose (bring something in), retourner quelque chose (turn something over), and (res)sortir quelque chose (take something out).

2. Retourner gets a proper place on the Vandertramp list, unlike rentrer, revenir, remonter, redescendre, redevenir, retomber, repartir, ressortir and renaître, which are optional extras. That’s because the others are all Vandertramp verbs even without the re- prefix, but not retourner. The verb tourner does exist in French, but it’s conjugated with avoir: elle a tourné la clef/la clef a tourné.

3. There’s one more Vandertramp verb we haven’t mentioned. Décéder, a more formal synonym for mourir, is not as commonly used as the other ones, so often gets overlooked, but it works in just the same way as the rest of them.

4. There are four other verbs in French, which, while not actually being part of the Vandertramp list, might perhaps be described as Vandertramp-ish. Accourir (to rush up) and apparaître (to appear) can take être or avoir, as you prefer, with no change in meaning. The same goes for passer (to pass), which is more often treated as a Vandertramp verb than not. (The exception is the phrase ‘passer pour’, to pass as or be taken for, which always takes avoir: ‘il a passé pour intelligent’ – ‘people believed he was clever’.) Lastly, demeurer is a Vandertramp verb when used in the sense of ‘remain’ (elle est demeurée fidèle), but not in the sense of ‘live (somewhere)’ (elle a demeuré à Marseille).

5.  Oh, and one other thing about monter: as well as taking avoir when used transitively, it can also take avoir when it means that the level of something has risen: le fleuve a monté; les prix ont monté. In this sense, it’s being the opposite of the non-Vandertramp verb, baisser, rather than of descendre.

6. Lastly, there are no other Vandertramp verbs. Reflexive verbs  take être in the passé composé too, but they don’t agree with the subject, as we talked about here. Also, you may occasionally think you’ve come across an extra Vandertramp verb in a sentence like ‘la ville est tout à fait changée’, but that’s because past participles can sometimes be used as  adjectives, just as you’d say ‘la ville est tout à fait différente’. In the passé composé, changer takes avoir and doesn’t agree with the subject: elle a beaucoup changé récemment. 

Mrs Vandertramp yesterday.

Crash Course II: Countable Cake

Today’s task is to make this cake:

To assist you, you will be provided with a state-of-the art kitchen, plus a glamorous French movie star to pass you the ingredients as you need them. You can choose between Gaspard Ulliel or Ludivine Sagnier:



There are two slight issues with Gaspard and Ludivine. The first is that neither of them speaks a word of English, so all your instructions will have to be in French. (To be fair, Gaspard is able to tell people in English that he’s nert going to be ze person ′e is expected to be any more, but that’s frankly more of a hindrance than a help in a baker’s assistant. You should maybe have gone for Ludivine.) Secondly, like many film stars, they’re actually not that bright, and need to be told clearly and precisely what to do and when to do it.

To start with, then, you’re going to have to show them each of the ingredients. Go through the list below with your chosen assistant.

Voici le sucre. (the sugar)

Voici la tablette de chocolat. (the chocolate bar)

Voici les pépites de chocolat. (the chocolate chips)








Voici un bol. (a bowl)

Voici une cuillère en bois. (a wooden spoon)

Voici des oeufs. (some eggs)

Voici du beurre. (some butter)

Voici de la farine. (some flour)

That list, as you may have noticed, covers all the articles French uses. There are definite and indefinite articles for masculine and feminine, singular and plural, countable and uncountable nouns. If you’re not familiar with that last distinction (also known as ‘count’ and ‘mass’ nouns), it’s simply that in English and French, some things can be counted (one egg, two eggs/un oeuf, deux oeufs) and some things can’t ( you can have some flour/de la farine, but you can’t have two flours/deux farines).

As in English the definite article le/la gets used for both countable (the egg/l’oeuf) and uncountable (the flour/la farine) nouns.  The indefinite article un/une can ONLY be used for countable nouns (an egg/un oeuf), which is why we need to use the alternative du/de la, sometimes called the partitive article, for uncountables (some flour/de la farine).

Now it’s time to get baking! As you require each item, you need to tell your glamorous assistant that you need it, using the construction ‘j’ai besoin de’, I need, or literally translated, I have need of. That will mean combining the French de, meaning of, with each of the possible French articles.


J’ai besoin du sucre. (I need the sugar)

J’ai besoin de la tablette de chocolat. (I need the chocolate bar)

J’ai besoin des pépites de chocolat. (I need the chocolate chips)









J’ai besoin d’un bol. (I need a bowl)

J’ai besoin d’une cuillère en bois. (I need a wooden spoon)

J’ai besoin d’oeufs. (I need some eggs)

J’ai besoin de beurre. (I need some butter)

J’ai besoin de farine. (I need some flour)

As you can see, it’s basically a matter of grammar maths, of knowing what you get when you add de/of to each of the three definite articles, the three indefinite articles, and the two partitive articles (the reason there are only two partitive articles is because uncountable nouns don’t have plurals). Here’s the arithmetic laid out:


de+le = du

de+la=de la

de+les= des

de+un= d’un


de+des= de

de+du= de

de+de la= de

As usual, the French have confused things by having different words that look and sound identical scattered through the system. So du, de la and des can either mean ‘some’ or ‘of the’ depending on their function in the sentence. This doesn’t help the learner who’s trying to memorize how it all works. One thing that may help, though, is to notice that in the last three sums on the list, where you’re adding ‘de’ to ‘du/de la/des’, the ‘de’ simply takes precedence over the ‘du/de la/des’, which disappears.

If you have all that straight, there are two further advanced baking manoeuvres you may like to try in order to complete the lesson. Firstly, what happens when your feckless celebrity whines that they don’t have the ingredient you need (je n’ai pas…)? (Answer below.)






Definite articles work the same way in negative sentences (I don’t have the…) as they do normally : Je n’ai pas le sucre. Je n’ai pas la tablette de chocolat. Je n’ai pas les pépites de chocolat. However, ALL the indefinite and partitive articles (I don’t have a/any…) are replaced by de: Je n’ai pas de bol. Je n’ai pas de cuillère en bois. Je n’ai pas d’oeufs. Je n’ai pas de beurre. Je n’ai pas de farine.

And finally, what difference does it make if the hapless screen-idol hands you a substandard item, and you’re forced to tell them to give you another one/the other one (use ‘autre’) ?







Adding an adjective before the noun makes no difference to seven of the eight sentences: Donne-moi l’autre sucre; donne-moi l’autre tablette de chocolat, etc. The one exception is with ‘des’ meaning ‘some’, which changes to ‘de’ before an adjective. So you’d say ‘Donne-moi des oeufs’ for ‘give me some eggs’, but ‘donne-moi d’autres oeufs’ for ‘give me some other eggs’. (This rule isn’t always strictly obeyed by French speakers, by the way, but you need to use it if you’re speaking or writing formally.)

I hope that was useful. At least Gaspard seems to have enjoyed it.

gaspard ulliel