Samuel Girardet’s A.B.C

While Neuchâtel’s publishers counterfeited many editions, they were not immune from having their own original editions ripped-off elsewhere. The Le Locle bookseller Samuel Girardet’s school primer Nouvelle méthode d’enseigner l’A.B.C. (first edition Le Locle, 1786), for example, was treated to the most amazing refashioning under the Reign of Terror, in 1793 or 1794 (Paris, Year II) , by (or, at least, signed-off by) Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois.

Stark differences in the tone and content of the two texts betray the depth of cultural change offered by the French Revolution. Girardet’s Protestant original leaves no doubt that education is duty. Before even arriving at his first vowels, the child is told that laziness is a mortal sin and that God has put man on this earth to work. Life is difficult, and if the child does not learn to read and speak correctly, he we let down his parents and will be roundly mocked. The Revolutionary child, by contrast, is told that she will learn a thousand interesting things through reading for pleasure. The world that she will inherit seems much more joyous – nature, and work and progress are all gifts from the Supreme Being to be celebrated.

But the Collot d’Herbois edition is somewhat superficial. The knife has been taken so deeply to Girardet’s original that only ten pages of the most basic building blocks necessary to acquire language survive. The rest of the work is devoted to Collot’s primary concern, replacing Girardet’s centuries-old (and admittedly patchy) morality stories and Protestant teachings, with a new illustrated moral code built around an explanation of the new revolutionary calendar.

The latter work’s illustrations, too, are few in number and, although not terrible, are of much lower quality. The illustrations for the original edition were engraved by the gifted Abraham Girardet, Samuel’s son who would later find fame engraving scenes from the French Revolution. Collot’s engraver clearly had the original edition to hand, but lacked the tools or time or talent to produce all but the most rudimentary copies.

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