The Abbé Bethléem and Jules Verne
As France entered the twentieth century, the traditionalist Catholic Church found itself out of step with political and social changes taking place in the nation, and the Church’s authority over the family, education, and culture under assault. The secularist policies of the Third Republic, a rising mood of anticlericalism among the middle classes, and the liberalization of press censorship had resulted in substantial losses of the Church’s former power and prestige. In this context, ongoing transformations of print media and press distribution, and the effects of rising literacy rates among the working classes, women, and children, were met with particular alarm from French clerics, who feared that unsupervised recreational reading by women and workers would stimulate dangerous dissatisfactions and ambitions among the new classes of readers, upend the traditional structure of the family, and thereby accelerate the Church’s decline. Among clerics’ responses to these concerns was the publication of reading guides for devout readers, modeled on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum but focusing on works of popular fiction. For the first three decades of the twentieth century, Louis Bethléem’s Romans à lire et romans à proscrire (1904–32) was the most important of these censuses of des bonnes et des mauvaises lectures.
This essay examines the career of abbé Bethléem and his role as a traditionalist bulwark against the rising tide of modern literature. Bethléem’s taxonomies of good, bad, and indifferent reading are discussed and examples of his critiques of authors who influenced Jules Verne or were among Verne’s significant contemporaries are noted. Finally, Bethléem’s ambiguous evaluations of Verne’s œuvre, in Romans à lire and in the monthly review journals edited by the abbé, are discussed and his specific recommendations and omissions analyzed. “Les Meilleurs Livres de Jules Verne,” a 1921 bibliographic essay by Bethléem is reprinted in full in an appendix.