Item #999 Le Comte de Monte–Christo [The Count of Monte–Cristo]. Alexandre Dumas.
Le Comte de Monte–Christo [The Count of Monte–Cristo]
Le Comte de Monte–Christo [The Count of Monte–Cristo]
Le Comte de Monte–Christo [The Count of Monte–Cristo]

Le Comte de Monte–Christo [The Count of Monte–Cristo]

Brussels: Alph. Lebègue, 1845-1846. First Edition. Hardcover. 15 vols. bound in 7. The real 1st edition (in French) with the first 14 volumes dated 1845, and only the last volume dated 1846 (the key and critical identifiers). Rare. RBH says no copies of this edition have sold at auction looking back 50 years, and it is not recorded, precisely, by either Reed or Munro in their Dumas bibliographies (details and analysis to follow). Contemporary 3/4 cloth, marbled boards, slight wear in a few places, vol 1-2 front hinge and rear joint split but holding, vol 9-10 hinges split but holding, vol 13-15 rear joint split but holding, but otherwise all 7 books are near fine, clean, complete, and as sound as a sea anchor, with all 15 half–titles, and they have never been repaired in any way. 3 half–morocco cases. Near fine. Item #999

Monte Cristo is an exemplar of what it means for a 19th century 1st edition to have wide appeal, a world classic of sustained imagination, and this is a once in a generation copy of it, dropped into a 21st century marketplace that has been crop dusted with the bibliographically wrong, the misdescribed, and the misunderstood. It’s not quite historical romance, but it is a mystery, and every bit a thriller, for 7 generations the most popular novel across the nations (le livre des livres) and it is undeniably, the greatest tale of revenge in all of literature, an effortless read of seamless equipoise, unforgettable suspense, and breathtaking intrigue, a cathartic tale starring the implacable avenger, a superhero more mesmerizing than the woman across the street who won’t close the blinds. If you can read it in French, that would be best, because for 150 years all the 19th and 20th century translations into English read like they had been edited and bowdlerized by 2 elderly puritans, one of whom had been dead for months. Every single translation redacted extensive subplots and bled much of the life found in central passages that were thought too erotic, or too stressful, for English speaking readers, with abridgements going well beyond unabashed sex to include an extended scene of torture and execution, 2 cases of infanticide, a female serial poisoner, blueprints for murders without getting caught, a gruesomely described stabbing, 3 suicides, transvestism, lesbianism, illegitimacy, drug–induced sexual fantasies, and more. Also lost in abridgement was the continuous display of the author’s classical learning, his vast understanding of European history, and copious lesser diversions such as the customs and diet of the Italians, and the effects of hashish.

The novel ends with the line; “l’humaine sagesse était tout entière dans ces deux mots:–Attendre et espérer.” (all human wisdom is contained in these two words:–wait and hope.). So, prophetically, in 1996, Penguin Classics finally published a faithful edition in English translated by Robin Buss without redactions, but if you decide to give it a try, buy yourself a portable oxygen tank and keep it close by while you are reading. You are going to need it.

You say you like movie books? In 1908 Monte Cristo was (not too surprisingly) the first movie that told a story ever made in the greater Los Angeles area (Hollywood) in the days just before the film business was centered there.

Now, here’s a run at the bibliography:

Anybody who isn’t confused doesn’t understand the problem.

Le Comte de Monte–Cristo (misprinted Christo in its earlier editions) has been smothered in bibliographical quicksand. That means all the bibliographies are wrong, though what most readers of them fail to realize is, how wrong (one lie doesn’t cancel one truth, it cancels the truth). For just one example, the first 3 entries for Monte–Cristo in Munro’s generally competent, and often admirable, bibliography give dates that could not be accurate, and none of the 3 have been verified as even existing exactly as Munro describes them, and his 4th entry, while accurately described, has at least one volume that was misdated by the publisher (see below). Some of the sources get some things right, but the correct facts have been so diluted with so many mistakes that consulting the references can only lead the inquisitive reader astray. And as to sets listed online, I could drive a caravan of motor homes through the messy descriptions of them and never scrape the truth. What we will do here is strip away the misinformation so that what is material can be considered more clearly.

NOTE: All bibliography is given as pending new discovery, but it has been 177 years and only the naïvely buoyant continue to wait when there is nothing left to wait for.

What we know: We can start with some facts of which there is no doubt. Dumas had Monte–Cristo serialized from Aug. 28, 1844, to Jan. 15, 1846, in Journal des Débats (the leading literary newspaper of the period having evolved from publishing the debates and decrees in The National Assembly during the French Revolution). Dumas had it published that way because, in the 1840s, that’s where the money was. Some of the references correctly note that part way through the Journal des Débats serialization, the newspaper Le Siècle (The Century) began a second sequential issue on Sept. 28, 1845, issuing 1 part per week as a supplement (for 18 weeks), and then concluded the novel on Feb. 1, 1846 (2 weeks after the Journal des Débats serial ended) with one, huge, part printing of the novel’s final 2/3rds. Parallel to the Journal des Débats serial, 4 Brussels publishers (Alph. Lebègue, Meline, C. Muquardt, and Société belge de librairie Hauman), each published book editions sequentially, in a total of 11 confirmed variations. 2 Paris publishers (Pétion and Baudry) did the same. All 6 publishers were able to create their editions by just copying the text from the journal installments as they appeared, all 6 picked up the novel a few months into its serialization, and all 6 issued at least one edition that, more or less, kept pace with the Journal des Débats publication, with each succeeding book volume being published shortly after enough of the novel had been serialized to make up an adequate amount of text for a book sized volume, and therefore, with most volumes dated before 1846 when the journal serialization ended in mid–January. The 4 earliest Brussels editions vary in size from 8 or 12 to 15 volumes, the 2 earliest Paris editions were in 18 volumes. Since the last installment of the journal serialization was published on January 15, 1846, all accurately dated book editions must have, at least, their last volume dated 1846, and therefore the one confirmed book edition (Pétion) with all its volumes dated 1845 and no volumes dated 1846 has, at least, its last volume misdated by the publisher, but we will analyze Pétion’s edition weighing factors other than the precedence of title page dates (see “Sixth” below). All references to, and reports of, editions other than Pétion’s with all their volumes dated before 1846, are, so far, unseen, and unconfirmed, and are either misreading by the bibliographer or misreporting to the bibliographer and can be eliminated from consideration as spurious phantasms.

What we have seen and not seen: Once the non–existent ghost books have been removed from our study, what we are seeking is a multi–volume edition that would follow the progression of the Journal des Débats serial and would mirror its dates, most closely, to its conclusion. That means that all of its volumes would be dated before 1846, except for (and only for) its last volume, and that one would be dated 1846, and published in January, and if we trust the dates on the title pages when they are possible (no need to trust the dates that are impossible), we can start to touch the reality of who was first to actually get the entire novel published and, in the real world, publication of the entire novel to its conclusion, defines publication of the 1st edition.

First: We can dispense with the misprint “Christo” for “Cristo” as a point of issue because it was not corrected, for the first time, until late in 1846 after numerous book editions had been published, most of them reprints, including many translations.

Second: We can eliminate all editions, dated 1846 throughout, as having not been progressively published alongside the serialization, and in fact, being published later, sometimes months later, and the wise collector, librarian, or bookseller would never buy one.

Third: We can reject all the editions that have some of their volumes dated 1845, but with more volumes than just the last one dated 1846, knowing they would trail any edition that parallels serial publication more precisely.

Fourth: That leaves us looking for a multi–volume edition with only its last volume dated 1846, exactly matching the timing from the Journal des Débats serial. The only edition like that, seen by me (and I have been looking at them for 45 years, and bought more editions of them than anybody) is this one from Lebègue, our book, offered here (Lebègue’s other editions of Monte Cristo, in less volumes, are later reprints). We first sold our copy 17 years ago and have now bought it back. It is in 15 volumes, and has just the last volume dated 1846, and it is Lebègue’s edition that is ranked as the 1st (earliest) of the Brussels editions by Munro in his bibliography (Alexandre Dumas Pere. A Bibliography of Works Published in French) though he gets one date wrong. It is rare because the printing was small, and the individual volumes were only for sale while the corresponding part of the serialization was ongoing with each volume lateral to it, and as each volume’s 1st printing sold out, Lebègue followed their 15–volume edition, beginning in mid–1845, with reprinted sets, also simultaneous with the ongoing journal serialization, also issued progressively, but condensed down to 12, 10, or 8 volumes, with more text in each volume, the title pages renumbered and redated, and more than just the last volume dated 1846. So, when, for example, the first 6 volumes in Lebègue’s 15–volume set had been issued, and the first 3 had sold out, Lebègue continued issuing that 15 volume edition’s later volumes for its customers who had begun with it, but also began a reprinted edition, and that reprinting combined volume 1 and part of volume 2 in the new volume 1, and then the other volumes in the 15–volume issue, were also condensed to create editions of 12, 10 or 8 volumes with new title pages and for a short while the book was for sale both ways. And Lebègue’s editions of less than 15 volumes were the same size as the other 1845–1846 Brussels editions I have seen with 2 exceptions: 1. A Brussels edition from Muquardt, in 15 volumes, that I have not seen, but it is listed 12th by Munro, so assuming he actually saw a set, or even if it was only reported to him, it must have some characteristics marking it as not only later, but much later. 2. An auction sale at Christie’s (Sept. 14, 2021) of another Brussels edition in 15 volumes that I have seen, and its description was miscataloged by Christie’s. The other editions from the other Brussels publishers, in 12, 10 or 8 volumes, had the earlier of them with some volumes dated 1845, but every one of those editions had more than just the last volume dated 1846 (usually the last 2 or 3) and all those editions are later.

Fifth: One reason that our Lebègue edition is so rare is that the original purchaser would have had to buy it in 15 volumes, one volume at a time, over a year, but they would have had to be prompt, and buy each volume of it when it was still available, because if they missed a volume, and it had sold out, they could only buy that part of the novel in a new compacted edition, and with those editions there would be more text for each title page, and the dates on more of the later title pages would be 1846 (you can call this tautology but I am trying to state it as conscientiously, clearly, and exactly as I can). The other 3, earliest, Brussels publishers listed by Munro (Meline, Société belge de librairie Hauman, and C. Muquardt), are the only other Brussels publishers recorded who issued Monte Cristo sequentially, and all of their editions I have seen had more than one volume dated 1846, and the other editions, from all the other publishers outside of France, regardless of what language they were in, also had more than one volume dated 1846, and all surely follow our Lebègue edition. The Paris edition, published by Baudry, had its last 2 volumes dated 1846, and thus, if the dates are correct (and Baudry’s usually were) it also follows our edition, and this is not at all unexpected. Of the Paris edition published by Pétion, what has emerged as the real 1st printing of it, with all 18 volumes dated 1845, is trickier. Its supporters are stubborn, and difficult to persuade, but we are going to provide evidence for placing it properly and that is after our Lebègue edition (see Sixth below). Is any of this a surprise? Not a bit. It is in keeping with all the other of Dumas’ major, serialized novels (major and serialized are the 2 key words) from the 1840s where one or more of the Brussels editions, of his novels that were serialized in periodicals, always preceded the Paris editions in every case. And if one wishes to believe that Pétion’s 1st Paris edition of Monte–Christo, somehow, precedes every 1st Brussels edition, it would be to believe in an aberration, and it would be the only instance where the Paris edition of a major, serialized, 1840s Dumas novel, preceded the earliest Brussels editions, an outlier, and for a collector or librarian to trust it as an unverified anomaly, requires belief beyond reason. But take note of what we are saying here. This only applies to Dumas’ major novels, not his plays, histories, essays, travel, etc. or his minor novels, where the Paris editions usually do precede those published in Brussels, because those works were not serialized in periodicals for the Brussels publishers to copy, and so they had to wait for the text from a Paris book edition. since that text was not available prior to Paris publication for them to use. And if the reader will open his, or her, eyes (and mind) and survey the entire panorama of Dumas’ great 1840s novels, said reader will see that the Brussels editions of Dumas’ serialized novels, preceding the Paris editions is the norm, a constant and unvarying norm.

Sixth: Now, with all the other editions behind us, let’s revisit Pétion’s Paris edition and start with 2 facts we know: Pétion registered his first 2 volumes in the Bibliographie de la France on Nov. 23, 1844, and that may be why some references wrongly say that vols. I and II of Pétion’s published edition are dated 1844. But in 3 sets examined (Paris, Edinburgh, London), all 18 volumes are dated 1845. Pétion either skipped registering his vols. III and IV, or their registration was mislaid. He registered his vols. V through XII between July 19, 1845, and Dec. 20, 1845, and then, never registered the last 6 volumes. The registration of vols. I and II in 1844 says that, either one copy of each volume (those registered) had an 1844 title page date, or that the 2 registered volumes were postdated to 1845, but the registered copies no longer exist, and no published copy, of either volumes I or II, dated 1844, has been proven to exist. The confusion traces to a misreporting to Munro of Parran’s copy, sold at the Hotel Drouot in 1921, saying that vols. I and II were dated 1844, but Drouot’s 1921 catalog states clearly that all 18 volumes were dated 1845, so Munro’s citing of a Pétion edition with vols. I and II dated 1844 (his 1st edition) can be rejected. More important, and of critical significance, the registration of Pétion’s vol. XII on Dec. 20, 1845, implies that Pétion did not have vols. XIII through XVIII in hand to register at the end of 1845 making belief in the accuracy of the 1845 dates on the last 6 volumes reasonably doubtful and certainly unverified, and casting some vague doubt on any of them being issued in 1845 regardless of their dates, because if Pétion had any of them printed on Dec. 20, 1845, he probably would have registered them along with vol. XII. But let’s accept, for the moment, that volumes XIII through XVI, or XVII, were actually issued in 1845, because there is no positive proof that they weren’t. We would still have no reason to accept that the 1845 date on Pétion’s vol. XVIII reflects its publication date since the text for it was not available to him, meaning no rational argument for the authenticity of the 1845 date on Pétion’s vol. XVIII’s has been posed. And one more peculiarity. Vols. XII, XIV, and XV of Pétion’s edition have an advertisement announcing Dumas’ Le Vicomte de Bragelonne on their back wrappers, and that book did not begin its serialization until Oct. 20, 1847.

Ok, let’s speculate further, and approach Pétion’s Paris edition from a different direction, to preempt future discovery and assuage any lingering doubts. Suppose that we accept that the Pétion sets we have verified (all volumes dated 1845) are assumed to have been issued paralleling our edition from Lebègue, with Pétion’s vol. XVIII being the only one issued in 1846 and just misdated. Which of the 2 editions would have preceded? No publisher’s records, beyond the registration dates, address this question but there is surrounding evidence that convincingly separates them from one another. Munro’s bibliography lists Lebègue’s 15 volume edition as the first of the Brussels editions and this priority has not been competently challenged. The only edition he lists ahead of it is the 1844–1845 Paris ghost edition, from Pétion (that he says he did not see), with 2 unseen dates (the first 2 vols. dated 1844) and an 1845 date, unproven as accurate, on the last volume and we have confirmed that this edition does not exist. Munro further lists as Pétion’s 2nd edition (ranked by him as the 4th edition overall) the issue having all its vols. dated 1845, and that is what seems to be the actual 1st Pétion edition, and 3 sets of it have been verified. So, dismissing the ghost edition from Pétion, our Lebègue edition is the one that (despite him getting one date wrong) Munro lists as the real 1st edition of Monte Cristo. Well, you might ask, what if Pétion was setting his edition from Dumas’ manuscript and did not have to wait on the Journal’s January conclusion to publish their vol. XVIII? He wasn’t. There are some minor typographical errors in the Journal’s serialization that are also in Pétion’s edition (and all the other earliest editions) but would not have all been in Dumas’ manuscript. Proof enough that Pétion (along with everyone else) was copying their text from the journal’s serialization, and that means, as it appeared. Further (and this is also important), the serious money for Dumas, in the mid 1840s, was in the serialization not the book editions, and his contract with Pétion would have prohibited publishing any part of the text as a book before the journal had issued it, so despite the 1845 date on Pétion’s vol. XVIII it was certainly issued after Jan 15, 1846, and, because Pétion was in no hurry (see below), the same may be true of his vol. XVII (and imaginably, even vols. XIII through XVIII, those not registered by Dec. 20, 1845). It is worth stating clearly here (addressing any lack of urgency by any Paris publisher), that none of the Paris publishers were ever preoccupied with beating the Brussels editions to market because the customers of the Paris publishers, for their small editions of a few hundred copies, were the wealthy, who were willing to wait 2 weeks, or a month, to get their wide margined, larger type copies, on fine paper, and were not interested in pocket sized Brussels issues on ordinary paper, with smaller type (though the Brussels type was better spaced than the journal type). However, 2 of the Brussels publishers (Alph. Lebègue and Société belge de librairie Hauman et Cie) were patently interested in being first to market, and between 1844 and 1847, one or the other of the 2 successfully published their editions of all Dumas’ major novels (all 8 of them) before the other Brussels (or Paris) publishers, in every case, beginning with Lebègue’s issue of the true 1st edition of Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers) in 1844, and for that edition’s priority, over all other editions, there is no debate. And, from Les Trois Mousquetaires in 1844 (Dumas’ rise to preeminence), through Les Quarante–Cinq (The Forty–Five Guardsman, the last part of Dumas’ Valois trilogy) in 1847, those 2 Brussels publishers published the real 1st book edition of every important Dumas novel that was serialized in newspapers or journals. In fact, for all of Dumas’ serialized novels from Le Chevalier D’Harmental (The Conspirators) in 1842 (his first relatively successful novel) to Le Collier de la Reine (The Queen’s Necklace) in 1849–1850, no Paris edition ever preceded (ever got to market before) one or another of the Brussels editions. So, faith in the priority around Pétion’s edition of Monte–Cristo because all its volumes were dated before 1846, even though at least the last was misdated, is like faith in the light around Tinkerbell, with that light’s power source based solely on children’s willingness to believe in it. And there is no reason, or precedent, to suppose that either Paris edition of Monte Cristo preceded Lebègue’s edition of it. This may not seem, to the most skeptical reader, to be documented, proof that Lebègue’s Monte–Christo will forever stand as the true 1st edition of it, but at this time, the only imaginable doubt one might have (unless we welcome strawmen) is someone reporting an as yet unseen, and thus unconfirmed, multi–volume, Brussels edition, that, also, has only its last volume dated 1846, stimulating a reexamination and a recomparison, almost certainly followed by a quick dismissal upon a physical viewing. And that possibility is only what one might imagine, and nobody has reliably held up any such edition of Monte–Cristo for inspection in the 177 years since it first appeared as a book. So, in the end, what we have here is real evidence, and logical evidence, and there is no other evidence, whatsoever, to the contrary.

Seventh: Now, you might wonder, who were the buyers for all those later Brussels editions that are seen so frequently these days, the ones issued in less than 15 volumes and with 1846 dates on more than one of the title pages or on all the title pages? Among them were customers who preferred reading novels in book form, not in journals with tiny, crowded type, and who also preferred reading their novels all at once, not with week–long breaks between journal chapters, or month–long breaks between volumes in book form issued sequentially. Other customers, while content to read it in a journal, still wanted to own the book, but had a bias against buying incomplete book editions progressively, so would not buy any book one volume at a time, over a year or more, and would only buy it once the complete novel was available, and that is one of the reasons why the Brussels publishers reprinted their editions, in less volumes, so quickly. And there were some customers who only wanted to buy their multi–volume set complete because it allowed them to bind all the volumes at the same time, and uniformly, the way they wanted, and there were others who just did not want to visit the bookseller repeatedly to buy volumes one at a time, or even visit the seller more than once.

Conclusion: We have used title page dating to narrow down the possible candidates for Monte–Cristo’s priority to the only Brussels edition of it confirmed to have been completely published in a time sequence most exactly matching the serialization to its finale, and we have drawn on history (the record for the years surrounding Monte–Cristo’s publication) to confirm that among the Brussels publishers, Lebègue was one of the 2 who cared about getting (and successfully got) their editions of Dumas’ serialized novels published first of all. And every other fact clearly reinforces the bibliography’s stated priority for Lebègue’s edition preceding all the other Brussels editions, and until physical proofs show otherwise, any serious observers, would (or should) agree. And, taking a wider view, we have additionally separated Lebègue’s edition from the Paris editions using historiography (the element of it that asks, what else was going on?), to demonstrate that (and explain why), in the 1840s, the Brussels book editions, of Dumas’ great, serialized novels, always preceded the Paris book editions, and that the Paris editions’ publishers were never aspirants for priority, and, in fact, no Paris publisher ever got, or cared to get, their edition, of any of Dumas’ important, 1842–1849 novels, that were issued serially in periodicals, published first.

Now for rarity: We explained under “Fifth” that our Lebègue edition had to be bought one volume at a time, with dedicated promptness, over a year, so it was hard to assemble, and few sets were, and this is the only set like it I have seen in my 45 years of buying Dumas’ novels, and, as said above, our book is not listed, exactly as it is, in either Reed’s or Munro’s bibliographies, and no other copy of it is recorded as having sold at auction, and though OCLC’s record of library holdings lists dozens of individual volumes of Monte–Christo, by various publishers, and some sets too, many of them are misdescribed, and none of them are described as being both complete and having only their last volume dated 1846. Of course, there will be another set of our book somewhere, hiding in a national library, a university library, in another likely place, in an unlikely place, or in grandma’s attic, or in the backwoods, but it hasn’t been held up for inspection yet, and even if another copy does appear (or 2, or 3, or 4), our book would still be of the utmost rarity. So, if you want what will almost certainly stand all tests, and sustain as the undisputed 1st edition of Le Comte de Monte–Cristo, you had best weigh up our book here and now, because the doors of opportunity seldom slam open, and you are not liable to see another copy soon. Or maybe again.

Finally: The next sentence is the sort that would makes a mule back away from an oat bin and it seems so outrageously bombastic that I resisted writing it, but it is true: Our book is the rarest 1st edition of any novel, by anybody, that could rightly be called a classic of fiction.

2 Asides

1. I bid on a set of the Paris Monte–Cristo, at a Paris auction (through Quaritch), in Nov. 1989 (ex–Daniel Sickles), and I bought it, but I was preempted by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF), the French National Library. It was a mixed set, but mostly Pétion’s edition with only volume XVI published by Baudry, and with all volumes dated 1845 as expected. Another mixed set was sold at Christie’s Paris in 2010, with vols. I–XIV published by Baudry and vols. XV–XVIII by Pétion (other aspects of it seem to have been inaccurately cataloged). However, in 2022 yet another set surfaced in the trade and sold, and it was a correct one with Pétion’s imprint in all 18 vols. and all dated 1845 That edition is, today, a $300,000–$600,000 book (depending on binding, condition, completeness, and quality) because there will always be some collectors (once a majority, now a declining minority) who want the 1st Paris edition of any Dumas novel, even if a Brussels (or other) edition is the true 1st and precedes it. So, there is still a reasonable, albeit waning, case for buying either Paris edition if you can afford it, and if you can find one, which you probably cannot. But be advised, despite the opinions of closed–minded booksellers, either deaf to marketplace reckoning, or inflexibly tied to the past, or just xenophobic (xenophobia is mostly caused by the media although tourism is partly responsible), that unless the buyer’s obstacle is price, or language (you only speak your native tongue and it isn’t the language a book is first printed in, and you want a text you can access), the growing plurality, in an easily seen trajectory, that will soon be a majority, now want the real 1st edition of any book, by anybody, regardless of where it was published (with a few diminishing exceptions like severe abridgement).

2. A set of the Journal des Débats, 1844–1846, serialization would be a killer, but I’ve never seen a complete set for sale. Conversely, sets of the Le Siècle serialization are always available and frequently overpriced.

Price: $150,000.00

See all items in Literature & Classics
See all items by