When Theodor Fontane travelled to London in September 1855, the three volumes of his copy of William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair were confiscated by customs. As far as I can tell, Vanity Fair was not censored or prohibited in England; for example, there is nothing in the Wikipedia article about the novel that suggests that it was at one point censored or prohibited.

So why were Fontane's volumes seized by customs?

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    What is your source for this story about customs seizing his books? Maybe we can find some references or indications towards further reading which might have more details about the incident.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Apr 15, 2021 at 18:29

2 Answers 2


The edition of Fontane's diaries by Charlotte Jolles and Rudolf Muhs mentions the occurrence in the entry for 23 May 1852, when Fontane started reading Vanity Fair. (Fontane's diaries are partly lost, hence the additional information from other sources.) After mentioning that Fontane started reading Thackeray's novel on that day, the editors add the following (my translation, emphasis added):

When Fontane travelled to England again in September 1855, his copy of Vanity Fair (a three-volume edition that was part of the "Collection of British Authors" published by Tauchnitz in Leipzig) was confiscated by customs as a continental reprint ("kontinentaler Nachdruck"); "with my wonderful marginalia", as he wrote regretfully to his wife.

So the reason was indeed a copyright issue, as Mikado suggested.


Fontane, Theodor: Tage- und Reisetagebücher: Tagebücher 1852, 1855–1858. Herausgegeben von Charlotte Jolles unter Mitarbeit von Rudolf Muhs. Second edition. Aufbau-Verlag, 1995.


Prior to the Berne convention of 1886 (see A Brief History of Copyright) there was limited international enforcement of copyright, so foreign publishers were able to print books which would have been in breach of copyright in England. Importing such books would have been illegal, so they would have been subject to seizure by customs officials.

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    That may be correct if you can establish that Fontane's copy was printed outside the UK. Do you have any information about that?
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Apr 15, 2021 at 18:10

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