Le Roi est mort

Le Roy dans son lit de parade tel qu'il y parut le premier de septembre jour de son decès 1715 (BnF).

Le Roi dans son lit de parade tel qu’il y parut le premier de septembre jour de son décès 1715 (BnF).

Le château de Versailles présente du 27 octobre 2015 au 21 février 2016 Le roi est mort. Louis XIV 1715. Commémorant le tricentenaire de la mort de Louis XIV, cette exposition, placée sous le commissariat de Béatrix Saule, directeur-conservateur général du musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, et de Gérard Sabatier, professeur émérite des Universités et président du comité scientifique du Centre de recherche du château de Versailles, entend donner à voir et à comprendre un rituel méconnu: celui des funérailles du Grand roi, de son exposition à Versailles dans sa chambre mortuaire le 1er septembre 1715 à son inhumation dans l’abbaye de Saint-Denis le 23 octobre suivant. Ces obsèques marquaient l’aboutissement, en même temps que le profond renouvellement, d’un cérémonial séculaire, qui allait devenir une des plus éclatantes manifestations de la civilisation de cour. Des funérailles royales françaises, on ne retient généralement que les proclamations du héraut d’armes lors de la mise au tombeau de la dépouille: le roi est mort, vive le roi, officialisant le décès du défunt et l’avènement de son successeur, adage de la monarchie qui ne meurt jamais. Le rituel lui-même n’avait pas retenu l’attention des historiens car il n’avait pas de contenu politique, les aléas de la transmission du pouvoir étant réglés avant le décès, selon le principe lignager de la primogéniture masculine. A la fin du XVème siècle et jusqu’en 1610, l’écart entre le décès et l’inhumation fut considérablement dilaté par l’adoption de conduites honorifiques nécessitant l’utilisation d’une effigie tenant lieu du cadavre imprésentable, et de procédures imitant celles des funérailles des empereurs romains. Ce parasitage cérémoniel retardant l’instantanéité de la transmission de pouvoir fut abandonné par étapes sous la pression des circonstances pendant la période des guerres civiles à partir de 1560, et la forme triomphale des funérailles des Valois fut réfutée par Louis XIII en 1643. Cependant, loin de disparaître, les funérailles royales françaises connurent sous les Bourbons une mutation que cette exposition se propose de montrer et d’expliquer.

Représentation de l'endroit où a été déposé le corps de Louis quatorze roy de France dans l'église de S.t Denis (BnF).

Représentation de l’endroit où a été déposé le corps de Louis quatorze roi de France dans l’église de St. Denis (BnF).

Exposition-événement, c’est la première de ce genre en France, ce qui s’explique par l’attitude précédemment évoquée des historiens, et la quasi absence de documents directs, décorations, accessoires, iconographie même. Les musées français, espagnols, allemands, anglais, suédois, américains ont permis toutefois de rassembler d’importants tableaux, certains jamais montrés, des instruments chirurgicaux, des accessoires de deuil, des pièces originales du trésor de Saint-Denis, tout l’apparat du dernier cérémonial funèbre , celui de Louis XVIII. Des archives proviennent le testament et le rapport d’autopsie de Louis XIV. Grace à une abondante documentation textuelle, Pier Luigi Pizzi a pu pallier l’absence de témoignages originaux par une muséographie très évocatrice. Le séquençage suit une progression chronologique en neuf étapes.

Marche et Convoy funèbre de Louis le Grand, Roy de France (BnF).

Marche et Convoi funèbre de Louis le Grand, Roi de France (BnF).

  1. Ce roi qui disparaît est une sélection de tableaux, de gravures, de médailles d’or ou de médaillons de bronze qui pouvaient contribuer à produire, chez les contemporains, une figure du roi, un imaginaire de Louis XIV, dans son ambivalence entre lumières et ombres.
  2. Louis se meurt rapporte les trois semaines où le roi fit face à la maladie puis organisa théâtralement sa mort, veillant au souvenir qu’il laisserait. Des extraits de Si Versailles m’était conté et de L’Allée du roi présentent la mort cinématographique de Louis XIV.
  3. Ouverture et embaumement est une séquence réaliste qui permet de découvrir une des pratiques les plus étranges des funérailles royales: l’ouverture du corps, le prélèvement des entrailles et du cœur, l’embaumement permettant une présentation supportable.
  4. Exposition et effigie montre trois modes de présentation des monarques défunts pour recevoir les hommages et les prières, selon qu’on a à faire aux Valois, aux Bourbons ou aux Habsbourg.
  5. Le deuil à la cour. Les funérailles royales sont un moment essentiel dans la vie des courtisans. La réglementation minutieuse des pratiques du deuil est l’occasion de rendre visible la hiérarchie des rangs qui structure cette société, exprimée notamment par les types et les couleurs des vêtements.
  6. Le convoi funèbre. Autre grand moment des funérailles royales, le plus important peut-être au XVIème siècle, lorsque le cortège réunissant tous les corps de la société autour du défunt traverse la capitale. Les Bourbons depuis Louis XIII procèdent différemment. L’exposition montre précisément et explique cette nouveauté souvent mal interprétée.
  7. Les services à Saint-Denis, en France et à l’étranger. Présentation des pièces du trésor, reconstitution des placements, évocation de l’apparat surprenant d’une église transformée en salle de spectacle. Mais les funérailles de Louis XIV ne furent pas seulement célébrées dans la nécropole royale, des services commémoratifs se tinrent partout en France, et jusqu’en Amérique, sur ordre de son petit fils Philippe V.
  8. Tombeaux et mausolées. Un des mystères des funérailles des Bourbons. Alors que les Valois avaient faits construire de prestigieux monuments funéraires, leurs successeurs rompent avec cette tradition, ne menant pas à terme les projets architecturaux dont on présente les plans, se contentant de simples cercueils alignés dans la crypte. Par contre, ils accordent tous leurs soins à l’ensevelissement de leurs entrailles et surtout aux tombeaux de leurs cœurs. Les vrais monuments funéraires des Bourbons furent cependant les apparats éphémères, les mausolées dressés partout dans les églises, dont on trouvera plusieurs feuilles de dessin.
  9. Des funérailles royales aux funérailles nationales. L’exposition s’achève sur les héritages d’une pratique monarchique que la Révolution avait voulu détruire, la recherche d’une nécropole autre que Saint Denis, la remise en honneur des grands cortèges avec les hommages populaires. Les tableaux officiels des funérailles des présidents de la république s’inscrivent dans une continuité éloquente.

La thématique retenue permet d’évoquer les obsèques royales sous leur aspect politique, social et culturel, situant un rituel que l’on pourrait croire obsolète au cœur d’un imaginaire du pouvoir au-delà des ruptures historiques.

– Gérard Sabatier

Le deuxième tome du Siècle de Louis XIV (chapitres 13-24) (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation), est maintenant disponible.

Perfect correspondences

Enlightenment Correspondences, a two-day colloquium, took place last June at Ertegun House in Oxford. The organisers want to share a brief summary of the findings of a dream group of epistolary scholars as a thank you.

A group of participants at Ertegun House.

A group of participants at Ertegun House, June 2015.

Day One focused on the material aspects of epistolarity and infrastructure. If you wanted to know how much it cost to receive a letter; how many postal stations were on the map of France (or England); how the intra-urban post functioned (and why messengers were called ‘poulets’); how celebrities like Voltaire became so overwhelmed by a deluge of post they had to take out adverts in newspapers advising fans and readers please not to enter into correspondence – there was much to learn and enjoy in the papers and discussion.

Historian Laurence Brockliss brought real panache to a contrarian argument in focusing on a number of French provincial figures who demurred at the expense, labour and relative obscurity of letter-writing, in some instances preferring the essay and prize competition as ways of building a reputation.

The cost and procedures of writing, folding, sealing and posting letters earned a delightfully anecdotal but clear procedural exposition in Jay Caplan’s paper that dovetailed nicely with Nicholas Cronk’s fascinating analysis of how Voltaire’s many thousands of letters (over 16,000) eventually became collected into a corpus posthumously shaped into one of the great correspondences of the age. The hand of the writer could be seen from time to time in certain stunts such as the cycle of letters Voltaire originally rewrote as an epistolary fiction (Paméla – revealingly edited by Jonathan Mallinson [1]) that were later mistakenly edited as real letters.

Kahn_corres_Catherine2

A letter from the Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alekseevna (the future Catherine II) to Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams (1756).

That creation of a corpus was the subject of a first presentation on Catherine the Great, hugely famous and yet as a letter-writer unknown because her correspondence has yet to be fully constructed. The launch of the Digital Correspondence of Catherine the Great Pilot Project, a British Academy/Leverhulme funded pilot created at Oxford, showed how vital a part Digital Humanities can play in expanding the empire of letters – and in this case that would mean making fully available and searchable about 5,000 letters written by Catherine. The subject of how much value recipients and Catherine herself attributed to her letters as tokens of esteem and marks of favour formed the topic of Kelsey Rubin-Detlev’s paper which illuminated the connections between letter-writing and gift-giving.

We enjoyed a spectacular treat thanks to the kind offices of Chris Fletcher and Mike Webb, who arranged a visit to one of the state of the art seminar rooms in the Weston Library. It was a real feast for the eye, and gratifying to see actual autograph letters of some of the writers discussed.

Questions about the utility of the private/public dichotomy and continuum provided one thread linking many papers, including the detailed examination by Andrew Jainchill of a small set of letters which Voltaire and the minister d’Argenson exchanged on the subject of politics, protection and war – issues of state policy on which d’Argenson’s seemingly subversive views required the forum of private letters in order to skirt the dangers of publicity. ‘Protection’ opened up a rewarding discussion on the differences from patronage and letter-writing as a sketchbook of radical ideas. This looked ahead to the riveting discussion by Lauren Clay on the eleven chambres de commerce which, during the revolutionary period, lobbied politicians and the Estates General very hard on behalf of business by concerted campaigns of letter-writing, designed to show that their commercial interests did not pit them against the ideals of the Revolution.

This stream of pragmatic correspondence seemed a world apart from the high-minded philosophical letters published in Berlin by Moses Mendelssohn and Thomas Abbt. As Avi Lifschitz showed, these letters, with a certain nod to Socratic dialogue, refashioned in letter form investigations into sometimes highly metaphysical questions of religion and ethics. Isabel Matthews-Schlinzig’s touchingly illustrated exploration of the Herder family focused not on the great philosopher himself but rather on preserved copies of letters by one of his sons – epistolary ‘home movies’ as it were, that taught us a great deal about the practice of Bildung and the construction of childhood.

Madame de Sévigné was seemingly born to be a great letter-writer, and Wilda Anderson’s fascinating paper explored the discourse of race in her writings (ramifying out into examples from Racine’s tragedy) as an expression of an aristocratic ethos that carries a nearly biological imperative to write well.

Clare Brant offered a marvelous reconsideration of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s account of her visit to the Turkish baths, a favourite text in feminist, Orientalist and post-colonial readings. Clare’s reading stripped away that layer of varnish in order to refocus on the visual clues and references contained in the text, and she showed how signals that might have looked clear to Montagu’s readers seem to have got lost in a fog of lit. crit. preoccupied with voyeurism and theories of the gaze.

With a similar attentiveness to actual words and personal affinities, Pamela Clemit took us into the world of the Godwin-Shelley circle, decoding salutations, signatures, the order of letters in a sequence and, above all, the emotional expectations recipients had of letter-writers. A century or so earlier, the readers of classic and minor Restoration and eighteenth-century fictions, starting with Aphra Behn and Haywood and going on to Richardson and Fielding, would have found many letters in the stories of novels. Eve Bannet’s delightful and careful teasing out of the texture and viewpoints of narrative voices showed us how the cleverest of novelists possibly set up careless readers who might be gulled into taking the writers of these embedded letters at their own words.

Correspondences scholars at the Weston Library, June 2015.

Correspondences scholars at the Weston Library, June 2015.

Sociability is a key Enlightenment virtue, and on this occasion rarely felt more natural as academic events go. Scholars of literature and history shared a common approach and there was a welcome ease of exchange. Historians did close reading and literature scholars historicised and contextualised. Both methods are now second nature in both disciplines. Letter-writing seems to be a cross-section of every possible Enlightenment activity, and to crystallise the whole complex of factors that make its European manifestation so dynamic. Whether lobbying, emoting, protecting, publicising, celebrating, philosophising, retiring, ironising, commanding, educating or entertaining – nobody could really do without pen and paper in a great age of letter-writing.

– Andrew Kahn

See also: The Letter: Purloined and Printed, Anonymous and Edited.

[1] Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation), vol.45c (2010).

Enlightenment Scotland still burning brightly

View of Edinburgh and the Castle (Wikimedia Commons).

View of Edinburgh and the Castle.

Scotland has been making headlines. In the past year, it held a referendum on independence and the Scottish Nationalist Party made unprecedented gains in this year’s general election, claiming almost every constituency north of the border and becoming a vocal force in the Commons. However, Scotland has been shaking things up and radically challenging assumptions long before our century, and not only on the backbenches.

As the contributors to The Enlightenment in Scotland: national and international perspectives illustrate, Edinburgh’s affectionate nickname ‘Auld Reekie’ may mean ‘Old Smoky’, but the stars of Scotland’s intellectual firmament have always burned bright through any perceived haze.

In the eighteenth century, independent thinking, rather than independence, was the battle cry. In fields as diverse as politics, philosophy, economics, history, social theory, agriculture, science and technology, Scots forged new paths, forming dense and fruitful networks of friendships, collaborations, and institutions (including the Scottish universities which are still academic heavyweights today). Thinkers and scientists challenged the status quo, paving the way for revolts of all kinds through their theories and practical inventions, from the agrarian and industrial revolutions which shaped modern society, to the American Revolution which established one of today’s dominant global powers, the United States.

King's College, University of Aberdeen. Taken by Nick in exilio and published on Flickr.

King’s College, University of Aberdeen. (Taken by Nick in exilio and published on Flickr.)

In this constellation of exceptional minds, two names tend to epitomize the achievements of the Scottish Enlightenment: Adam Smith and David Hume, thinkers whose writings on politics, economics, and philosophy continue to influence policymakers today. However, ‘the Enlightenment’ is a nebulous concept, an umbrella term which can sometimes mask the complexities and heterogeneity of this momentous period of global transformation, and the Scottish Enlightenment was more than two individual thinkers. Indeed, the Scottish Enlightenment is a fascinating historiographical conundrum, which raises the question of the delicate symbiotic exchange of influences between Enlightenment thinkers in other countries and thinkers in Scotland.

Adam Smith, 1790, engraving attributed to John Kay (Wikimedia Commons).

Adam Smith, 1790, engraving attributed to John Kay.

This collective volume focuses on the specificity of the Enlightenment in Scotland, while also integrating it into a wider global narrative. The diversity of approaches, origins, and influences reflected in the studies included – from microcosmic case studies of opposition to the Enlightenment in the Scottish counties of Ayrshire and Renfrewshire to examinations of reception of Scottish ideas and theories in France, Germany, and America – has a scope commensurate with the ambition and vision of the Scots.

In Scottish politics, 2014-2015 has been a year about borders and boundaries, those of nations and of parliamentary constituencies – but the stars of Scottish Enlightenment defied borders and limitations to shed their light far beyond this island’s shores, onto the international stage.

– Madeleine Chalmers

OSE-2015-08-50pc

The Enlightenment in Scotland: national and international perspectives

Edited by Jean-François Dunyach and Ann Thomson

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, August 2015

ISBN-13: 978-0-7294-1166-0, 260 pages

Newtonianism in the French Enlightenment

Rob Iliffe is Professor of Intellectual History and the History of Science in the Department of History at the University of Sussex. He has written the Very Short Introduction to Newton and directs the online Newton Project. On 28 February 2015 he gave a fascinating talk at the ‘Voltaire and the Newtonian Revolution’ conference that explored the fate and legacy of Newton’s scientific views in eighteenth-century France of which this is a brief summary.

Newton_frontispiece

Soon after Newton had published his initial work on the heterogeneity of white light (in 1672), he became embroiled in a series of disputes about the truth of his theory, and about the facts on which it was based. Edme Mariotte’s failure to reproduce aspects of Newton’s ‘crucial experiment’ in 1681 influenced the negative opinion of Newton’s work by many French physicists, although there was increased interest in his work at the Académie des Sciences following the publication of his Optice in 1706. There was also opposition to the physical theories and epistemological claims expressed in his Principia Mathematica, and many commentators continued to prefer the Cartesian doctrine of tourbillons to the notion of ‘attraction’ that underlay Newton’s theory of universal gravitation.

Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759). Source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759). Source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

A delegation of French natural philosophers visited England in 1715 and were treated to a number of experiments that confirmed Newton’s theories. However, it was Newton’s death in the spring of 1727, and Bernard de Fontenelle’s influential Eloge that followed, that triggered a serious spurt of interest in his work. Two men, Voltaire and Pierre Moreau de Maupertuis wrote popular works in the early 1730s that brought the nature and revolutionary scope of Newton’s ideas to a much larger audience. Yet it was not until the results of a French scientific expedition to Lapland were announced in 1737 that the public really began to switch allegiance to the Newtonian worldview. This excursion, led by Maupertuis, left France in 1736 to measure the length of a degree, one year after another voyage had set out to perform similar cartographic measurements in Peru (now Ecuador). The results from the Finnish expedition, and indications from the ill-fated trip to Peru, showed that the earth was flattened at the poles (as Newton had argued), and was not a prolate spheroid as many Cartesians had claimed.

Newtonianism was duly adopted and made the central plank of their paean to Enlightenment by men such as Voltaire and Jean Le Rond D’Alembert. Newton’s attacks on arbitrary and fictitous ‘hypotheses’ and ‘systems’ were reconfigured to serve in the general assault on the ‘infamy’ of persecution and superstition. There were some problems with the approach, firstly because Newtonianism could be used (as the British largely did) to defend the idea of an intelligent Creator God, and secondly because Newton himself was clearly both devout and a serious student of theology. While the latter could be explained away as the result of senility or dilettantism, there was always the danger that Newton himself could be deified as the founder of Reason. This possibility was explored in the majestic designs for a Cenotaph to Newton created by Etienne-Louis Boullée in the mid-1780s, and in the early plans for a ‘Church of Newton’ described by Henri de Saint-Simon at the start of the following century.

– Rob Iliffe, Director of the Newton Project

Cross-section of a ‘Newton cenotaph’ by Etienne-Louis Boullée. Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Cross-section of a ‘Newton cenotaph’ by Etienne-Louis Boullée. Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Voltaire and the gardens of Versailles

Voltaire had known the Palace of Versailles since his thirties, when he prepared a divertissement there to celebrate Louis XV’s marriage in 1725. Some twenty years later he was a frequent visitor as Royal Historiographer. Yet when one consults Michel Baridon’s definitive Histoire des jardins de Versailles (Arles, 2003), one finds surprisingly few references to the philosophe.

The reason is not far to seek. Voltaire’s view of the Palace, particularly during his time as Historiographer, is highly ambivalent, often verging on distaste or worse. Despite (or even because of) the emoluments he was receiving from the King, he felt himself ‘enfourné dans une bouffonnerie’,[1] where, as ‘bouffon du roi à cinquante ans’, he is involved in futile occupations ‘avec les musiciens, les comédiens, les comédiennes, les chanteurs, les danseurs’, or otherwise rushing to and fro between the capital and the Château. ‘Je cours à Paris pour une répétition, je reviens pour une décoration’.[2] Many a modern-day commuter would sympathise. Though the fêtes are sometimes even more spectacular than in Louis XIV’s time,[3] it all amounts simply to ‘des feux d’artifice dont il ne reste rien quand ils sont tirés’.[4] In the Italian language that he reserves for many of his intimate letters with Madame Denis, he expresses himself unreservedly; Versailles is ‘un paese che io abhorrisco. La corte, il mundo, i grandi, mi fanno noia’ (‘un pays que j’abhorre. La cour, le monde, les grands m’ennuient’).[5]

But, more relevant to our enquiry here, what did Voltaire feel about the gardens themselves? Did he sometimes gaze in wonderment upon, say, the Grand Canal or the two Trianons? If he did, he seems not to have left any record. Perhaps the closest we can get to an answer is what he tells his friend Cideville about how he spends his time journeying between Versailles and Paris: ‘je fais des vers en chaise de poste’.[6] No trace of ‘recueillement’ there! Versailles meant nothing but work, with the occasional theatre or spectacle as diversions. Specific mentions of these gardens are rare in his works. Comment upon the Ingénu’s walk there, ‘où il s’ennuya’,[7] is trenchant. A letter to Thiriot includes them, but only metaphorically, when he comments in relation to the tragedy Sémiramis that ‘ses jardins [the heroine’s] valaient bien ceux de Versailles’.[8]

But in Le Siècle de Louis XIV, where Voltaire seeks to encompass every aspect of the reign, he cannot afford to omit any reference to the Versailles gardens. However, details here too are scarce. The architect Jules-Hardouin Mansard ‘ne put déployer tous ses talents’ at Versailles, for ‘il fut gêné par le terrain, et par la disposition du petit château’.[9] In a generic conclusion about ‘l’art des jardins’, nothing is said about Versailles, though the designer Le Nôtre is cited ‘pour l’agréable’ as too is La Quintinie ‘pour l’utile’.[10] The antithesis appears to be set up for aesthetic rather than objective purposes. Earlier, discussing the 1680s, he links up Versailles with Marly in a broadly dismissive comment: ‘la nature forcée dans tous ces lieux de délices, et des jardins où l’art était épuisé’.[11]

Pierre Aveline l’ancien (1656-1722), Vue générale de la ville et du château de Versailles, du côté des jardins, château de Versailles, INV.GRAV 92. © Château de Versailles

Pierre Aveline l’ancien (1656-1722), Vue générale de la ville et du château de Versailles, du côté des jardins, château de Versailles, INV.GRAV 92. © Château de Versailles

But are there any conceivable allusions to Versailles in any discussion of gardens in general? Here too material is scanty, even in the ‘contes’. But one work stands out: Candide, exceptional in this as in so many other ways. The tale contains no fewer than five different gardens:[12] Thunder-ten Tronckh; Eldorado; Pococurante’s palace and the old Turk’s ‘vingt arpents’, leading up to Candide’s ‘petite métairie’. For our purposes, most of these can be quickly disposed of. The Westphalian château is an ‘anti-jardin’, based on spurious concepts. Pococurante’s domain is an exercise in disillusion; a garden does exist, but it contains no more than ‘des colifichets’. Tomorrow its owner plans to start work on it, but prospects do not sound auspicious, as Martin realises; its ‘lendemain’ belongs to the same perspective as Godot.

But the other three are somewhat less skeletal. The Turk’s domain is purely pragmatic, and capable of delicious luxuries. Candide’s ‘petite terre’ copies these principles with apparent success, though the ending is shot through with irony. But neither of these evokes any suggestion of Versailles. Only with Eldorado may one discern some recollections of the great Château. Much emphasis is laid upon wealth and abundance of many kinds, some of this stress on luxury recalling similar accounts in Le Mondain. More piquantly, the King is intelligent, witty and socially adept; memories of Versailles hover. But once again, physical details are remarkable by their scarcity. While we know that the size of the Palace portal is precisely 220 x 100 feet, we know nothing about its substance: ‘il est impossible d’exprimer quelle en était la matière’. Irony predominates here, as everywhere else in Candide. Physical description is no more than its handservant.

– Haydn Mason

[1] Voltaire to the d’Argentals, 18 January 1745.

[2] Voltaire to Cideville, 31 January 1745.

[3] Voltaire to Mme Denis, 2 December 1745.

[4] Voltaire à Podewils, 8 March 1745.

[5] December 1745.

[6] See note 2, above.

[7] L’Ingénu, chap.9 (Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford, vol.63c, p.247-48).

[8] 10 August 1746.

[9] Le Siècle de Louis XIV, in Œuvres historiques, ed. R. Pomeau (Paris, 1957), p.1219-20. Baridon makes no mention of this.

[10] Le Siècle de Louis XIV, p.1220.

[11] Le Siècle de Louis XIV, p.930-31.

[12] A useful article has appeared on this topic: P. Henry: ‘Sacred and profane gardens in Candide’, SVEC 176 (1979), p.133-52. The present study addresses a more limited aspect.

When the stage meets the page – past and present

Detail from Spectacle Gratis – G. Engelman (source: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/a-history-of-a-night-at-the-theatre/)

Detail from Spectacle Gratis – G. Engelman (source: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/a-history-of-a-night-at-the-theatre/)

In the preface to his tragedy Sémiramis (1749), Voltaire damningly characterized the typical eighteenth-century French theatre as ‘a tennis court with a tasteless set at one end, in which audience members are positioned contrary to all laws of order and reason, some standing on the stage itself with others standing in what is known as the parterre, where they are obscenely hemmed in and crushed, and sometimes surge forward over one another impetuously, as though caught up in a popular uprising’.[1] By contrast, the modern experience of theatre in London’s West End is one of slipping into expensive seats booked months in advance, flicking through a glossy programme, and sinking into reverential silence as the lights dim – always double checking that our mobile phones are switched off, lest we be the unfortunate soul to break the spell.

Where we seek to eliminate distractions in order to immerse ourselves in the story so that fiction becomes reality, our eighteenth-century ancestors were constantly immersed in the reality outside the fiction. Eighteenth-century theatres were a raucous microcosm of city life – a cacophony of catcalls, flirtations, and brawls – with actors on-stage often demolishing the fourth wall with conspiratorial asides to the audience. While Voltaire may have been keen to preserve the purity of his verse by creating a more suitable environment than this ‘tennis court’, other writers fully embraced the exuberant chaos of the eighteenth-century theatrical experience.

Drury Lane Theatre, London – watercolour by Edward Dayes (1795) (source: http://www.britannica.com/topic/Drury-Lane-Theatre/images-videos/drury-lane-theatre-london-the/5296)

Drury Lane Theatre, London – watercolour by Edward Dayes (1795) (source: http://www.britannica.com/topic/Drury-Lane-Theatre/images-videos/drury-lane-theatre-london-the/5296)

In Theatre and the novel, from Behn to Fielding, Anne F. Widmayer presents a fresh way of thinking about the relationship between stage and page at a critical point in literary history: the eighteenth century, when theatre was an established feature of the cultural landscape, and the novel still a nascent and mutable form, far removed from its modern dominance of the literary scene.

The advent of the novel, and its private consumption in the comfort of a study or drawing room, might seem a far cry from the world of the theatre as Voltaire describes it, yet many of the early English novelists – such as Widmayer’s case studies Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley, William Congreve, and Henry Fielding – were also playwrights, who deployed the dramatic devices honed on stage to highlight the novel’s status as a fictional construct. The conspiratorial aside between actor and spectator was transferred to the private theatre of the reader’s imagination. While we might think of metafiction as a twentieth-century invention, the eighteenth century proves itself once again to have been at the forefront of modernity. With sophisticated playfulness, Behn, Manley, Congreve and Fielding not only created humorous effects but also questioned the capacity of their art to represent reality. Exaggeration and finely tuned irony, create a novelistic play (in all senses of the term) in which readers are invited to participate, questioning the traditional sources of textual authority as they sift through multiple layers of perception, and discover that the narrator has become an unreliable conduit for information – a player in the tale he narrates.

Challenging, and sometimes unnerving, but always engaging, these early novels still defy our assumptions about the novel as a form. Despite evolutions in their nature and status, the eighteenth-century intermingling of drama and prose continues to influence contemporary English writers, as the self-conscious narrator-performer Briony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) and the metafictional Russian doll narratives of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) illustrate. With critical studies into notions of identity as performance, the legacy of these bold and experimental eighteenth-century writers is likely to continue – the scene is set for a long and fruitful encounter between stage and page!

– Madeleine Chalmers

Theatre and the novel, from Behn to Fielding, Anne F. Widmayer (Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, July 2015, ISBN 978-0-7294-1165-3).

See also: Roman et théâtre au XVIIIe siècle: le dialogue des genres, Catherine Ramond (SVEC 2012:04, Voltaire Foundation, April 2012, ISBN 978-0-7294-1043-4).

[1] ‘un jeu de paume, au bout duquel on a élevé quelques décorations de mauvais goût, & dans lequel les spectateurs sont placés contre tout ordre & contre toute raison, les uns debout, sur le théâtre même, les autres debout, dans ce qu’on appelle parterre, où ils sont gênés & pressés indécemment, & où ils se précipitent quelquefois en tumulte les uns sur les autres, comme dans une sédition populaire’ [translation my own], in Voltaire, ‘Sémiramis, tragédie’, ‘Dissertation sur la tragédie’, ed. R. Niklaus, in The Complete Works of Voltaire, vol.30A (Oxford, 2003), p.157, lines 424-31.

Public figures: the invention of celebrity in the eighteenth century

Le lever de Voltaire

Le lever de Voltaire par Jean Huber, 1772. Musée de l’Hermitage.

In his Lever de Voltaire of 1772 Jean Huber depicted the philosophe getting dressed in a somewhat awkward position. The picture was a great success: it was engraved in Paris and in London, reproduced many times and broadly circulated and sold. Voltaire accused Huber of turning him into an object of ridicule. But Huber countered that he knew exactly ‘the dose of ridicule’ that was necessary to Voltaire’s celebrity [1].

Indeed, this image was very different from traditional portraits of writers. Here, Voltaire was not displayed as a prestigious author with his books and pens, but as a private individual. It was precisely because Voltaire was well-known – because he had become a public figure – that the public was eager to stare at him even through the mediation of print, in the intimacy of his bedroom, performing ordinary activities. The painting’s appeal rested on the impression it created of a voyeuristic glimpse of Voltaire’s intimate life. It is exactly the same mechanism that drives today’s paparazzi. Thus, the interest of the public (its empressement as Huber put it) was not based on genuine admiration but rather on curiosity and a desire for intimacy, a strange mixture of distance and proximity, of greatness and familiarity.

The popular success of this image was also due to the existence of a commercial market. The proliferation of portraits in the public sphere was an important feature of the social and cultural transformations that distinguished the eighteenth century. Many printers in the 1770s specialised in the production of cheap images, and especially in portraits of famous contemporaries, destined for the urban audience of the cities.

The culture of celebrity that emerged during this period was the result of both of these trends that constitute the two pillars of modernity: on the one hand, the social and commercial emergence of a public – not only a critical public of readers but also a public of buyers and consumers –, and on the other, the birth of privacy, intimacy, and the ideal of the authentic, singular individual. The market and the self were intimately bound.

In Figures publiques. L’invention de la célébrité (1750-1850) (Fayard, 2014) I explore the emergence of this celebrity culture. ‘Celebrity’ is often assumed to be a recent phenomenon, associated with the development of mass media and the ‘society of the spectacle’. I argue, however, that this specific form of public visibility emerged in the eighteenth century, and was different from both the traditional glory of heroes and great men and from mere reputation. Celebrity was a radically new form of renown, characterized by a wide and largely uncontrolled circulation of the name and image of an individual, far beyond the networks of reputation and the judgement of peers. Celebrity did not remain confined to a specific social space, but instead reached a broad, often anonymous audience. Its characteristic form was asymmetrical, as Chamfort pithily described: ‘Celebrity is the avantage of being known to people who do not know you’ [2]. It created the illusion of proximity to intimacy with the famous person. But it was also a new and sometimes disturbing experience for those who were confronted with the broad dissemination of their image and name. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was one of the most famous public figures of his time, conceived of his own celebrity as a burden, and harshly denounced its effects.

My argument is also about the public sphere. The classical habermasian narrative opposes the critical and rational public sphere of the Enlightenment to the contemporary public sphere, perverted by mass media and the cultural industry. I argue that the mechanisms of publicity are simultaneously the conditions of rational criticism and the instruments of public curiosity with, even fixation on, the personalities and private lives of famous people. Thus the democratic public sphere and the public sphere of the media are indissolubly bound to one another.

celeb-collage

This celebrity culture is not only predicated on mere curiosity. It sometimes take the form of a sentimental attachment to the famous person, it feeds a desire for intimacy at a distance, asymmetrical and imaginary. When face-to-face interactions – which were the rule in traditional societies and the basis of social reputations – are replaced by mediated communication, in which texts and images are oriented towards an indefinite range of potential recipients, new reactions and responses are produced.

By stressing the dynamics of celebrity I am exploring the counterpart of salon sociability that was the subject of my previous book, Le Monde des salons. Sociabilité et mondanité à Paris au XVIIIe siècle (Fayard, 2005), which has just been published in an English translation, The World of the Salons. Sociability and Worldliness in Eighteenth Century Paris (Oxford University Press, 2015). Whereas the salons were wordly spaces, where aristocrats and men of letters tried to manage and control their reputations through their mastery of polite conversation, celebrity rested on publicity, wide audiences and the commodification of culture. Both played an important role in the cultural dynamics of the eighteenth century. From sociability to celebrity, from socialites to public figures, the public sphere was a much more complex and ambivalent phenomenon than was often assumed. We could better understand the paradoxes of today’s culture of celebrity – so eagerly sought yet so often denounced – were we to consider its origins in the social and cultural mutations of the eighteenth century.

– Antoine Lilti
EHESS (Ecole des Hautes études en sciences sociales), Paris

[1] Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique par Grimm, Diderot, Raynal, Mesiter, éd. M. Tourneux (Paris, Garnier, 1880), t.10, p.98.

[2] Nicolas de Chamfort, Maximes et pensées. Caractères et anecdotes, éd. J. Dagen (Paris, Garnier-Flammarion, 1968), p.78.

Radio programmes also of interest:

La naissance de la célébrité au XVIIIe siècle (La marche de l’histoire, France Inter)

Au XVIIIe siècle, l’émergence de la célébrité (Concordance des temps, France Culture)