The Letter: Purloined and Printed, Anonymous and Edited

Oxford, United Kingdom

3 February 2014

À mes très chères lectrices et très chers lecteurs,

What are the ethics of writing, answering, and editing letters? Without aiming to rival Lacan, much less Poe, I too will start my story with a purloined letter, or rather with some purportedly purloined letters.

LaBeaumelle_croppedIn late 1752 Voltaire began a many-year quarrel with Laurent Angliviel de La Beaumelle (the ongoing VF edition of whose correspondence has just received the prestigious Prix Edouard Bonnefous). Seeking to discredit the man who had dared to reprint the Siècle de Louis XIV supplemented with extremely critical footnotes, Voltaire’s best weapon was to accuse La Beaumelle of stealing the letters of Mme de Maintenon, which La Beaumelle had published the very same year and which constitute a key source for anyone writing a history of the Sun King. Voltaire used his own letters to spread the rumour, gradually working out the story of how the letters passed from Mme de Maintenon to her nephew-in-law, the maréchal de Noailles, then to his secretary, who lent them to one of the king’s squires, who passed them on to Louis Racine (son of the famous dramatist), from whose mantelpiece, Voltaire claimed, La Beaumelle stole them. Even as he condemned what he viewed as La Beaumelle’s shady practices in acquiring, publishing, and interpreting the letters, Voltaire nonetheless did not hesitate to seek out future volumes as a source.

Already a master in the art of the polemical printed letter from his Lettres philosophiques (1734) to his printing of the letters of the Calas family (as a means of defending them before the public, 1762, as discussed in volume 56B of the Complete Works of Voltaire), Voltaire returned to the charge against La Beaumelle in 1767 with a published Lettre de Monsieur de Voltaire. Signing this polemical piece in epistolary form but addressing it to no one in particular, Voltaire opened with the belligerent declaration that he had passed on to the police the 95th letter he had received from an anonymous correspondent, since ‘every writer of anonymous letters is a coward and a rogue’. Voltaire thus staked out another tenuous position on the ever-slippery slope of eighteenth-century epistolary conduct: while his (fictional) correspondent broke the rules by sending an anonymous (i.e. unsigned) denunciatory missive, Voltaire not only denounced the correspondent to the authorities, but also rendered his own reply even more anonymous, in the sense that thousands of anonymous members of the public were to read it.

Cowards and rogues were not the only authors of unsigned letters, though: on 2 March 1791, Rosalie de Constant, a Swiss naturalist and illustrator, wrote an anonymous letter of admiration to the renowned author Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. When he too employed the media of print (posting a reply to his unknown correspondent in the Journal de Lausanne) and of epistolary guesswork (writing a reply to the wrong woman, mistaking her for the author of the initial missive), Rosalie de Constant wrote again, begging him to burn both her letters. Luckily, he did not: they struck up an ephemeral but artful correspondence, focused on their shared love of nature and on the ethical questions of whether a young lady can write a letter to a published author and whether he may reveal her secret in printed or manuscript letters (to read more, have a look at the born-digital edition of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s correspondence on Electronic Enlightenment).

Kennedy_letterNowadays, we have more than just manuscript and print media for publicizing and exploring epistolary commerce, but we face related questions: even if we generally agree that letters from the past should be made available to present and future readers, how can we best edit, present, read, analyse, and write about them? With a recent resurgence of interest in correspondences, not just as historical but also as literary objects of study, many excellent print and digital editions of eighteenth-century letters have been appearing.

Even in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, these editions have generated new letters: when the VF’s founder Theodore Besterman sent President Kennedy the first edition of Voltaire’s correspondence (the definitive edition of which has just been made available in a new reprint), he received a personal epistolary reply, in which the president declared it was an ‘extraordinary scholarly achievement’ and ‘an outstanding example of good book making’.

Looking to the future, UCL’s Centre for Editing Lives and Letters explores standards and possibilities for using new technologies to study early-modern letters, while, here in Oxford, the TORCH Enlightenment Correspondences Network will be holding its first meeting on 24 February to discuss, alongside plans for a year-long series of conversations about Enlightenment letters, a current print edition of William Godwin’s letters and a pilot project for a digital correspondence of Catherine the Great of Russia. Do drop us a line and join the conversation!

J’ai l’honneur d’être, avec la plus haute estime,

votre très humble servante,

Kelsey Rubin-Detlev

4 thoughts on “The Letter: Purloined and Printed, Anonymous and Edited

  1. Pingback: Trolling in the eighteenth century: a case study | Voltaire Foundation

  2. Pingback: Correspondence of Enlightenment thinker reaches its 10th volume | Voltaire Foundation

  3. Pingback: Perfect correspondences | Voltaire Foundation

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