What else makes a critical edition?

Material constraints in publishing can sometimes have the beneficial effect of focusing attention anew on the importance of the intellectual content of the book. As has happened so many times over the years in bringing out the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, a volume has turned out to be too big to fit comfortably into a single binding, and so it has been split into A and B volumes. The Introduction to Voltaire’s Siècle de Louis XIV will therefore be published in two parts: volume 11A contains the introduction proper, a prose study by Diego Venturino of the history, intricacies and import of this landmark historical work, with contributions from Nicholas Cronk and Jean-Alexandre Perras. And 11B will have… everything else. ‘But what else could be needed?’ a reader might be forgiven for asking. ‘Quite a lot’, the answer turns out to be.

The most straightforward content in 11B is probably the sequence of appendices presenting various texts that surround and shed light on the Siècle but are not part of the text itself: an unpublished manuscript; open letters published by Voltaire in periodicals; and finally forewords and prefaces from printings not chosen as the base text of our edition. These are presented as short critical editions in their own right.

By far the longest component, however, is the list of manuscripts and editions of Voltaire’s text. While a one-hundred-page section of painstaking bibliographical description might look dry and off-putting (see example above), it is a vital complement to both the introduction in volume 11A and the text itself, and fulfils several functions. It contains the detail of the history of the text: its prehistory, in manuscript state, and its print evolution. The latter tracks when Voltaire introduced changes into his work, whether by making corrections, adding new material, or rearranging it. The list shows which editions follow the latest changes made and, equally, which merely reproduce older versions of the text, thus revealing the relative significance of the different printings in the author’s lifetime. Various mysteries are explained: the edition bearing ‘Dresden’ on its title page (see example on the left) was actually printed in Leipzig, whereas the ones proclaiming Leipzig as their place of publication in fact were produced in Paris… Another, dated 1753, is in fact found to have appeared at the beginning of December 1752, all of which is elucidated and confirmed by Voltaire’s active and passive correspondence, as well as by some of the appendices. Each full description can be linked, via its siglum – a shorthand identification – to the textual variants given in the volumes of text, so that a reader, wanting to know more about the circumstances surrounding the different readings, can find the relevant information.

Finally, the list of editions serves as a reference tool for anyone in the world who comes across an eighteenth-century printing of the Siècle, since the detailed technical description allows one to identify copies, sometimes via small tell-tale signs, like a printing error, or a typographical ornament, which can serve to differentiate between two or more otherwise very similar editions. Connected to the list of manuscripts and editions is a dossier of illustrations, as well as a list of eighteenth-century translations of the text.

While most of the variant readings of Voltaire’s text are printed at the bottom of the page in the Œuvres complètes, a few are simply too long to fit. A digital edition would avoid this seemingly arbitrary distinction between variants based on length, but in a print edition, it makes most sense to give these longer variants their own space. Amongst volume 11B’s appendices are therefore an early list of marshals of France from the 1751 edition, before it was vastly expanded, and the early versions of chapter 24, which examines the period between the death of Louis XIV and the war of the Austrian Succession. This chapter has strong links to other works by Voltaire, namely the Précis du siècle de Louis XV, and an early version of part of the same, the Histoire de la guerre de 1741. Looking at how he modified and reused his material here is both illustrative of his working methods and also at the centre of a very real problem in editing Voltaire’s works: how to present material that moves between different titles over the course of the author’s lifetime.

Even after the author’s death, the text acquired accretions of various kinds. In the first posthumous edition of Voltaire’s works, one of his editors, Condorcet, added over a hundred footnotes. While obviously not part of the text, they do shed light on different aspects of it. For example, Condorcet wrote:

“When the first edition of the Siècle de Louis XIV became public, Fontenelle was still alive. People sought to set him against Mr de Voltaire. ‘How am I treated in this work?’ Fontenelle asked one of his friends. ‘Sir,’ he replied, ‘Mr de Voltaire begins by saying that you are the only man alive for whom he has set aside his resolve to speak only of the dead.’ ‘I do not want to know any more,’ Fontenelle declared; ‘whatever else he may have added, I must be content.’”

Or,

“Since in what follows, there will often be references to this monetary operation [inflation], and since Mr de Voltaire has not discussed its effects in any of his works, we may be forgiven for entering into a few details here…”

Or else,

“These [relief maps of Vauban’s Citadel of Lille] have since been moved to the Invalides.”

These are the main ingredients that make up this atypical volume of Voltaire’s complete works. A chance effect of page extent and the physical properties of bookbinding has resulted in a book that the scholarly community didn’t know it needed in quite the same way as a volume containing Voltaire’s text or an introductory essay; nevertheless, it would not be surprising if the tools and supplements that it contains, all part of what makes a critical edition, ultimately mean that quite a lot of readers end up calling it up from their libraries’ stacks.

– Gillian Pink

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