The history of the book that never was: Voltaire’s Histoire de la guerre de 1741

Louis XV in 1748, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

Louis XV in 1748, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704-1788). (Musée du Louvre, Wikimedia commons)

‘Je doute qu’il y ait à présent un homme dans l’Europe aussi bien au fait que moi de l’histoire de la dernière guerre’, wrote Voltaire in June 1752 about what he describes a few lines later as the ‘plus difficile de mes ouvrages’ (D4907, to the duc de Richelieu). The work was never published by him, however, so what went wrong? Voltaire sometimes delayed publication of his work until the time was ripe, or after a water-testing first draft that found the water chilly, but he rarely abandoned an entire book-length work. Yet this was the sad fate of the Histoire de la guerre de 1741 (War of the Austrian Succession), now entering Voltaire’s complete works for the first time (OCV, vol.29C). Circumstances were against him all along, so that the time, the place and the loved one never did come together.

In 1745 the ‘loved one’ was Louis XV – ‘le bien aimé’. Louis’s personal presence during the Flanders campaigns of 1744 and 1745 showed him at his best, and so he is portrayed by Voltaire, writing as newly appointed historiographe de France in what became the relevant chapters of the Histoire de la guerre de 1741. The first thing to go wrong was the time. Had an honourable peace for France been agreed at the end of 1745, as there was every reason to hope once the succession question had been resolved, the time would have been ripe for Voltaire, still living in Versailles, to have put down his pen and published his account of the ‘campagnes du Roi’, of which a manuscript had been sent to the king in 1746.

Stanislas Leszczynski by Jean Girardet

Stanislas Leszczynski (1677-1766) by Jean Girardet (1709-1778), court painter in Lunéville.

The war dragged on, however, until 1748, by which time Voltaire, disillusioned by life at Versailles, was on a protracted visit to King Stanislas Lesczynski at Lunéville where he still was when Mme Du Châtelet died in 1749. This catastrophe induced Voltaire to accept a long-standing invitation from Frederick II to stay in Potsdam. Here the Guerre de 1741 was eventually completed, but Voltaire never returned to live in Paris or Versailles, the sources of his inspiration and material and the natural springboard for his history.

Voltaire was evidently keen to test the waters in Paris with a revised version of the first part, up to the battle of Fontenoy, but his principal adviser, the comte d’Argental, warned him – ‘sans être obligé d’entrer dans les détails’ – on no account to publish it without approval (see D4843; 19 March 1752).

Although the war was no doubt still a sore subject with the king, d’Argental’s oblique hint shows that Voltaire was already aware of the justified criticisms that he had unduly flattered his friends, in particular by exaggerating the part played at Fontenoy by his friend and hero the duc de Richelieu and consequently downplaying that of the true victor, the maréchal de Saxe. Voltaire had been carried away, one might almost say that he had replaced one loved one with another.

Plan of the battle of Fontenoy, 11 May 1745, by Jean de Beaurain

Plan of the battle of Fontenoy, 11 May 1745, by Jean de Beaurain (1696-1771). (Bibliothèque nationale, public domain)

Maurice de Saxe by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

Maurice de Saxe (1696-1750), by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1748). (Public domain)

Voltaire evidently cut his losses. From his base in Potsdam he had another string to his bow – publication of the full manuscript by Conrad Walther in Dresden. The idea had been mentioned in March (see D4841) but in August Voltaire was nervous, telling Walther that he would want a small printing in anticipation of an early second edition, as happened with the Siècle de Louis XIV on which Walther was then engaged (D4994). This unpromising request would explain why the work was not printed by Walther, if indeed the final manuscript was ever sent, but it is hard to account for Voltaire’s unease other than fear of mockery about the flattery of his friends.

So when three years later in 1755 the manuscript of the first part of the Guerre was ‘stolen’ and published under Voltaire’s name with an Amsterdam title-page, had he jumped or was he pushed? His disclaimers were not seriously believed either then or now. More interesting, and curious, is the fact that Voltaire did not proceed to publish his own authorised edition, nor did he take steps to publish the complete text to 1748 as promised to Walther. Once more he bided his time, but for what?

Histoire de la guerre de mil sept cent quarante et un

Histoire de la guerre de mil sept cent quarante et un, title page of part 1 (Amsterdam [Paris], 1755). (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

By late 1755 Voltaire was already in the process of preparing the edition of his complete works of 1756, where he was joining the Siècle de Louis XIV to the end of what became the Essai sur les mœurs […] depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à nos jours. What better solution than to tack on as well the early chapters of an abbreviated Guerre de 1741? The decisive nail in the coffin of the Guerre de 1741 may well have been the reversal of alliances in 1755 which transposed Austria, the adversary of 1745, into France’s new ally. At a stroke the Guerre was relegated to the status of a redundant curiosity. Voltaire had missed the boat.

The Collection complète des œuvres de Voltaire of 1756 contains truncated versions of the text up to the battle of Fontenoy. Subsequent editions were augmented by further pared-down chapters until the whole was subsumed into the Précis du siècle de Louis XV in 1768 (OCV, vols. 29A and 29B).

Thus it was that the Histoire de la guerre de 1741 was never published as a complete text in Voltaire’s lifetime. Nineteenth-century editors of his complete works, starting from Beuchot, found the strands of the Guerre and Précis hard to unravel. This is understandable but they undoubtedly missed a trick. (The OCV edition is able to use shading to highlight the passages from the Guerre that are carried forward into the Précis.)

The Guerre de 1741 is fully deserving of its place in Voltaire’s complete works. It is more than a historical narrative; it is a picture of Voltaire at work and revealing of the pains he took. It also shows that for the ci-devant historiographer writing about his own time was not as easy as all that – not easy at all in fact.

Janet Godden

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