Endings and new beginnings: Voltaire’s seemingly infinite writings

Robert Darnton.

This week, Robert Darnton will be giving a lecture in Oxford, as part of a celebration to mark the publication of the final volumes of the Complete works of Voltaire. This project was first conceived in 1967, before the Voltaire Foundation came to Oxford in the 1970s; and as Greg Brown suggested, in a lecture given last week at the online Enlightenment Workshop, you could say the project goes back to the 1940s, when Theodore Besterman first had the idea of producing a new edition of Voltaire’s correspondence.

So the publication of all 205 volumes of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (known as OCV) marks an important moment in Enlightenment studies. Voltaire wrote a lot – one estimate puts the total at around 15 million words, which, as Besterman liked to say, is the equivalent of 20 Bibles. There have been previous ‘complete’ printings of Voltaire, most recently the so-called Moland edition in the 1870s and 1880s, but ours is the first ever critical scholarly edition. Every single work of Voltaire appears here with a full listing of all variants to the text, often extensive scholarly notes, and an introduction setting the work in its literary and historical context. Each text has been studied from the point of view of its printing history, and the astonishing extent of Voltaire’s detailed mastery of the print trade is revealed here for the first time.

Œuvres compètes de Voltaire.

But still, an anxiety remains: are these Complete works truly complete…? And what would ‘complete’ even mean, in the case of a writer like Voltaire? We include in OCV a number of texts published for the first time, most notably the marginal writings in the books in Voltaire’s library. Then there is another category of ‘new’ works, those that have always been available in theory, but that had become unrecognisable as a result of a profoundly corrupt print tradition. OCV reveals a number of masterpieces, including the Questions sur l’Encylopédie and the Commentaire historique sur les œuvres de l’auteur de La Henriade, works that have not been printed as Voltaire intended since the eighteenth century. And we have also done our best not to include works that Voltaire did not write: the Moland edition began by including Candide, seconde partie, then had to reprint the volume in question when it was remembered that this was a work by Henri-Joseph Dulaurens (who was deliberately trying to pass it off as being by Voltaire…). Our new edition pays particular attention to this question of attributed and attributable works.

The business of defining exactly the extent (and limits) of Voltaire’s œuvre is far from simple. New research happily generates more discoveries, and so more questions, and no doubt other works of Voltaire will be added to our existing corpus in the years to come. And as for Voltaire’s letters, it was certainly unwise of Besterman to have named his second, revised, version of the Correspondence, the ‘definitive’ edition.

And a new Voltaire letter in Electronic Enlightenment

New Voltaire letters appear in salerooms all the time, but few are as interesting as the one he wrote to Marie Leszczyńska, queen of France, that has recently been acquired by the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford. Written on 25 April 1728 from London, Voltaire asks the French queen for her protection for his recently published epic poem La Henriade. This is a remarkable letter, made more extraordinary by the fact that it is bound inside an edition of the poem – presumably the presentation copy intended for the queen – which is a hitherto unknown edition of the work, containing unrecorded variant readings of the poem. This new letter (D333a), written entirely in Voltaire’s hand, is being included this week in Electronic Enlightenment, where you can learn more about this amazing letter.

So as we celebrate the Complete works of Voltaire in its paper form, we can also celebrate new findings like this letter to the French queen. As one project finishes, another has started, and work is already under way on Digital Voltaire, a single-author database constructed with the materials contained in the 205 print volumes that will allow us to interrogate Voltaire’s writings in new ways – and to add new discoveries as they are made.

– Nicholas Cronk

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