Seasonal greetings from the queen of France

Rather than racing to get their cards in the post in time for Christmas, the French more often send Cartes de vœux, literally ‘cards of wishes’. These can be written until January 31 and will typically express the writer’s hope that the recipient might enjoy health, prosperity and happiness in the year which has just started. This tradition goes back a long way as a note from tragic queen Marie Antoinette, who was guillotined in 1793 in Paris at the age of 38, demonstrates.

The brief letter is held in the library at Bergamo (Biblioteca Angelo Mai) and addressed to Giovanni Andrea Archetti (1731-1805), an Italian priest who was made a cardinal in 1784. [1]


Here is a transcription of the letter. Despite the calligraphic flourishes, it is relatively legible as the close-up shows.

Mon Cousin. Je suis si persuadée de votre attachement à ma personne, que je ne doute pas de la sincerité des vœux que vous formés pour ma satisfaction au Commencement de cette Année, les expressions dont vous les accompagnés sont pour moi un motif de plus de vous rassurer de toute l’Estime que je fais de vous. Sur ce je prie Dieu qu’il vous ait mon cousin en sa S[ain]te et digne garde.
écrit à Versailles. Le 31. Janvier 1787.
Marie Antoinette


There are few differences with the way we would write things. An accent is missing on ‘sincérité’, there is a capital on the name of the month (which is now considered incorrect in French) and, more importantly, the polite ‘vous’ forms of first group verbs, ‘former’ and ‘accompagner’ are here spelled with an ‘-és’ ending rather than the ‘ez’ we would expect. You may also have noticed the full stop after ‘31’ which was a way of transforming the cardinal number into an ordinal number (the equivalent of 31st). Whilst the practice has disappeared from modern French usage, you will find it in German. The signature makes it look as though the final ‘e’ of ‘Antoinette’ has been swallowed into the ‘tt’.

If you compare the transcription with the photograph of the whole page, you will observe different things even before you look at the meaning of the message: it is written on a very large sheet of paper of which the text only occupies about one third; there are slits down the side of the sheet; a strange seal hangs off an appended strip of paper; you can spot the handwriting of three different people. What explains these surprising aspects?

Paper was a luxury commodity in 18th-century Europe and there was a lot of re-using of scraps. Here, the choice of a sheet much larger than would be necessary for the length of the text is a clear sign of wealth. Unlike most of the inhabitants of France, the queen did not have to worry about waste or expense. In addition, a large sheet rather than a smaller one honoured the recipient: it meant he was being treated with the respect owed to an eminent person. The strange folds and the slits down the side (by the blue-gloved fingers on the first picture and along the opposite edge), as well as the paper-encrusted seal, show that this missive would have been sent with a removable lock. The sealing wax pressed between two sides of paper to ensure it would not get broken is on the strip which served as a lock. This was part of a ceremonial practice again intended to make the document seem important but without including a proper seal. Because of the lack of confidential information on the one hand, but also the important diplomatic value of a letter from the queen of France, a particular closing process was adopted. It allowed for the missive to be opened without breaking the seal—rather like when we tuck the flap in to an envelope rather than sticking it down. The French refer to a seal which does not have to be broken for the letter to be opened as a ‘cachet volant’ or ‘flying seal’. You can discover how it would have been prepared in an excellent video about a similar letter from Marie Antoinette to a different cardinal:

As you will notice if you watch the video, once the single sheet had been folded and sealed, it would have looked a bit like a modern envelope with the addressee’s name on it. No street or town address was included because it would have been entrusted to a courier and delivered by hand.

The letter was written by a secretary, almost certainly a man, who had clear bold and ornate handwriting. You can see a change of ink when you get to the signature. Marie Antoinette is the French version of the names Maria Antonia which the future queen of France had been given at her christening in Vienna in 1755. The third person to have intervened also simply signed. This was Jacques Mathieu Augeard, the ‘secrétaire des commandements de la reine’ who was an important court official and would have ensured the letters were duly sent off to the right people. Clearly, this is not a personal letter addressed by Marie Antoinette to cardinal Archetti, but a formal stock message prepared in her name. She may well not even have read the text before it was signed.

What do the contents of the letter tell us? The first thing to note is that the queen calls the cardinal ‘Mon Cousin’. They were not related. This was a conventional courtesy used between people of a certain rank. The missive is clearly an answer to a letter received from Archetti who had sent his own best wishes—it refers to ‘la sincérité des vœux que vous formez’ and ‘les expressions dont vous les accompagnez’ (modernised spelling). It ends with a pious formula hoping that God will watch over the cardinal. The date of 31 January, the last one on which such wishes could be sent, was usual for the royal family. It bears witness to the eminence of the signatory who has not initiated the correspondence but is providing a response.

We are documenting Marie Antoinette’s letters as part of a project with the Château de Versailles’ CRCV research centre. Oxford student Tess Eastgate is one of the participants thanks to her AHRC-funded Oxford-Open-Cambridge Doctoral Training Partnership. Tess is working on weighty political exchanges from the revolutionary period which are quite unlike the message presented here.

To the casual reader, it might seem disappointing to come across a letter like the one to Archetti, with so little personal content, it is in fact very useful for us to have it. It documents the formal relations between the French monarchs and the Catholic hierarchy. It suggests that there may be other similar missives addressed to different dignitaries across the world (examples of ones to cardinals Boncompagni Ludovisi and Borgia have been located) [2] so, if you are anywhere near archive holdings, take a look at what they have. Who knows, you may even come across seasonal greetings to a cardinal from the Queen of France!

– Catriona Seth, Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature
All Souls College, Oxford

[1] Library reference: Autografi MMB 938-945 Faldone A 2) REGINA MARIA ANTONIETTA DI FRANCIA Lettera con firma autografa da Versailles in data 31 gennaio 1787 portante il sigillo reale diretta al Cardinale Archetti (in francese). My thanks to Dottoressa Maria Elisabetta Manca and the staff at the Bibliotheca Angelo Mai.

[2] See A revealing exchange of New Year’s greetings by Louis XVI & Marie Antoinette with Cardinal Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi (with a 1787 letter which contains many similar terms to the one published here) and Letter from Marie Antoinette to cardinal Borgia (links accessed on 11 December 2022).

Written for and reposted from Adventures on the Bookshelf.

Dix raisons de lire et d’aimer ‘La Henriade’ de Voltaire

La Henriade a obtenu le privilège – rarissime – d’être considérée, du vivant de Voltaire, comme un classique, une œuvre qui pouvait être étudiée en classe. Les rééditions incessantes jusqu’au XIXe siècle, ou les parodies et les traductions en plusieurs langues, témoignent de l’énorme succès de ce poème épique, et cela en dépit des réactions sévères et partisanes de la part des détracteurs de l’auteur. Voltaire a défendu avec détermination son épopée, et se désigne de surcroît, dans le titre d’une œuvre-testament, ‘auteur de La Henriade’; cette périphrase attribue au poème une marque de distinction au sein d’une production foisonnante ainsi qu’une valeur métonymique, à savoir le chef-d’œuvre destiné à entrer dans le temps de Mémoire. Néanmoins, du point de vue historiographique, les critiques ont réussi à s’imposer au fil du temps, la défaveur pour un genre en déclin comme l’épopée ayant sans doute été fatale.

Si on peut supposer que tout le monde connaît le titre ‘La Henriade’, on ne peut pas affirmer pour autant que tout le monde ait lu l’œuvre. Elle n’a jamais été introuvable: véritable succès de librairie, il a toujours été facile de se procurer une édition parue au XVIIIe ou au XIXe siècle. Parmi les éditions modernes, il faut remonter cependant à celle procurée par O. R. Taylor en 1970 pour les Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, savante et volumineuse, idéale surtout pour la consultation. Un demi-siècle après celle-ci paraît enfin une nouvelle édition.

C’est là l’occasion de se forger soi-même une idée sur ce poème épique, sans intermédiaires, en délaissant les critiques normatives de La Beaumelle et Batteux, reprises plus récemment par Pierre Bayard. Il y aurait alors au moins dix bonnes raisons de lire et d’apprécier, voire d’aimer La Henriade:

La première raison est que l’on peut se procurer enfin une édition récente et commentée de La Henriade, parue chez Classiques Garnier, plus maniable malgré les autres textes qui l’accompagnent. Dans l’Essai sur les guerres civiles, Voltaire esquisse l’escalade qui aboutit aux luttes fratricides et les solutions philosophico-politiques pour mettre fin à la guerre. Dans l’Essai sur le poème épique, il explique et légitime la place de son épopée moderne en qualité de digne héritier d’Homère et de Virgile. Cette nouvelle édition, pour la première fois, met en réseau La Henriade avec des considérations poétologiques et la réflexion historienne de Voltaire.

Si on s’intéresse à l’histoire des guerres de religion, on pourra apprécier un récit pathétique et terrifiant du massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy, qui commence avec l’assassinat de Coligny, cet amiral ‘qui aimait la France en combattant contre elle’, un récit saisissant qui inspire des tragédies sur la mort de Coligny (Coligni ou la Saint-Barthelemi de Baculard d’Arnaud, 1740) ou des tableaux (L’Amiral Coligny en impose à ses assassins de Joseph-Benoît Suvée, 1787). Ce chant, que Voltaire ne retouche guère, aura contribué à fonder une mémoire visuelle de la Saint-Barthélemy que la littérature romantique saura mettre à contribution, par exemple l’épisode de Charles IX tirant avec l’arquebuse sur les huguenots depuis le Louvre, ce roi qui ‘du sang de ses sujets souillait ses mains sacrées’, crime atroce que souligne l’allitération.

‘Qui pourrait… exprimer les ravages / Dont cette nuit cruelle étala les images!’ (La Henriade, chant 2). Voltaire avait suggéré quelques modifications que Gravelot n’a pas retenu: ‘Je ne sais si dans le dessin de la Saint-Barthelémy, le personnage qui porte d’une main un flambeau, et de l’autre une épée, les tient dans une attitude assez terrible. Je ne sais s’il ne conviendrait pas qu’on aperçût son visage, qu’il parût enflammé de fureur et qu’il eût un casque sur la tête, au lieu de chapeau. C’est à vous, Monsieur à en décider’ (lettre passée en vente en 2022 chez Drouot).
‘Mayenne, qui de loin voit leur folle entreprise, / La méprise en secret, et tout haut l’autorise’ (La Henriade, chant 4). Le dessin de Gravelot reflète fidèlement la vision de Voltaire: ‘Je ne haïrais pas au quatrième chant quelques moines, et quelques prêtres armés; la religion éplorée les regardant avec indignation ; la discorde à leur tête, et le duc de Mayenne avec quelques ligueurs à un balcon souriant à cette milice monacale’ (lettre passée en vente en 2022 chez Drouot).

Dans La Henriade on peut lire une satire du Vatican, qui ‘de la discorde allume les flambeaux’, et du pape qui ‘met aux mains de ses fils un glaive sanguinaire’. C’est déjà tout l’esprit satirique de Voltaire qui se déploie, comme dans ses vers épigrammatiques sur la Rome catholique: ‘Inflexible aux vaincus, complaisante aux vainqueurs, / Prête à vous condamner, facile à vous absoudre’. Raisons suffisantes pour attirer les foudres de la censure catholique en France, où le poème épique fut interdit de publication, mais aussi les sympathies du lectorat protestant – et c’est à Londres que paraît, avec une dédicace à la reine Caroline, l’editio princeps en 1728.

Rédigé en grande partie en Angleterre, et à la découverte de ce pays, de son système politique, de la physique de Newton, La Henriade fait écho à certaines prises de positions développées dans les Lettres philosophiques. Elisabeth d’Angleterre incarne ce pays du progrès, elle qui avait su rétablir le progrès économique, politique et artistique. Après plusieurs années tumultueuses entre différentes factions, elle donne l’exemple de ce que doit être un siècle éclairé philosophiquement, entraînant la prospérité: 

‘Londres, jadis barbare, est le centre des arts,
Le magasin du monde, et le temple de Mars.
Aux murs de Westminster on voit paraître ensemble
Trois pouvoirs étonnés du nœud qui les rassemble,
Les députés du peuple, et les grands, et le roi,
Divisés d’intérêt, réunis par la loi; […].
“Ah! s’écria Bourbon, quand pourront les Français
Réunir comme vous la gloire avec la paix?
Quel exemple pour vous, monarques de la terre!
“Vous régnez, Londre est libre, et vos lois florissantes.
Médicis a suivi des routes différentes.
Le ciel qui vous forma pour régir des états,
Vous fait servir d’exemple à tous tant que nous sommes,
Et l’Europe vous compte au rang des plus grands hommes.’

C’est également dans ce poème qu’est proposé un premier tableau voltairien du siècle de Louis XIV, partagé entre une critique de l’absolutisme:

‘Ciel! quel pompeux amas d’esclaves à genoux
Est aux pieds de ce roi qui les fait trembler tous!
Quels honneurs! quels respects! jamais Roi dans la France,
N’accoutuma son peuple à tant d’obéissance.’

Et l’éloge du progrès des arts et des sciences:

‘Siècle heureux de Louis, siècle que la nature
De ses plus beaux présents doit combler sans mesure,
C’est toi qui dans la France amènes les beaux arts;
Sur toi tout l’avenir va porter ses regards;
Les Muses à jamais y fixent leur empire;
La toile est animée, et le marbre respire.
Quels sages rassemblés dans ces augustes lieux,
Mesurent l’Univers, et lisent dans les Cieux;
Et dans la nuit obscure apportant la lumière,
Sondent les profondeurs de la nature entière!
Français, vous savez vaincre, et chanter vos conquêtes:
Il n’est point de lauriers qui ne couvrent vos têtes.’

De manière plus générale, La Henriade livre les premières réflexions de Voltaire sur l’intolérance et le fanatisme religieux ainsi que sur les horreurs de la guerre, qui font écho à notre actualité. Voltaire se contente de condamner les radicalismes:

‘Je ne décide point entre Genève et Rome
De quelque nom divin que leur parti les nomme
J’ai vu des deux côtés la fourbe et la fureur.’

Mais La Henriade est également un poème épique, qui donne accès à la création d’un jeune poète qui n’arrêtera jamais de récrire ses vers et de repenser son poème. On pourra apprécier la cadence et la vocalité de l’alexandrin de Voltaire:

‘Au milieu de ses feux, Henri brillant de gloire, / Apparaît à leurs yeux sur un char de victoire’ (La Henriade, chant 5). Le dessin de Gravelot se conforme de nouveau à une suggestion de Voltaire: ‘Comme on a déjà gravé l’assassinat de Henri trois pour le cinquième chant, je crois que les conjurations magiques des Seize pourraient fourni un sujet très pittoresque. Il est aisé de rendre Henri quatre ressemblant, on pourrait le dessiner sur un char traversant les airs aux yeux des sacrificateurs étonnés’ (lettre passée en vente en 2022 chez Drouot).

‘Quand un roi veut le crime, il est trop obéi:
Par cent mille assassins son courroux fut servi,
Et des fleuves français les eaux ensanglantées,
Ne portaient que des morts aux mers épouvantées.’

La structure narrative des dix chants a été critiquée puisqu’elle ferait avancer rapidement l’action, mais aujourd’hui on appréciera sans doute qu’on ait renoncé aux descriptions fastidieuses sur les préparatifs militaires ou sur les affrontements guerriers au profit de l’esprit de paix et de tolérance qui est défendu dans le poème ainsi que d’une action qui progresse avec détermination vers cet horizon.

La Henriade est une œuvre complexe, accompagnée de plusieurs autres paratextes que Voltaire a orchestrés dans les moindres détails. Des illustrations devaient être intégrées dans la toute première édition, parue avec le titre La Ligue (1723), et Voltaire entretient les contacts avec les dessinateurs et les graveurs les plus importants, tels que Charles Dominique Eisen ou Gravelot, pour réaliser un livre mémorable au niveau de sa matérialité.

10° Plusieurs autres paratextes accompagnent La Henriade, inséparable de ces textes programmatiques qui défendent et illustrent le poème épique, comme l’épître du roi Frédéric II de Prusse, qui célèbre Voltaire comme à la fois philosophe et historien, et surtout poète qui n’a rien à envier à Virgile. Dans ces textes historiques, on découvrira également la portée ludique de La Henriade, notamment dans le rapport entre la gravité du texte épique et l’insolence de certaines notes, comme celle de la mort du père du héros, le roi Antoine de Navarre, ‘le plus faible et le moins décis’, décédé en urinant.

En parcourant le texte, les deux essais, les paratextes ou en s’intéressant à l’histoire éditoriale d’une œuvre aussi riche que complexe, on pourra ainsi lire, voire découvrir La Henriade et s’en faire une idée peut-être plus juste.

En guise d’introduction, on pourra suivre cette présentation de Jean-Marie Roulin donnée au château de Coppet, et suivie d’une lecture de quelques extraits par Pilar de la Béraudière.

– Daniel Maira (Université de Göttingen) et Jean-Marie Roulin (Université Jean-Monnet Saint-Étienne / IHRIM)

Theodore E. D. Braun (1933–2022)

(Photo drawn from the announcement of Ted Braun’s membership of the Académie de Montauban on the University of Delaware’s website)

Friends and colleagues of the late Theodore E. D. Braun were saddened to learn of his death last December at the age of 89. Ted, as he was affectionately known, was professor emeritus of French at the University of Delaware, where he was honoured for distinguished service by the College of Arts and Sciences. A lifelong Francophile, Ted was granted the rank of ‘chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques’ by the French Government.

His career was active and wide-ranging. He was a founding member of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the Ibero-American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and the Society for Eighteenth-Century French Studies. In due course, he held office in each, as well as in the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. He was also a contributing editor to the Voltaire Foundation’s Œuvres complètes de Voltaire and the leading authority on the works of Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Pompignan, a fact recognised when he was named a corresponding member of the Académie de Montauban. Ted positively beamed when he spoke of the arcane ceremonial and the celebratory dinner in the medieval town that followed. On that happy occasion, the city of Montauban awarded him the rare distinction of honorary citizenship. Many bumpers were raised in appreciation of Ted’s dedication to the Académie’s founder, ironically, one of Voltaire’s most bitter enemies. In recent years, Ted was an active member of the board of the Voltaire Society of America. In 2021, thanks to his exertions, The Quotable Voltaire, sponsored by the VSA, and co-edited by Garry Apgar and me, was published by the Bucknell University Press.

I first got to know Ted when my then student, Gillian Pink, wrote to ask his advice on research she was undertaking on Le Franc de Pompignan. With characteristic generosity, Ted responded to Gillian’s queries, and the two struck up an epistolary friendship. When later I attended ASECS, I was told to look out for a gentleman dressed entirely in bright orange. Sure enough, the genial ‘Duke of Orange’, as he was dubbed, emerged from the drab cohort of academics, smiling, and twinkling, and offering me his hand. We soon became friends, frequently meeting over breakfast to discuss our various projects, including his surprising interest in ‘chaos theory’. Throughout the years, I was impressed by how young Ted seemed, and how energetic. One of his most endearing traits was the genuine interest he took in the work of younger scholars. He always had suggestions about which publishers to approach, which journal to consider, as well as expert comments on their work. Ted had a kind heart. He was a giving man.

Theodore E. D. Braun is survived by his wife Anne, his daughter Jeanne, his son-in-law John Velonis, and three grandchildren. May he rest in peace. Requiescat in pace.

– Edouard M. Langille, St. FX University (Canada)

Beaumarchais letters: editorial history and current research

The recent addition to Electronic Enlightenment (EE) of 417 letters from the Beaumarchais correspondence is a significant event in 18th-century studies. They appeared over thirty years ago in the two-volume edition prepared by Gunnar and Mavis von Proschwitz, Beaumarchais et le Courier de l’Europe, for the Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century, volumes 273–274 (1990). Added to the 257 Beaumarchais letters already included in EE, these 674 letters constitute over a sixth of known Beaumarchais letters and approximately one third of Beaumarchais letters published to date. Their online publication, along with other current research projects on the correspondence, offers scholars new reasons to consider this oft-cited, but still little understood, figure of the Enlightenment.

A vast and far-ranging correspondence

If ever fully inventoried and edited, the Beaumarchais papers would no doubt include between 6000 and 20,000 documents. (The minimum estimate is based on the currently known corpus. The maximum is a seat-of-the-pants guess put forth by Brian Morton in 1969, based on his preliminary archival research. The actual number certainly lies somewhere in between, nevertheless making the corpus one of the largest of the period.) Beyond their sheer number, the Beaumarchais papers also stand out for their geographical and sociological breadth. From Vienna to Madrid to the Netherlands to England and North America, Beaumarchais’s correspondence network is far more than a simply ‘French’ or ‘francophone’ one. Moreover, Beaumarchais grants us insights into the 18th century that stand apart from those offered by the correspondences of other major figures. An artisan, a musician, a financier, commercial entrepreneur, printer, investor, politician, judge, diplomat, spy, litigant, criminal (he was imprisoned in at least four capitals), husband, lover, brother, father and, of course, a playwright, his correspondence brought him in touch with a wider swath of 18th-century European and North-American society than almost any other personality whose correspondence has been studied to date, with perhaps only Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson rivalling him in this respect.

Editorial history

The editorial history of the Beaumarchais correspondence traces across more than two centuries of literary and political history. Since his death in 1799, over 1500 letters have been edited, of which only slightly more than half feature a supporting critical apparatus.

Portrait of P. A. Caron de Beaumarchais, 1773, drawn by Charles Nicolas Cochin II, engraved by Augustin de Saint-Aubin. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In the 19th century, fewer than 200 Beaumarchais letters were printed, mostly in editions of his works, but also in journals and biographies. The first edition of his complete works, edited by his amanuensis, Paul-Philippe Gudin de La Brenellerie (1809), included 55 letters, which Gudin had transcribed from the personal papers inherited by the writer’s widow upon his death. A second edition, by the journalist, historian and politician Saint-Marc Girardin, published in 1828, included 53 of the same letters, though with some editorial differences. An edition prepared in 1836 by the deputy curator at the Bibliothèque du roi, Jules Ravenel, included 10 letters reproduced from 18th-century periodicals, of which 6 were not published in either of the earlier editions. Also in 1836, the Revue rétrospective published a collection of 29 previously unpublished letters from manuscripts in the Comédie Française archives. The biographer Louis de Loménie, in his two-volume Beaumarchais et son temps (1858), referenced and included partial transcripts of hundreds of letters, but included in the appendix only 35 complete texts of previously unedited letters. A second biographer, Eugène Lintilhac, in his Beaumarchais et ses œuvres (1887), included 12 partially transcribed letters not previously published. (In 1890, Louis Bonneville de Marsangy published Madame de Beaumarchais, a biography of Beaumarchais’s third and final wife and widow, Marie Thérèse Willermaulaz; although Marsangy claimed to have consulted ‘sa correspondance inédite’, no letters are reproduced or directly referenced in the volume.)

In the 1920s, another 200 letters were brought into print from a variety of sources. In the early years of the century, as a young and ambitious man of letters, Louis Thomas undertook to produce a complete edition of the correspondence. However, military service during the Great War put an end to his research. In 1923, he published an edition entitled Lettres de jeunesse, including 167 letters from the first two decades of Beaumarchais’s adult life, of which 120 are attributed to manuscripts in the ‘Archives de Beaumarchais’ and the rest to printed sources. At least 80 of these had not been edited in earlier collections. (Thomas achieved renown as an editor and author in the interwar period before falling into ignominy during the Occupation as an ardent antisemite and collaborator whom the Vichy regime put in charge of the publishing house seized from Gaston Calmann-Lévy.) In 1929, the eminent French literature scholar in the United States Gilbert Chinard edited a collection of Lettres inédites de Beaumarchais consisting of 109 letters, mainly to Marie Thérèse Willermaulaz and their daughter, transcribed from manuscripts acquired by the Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

In the past half-century, the pace of publication has accelerated. In the late 1960s, Brian Morton (then a faculty member at the University of Michigan) launched a project to publish a complete Correspondence and began to transcribe letters from both public and private collections as well as reproduce previously published letters. In the 1970s, Donald Spinelli, then of Wayne State University (in Detroit MI), became his collaborator and continued the project. Together they published about 1000 letters, of which at least 300 were previously unpublished. Four published volumes (1969-1978) cover the years up to 1778 and are now available on open access. In 2010, Spinelli added a fifth volume, covering the year 1779, also on his professional website.

In 1990, Gunnar von Proschwitz, a noted philologist, and his wife Mavis published the most extensive critical apparatus associated with any edition of Beaumarchais letters. The notes and a lengthy introduction to this edition lay out the significance of these documents for our understanding of Beaumarchais’s life and of the 18th century. In these letters, we see Beaumarchais not only as a playwright seeking to circumvent censorship to have Le Mariage de Figaro finally staged, but also as an entrepreneur, a printer, an urban property owner, an emissary, and a transatlantic merchant. Through these documents we have a window on an 18th century that is geographically, socially, and culturally much broader and more diverse than what we generally encounter through other published 18th-century correspondences.

Current research
A letter from Beaumarchais to Antoine Dauvergne, director of the Académie royale de musique, dated 7 August 1787, about Salieri’s opera Tarare (with a libretto by Beaumarchais). (Gallica)

At present, the scholarly world can look forward to the benefits of the first new projects on Beaumarchais’s correspondence in over thirty years, including the effort spearheaded by Linda Gil to produce a definitive inventory with a material bibliography. Gil is also the editor of a forthcoming volume, Éditer la correspondence de Beaumarchais (to be published in the Cahiers du Centre d’étude des correspondences et journaux intimes), and one of the organisers of a conference on ‘L’Europe de Beaumarchais’, to be held in Paris and online on 20 and 21 January 2023.

My own contribution to this effort, begun in collaboration with Spinelli in 2019, is to prepare a searchable dataset of the 3500 documents and nearly 5000 references to letters known and unknown, with which to analyse Beaumarchais’s transatlantic network of correspondents. To date, nearly 3780 named identities have been extracted, of which 980 are unique individuals, and another 500 corporate entities have been identified. Working in collaboration with a talented doctoral student, Dakota Ciolkosz, with Voltaire Foundation colleagues who have extensive expertise in scholarly editing of correspondence, with Miranda Lewis and Howard Hotson of Early Modern Letters Online, and with Glenn Roe, whose ‘ObTIC’ laboratory of Sorbonne Université has done extensive work as well on 18th-century correspondences, this project will seek to make available in the coming years, on an open access and non-exclusive basis, the searchable dataset, the metadata drawn from these documents, and a prosopography of participants in the transatlantic correspondence network.

– Gregory Brown, Professor, Department of History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Senior Research Fellow, Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford

An earlier version of this post appeared on the EE blog.

Celebrating the New Year with gifts of sweets and poetry

‘Telle maison reçoit au jour de l’an quinze à dix-huit cents livres de bonbons’ (and how much poetry?) (CC0 Paris Musées / Maison de Balzac)

What better time of year than this to have a look at the overlap in the New Year traditions of giving sweets and poetry? The two traditions are linked in a curious volume entitled Tableau du premier jour de l’an, ou je vous la souhaite bonne et heureuse (‘À l’île des Bonbons’, [1816]). Here, at the end of the preface, the ‘dieu des papillotes’ disappears, scattering New Year paraphernalia in his wake:

‘laissant dans sa course aérienne une odeur de caramel, de vanille, et semant sur son passage, comme un ballon qui se dégage de son lest, une quantité prodigieuse de cornets de taffetas, de satin pailleté, de bonbons, de devises, de vers, que le vent emportait malgré leur lourdeur et leur penchant naturel à tomber à plat…

The antithesis between heavy and light, ballast and airiness hints at the ephemeral quality of these bonbons, devises and vers.

Title page of Recueil de quatrains, sixains et huitains, sur le vin, les dames et l’amour; choisis dans les œuvres des poètes francais du 1er et du 2e ordre, depuis Clément Marot jusqu’à Demoustier (Paris, Imprimerie de Gillé, 1815)

Sweets and verse are also closely associated in a book (let’s call it that for the moment) recently acquired by the Bodleian Library. The Recueil de quatrains, sixains et huitains, sur le vin, les dames et l’amour; choisis dans les œuvres des poètes francais du 1er et du 2e ordre, depuis Clément Marot jusqu’à Demoustier (Paris, 1815) assembles poems about wine, women and love, dating from the 16th to the 18th century (including by Voltaire). It would not stand out of the mass of recueils of ‘light verse’ that were published until well into the 19th century were it not for its size and layout. Measuring a mere 8.3 by 7 cm, printed single-sided, each page contains three poems of varying lengths together making up sixteen lines of verse. These peculiarities are explained by an advertisement on the back of the title page which asks ‘Messieurs les Confiseurs’ to buy not the book per se, but, rather, its printed sheets in order to cut them up and package them with their ‘bonbons de cette année’.

The poems included in this recueil are thus print ephemera that have survived only because they have been bound together in a kind of sample intended to persuade confectioners to buy poetry in bulk. Confectioners could perhaps have read them in a linear fashion, but the lucky recipients would only have read an arbitrary selection, the size of which would depend on the number of gifts received.

The advertisement on the back of the title page: ‘Ces poésies […] sont destinées à remplacer dans les bonbons de cette année les devises qu’on y voit ordinairement.’

The ‘afterlife’ of 18th-century (and earlier) poésie fugitive is testament to its malleability: for example, what may originally have been a private token of gallantry or love, could become, decades or centuries later, more or less mass-produced items, still intended for use in a social setting, in which their amorous tone might have implied similar feelings on the part of the sweet-giver – or they could simply have been enjoyed as a conversation-starter, a bit like a modern-day fortune cookie or Carambar.

The ‘book’ prompts us to think of the ephemerality of poésie fugitive, not so much in terms of the poems disappearing, but, rather, in terms of them reappearing but in changing circumstances, material forms and settings. The volume is a reminder of the reusability that is characteristic of this kind of poetry, a reusability emphasised by the use of generic names: about twenty out of its 216 poems are addressed to ‘Iris’, for example. These texts could be used (or reused) by anyone, not unlike the way in which, in Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), Christian de Neuvillette acts as a mouthpiece for Cyrano’s sweet-talking verses addressed to Roxane. The highly conventional nature of the poems makes it possible for them to be adapted to ever-changing social and sociable situations, without the text having to change significantly. In fact, Cyrano himself hints at that when he claims to always carry spare love poems about his person:

The binding that preserved ephemeral poetry

‘Nous avons toujours, nous, dans nos poches,
Des épîtres à des Chloris… de nos caboches,
Car nous sommes ceux-là qui pour amante n’ont
Que du rêve soufflé dans la bulle d’un nom!’

Wrapping food in verse could pose a risk to the perceived value of poetry. Using printed paper, or paper that has been written on, in order to wrap food can be a clear indicator that the words on the paper are no longer valued (think of newspapers). When, again in Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, Ragueneau wraps the pastries that he made in bags that his wife has made out of his friends’ poetry, he reluctantly picks one that has the ‘sonnet à Philis’ on it, only to immediately express his horror at the desecration of the poetry: ‘“Philis!…” Sur ce doux nom, une tache de beurre!… / “Philis!…”’ And yet the relation between food and poetry, sugar and verse need not be one where the value of the one (food to be preserved) trumps the other, but could also be one where their respective values are intended to complement each other.

In honour of Rostand, here are two poems from our bonbonnière, one addressed to Philis and the other mocking Cloris. The first is by Chaulieu:

‘Le respect est de glace et l’Amour est de flamme,
Ils ne sauraient tous deux compatir dans une âme;
Mais ils peuvent, Philis, y régner tour-à-tour,
L’Amour toute la nuit, et le respect le jour.’

The second is by Brébeuf:

‘Cloris quitte et reprend, par un rare mystère,
Jeune et vieille peau tour-à-tour,
Et la Cloris de nuit serait bien la grand’mère
De la Cloris de jour.’

The obvious commonalities between these two poems, despite the fairly arbitrary criteria used to select them, illustrate how assembling different poems with a couple of sweets could have prompted a search for (more or less) hidden connections between the texts. It also stresses the sometimes disturbing proximity between madrigals and epigrams in this collection of poetry. There are 214 more poems in the recueil and many more connections to be made and judgements to be passed as to whether the poems take flight or tombent à plat. But this is for the coming year (and an article to be published in the Bodleian Library Record). In the meantime, je vous la souhaite bonne et heureuse!

– Roman Kuhn