The private life of Voltaire and Marie-Louise Denis: the stuff of (epistolary) fiction

Voltaire’s private life is still something of a puzzle: he invested so much energy in creating his public image that it is hard to know who there is behind the mask, or masks. There are biographies of Voltaire aplenty – but could we write a biography of François-Marie Arouet? Voltaire’s immensely rich correspondence might seem like a way of discovering the elusive ‘real’ person, but that can prove illusory: on closer inspection, the correspondence, just like all his other writings, turns out to be a vast laboratory of performances. There are, however, just a few exceptions.

We know tantalisingly little about his private life with Emilie Du Châtelet. The abbé de Voisenon tells us that she treasured the letters she had received from Voltaire and kept them bound in eight quarto volumes. Frustratingly, these seem not to have survived, and she quite possibly destroyed them before her death – surely the single greatest loss from this iconic epistolary corpus. In the case of Voltaire’s relationship with Marie-Louise Denis, on the other hand, significant numbers of genuinely personal letters have survived, though many remained in private hands until the twentieth century, and there may yet be more to be discovered. Voltaire’s relationship with his niece is therefore the most significant attachment of his life for which we have reliable documentation.

The dust jacket of Nancy Mitford’s 1957 Voltaire in Love, designed by Cecil Beaton.

The number of known letters to Marie-Louise Denis has grown considerably over the last century. First, around a hundred letters, dating from between 1745 and 1754, came to light in the late 1930s, with the publication of the Lettres d’Alsace à sa nièce Madame Denis, edited by Georges Jean-Aubry. Already in the eighteenth century there was speculation about the exact nature of Voltaire’s relationship with his niece – were they lovers? All such lingering doubts were dispelled decisively in the 1950s, when the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York acquired some 140 letters from Voltaire to his niece, mostly dating from between 1744 and 1747. It has to be said that Voltaire’s love letters do not rank among his most subtle achievements – he sometimes writes in Italian in an attempt to relieve their tawdry banality – but they certainly leave us in no doubt about the physical nature of their relationship. Theodore Besterman published these letters in 1957, in a book beautifully produced by the Librairie Plon in Paris: the Lettres d’amour de Voltaire à sa nièce bear the surprising dedication ‘à Nancy Mitford’. In fact, Besterman had been discussing this new find of letters with Nancy Mitford over several years: she immediately sensed the fictional potential of this love triangle (Voltaire’s sexual relationship with Denis began before the death of Du Châtelet in 1749) and set to work to write up the scoop of this newly revealed ménage à trois manqué. Modern funding bodies like to encourage academics to explore ways of enhancing the outreach and impact of their scholarly discoveries, but no-one has ever done it better than Theodore Besterman. His scholarly Lettres d’amour appeared in the same year, 1957, as Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love: the title was suggested to her by Evelyn Waugh, and the book was published in London by Hamish Hamilton, with a dust jacket designed by Cecil Beaton (now a collectable item in itself). Nancy Mitford’s work understandably garnered more reviews than Besterman’s, and a French translation of Voltaire in Love, Voltaire amoureux, appeared in 1959.

Lettres inédites à Marie-Louise Denis (1737-1744), ed. Nicholas Cronk, Frédéric Deloffre, Nicolas Fréry and Jacqueline Hellegouard’h (Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2023).

Now another significant collection of letters from Voltaire to his niece has surfaced, 127 autograph letters, hitherto unknown, written between 1737 and 1744. They were acquired by the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 1994 and have just appeared in an edition published by Classiques Garnier. These letters were arranged, with posterity in mind, by Marie-Louise Denis herself: she grouped them into various folders or chemises, which bear writing in her hand, and often proposed dates for the letters which were undated. The coherence of this collection is obvious: it spans the duration of her marriage to Nicolas-Charles Denis. In October 1737, Marie-Louise Mignot lost her father and became an orphan (her mother, Voltaire’s beloved elder sister Catherine, had died many years earlier). In the first letter of this collection, Voltaire sent his condolences to his niece, and advised her not to retire to a convent. Assuming willingly his role as the young woman’s protector, Voltaire set about finding her a suitable husband, and Marie-Louise quickly showed her mettle by rejecting her uncle’s choice and finding a husband of her own, the army officer Denis, whom she married in 1738. The young couple made their home in Lille, and Voltaire wrote to them both, frequently and with evident affection. Many new insights into their private life emerge from these letters, including information about Marie-Louise’s musical talents: see Nicolas Fréry’s recent blogpost here, ‘La nièce musicienne : Marie-Louise Denis et la boîte de Pandore’.

Portrait of Marie-Louise Denis, oil, attributed to François-Hubert Drouais, c.1737 (present whereabouts unknown).

Besterman’s Lettres d’amour has as a frontispiece the beautiful oil portrait of the young Marie-Louise, then attributed to Van Loo, and now thought to be the work of Drouais (the sitter was only identified in 1921). It appears to date from around 1737, so when she is 25 years of age, just before her marriage in February 1738: perhaps the portrait was commissioned by her husband-to-be? In the new edition of Lettres inédites à Marie-Louise Denis, we produce a related image (p.52), a pastel portrait from the same period, more intimate in style, but clearly composed after the model of the oil painting. This pastel, which is in the collections of the Musée d’art et d’histoire of Geneva, was long thought to depict Charlotte de Constant, but Renée Loche has shown that the sitter is in fact Marie-Louise Denis, and that it was drawn by Marie-Louise’s younger sister, Marie-Elisabeth Dompierre de Fontaine, probably around 1737–1738. Voltaire is known to have admired her work, and this is the portrait that he would have had before him when he wrote the letters in this new volume: like the letters, it possesses a particular quality of intimacy.

Portrait of Marie-Louise Denis, pastel, by Marie-Elisabeth Dompierre de Fontaine, c.1737, MAH Musée d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève. Gift of Marc-Samuel Constant de Rebecque, 1830.

After a sudden illness, M. Denis died prematurely in April 1744, and the collection closes with Voltaire writing another letter of condolence to his niece: ‘Adieu, du courage, de la philosophie. La vie est un songe, et un songe triste, mais vivez pour vos amis et pour moi qui vous aime tendrement’ (p.288). The dramatic irony here is evident, for as readers of Nancy Mitford, we know only too well how their relationship will develop. We can all now read the letters to Marie-Louise when she was a young wife, and if we want, we can try to search them for clues about the future. But perhaps it needs a novelist to do real justice to this material. Voltaire’s private life is the stuff of fiction, and possibly of epistolary fiction (think what he will do later with Paméla). Just as Nancy Mitford gave fictional shape to the truth of Besterman’s discoveries, we now need a novelist who can find the deeper truth in Voltaire’s relations with his favourite niece and her husband.

– Nicholas Cronk

The Lettres inédites à Marie-Louise Denis (1737-1744): Voltaire et sa chère nièce, edited by Nicholas Cronk, Frédéric Deloffre, Nicolas Fréry and Jacqueline Hellegouarc’h, have just been published (Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2023).

Selected letters of Catherine the Great translated into Korean

Selected letters of Catherine the Great to Voltaire and others have recently been translated into Korean by Minchul Kim and Seungeun Lee and published by Itta.

While browsing through Electronic Enlightenment one day, I stumbled upon letters to Voltaire written by my soon-to-be queen of letter-writers, Catherine the Great. Seated on a precarious throne, the Tsarina had dreams she wanted to see realised. These she explained and advertised to Voltaire, in the hope of enlisting him in mobilising Western European public opinion in Russia’s favour. She considered herself to be surrounded by enemies: Pugachev, the nobility, the clergy, the Ottoman Empire, and after Voltaire’s death, the French revolutionary republicans. To her delight, Voltaire was happy to be her ally in her war against the Turks as well as against what they both regarded as feudal backwardness and religious fanaticism in Russia.

To the Korean public I wanted to relay the desires and anxieties of an aspiring philosopher-empress, who believed herself to be carrying the torch of Peter the Great against all odds. On her shoulders pressed heavily the burden of ruling a gigantic empire between Europe, China, and the Ottomans. I enlisted a student of the Nakaz, Seungeun Lee, as co-translator and approached an outstanding mid-sized publisher in Seoul with experience in both academic and trade books, Itta, which was already producing a book series of correspondences. The Spinozist Hyunwoo Kim, head of Itta, sat down with us, and the three of us started to pick out letters for translation. The decision was made after a long discussion to leave out the Tsarina’s correspondence with Grigory Potemkin and other Russian politicians, for two reasons. On the one hand, we liked to believe that there might be a future occasion for publishing them in a separate volume. On the other hand, more significantly, we wanted to shed light on a variety of aspects of the relationship that Catherine was trying to establish between the republic of letters and her court. We ended up selecting 46 letters in French written by Catherine to Voltaire (38), D’Alembert (4), Mme Geoffrin (2), Falconet (1), and Frederick II (1), accompanied by one of Voltaire’s letters to D’Alembert.

The collaboration was exciting. All three of us read French and English, and even at a master’s student level Seungeun possessed expertise in Russian language and history that was essential to the task. We consulted several editions including Alexandre Stroev’s from Non Lieu and Andrew Kahn and Kelsey Rubin-Detlev’s from Oxford World’s Classics. I must add that Kelsey Rubin-Detlev’s The Epistolary Art of Catherine the Great, along with Antoine Lilti’s Le Monde des salons and biographies of Catherine and Voltaire, was key to drafting the lengthy introduction for Korean readers. But most of all we ceaselessly returned to Electronic Enlightenment, even after the stage of initial translation, for annotations and links to related letters and people. All the way, Hyunwoo provided timely advice and firm support for the project.

Philippe de Lasalle’s woven portrait of Catherine (c.1771) of which a version still hangs in Voltaire’s château at Ferney (CC0 The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

It was a truly collective enterprise, driven first by the Tsarina’s praise for the poet: ‘En bonne foi Monsieur je fais plus de cas de vos écrits, que de toutes les prouesses d’Alexandre, et vos lettres me font plus de plaisir que les courtoisies de ce prince ne m’en donneraient’ (22 August / 2 September 1765). With humility (and perhaps some hidden desire for compliment) she compared what she did to help Diderot and the deeds of the vengeur des Calas: ‘Ce n’est rien que de donner un peu à son prochain, de ce dont on a un grand superflu, mais c’est s’immortaliser que d’être l’avocat du genre humain, le défenseur de l’innocence opprimée. Ces deux causes vous attirent la vénération due à de tels miracles. Vous avez combattu les ennemis réunis des hommes, la superstition, le fanatisme, l’ignorance, la chicane, les mauvais juges, et la partie du pouvoir qui repose entre les mains des uns et des autres’ (9 July / 20 July 1766). But the three of us were also aware of Voltaire’s panegyric of his admirer, for whom he wrote seventeen days before his death: ‘Que votre majesté impériale pardonne au bavardage de votre ancien serviteur de Ferney qui pourtant ne radote pas quand il parle de son héroïne’ (13 May 1778). Behind the edition, from inception to publication, was this mutual admiration between Catherine and Voltaire, which will hopefully reach a wider public in Korea, showcasing what the republic of letters had to do with the reform politics of the Enlightenment.

– Minchul Kim (Research Fellow at Voltaire Foundation / Assistant Professor of History and Director of the Global Intellectual History Unit at Sungkyunkwan)

From the VF to Vif! A ‘lively’ book series comes to life again as an online collection

In the early 2000s, the Voltaire Foundation decided to create a paperback series in collaboration with the Sorbonne University Press. It was intended (as we said in our publicity materials at the time) ‘to make available the work of the Voltaire Foundation’s authors to the widest audience in an affordable, paperback format’. Since we are known as the ‘VF’, and we wanted our new series to be lively, we called it Vif – French for ‘lively, alert, or snappy’. Nine of the snappy volumes from the Vif series will now enjoy a second life, as part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE ebook collection – the digital edition of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment print series.

The Vif volumes being added to Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE are of two types: critical scholarship and primary texts. Of the former, several are collections of essays, originally aimed at advanced students preparing for the agrégation in France or competency exams in the US. These books treat, respectively, Voltaire’s influential manifesto for religious toleration, the Traité sur la tolérance; Diderot’s innovative play Le Fils naturel; and Marivaux’s journalism and theatre.


There is also a scholarly monograph by James Fowler, Voicing Desire, addressing themes of family and sexuality in Diderot’s fiction. Finally, we include an important study of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique by Christiane Mervaud, who is the author of the authoritative critical edition of this work in the Complete works of Voltaire. An expanded version of introduction to that edition became this book and has remained the definitive study of the text.


The second set of books from the Vif being republished in Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE are three works which are editions of eighteenth-century French texts. The first is an edition of short stories by the author Jeanne Marie Le Prince de Beaumont (1711–1780). Best remembered now for writing a version of The Beauty and the Beast (1756), she was a prolific writer, producing some 70 volumes. The anthology published here, entitled Contes et autres écrits, is the first comprehensive introduction to her work. The second, entitled Vivre libre et écrire, provides a series of extracts from novels written by women during the French Revolution. The Revolution brought a marked increase in the number of books attributed to women authors, but many of these works are immensely hard to find. This pioneering anthology makes a selection of them available for the first time, expertly introduced by Huguette Krief.

Jeanne Marie Le Prince de Beaumont (Expositions BnF).

Perhaps the single most successful woman writer of the French eighteenth century is Françoise de Graffigny (1695–1758), author of a best-selling novel, the Lettres d’une péruvienne, and of a play successfully performed at the Comédie-française, Cénie. Her life reads like a novel, and the best biography, English Showalter’s Françoise de Graffigny: her life and works (2004) can be consulted in Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE. Graffigny’s greatest achievement is perhaps her magnificent correspondence, amounting to some 2,500 letters. The Voltaire Foundation has previously published a critical edition of her correspondence, edited by a team of scholars under the direction of J. A. Dainard. In praising this edition, Heidi Bostic wrote that the ‘Correspondence may well come to be regarded as the crown jewel of Graffigny’s œuvre. Her letters not only charm with their wit, insight, and style, but also document diverse aspects of eighteenth-century French culture and society’ (Eighteenth-century studies, 2008). Not everyone, sadly, has time to read all 15 volumes, so English Showalter produced a handy one-volume selection of the best of her letters, which is included here as well.

Françoise de Graffigny (Artnet).

These Vif volumes contain important scholarship about the French philosophes and make a crucial contribution to expanding our knowledge of women authors in the period. By integrating these volumes into Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE, we are not only making this research more easily available; we are also enriching it by making it cross-searchable with the existing treasures of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment print series.

– Nicholas Cronk, Director of the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford

– Gregory Brown, General Editor for the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment

This post first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog.

Public happiness: when Italy joined the European Enlightenment

Title page of Pietro Verri’s Meditazioni sulla felicità, printed in Livorno by Giuseppe Aubert in 1763. Aubert went on to publish three anonymous editions of Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments and to republish Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie in French.

Robert Mauzi, who dedicated a landmark study to the idea of happiness in French literature and philosophy in the 18th century, did not hold back when he talked about the essays and treatises on happiness that flourished at that time: ‘Rien de sincère, rien de neuf, rien de chaleureux, rien où l’on sente l’âme. Toujours la même prédication prudente’ (Nothing sincere, nothing new, nothing heartfelt, nothing soulful. Always the same cautious preaching).[1] Fortunately, there is nothing of the sort in Pietro Verri’s Meditazioni sulla felicità (Meditations on happiness) a short text – no more than 29 pages – inaugurating a season of exceptional vitality in the history of Illuminismo when it was published towards the end of 1763.

Alongside the journal Il Caffè (1764–1766) and above all Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments (1764), these meditations constitute one of the manifestoes of what Voltaire termed the ‘École de Milan’.[2] The value of Verri’s work lies in its ability to combine a range of theories and motifs drawn from contemporary debates (Hutcheson, Locke, Helvétius, Maupertuis, La Mettrie, Rousseau, the ‘Preliminary Discourse’ and the early volumes of the Encyclopédie) in an expressive Italian language free of rhetorical flourishes. Verri aimed to integrate the Italian intellectual elite into the European Enlightenment, to guide the action of the Habsburg monarchy and to usher in a new era of reform for the peninsula, or at least for Lombardy under Austrian tutelage.

Title page of Pietro Verri’s Meditazioni sulla felicità annotated by Ferdinando Facchinei, printed in Venice by Antonio Zatta in 1765.

Verri defined happiness – a concept which had so far been confined, especially in Italy, to the field of moral philosophy or religion – as a political objective, a concrete model of economic development and a regulating principle of social relations. Happiness depends on the capacity of individuals to assimilate the principles of civic virtue: a happy man is an honest man who understands the correlation between the search for individual happiness and the demand for collective felicity, and who tends to satisfy his desires only within the limits imposed by civil and moral laws. Happiness also depends on the capacity of the state to guarantee the rights and freedom of each individual through the establishment of just legislation, and to curb the desire of the strong to dominate the weak, in accordance with the principles of the social contract. In a society that abides by the values of the social contract, the supreme aim of the ‘art of governing’ is therefore to ensure the greatest happiness of the greatest number (‘la maggiore felicità possibile divisa colla maggiore uguaglianza possibile’).[3] Here Verri resorts to Hutcheson’s famous aphorism, which Beccaria in turn took up in On Crimes and Punishments[4] – and whose long European circulation was traced in an important article by Robert Shackleton in 1972.[5]

A strong intellectual kinship and several direct textual echoes united Verri’s Meditations and Beccaria’s treatise, the two writers being close friends and collaborators. It was soon rumoured that both texts were by the same author! One of Beccaria’s most virulent opponents, the Venetian monk Ferdinando Facchinei, was convinced that the Meditations were a new production by that ‘socialist’ (he was the first to use the word in Italian to denigrate a supporter of contractualist theories) and published an annotated reprint of the work to decry it. Facchinei, who also perceived the echoes of utilitarian and materialist thought in both On Crimes and Punishments and the Meditations on happiness, fulminated against ‘the author of these two monstrous twins’, in which he saw ‘the Rousseau of Italy’.[6]

Title page of Pensées sur le bonheur, translated by Gabriel Mingard and printed in Yverdon by Fortunato Bartolomeo De Felice in 1766.

The reception of the Meditations in French-speaking European countries was more benign. In 1765, D’Alembert wrote that he had found the ‘morceau sur Le Bonheur […] plein de raison et de vues philosophiques’ (piece on Happiness […] full of reason and philosophical views).[7] The Vaudois pastor Gabriel Mingard, one of the main contributors of the Yverdon Encyclopédie, published a French translation, Pensées sur le bonheur, in 1766. Pietro Verri’s text, in an elegant edition divided into chapters, enjoyed a second life thanks to this fairly wordy rendition of his spare prose, reaching a wider audience than the one it was initially intended for. But its reception, briefly helped by Beccaria’s growing fame, was soon overshadowed by the triumph of On Crimes and Punishments. Unlike Beccaria’s treatise, which has been widely read and commented on since its publication, from Voltaire to Foucault,[8] Pietro Verri’s text remained little known outside of Italy, and had not been republished in French since Mingard’s original translation. Yet his Meditations on happiness is a valuable document to reconstruct the intellectual genesis of On Crimes and Punishments and to measure Verri’s sensitivity to the words and themes that nourished the intellectual debate of the second half of the century, until the Revolution: humanity, friendship, equality.

Pietro Verri, Méditations sur le bonheur, texte traduit, présenté et annoté par Pierre Musitelli (Paris, Éditions Rue d’Ulm / Presses de l’École normale supérieure, 2023).

To his last legal battles in the Milanese Council, Verri’s political and intellectual career was dedicated to public happiness, which he deemed inseparable from the defence of freedom, rights and the dignity of citizens. However, Verri’s ambition to extend the possibility of happiness to all individuals remained, as it was for many of his contemporaries, counterbalanced by a form of caution as to the possibility for each individual to reach it, in a world deeply marked by inequalities, by the memory or the experience of military devastations, persecutions, massacres, epidemics and natural disasters – let us bear in mind the Lisbon earthquake in 1755. Bronisław Baczko invited us to ‘embrace both the imperative and impatient demand of the Enlightenment to reduce the number and the intensity of the misfortunes suffered by humankind, and its anguished indignation at the persistence of evil, despite the progress of the intellect and the advancement of science and the arts. The irreducible gap between the promises of happiness and the inevitability of evil was measured by the Enlightenment’s obstinate search for the means to reduce it’.[9]

We are the heirs of the Enlightenment’s restlessness. Since the 18th century, our societies have been driven by an ideal of progress based largely on economic growth, industrial development and scientific and technical innovation. That faith is now being shaken by a highly unequal distribution of wealth and access to resources, by the worsening of conflicts, including in Europe, and by the destructive effects of climate change. How can the notion of happiness be founded or rebuilt in this new context? Verri’s Meditations outlined a number of principles for thought and action for us to ponder in order to stem the ‘inevitability of evil’. First of all, if happiness is not to be an empty word but a living constitutional principle, the state must be its custodian for each individual, through its public action; secondly, there is no lasting happiness other than ‘the happiness of the greatest number’, and any unequal society bears the seeds of its own disintegration; finally, there is no other place where we can build happiness than the one that we inhabit, and each one of us is invested with the duty of nurturing it. ‘Le paradis terrestre est où je suis’, wrote Voltaire in Le Mondain (1738 version). This paradise already seemed fragile to Enlightenment thinkers. The challenges of the 21st century invite us to meditate on that lesson from the past: to protect steadfastly both the right to happiness and the place where it can be achieved. 

– Pierre Musitelli (École normale supérieure de Paris / ITEM)

[1] R. Mauzi, L’Idée du bonheur dans la littérature et la pensée françaises au XVIIIe siècle [1960] (Paris, 1965), p.9.

[2] According to Alessandro Verri writing to his brother Pietro from Paris on 13 March 1767, ‘Mons[ieur] Voltaire ha stampato o scritto o detto ad alcuno, non so poi come, che l’École de Milan fait des grands progrès. Così chiama la nostra compagnia’ (P. and A. Verri, Viaggio a Parigi e Londra, 1766-1767: carteggio di Pietro e Alessandro Verri, ed. Gianmarco Gaspari, Milan, 1980, p.361).

[3] P. Verri, Meditazioni sulla felicità (London [Livorno], 1763), p.750 and 751.

[4] ‘La massima felicità divisa nel maggior numero’ (Edizione nazionale delle opere di Cesare Beccaria, vol.I, ed. Gianni Francioni, Milan, 1984,p.23).

[5] R. Shackleton, ‘The greatest happiness of the greatest number: the history of Bentham’s phrase’, SVEC, vol.90 (1972), p.1461–82.

[6] ‘Mi sembra che l’autore di cotesti due mostruosi gemelli, si sforzi di addivenire, e che sia realmente, il Rousseau dell’Italia’ ([F. Facchinei], Lettera di N. N. al riveritissimo signor A. Z. S. V., in Meditazioni sulla felicità. Con un avviso e con note critiche, [Venice], 1765, p.4).

[7] D’Alembert to Paolo Frisi, 9 July 1765, in C. Beccaria, Dei delitti e delle pene, ed. Franco Venturi (Turin, 1994), p.313.

[8] And has been the object of two recent important translations into French: C. Beccaria, Des délits et des peines, transl. Philippe Audegean (Lyon, 2009); Des délits et des peines, transl. Xavier Tabet and Alessandro Fontana (Paris, 2015).

[9] ‘Il nous faut, pour ce faire, embrasser conjointement, dans les Lumières, tant leur exigence, impérative et impatiente, de réduire dans leur nombre comme dans leur intensité les malheurs dont souffre le genre humain, que leur indignation angoissée devant la persistance du mal, malgré l’essor de l’esprit et les progrès des sciences et des arts. L’écart irréductible entre les promesses du bonheur et la fatalité du mal, les Lumières le mesurent à l’aune de leur quête obstinée des moyens censés le réduire’ (B. Baczko, Job, mon ami : promesses du bonheur et fatalité du mal, Paris, 1997, p.12–13).