9 Thermidor Year II: the best-documented day in the French Revolution?

La Prise de la Bastille (1789), by Jean-Pierre Houël (1735-1813), Bibliothèque nationale de France. At the centre is the arrest of Bernard René Jourdan, marquis de Launay (1740-1789).

Was 9 Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794) the most copiously documented day of action in the French Revolution? It saw the overthrow of Maximilien Robespierre, most high-profile member of the Committee of Public Safety which had for more than a year ruled through terror – and is one of the pivotal days of action (or journées) around which the Revolution developed. The most influential journée in terms of French national history was 14 July 1789, which saw the storming of the Bastille and which is conventionally viewed as marking the beginning of the Revolution. Another day, 18 Brumaire Year VIII (9 November 1799), witnessed the coup d’état by which Napoleon Bonaparte seized power and effectively ended the Revolution. The overthrow of Louis XVI and the monarchy on 10 August 1792 and the 9 Thermidor journée mark the third and fourth journées which structure the revolution in most historical narratives.

There are numerous accounts all of these individual days, for each was a kind of ‘lightbulb moment’ that stayed in the minds of participants. But in writing my book, The Fall of Robespierre: 24 hours in Revolutionary Paris, I gained a strong impression that the ‘best-documented’ accolade must go to 9 Thermidor. After 18 Brumaire only the heroic Napoleonic narrative was allowed and censorship closed down on discordant stories. There was much to celebrate after 14 July 1789 and 10 August but celebration was not investigation. And what marks 9 Thermidor off from all others is that the day was followed by extraordinarily detailed attempts to recapture exactly what had happened in all parts of the city.

The Execution of Robespierre and his supporters on 28 July 1794, artist unknown (Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, Réserve QB-370 (48)-FT 4).

The reason for this was the determination of government to root out and to punish those individuals within the State, in public life and across the city who had supported Robespierre. Actions might relate to events over the previous two years of terror, but the litmus test of what began to be called ‘Robespierrism’ was invariably what individuals actually did on the day of 9 Thermidor. The city government, the Commune, had tried to mobilise Parisians to offer armed resistance to the national assembly in Robespierre’s cause. So the key question was, had an individual shown support for Robespierre and his supporters in the Paris Commune in their attempt to overthrow the government and purge the national assembly? Or did they remain loyal to the national assembly and the rule of law? Those found guilty of ‘Robespierrism’ could face expulsion from public life, imprisonment and even death at the guillotine.

Newspaper reports, political pamphlets and later memoirs invariably contain accounts of the day. Yet this was only the tip of the iceberg. A few days after the event, Paul Barras, the deputy whom the government charged with the security of the city on the night of 9 Thermidor, initiated a punctiliously thorough review of everything that had happened within each of the 48 Parisian sections on 8, 9 and 10 Thermidor.

Exit libertè a la Francois! – or – Buonaparte closing the farce of Egalitè, at St. Cloud near Paris Novr. 10th. 1799, by James Gillray (1756-1815) (public domain).

‘Gather together all details’, he instructed sectional authorities. ‘A fact that seems minor may illuminate a suspicion or lead to the discovery of a useful truth. Inform me of all orders that you gave and all that you received; but above all, be precise on the dates and the hours; you will appreciate their importance.’

(‘Recueille donc tous les détails: un fait minutieux, en apparence, éclaire un soupçon, ou conduit à la découverte d’une vérité utile. Fais-moi part de tous les ordres que tu aurois donnés, de tous ceux que tu aurois reçus; mais surtout précise les heures et les dates: tu en sens toute l’importance.’ Archives nationales W 500, dossier 4. Note the Revolutionary ‘tutoiement’.)

This call engendered nearly two hundred micro-accounts of at least part of the day from vantage points all over the city containing millions of the called-for ‘details’. Many of the individual accounts were broken down for key periods of the day into quarter-hourly chunks.

Apprehension of Robespierre 27 July 1794, engraving by Michael Sloane (active 1796-1802) after a painting by G. P. Barbier (active 1792-1795) (Gallica digital library, public domain).

Besides this capital source, the Convention also set up a special official commission to make a report on the day, which was presented in the assembly exactly a year later. And finally, literally hundreds of individual police dossiers over the next year or so also provide similar micro-accounts of episodes and moments of the day as ordinary citizens were pressed to prove their loyalism.

Most of these extremely rich sources – never before tapped by historians in quite this way – are to be found in the French National Archives, particularly in series relating to policing and judicial affairs. Taken together, they allow us to see the city in close-up during these 24 hours through a mosaic of thousands of narrative micro-fragments, as its inhabitants confronted and grappled with a decision that would affect not only their own futures but also the future of the Revolution.

Studying these accounts, collating them and analysing them at the micro-level not only gives us an extraordinarily vivid picture of a city at a pivotal moment in its history. It also allows us to present a new narrative of the day and a new analysis of what was at stake within it. What emerges – in a way that cuts against conventional narratives – is a profile of a moment at which Parisians took their political futures in their hands and overthrew Robespierre.

Researching and writing the history of these 24 hours, I have often pondered whether there is another day in the whole Revolutionary decade when we can see what was  happening up close at such a moment of drama. Indeed we might even ask: was 9 Thermidor the best-documented day in the whole of the eighteenth century?

– Colin Jones, Professor of History at Queen Mary University of London

Miscellanies, poetry, and authorship, 1680-1800

Carly Watson, Miscellanies, poetry, and authorship, 1680-1800 (London, 2021).

Today’s miscellanies tend to be compendia of interesting facts or curious trivia – think of Schott’s original miscellany – but three centuries ago miscellanies were at the forefront of literary culture. My book, which is aimed at an academic audience, reveals how miscellanies changed the ways poetry was written, published, and read in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

What is a miscellany?

The word miscellany comes from the Latin miscellanea, meaning a hash of mixed ingredients. The English word has been applied to books since the late sixteenth century, but its meaning as a literary term has changed over time.

In the period that the book covers, the word miscellany was used to refer to books with one author and books containing works by many authors. A miscellany could be any book offering an assortment of shorter works or extracts of different kinds. As the lawyer and writer William King wrote in 1709, it ‘is generally presum’d, that a Miscellany should consist of what the World most delights in, that is, Variety’.

Samuel Lewis, A Deception, c.1780. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA. Gift of Max and Heidi Berry. (Wikimedia Commons)
 

Today, though, the word miscellany is usually used by scholars in a narrower sense, to mean a book containing works by more than two authors. This is the definition used by the Digital Miscellanies Index, a freely available database providing details of over 1750 miscellanies published between 1557 and 1800.

My book argues that we can better understand the cultural importance of miscellanies in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries if we let go of this more limited sense of what a miscellany is. Unlike most other studies of miscellanies in the period, this book looks at both single- and multiple-author miscellanies, showing that miscellanies were a popular vehicle for authors publishing their own writing as well as editors collecting works by many writers.

Putting authors in the spotlight

Hundreds of books called miscellanies, and many more that could be thought of as miscellanies, were published between 1680 and 1800. Why did miscellanies become ubiquitous in this period?

For some scholars, it was because of the changing needs of readers: as more people learned to read, and more books were published, there was a growing market for miscellanies offering handy selections of material from the mass of literature in print.

Miscellany, being a collection of poems by several hands; together with Reflections on morality, or, Seneca unmasqued, edited by Aphra Behn (London, 1685).

My book argues that this is only part of the story.

As well as catering to new readers and reading habits, miscellanies appealed to authors. From the 1680s to the 1730s many leading authors, including Aphra Behn and John Dryden, edited miscellanies showcasing new writing by their friends and contemporaries. For ambitious young authors, publishing in miscellanies was a way of getting their work noticed. For those who might not otherwise have been able to publish their writing, such as schoolboys and young women, miscellanies offered the chance to see their work in print.

It was not just authors editing and contributing to miscellanies who boosted their numbers. Many authors chose to present collections of their own writing as miscellanies, emphasising the variety of the work they produced. My book tells the stories of a number of these authors who deserve to be better known, including the Oxford-based writer Mary Jones, whose miscellany reveals a more diverse œuvre than is sometimes appreciated, and Richardson Pack, an army officer-turned-writer who was inspired by the influential miscellanies of the late seventeenth century.

Understanding what people read

Much of the modern interest in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century miscellanies has been driven by a desire to find out more about what people actually read in this period. What was in the hundreds of miscellanies that were published? Which authors were most popular?

Mary Jones, Miscellanies in prose and verse (Oxford, 1750).

Using newly available data from the Digital Miscellanies Index, this book reveals the authors who were featured in the most miscellanies in each decade from the 1680s to the 1770s. It is no surprise that the big names of the era – John Dryden and Alexander Pope – are the ones readers were most likely to encounter in miscellanies for much of the period, but from the 1740s onwards earlier authors such as William Shakespeare and John Milton also appeared in relatively high numbers of miscellanies.

This innovative analysis suggests that miscellanies played a more important role than has previously been thought in cementing the canonical status of the great English writers of the past.

Miscellanies, poetry, and authorship, 1680-1800 shows that miscellanies were a vital part of the literary ecosystem of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most of the poetry published in them has been forgotten, but we can still be entertained and surprised by these multifaceted books, which remind us that variety is the spice of life.

–  Carly Watson

A version of this blog was published by the University of Oxford Department for continuing education.

Artisanal labour and the ethics of craft

Scholars today are rewriting histories of the eighteenth century to be more ambitious in scale and inclusive in scope. As a discipline whose foundations have traditionally been located in the European Enlightenment, art history has long defined itself through exclusive canons of ‘artists’ and ‘art’ that have valorized certain individuals and objects at the expense of others. Recent directives to decolonize art history, as well as architectural history, demonstrate that these disciplines seek to credit those who labour as part of art- and knowledge-making processes.

Artisanal objects represent the material and archival evidence of someone’s work and, accordingly, histories of art and architecture double as histories of labour. Our volume Crafting Enlightenment: artisanal histories and transnational networks recognizes artisan-labourers and contextualizes their identities in order to acknowledge distinct processes of facture – be that artisanal labour standardized, precarious, oppressed, or coerced – and the working conditions under which eighteenth-century artisans operated. Our volume captures the diversity of artisans from a range of occupations – sculptors, manuscript illuminators, ornamental carvers, desk– and chair-makers, clockmakers, garden designers, ceramicists, architects, and jewellers – working in Europe, the Ottoman Empire, colonial America, viceregal Mexico, Mughal India, Qing dynasty China, and colonial Australia. The dialogues between historians of art, architecture, material culture, sociology, and technology featured in our book demonstrate how contested histories of colonialism, imperialism, and Enlightenment are also fundamentally artisanal histories.

Crafting Enlightenment: artisanal histories and transnational networks is the June 2021 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

The contributions in Crafting Enlightenment all argue for artisanal participation within the pluralities of Enlightenment thought, along multiple narratives of Enlightenment that existed across the eighteenth-century world. Instead of focusing exclusively on the Enlightenment’s European intellectual origins, we consider how artisans from the long eighteenth-century and the products of their labour responded to a multifaceted Enlightenment that meant very different things in different places, as historian Sebastian Conrad has argued. Our version of this transnational Enlightenment extends well beyond the eighteenth century, from seventeenth-century projects of state building to nineteenth-century consequences of imperialism and cross-cultural encounters. We hope our volume encourages readers to delve more deeply into the intertwined narratives between art objects and labour – like the artisans discussed, the objects themselves also represent critical moments of transnational exchange.

Crafting Enlightenment offers a timely reminder that artisans employed craftsmanship and labour to assert their own creativity across the eighteenth-century world. These important queries around pluralism and inclusive practices continue to resonate throughout the academy and governments via policy. In addition to identifying historical eighteenth-century actors who have been marginalized by history, scholars might further chart ambitious intellectual territory by tracking how the exploitation of labour and extraction of natural resources today continue to advance the problematic agenda of colonialism around the world. Public attention is now increasingly trained on the ways that local materials, outsourced labour, and working conditions determine our habits of consumption. Such ecologies of natural resources and labour, identified as such in the long eighteenth century, have allowed us to explore how transnational networks highlight discrepancies between certain privileged artisans who had access to imperial commissions and others who did not and remain uncredited for their work. These issues are as relevant today as they were in the long eighteenth century. Artisanal craftsmanship remains at the heart of social critique, demonstrating how the objects we make and use reflect our personal biases. The practices of contemporary craft – hand-woven textiles being one example – demonstrate how feminized labour, materiality, gender, and race have pulled these techniques towards ideological ends. Ethical questions prompted by artisanal production inflect ongoing debates in art and architecture, signalling how the structural limitations of Enlightenment thought have persisted in determining the production and reception of craft.

Lauren R. Cannady (University of Maryland, College Park) and Jennifer Ferng (University of Sydney)

Crafting Enlightenment: artisanal histories and transnational networks is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

A version of this blog first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in June 2021.

The quotable Voltaire

The Quotable Voltaire: a compilation of wit, wisdom, quips and quotations by and about Voltaire, edited and presented by Garry Apgar and Edward Langille (Bucknell University Press, 2021).

The popularity of quotations, especially of famous people, reflects the human thirst for wisdom and for the pithy encapsulation of a clever thought. Insightful observations economically expressed – proverbs, maxims, adages, truisms, quips, etc. – have been around forever. Whether they be anonymous or credited to eminent statesmen, poets or pop stars, quotes help us cope with the mysteries and challenges of life. They supply food for thought at dinner parties and epigrams for books.

Few have served up as many bons mots as Voltaire. ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good’ is a current favourite with the governing class in Washington. ‘All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds’, ‘We must cultivate our garden’, and ‘Pour encourager les autres’ are all familiar expressions in English as well as in French. And how can we forget ‘If God did not exist, He would have to be invented’? Or again the oft-quoted cynical line that ‘God is on the side of the big battalions’. The list of Voltaire’s aperçus is a long one. For Nicholas Cronk, Voltaire was ‘a master of the one-liner’. His witty aphorisms, – shrewd, cynical, or spiteful – surpass in sheer quantity the sayings of any other writer we can think of.

David Levine, pen-and-ink caricature of Voltaire. Illustration for John Weightman’s review of two works about Voltaire in the New York Review of Books, 18 June 1970. © Matthew and Eve Levine.

But Voltaire is famous not just for his witticisms. He may in fact be even more famous for things he never wrote or said, the most notorious and long-lived being: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ This sentence, while faithful to Voltaire’s liberal principles, sprang from the pen of an English woman of letters around the turn of the last century. Writing under the alias ‘S. G. Tallentyre’, Evelyn Beatrice Hall offered a summary of Voltaire’s reaction to news that an atheistic tract by Helvétius had been condemned by the Church: ‘“What a fuss about an omelette!” he had exclaimed … How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” was his attitude now.’

Hall’s qualifying phrase, ‘his attitude now’, was overlooked by almost all who read her book, and her stirring paraphrase, immediately ascribed to Voltaire, was later carved in stone inside the lobby of the Tribune Tower, home of the Chicago Tribune, when it was inaugurated in 1925. In June 1934 Reader’s Digest passed the bogus quote on to its vast national readership. In 1938 it was further fixed in the public mind by the Hollywood film Jezebel, starring Bette Davis, in which a dinner guest declared, ‘I think it was Voltaire who said, “I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.’ Writers, journalists, and politicians have since sown the misquotation further afield.

Voltaire had opinions on virtually everything, from Aristotle, friendship, and luxury to testes and Zoroaster, though, it must be added that they were not always polite or what we would now regard as politically correct. He was, at times, malicious, and often obscene.

The Best of All Possible Worlds: Voltaire’s romances and tales (1929), with an introduction by US labour lawyer Clarence Darrow. Dust jacket designed by Art Young, showing Voltaire dropping a splash of light on a benighted world. Private collection.

The 1300 or so quotations that appear in this book show both the positive and negative facets of Voltaire’s character. The Quotable Voltaire is unique in terms of its bilingual format, substance, and the trouble that has been taken to ensure accuracy. We offer parallel versions in French and English for each quotation (except those originally written in English) so that the translation may be compared with the original French. This extends to the inclusion of a handful of quotations commonly misattributed to Voltaire. In compiling The Quotable Voltaire we have relied chiefly on the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, the first critical edition of the whole of Voltaire’s works, newly completed, in 200 volumes. All entries are fully documented, with dates of publication and page numbers for every source we cite.

The second half of the dictionary presents a three-part section of comments on Voltaire, his life and accomplishments, by Voltaire himself, by his contemporaries, and by personalities as diverse as Goethe, Charles de Gaulle, Ray Bradbury, Mae West, and even the heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson. Underscored is Voltaire’s pre-eminent position in Anglo-American culture, especially from the 1930s onward, when, progressively, he became the poster-boy of the American Left, or Right, depending on one’s point of view!

Finally, and interestingly, the book is richly illustrated, some images (including the book’s cover) having never been previously published.

Garry Apgar and Edward Langille

Mapping a polycentric Republic of Letters in eighteenth-century Mexico

Map of Mexico or New Spain (1708), by Herman Moll. (Wikimedia Commons)

The viceroyalty of New Spain – whose territory largely corresponded to that of present-day Mexico – was, during the eighteenth century, the most important intellectual hub in Latin America and a place of extraordinary scholarly endeavors. During this period Mexico’s viceregal society saw the publication of its first regularly issued newspapers (for example the Gazeta de México), its first biobibliography of Mexico’s written production (Bibliotheca Mexicana), its first scientific periodicals (such as the Diario literario de México), and one of the first – if not the first – science fiction works of the region (Un viaje novohispano a la luna). Despite these achievements the literary production and intellectual life of eighteenth-century Mexico has been overlooked. Why? Perhaps one of the reasons lies in the need for scholarship on this era to go beyond the analysis of the traditional models and genres of the Hispanic Golden Age studied by specialists of the early modern period. Given that literatura was an umbrella term that, during the eighteenth century, extended to almost the entire universe of writing, I think that the literary production of this time in Mexico is best approached as the product of the complex historical, scientific, philosophical, and religious inquiry that marked the era. Viceregal scholars, the practitioners of this literature, were polymaths that notably held a wide array of scholarly interests.

Front pages of the first issues of Mercurio volante (1772-1773), a scientific periodical edited by José Ignacio Bartolache (left), and of Gazeta de literatura de México (1788-1795).

My study Polemics, literature, and knowledge in eighteenth-century Mexico: A New World for the Republic of Letters aims to fill this critical void by analyzing how eighteenth-century Mexican writers sought to establish their local literary republic’s place within the global community of learning. These individuals formed scholarly networks, engaged in the historical exploration of the past and present, and configured new epistemological approaches to literary production inspired by enlightened ideas. Polemics of different kinds, as suggested in the title of my study, played a crucial role in the formation of scholarly circles. One of the first of such controversies was related to the lack of recognition by European scholars of the intellectual capacities of those born in the Americas. In order to debunk existing prejudices and to be considered part of the res publica literaria, Mexican scholars were eager to showcase their intellectual attainments to Europe. For these scholars, the Republic of Letters was polycentric, with one of its centers located precisely in viceregal Mexico.

Many literary works of this era not only utilized scholarly polemics as unique points of departure, but also gave rise to new controversies. Beyond Mexican scholars’ efforts to defend the intellectual capacities of fellow inhabitants of the New World, these writers, especially during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, were involved in internal, epistemological battles related to the practice of knowledge. My book not only highlights the efforts of scholars in eighteenth-century Mexico to construct a polycentric Republic of Letters in order to receive recognition from their European peers, but also demonstrates the extent to which the intellectual realm was dynamic within the viceroyalty.

Elementa recentioris philosophiae, by Juan Benito Díaz de Gamarra (Mexici, 1774) (Bodleian Library)

As such literary debates on knowledge attest, several intellectual circles coexisted in the viceroyalty that, due to their different characteristics, grew increasingly distant over time. In the works of some Mexican authors there existed two chronologically distinct Republics of Letters, that from the pre-Columbian era and that which emerged after the Spanish conquest. In the late eighteenth century, however, several publications attested to the simultaneous existence of at least two distinctive groups of scholars, one that was old and pertaining to scholasticism – the philosophical-educational system traditionally ruling the world of scholars – and another that was new, or modern, and influenced by enlightened ideas. In other words, the seemingly stable idea of the Republic of Letters in the mid-eighteenth century was to fall apart in the following decades, when Enlightenment-inspired criticism, opposition to ancient authorities, and philosophical and scientific development concerned with social realities put into play innovative approaches to knowledge and the practice of religion in the viceroyalty.

With Polemics, literature, and knowledge in eighteenth-century Mexico: A New World for the Republic of Letters, I invite those scholars devoted to the study of eighteenth-century cultures to engage in an examination of a less-explored scholarly territory and its networks, and to think about how it was heterogeneously constructed by many-sided polemics and debates manifested through a broad range of literary works.

– José Francisco Robles, University of Washington

Polemics, literature, and knowledge in eighteenth-century Mexico is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This blog first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in April 2021.

What do children do with books?

A key concept in childhood studies since the 1970s, children’s agency has recently returned to the heart of the reflections of a group of childhood historians. The conference Se soustraire à l’empire des grands. Enfance, jeunesse et agentivité (1500-1830) (Escaping the empire of the grown-ups: childhood, adolescence and agency, 1500-1830), organised by Sylvie Moret-Petrini at the Université de Lausanne, focused on the personal journals of children and adolescents. The aim was to tackle this source, often seen by historians as a surveillance and educational tool, or as ‘panoptiques de papier’ (paper panopticons), from a new angle and consider it as a space where young writers could reflect on their status as children and express forms of rebellion or indiscipline.

These reflections invite us to take a fresh look at another object that educators advised should be placed under the constant and close supervision of parents – the book. What kind of agency can be achieved in children’s and adolescents’ relationships with books, whether this was how they approached and absorbed texts, how they handled the book as a physical object, or the resources they drew from their reading to inform their present actions or future choices? This approach, as always, requires a cross-analysis of the rare traces that remain of the way children treated books and the mass of adult, pedagogical, parental, medical and literary discourse.

Gradus ad Parnassum

Becoming a poet and settling accounts in the margins: the Berkeleys’ Gradus ad Parnassum. (Centre culturel irlandais, Paris, fonds patrimonial, B 1010)

It is clear there was plenty of room for manoeuvre concerning ways of reading, places and times of reading, and the material uses of the book as a physical object. Those who enjoyed reading as a child recall their ability to fully immerse themselves into the imaginary world opened up by a text, like children who play at being a fairy or Robinson Crusoe. In adolescence, parents express the fear that certain books may cause their offspring to ‘emulate something unusual’ or to take up careers other than those they had envisioned for them. The ‘wild’ handling of books is documented by the volumes themselves, such as the practice of writing and drawing in the margins, either to pass the time or to convey messages to someone sitting nearby. We find examples in literature and art of children making castles out of books or using them as stepping stones, like the Cholmondeley children painted by Hogarth in 1732. However, beware of such overly euphoric representations of childish creativity. Alongside these noisy diversions, there were also quieter forms of agency, ‘weak uses’ of books such as interrupted or unengaged reading, or expressions of a dislike of reading (sometimes found in correspondence or in parents’ diaries), which were all ways of rejecting the pedagogical norms of consulting books as a means of self-improvement and learning.

Hogarth, The Cholmondeley family

Building paper worlds: Hogarth, The Cholmondeley family, 1732. (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As is often the case, most traces of, or clues to, the agency of young readers are available to the historian only through writings originating from the adult world (theoretical discourse, pedagogical literature) or produced under close adult supervision (children’s journals). Even annotated books, which in principle offer the most spontaneous traces of children’s reading, have only been preserved and transmitted to us as a result of adult arbitration. The discourses undoubtedly refer less to childish practices and more to the preoccupations and concerns about juvenile behaviour projected by the adult world. But it doesn’t end there, of course. The figures of child readers represented in eighteenth-century children’s literature in particular pose a problem. What can literature teach the historian? Or, as Judith Lyon-Caen might say, what can history teach us about literature? There are two possible research avenues here.

The historian can first of all shed light on these literary figures through archives that document their reality in a more fragmentary and indirect way. The foolish vanity of the young Valentin, who waves his Telemachus under the nose of a gardener’s son to clearly mark the social divide between them, is certainly ridiculed in La Vanité punie, but the episode also highlights the fact that the child has grasped the social advantage that he can gain from his small possession – albeit he uses it inappropriately here – at a time when children were given beautiful books as gifts at New Year and in a society where owning a library was a powerful symbol of social distinction. Agency, as we know, is never disconnected from the socio-institutional contexts that are imposed on it at the very heart of practices.

Arnaud Berquin, L’Ami des enfants

Arnaud Berquin, L’Ami des enfants (London, 1782).

Similarly, in the short play Un bon cœur fait pardonner bien des étourderies (A good heart makes up for many careless mistakes) (published in L’Ami des enfants in 1782), Arnaud Berquin portrays a young man, Frédéric, who sells his watch and school books to give money to the poor. Police archives contain many files on peddlers convicted of acquiring books from schoolchildren in exchange for sweets or novels. Some had been unmasked as a result of the ex libris on the textbooks, as in Berquin’s play. The practice of selling on is therefore well documented, but it is presented in literature as a form of children’s agency rather than as the (female) street vendors’ agency as generally tackled by historians.

Livres d’école et littérature de jeunesse en France au XVIIIᵉ siècle

Livres d’école et littérature de jeunesse en France au XVIIIᵉ siècle is the February 2021 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

This example leads us on to the second research avenue. It reminds us not to present children’s agency as a given, an a priori, but rather as a construction, an ‘œuvre de re-connaissance et de re-présentation des enfants par les adultes’ (work of re-cognition and re-presentation of children by adults), to borrow Pascale Garnier’s expression. The focus on childhood in the eighteenth century led to the valorisation of youthful inventiveness, including in its negotiations with the rules, as long as it remained venial, expressed qualities associated with childhood (innocence, impulsiveness), and did not constitute a threat to the established order. Children’s literature thus presented a framework of acceptability for a number of uses of the book, regardless of the final judgement made on the protagonist. We still need to be able to document what was outside the scope of the representable, what the anecdotes left out, what the parents did not want to admit, what only serendipitous archives perhaps can tell us as historians.

Emmanuelle Chapron, Aix Marseille Université

A version of this notice first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in February 2021.

Livres d’école et littérature de jeunesse en France au XVIII siècle is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

Reviewing Ritchie Robertson’s The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of happiness, 1680-1790: our own personal Enlightener

Around 1980, during a conference in Cambridge on the early history of political economy, I sat at dinner next to the German intellectual historian Hans Erich Bödeker. In the midst of some general chat about the state of things, he asked me whether in England people at large had lost faith in the Enlightenment. Taken by surprise, I said tentatively that I didn’t think most people in England had a view on the Enlightenment either way: the thing, or concept, simply didn’t have that sort of place in our culture.

Ritchie Robertson, The Enlightenment

Ritchie Robertson, The Enlightenment, cover.

Forty years later, I still think that’s broadly true. Newton and Smith may be names to conjure with, but I doubt that they’re generally thought of as Enlightenment intellectuals; Hume, Gibbon and Godwin don’t have a place in our national story remotely comparable to that occupied by Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau in France. There have been changes. The Enlightenment has a larger presence in British public culture than it had in the last century. One’s more likely to encounter it in TV history programmes, or in the text framing exhibitions, moreover as a feature of our own and not just other nations’ history – even if one’s still more likely to encounter representations of the period foregrounding court intrigue, or ballroom belles, or indeed the East India Company, or the slave trade. Awareness of there being a case against ‘the Enlightenment project’ has spread too, whether in its postmodern, or, more widely, in its post-colonial form.

Ritchie Robertson’s huge but readable Allen Lane/Penguin tome in some ways reflects these changes. The commissioning editor – who, by the author’s account, took a close interest in the shaping of the book – must have believed there to be an anglophone reading public with an appetite for an 800-odd-page survey on this theme (and its respectful reception by the broadsheets suggests that he was right about that, or at least that quite a few readers will be persuaded that this is something that they should have read). And if this loosely centred book has an overall mission, both I and its other reviewers take that to be to dispel the various newish forms of suspicion or disdain that may attach to the category.

Statue of David Hume, by Alexander Stoddart, Edinburgh

Statue of David Hume, by Alexander Stoddart, Edinburgh, annotated (unnamed photographer).

The book occasionally argues its case in this regard. Yes, Hume wrote an objectionable racist footnote, and refused to retract it – but that isn’t all that there was to Hume, or to the Enlightenment. Indeed some of his peers objected to what he said too – otherwise the question of retraction wouldn’t have arisen. ‘Enlighteners’ (as Robertson calls them, Englishing the German Aufklärer) didn’t, he readily concedes, get everything right. But nor did they adhere to any single set of dogmas. On the contrary, they were always questioning and arguing. We may still find value in some of the ideas they came up with, but above all it’s their spirit of enquiry, and their (admittedly uneven) openness to diverse voices that entitles these thinkers to our notice and respect.

Overall, the book develops this case not so much by explicit argument as by the way in which it proceeds. What we’re offered here is, in effect, a reader’s guide to the Enlightenment, one that takes us through the writings in which ideas were advanced and thrashed out. A striking number of pages are devoted to summaries of key or otherwise illuminating texts. And all the illustrations are of title pages of books. Robertson puts us in a position to hear these authors’ voices, their concordances and discordances. And, as we hear them, he’s there with us, or just in front of us, listening, responding. I think this approach works quite well. The texts aren’t too mediated – we get quite close to them. But they are mediated, by an informed, affable, reflective persona, who tells us what strikes him, and sometimes enlarges on what seems to him more or less sensible and usable in what he’s read. He’s our own personal Enlightener.

Thomas Paine, Age of reason, 1793

Title page of the first volume of Thomas Paine’s Age of reason, Paris and London, 1793.

I don’t think the book’s overarching argument is primarily addressed to scholars in the field – more to a wider public, or scholars in adjacent fields, because scholars who work on the Enlightenment already know how polyphonic it was. But they’re not ignored: their work deeply shapes this account. Notably, it underpins many of the book’s second-level interpretative positions. Thus, its conception of the Enlightenment as a European, and not a distinctively French phenomenon, and its insistence on the importance of religion as a context in which Enlighteners worked, critically but also very often sympathetically, with the aim of reforming rather than obliterating. It’s striking that the book has more chapters on religion than on science. Also, last but not least, Robertson goes with the trend of scholarship when he downplays the notion of an ‘age of reason’. Not merely was reason, when lauded, lauded more as critical instrument than as source of certainty, but also, through the century, its dependence on emotion was increasingly stressed. Emotion motivated, coloured and was itself a source of insight. The Enlightenment science of man was a science of an only partly rational being.

Others of the book’s features are more idiosyncratic, reflecting the author’s specific knowledge and interests, or the consequences of the way he set about writing it. The Enlightenment as conceived here was an intermeshed assemblage of relatively formally developed ideas. It didn’t inhere primarily in widely held, let alone popular attitudes and beliefs, though its thinkers were aligned with some broader currents in thought; putatively enlightened rulers are exceptional among non-authors in being given attention (and actually some of them did present themselves as authors, notably Frederick II of Prussia, but also Catherine II of Russia, with her propagandistic Nakaz).

A multilingual edition of Catherine II, Nakaz, 1770

A multilingual edition of Catherine’s Nakaz, St Petersburg, 1770. (PY Rare Books, London)

Scholars have done an enormous amount of work in recent decades on the infrastructure of Enlightenment – correspondence, publications, translations, libraries, academies, societies, universities (sometimes), discussion groups and salons. We hear something about this infrastructure here, but as context, not as a major focus of interest in its own right. Again, what is surveyed here is a pan-European Enlightenment, extending to North America; other parts of the world feature only as objects of enquiry – whereas some scholars have started trying to bring them into the story in other ways. Given that the author is a professor of German, it’s not surprising, though it’s a merit of the book that, among Europeans, he aimed from the start to give Germany as much attention as England and France. It’s noteworthy too, though, that he gives equal weight only to these three. Italy receives a fair amount of attention (Robertson thinks more in terms of language-regions than petty states, so feels free to write about ‘Germany’ and ‘Italy’). Thinkers and writers from other places – Dalmatia, Switzerland, Finland – make interesting cameo appearances. The Netherlands, however, plays quite a small part, and Spain seems almost entirely absent, as if perceived only through the haze of its ‘Black Legend’ (Charles III isn’t among the enlightened rulers investigated). These limits to the book’s vision probably stem partly from the author’s ‘Reader’s Guide’ approach, which allows him to treat equally only works in languages he can comfortably read.

Robertson is a literary scholar – which may help to explain his very textual approach. But that feature of his background probably also helps to explain some of the book’s other distinctive and attractive features. Thus the generic breadth of the texts it covers – here, novels, plays and poems feature alongside essays and treatises. At a recent discussion of the book (on which more in a moment), the historian Anthony La Vopa singled out for special praise the chapter in which Robertson explores in turn Richardson’s Clarissa, Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloïse, and Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, and makes them speak to one another.

The book’s chapters each focus on a different theme about which Enlighteners thought. Sometimes the chapters are a bit miscellaneous, as the book seems to strain for almost encyclopedic coverage. But all in their various ways provide helpful introductions, sometimes excellent introductions, to thought and debate around the given theme. One chapter is devoted to Aesthetics: not a common topic in historical surveys, so the more welcome here.

If the book’s overarching message is primarily aimed at non-specialists, and much of what it says (inevitably) summarises recent scholarship, does it nonetheless have something distinctive to say to historians and literary scholars whose own work focuses on the period? And what will they make of it? An opportunity to test this was provided by a recent panel discussion, organized by Oxford’s interdisciplinary (though mainly historical and literary) ‘Enlightenment Workshop’, a seminar that’s been run during two terms of each year for some thirty years, for most of those years on the premises of the Voltaire Foundation in Banbury Road. Its establishment around 1990, and flourishing since, illustrates once again the rising trajectory of ‘the Enlightenment’ in British life. The Workshop’s range and character also testify to changing conceptions. Voltaire may be the tutelary genius of the place (his bust stands on the mantelpiece in the seminar room), but he presides over notably geographically and thematically varied terrain. It’s suggestive of this diversification that the Foundation’s long-running publication series, Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century, has recently been rebranded Oxford Studies in the Enlightenment.

Voltaire, Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, 1738

Voltaire, Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, Amsterdam, 1738, frontispiece. (public domain)

When the pandemic first raged last year, the Workshop shut up shop. This year it has reconvened, though now of course on-line. The panel discussion of Ritchie Robertson’s book, followed by his impromptu response, and open discussion, marked the Workshop’s first meeting in the new format. As we’ve all repeatedly seen during the pandemic, the on-line format has benefits as well as costs. In this case it opened the way to an audience of unprecedented size: some 120 people watched the discussion live (only one fifth of those from within Oxford). Following its first airing, the YouTube recording was started by several hundred more people (though some didn’t linger long). At the same time, habitual attenders reported feeling uncomfortably distanced from the proceedings – and anonymized, as questions they posed were passed through a moderator who didn’t report (probably scarcely had the chance to register) their names.

There were three speakers on the panel. I started things off. I’m an Oxford historian, a specialist in the period but not primarily in its intellectual life. The other speakers were Karen O’Brien, another Oxford scholar, in her case of English literature, and Anthony La Vopa, an American historian of German social and cultural history, who has presented at the Workshop in the past (indeed, his last book The Labor of the mind: intellect and gender in Enlightenment cultures, was the subject of an earlier panel discussion); in this instance he spoke from his home base in the States. Like the author, the panellists are literary and historical in scholarly orientation, not, for instance, philosophical; indeed, none of the panellists would (I guess) characterize themselves even as intellectual historians. This made it likely that they would approach the book essentially on the author’s own terrain. The normal inclination of any reviewer is to find things to praise and things to criticize. All the panellists spoke warmly of the book’s range and lucidity. But all were also struck by some things the author doesn’t do.

I noted, thus, that the book does strikingly little with an issue that has loomed large in the more general scholarly literature in recent decades: the definitional question, What do we mean by ‘the Enlightenment’? What’s the case for using such a term, and for applying it to particular times, places and people? Jonathan Israel, in his several books (2001-) which play up the foundational role of the Dutch and distinguish a ‘radical’ from a ‘moderate’ Enlightenment, has offered one notable answer to these questions; John Robertson, in his The Case for the Enlightenment (2005), which uses the cases of Scotland and Naples to explore differences in modes of participation in common debates, offers a different vision; Dan Edelstein, in The Enlightenment: a genealogy (2010), adopts an entirely different approach, looking at how some thinkers and writers, initially in France, came to represent themselves and their age as ‘enlightened’. My own view, partly intuitive, partly arising from this scholarship, is that we never will agree on the character and boundaries of an entity termed ‘the Enlightenment’. But the category is not just diffcult to ditch, it also has heuristic use. Several different accounts of ‘the Enlightenment’ each in their own way help us to discern patterns, and to frame worthwhile questions. But even if (as I think), it’s acceptable to mix and match frameworks of reference, yet still (I would maintain) we need to be aware of which one we’re employing at any given time, and what its limitations are.

It’s not obvious that Ritchie Robertson agrees with this. He seems happy to dub people ‘Enlighteners’ without making clear on what basis he does that, and sometimes he reifies the Enlightenment: tells us for example that ‘the Enlightenment agreed’ on some point. At some level this doesn’t matter very much; it’s a mode of writing; he’s mostly concerned to give content to things that fall within generally accepted ‘Enlightenment’ parameters. Still, if there’s no clarity about criteria, the status of claims about what the Enlightened thought remains radically unclear. Do they amount to a definition of Enlightenment – are they specifying a criterion? Or are such statements synthetic, telling us something empirically verifiable about a set of people judged by other, unspecified criteria to be enlightened? Or are we being told that there was a general consensus among all serious thinkers at this time: is ‘Enlightenment’ operating in this instance just as the name of a period? If you’re the kind of reader who asks yourself questions like these, you’ll be left fretting, because they won’t be answered. Responding to this comment, the author said that he felt enough had been written about those issues by others, and it would be boring to harp on about them. Fair enough. I’m sure he has a point. Personally, I do fret a bit about such things.

A cartoon attacking Paine by George Cruickshank,1819

A cartoon attacking Paine by George Cruickshank (1819). (British Museum, public domain)

I also noted some fuzziness in the book’s treatment of the Enlightenment’s legacies. The book’s terminal date is 1790, though in fact it carries its account through the French Revolutionary Terror, that is, to 1794 (but not to post-Terror phases of the Revolution). What’s the argument for stopping precisely there, or indeed approximately there? In what senses were early nineteenth-century thinkers and rulers continuators of Enlightenment, or its heirs, and in what senses not? Like many other writers on the topic, Robertson doesn’t argue the case for stopping where he does; he just stops. He often uses Kant’s critical comments on enlightened traditions of thought to wrap up discussions, though – which might seem to imply that things did take a new direction in the last decades of the century, that is, not just because of the Revolution but also because of other shifts in thought. But then, in what sense and through what causal chain are we heirs to the Enlightenment, as the author often implies that we are? All this remains unclear.

Karen O’Brien in her comments picked up on another major theme of the book, the subject of its subtitle, indeed: The Pursuit of happiness. She noted that, as in other respects, and entirely legitimately, Ritchie Robertson builds on themes in recent scholarship. She suggested, however, that while the theme works convincingly as a recurrent motif, arguably – given the central role it’s assigned – it should have been given more analytical and discriminating attention. Robertson occasionally hints that there were a number of very different conceptions of happiness around (this emerges, for instance, in his account of ideas about punishment). But not much is made of these distinctions, or their implications for how thinkers subsequently diverged.

Tony La Vopa expressed appreciation especially of the book’s dialogic staging: the very suggestive way in which it brings different texts into conversation with each other. But he too noted some omissions which struck him as important. He said he was surprised that the book didn’t say more about the modern social theorists who have been among the Enlightenment’s most influential recent critics and interpreters: Horkheimer and Adorno; Foucault; Habermas. They’re noted, but briefly, and scarcely directly engaged with. The author explained that he had initially written more about Habermas at least, but his editor thought that this section should be cut. La Vopa also suggested that something important gets missed if one doesn’t say much about the Enlightenment’s penetration into everyday life. Inasmuch as Enlighteners engaged with religion, for example, they engaged with institutions, concepts and practices which touched people’s lives very deeply, for example, through the institution of marriage.

In his response, Ritchie Robertson largely agreed with panellists’ characterization of what the book does and doesn’t do, while defending or at least explaining his choices in terms of his own interests and his vision of the book’s mission. He said, remarkably, that this massive, very learned and very lucid book had been easy to write. His editor, Stuart Profitt, had somehow discerned that he had it in him, and, confronted with that proposition, he had found that it was true.

In the brief question period that followed, one of the most consequential questions came, to my mind, from the Hungarian historian László Kontler (though it came to Robertson and the panel in anonymous form; only YouTube watchers could see who asked what question). Kontler in his work has been preoccupied with the shape of the Enlightenment across the map: the different forms it took in different places; in what ways differently located thinkers interacted, and in what ways they cross-fertilised. One can’t rise far above the very particular in that line of enquiry without having to think hard about what one might mean by ‘Enlightenment’, in a context in which one’s going to want simultaneously to recognize some kind of unity and to admit difference. Kontler asked if chronologies of Enlightenment differ depending on one’s geographical focus. But this, like other definitional and demarcational issues, largely lies outside the agenda of Ritchie Robertson’s book.

Because the book doesn’t engage very directly with scholarly arguments, it’s not clear that it will reshape how scholars think about their subject. But who knows, perhaps it will, precisely by going around the back of those arguments, and implicitly at least posing new questions, which may help to shape the way a new generation, who grow up with this book, will think.

As to the place that Enlightenment occupies in our public culture: will it get caught up in the culture wars which politicians are reportedly pondering whether to stir up for political gain? Anything is possible, but this doesn’t look likely to me. It may figure in the occasional scrap, as over whether or not we should blacklist Hume. But by and large, wider dissemination of the notion that the Enlightenment was an important phase in history has, as I’ve noted, been associated with the diversification and geographical extension of the term’s scope. With any luck, we’ll keep seeing it as polyphonic, and all of us will find Enlighteners that we want to argue for, as well as ones that we want to argue with. Ritchie Robertson’s book – even if it doesn’t push diversification and geographical extension to anything like their limits – should help to advance this cause.

– Joanna Innes

Ritchie Robertson, The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of happiness, 1680-1790, Allen Lane, 2020.

Our warm thanks to the editors of the Oxford magazine, where this review first appeared (no.429, Fifth week, Hilary term, 2021).

‘A la manière de Voltaire’ – contrefaçons et découvertes

La Henriade

La Henriade (Londres, 1741), page de titre. (BnF)

On ne prête qu’aux riches. Ce proverbe chaque jour vérifié éclaire les origines du volume le plus étonnant de la collection des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (Complete works of Voltaire), publiée à la Voltaire Foundation d’Oxford, volume 146. L’entreprise paraît marginale, quand on songe que ce volume va figurer sur les rayons à côté de La Henriade et du Dictionnaire philosophique. Or elle n’appelle pas seulement l’admiration à cause de la prodigieuse enquête et des multiples éclaircissements qu’elle a exigés des éditeurs. Elle invite à une découverte passionnante. Il s’agit du recueil, aussi complet que possible, des vers attribués à Voltaire sans qu’ils soient toujours en réalité de sa plume.

Il est paradoxal qu’une entreprise comme celle des Œuvres complètes, qui a pour premier objet de donner à lire toutes les œuvres de l’écrivain sous leur forme la plus authentique, débarrassée de toutes les altérations qu’elles ont pu subir au cours des temps, des suites apocryphes, des atténuations et des adaptations, se donne pour tâche, alors qu’elle atteint presque son achèvement, de fournir le texte magnifiquement édité de poèmes fabriqués par des inconnus ou obscurs plumitifs à la manière de Voltaire. C’est donner à la contrefaçon le sacre de l’édition critique, le label de la plus célèbre des entreprises modernes consacrées à la célébration du génie voltairien. C’est travailler au rebours de la longue suite d’érudits qui, depuis la Renaissance, s’attachent à nettoyer les traditions incertaines pour livrer à l’imprimerie, dans toute sa splendeur, dans toute sa pureté, le texte même sorti du stylet, puis de la plume de ces grands hommes, les auteurs consacrés par des générations d’admirateurs.

Elle a su m’enseigner ce que je dus écrire

‘Elle a su m’enseigner ce que je dus écrire’, manuscrit de la collection Doubrowski de la Bibliothèque nationale de Russie, Saint-Pétersbourg.

Publier les Poésies attribuées à Voltaire, c’est dans une large mesure édifier un musée de la contrefaçon au sein même du Musée du Louvre. Mais dans une certaine mesure seulement. Car le travail minutieux des éditeurs, sous la direction de Simon Davies, a permis de retrouver parfois des vers authentiques de Voltaire, qui avaient échappé aux éditions de ses œuvres, et qui n’étaient conservés qu’en copies manuscrites. Par exemple, nous sont révélés grâce à cette enquête immense dans les périodiques, dans les recueils, dans les fonds manuscrits cinq vers inédits, retrouvés dans les papiers de Cideville, l’ami rouennais de Voltaire, ou un poème à Mme Du Deffand, inséré dans une lettre. Beaucoup d’autres petits poèmes, un tiers environ du total des 170 textes rassemblés, peuvent être attribués à l’écrivain avec certitude ou probabilité, et ont été imprimés de son vivant sous son nom, sans avoir été recueillis en volumes. Le reste est probablement apocryphe.

Sur l’opéra de Sémiramis

Sur l’opéra de Sémiramis, Papiers Cideville, Rouen.

N’attendons pas la révélation du chef-d’œuvre inconnu. L’intérêt puissant de cette masse de poèmes, brefs ou longs, qu’on a lus jadis pour des vers du célèbre écrivain, est ailleurs: elle permet de saisir ce qui, au XVIIIe siècle, correspondait dans l’idée du public au style de Voltaire, ce qui avait l’air de porter la marque de son génie propre. Par là ce volume si particulier constitue un apport original et significatif aux études de réception de son œuvre, à la connaissance des attentes du public pour ce qui le concerne. (Sur cette question, voir mon livre sous presse chez Droz, Genève, Voltaire et son lecteur: essai sur la séduction littéraire.) Il est certain que le public du temps, contrairement à la postérité, attend de Voltaire avant tout des œuvres en vers; la fameuse formule du Neveu de Rameau, ‘un poète, c’est de Voltaire’, reflète une évidence pour les contemporains. Jusqu’à Candide au moins, dicté par un écrivain qui atteint l’âge de nos retraites, le public attend de Voltaire des œuvres en vers, le reste ayant un statut marginal, et ces œuvres, il les lit et les connaît familièrement, souvent par cœur. De là la prolifération des imitations, fondement principal de ces ‘vers attribués’.

Opuscules poétiques

Un livre témoin de la passion populaire pour la poésie de Voltaire, les Opuscules poétiques (Amsterdam, [1773]). (BnF)

Pour qui est familier de l’ensemble de l’œuvre de l’écrivain, cet ensemble offre un visage vaguement familier, ressemblant mais déformé. La ressemblance naît de la communauté des thèmes: la satire antireligieuse, les réflexions sur la sagesse et le bonheur, mais surtout de la recherche d’une parfaite élégance dans des petits genres inspirés par la galanterie et la sociabilité, du madrigal aux épîtres et aux bouts-rimés. Les pièces brèves sont les plus nombreuses, mais une Apothéose du roi Pétaut ou une Ode au roi de Prusse rappellent aussi les grands poèmes philosophiques ou satiriques qui ont tant contribué au succès et à la gloire du ‘poète-philosophe’. Toutefois la ressemblance se perd presque partout dans les imperfections de l’exécution. C’est en feuilletant les vers de ses imitateurs, qui furent ses admirateurs, que l’on mesure la supériorité du poète Voltaire en son siècle: un maître des moyens poétiques à la française, des rimes, du jeu des vers mêlés, du choix des mots ‘mis en leur place’, de l’éloquence et des chutes foudroyantes. Par cette étonnante somme de vers retrouvés, d’authenticité incertaine pour la plupart, témoignage éclairant de l’admiration de ses contemporains, la stature du grand homme sort grandie.

– Sylvain Menant

Rethinking Voltaire’s Lettres sur les Anglais: in the footsteps of Gustave Lanson

With the publication of volume 6B, containing the full annotated text of the Lettres philosophiques, we have just moved one step closer to celebrating the completion of the Complete works of Voltaire in 2021. We are familiar with the challenge of trying to make sense of a text that has hitherto been little studied – the recently completed edition of the Précis du siècle de Louis XV is a case in point. A challenge of a different sort is presented by the small number of texts that are well known and much edited: in these cases, is there anything left to say? That problem is especially stark in the case of the Lettres philosophiques, where one epoch-making critical edition, that of Gustave Lanson, casts a long shadow over those of us following in his footsteps.

Gustave Lanson

Gustave Lanson at work at the Sorbonne. (Bibliothèque de la Sorbonne; photographer unknown)

Lanson was a devoted lycée teacher much involved in the reform of the school syllabus before he became professor at the Sorbonne in 1904. He didn’t just edit the Lettres philosophiques, he pretty much invented the work for the twentieth century and beyond. The title was scarcely known in the nineteenth century, and the Lanson edition of 1909 (re)created it very deliberately to turn it into a teaching text.

In the years before the First World War, when Lanson was lecturing on Voltaire at the Sorbonne, the French faculty in Oxford was still in its infancy – its only significant contribution to Enlightenment studies was from Miss Eleanor Jourdain, vice-principal of St Hugh’s, who published an account of meeting the ghost of Marie-Antoinette at the Petit Trianon… but that story must wait for another blog. Voltaire first came onto the Oxford French syllabus in 1923, when the Siècle de Louis XIV was set for the Pass School (how many students read that work now?). Then, as part of a comprehensive revision of the syllabus in 1927, it was resolved, rather boldly, that the nineteenth century should begin in 1715, and so Voltaire became a prescribed author on the Finals syllabus (where he has remained ever since): the two works chosen for ‘special study’ were Candide (in the 1913 edition of André Morize, a pupil of Lanson) and the Lettres philosophiques (in Lanson’s own edition, of course). During World War II the teaching of Voltaire carried on unchanged and, given the impossibility of importing books from France, the Oxford publisher Basil Blackwell commissioned student editions of Candide and the Lettres philosophiques. The editors had to work quickly, and Owen Taylor’s edition of Candide came out in 1942, followed the year after by the Lettres philosophiques, edited by Frank Taylor, a tutor at Christ Church. This excellent edition remains in print and was still the prescribed edition in Oxford when I studied Voltaire as an undergraduate in the 1970s. I remember my surprise when I discovered at Thornton’s in Broad Street a copy of the original 1943 printing, produced on poor-quality paper with the ‘Book production war economy standard’ logo at the front. I didn’t know it at the time, but my introduction to Voltaire by way of the Lettres philosophiques was entirely due to Gustave Lanson.

Lettres philosophiques, ed. Gustave Lanson

Lettres philosophiques, ed. Gustave Lanson (1909).

Lanson taught literature at the Sorbonne at a time when ‘French literature’ was considered inferior to ‘History’ as a university subject. He devoted much of his career to defending the seriousness of literary study, hence the pressing need to produce a ‘scientific’ edition of a literary work that would prove the credentials of this emerging subject. So, the importance of Lanson’s Lettres philosophiques was not just that it was the first proper critical edition of any Voltaire work; it was intended to be the model for all future literary scholarship, no less. As he writes in his edition of the Lettres:

‘Il m’a paru utile de donner une édition critique des Lettres philosophiques, une édition qui fût non seulement la première édition critique de cet ouvrage, mais la première aussi, à ce que je crois, d’un écrit de Voltaire, et qui inaugurât une série de travaux qu’il serait vraiment temps de commencer.’

These circumstances help to explain both the strengths and some of the oddities of Lanson’s pioneering work. The bibliographical descriptions, for example, are needlessly complicated and confusing, with their stemmas of different textual traditions that Lanson seems to have borrowed from medievalist colleagues such as Joseph Bédier. This aspect of his editorial work has not been emulated, and we hope that the bibliographical section in our new edition will be simpler and clearer to follow.

Lettres philosophiques, ed. Gustave Lanson

Lanson’s stemma from the second edition. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

The annotation is a remarkable feature of Lanson’s edition. He explains that he does not aim to produce a historical commentary on the work, still less to say whether Voltaire’s judgements are well founded; nor does he wish to put Voltaire’s text in the context of earlier travel accounts to England (something that F. A. Taylor does in his edition). Instead, his goal is to identify and explain as precisely as possible the sources of Voltaire’s text:

‘Mon but a été d’aider à comprendre comment Voltaire a fait son livre, comment et sur quels matériaux son esprit a travaillé. J’ai voulu présenter un commentaire de “sources”, rien de plus. L’idéal eût été d’arriver à découvrir pour chaque phrase le fait, le texte ou le propos qui avait mis en branle l’intelligence ou l’imagination de Voltaire: on se fût ainsi rendu compte du travail intérieur qui les a utilisés, fécondés, déformés, transformés. Je n’ai pas besoin de dire que je n’ai pas atteint cet idéal.’

This ‘ideal’ of attempting to pin down the sources of every single phrase in the book strikes us now as somewhat surreal, and of course Lanson has been much mocked by later generations for his unrelenting positivism. Where Lanson produced his commentary in the form of long endnotes, our style of annotation is not only different in approach, it is also more concise. That said, we remain enormously indebted to Lanson’s work, which in important respects remains unsurpassed.

Letters concerning the English nation, first edition

Letters concerning the English nation, first edition.

A particular challenge posed by this text lies in the choice of base text and the presentation of (so-called) variants. The problem begins with the fact that there is not really one first edition. The work was initially published by William Bowyer in London, in English, as the Letters concerning the English nation (1733). Early in 1734 Bowyer produced in London the first French edition, the Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglais (with the false imprint ‘A Basle’); and then later that year, another enlarged French edition was published, without privilège, by Jore in Rouen. For Lanson, there was no problem: the English edition could be dismissed as a mere translation; and the first French edition had the double disadvantage of being foreign and of being less complete (it lacked the 25th letter on Pascal). It seemed obvious to him that the ‘real’ version of the text was the one published in France, the one that had caused the scandal that nearly landed Voltaire in jail. And so this multi-faceted work became reduced to the Lettres philosophiques, and the other two early versions, though noted, were eclipsed. There have been many editions of this work since 1909, and all editors have followed Lanson in their basic decision to choose the Jore printing over the other two.

Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglais, first edition in French

Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglais, first edition in French.

It was an American scholar, Harcourt Brown, who first confused this picture by arguing intriguingly in an article of 1967 that Voltaire had composed about half of the text in English, and that the Letters concerning the English nation were in fact part English original and part translation. His arguments were taken further by André-Michel Rousseau, who in 1964 had updated Lanson’s edition of the Lettres philosophiques, and who wrote a remarkable doctorat d’état on L’Angleterre et Voltaire. A.-M. Rousseau was originally invited to edit this work for the Complete works of Voltaire, and in a lecture given at the Taylor Institution in Oxford in 1978, celebrating the bicentenary of Voltaire’s death, he laid out his plan for an edition that would break radically with the Lanson tradition: he argued forcefully that the Jore French text was in many respects inferior to the Bowyer French version printed in London and, crucially, that it was this London version that lived on in later editions. He proposed therefore to side-line the Jore edition, and present the two London editions as a bilingual edition, with the English and French on facing pages:

‘Au lecteur du vingtième siècle, on doit la vérité: une édition bilingue. A main gauche, comme sur un clavier, l’anglais de Voltaire; à main droite, le français de Voltaire, non le texte imprimé par Jore, déjà légèrement, mais nettement marqué par la sénescence, mais la rédaction verte, drue, candide, de l’édition de Londres. En somme, les vraies “Lettres anglaises” – et parfois “philosophiques” – en un seul concert visuel.’

This was fighting talk – how I wish we had a podcast of that lecture, and how I wish Rousseau had gone on to produce his edition as planned. When I prepared the first modern edition of the Letters concerning the English nation, I still went along with the Harcourt Brown thesis that Voltaire had begun to write this book in English. But I soon began to have doubts, which I discussed over the years with a good friend, the late Pat Lee: in due course, we each found evidence disproving Harcourt Brown’s central argument, and there is now a scholarly consensus that Voltaire wrote this book in French, and that the English version is in its entirety a translation by John Lockman.

But that does not mean that Lanson was right to dismiss the English version out of hand. They may be a translation, but the Letters concerning the English nation are still, strictly speaking, the first edition of our work. More than that, there is clear evidence that from the start Voltaire intended his Lettres to appear in both French and English (even if he didn’t originally intend the English version to come out first). Lanson’s stirring declaration that the Lettres philosophiques were ‘the first bomb thrown at the Ancien Régime’ (the quote that launched a thousand essay questions…) makes sense in the context of the Third Republic, but is simply not sustainable when we examine the work’s complex international publishing history. Voltaire was clearly writing not just for a French readership, but also for English and European readers more widely. So, in the new Oxford edition, we will include the English version as a text possessing its intrinsic interest as part of the overall European reception of this work.

Where does that leave us with regard to the choice of copy text? Should we stay with Lanson in choosing the Jore edition, the Lettres philosophiques? Or should we follow A.-M. Rousseau’s preference for the Bowyer text, the Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglais? Rousseau was not wrong to say that the Bowyer printing is technically of higher quality than the Jore edition – the Rouen printer was producing a clandestine edition, and no doubt had to work fast. It is also true that because subsequent reworkings of the text mostly took the Bowyer edition as their starting point, the recording of variants to that edition is in practical terms simpler than recording variants to the Jore edition. Only the Jore edition, however, has the 25th letter, the Anti-Pascal, which was a key part of the book’s polemical impact; and Lanson is right to say that this edition provoked the censorship storm that overwhelmed Voltaire in 1734. Our decision was finely balanced but, in the end, we decided to keep Jore as the base text, not least so as to give the Anti-Pascal its proper prominence.

We resolved, however, to present the variants in a different way from Lanson. The variants in his edition are scrupulously recorded, of course, yet they are frankly hard to interpret, and we need to ask why that is. The censorship of the Lettres philosophiques was savage, and given that Voltaire was legally obliged to abandon the title, he worked to recast the work in a disguised form, under a different name. While individual ‘letters’ largely survive, redesignated as ‘chapters’ from 1739, they are in places substantially rewritten and transformed, and entirely new chapters are added. In other words, we are not dealing here with ‘one’ book and its textual ‘variants’, but rather with a shifting text that continued to evolve throughout Voltaire’s lifetime – so much so, indeed, that Voltaire really questions our received notion of a ‘fixed’ or ‘closed’ text. The challenge for the editor of a print edition is to find a way of taming this shifting entity within the two dimensions of the printed page. So, in our new edition, while we have retained the Lettres philosophiques as base text, we have given full prominence to the other French version, the Lettres écrites de Londres, by including its distinctive paratexts and index in a separate section, and we have created a third section, ‘Mélanges (1739-1775)’, which seeks to track and explain as clearly as we can the various permutations (not variants!) of the letters as they evolve over four decades.

This leaves the dilemma of the title. Our decision to name the overall edition the Lettres sur les Anglais certainly breaks with recent tradition, although the more familiar Lettres philosophiques has only been standard since Lanson imposed it in 1909. Before that, the work was habitually referred to as the Lettres anglaises or Lettres sur les Anglais, titles that Voltaire himself used in his letters. Writing after Voltaire’s death, both Condorcet and Frederick II refer to the Lettres sur les Anglais, and we have followed their example. The great advantage of this title is that it can designate collectively a whole cluster of related printed texts (and the associated manuscript Lettre sur M. Locke). In choosing this title, we wanted to emphasise the fundamentally fluid nature of the Lettres and not to single out any one expression in print.

For all Lanson’s supposedly ‘scientific’ critical approach, his edition of the Lettres philosophiques is a highly politicised work. The Entente cordiale of 1904 was an ambitious diplomatic attempt to strengthen the links between England and France at a moment when war with Germany seemed imminent. For this first exemplary scholarly edition, Lanson’s choice of a work in 1909 that celebrated European Enlightenment and the cultural connections between France and England was hardly fortuitous. And what of the new Oxford edition of the Lettres sur les Anglais, which emphasises Voltaire’s European readership, and that we have been working on in lockdown in 2020 while the UK was discussing severing its ties with the European Union? Whether its editors realise it or not, no critical edition is ever neutral.

Nicholas Cronk

Lettres sur les Anglais (II) was published in December 2020, an edition by Nicholas Cronk, Nick Treuherz, Nicolas Fréry and Ruggero Sciuto.

 

Would you survive four radical political changes? Venetians in the early 19th century tried

If you think that you live in a rapidly changing society, consider the people who lived during the revolutionary and Napoleonic period.

Napoleon I as king of Italy by Andrea Appiani

Napoleon I as king of Italy by Andrea Appiani. (Wikimedia commons)

In 1797 the French army led by general Bonaparte brought about the end of the thousand-year-old Republic of Venice. It was a shock for the Venetians, yet they did not know what awaited them. The democratic period inaugurated by the French lasted only a few months, as Bonaparte ceded Venice and its mainland to the Habsburgs. But the Austrians didn’t stay long either. In 1805, after Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, Austria was forced to hand over Venice and its mainland to the Kingdom of Italy, created in 1805 by Bonaparte with himself as king, as Napoleon I. In 1813, after Napoleon’s many defeats, the Venetian mainland was occupied by Austrian troops, while Venice surrendered after a six-month siege. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna sanctioned the return of the Habsburgs, who ruled Venice until 1866. So, if you had been born in Venice in 1770 or 1780, you would have lived under five different regimes!

Il mondo nuovo

Il mondo nuovo (Edizioni Ca’ Foscari, 2019).

What were the effects of these rapid political changes on society? What happened to the ruling classes of Venice and the mainland? Did they maintain their position or did other people rise to prominence? These questions led to my research which is summarized in a book entitled Il mondo nuovo. L’élite veneta fra rivoluzione e restaurazione (1797-1815) (The New World. The Venetian elite between revolution and restoration).

The ‘new world’ in Italian has a double meaning, as it refers not only to the post-1789 era, but also to a precinematic device called ‘mondo nuovo’ (or ‘niovo’ in the Venetian language), a mechanical peep-show, also called panopticon, that could entertain people by illustrating for example what happened during the French Revolution. You can see the device, which was part of the entertainment in Venice’s carnival, in this illustration by Gaetano Zompini (1700-1778), printmaker and engraver. It also features in Giandomenico Tiepolo’s murals at the family villa in Zianigo and was the subject of a decorative porcelain piece by the Frankenthal factory.

Engraving of a panopticon by Gaetano Zompini

Engraving of a panopticon by Gaetano Zompini. (Wikimedia commons)

What will you find in this book? The first section describes the composition of the various governing and administrative bodies during the different political phases. The second section analyses the redefinition of noble status, the connection between kinship and politics (some cases are studied through social network analysis), as well as the informal power of social relations. The latter point is developed through the analysis of the networks of relations of key figures such as Giuseppe Rangoni, head of a Venetian Masonic lodge, and Giovanni Scopoli, director general of public education of the Kingdom of Italy. The last part of the book is focused on moments of crisis and transition phases. It explains how complicated it was being re-employed in such unstable contexts. It was mainly the ‘experts’ who succeeded, while the more ‘politicised’ public officials were purged.

This was the case of Giovanni Battista Sanfermo, judge at the Court of Appeal of Venice and member of a Venetian family who had rallied to the Napoleonic regime. His father, former ambassador of the Republic of Venice, was a councillor of state. In the spring of 1814, during the Austrian siege of Venice, general Seras (1765-1815), an Italian in Napoleon’s service, invited the Venetians to grow vegetables on public land to meet food supplies. Giovanni Battista decided to grow potatoes, earning the nickname ‘Count of Potatoes’. The Venetian people interpreted his act as an attempt to extend the siege, and thus their sufferings: Sanfermo became the symbol of all oppressive aspects of Napoleonic rule, so he had to be punished.

Ponte Santa Caterina, Venice

Ponte Santa Caterina, Venice.

On 19 May 1814 on the bridge of Santa Caterina a straw dummy bearing the motto: ‘death to the potato farmer’, was exposed on a stage. The dummy, which represented Giovanni Battista, had a potato stuck in his mouth and in each of his ears, a potato crown on his head and another potato basket at his feet. Crowds of people rushed there, shouting: ‘death to the potato farmer!’ Once darkness fell, lanterns were turned on and a mock trial was held, ending with a death sentence. Then the dummy was hit with around fifty gunshots, set on fire and dragged along the calle (street) of Santa Caterina. In the meantime, the crowd continued to insult this effigy of Sanfermo. But far from being frightened by this popular outburst, the real Sanfermo continued to walk peacefully along Venetian calli.

Countess Lucia Memmo Mocenigo by Angelika Kauffmann

Countess Lucia Memmo Mocenigo (1770-1854) by Angelika Kauffmann. (Wikimedia commons)

In conclusion, how could you enter the elite? Being noble was not fundamental, but still useful; being rich (especially being a landowner) was important, as well as having skills. As the Venetian noblewoman Lucia Memmo wrote to her son: ‘You should consider that public offices are given to people of every class.’ Hence, he had to study. My book gives more information about Lucia and her husband, Alvise Mocenigo, who built a self-sufficient agricultural-manufacturing town called ‘Alvisopoli’ (‘the town of Alvise’, in Veneto) and much more.

Valentina Dal Cin (Italian Institute for Historical Studies, Naples, and Ca’ Foscari University, Venice)

A free pdf of Il mondo nuovo is available here.