Would Voltaire have made a good PhD supervisor? Voltaire mentors Vauvenargues

Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues

Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues (1715-1747), by Charles Amédée Colin.

A current work in progress at the Voltaire Foundation relates to one of Voltaire’s less-discussed friendships that ended all too soon due to a fatal illness. On 4 April 1743, Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues, penned the philosophe an enthusiastic letter comparing the merits of France’s two most celebrated tragedians, Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine. The combination of strong opinions and well-placed flattery must have caught Voltaire’s attention, for he wrote back less than two weeks later. The 27-year-old Vauvenargues brazenly criticised Corneille’s declamatory style and lack of subtlety, arguing that ‘surtout Corneille paroît ignorer que les hommes se caractérisent souvent d’avantage par les choses qu’ils ne disent pas, que par celles qu’ils disent’. Never one to stand at the sidelines of a literary debate, Voltaire’s reply praised Vauvenargues for his good taste in preferring Racine while offering a judicious defence of Corneille, counting that ‘il y a des choses si sublimes dans Corneille au milieu de ses froids raisonnements, et même des choses si touchantes, qu’il doit être respecté avec ses défauts’ (15 April 1743). This began a lively exchange between the two men, as Vauvenargues iconoclastically refused to yield ground to Voltaire’s more balanced take on the playwright’s merits and flaws: ‘Monsieur, Je suis au désespoir que vous me forciez à respecter Corneille’ (22 April 1743).

As well as offering us an entertaining example of an eighteenth-century celebrity’s interactions with a fan, this exchange is important because, after befriending Voltaire, Vauvenargues began to see the philosophe as a mentor figure, asking him for advice on his own Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, which was supplemented by his Réflexions et maximes and published for the first time in 1746. Any PhD student can imagine the huge sigh of relief Vauvenargues must have let out when Voltaire wrote back on 15 February 1746 to say that he liked it even before he had finished reading it. The young author’s joy is palpable in his response to his mentor’s praise, thanking him for taking the time to provide suggestions and corrections for the work’s improvement (15 May 1746). Vauvenargues then substantially revised his text and published a second edition in 1747.

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.79 (Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence).

As part of our work on Voltaire’s marginalia, we are interested firstly in the kind of suggestions the philosophe made in the annotated copy he sent back to Vauvenargues, and secondly to what extent did the latter incorporate these suggestions into the revised version of his book. The work of cross-referencing the annotated first edition and the revised second edition revealed some interesting patterns. In the cases where the corrections are easy remedies, for example a different choice of wording or a quick clarificatory remark, Vauvenargues has mostly deferred to Voltaire’s wisdom and edited his manuscript accordingly. Things got trickier when Voltaire suggested structural changes or major additions, both things which Vauvenargues appeared more reluctant to carry out. This is most likely because the revisions were extremely time-sensitive, given that Vauvenargues was in ill-health and had to rush to edit and publish the second edition of his work before he died later that year at the age of thirty-one. It is perhaps for this reason that he did not find the time to develop a section on page 75 by which Voltaire has scribbled ‘cela merite plus de détail’.

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.86 (Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence).

As with any patterns, there are notable exceptions. More mystifying are instances such as on page 86 where Voltaire asks ‘pour quoy longue?’, seemingly questioning Vauvenargues’s choice of adjective. This should have been an easy fix for the marquis. In the second edition, however, Vauvenargues has edited this sentence but kept the very same adjective that Voltaire did not like: ‘L’étonnement une surprise longue & accablante; l’admiration une surprise pleine de respect.’ Similarly, one of the sassiest comments can be found on page 88 where Vauvenargues writes that ‘il y auroit là-dessus des réflexions à faire aussi nouvelles que curieuses’, to which Voltaire witheringly retorts ‘faites les donc’. Vauvenargues does indeed revise this passage in his second edition, but chooses not to elaborate on what these reflections might be, writing that he has ‘ni la volonté, ni le pouvoir’ to do so.

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.88 (Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence).

Like any good supervisor, Voltaire does not hold back in his criticism of his student’s work: what is most striking is the sheer volume of corrections, additions and suggestions, some of which are more helpful than others. Sometimes he is perhaps a little harsh, accusing Vauvenargues of writing ‘mauvaise poésie’ on more than a couple of occasions. One of his most scathing comments comes towards the end of the list of maxims that forms the second part of the text. Vauvenargues makes the not-very-insightful remark that ‘quelque amour qu’on ait pour les grandes affaires, il y a peu de lectures si ennuyeuses & si fatiguantes que celles d’un Traité entre des Princes’, next to which his mentor has incredulously scribbled ‘c’est bien la peine d’imprimer cela?’ It’s safe to say that any PhD student would be horrified to have elicited such a remark from their supervisor!

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.364 (Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence).

But above all, Voltaire is a meticulous reader, picking up on ideas repeated from many pages back and highlighting the slightest inconsistency. Equally, neither does he shy away from complimenting Vauvenargues’s work when it is deserving: several sections receive a smattering of ‘bien’, ‘beau’, ‘fort’, ‘excellent’ and even a ‘fin et profond et juste’, which more than make up for the moments of criticism.

– Sam Bailey

Sam is a PhD student at the University of Durham and a frequent VF collaborator.

An earlier blog post on this same subject by Gillian Pink can be found here.


Zola in the eighteenth century: The Dream and the embroiderer’s art

Emile Zola, The DreamWhen I began work on my translation of Emile Zola’s Le Rêve (The Dream) of 1888 for Oxford World’s Classics, I did not appreciate just how distinctive an eighteenth-century flavour the novel takes on in places.

Zola, who lived from 1840 to 1902, is of course one the great chroniclers of the French nineteenth century: in the Rougon-Macquart series, published between 1871 and 1893, he portrays life in France under the Second Empire (1852-1870) across a broad geographical sweep, from south to north, and through all levels of society – from the struggles of the poor in novels like L’Assommoir (1877) and Earth (1887) right up to the machinations of the very rich and powerful in The Kill (1872) and Money (1891).

Zola took great pains in striving for documentary accuracy in the series. As well as touring key sites and conducting interviews, he read omnivorously. The thousands of pages of notes and plans he made for the series are kept at the Bibliothèque nationale (and are now consultable on Gallica). Naturally enough, the majority of his sources date from the second half of the nineteenth century: works on coal mining or contemporary socialism for Germinal, on the working class and Parisian slang for L’Assommoir, or on the French railway system for La Bête humaine (1890).

If Zola is sometimes guilty of anachronism in his Rougon-Macquart novels, it is because he inserts elements from the time of their composition into a Second Empire setting. And so, in Germinal (1885) for example, he transplants details of an 1884 strike into an earlier 1860s setting. While this sort of chronological tinkering is relatively unremarkable, in The Dream the mixing together of different time periods takes on a new significance. It is done for a specific artistic purpose: he merges the Second Empire setting with the more distant past in order to create a dreamlike mood.

The Dream is one of the most curious of the Rougon-Macquart novels. After his 1887 novel Earth had been denounced as obscene, Zola changed tack and aimed to write a ‘simple idyll’ which could be placed in ‘the hands of young girls’.[1] The Dream has an unusual hybrid form: it is both a realist novel set in the years 1860-69 and a fairy tale. It relates the story of a young girl, Angélique, abandoned by her parents and taken in, one snowy Boxing Day, by a pair of honest but childless embroiderers. The fairy-tale elements proliferate: the girl falls in love with a lord’s son, her own Prince Charming, but his father refuses their match. The setting and mood are created in meticulous detail: Angélique grows up in the shadow of a medieval cathedral and becomes preoccupied by the lives of the saints in Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend, even as she develops into an expert embroideress. Heraldry and stained-glass windows, along with Gothic architecture, the lives of the saints, and embroidery, form the backdrop to Angélique’s life.

Zola was a keen medievalist and draws on many different sources to overlay his nineteenth-century setting with a mood more suggestive of the Middle Ages. But there is further anachronism: the descriptions of the embroiderers’ practices in the novel are closely based on Zola’s reading of Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin’s L’Art du Brodeur (‘The Embroiderer’s Art’), published in 1770. To this extent, the novel takes on a particularly eighteenth-century complexion.

Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin

Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, drawing by his son Augustin de Saint-Aubin (1736-1807), Paris, Institut Néerlandais.

Saint-Aubin (1721-1786) was an embroiderer who attracted the favour of Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour and adopted the title dessinateur du roi pour la broderie et la dentelle. In 1770 he published his influential manual on embroidery as part of a series of seventy-two treatises on different luxury products that was overseen by the Académie des Sciences. In L’Art du brodeur Saint-Aubin traces the history of embroidery back to ancient times and goes on to describe contemporary techniques and terms in great detail, offering numerous illustrations. Saint-Aubin also published a Recueil de plantes, containing fine plant drawings, for Madame de Pompadour,[2] and was involved in producing the satirical Livre de caricatures.

L’Art du Brodeur

Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, L’Art du Brodeur (Paris, L. F. Delatour, 1770), plate 2 (detail), Google Books.

Zola’s reliance on L’Art du Brodeur is profound. His set-piece description of Angélique and her guardians in their embroidery workshop, with all its tools and implements, is modelled closely on a drawing from Saint-Aubin’s treatise:

‘Fashions were changing and the embroiderer’s craft was evolving, but, embedded in the wall, a heavy brace – a piece of wood supporting the embroidery frame at one end, as a movable trestle did at the other – remained where it had always been. Old tools slumbered in the corners: a diligent, with its cogwheels and pins, by which one could transfer spooled gold thread onto a spindle without touching it with one’s hands; a hand-held spinning wheel, a sort of pulley, which twisted together different threads that were attached at one end to the wall; and tambours of all sizes, with their hoops and taffetas, used for crochet embroidery. An old collection of spangle punches lay on a shelf, alongside a relic, a large traditional copper candlestick that had served the embroiderers of bygone days. In the loops of a rack, made by nailing a strap onto the wall, hung bodkins, mallets, hammers, irons for cutting vellum, and small boxwood chisels used for shaping thread as it was worked. Under the lime-wood cutting table there stood a yarn windle, consisting of two cage-like revolving wicker cylinders, around which a skein of red wool was trained. Chains of brightly coloured silk spools, strung onto a cord, hung by the sideboard. On the floor lay a basket heaped with empty spools. A ball of string had rolled off a chair, unravelling a little.’[3]

The passage continues with descriptions of the embroiderers themselves, and offers a very close reproduction of the illustration, right down to the unravelling ball of string – with the precise vocabulary drawn from the treatise’s ‘Explanation of Some Terms’. Other lengthy accounts of Angélique’s craft also derive from Saint-Aubin, as she takes on, for example, the technique of padded three-dimensional embroidery known as ‘shaded gold’. The treatise also serves as an inspiration for other features of the novel: the river running through Angélique’s town is named the Ligneul – a term that appears in the treatise, being a type of thick waxed thread.

Readers will discover in The Dream a Zola very different from the well-known naturalist master. In this novel he retreats at times into the Middle Ages for mood and detail, but also into a more recent century: channelling Saint-Aubin, Zola momentarily presents the world to us through eighteenth-century eyes.

– Paul Gibbard

[1] Emile Zola, preparatory notes for Le Rêve, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France: n.a. fr. Ms 10323, f. 217.

[2] See Juliet Carey, ‘The king and his embroiderer’, in The Saint-Aubin ‘Livre de caricatures’: Drawing Satire in Eighteenth-Century Paris, ed. Colin Jones, Juliet Carey, and Emily Richardson (Oxford, 2012), p. 261-81.

[3] Emile Zola, The Dream, trans. Paul Gibbard, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford, 2018), p. 33-34.

On a similar subject, see also: ‘Exploring Parisian archives thanks to the BSECS/Besterman Centre for the Enlightenment Travel Award’.

Sur les traces de Jean Potocki

Jan Potocki

Jean Potocki par Anton Graff (1785). Image Wikimedia Commons.

Savant acharné, rêveur actif de la politique, voyageur inlassable, observateur inépuisable du monde, Jean Potocki[1] est assurément inclassable. Né en 1761 en Podolie, dans une famille appartenant à la plus haute aristocratie polonaise, il ne se plie pas pour autant à la vie protocolaire de son milieu[2]. Certes il épouse tous les modèles de sociabilité, la franc-maçonnerie, les salons, les clubs politiques, les sociétés savantes et les académies, le théâtre de société. Mais dans les grandes maisons de l’Europe dans lesquelles il passe, on garde le souvenir d’un original, à la fois éminent érudit et grand distrait. Doué d’une intelligence hors du commun et d’une capacité de lecture prodigieuse, il nourrit la conception d’un savoir total et universel.

Pour mieux cerner l’ambition totalisante du savant à laquelle répond, non sans ironie, son roman, activité de dilettante, plus que ses travaux d’historien auxquels il a consacré l’essentiel de ses forces, l’étude de la trace met en exergue le rapport foncièrement ambigu que Potocki entretient au réel. Considérer son œuvre sous l’angle de la trace, c’est à la fois appréhender la pensée d’un voyageur-historien insatiable qui, lors de ses périples et recherches, traque les vestiges des peuples anciens pour exhumer une humanité commune ou esquisser une histoire en marche, et à la fois analyser l’héritage littéraire, esthétique, philosophique que nous laisse un romancier et dramaturge sensible au caractère incertain d’un réel nécessitant, pour être connu, une construction interprétative.

La trace, dans les écrits de Potocki, cautionne-t-elle une lecture du monde postmoderne, qui suppose qu’il n’existe aucun accès au monde et au réel qui ne soit exempt de signes et ne dépende d’une interprétation ? Atteste-t-elle au contraire de l’existence pour l’auteur polonais d’un réel indépendant de toute interprétation et qu’il s’agit, à partir de vestiges sensibles, de reconstituer, de reformer et ainsi de reconnaître et retrouver ? C’est à cette question passionnante qui engage la nature même du réel que tentent de répondre les différentes études de notre ouvrage, sans chercher à lisser les contradictions apparentes d’un savant qui est aussi voyageur, historien, romancier, conteur, dramaturge… et qui par là même appréhende le monde selon une approche tantôt expérimentale, physique, sensible, tantôt théorique ou encore esthétique.

La dernière partie de l’ouvrage, quant à elle, est consacrée aux traces que Potocki a laissées à travers des textes récemment découverts et à ce jour inédits. Même s’il reste comme à son habitude peu loquace sur sa vie privée, ces lettres sont certainement parmi les plus intimes qu’il ait jamais écrites et représentent à ce titre un intérêt considérable.

– Émilie Klene

[1] Jean Potocki, Œuvres I-V, éd. François Rosset et Dominique Triaire, 6 vol. (Louvain, 2004-2006).

[2] Voir François Rosset et Dominique Triaire, Jean Potocki. Biographie (Paris, 2004).

Le ‘Voltaire de Beuchot’ à la lettre: sources d’une édition savante sous la Restauration

Œuvres de Voltaire, Beuchot

Œuvres de Voltaire, Beuchot (éd.), Paris, Lefèvre, t.1, 1834. BnF.

Si elle n’égale celle du patriarche ni par son ampleur, ni par son lustre, ni par la célébrité de ses intervenants, la correspondance d’Adrien Jean Quentin Beuchot, principal éditeur des Œuvres de Voltaire sous la Restauration, présente de nombreux intérêts. En nous faisant entrer dans les arcanes de la première édition critique des Œuvres de Voltaire (parue en 70 vol. in-8°, chez le libraire Lefèvre, entre 1828 et 1834), les lettres de Beuchot nous donnent accès au détail de son approche originale de l’édition de Voltaire et de ses œuvres, laquelle renouvelle durablement la forme et le sens de la postérité de Voltaire. Fragments d’intimité autant que sources historiques, les lettres de Beuchot sont principalement conservées à la Bibliothèque nationale de France, à la bibliothèque de Genève et à la Voltaire Foundation. Ces lettres, qui forment la base de ma thèse intitulée « Le Voltaire de Beuchot, un Voltaire parmi d’autres » récemment soutenue, constituent un matériau indispensable à la recherche voltairienne.

Les lettres relatives à Beuchot ont d’abord valeur de fragments autobiographiques, dans ce qu’elles révèlent, subrepticement ou plus directement, de Beuchot lui-même. Bibliographe de métier – il rédige la Bibliographie de la France dès 1811 –, puis bibliothécaire à la Chambre des Députés dès 1834, Beuchot passe sa vie au milieu des livres. Son goût pour le classement n’exclut pas des tendances bibliophiliques. « Voltairographe » autant que « Voltairomane », son goût frénétique pour les pièces rares tourne exclusivement autour des écrits du patriarche de Ferney. Est-ce vraiment un hasard si l’auteur le plus prolifique du XVIIIe siècle se trouve édité par un homme qui cumule une approche rigoureuse du classement des œuvres avec un goût prononcé pour l’inédit, qui plus est à une période où s’ouvrent les archives et où ressortent, en nombre, des pièces non éditées de Voltaire ? Ce goût pour l’inédit voltairien l’a rendu célèbre au-delà des éditeurs de son temps et fonde en partie la longévité de son édition. Bengesco le dit bien dans sa grande bibliographie voltairienne de la fin du XIXe siècle : « Nul n’a fait mieux que lui, nul n’a mieux fait depuis, et nous doutons que Voltaire trouve jamais un éditeur plus consciencieux et plus savant ».

Bibliographie de l’Empire français ou Journal de l’imprimerie et de la Librairie

Bibliographie de l’Empire français ou Journal de l’imprimerie et de la Librairie, n°1. Paris, Pillet, 1er novembre 1811. BnF.

« Editeur savant », l’appréciation de Bengesco doit être comprise au sens plein, et les archives de Beuchot le confirment. Elles éclairent en effet les dessous d’une pratique professionnelle – l’édition – en plein bouleversement. Si Beuchot se définit lui-même comme un éditeur, s’il fait bien partie intégrante du milieu de la librairie parisienne de la Restauration, il n’est pourtant ni libraire, ni imprimeur et son activité n’a rien de commercial. Loin de Panckoucke, Beaumarchais ou Ladvocat, Beuchot pense l’éditeur comme l’auteur d’un travail littéraire. De fait, il accomplit un geste dont la portée confine à l’auctorialité. Assumé comme tel notamment par les innombrables signatures de l’éditeur qui se superposent aux écrits du patriarche, le ‘Voltaire de Beuchot’ doit aussi beaucoup à une philosophie de l’histoire qui évoque, au loin, une forme de positivisme sans doute déjà ambiant. C’est ce que suggère Beuchot lui-même lorsqu’il veut faire voir « La marche de l’esprit de Voltaire ». Fonder ce geste sur un retour aux sources inédit pour l’époque, en assumer à la fois l’originalité et l’incomplétude, constitue bien le travail d’un éditeur savant.

Beuchot, Liberté de la Presse

A. J. Q. Beuchot,Liberté de la Presse, Paris, chez Le Normant, 1814. BnF.

Les lettres de Beuchot nous conduisent à revoir notre approche du phénomène éditorial qui entoure les Œuvres complètes de Voltaire durant cette période politiquement troublée. L’omniprésence de Voltaire comme personnage publique et comme auteur (on parle de frénésie autour de ses Œuvres complètes lorsqu’on évoque la vingtaine de collections qui viennent saturer les étals des librairies) est bien réelle. Mais le travail de Beuchot, tel qu’il se révèle au fil de ses correspondances notamment, doit nécessairement se comprendre à part de ces nombreuses rééditions de la Restauration, lesquelles ne sont, somme toute, que des rééditions de celle de Kehl, dont le paratexte, notamment, se montre plus volontiers militant. D’ailleurs, si Beuchot a publié quelques opuscules en faveur de la liberté de la presse entre la fin de l’Empire et le début de la seconde Restauration, il ne parle jamais de politique dans ses lettres. Il évite soigneusement les questions polémiques dans ses préfaces et dans ses notes, et paraît même se désintéresser de la censure. Difficile de voir en Beuchot un agent à même d’attiser ce « vaste incendie » que décrivent François Bessire ou Raymond Trousson notamment, symbole du feu révolutionnaire que porteraient encore en eux les ouvrages de Voltaire quarante ans après 1789. Son édition influence pourtant la réception de Voltaire et de son œuvre, jusqu’à nos jours : davantage objet d’étude que symbole à valeur politique, Voltaire se voit dresser un monument à double sens par Beuchot. L’hommage au grand homme va semble-t-il de pair avec quelque chose qui ressemble à un acte de décès.

Lettre de Beuchot

Lettre de Beuchot (12 octobre 1826) à Joachim de Cayrol, qui travaillera à l’édition de la correspondance de Voltaire pour l’édition Beuchot, avant de faire sa propre édition des lettres de Voltaire à la fin des années 1850. Bibliothèque de Genève, Musée Voltaire: MS 34, fol.1.

Est-il encore besoin de rappeler l’intérêt des archives privées et des correspondances pour éclairer l’histoire littéraire ? Car comprendre qui est Beuchot est bien un préalable nécessaire à l’étude du ‘Voltaire de Beuchot’. Pourtant, si le recours aux correspondances n’est en soi pas nouveau, il était, jusque-là, plutôt réservé aux grands hommes, et non aux artisans du livre comme c’est le cas ici. À ce titre, si Beuchot, on l’a dit, est un personnage trop peu connu hors de quelques rares voltairistes, que peut-il en être d’éditeurs savants comme Nicolas-Jean-Joachim de Cayrol, Louis Dubois ou Jean Clogenson ? Que sait-on d’éditeurs commerciaux comme Antoine-Auguste Renouard, Auguste Hunout, ou Nicolas Delangle ? Qui s’est déjà penché sur les archives de Georges-Adrien Crapelet, imprimeur de plusieurs éditions de Voltaire sous la Restauration ? Ce sont pourtant autant d’acteurs qui ont participé, de près ou de loin, à façonner l’édition des Œuvres de Voltaire par Beuchot. De toute évidence ce travail mériterait d’être poursuivi pour éclairer la façon dont les philosophes des Lumières ont été modélisés, dès la Restauration, par ces artisans du livre, avant d’arriver jusqu’à nous.

– Nicolas Morel


‘Alas, Poor Yorick!’: Sentimental Beginnings and Endings

2018 has already provided a curate’s egg anniversary for scholars of eighteenth-century fiction: 250 years since the first publication of A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (27 February 1768) and, less than a month later, the death of its author, Laurence Sterne (18 March 1768).

Laurence Sterne by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas (1760), National Portrait Gallery.

Laurence Sterne by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas (1760), National Portrait Gallery.

‘Alas, Poor Yorick!’: A Sterne 250-Year Anniversary Conference marked both sestercentennials by inviting over forty scholars from twelve countries to reflect on the impact of Sterne’s writings in his and our times. The conference took place at Sterne’s Alma Mater Jesus College, Cambridge, providing an opportunity for delegates staying in college accommodation to breakfast beneath a copy of Joshua Reynolds’s famous portrait of Sterne in the dining hall.

Marking both events together proved apt. A Sentimental Journey was, from its earliest conception, tied to the health of its author. Its origins lie in a seven-month tour of France and Italy that Sterne, a sufferer from pulmonary tuberculosis since his days as an undergraduate, undertook to improve his ailing condition. The risks as well as the rewards of venturing abroad in ill health are immediately apparent in the narrative. Having only just arrived in Calais and dining on a ‘fricassee’d chicken’ (ASJ, 3), Yorick, the text’s sentimental traveller, worries that the richness of his meal might lead to death by indigestion and the loss of his goods under the rules of the Droits d’aubaine. It is a mordant first step into cultural tourism: having just crossed the border into France, death by consumption would cement Yorick the consumptive’s status as an outsider under its laws of inheritance.

Many readers in 1768 would have been aware that Sterne had already resurrected Yorick from his death in the first volume of Tristram Shandy (1759-67). Even this most absolute of borders proves porous when Sterne requires it to be, and this sense of strange re-orderings, and the haziness of causal links that bind characters to each other and to their environs, suffuses much of his fiction. After an early chastening encounter with a monk he inadvertently abuses, Yorick promises to ‘learn better manners as I get along’ (ASJ, 11), yet his journey fails to provide any straightforward heuristic narrative. Yorick later muses that ‘I seldom go to the place I set out for’ (ASJ, 103), and it proves difficult to discern what, if anything, he actually learns from his sentimental encounters.

Digressions abound; at one point Yorick winds up in Rennes (200 miles west of his route south from Calais to Lyon) without any explanation for his presence there beyond it being ‘an incident of good fortune which will never happen to any traveller, but a sentimental one’ (ASJ, 108). As James Chandler notes, the capacity to reflect on his feelings appears to open Yorick to a flux of potential encounters, yet it remains unclear whether such reflections ‘can be supposed to occur on a single plane of circulation, where we all reflect each other’, or ‘on an ascending scale of higher-order recognitions’.[1]

Conversely, Yorick values highly the ability to distinguish difference. His distinction between the English and the French national character relies, as if folding the principle of differentiation in on itself, on differing potentials for individuation. The French, he argues, have reached such a heightened degree within the ‘progress of their refinements’ (ASJ, 119) that, like coins ‘jingling and rubbing one against another for seventy years together […] they are become so much alike, you can scarce distinguish one shilling from another’ (ASJ, 119). The English, in contrast, are ‘like antient medals, kept more apart, and passing but few peoples hands’ and it is this propensity to remain separate that preserves ‘the first sharpnesses which the fine hand of nature has given them’ (ASJ, 119). Yorick’s further observation that ‘’tis certain the French conceive better than they combine’ (ASJ, 112) almost certainly refers to Locke’s description of wit and judgement as respectively the combining and separating of ideas, yet the peculiarity of his own narrative lies in its interplay between such atomistic and holistic impulses.

Even defining what we should search for order proves a vexed point. Yorick’s Journey begins with his reader arriving at the end of a conversation: ‘––THEY order, said I, this matter better in France––’ (ASJ, 3). Precisely what ‘matter’ is ordered ‘better’ in France remains undisclosed. Some critics, such as Martin C. Battestin, take the term to allude to Sterne’s complicated friendship as an Anglican clergyman with materialist philosophes such as Baron d’Holbach, who was instrumental in obtaining Sterne’s passport to travel through France.[2] Another solution lies in the careful arrangement of the text itself into titled scenes, or vignettes. In driving action from discourse at the Journey’s outset, Sterne, Michael Seidel argues, ‘makes the linguistic properties of utterance spatial’, but more importantly, by inscribing ‘the space for narrative projection’ in these terms, he threads the ‘matter’ of what is, or should be, well ‘order[ed]’ into the fiction’s textual weave.[3] In a prime example of Sternean slippage between text and scene, it is the order of narrative ‘matters’ – i.e. the material arrangement and divisions of the book itself – that Yorick most strongly evokes by asking that his reader interpret the end of a conversation as the beginning of his journey.

If it begins with an ending, the Journey ends with an aposiopesis, or breaking off, that again conflates text and scene. Somewhat uncomfortably for readers in the age of #metoo, the interruption provides also a pun on a grope, with Yorick’s outstretched hand catching ‘hold of the Fille de Chambre’s… END OF VOL. II.’ (ASJ, 165). As Paul Goring noted in a paper at Cambridge, the Journey’s abrupt conclusion also left Sterne’s final debt to his readers unrepaid. Its subscribers had been promised four volumes for their investment, but Sterne’s untimely death left them with only two.

Laurence Sterne, alias Tristram Shandy: ‘And When Death Himself Knocked at My Door’, by Thomas Patch, etching (1769), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Laurence Sterne, alias Tristram Shandy: ‘And When Death Himself Knocked at My Door’, by Thomas Patch, etching (1769), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The scene, ‘The Case of Delicacy’ (ASJ, 160), with which the Journey’s second and final volume ends, proves fascinating in light of the events that took place shortly after its publication. We leave Yorick supine and almost entombed in a bedchamber, ‘it being totally dark’ (ASJ, 165). Yorick’s hand extends ‘by way of asseveration’ (ASJ, 165) in one final reach outwards that manages to be both deathly and bawdy – in other words, Sternean. In a first-hand account of Sterne’s death in London, John MacDonald, a footman to one of Sterne’s friends, reports that when the moment came ‘He put up his hand as if to stop a blow, and died in a minute.

Our conference at Cambridge welcomed a number of distinguished speakers, including author Martin Rowson, who discussed his graphic novel adaptations of Sterne’s fictions, and Peter de Voogd, who shared his insights from amassing arguably the largest collection of Sterne’s works on the continent.

Martin Rowson delivers a guest speech at ‘Alas, Poor Yorick!’: A Sterne 250-Year Anniversary Conference’.

Martin Rowson delivers a guest speech at ‘Alas, Poor Yorick!’: A Sterne 250-Year Anniversary Conference.

My own highlight was an incisive keynote from Freya Johnston, who addressed the subject of characterisation and determinism in Sterne’s fictions. Sterne’s characters, Johnston argued, do not develop or change in his narratives so much as undergo ordeals that evince their engrained hobby-horsical inconsistencies time and again. The claustrophobia that permeates his works – in which, even when we follow Yorick on the open road, we find ourselves enclosed within discreet, archly constructed sentimental scenes – begins with Tristram’s conception of the homunculus as an already complete character-in-miniature, and culminates at the end of the Journey’s first volume with Yorick reflecting on Walter Shandy’s theory that ‘children, like other animals, might be increased almost to any size, provided they came right into the world’ (ASJ, 80). According to Walter, only the rooms in which children are confined limit the extent of their growth, a theory that Yorick considers, but equivocates in passing judgement on, in his observations of a Parisian dwarf. It is an oddly death-like vision of the human potential for growth: one in which characters come pre-formed, encased in – and stunted by – their environment. Like being born into a coffin.

– Alexander Hardie-Forsyth (Wolfson College, Oxford)

[1] James Chandler, An Archaeology of Sympathy: The Sentimental Mode in Literature and Cinema (Chicago, 2013), p.205.

[2] Martin C. Battestin, ‘Sterne among the Philosophes: Body and Soul in A Sentimental Journey’, Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 7:1 (October 1994), p.19.

[3] Michael Seidel, ‘Narrative Crossings: Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey’, Genre, 18 (1985), p.2.

Les manuscrits à la VF: découvertes et partage

First page of ‘Assassins section 2de’

Début de la copie de l’article ‘Assassins section 2de’ (Voltaire Foundation: ms.73 [Lespinasse 3], p.14).

Une petite armoire à la Voltaire Foundation abrite une collection modeste de manuscrits dont la plupart datent du dix-huitième siècle. Rassemblés par notre fondateur, Theodore Besterman, tous les documents ne concernent pas forcément (ou uniquement) Voltaire: récemment nous avons accueilli des chercheurs de l’équipe des Œuvres complètes de d’Alembert, un collègue de la British Library, et j’ai aussi été contactée par le responsable du projet de l’Inventaire Condorcet, qui me demandait de vérifier des références et de fournir, pour leur beau site, des photos de certaines lettres que Voltaire avait adressées à Condorcet dont nous possédons des copies d’époque.

C’est en cherchant une de ces lettres, en feuilletant un volume de papiers laissés par Mlle de Lespinasse, que je suis tombée sur un texte de Voltaire qui m’était familier, et cela depuis dix ans, car c’est en 2008 que j’ai participé à l’édition du second volume des Questions sur l’Encyclopédie dans les Œuvres complètes de Voltaire. Par un heureux hasard, la découverte coïncidait avec le travail de préparation de l’introduction des mêmes Questions, qui paraîtra dans quelques mois. Il ne s’agissait aucunement d’une hallucination: le texte, ‘Assassins section 2de’, est bel et bien celui de l’article ‘Assassinat’ de cet ouvrage de Voltaire en forme d’encyclopédie (article au demeurant assez méchant, où l’auteur s’attaque à Jean-Jacques Rousseau).

Selon la note inscrite en marge du titre de ce texte dans le manuscrit Lespinasse (on la voit sur la photo), Voltaire envoya l’article à D’Alembert avec sa lettre du 9 juillet 1770 (D16505). Ce qui m’a surprise, c’est que l’inclusion de cette ‘pièce jointe’ n’est pas signalée dans l’édition de la correspondance de Voltaire procurée par Theodore Besterman. La chose étonne surtout étant donné que celui-ci connaissait déjà le volume manuscrit au moment de préparer son édition (cette copie est l’unique source de la lettre qui nous occupe), et en fournit la référence dans l’apparat critique de la lettre. Il a donc apparemment jugé qu’il n’était pas pertinent de mentionner ce témoignage concernant l’envoi de l’article avec la lettre. Pourtant, il est extrêmement intéressant pour quiconque s’intéresse à la diffusion et à la pré-publication des Questions de savoir que cet article figure parmi ceux que l’auteur envoya à D’Alembert, l’un des deux responsables de l’Encyclopédie, ouvrage avec lequel les Questions entrent pour ainsi dire en dialogue.

La question se pose évidemment de savoir si le copiste disait vrai ou s’il se trompait… Mais cette petite histoire d’une trouvaille inattendue illustre l’évolution de l’esprit de l’édition critique sur la quarantaine d’années qui se sont écoulées depuis la parution de la seconde édition de la correspondance de Voltaire dans les années 1970. On a beaucoup plus tendance de nos jours à prêter attention aux détails matériels des sources et à incorporer ces indices à l’apparat critique. D’un point de vue personnel, je suis contente d’avoir trouvé ce manuscrit avant et non pas après la parution de l’introduction des Questions – où Christiane Mervaud s’intéresse à la genèse et à la diffusion de ce texte – et heureuse aussi de constater qu’il ne présente aucune variante textuelle par rapport aux deux autres manuscrits connus de cet article, qui sont conservés, assez bizarrement, dans la même armoire à la Voltaire Foundation.

– Gillian Pink



Improvement and Enlightenment

A recent invitation to talk to the Enlightenment Workshop of the Voltaire Foundation prompted me to consider the ways in which some modes of thinking common during the Enlightenment might have been inherited – directly or indirectly – from the English idea of ‘improvement’, a topic on which I had been working. By ‘improvement’ I refer to a word and a culture which were invented in England in the seventeenth century and had their most notable effects, at least initially, at home. Other countries might have been striving for improvement in practice in one way or another at the same time, but the English found a word which embraced every aspect of it, and fashioned out of it a frame of mind which had remarkable consequences.

The word ‘improve’ was first coined in England in the later fifteenth century, and it meant to make a profit from land. By the early seventeenth century the notion and word were being extended, by Francis Bacon, for example, who described learning as capable of being ‘improved and converted by the industry of man’. Then in the 1640s and 1650s the word was extended further by the Baconian reformers in the group led by the Prussian emigre Samuel Hartlib, some of whom went on to become founders of the Royal Society. Hartlib himself was most interested in promoting agricultural improvement, but the word and concept were already being applied to trade and banks, and were soon used about almost everything – including navigable rivers, fire engines, military power and the relief of the poor.

Much of this was propaganda for particular projects, and intended to profit their advocates. But improvers also had to their credit two major innovations in thinking about economic behaviour and the economy in general – two crucial components which English improvement carried with it into the eighteenth century. The first was the explicit defence of consumer appetites and luxury as legitimate roads to national wealth. In the 1670s Nicholas Barbon led a reaction against contemporary criticism of London as a monster consuming the wealth of the nation. Instead he pictured competitive consumption as the consequence of ‘emulation’, and a positive cause of both individual and national improvement. According to Barbon, ‘all men by a perpetual industry’ were ‘struggling to mend their former condition; and thus the people grow rich’. Here, for the first time, some of the moral brakes on economic appetites were being deliberately and explicitly relaxed. A whole generation before Bernard Mandeville’s infamous Fable of the Bees, self-interest was being presented as identical to the public interest.

Sir William Petty

Sir William Petty, by Isaac Fuller (1649-50).

The second intellectual innovation of the 1670s was the work of William Petty, whose tract, Political Arithmetick, advertised the method he had invented for conceptualising, analysing, and measuring the wealth and resources of states. Petty used it to produce for England the first set of national accounts ever devised, and from it he developed a wholly new kind of political economy which he manipulated to show how the power and wealth of England would soon rival those of France. While Barbon opened the way to unrestrained economic appetites, one might say, Petty showed how their consequences could be measured and predicted.

When it came to the realities of England’s economic performance after 1688, therefore, the slogan of improvement was everywhere to be seen. It was wielded by advocates of the Bank of England in 1694, by supporters of the Union with Scotland in 1707, and by a crowd of promoters of trading and insurance companies and transport improvements, on whose often hazardous enterprises England’s economic success ultimately depended. By the 1720s, when Daniel Defoe publicised England as the greatest ‘trading improving nation’[1] in the world, ‘improvement’ had become shorthand for describing and justifying the dedication of the English to the pursuit of every kind of national and personal well-being.

Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe, artist unknown (National Maritime Museum, London).

By the 1720s too, improvement appeared to have delivered the goods. We now know that the national income had increased rapidly in the later seventeenth century; and since the population of England had stopped growing, income per head – the standard of living – had risen even more rapidly, probably by about fifty per cent in half a century, an astonishing achievement. Improvement seemed to have created England’s material affluence, and it is no accident that in the years around 1700 the word ‘affluence’ began to be used with its modern meaning, and that ‘progress’ began to be commonly applied to material progress. It was inevitable that so successful a culture should attract foreign admirers, visitors like Voltaire who came to learn its secrets, and politicians in other states who hoped, as David Hume observed, to ‘emulate’ England and adopt improvements of their own.

The full force of an improvement culture naturally travelled first and most successfully to other English dominions, to Ireland and Scotland, and especially, and with the greatest impact, to the English colonies in America, where both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson found ‘inventions of improvement’ proliferating in endless sequence. The language of English improvement moved less easily across the Channel because it needed translation, but that was no obstacle to the transmission of the intellectual content which lay beneath the word, and least of all to the transmission of English political economy. Its influence was notable, for example, in translations of John Law’s tract on improvement, Money and Trade (1705), into French and German in 1720, and in other economic works written in Paris at the time, which drew on English examples, like the three volumes by Ernst Ludwig Carl, Traité de la Richesse des Princes (1723), which pointed to England’s material improvement and economic progress, and Jean-François Melon’s Essai politique sur le commerce (1734), which had a chapter on political arithmetic, and an argument that France must imitate English industry if there was to be similar economic ‘progress’ there.

John Law

John Law, by Alexis Simon Belle (c. 1715-20).

The most weighty testimony to the impact of improvement in France came in the first volume of the Encyclopédie, where Diderot himself, in a long entry on ‘arithmétique politique’, paid tribute to Petty as the first practitioner of a quantitative science indispensable for any politician concerned with trying to ensure the prosperity of a state by every possible means, including ‘la perfection de l’agriculture’. It is interesting to note that the word ‘perfection’ was used again for ‘improvement’ in translations into French of some of the works of Hume and Adam Smith also written in the 1750s. The common vocabulary suggests that something of the persuasive power of improvement had become part of what one might call Enlightenment thinking.

There were doubtless other sources, besides the writings of English improvers, which contributed to similar ways of thinking; and it is undeniable that there were whole sectors of Enlightenment thought to which English authors made little contribution. Nonetheless, when historians of the Enlightenment seek to identify its greatest contribution to Western thought, and point – as some of them do – to a new political economy aimed at ‘human betterment’, they are paying tribute to English writers on improvement of the second half of the seventeenth century. They had been the first to build a whole culture around the notion that individuals, societies and states had the capacity to ‘mend their condition’ (as Barbon put it) and to demonstrate practical ways of going about it.

– Paul Slack

[1] In A Tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain (vol.1, 1724).