Voltaire and the Jacobites

Battle of Culloden

An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745 (The Battle of Culloden), by David Morier, 1746, image Wikimedia Commons.

Voltaire had long-running and complicated relationships with the Jacobites, the supporters of the exiled Stuarts, the Catholic dynasty which was overthrown and replaced by the Protestant William of Orange in 1688. Towards the largest Jacobite émigré community in France, the Irish, he showed the same lack of sympathy that he extended to Ireland in general.  He was much better disposed towards the Scots Jacobites, as shown in the description of the ’45 rebellion included in his Précis du Siècle de Louis XV.  In the course of that famous uprising, Voltaire had gone so far as to write a manifesto for Bonnie Prince Charlie (grandson of the deposed James II), although his motives had more to do with a desire to ingratiate himself with the French government than with affection for the Stuarts.  He later befriended the Scottish Jacobite exile Field Marshall Keith, whose eulogy he wrote in 1758.  He was less positive towards the Chevalier Andrew Michael Ramsay, a Scots convert to Catholicism and follower of Fénelon who once tutored Prince Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’).  Voltaire sniffed at Ramsay as a plagiarist.

Whatever his reactions to individual Jacobite exiles, Voltaire never dismissed Jacobitism as backward or despotic.  His positive attitude may have been shaped by his early friendships with Viscount Bolingbroke, an exiled Tory minister who was attracted to Jacobitism at various phases of his long career, and bishop Atterbury of Rochester.  Bolingbroke welcomed Voltaire to his house at La Source near Orléans in December 1722.  The Viscount admired the young French poet, but warned him to restrain the influence of his imagination.  Bolingbroke also consulted Alexander Pope on the merits of Voltaire’s pirated epic, La Ligue, the first version of La Henriade.  The image of King Henry IV of France presented in that poem may have appealed to Bolingbroke, who had tried in vain to persuade the Stuart claimant, James III, to change his religion in order to gain a throne.

Voltaire may not have met Atterbury before 1728, but he knew of him through his close correspondent Thieriot, who was friendly with the exiled Tory bishop and Jacobite conspirator.  In spite of his orthodox Anglican piety Atterbury was fascinated by Voltaire.  Two of Atterbury’s French literary associates, the abbé Granet and the abbé Desfontaines, translated into French works that Voltaire wrote while living in England.  Desfontaines included a brief tribute to Atterbury in his translation.

Henry St John (1678–1751), 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, Baron St John of Lydiard Tregoze, by Jonathan Richardson the elder, image Lydiard House.

Voltaire’s English friends did him little good during his sojourn in England from 1726 to 1728.  Bolingbroke had already returned to his homeland, and to opposition politics.  Through the newspaper The Craftsman he became the chief critic of ‘ministerial despotism’.  For his part, Pope was about to publish the Dunciad, a stinging attack on the Walpole administration.  Although Voltaire tried to work his way into governing Whig circles, and received a grant of £200 from George II’s personal revenues in 1727, he kept making the wrong political connections.  Much of his last year in England was spent in the houses of the Tory Earl Bathurst, an associate of Atterbury, and the Earl of Peterborough, a retired general who was disdained by the Whig establishment. Peterborough introduced Voltaire to Dr John Freind, a Jacobite physician who had participated in the Atterbury Plot of 1722.  These were not men who could do Voltaire much good with the government.  Although he was able to publish La Henriade by subscription, Voltaire had little success in finding wider patronage in England.  Tellingly, although he met the Duke of Richmond, a leading Whig Freemason, he was not initiated into the Masonic brotherhood, unlike Montesquieu and the Chevalier Ramsay.

After his return to France in 1728 Voltaire’s friendship with Atterbury became closer.  In 1731 he placed a glowing reference to ‘the learned bishop of Rochester’ into his play Brutus, which was dedicated to Bolingbroke.  Atterbury’s former secretary, the Nonjuror Thomas Carte, smuggled copies of La Henriade into France in 1728-1729, which he distributed through Desfontaines.  Carte, a friend of Ramsay and admirer of the abbé de St Pierre, was engaged on a Latin edition of Jacques Auguste de Thou’s history of the French religious wars.  Voltaire idolized de Thou.  Jacobites like Carte and Atterbury, and ex-Jacobites like Bolingbroke, were beginning to see themselves as defenders of constitutional liberty against the rule of tyrannical ministers and greedy ‘moneyed men’.  Voltaire may have appealed to them as a champion of free expression and an enemy of despotism.

Voltaire’s own account of England in his Lettres sur les Anglais (later known as Lettres Philosophiques), published in English in 1733 as Letters concerning the English Nation, rejects the anger of his Tory and Jacobite friends by praising the freedom, tolerance and prosperity of the Whig regime.  Doubtless Voltaire was trying to gain the favour of the pro-Whig administration of Cardinal Fleury.  He may also have been encouraging his disgruntled English acquaintances to accept the changes that had happened in their own country.  Yet he also gave the only truly political voice in the book to a Jacobite Member of Parliament, William Shippen.  In evoking a speech by Shippen praising ‘the Majesty of the English People’, Voltaire may have rendered a small gesture of respect to the principles of those alienated Tories and Jacobites from whom he would never entirely disassociate himself.

– Paul Monod, Middlebury College

 

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Pangloss, Guru of Positive Thinking: Candide at the Royal Shakespeare Company

Candide new imageMark Ravenhill is now in his second year as Writer in Residence at the RSC. His latest play, Candide, ‘inspired by Voltaire’, is currently in rehearsal and opens at the Swan Theatre in Stratford on 29 August, where it will run until 26 October. The play is directed by Lyndsey Turner, and the advance publicity warns that the performances will include ‘strong language, violence and reckless optimism’. Nicholas Cronk, director of the Voltaire Foundation, went to watch an early rehearsal and talk to Mark Ravenhill.

Candide REH-114

Candide in rehearsal

Nicholas Cronk: The RSC invited you to write a new play on any subject: what made you choose Candide?

Mark Ravenhill: Candide is one of those books I read when I was young and that I come back to regularly. It’s a book that makes me laugh and think – it would be very hard to like someone who didn’t enjoy Candide! Also, everyone thinks they know Candide – you hear people described as ‘Panglossian’. So if Candide appears on a poster, it feels familiar.

NC: Candide has often been rewritten as a narrative, for example George Bernard Shaw’s Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God (1932), but less often successfully reworked for the stage – with the notable exception of Bernstein’s Candide. What are the challenges of rethinking this work for the stage?

MR: There is a remarkable nimbleness of style, a balancing act of tone, in Voltaire, which is hard to bring off on stage. When you speak the words out loud, the effect is very different from when you read them. So one needs to do something new with a stage performance, not simply ‘tell the story’. When I was asked by the RSC to write a new play, I was already thinking about ideas of happiness and optimism in modern society. The American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich has written about this in her book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World (2009) [in the USA the book is called Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America]. She talks about the happiness industry, the rise of medication to make us happy and of self-help books, and the influence of all this on religion. In many ways religion has become another form of self-help. We all suffer from over-exposure to positive thinking.

Candide in rehearsal

Candide in rehearsal

NC: I like the idea of Voltaire as agony aunt. There is a novel by Dinah Lee Kung, A Visit from Voltaire (2004), in which the ghost of Voltaire turns up to sort out the problems of a modern-day American family living in Geneva…: this is Voltaire as the inventor of the self-help manual.

MR: In the business world, the idea of positive thinking is absolutely entrenched. The financial crisis happened because no-one could actually say out loud how bad things were…

NC: Voltaire’s novel makes fun of Pangloss and the Leibnizian idea that evil doesn’t really exist. And you feel we are living in a culture that can’t face up to the existence of evil? that makes Panglosses of us all?

MR: We are now so far advanced in our denial of evil that we want to rationalise it away. Twenty years ago, when you bumped into someone and asked how they were, they would say, ‘Mustn’t grumble’ or ‘Getting by’: now they feel obliged to say ‘Just great!’. In both cases, the reply is just a social nicety, but the framework has changed, it’s as if it’s become a social duty to express happiness. Optimism and happiness are not the same thing, but they are becoming interchangeable, and it seemed to me that Voltaire’s Candide gave me a way into something important happening in modern-day culture.

NC: Are there other ways in which the text has contemporary echoes for you?

MR: Rereading Candide, I was struck by the link between optimism and the optimal, the idea that we have been placed in this optimal world rather than some other. Voltaire’s novel offers us parallel universes, the possibility of entering into alternative worlds existing side by side, and this is something quite modern. Nested narratives and parallel universes are popular at the moment in many different art forms.

NC: Candide itself is a very self-referential text, full of spoofs of other fictions. When Candide is driven crazy by his love for Cunégonde, he rushes round carving her name on the bark of trees, like a character in a Shakespearean comedy…

MR: Yes, even within single sentences, there are sudden changes of register. And when the travellers go to Venice, they see a play by Voltaire! This is a novel which has narratives within narratives, such as when Cunégonde recounts her story.

NC: And these nested narratives and parallel universes shape your new play?

Candide in rehearsal

Candide in rehearsal

MR: I have not chosen to create a linear story, but a series of different narratives: in the end there are five plays that almost, but don’t quite, add up to one play…  I start with the story of Candide, being performed as a play within a play, to bring the audience up to speed with the story. Each scene exists in a different universe and moves between different genres. The fourth scene invites us to join Candide in Eldorado and explores life as it could ideally be: this is proto sci-fi, rather like what happens in Gulliver’s Travels. And in the fifth and final scene, we move slightly into the future, as Pangloss finds success as the purveyor of optimism.

NC: How easy is it to stage contemporary characters engaging in philosophical debate?

MR: Theatre within theatre, when characters sees themselves on stage, always raises philosophical questions of choice and free will. And then there is the question of language. Although the play is not written in strict verse form, there is an underlying beat of rhyming couplets, with echoes of Pope and the tradition of eighteenth-century philosophical verse.

NC: For members of the audience who would like a refresher course in Candide before the first night, you have produced a special new version of Voltaire’s novel?

MR: Yes, I have adapted the whole book into tweets of 140 characters, and these are being sent out daily, at the rate of eight tweets per day [from 26 June to 29 August: @TweetCandide].

NC: It tells us something remarkable about Voltaire’s style that his novel lends itself so well to this exercise. You have invented a completely new way of translating Candide: I hope one day we can publish it on the website of the Voltaire Foundation!

MR: Yes, translating Candide into tweets has really deepened my appreciation of his writing – it wouldn’t work so well with nineteenth-century authors. Every single sentence in Voltaire seems to advance the story, and yet stand alone as a sound-bite.

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