The Œuvres complètes de Voltaire are nearly fifty years old

John Renwick has been a member of the ‘Œuvres complètes de Voltaire’ team since 1970, and of its Conseil scientifique since 1997. Within OCV, he has edited over fifty individual texts, from ‘Amulius et Numitor’ (1711) to the ‘Fragments sur l’histoire générale’ and the ‘Fragments sur l’Inde’ (1773). He has signed the edition of twenty-eight articles in the ‘Questions sur l’Encyclopédie’ and forty-five chapters of the ‘Essai sur les mœurs’, and more than sixty entries for the forthcoming volume 9 of the ‘Corpus des notes marginales’. He is the editor of the major text ‘Traité sur la tolérance’.


In a recent contribution (September 2016), Jeroom Vercruysse, the editor of Voltaire’s mock epic poem La Pucelle and many other texts since, reminds us of how he and a small number of colleagues were invited by Theodore Besterman to start producing a critical edition of Voltaire’s complete works. In it, he remembers – though fleetingly – how those ‘Founding Fathers’ translated their early aspirations into the concrete formulation of editorial policy. He mentions also their early recognition that such a vast corpus of work would require their having recourse to ‘d’autres dix-huitiémistes afin d’assurer la préparation et la publication de textes si divers’. And he concludes his reminiscences with the observation that ‘nous envisageons la sortie des derniers volumes vers 2020’.


His comments could not fail to elicit a positive response from this particular reader, who was one of the early second-generation recruits to be approached by Theodore Besterman (in 1970, I was a mere 31-year-old, the same age as Jeroom at the inception of the Œuvres complètes in 1967) and who, decades later (again like Jeroom), is still intimately associated with the enterprise which he also (just as fervently) hopes to see to its completion in 2020.


It is, however, and more precisely, the comments that Jeroom makes en filigrane about the original editorial approaches that embolden me to return to, and then to expand upon, a topic (that I first treated in 1994 [1]) that now – more than twenty years later – concerns more particularly the constant evolution of the original editorial principles over the fifty years that have intervened since inception in 1968 with the Notebooks, edited by Besterman, then in La Philosophie de l’histoire, edited by J.H. Brumfitt in 1969. Having constantly been a party to a redefinition and an expansion of those editorial parameters, I have been privileged, from beginning to what is now near-end, to witness the refinement of those parameters, a progressive process that has been responsible for making the OCV into what is arguably one of the most significant and thoughtful scholarly ventures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


The fact that it has also transpired to be a ‘formidable aventure intellectuelle’ makes it even more remarkable. How and why this came about is worth charting in a preliminary sketch that will one day (or so it is to be hoped) provide the impetus for someone to turn the whole question into a detailed study, because, in the time-honoured phrase, this topic is surely a beau sujet de thèse.

– John Renwick

[1] See John Renwick, ‘The Complete works of Voltaire: a review of the first twenty-five years’ in Pour encourager les autres. Studies for the tercentenary of Voltaire’s birth 1694-1994, SVEC 320, p.165-207.

Voltaire editor, edited and re-edited

The first posthumous edition of Voltaire’s complete works, printed in Kehl in 1784 and financed by Beaumarchais, was recently the subject of a 900-page thesis (Linda Gil, Paris-Sorbonne, 2014). The latest volume of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, not lagging far behind, at 604 pages, also started life with this 70-volume edition as its focus, in particular the nearly 4000 pages that make up what the editors call the ‘Dictionnaire philosophique’. Under this title, made up in large part of Voltaire’s 1764 Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (later La Raison par alphabet) and the 1770-1772 Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, the Kehl editors included a number of previously unknown articles and fragments.

A manuscript of one of the texts in this volume (article ‘Ame’, in the hand of Voltaire’s secretary, Wagnière). Bibliothèque de Genève, Musée Voltaire: MS 34/1, f.1.

A manuscript of one of the texts in this volume (article ‘Ame’, in the hand of Voltaire’s secretary, Wagnière). Bibliothèque de Genève, Musée Voltaire: MS 34/1, f.1.

Our edition of these texts attempts to pin down what they were, when (and whether) Voltaire wrote them, whether certain groups can be discerned amongst them, and to what degree the printed record of the Kehl edition reflects the manuscripts that were actually found after Voltaire’s death – as much as is still possible, that is, after two hundred years have elapsed, and when most of the manuscript sources have long since disappeared.

As the volume moved through the stages of the editing and publishing process, it proved to be a protean thing, changing shape several times: some texts originally included in the original list of contents were found not to belong in the volume after all; others were discovered or moved in from elsewhere along the way; and once or twice new manuscripts unexpectedly came to light, changing the tentative dating and identification of one or another of the texts. What began as a simple alphabetically ordered series of about 45 texts eventually took shape as a book in four sections (of uneven length) which covers the ground of all posthumous additions to Voltaire’s ‘alphabetical works’, usually under the title ‘Dictionnaire philosophique’, from 1784, through the nineteenth-century, right up to the present day, in the form of a fragment that has in fact never before been published at all.

The chain of editorial decision-making goes further back in time than one initially realises, however, starting with Voltaire’s own apparent intention to produce a compendium of excerpts from other people’s works. As Bertram Schwarzbach adumbrated in 1982, twenty-four of the texts in this volume (with a possible twenty-fifth), show Voltaire (or one of his secretaries, perhaps?) re-working existing writings by others in what sometimes strongly resembles current practices of copying and pasting, much as we move sentences and parts of sentences around using a word processor. This in no way suggests that Voltaire was guilty of plagiarism: to begin with, he did not publish these re-workings in his own lifetime; furthermore, the boundaries of editing, re-publishing and re-purposing in the late eighteenth century were different than they are today. But the fact that these manuscripts were found amongst Voltaire’s papers meant that his early editors believed them to be by him (with one exception, ‘Fanatisme’, which they recognised as an abridged version of Deleyre’s Encyclopédie article). Thus were these texts eventually published under Voltaire’s name in the Kehl edition, leading to a (partly) unintentional distortion of the Voltairean canon, perpetuated in all subsequent editions until the Oxford Œuvres complètes. Questions such as these are soon to be addressed more generally in a one-day conference: ‘Editorialités: Practices of editing and publishing’, and Marian Hobson has written elsewhere about the value of critical editions. It is in part thanks to modern-day editorial work that the editor-generated puzzles of over two centuries ago are now being unpicked: a neat illustration of just how much the role of editor has changed in that time.

– Gillian Pink

OCV update: Focus on Louis XIV

Bonne rentrée! This September marks a milestone for the OCV team as we publish the final chapters of our critical edition of Voltaire’s Siècle de Louis XIV (OCV, vol.13D), in which Voltaire explores the cultural history of the reign, including chapters on religious conflict and sectarianism as well as on achievements in the scientific, artistic and literary spheres. This volume completes the critical edition of the narrative of this monumental work, representing over 1500 pages of Voltaire’s text and editorial notes. The general editor, Diego Venturino, has meticulously pieced together Voltaire’s sources and analysed the context in which he worked and the way he sifted evidence to provide a revealing and comprehensive account of Voltaire’s historical method. We’re very happy with how handsome they look on our shelf, as well as proud of the diligence and hard work that has gone into making them just as magnificent on the inside.


We were also really pleased this summer to launch an update to our explorer’s guide to Louis XIV. We wanted to provide a resource which would enable the scholarly research in the books to reach a wider audience, as well as giving some of the background to one of the most remarkable monarchs in European history. When the BBC series Versailles hit our screens earlier in the summer, we thought it would be interesting to explore some of the characters and events featured in the series from the viewpoint, not so much of ‘were they really like that?’ but ‘what did Voltaire have to say about them?’. It’s striking how many of the eye-catching incidents can be traced back to him, and we’ve enjoyed exploring how much further some of the hints provided by Voltaire and other historians have been stretched by the mischievous programme-makers.

As joint ‘secretaries’ of the edition, both working part-time and fitting in family commitments around our work on Voltaire, Pippa Faucheux and I have been particularly pleased that we’ve been able to keep the continuity over the summer, working closely with our valued collaborators, including general editor Professor Venturino and our partners at the Palace of Versailles, as well as our indexer, typesetters and printers in the UK. We’re now excited about moving on to get to grips with the fascinating ‘Catalogue des écrivains’, the Who’s Who of Louis XIV’s world that launches the reader into the narrative of the Siècle, for publication in spring 2017 (OCV, vol.12).

– Alison Oliver

A propos des Œuvres complètes ou comment tout a commencé

La toute récente réunion du Conseil scientifique des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, qui eut lieu à la Sorbonne le 16 juin 2016, est à l’origine de ces réminiscences de Jeroom Vercruysse sur les débuts du projet:

Après un après-midi de travail lors du congrès de la SIEDS de Saint-Andrews (1967), René Pomeau me glissa dans l’oreille: ‘Venez avec moi, Besterman veut nous voir’. Que nous voulait-il? Je connaissais le personnage, il avait publié mon premier article en 1959 et ma thèse l’année précédente. Nous voilà dans un salon de l’Université où nous rencontrâmes Jean Ehrard, Owen Taylor et Samuel Taylor. Besterman, que j’avais déjà rencontré plusieurs fois, ne dérogea pas à ses habitudes quelquefois assez brusques. ‘Messieurs,’ nous dit-il, ‘êtes-vous d’accord pour entreprendre une édition complète et critique des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire?’ La réponse fut unanime, ‘oui’. Un verre de sherry confirma le propos.

Il ne restait plus qu’à réaliser ce projet dont certains collègues avaient déjà rêvé. Mais nous étions loin, moi surtout, le cadet (j’avais 31 ans), d’entrevoir l’ampleur, la durée et la difficulté de l’entreprise. Aujourd’hui, près de 50 années plus tard, la fin du tunnel est en vue. Mais que de chemin parcouru, de difficultés surmontées! Un mois après le congrès nous fûmes invités au célèbre Reform Club de Londres. En hôte parfait, Besterman nous régala d’un repas dans un salon de ce club si fameux. Et nous tînmes ensuite notre première réunion du Comité scientifique que nous étions devenus. Œuvres complètes, critiques, cela allait de soi. Dans quel ordre devaient paraître les futurs volumes? Quelle ligne de conduite serait suivie pour préparer les textes?

OCV team

La réunion du Conseil scientifique des Œuvres complètes du 16 juin 2016. Assis, de gauche à droite: Marie-Hélène Cotoni, Christiane Mervaud, Jeroom Vercruysse; debout, de gauche à droite: Gérard Laudin, Gerhardt Stenger, Nicholas Cronk, John R. Iverson, Sylvain Menant, Russell Goulbourne, François Moureau.

Il suffit de prendre en main l’un des derniers tomes parus: il ressemble comme une goutte d’eau au premier sorti des presses. De nombreuses allées et venues entre Bruxelles, Genève, Londres et Paris (sans oublier les réunions tenues au cours des congrès des Lumières successifs), un courrier abondant, tout cela marcha le plus tranquillement du monde. Le premier volume publié fut La Henriade, dont O. Taylor avait déjà fourni une édition critique dans les Studies on Voltaire; il la révisa, l’adapta aux normes convenues et l’entreprise prit la route. Besterman me confia La Pucelle d’Orléans qui, débarrassée de ses oripeaux séculaires, vit le jour en 1971. Entre-temps chacun des membres du Conseil apporta son écot à l’entreprise. Mais il apparut très vite qu’il fallait recourir à d’autres dix-huitiémistes afin d’assurer la préparation et la publication de textes si divers. Ce ne fut guère une entreprise aisée pour tous les éditeurs, particulièrement pour ceux qui se chargèrent des ‘grands machins’.

Besterman me ‘colla’ les Œuvres alphabétiques. Bien. Je me mis au travail, mais je dus également trouver des collaborateurs qualifiés. Le Comité étendit ses compétences, augmenta ses effectifs, se renouvela car malheureusement il eut à déplorer des décès et des retraits. Une fois les textes attribués, le Comité dut, au fur et à mesure de l’arrivée des copies, procéder à des relectures, formuler des critiques et des suggestions souvent délicates, recourir à de nouvelles compétences. Des milliers de pages passèrent de mains en mains. Tout cela se passa dans une entente parfaite, jamais un mot plus vif que d’autres ne fut prononcé, et près d’un demi-siècle plus tard, je constate que le Conseil scientifique élargi assure toujours bénévolement ses devoirs avec soin, avec compétence et avec rigueur. Nous envisageons la sortie des derniers volumes vers 2020. Plût aux dieux que je sois encore là pour dire simplement ‘enfin’! Utinam dis placet!

– Jeroom Vercruysse, professeur émérite Vrije Universiteit, Bruxelles