Beaumarchais letters: editorial history and current research

The recent addition to Electronic Enlightenment (EE) of 417 letters from the Beaumarchais correspondence is a significant event in 18th-century studies. They appeared over thirty years ago in the two-volume edition prepared by Gunnar and Mavis von Proschwitz, Beaumarchais et le Courier de l’Europe, for the Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century, volumes 273–274 (1990). Added to the 257 Beaumarchais letters already included in EE, these 674 letters constitute over a sixth of known Beaumarchais letters and approximately one third of Beaumarchais letters published to date. Their online publication, along with other current research projects on the correspondence, offers scholars new reasons to consider this oft-cited, but still little understood, figure of the Enlightenment.

A vast and far-ranging correspondence

If ever fully inventoried and edited, the Beaumarchais papers would no doubt include between 6000 and 20,000 documents. (The minimum estimate is based on the currently known corpus. The maximum is a seat-of-the-pants guess put forth by Brian Morton in 1969, based on his preliminary archival research. The actual number certainly lies somewhere in between, nevertheless making the corpus one of the largest of the period.) Beyond their sheer number, the Beaumarchais papers also stand out for their geographical and sociological breadth. From Vienna to Madrid to the Netherlands to England and North America, Beaumarchais’s correspondence network is far more than a simply ‘French’ or ‘francophone’ one. Moreover, Beaumarchais grants us insights into the 18th century that stand apart from those offered by the correspondences of other major figures. An artisan, a musician, a financier, commercial entrepreneur, printer, investor, politician, judge, diplomat, spy, litigant, criminal (he was imprisoned in at least four capitals), husband, lover, brother, father and, of course, a playwright, his correspondence brought him in touch with a wider swath of 18th-century European and North-American society than almost any other personality whose correspondence has been studied to date, with perhaps only Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson rivalling him in this respect.

Editorial history

The editorial history of the Beaumarchais correspondence traces across more than two centuries of literary and political history. Since his death in 1799, over 1500 letters have been edited, of which only slightly more than half feature a supporting critical apparatus.

Portrait of P. A. Caron de Beaumarchais, 1773, drawn by Charles Nicolas Cochin II, engraved by Augustin de Saint-Aubin. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In the 19th century, fewer than 200 Beaumarchais letters were printed, mostly in editions of his works, but also in journals and biographies. The first edition of his complete works, edited by his amanuensis, Paul-Philippe Gudin de La Brenellerie (1809), included 55 letters, which Gudin had transcribed from the personal papers inherited by the writer’s widow upon his death. A second edition, by the journalist, historian and politician Saint-Marc Girardin, published in 1828, included 53 of the same letters, though with some editorial differences. An edition prepared in 1836 by the deputy curator at the Bibliothèque du roi, Jules Ravenel, included 10 letters reproduced from 18th-century periodicals, of which 6 were not published in either of the earlier editions. Also in 1836, the Revue rétrospective published a collection of 29 previously unpublished letters from manuscripts in the Comédie Française archives. The biographer Louis de Loménie, in his two-volume Beaumarchais et son temps (1858), referenced and included partial transcripts of hundreds of letters, but included in the appendix only 35 complete texts of previously unedited letters. A second biographer, Eugène Lintilhac, in his Beaumarchais et ses œuvres (1887), included 12 partially transcribed letters not previously published. (In 1890, Louis Bonneville de Marsangy published Madame de Beaumarchais, a biography of Beaumarchais’s third and final wife and widow, Marie Thérèse Willermaulaz; although Marsangy claimed to have consulted ‘sa correspondance inédite’, no letters are reproduced or directly referenced in the volume.)

In the 1920s, another 200 letters were brought into print from a variety of sources. In the early years of the century, as a young and ambitious man of letters, Louis Thomas undertook to produce a complete edition of the correspondence. However, military service during the Great War put an end to his research. In 1923, he published an edition entitled Lettres de jeunesse, including 167 letters from the first two decades of Beaumarchais’s adult life, of which 120 are attributed to manuscripts in the ‘Archives de Beaumarchais’ and the rest to printed sources. At least 80 of these had not been edited in earlier collections. (Thomas achieved renown as an editor and author in the interwar period before falling into ignominy during the Occupation as an ardent antisemite and collaborator whom the Vichy regime put in charge of the publishing house seized from Gaston Calmann-Lévy.) In 1929, the eminent French literature scholar in the United States Gilbert Chinard edited a collection of Lettres inédites de Beaumarchais consisting of 109 letters, mainly to Marie Thérèse Willermaulaz and their daughter, transcribed from manuscripts acquired by the Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

In the past half-century, the pace of publication has accelerated. In the late 1960s, Brian Morton (then a faculty member at the University of Michigan) launched a project to publish a complete Correspondence and began to transcribe letters from both public and private collections as well as reproduce previously published letters. In the 1970s, Donald Spinelli, then of Wayne State University (in Detroit MI), became his collaborator and continued the project. Together they published about 1000 letters, of which at least 300 were previously unpublished. Four published volumes (1969-1978) cover the years up to 1778 and are now available on open access. In 2010, Spinelli added a fifth volume, covering the year 1779, also on his professional website.

In 1990, Gunnar von Proschwitz, a noted philologist, and his wife Mavis published the most extensive critical apparatus associated with any edition of Beaumarchais letters. The notes and a lengthy introduction to this edition lay out the significance of these documents for our understanding of Beaumarchais’s life and of the 18th century. In these letters, we see Beaumarchais not only as a playwright seeking to circumvent censorship to have Le Mariage de Figaro finally staged, but also as an entrepreneur, a printer, an urban property owner, an emissary, and a transatlantic merchant. Through these documents we have a window on an 18th century that is geographically, socially, and culturally much broader and more diverse than what we generally encounter through other published 18th-century correspondences.

Current research
A letter from Beaumarchais to Antoine Dauvergne, director of the Académie royale de musique, dated 7 August 1787, about Salieri’s opera Tarare (with a libretto by Beaumarchais). (Gallica)

At present, the scholarly world can look forward to the benefits of the first new projects on Beaumarchais’s correspondence in over thirty years, including the effort spearheaded by Linda Gil to produce a definitive inventory with a material bibliography. Gil is also the editor of a forthcoming volume, Éditer la correspondence de Beaumarchais (to be published in the Cahiers du Centre d’étude des correspondences et journaux intimes), and one of the organisers of a conference on ‘L’Europe de Beaumarchais’, to be held in Paris and online on 20 and 21 January 2023.

My own contribution to this effort, begun in collaboration with Spinelli in 2019, is to prepare a searchable dataset of the 3500 documents and nearly 5000 references to letters known and unknown, with which to analyse Beaumarchais’s transatlantic network of correspondents. To date, nearly 3780 named identities have been extracted, of which 980 are unique individuals, and another 500 corporate entities have been identified. Working in collaboration with a talented doctoral student, Dakota Ciolkosz, with Voltaire Foundation colleagues who have extensive expertise in scholarly editing of correspondence, with Miranda Lewis and Howard Hotson of Early Modern Letters Online, and with Glenn Roe, whose ‘ObTIC’ laboratory of Sorbonne Université has done extensive work as well on 18th-century correspondences, this project will seek to make available in the coming years, on an open access and non-exclusive basis, the searchable dataset, the metadata drawn from these documents, and a prosopography of participants in the transatlantic correspondence network.

– Gregory Brown, Professor, Department of History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Senior Research Fellow, Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford

An earlier version of this post appeared on the EE blog.

Jacques Pierre Brissot and Charles Burney: unpublished letters reveal a dance to society’s music

Charles Burney, by Joshua Reynolds

Charles Burney, by Joshua Reynolds. (National Portrait Gallery)

Charles Burney (1726-1814), eminent music historian and man of letters, son of a musician and dancer, was a central figure in the literary, artistic and musical world of late eighteenth-century London, regularly to be found at Joshua Reynolds’ dining club among the leading figures of the day.

Brissot de Warville, by François Bonneville

Brissot de Warville, by François Bonneville, c.1790. (Musée Carnavalet, Paris)

In February 1783 the French philosopher and politician Jacques Pierre Brissot (1754-1793), known as Brissot de Warville, moved to London with his wife, Félicité Dupont, a year after their marriage. Shortly after his arrival Brissot met Burney at the home of the lawyer and pamphleteer Simon Nicolas Henri Linguet (1736-1794). About a month later, on 16 March 1783, Brissot wrote to Burney, in French, from his lodgings in Brompton Row, initiating a correspondence that would continue for several months. In his letter, intended to renew their recent acquaintance, Brissot expressed his high esteem for Burney’s General history of music (1776-1789), of which the first two of four volumes had been published, and indicated his eagerness to meet Burney again. Enclosed with the letter was a prospectus for a forthcoming periodical, in which Brissot hoped to reproduce a portrait of Burney’s daughter Frances (1752-1840), whose bestselling first novel Evelina (1778) had recently been followed by the much longer and also highly successful Cecilia (1782).

Brissot to Charles Burney, 16 March 1783

Brissot to Charles Burney, 16 March 1783. (Beinecke Library, Yale University)

This intriguing letter, held by the Beinecke Library at Yale University, has never been published, although it is briefly summarized in the notes to the first volume of Burney’s letters, the only one published to date. (The Letters of Dr Charles Burney, vol. 1, 1751-1784, ed. Alvaro Ribeiro, S.J., Oxford, 1991, p.357. Five further volumes of this edition are now in progress, under my general editorship; Burney’s letters to Brissot will be published as an appendix to volume six.) This volume does include an undated draft of Burney’s reply, which he wrote, in laboured French dictated to Frances, on the verso of the second page of Brissot’s letter. Burney here tells Brissot that although his daughter is flattered by the request, she cannot grant it. Thomas Cadell, the publisher of Cecilia, had also wished to reproduce her portrait as the frontispiece to the fourth edition, ‘mais y ayant une répugnance invincible, elle lui a donné un refus absolu’ (p.358). Unknown to Ribeiro, the fair copy of this letter, in Charles Burney’s hand and dated 25 March 1783, is also extant, in the Fonds Brissot of the Archives nationales de France. This copy contains a concluding paragraph, absent from the draft published by Ribeiro, in which Burney cagily tells Brissot that while he would like to invite him for a visit to the Burneys’ home on St Martin’s Street, ‘je suis si rarement au logis, qu’il m’est à cet heure impossible de trouver un moment pour entretenir mes amis les plus intimes’.

Fanny Burney, by Edward Francisco Burney

Fanny Burney, by Edward Francisco Burney. (National Portrait Gallery)

Brissot’s reply to Burney’s letter, probably sent in late March, is missing. But Burney’s response to that letter, written on 2 April 1783, is also in the Fonds Brissot, together with three further hitherto unknown letters by Burney. This cache of material was discovered by the historian of eighteenth-century Anglo-French relations Simon MacDonald, to whom I much indebted. I am also grateful to the Burney scholar Lorna Clark, for providing me with photographs and draft transcriptions of the letters.

In his April letter to Brissot, Burney addresses his new correspondent in English, in preference to what he terms ‘the miserable French I am able to write’. He thanks Brissot for the interest he has taken in Frances Burney’s novels, and ‘the frank manner in which you have spoken of their merits & defects’; in the absence of Brissot’s letter, regrettably, the nature of these criticisms remains unknown. Burney next alludes to remarks that Brissot has made about Voltaire, who, ‘with all his wit & reputation, has never been able to convince the English that Shakespeare was a Barbarian, any more than many eminent Writers among my Countrymen, have been able to persuade the French that their taste in many things is false and frivolous’. He looks forward, he claims, to discussing ‘Literary projects’ mentioned by Brissot, but cannot spare time for a meeting at present, since he is immersed in volume three of the History of music.

Charles Burney to Brissot, 23 July 1763

Charles Burney to Brissot, 23 July 1763. (Fonds Brissot, Archives nationales de France)

The third letter from Burney in the Fonds Brissot is a note dated Saturday 12 July, sent from St Martin’s Street to Brissot at Brompton Row. Here Burney invites Brissot and his wife for a visit ‘next Friday afternoon’. Another note by Burney in the Fonds, dated 23 July, reveals that the visit had not materialized; instead Burney proposes another afternoon visit to take place on the following day. Brissot, however, somehow mistook the date for this second invitation. In a letter to Burney of 29 July, held by the Beinecke Library, he apologizes for the misunderstanding, and hopes to make amends by enclosing a copy of the Mercure d’Allemagne containing his review of Cecilia, of which a German translation had been published in Leipzig earlier that year. (See Catherine M. Parisian, Frances Burney’s Cecilia: a publishing history, Burlington, 2012, p.336.)

A fifth and final letter from Burney in the Fonds Brissot, written on 1 August 1783, reveals that the Brissots had made a visit to St Martin’s Street but without finding the family at home. Burney was ‘extremely mortified & concerned’ at having missed them, but hoped that they would still be able to meet, either at his home or at the Brissots’ lodgings. In the event, the Brissots did eventually come to St Martin’s Street, as an extensive note appended by Frances Burney to Brisot’s letter of 29 July reveals. Writing long after the event, Frances reports that there was an ‘Evening Rendez-Vous’. Brissot was ‘rather agreeable, from fullness of literary information’, while his wife was ‘very young, & very civil, & a sort of flaming beauty, by the dazzling crimson of her natural complexion, & lustre of her Eyes’. Brissot, however, then made the fatal mistake of leaving London to join the ‘dreadful Duke d’Orleans’, and ‘Ten years after this peaceful meeting … he was Guiliotined [sic], with 20 other Members of The Convention!’

No further correspondence between Brissot and Burney is known to be extant, but in her Memoirs of Doctor Burney (1832) the eighty-year old Frances, now the widowed Mme d’Arblay, provides a four-page account of the letters and meetings of 1783. Over the years she had turned against Brissot, and her portrait of him is distinctly hostile. He had, she claims, ‘a certain low-bred fullness and forwardness of look, even in the midst of professions of humility and respect, that were by no means attractive to Dr. Burney’. Her father thus avoided ‘this latent demagogue’, whose ‘jacobinical harangues and proceedings, five years later, were blazoned to the world by the republican gazettes’. Brissot’s ‘pretty wife’, she added, seemed unobjectionable, but Burney ‘always regretted that he had been deluded into shewing even the smallest token of hospitality to her intriguing husband’ (Memoirs, II, 336, 337). Thanks to the newly discovered letters in the Fonds Brissot, we can now, for the first time, compare Frances Burney’s harsh retrospective account of 1832 with the delicate social manoeuvring revealed by surviving correspondence between Brissot and Dr Burney in 1783.

Peter Sabor


La Beaumelle, écrivain engagé avant la lettre

Le quinzième tome de la « Correspondance générale de La Beaumelle », qui vient de paraître, se concentre sur la période de janvier 1764 à décembre 1766.

Le 23 mars 1764 le mariage de La Beaumelle avec Rose-Victoire Lavaysse veuve Nicol est célébré en l’église du Taur à Toulouse. La Beaumelle a contraint par voie d’huissier le curé qui connaissaient les époux comme des protestants notoires à respecter la législation qui stipule que le royaume est tout entier catholique.

Laurent Angliviel de la Beaumelle

Laurent Angliviel de La Beaumelle. Artiste inconnu.

La Beaumelle s’installe à la Nogarède, propriété de sa femme, près de Mazères en pays de Foix. Il consacre beaucoup de soins à la mise en valeur de cette demeure et à la modernisation de l’exploitation des terres : locations, fermages, plantations de muriers, production de céréales. Le 22 août 1765, en tant que ‘seigneur haut, moyen et bas justicier du Carla’, il est élu député du corps de la noblesse et des militaires de Mazères à l’assemblée des notables de la province. En effet il a acheté à sa femme la seigneurie du Carla, la patrie de Bayle. Il s’engage dans les contestations politiques qui agitent ces deux communautés.

Par son mariage La Beaumelle est devenu le gendre du célèbre avocat David Lavaysse et le beau-frère de Gaubert Lavaysse, impliqué dans l’affaire Calas. La réhabilitation des condamnés prend le pas dans ses préoccupations sur sa Vie de Maupertuis et sur ses traductions des auteurs latins. Il rédige les ‘Lettres à Mr [Daine]’, l’un des maîtres des requêtes de l’Hôtel qui le 9 mars 1765 déclarent innocents tous les accusés. Sollicité par Mme Calas il achève une consultation pour la prise à partie en dommage et intérêts des Capitouls et de la Tournelle du Parlement de Toulouse. Il y analyse la responsabilité du capitoul David de Beaudrigue dans les premiers commencements de cette procédure inique : par la rédaction antidatée du procès verbal de sa descente sur les lieux, par l’arrestation précipitée des personnes présentes avant tout interrogatoire et sans procéder à un état des lieux, par l’invention de prétendus bruits publics évoquant un crime religieux, il a empêché toute enquête objective et réduit au silence des témoins transformés en accusés. Gaubert Lavaysse à Paris est à la croisée de la rédaction de deux mémoires de prise à partie, l’un réalisé à Toulouse par La Beaumelle auquel Mme Calas renoncera, l’autre à Paris par Elie de Beaumont poussé par Voltaire.

Parmi les nombreux documents inédits contenus dans ce volume on notera les ‘Lettres à Mr [Daine]’ inachevées, le très étendu ‘Mémoire à consulter pour la dame Calas’ prêt pour l’impression, tous deux de la main de La Beaumelle, le dossier qui a conduit à la destitution partielle du capitoul David de Beaudrigue convaincu de prévarication sans lien avec son action dans l’affaire Calas, et le rapport relevant dans les Mémoires de Maintenon les affirmations contraires à la foi catholique qui justifient sa mise à l’index par le Vatican en 1765.

– Claude Lauriol

N.B.: Jusqu’en 2019, la ‘Correspondance générale de La Beaumelle’ a été publiée par la Voltaire Foundation. D’entente avec les éditeurs Hubert Bost, Claude Lauriol et Hubert Angliviel de La Beaumelle, le relais éditorial sera pris, à partir du tome XVI, par les éditions Slatkine pour les derniers tomes de l’édition.

Imperial letters don’t burn

“Burn my letters so that they will not be printed in my lifetime” – Catherine the Great wrote these words to one of her most trusted correspondents, Friedrich Melchior Grimm, in 1787. Note the caveat – Catherine did not really want her letters to be destroyed. What she sought was control over who read her letters, when, and how. My book, The Epistolary Art of Catherine the Great, explores how Catherine skilfully designed every aspect of her correspondence to shape her image and to regulate how it reached different readers.

Portrait of Catherine II in front of a Mirror, Vigilius Ericksen, 1762-64. (The Hermitage Museum)

A German princess who married the heir to the Russian imperial throne, Catherine overthrew her husband in 1762 and subsequently ruled the empire successfully for thirty-four years. A prolific writer and author of some two dozen plays, a history of Russia, a series of remarkable memoirs, and much more, Catherine also produced several thousand letters by which she sought to win over supporters, manage her empire, and leave behind for posterity a legacy as a great ruler and appealing individual.

We’re very familiar today with the perils associated with email security for public figures – suffice it to think of the scandals surrounding Hillary Clinton’s emails and those of her staff in 2016. Catherine had similar concerns: receiving letters from the empress of Russia was so exciting that some readers could not resist leaking them to the press. Very few of the empress’s correspondents could get away with such indiscretions without a scolding – even Voltaire was allowed to publicise his elaborate exchange with the empress only within well-defined limits. Even more than that, the responses to Catherine’s letters could be truly outlandish: one was even the occasion for a séance at the Prussian court in 1791.

Yet Catherine’s choices regarding the publicity of her letters can also look quite bewilderingly different from twenty-first-century norms. Some of Catherine’s letters were indeed private, such as her love notes to her possible secret husband and most loyal deputy, Grigory Potemkin. But often they were not: writing to the salon hostess Marie-Thérèse Geoffrin, for instance, Catherine was actually addressing the select group of elite intellectuals, socialites, and political figures who gathered in Geoffrin’s home. The hostess might allow her guests to read the latest letter, or she would read it aloud; nonetheless, she and her guests knew better than to make copies or to publish what they heard. Rather, these privileged readers and listeners were meant to think positively about the empress when they read her witty, friendly letters, and they were to influence public and government opinion on her behalf. At the same time, Catherine firmly believed that, if she could win over elite readers in her own day, the best readers of future generations would agree with their enlightened views.

The Epistolary art of Catherine the Great is the August 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

More sneakily, Catherine decided to make use of widespread government surveillance of correspondences for her own benefit. As Jay Caplan has explored in Postal Culture in Europe, the rapid expansion of the postal service in early-modern Europe coincided with the development of sophisticated “Black Chambers” or cabinets noirs to spy on letters in transit. Naturally enough, ordinary citizens were of less interest to governments than those close to power, and so Catherine could rely on the governments of the territories her letters passed through to give in to temptation. So, when she wrote to a celebrity like Voltaire about Russian military successes, she was actually writing past the philosophe to inform the nosy French government that Russia had the resources and the military strength to be a major power in Europe.

Digital approaches to Catherine’s correspondence can help us to better visualise Catherine’s efforts to make herself present across Europe through her letters. That said, only close reading of rhetorical strategies can uncover how Catherine formulated in her letters the image she hoped to transmit to today’s readers. My study draws on both approaches to analyse for the first time the full range of Catherine’s correspondences and to argue for their status as a literary masterpiece of eighteenth-century epistolary writing.

– Kelsey Rubin-Detlev, University of Southern California

Kelsey Rubin-Detlev is the author of The Epistolary art of Catherine the Great, the first book to analyse Catherine the Great as an outstanding Enlightenment letter-writer, and the August volume of the Oxford University Studes in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

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



Pierre Bayle est mort. Vive la République des Lettres!

00_Bayle_frontis 1..9999

Enfant du Carla (aujourd’hui Carla-Bayle) dans le Midi-Pyrénées, fils et frère de pasteurs réformés, exilé peu avant la révocation de l’édit de Nantes, Pierre Bayle passa une grande partie de sa vie à Rotterdam, d’où il communiquait avec les philosophes et savants de toute l’Europe. Créateur d’un des premiers périodiques de critique littéraire, historique, philosophique et théologique, les Nouvelles de la république des lettres, il a défini une nouvelle conception de la liberté de conscience fondée sur le rationalisme moral. Dans son œuvre majeure, le Dictionnaire historique et critique, il recueille mille détails sur les événements historiques et cherche à démontrer, dans les articles philosophiques, que la religion chrétienne est incompatible avec une argumentation rationnelle. Dans ses toutes dernières œuvres, la Continuation des pensées diverses et la Réponse aux questions d’un Provincial, il diffuse une version du spinozisme qui marquera tous les philosophes des Lumières. Bayle se représentait comme un simple citoyen de la République des Lettres et en est arrivé à incarner cet ‘Etat extrêmement libre’ où l’on ne reconnaît ‘que l’empire de la vérité et de la raison’. Il mourut, à l’âge de 59 ans, le 28 décembre 1706 vers 9 heures du matin, quasiment la plume à la main.


Lettre de Pierre Bayle à Hervé-Simon de Valhébert, écrite à Rotterdam le 22 octobre 1705.

Ce qui le marque au départ comme un marginal – l’éloignement du Carla des centres de la vie culturelle et la pauvreté de sa famille – nourrit une passion qui fait de lui un érudit aux lectures infinies, un lecteur critique hors pair, qui enregistre soigneusement, dans des recueils alphabétiques, toutes ses lectures et qui se plaît à affronter les récits, les interprétations et les systèmes philosophiques. Avec l’intelligence comme seule arme, il prend du recul par rapport aux controverses religieuses et aux débats philosophiques de son temps; il excelle à disséquer les systèmes philosophiques pour démontrer leurs conséquences absurdes: c’est un recul critique et souvent ironique qui fait de lui non pas un pyrrhonien mais un témoin privilégié de la crise qui marque son époque. Jacques Basnage décrit parfaitement sa passion philosophique:

‘Comme il s’était accoutumé à combattre les erreurs du vulgaire, il avait porté plus loin ce même esprit et un des plaisirs les plus doux qu’il goûtait était de faire sentir à une infinité de gens que les opinions qu’ils regardaient comme évidentes ne laissaient pas d’être environnées de difficultés insurmontables’ (Jacques Basnage au duc de Noailles, le 3 janvier 1707: Lettre 1743, Volume XIV).

Notre édition critique de sa vaste correspondance, qui comporte quinze volumes et près de de 1800 lettres échangées avec un très large cercle d’interlocuteurs, est désormais achevée. Le Volume XIV paraîtra en février 2017 et le Volume XV, comportant la bibliographie générale et l’index général des noms de personnes, paraîtra en été 2017.


Pierre Bayle is dead. Long live the Republic of Letters!

Born in Le Carla, a tiny village near Foix in the South of France, Pierre Bayle came from a family of Protestant ministers, and was exiled shortly before the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Consequently, he spent most of his life in Rotterdam, from where he corresponded with philosophers and scholars throughout Europe. He launched one of the first literary and philosophical periodicals, the Nouvelles de la république des lettres and defined a new conception of religious tolerance based on moral rationalism.


His most famous work, the monumental Dictionnaire historique et critique, contains detailed historical articles and others concerning philosophers, in which he sought to demonstrate that Christian doctrine is incompatible with rational argument. In his last works, the Continuation des pensées diverses and the Réponse aux questions d’un Provincial, he defined a version of Spinozism which greatly influenced Enlightenment philosophers. In his unassuming way, Bayle thought of himself as a simple citizen of the Republic of Letters and came to incarnate that ‘extremely free State’ in which no other law is recognised but ‘the rule of truth and right reason’. Bayle died at the age of 59 on the 28th December 1706 at about 9 a.m., virtually pen in hand.

The critical edition of his extensive correspondence, containing fifteen volumes and nearly 1800 letters exchanged with his vast network of friends and associates, is now complete. Volume XIV has just published (February 2017), and volume XV, containing the general index and bibliography, will publish in the summer of 2017.

– Antony McKenna


‘je jeterai mon bonet par-dessus les moulins’ – delving into the Correspondance de Mme de Graffigny


The Correspondance de Mme de Graffigny, now available as a 15-volume set, is a rich account of eighteenth-century life detailing court events and intrigues, financial and social manoeuvres, theatre and cultural life, publishing activity and censorship, and anecdotes about the famous and near-famous with whom Mme de Graffigny was acquainted. Increasingly, scholars are exploring the Correspondance for data on urban life, the growth of trade and the consumer society, the practices of medicine and surgery, and the dimensions of a woman’s life: her home, work and social spheres.

Basic descriptions of all 2518 letters are given in the online database Early Modern Letters Online, and a selection of excerpts can now be enjoyed on the Voltaire Foundation website. The cumulative index, an indispensable tool for delving into the Correspondance, is also available online at the University of Toronto’s French Department website. Drawing upon all 15 volumes, it covers the two decades of the eighteenth century (1738-1758) spanned by the Correspondance. It allows the reader to trace locutions, surnoms, the genesis of literary works, and the actions of individuals and families over that period of time. It incorporates all updates that have been made to individual volume indexes as new research has filled in the details, especially concerning lesser-known figures.

Since the publication of the first volume in 1985, reviewers and scholars, dialect specialists, theatre buffs and other readers have generously provided biographical information and clues to the bits of verse, satirical songs, punchlines, and quotations which make Mme de Graffigny’s letters delightful to read but challenging to edit. The editors are grateful for all such comments and we encourage readers to keep us informed about new discoveries.

‘Je jette mon bonnet par-dessus les moulins!’

‘Je jette mon bonnet par-dessus les moulins!’, Dictionnaire de Trévoux, 1743

When the editors realise that an expression used in the letters is an idiom, a locution, they can search for its definition in an eighteenth-century source, such as the Dictionnaire universel françois et latin, vulgairement appelé Dictionnaire de Trévoux (Paris, 1743). Thus, in September 1750, Mme de Graffigny, trying in vain to persuade her friend the actress Mlle Quinault that La Brioche, their early draft of La Fille d’Aristide, would not work, wrote: ‘Je ferai encore un effort aupres de Nicole pour la retenir et puis je jeterai mon bonet par-dessus les moulins’ (Letter 1599). In other words, it was all she could say or would say on the topic: ‘On dit ordinairement à la fin des contes et des fables que l’on fait aux enfans: “Je jettai mon bonnet par-dessus les moulins, et je ne sais ce que tout devint”: ce qui se dit, ou lorsqu’on ne sait plus que dire sur quelque sujet, ou lorsqu’on ne veut pas dire tout ce que l’on en sait’ (Trévoux).

‘Il n’y a personne au logis’

‘Il n’y a personne au logis’, Dictionnaire de Trévoux, 1743

On another occasion, Mme de Graffigny wrote about the unhappy situation of Charles de Lorraine, comte d’Armagnac: ‘Eh, le pauvre prince Charle, il n’y a presque plus personne au logis, et son encien mal au pied est revenus. […] Il n’est plus au nombre des vivans et n’y sera probablement bientot plus phisiquement’ (Letter 1639). She did not mean that he had no one to take care of him, but rather that he had become senile. The expression she used was well known at the time: ‘On dit: il n’y a personne au logis, d’un […] mourant, qui n’a plus de connoissance’ (Trévoux).

Dorothy P. Arthur and Diane Beelen Woody

Dorothy P. Arthur and Diane Beelen Woody, Graffigny Project office, University of Toronto

This rich index is being updated regularly as part of the ongoing work on Volume 16, a digital publication which will include corrections and additions to the print volumes, supplementary archival and manuscript materials, and new letters as they come to light. (English Showalter continues as general editor, and Dorothy P. Arthur is volume editor, aided by Diane Beelen Woody, Marion Filipiuk and Edward A. Heinemann, long-time members of the Toronto team.)

In April we spoke to CBC Radio One Fresh Air about the project and this week my colleague Diane Beelen Woody and I look forward to speaking about Mme de Graffigny’s use of codes and the art of writing under police surveillance at the upcoming meeting of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.

– Dorothy P. Arthur


A treasure revealed: Mme de Graffigny’s correspondence finally published after 250 years

Françoise de Graffigny

Françoise de Graffigny by Pierre-Augustin Clavareau. Lunéville, musée du château des Lumières. Photo: T. Franz, Conseil départemental 54.

On International Women’s Day, join us in celebrating the publication next month of the final volume of letters of pioneering writer and salon hostess, Madame de Graffigny. It will mark the completion of over 30 years of impeccable editing of La Correspondance de Mme de Graffigny and bring to a close the story of Mme de Graffigny’s lost papers which began over 250 years ago.

When Mme de Graffigny died on 12 December 1758, she was the world’s most famous living woman writer. Despite the failure of her last play, La Fille d’Aristide (1758), she was admired throughout Europe for her novel, Lettres d’une Péruvienne (1747), and her drama, Cénie (1750), both huge popular successes. The publication of volume 15 of Mme de Graffigny’s correspondence brings us to her death, and beyond. Her friends wrote the last letters in this volume, as they tried to preserve her glory for posterity by bringing out editions of her unpublished works and selected correspondence. They were not immediately successful, and the moment seems right to retrace the history of her papers.

Lettres d'une Péruvienne, title page

Title page of Lettres d’une Péruvienne (Paris, 1752). Image: BnF.

Mme de Graffigny’s will named as her executor Pierre Valleré, a lawyer and her lodger since 1743, acknowledging his extreme probity and expressing her confidence in him. Both in settling her estate and in protecting her reputation, he proved his devotion to her. The will directed that all her papers and manuscripts should go to her long-time friend and correspondent from Lorraine, François-Antoine Devaux. Valleré, however, could not deliver the legacy until the settlement of the estate, and Devaux did not actually receive it until 1771.

Meanwhile, Valleré and Jacques-Louis Desvoys, a distant kinsman of Mme de Graffigny and also her lodger and secretary in 1758, tried to secure her renown. Their effort to publish a genealogical obituary in the Mercure de France failed, because the materials sent from Lorraine lacked documentation. Valleré and others urged Devaux to write a biographical introduction for an edition of her works, but he demurred. The ‘Vie de Mme de Graffigny’ that appeared in 1760, prefacing a new edition of Lettres d’une Péruvienne, was written by a group of Parisian friends, including Charles Pinot Duclos, Jean Dromgold, and Claude Guimond de La Touche. Valleré approached the great Pigalle about sculpting a bust of Mme de Graffigny, but the price was excessive. In his own will, Valleré donated two portraits of Mme de Graffigny to the Bibliothèque royale.

By the time Devaux received the papers bequeathed to him, Mme de Graffigny’s reputation had already faded. Devaux apparently did nothing with the collection of papers he received, except to keep it intact and to add the quarter century of correspondence he already possessed. On his death in 1796, he left it to a friend, Mme Durival, who was even less prepared than Devaux to edit the papers. In 1806, the chevalier de Boufflers, home from the Emigration, heard about the papers, and borrowed Mme de Graffigny’s letters from Cirey – the thirty-odd letters written to Devaux between December 1738 and February 1739 while Mme de Graffigny stayed with Voltaire and Mme Du Châtelet en route to Paris. Boufflers allowed copies to be made; eventually several were in circulation. In 1820 one was published under the suggestive title, La Vie privée de Voltaire et de Mme Du Châtelet. From then on, Mme de Graffigny was notorious as the gossipy guest who had exposed Voltaire’s secrets.

Signature of Mme de Graffigny.

Signature of Mme de Graffigny.

Mme Durival died in 1819, leaving the papers to her adoptive children, whose family name was Noël. The family probably saw the publication as an opportunity to cash in on their bulky legacy, and put it on the market. So far, no document about the actual sale has been found. The Noël family legend, reported by the descendant Georges Noël in his 1913 biography of Mme de Graffigny, held that the papers were sold to a Russian, Count Orlov. Some of the papers were indeed sold to him, and are now in Moscow.

The English bibliophile, Sir Thomas Phillipps, however, acquired the major share. Unknown to the world at large, it remained in his collection until it was auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1965. Phillipps himself died in 1872, but the auction of his library continued until 2006. H. P. Kraus, a New York bookseller, bought most of the Graffigny papers. He donated most of them to Yale University in 1967, and later sold the rest to the Morgan Library in New York. The Bibliothèque nationale de France also purchased some lots.

J. Alan Dainard

J. Alan Dainard (1930-2014)

In 1975, at the suggestion of J. A. Dainard, an international group of scholars formed a team to edit the letters of Mme de Graffigny. From the project’s headquarters at the University of Toronto, Professor Dainard served as general editor until 2013, when ill health forced him to pass the responsibility to English Showalter. Now complete in fifteen volumes, containing 2518 letters, this correspondence has restored Mme de Graffigny to prominence among French Enlightenment writers. The letters themselves constitute an unusual masterpiece, written in a lively personal style, with a frank and intimate portrait of a woman and her society.

– English Showalter

Perfect correspondences

Enlightenment Correspondences, a two-day colloquium, took place last June at Ertegun House in Oxford. The organisers want to share a brief summary of the findings of a dream group of epistolary scholars as a thank you.

A group of participants at Ertegun House.

A group of participants at Ertegun House, June 2015.

Day One focused on the material aspects of epistolarity and infrastructure. If you wanted to know how much it cost to receive a letter; how many postal stations were on the map of France (or England); how the intra-urban post functioned (and why messengers were called ‘poulets’); how celebrities like Voltaire became so overwhelmed by a deluge of post they had to take out adverts in newspapers advising fans and readers please not to enter into correspondence – there was much to learn and enjoy in the papers and discussion.

Historian Laurence Brockliss brought real panache to a contrarian argument in focusing on a number of French provincial figures who demurred at the expense, labour and relative obscurity of letter-writing, in some instances preferring the essay and prize competition as ways of building a reputation.

The cost and procedures of writing, folding, sealing and posting letters earned a delightfully anecdotal but clear procedural exposition in Jay Caplan’s paper that dovetailed nicely with Nicholas Cronk’s fascinating analysis of how Voltaire’s many thousands of letters (over 16,000) eventually became collected into a corpus posthumously shaped into one of the great correspondences of the age. The hand of the writer could be seen from time to time in certain stunts such as the cycle of letters Voltaire originally rewrote as an epistolary fiction (Paméla – revealingly edited by Jonathan Mallinson [1]) that were later mistakenly edited as real letters.


A letter from the Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alekseevna (the future Catherine II) to Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams (1756).

That creation of a corpus was the subject of a first presentation on Catherine the Great, hugely famous and yet as a letter-writer unknown because her correspondence has yet to be fully constructed. The launch of the Digital Correspondence of Catherine the Great Pilot Project, a British Academy/Leverhulme funded pilot created at Oxford, showed how vital a part Digital Humanities can play in expanding the empire of letters – and in this case that would mean making fully available and searchable about 5,000 letters written by Catherine. The subject of how much value recipients and Catherine herself attributed to her letters as tokens of esteem and marks of favour formed the topic of Kelsey Rubin-Detlev’s paper which illuminated the connections between letter-writing and gift-giving.

We enjoyed a spectacular treat thanks to the kind offices of Chris Fletcher and Mike Webb, who arranged a visit to one of the state of the art seminar rooms in the Weston Library. It was a real feast for the eye, and gratifying to see actual autograph letters of some of the writers discussed.

Questions about the utility of the private/public dichotomy and continuum provided one thread linking many papers, including the detailed examination by Andrew Jainchill of a small set of letters which Voltaire and the minister d’Argenson exchanged on the subject of politics, protection and war – issues of state policy on which d’Argenson’s seemingly subversive views required the forum of private letters in order to skirt the dangers of publicity. ‘Protection’ opened up a rewarding discussion on the differences from patronage and letter-writing as a sketchbook of radical ideas. This looked ahead to the riveting discussion by Lauren Clay on the eleven chambres de commerce which, during the revolutionary period, lobbied politicians and the Estates General very hard on behalf of business by concerted campaigns of letter-writing, designed to show that their commercial interests did not pit them against the ideals of the Revolution.

This stream of pragmatic correspondence seemed a world apart from the high-minded philosophical letters published in Berlin by Moses Mendelssohn and Thomas Abbt. As Avi Lifschitz showed, these letters, with a certain nod to Socratic dialogue, refashioned in letter form investigations into sometimes highly metaphysical questions of religion and ethics. Isabel Matthews-Schlinzig’s touchingly illustrated exploration of the Herder family focused not on the great philosopher himself but rather on preserved copies of letters by one of his sons – epistolary ‘home movies’ as it were, that taught us a great deal about the practice of Bildung and the construction of childhood.

Madame de Sévigné was seemingly born to be a great letter-writer, and Wilda Anderson’s fascinating paper explored the discourse of race in her writings (ramifying out into examples from Racine’s tragedy) as an expression of an aristocratic ethos that carries a nearly biological imperative to write well.

Clare Brant offered a marvelous reconsideration of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s account of her visit to the Turkish baths, a favourite text in feminist, Orientalist and post-colonial readings. Clare’s reading stripped away that layer of varnish in order to refocus on the visual clues and references contained in the text, and she showed how signals that might have looked clear to Montagu’s readers seem to have got lost in a fog of lit. crit. preoccupied with voyeurism and theories of the gaze.

With a similar attentiveness to actual words and personal affinities, Pamela Clemit took us into the world of the Godwin-Shelley circle, decoding salutations, signatures, the order of letters in a sequence and, above all, the emotional expectations recipients had of letter-writers. A century or so earlier, the readers of classic and minor Restoration and eighteenth-century fictions, starting with Aphra Behn and Haywood and going on to Richardson and Fielding, would have found many letters in the stories of novels. Eve Bannet’s delightful and careful teasing out of the texture and viewpoints of narrative voices showed us how the cleverest of novelists possibly set up careless readers who might be gulled into taking the writers of these embedded letters at their own words.

Correspondences scholars at the Weston Library, June 2015.

Correspondences scholars at the Weston Library, June 2015.

Sociability is a key Enlightenment virtue, and on this occasion rarely felt more natural as academic events go. Scholars of literature and history shared a common approach and there was a welcome ease of exchange. Historians did close reading and literature scholars historicised and contextualised. Both methods are now second nature in both disciplines. Letter-writing seems to be a cross-section of every possible Enlightenment activity, and to crystallise the whole complex of factors that make its European manifestation so dynamic. Whether lobbying, emoting, protecting, publicising, celebrating, philosophising, retiring, ironising, commanding, educating or entertaining – nobody could really do without pen and paper in a great age of letter-writing.

– Andrew Kahn

See also: The Letter: Purloined and Printed, Anonymous and Edited.

[1] Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation), vol.45c (2010).

Correspondence of Enlightenment thinker reaches its 10th volume

Laurent Angliviel de La Beaumelle, portrait by Engelmann

Laurent Angliviel de La Beaumelle, portrait by Engelmann

From his childhood in the rural region of Cévennes in south-central France, La Beaumelle became one of the great eighteenth-century polymaths, and his career took him as far afield as Geneva, Copenhagen, Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam. During his lifetime he distinguished himself as a translator of Horace and Tacitus; he was also an author, a journalist, a historian, and the editor of Mme de Maintenon’s Mémoires. He was a champion of tolerance and one of Calas’ foremost defenders, as well as a polemicist dreaded by Voltaire for his sharp critical eye and clever pen. He was, strikingly, the only Huguenot man of letters at the time.

His Correspondance générale de La Beaumelle, edited by Hubert Bost, Claude Lauriol and Hubert Angliviel de La Beaumelle, bears witness to contemporary social events and intellectual developments in politics, literature, philosophy, history and religion.

The 10th volume of a projected eighteen-volume edition will publish soon, and follows the turbulent period of February to December 1756. At the beginning of 1756 La Beaumelle was in Amsterdam, a city that allowed him the freedom – unlike Paris – to publish the Mémoires de Maintenon. In early March he returned to Paris, having been granted permission to distribute subscribers’ copies of the first edition of the Mémoires, and, crucially, assured beforehand of his personal security.

At the Prix de la Fondation Edouard Bonnefous prize-giving ceremony, 2 December 2013.

At the Prix de la Fondation Edouard Bonnefous prize-giving ceremony, 2 December 2013. From left to right: Hubert Angliviel de La Beaumelle, Claude Lauriol, Hubert Bost.

After arranging the distribution of the second edition and obtaining oral permission to write a third, La Beaumelle was dealt a severe blow: he was arrested and placed in the Bastille. The charge? Writing a passage that offended the Viennese court, a passage suspected to have been brought to the attention of the authorities by Voltaire. His imprisonment was not one of shackles and locked cells, however, as La Beaumelle was free to take daily strolls, and to receive books and letters as well as visitors. Though officially pardoned in October 1756, La Beaumelle was still in prison at end of the year, waiting for the requisite release documentation.

When the Correspondance générale de La Beaumelle was awarded the prestigious the 2013 Prix de la Fondation Edouard Bonnefous de l’Institut de France, on the recommendation of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques, it was a mark of recognition of the editors’ momentous work in bringing to light the rich correspondence of this Enlightenment figure.

At the Prix de la Fondation Edouard Bonnefous prize-giving ceremony, 2 December 2013.

At the Prix de la Fondation Edouard Bonnefous prize-giving ceremony, 2 December 2013.

The Voltaire Foundation is enormously proud to publish this towering work of scholarship, and we congratulate our editors, Hubert Bost, Claude Lauriol and Hubert Angliviel de La Beaumelle, for their sustained and meticulous work.

– LR