The Battle of Fontenoy: a literary afterlife

The Battle of Fontenoy took place 275 years ago today, on 11 May 1745, near the city of Tournai, then in the Austrian Netherlands. The Maréchal de Saxe led French forces to victory against an allied Anglo-Dutch-Hanoverian army, led by Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, who had been sent to relieve Tournai from French siege. The French were in a strong defensive position; initial frontal attacks by Cumberland’s troops proved unsuccessful, and the Anglo-Hanoverian infantry were eventually driven back by the French cavalry, artillery, and the Irish Brigade, who were serving under French command. According to Voltaire, the battle saw the death of 5339 Frenchmen, although his Scottish contemporary Tobias Smollett puts the number closer to 12,000 dead on either side.

the Battle of Fontenoy

Vue de la Bataille de Fontenoy gagnée par le Roi Louis XV sur l’armée des alliés le XI mai 1745. Engraving by S. Guélard, drawing by J.B. Brouard. (BnF/Gallica)

Following the French victory at Fontenoy, Saxe and his forces continued their advance through the Austrian Netherlands, pushing back British, Dutch, and Austrian troops over the course of the following few months. Although the Austrian Netherlands were soon returned to the Habsburgs in 1748, following the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, the Battle of Fontenoy nonetheless represented a great victory on the part of France and of Louis XV.

Like all great battles, Fontenoy saw a significant literary afterlife, both in the years immediately following the battle, and well after it had passed from living memory. It boasts a number of fictional heroes among its veterans. Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste is perhaps the most memorable example: ‘Un régiment passait pour aller au Camp devant Fontenoy; de dépit je m’enrôle. Nous arrivons; la bataille se donne.’ A century later, in Treasure Island, we learn that Dr Livesey was among the British soldiers Jacques faced: ‘I have served his Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland, and got a wound myself at Fontenoy.’

The battle lingered and lingers on in Irish literary memory, too; the late nineteenth-century poet Emily Lawless wrote Fontenoy, 1745 from the perspective of the Irish soldiers who fought and died alongside the French. It begins:

Oh, bad the march, the weary march, beneath these alien skies,
But good the night, the friendly night, that soothes our tired eyes.
And bad the war, the tedious war, that keeps us sweltering here,
But good the hour, the friendly hour, that brings the battle near.
That brings us on to battle, that summons to their share
The homeless troops, the banished men, the exiled sons of Clare.

Voltaire, who was at the time of the battle historiographe de France, produced two literary accounts of the French victory: the Poème de Fontenoy (OCV, vol.28B, p.255-402), and two dedicated chapters in the second volume of the Précis du siècle de Louis XV (OCVvol.29B, now published). Although ultimately a detailed and well-researched account, the chapters dedicated to Fontenoy in the Précis are not without dramatic embroidery and flourish, as we might expect from Voltaire. While Saxe is given the praise he is due, Voltaire opens by centering Louis XV as the hero of the narrative, raising morale – ‘Toute l’armée en voyant le roi et le dauphin, fit entendre des acclamations de joie’ – and showing valour and bravery in entering the fray: ‘Le roi ne voulut avoir pour sa garde qu’un escadron de cent vingt hommes de la compagnie de Charost, un seul gendarme, un chevau léger, un mousquetaire.’

Similarly, Voltaire’s use of direct speech produces a more dramatic and engaging narrative, although sometimes at the cost of the impression of total historical faithfulness; he writes, for example: ‘les Irlandais leur crièrent “Vive France”; mais dans le tumulte on n’entendait rien.’ Although effective in bringing home a striking image of the passion of the Irish soldiers in battle and the overwhelming clamour of war, it does beg the question as to how any source might have heard this battle-cry if it were indeed completely obscured by the surrounding noise.

the Battle of Fontenoy

A nineteenth-century depiction of Voltaire’s anecdote by French military painter Jean-Baptiste Édouard Detaille.

Perhaps the most famous moment of dramatic flair in Voltaire’s account, however, is an anecdote in which the British Lord Charles Hay, turning with his infantrymen to face the French troops, invites them to fire first; there ensues a brief, polite exchange of ‘after you’, ‘no, no, I insist, after you’:

Le comte de Chabannes, le duc de Biron qui s’étaient avancés et tous les officiers des gardes francaises leur rendirent le salut. Milord Charles Hay capitaine aux gardes anglaises cria: ‘Messieurs des gardes françaises, tirez.’ Le comte d’Auteroche, alors lieutenant des grenadiers et depuis capitaine, leur dit à voix haute: ‘Messieurs, nous ne tirons jamais les premiers, tirez vous-mêmes.’ Alors le capitaine anglais dit aux siens, ‘Give fire, gentlemen. Faites feu, Messieurs.’

The truth of this moment of etiquette in the heat of battle is hard to verify. Voltaire seems to be the first to publish this anecdote, which means either that he heard it from an oral source, or that it is the product of a dramatic embellishment. Regardless, it makes for an interesting and engaging story, which probably accounts for its widespread presence in subsequent literature on the battle.

Voltaire’s presentation of Fontenoy as a personal victory for Louis XV, and his dramatic, detailed account of the French victory, are no doubt in part motivated by the patriotic demands of the role of historiographe de France and a personal desire to win favour at court. The French victory at Fontenoy, and the celebratory literature produced around it, cemented it as an important moment in the history of the country, and indeed of Europe.

– Josie Dyster

The triumph of truth

In my work on the digital Voltaire iconography database, I frequently stumble across portraits of Voltaire which are particularly unexpected, funny, or have an interesting story to them. Sir Joshua Reynolds’ The Triumph of Truth, which hangs in Marischal College, Aberdeen, is a personal favourite.

The Triumph of Truth is a portrait of James Beattie (1735–1803), a Scottish poet, philosopher, and Professor of Moral Philosophy. The book under his left arm, entitled ‘Truth’, and the title of the painting both refer to the Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, which Beattie published in 1770. It was well received, earning Beattie both a royal pension and an honorary doctorate in law from the University of Oxford.

James Beattie, by Joshua Reynolds

Dr James Beattie (1735-1803), by Sir Joshua Reynolds. (University of Aberdeen)

Although Beattie is rather splendid in his new doctoral robes, what draws our eye is the glowing Angel of Truth striking down three grotesque, dishevelled figures in the background. It is a powerful image and strong statement; Beattie’s thought becomes a superhuman, heavenly force, striking down the enemies of truth and faith. But who are these three villains? Beattie claimed they represented Prejudice, Scepticism, and Folly – and yet, the central figure of the three seems too familiar to be mere allegory. His chin and arms may be a little strong, but his sharp eyes and wry smirk hint at his true identity. On 22 February 1774 Reynolds wrote to Beattie, explaining:

‘there is only a figure covering his face with his hands which they may call Hume, or anybody else; it is true it has a tolerable broad back. As for Voltaire, I intended he should be one of the group.’

It is, then, Voltaire who is being struck down by the angel. This comes as no real surprise; Beattie’s Essay on Truth was heavily critical of both Hume and Voltaire, writing of Voltaire:

‘He has dwindled from a genius of no common magnitude into a paltry book-maker; and now thinks he does great and terrible things, by retailing the crude and long exploded notions of the freethinkers of the last age […] as nothing but the monstrous maw of an illiterate infidel can either digest or endure.’

Beattie was criticised during his career for ad hominem attacks of his opponents; Reynolds’ rather unflattering depictions of Voltaire and Hume with his ‘broad back’ are extensions of that. Beattie’s most unflattering portrait of Voltaire, however, is not to be found on canvas, but in a manuscript.

In the late 1760s, Beattie wrote The Castle of Scepticism, a prose allegory against Voltaire and Hume. Although not published in Beattie’s lifetime, it was circulated privately among British men and women of letters. It is a dream narrative; Beattie falls asleep while reading ‘one of the volumes of Mr Hume’s excellent Essays’ and enters a place known as The Land of Truth. Here he meets a series of increasingly silly and arrogant characters (among them ‘the Earl of Sneer’ and ‘lord viscount Bigwords’, who can be identified as the Earl of Shaftesbury and Viscount Bolingbroke respectively), who sacrifice Common Sense at the Temples of Ignorance, Self-Conceit, Fashion, Licentiousness, Ambition, and Hypothesis, and blindly follow the ‘Great Oracle’ (Hume) and ‘the Orator’ (Voltaire).

Beattie’s Voltaire is ‘a lean little old man, with his face screwed into a strange sarcastic grin’. He does not make the best first impression:

‘“Sir,” replied he, his eye glistening with inexpressible rage and disdain, “my name is Voltaire – you must have heard of me, I suppose; blockhead as you are, you must have heard of the greatest genius that ever appeared upon earth.”’

Despite this overwhelming braggadocio, Beattie’s Voltaire is surrounded by an army of followers, clamouring to hear what he has to say. He recites Candide to the waiting crowd:

‘Here he began a very tedious tale, where it seemed hard to determine, whether obscenity or blasphemy, whether absurd fiction or bad composition, was most prevalent. The audience laughed often, and the speaker almost continually.’

Beattie, unimpressed, soon leaves Voltaire and continues his journey; despite being waylaid by various unsavoury types, not least of all a blunderbuss-wielding Thomas Hobbes, he eventually makes it back to the waking world unscathed.

Beattie’s portrait of Voltaire is, much like Reynolds’, exaggerated and grotesque – yet it is all the more recognisable for it, even (or perhaps particularly) to Voltaire’s supporters. Beattie’s condemnation of Voltaire as an arrogant man, laughing at his own jokes, although critical, may still draw a smile from those who enjoy his work; a keen reader of Candide can certainly imagine a playful author chuckling to himself as he heaps increasingly implausible miseries upon his characters. His lean frame, glistening eyes and sarcastic grin are also instantly recognisable to both supporters and critics; even in his youth, Voltaire describes himself as ‘maigre, long, sec et décharné’ (summer 1716, D37), while Bernstorff’s impression of an older Voltaire is almost identical to Beattie’s: ‘La vivacité de ses yeux et son souris [sic] malin m’ont frappé’ (24 April 1755, D6253).

These same features – bright eyes, wry smile, a biting sense of humour – seem to crop up again in both written and visual portraits of Voltaire, not just in the flattering, even reverent works of the likes of La Tour and Pigalle, but in the satirising depictions of critics like Reynolds, Beattie, and Gillray. It is this that makes Beattie and Reynolds’ depictions of Voltaire, like many critical portraits of Voltaire, so interesting and so familiar; these recurring traits of intelligence, sarcasm, and sharp wit, acknowledged by Voltairophiles and Voltairophobes alike, begin to hint at a consistent thread of character and of physiognomy which can be identified across the depth and breadth of his iconography.

Josie Dyster, Research Assistant, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford

(Josie is a research assistant in the Digital Enlightenment. She is currently building on existing research by Professor Samuel Taylor (St Andrews) to create a digital Voltaire iconography database.)