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

L’Autoédition: phénomène récent depuis le XVIIIe siècle

Saury

Saury, Des moyens que la saine médecine peut employer pour multiplier un sexe plutôt que l’autre (Paris, l’auteur, 1779)

L’automne dernier, les auteures à succès Arlette Cousture et Marie Laberge ont semé l’émoi dans la communauté du livre au Québec en décidant de tourner le dos à leurs éditeurs et de publier à leur compte, directement sur leur site internet personnel. Pour les libraires, il s’agissait ni plus ni moins qu’une véritable ‘trahison’ de la part de ces deux romancières.

Cette récente controverse ainsi que l’omniprésence des médias numériques qui chamboulent depuis quelques années les circuits habituels de l’édition nous amènent à nous questionner sur les rôles culturels, professionnels et commerciaux que jouent les auteurs, les éditeurs et les libraires dans la société. Si ce débat refait particulièrement surface alors qu’un nombre croissant d’auteurs s’autoéditent un peu partout dans le monde, il n’est pourtant pas nouveau!

Déjà en 1759, Malesherbes, alors Directeur de la librairie, déclare que, contrairement à la loi qui dicte alors que seuls les libraires ont le droit en France de vendre des livres, ‘Ce sont les auteurs, qui, suivant le droit naturel, devraient tirer tout le profit de leurs ouvrages, en ayant la faculté de les vendre eux-mêmes.’ D’ailleurs, comme le demande Arlette Cousture dans une entrevue accordée à Radio-Canada, pourquoi devrait-il être honteux pour un auteur de vouloir maximiser les revenus de l’écriture, de garder la mainmise sur l’édition et la diffusion de ses œuvres?

Felton-bookcoverAu XVIIIe siècle, dans la foulée du procès qui oppose la communauté des libraires de Paris et Luneau de Boisjermain, accusé de vendre ses propres livres en 1768, Diderot se demande également: ‘N’est-il pas bien étrange que j’aie travaillé trente ans pour les associés de l’Encyclopédie; que ma vie soit passée, qu’il leur reste deux millions, et que je n’aie pas un sol?’

Dans mon livre Maîtres de leurs ouvrages: l’édition à compte d’auteur à Paris au XVIIIe siècle, on découvre que ce sont des centaines d’auteurs qui, déjà au siècle des lumières, ‘s’autoéditent’. Profitant particulièrement de la nouvelle loi qui permet aux auteurs de vendre leurs ouvrages en toute liberté dès 1777, un nombre jusqu’ici insoupçonné d’écrivains de toutes sortes publient à leurs dépens de façon à conserver les droits de leurs œuvres et de les vendre directement aux lecteurs, ‘À Paris, Chez l’Auteur’. Malgré tous les risques et les défis qu’une telle entreprise comporte alors, le jeu n’en valait-il pas la chandelle?

La Beaumelle title page

La Beaumelle, Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de Madame de Maintenon (Amsterdam, l’auteur, 1755).

Dans une lettre qu’il adresse à son frère, Laurent Angliviel de La Beaumelle, qui édite quelques ouvrages à son compte, écrit: ‘Mon édition de Maintenon m’a endetté jusqu’aux oreilles; je n’ai pas le sou […] mais si Maintenon réussit, je ne serai point mal. […] Vous me grondez d’avoir fait imprimer à mes dépens: jusqu’ici je m’en suis bien trouvé, & qui m’auroit payé mon manuscrit? on ne m’en auroit pas donné 400 L.’

–Marie-Claude Felton

The Letter: Purloined and Printed, Anonymous and Edited

Oxford, United Kingdom

3 February 2014

À mes très chères lectrices et très chers lecteurs,

What are the ethics of writing, answering, and editing letters? Without aiming to rival Lacan, much less Poe, I too will start my story with a purloined letter, or rather with some purportedly purloined letters.

LaBeaumelle_croppedIn late 1752 Voltaire began a many-year quarrel with Laurent Angliviel de La Beaumelle (the ongoing VF edition of whose correspondence has just received the prestigious Prix Edouard Bonnefous). Seeking to discredit the man who had dared to reprint the Siècle de Louis XIV supplemented with extremely critical footnotes, Voltaire’s best weapon was to accuse La Beaumelle of stealing the letters of Mme de Maintenon, which La Beaumelle had published the very same year and which constitute a key source for anyone writing a history of the Sun King. Voltaire used his own letters to spread the rumour, gradually working out the story of how the letters passed from Mme de Maintenon to her nephew-in-law, the maréchal de Noailles, then to his secretary, who lent them to one of the king’s squires, who passed them on to Louis Racine (son of the famous dramatist), from whose mantelpiece, Voltaire claimed, La Beaumelle stole them. Even as he condemned what he viewed as La Beaumelle’s shady practices in acquiring, publishing, and interpreting the letters, Voltaire nonetheless did not hesitate to seek out future volumes as a source.

Already a master in the art of the polemical printed letter from his Lettres philosophiques (1734) to his printing of the letters of the Calas family (as a means of defending them before the public, 1762, as discussed in volume 56B of the Complete Works of Voltaire), Voltaire returned to the charge against La Beaumelle in 1767 with a published Lettre de Monsieur de Voltaire. Signing this polemical piece in epistolary form but addressing it to no one in particular, Voltaire opened with the belligerent declaration that he had passed on to the police the 95th letter he had received from an anonymous correspondent, since ‘every writer of anonymous letters is a coward and a rogue’. Voltaire thus staked out another tenuous position on the ever-slippery slope of eighteenth-century epistolary conduct: while his (fictional) correspondent broke the rules by sending an anonymous (i.e. unsigned) denunciatory missive, Voltaire not only denounced the correspondent to the authorities, but also rendered his own reply even more anonymous, in the sense that thousands of anonymous members of the public were to read it.

Cowards and rogues were not the only authors of unsigned letters, though: on 2 March 1791, Rosalie de Constant, a Swiss naturalist and illustrator, wrote an anonymous letter of admiration to the renowned author Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. When he too employed the media of print (posting a reply to his unknown correspondent in the Journal de Lausanne) and of epistolary guesswork (writing a reply to the wrong woman, mistaking her for the author of the initial missive), Rosalie de Constant wrote again, begging him to burn both her letters. Luckily, he did not: they struck up an ephemeral but artful correspondence, focused on their shared love of nature and on the ethical questions of whether a young lady can write a letter to a published author and whether he may reveal her secret in printed or manuscript letters (to read more, have a look at the born-digital edition of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s correspondence on Electronic Enlightenment).

Kennedy_letterNowadays, we have more than just manuscript and print media for publicizing and exploring epistolary commerce, but we face related questions: even if we generally agree that letters from the past should be made available to present and future readers, how can we best edit, present, read, analyse, and write about them? With a recent resurgence of interest in correspondences, not just as historical but also as literary objects of study, many excellent print and digital editions of eighteenth-century letters have been appearing.

Even in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, these editions have generated new letters: when the VF’s founder Theodore Besterman sent President Kennedy the first edition of Voltaire’s correspondence (the definitive edition of which has just been made available in a new reprint), he received a personal epistolary reply, in which the president declared it was an ‘extraordinary scholarly achievement’ and ‘an outstanding example of good book making’.

Looking to the future, UCL’s Centre for Editing Lives and Letters explores standards and possibilities for using new technologies to study early-modern letters, while, here in Oxford, the TORCH Enlightenment Correspondences Network will be holding its first meeting on 24 February to discuss, alongside plans for a year-long series of conversations about Enlightenment letters, a current print edition of William Godwin’s letters and a pilot project for a digital correspondence of Catherine the Great of Russia. Do drop us a line and join the conversation!

J’ai l’honneur d’être, avec la plus haute estime,

votre très humble servante,

Kelsey Rubin-Detlev