Digitising the margins: a classification of Voltaire’s scribbles

The most famous squiggly lines relating to eighteenth-century writing are almost certainly to be found in Tristram Shandy. Sterne uses them to illustrate the non-linearity of stories (see about halfway down that page) and digressions from the main narrative, before reviving the device several volumes later to render graphically for his readers the movement of the stick brandished by the character Trim. But these squiggles from 1761-1762 are far from alone. Both before and after Sterne’s foray into wiggly line design, Voltaire was peppering the margins of his books with marginalia, which involved both verbal and non-verbal elements – that is, words and squiggles.

When a team of Russian scholars began to publish the marginalia from his library in the 1970s in the Corpus des notes marginales de Voltaire, they decided that a facsimile edition would be both too expensive and not sufficiently clear to read. They settled on a compromise editorial policy, which entailed transcribing Voltaire’s words and reproducing graphically any accompanying marks and lines (usually made in ink or lead pencil, but also comprising scratches or indentations in the paper, for example crosses scored with the thumb-nail). When the edition passed to the Voltaire Foundation, we adhered to the same principles for the remaining volumes, much to the chagrin of our typesetter, who nevertheless heroically drew hundreds of scribbles electronically to incorporate into the typeset file.

Vauvenargues, p.90; OCV, vol.145, p.484.

The example above and those that follow are from books that Voltaire annotated with the intent of returning them to their authors with suggestions for improvement. In principle this should mean a greater likelihood that any shapes drawn should be intelligible and contribute to the meaning of the verbal marginalia. Indeed, in the first case, in a copy of Vauvenargues’s Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, we can see that the vertical wavy line in the margin brackets the passage generally, and is connected with the note ‘peu déve / lop[p]é’ (poorly developed), while the second + sign links ‘sage’ in the printed text to ‘fort’ in the margin, indicating that rather than referring to a wise person, the author should be talking about a strong person (in opposition to the weak person indicated by the first + sign higher up).

Vauvenargues, p.48; OCV, vol.145, p.477.

Here Voltaire uses + signs again to flag the word ‘dans’ twice at the top of the page, and indicates by the curved line and a further ‘dans’ in the margin that Vauvenargues should be consistent in beginning each in the series of adverbial clauses with the same preposition. At the beginning of the new section lower down, he uses a sort of Greek gamma in the margin to show that an insertion should be made. All very clear for the addressee of the annotations. And between those two? The squiggly line in the margin is hard to interpret and may simply bear testament to his reading: did he stumble on this passage? Did he dislike it? Perhaps he wanted to write a criticism or a suggestion but couldn’t decide on what to say. At any rate, the squiggle draws our eye, nearly 300 years after it was penned, to a passage to which Voltaire must also have paid particular attention.

Frederick, p.122; OCV, vol.145, p.156.

This final example is a bit different insofar as it is not actually in Voltaire’s hand, but is a careful copy made of an original that was subsequently destroyed in the bombing of Berlin during the Second World War. Slanted crosses, several with double verticals (reminiscent of the letter H), indicate lines of verse by Frederick, king of Prussia, with which Voltaire, preeminent poet of his day, was unhappy and which are commented in the margins. The ‘gamma’ again probably draws the king’s attention to the replacement word written over the line. Here, the limits of the typeset page become apparent as the slashing lines and crosses come so thick and fast that it becomes difficult to fit them all in. An apparatus of notes at the bottom of the page helps, but the effect at first glance is really not quite the same.

Digitising these volumes, as part the Voltaire Foundation’s new initiative Digital Enlightenment, poses new challenges, but can it also bring new solutions? On first analysis the infinitely flexible nature of Voltaire’s squiggles seems to be at odds with the ordered discipline inherent in our approach to digitising the Œuvres complètes. We soon decided that we were not going to scan every mark in the source volume and virtually paste it into the digital text – not only would madness likely that way lie, but also considerable expense, and it would be a distinctly inelegant way of solving the problem. The more you look at the corpus of squiggles, however, the more you see that although in strict terms you have a very large number of different marks, you have a much smaller number of different types of mark, and if we can successfully classify and label those types, we can use that classification and those labels when we digitise the content. Instead of the data saying ‘here’s a picture of a squiggle’, it will instead say ‘at this point there’s a mark of type X.’

How, then, to classify these marks? If you think of what makes up a mark or a squiggle, it will be one or more line-type marks, and where there is more than one line-type mark, they may meet or cross each other at a particular point. We call the line-type marks edges, and the points where they meet or cross nodes, and if you count the number of edges and nodes you find you have a ready-made way of classifying – and even sorting – your squiggles. For example:


has one edge, and no nodes:


has two edges, but still no nodes, and:

has one edge and one node. If we turn these counts into parts of a label (e.g. n0e1) we can start to distil order out of infinite variety, and we can pretty soon have an easy lookup for our digitisers to use:

There is, of course, a degree of discretion involved here in grouping marks according to type – there is a slanted line 10º from the vertical and another 10º from the horizontal, but what if we find a line precisely 45º from both? Or a vertical line that wiggles not once or twice but… seven times? Well, we may then need to add a shape and a code, but the method allows that, and if there’s one thing this digitisation exercise has taught us, it’s that until you’ve marked up the final full stop, novelty may at any time appear before you. Expect, and accommodate, the unexpected.

Using this method, we will be able to allow readers to search for particular marks. Or, more correctly, for particular classifications of marks, e.g. for ‘a straight line slanting from bottom left to top right at an angle of inclination less than 45º from the horizontal’ rather than for a specific slanting line. But the classification should be sufficiently specific that a reader encountering a mark in one text, and wondering where else Voltaire has used it, should be able to see the other relevant instances.

How will we deal with squiggles that defy classification? We defy squiggles to defy this classification! Time will, of course, tell, but we’re confident that we can accommodate anything that Voltaire felt necessary to add to the texts he was reading, blissfully unaware of the coding system that awaited his scribbles.

– Gillian Pink and Dan Barker, dancan Ltd


Gillian Pink at the Voltaire Foundation: thirteen years and counting

As we approach the completion of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, I sat down with team co-ordinator Gillian Pink to find out more about how joining the editorial team led to becoming a researcher in her own right.

Gillian Pink and Birgit Mikus

Gillian Pink and Birgit Mikus.

You are one of the research editors working on the critical edition, a huge task. How did you come to work for the VF? Did you start editing OCV immediately?

I came to the VF almost by accident. I was studying for an MA in Publishing at Oxford Brookes University and Clare Fletcher, who was responsible for work placements on the MA, also did marketing here. She took one look at my CV – which at that point included work on a critical edition of an eighteenth-century sequel to Candide – and said ‘I think I know someone who would be very interested in this CV!’ That person turned out to be Janet Godden.

I arrived at 99 Banbury Road one afternoon in January 2007 for what I think I expected to be an interview, and was put to work straight away collating variants for Le Pyrrhonisme de l’histoire [since published in OCV, vol.67]. The rest, as they say… I did work briefly on Electronic Enlightenment before I started my full time employment on OCV in the autumn of that year, so an early introduction to digital editing, checking instances of words using non-Latin alphabets, as well as certain types of metadata.

So you have been at the VF for thirteen years – how many volumes have you worked on? Do you have a favourite text or volume?

Oh my! How many volumes… Taking a quick look at the shelves… twenty-five, perhaps, depending on your definition of ‘worked on’, and there are still a few more to go too. I don’t know if I have a single all-time favourite, but many favourites, which tend to be the ones I’ve contributed to as an author, rather than only as an in-house editor.

Questions sur l'Encyclopédie

The complete set of Questions sur l’Encyclopédie on the VF bookshelf.

One of my favourite Voltaire texts, I suppose, would have to be the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, a glorious collection of mostly short articles summing up his thoughts on just about every topic under the sun as he approached the end of his life. I had some involvement with all of the eight volumes that make up the set in OCV, was lead in-house editor on six of those and annotated articles in four. Last year, along with the general editors Nicholas Cronk and Christiane Mervaud, we published a version of this text for a wider readership with Robert Laffont. But I also love the very humorous poem ‘Le Pauvre Diable’ that I edited in volume 51A, and of course the notebook fragments just published in the latest volume, 84, and the marginalia in volumes 136-145 are close to my heart and research interests as well…

Tell me more about the marginalia, please! What is your research interest in them?

If you had told me when I first joined the VF that a few years down the line I’d have completed a D.Phil. and become an expert on Voltaire’s marginalia, I’d have found it quite hard to believe. As you may know, the project of publishing Voltaire’s marginal notes was begun by colleagues in St Petersburg at the National Library of Russia, but after the Berlin wall came down, their publisher, Akademie Verlag, went through a period of upheaval and the project stalled. The VF picked it up and incorporated it (quite rightly) into OCV.

But the lady in St Petersburg who had been writing all the editorial notes had sadly died before she got to the final volume, so it was suggested that I might like to take this on as a doctoral project. In the end, I did a more typical thesis, while the annotation ended up being a separate project. Until then, while the marginalia had been studied to some degree, by far most of the articles published looked at Voltaire as a reader of a particular author. There was no proper study at that point looking at the marginalia as an ensemble, as a genre, looking for patterns in what we present as a corpus, although of course it wasn’t conceived as a corpus by Voltaire at all – rather like his correspondence in that way. And I was lucky to have an excellent supervisor in Nicholas [Cronk]. The result of all this was my book, Voltaire à l’ouvrage (Voltaire at work), which came out – nearly two years ago already!

Since then I played a leading role in bringing out a final volume of Voltaire’s marginalia in OCV, based on an even more disparate corpus, which is to say those books and manuscripts that for various reasons are not part of his library in St Petersburg, and so were not part of the original Russian project. While I still find marginalia fascinating for the direct insights they provide into readers’ responses to books (although they can’t always be taken completely at face value), I’m now extending this interest to reading notes in a broader sense, and Voltaire’s notebooks are a wonderfully challenging mix of reading notes, ideas of various sorts, and jottings that probably reflected snippets that he gleaned from oral sources.

We all know that the paper publication of OCV is nearing its completion this year. Do you have a new project lined up, for example regarding Voltaire’s notebooks you mentioned?

You’re quite right to ask. I do have several research ideas concerning the notebooks. I can’t go into too much detail because a couple of them need to be finalised with publishers and/or other colleagues, but I think there is much to be done in this area.

I’ll be talking about the notebooks at the annual ‘Journées Voltaire’ conference at the Sorbonne in June. I think the notebooks can be perceived as a bit ‘scary’, in part because of the wide variety of topics and the considerable lack of order within them, but also the fact that they were amongst the first volumes published in OCV. In those days scholarly practices didn’t demand the fuller sort of annotation that we tend to provide for readers nowadays, so Besterman’s notes are quite laconic and his perspective perhaps isn’t quite the one we would adopt these days either. For me, as someone whose approach tends to be based on material bibliography, I find it really helpful and revealing to look at the original manuscripts. Often, physical characteristics will strongly suggest – for example from the colour of the ink, the margins, the spacing – which sections were written at the same time, and so give a sense of which bits belong together or not. This is an area in which I hope our future digital edition of Voltaire’s complete works may build on the print and add real value, as there would be an opportunity to supplement the print transcription with digitised images.

Of course, the really interesting question to me is how Voltaire used his notebooks and other loose papers, how they were generated, and how they fed into his more public writings. I think there are still discoveries to be made in this area, and I’m lucky to be able to work with a great network of colleagues, from friends based in Voltaire’s library in St Petersburg, to digital humanities scholars at the Sorbonne and the University of Chicago, and research groups interested in textual genetics and the extract as a genre at ITEM [in Paris] and the IZEA [Halle, Germany]. So the future is full of exciting possibilities.

Birgit Mikus with Gillian Pink

How to tell a king he writes bad verse

Frederick II

The only portrait Frederick ever personally sat for (by Ziesenis, 1763).

In 1750, Voltaire travelled to the court of the Prussian king, Frederick II. There, one of his official duties would be to correct the king’s writings in French, in particular his poetry: to ‘bleach his dirty linen’, as Voltaire would later write in his epistolary half-fiction, Paméla, never published in his lifetime. However, at the outset, very willing, Voltaire wrote to the king around August of that year:

‘Si vous aimez des critiques libres, si vous souffrez des éloges sincères, si vous voulez perfectionner un ouvrage que vous seul dans l’Europe êtes capable de faire, votre majesté n’a qu’à ordonner à un solitaire de monter.
Ce solitaire est aux ordres de votre majesté pour toutte sa vie.’

The French poet knew how to be tactful, and though he sent back pages of corrections, he balanced them with flattery. Referring to Frederick’s Art de la guerre, he wrote the following summer: ‘Tout l’ouvrage est digne de vous, et quand je n’aurais fait le voyage que pour voir quelque chose d’aussi singulier, je ne devrais pas regretter ma patrie’. The corrected manuscript of l’Art de la guerre still exists and can be seen in Berlin at the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz. Unfortunately, the heavily marked up volumes of the king’s Poésies have disappeared, following the Allied bombing of the Monbijou Palace in Berlin during the Second World War. The latest volume of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire attempts to reconstruct those corrections, however, as part of its complement to the Russian-led publication of Voltaire’s marginalia, the Corpus des notes marginales, a final volume that assembles the known marginal notes housed outside the main collection of the writer’s library in the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg.

This volume, Notes et écrits marginaux conservés hors de la Bibliothèque nationale de Russie (OCV, vol.145), brings together a motley collection of such documents. Some, such as Frederick’s poetry, were intended for use by friends and were never part of Voltaire’s own collection. Another such case is that of the annotated copy of a work by Luc de Clapiers, marquis de Vauvenargues (also discussed by Sam Bailey), or the manuscript on the rights of French Protestants to marry by the future statesman Joseph-Marie Portalis. Other books, such as a volume of Rousseau’s Emile, or a volume of Le Vrai Sens du système de la nature, by pseudo-Helvétius, seem to have been distributed as gifts by Voltaire, and the notes within give hints of having been conceived for that very purpose. Others still may in fact have parted ways with Voltaire’s personal collection, either before it left France, or in Russia (two works, the first Fénelon’s Œuvres philosophiques, and the second an Essai général de tactique by Jacques-Antoine-Hippolyte, comte de Guibert, were borrowed from the Hermitage library by Tsar Alexander I, and never returned).

But the largest component of the lot remains Voltaire’s corrections and comments on Frederick’s poetry. Given the absence of the original volumes, it is gratifying to see how much it has been possible to reconstruct. Of the two printed volumes from 1750, a copy with notes turned up in Belgium in 1979 thanks to the Voltaire Foundation’s longstanding contributor Jeroom Vercruysse. It turned out to be very literally a copy, that is, a painstaking piece of work in which Voltaire’s corrections, including those to his own comments, were reproduced by hand. While they have every characteristic of Voltaire’s style, there might have been doubts about the authenticity of the notes, had a German scholar, Hans Droysen, not published a couple of photographs in 1904 that exactly match the text and layout of the Belgium copy.

Œuvres du philosophe de Sans-Souci, vol.3 (1750), p.250, with corrections in the hands of Voltaire and Frederick II (reproduced by Hans Droysen, ‘Friedrichs des Großen Druckerei im Berliner Schlosse’, Hohenzollern Jahrbuch 8, 1904, p.84).

Excitingly, one photograph shows a page with writing by both Voltaire and Frederick, thanks to which it was possible to tell which of the hand-copied notes were by which man, since the copyist went to the extreme of doing a passable imitation of the handwriting of each. But what of the second volume? In this case, another German scholar, Reinhold Koser, had published, two years after Droysen, a large number of Voltaire’s notes, though frustratingly in a thematic order of his own devising, and with precious little context for some of the comments. Thanks to a considerable team effort and a lot of patience (and special thanks go to my colleague Martin Smith), it was possible to identify the location of most of Voltaire’s corrections and remarks (sometimes relying on discussion of rhymes to pinpoint particular verses). Only a few notes remain unattached to a specific place in Frederick’s text.

We learn a lot about the minutiae of what was and was not admissible in eighteenth-century versification, but Voltaire makes other stylistic comments and, as ever, he strives for wit and elegance. For example, he marks four instances of the word ‘plat’ within the space of two pages, numbers them, and next to the fourth, notes: ‘voila plus de plats icy que dans un bon souper’.

Frederick’s verse includes pieces that were written in an epistolary context addressed to Voltaire himself, and some of the latter’s notes provide glimpses into his own literary past. In the margin of a reference to his play Sémiramis, he writes ‘je ne hazarday cet ouvrage que pour feu madame la Dauphine qui m’avoit demandé une trajedie a machines.’ Who knew that the thunderclaps, opening tomb and ghost in that tragedy were of royal inspiration?

Voltaire eventually tired of this work (and who can blame him?) and for this and other reasons, attempted to leave Prussia. He was stopped and searched in Frankfurt and kept under arrest for some days by an envoy of the king, since the latter wanted to keep strict control over the copies of his book, and would not countenance Voltaire leaving the country with a copy. But that is a whole other story…

– Gillian Pink

Apprivoiser ses livres: Voltaire ‘marginaliste’

Les marginalia sont un phénomène auquel on s’intéresse de plus en plus, comme l’illustre par exemple le répertoire Annotated Books Online. Paradoxalement, à une époque où il est souvent mal vu d’écrire dans ses livres, d’en corner les pages, ou de les déchirer, les historiens du livre étudient les traces de lecture anciennes et montrent que défigurer un livre peut lui donner du prix, comme le reconnaît Andrew D. Scrimgeour, responsable des bibliothèques à Drew University au New Jersey. Les auteurs J. J. Abrams et Doug Dorst, pour leur part, ont trouvé dans la pratique des notes marginales une structure et un thème propices pour un roman.

Jean Racine, Œuvres, t.2, p.423. Bibliothèque nationale de Russie.

Jean Racine, Œuvres, Paris, 1736, t.2, p.423. Bibliothèque nationale de Russie.

‘Je voudrais bien savoir quel est l’imbecille […] qui a défiguré par tant de croix et qui a cru rempli de fautes le plus bel ouvrage de notre langue’: c’est ainsi que Voltaire réagit en marge aux traces qu’un autre a laissé dans son exemplaire des Œuvres de Racine. Mais dès qu’il devient lecteur à son tour, tout est possible. Sur une période de plus de cinquante ans, Voltaire a écrit dans les livres qui passaient entre ses mains: c’est le sujet de ma monographie, Voltaire à l’ouvrage, tout récemment parue. En tant qu’auteur célèbre, il a compris que ces traces avaient de la valeur et il lui arrivait d’offrir des exemplaires annotés à d’illustres connaissances et à des personnes de son entourage. Il a peut-être même pressenti qu’on allait s’intéresser à sa bibliothèque après sa mort, car certains commentaires marginaux semblent attendre un lecteur futur: ‘tout cela est de moy / jecrivis cette lettre’, note-t-il à côté d’un texte que Jean-François, baron de Spon cite comme ayant été présenté aux Etats-Généraux de Hollande en octobre 1745 – une espèce de ‘j’y étais!’ laissé pour la postérité.

Jean François, baron de Spon,Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de l’Europe, depuis 1740 jusqu’à la paix générale signée à Aix-la-Chapelle, t.3, p.51. Bibliothèque nationale de Russie.

Jean François, baron de Spon, Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de l’Europe, depuis 1740 jusqu’à la paix générale signée à Aix-la-Chapelle, Amsterdam, 1749, t.3, p.51. Bibliothèque nationale de Russie.

Tous les marginalia de Voltaire contenus dans les livres de sa bibliothèque personnelle sont désormais disponibles: le neuvième tome du Corpus des notes marginales vient de paraître. Cette publication clôt le premier volet du projet commencé pendant les années 1960 à la Bibliothèque nationale de Russie. (Un dixième tome fournira les traces de lecture de Voltaire qu’on connaît en dehors de sa bibliothèque.) Le Corpus, dont la publication a été reprise dans les Œuvres complètes de Voltaire sous la direction de Natalia Elaguina à partir des années 2000, donne à chacun la possibilité de se plonger dans l’univers des lectures de Voltaire, monde à moitié imprimé, à moitié manuscrit, et constitue un outil formidable pour redécouvrir cet auteur pourtant déjà si connu.

Les traces de lecture de Voltaire permettent de traquer les origines de ses propres textes, grâce aux signets, aux soulignements et aux réactions en marge qui marquent des passages qu’il cite, qu’il conteste ou qu’il transforme dans ses écrits. Les notes comprennent des réactions ludiques et polémiques qui désorganisent parfois la lecture de l’imprimé, tels ses ajouts manuscrits à la page de titre des Erreurs de Voltaire de Claude-François Nonnotte, et des corrections qu’il a faites pour des amis (à paraître dans le tome 10 du Corpus).

Claude-François Nonnotte, Les Erreurs de Voltaire. Bibliothèque nationale de Russie.

Claude-François Nonnotte, Les Erreurs de Voltaire. Bibliothèque nationale de Russie.

Les rapports que Voltaire entretient avec ses livres sont fortement ancrés dans la matérialité de l’objet. Ainsi, il introduit des plis, des entailles dans le papier, il exploite adroitement les différents espaces blancs à sa disposition, il démembre des volumes, les refait à sa manière, il utilise encres, crayon de plomb, sanguine, et crayons de couleurs pour laisser ses traces sur la page. Voltaire aurait apprécié les fonctions de recherche et de repérage offertes par le Kindle, les fichiers pdf et autres manifestations du numérique. Ces technologies permettent de joindre des annotations au texte, mais n’accordent pas les mêmes possibilités d’un corps à corps qui caractérise la lecture telle qu’il l’a pratiquée. Dans Voltaire à l’ouvrage, je me penche également sur les lectures faites dans différentes langues, et sur le style et la poétique des annotations marginales. C’était l’occasion aussi de comparer les marginalia de cet auteur à ceux d’autres lecteurs de l’époque, ce qui fournit un contexte et permet de mesurer l’originalité, ou non, des pratiques voltairiennes.

Gillian Pink

Natalia Elaguina décorée

Madame Natalia Elaguina a été décorée de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres au grade de chevalier le 18 novembre dernier au Consulat général de France à Saint-Pétersbourg. L’équipe de la Voltaire Foundation lui adresse toutes ses félicitations.

De gauche à droite: Hughes de Chavagnac, Consul général de France à Saint-Pétersbourg; Natalia Elaguina; Pascal Liévaux, du ministère de la Culture et de la Communication

Natalia Elaguina est conservatrice en chef du département des manuscrits occidentaux à la Bibliothèque nationale de Russie à Saint-Pétersbourg. Elle est directrice de publication du Corpus des notes marginales de Voltaire, vaste projet éditorial entamé en 1979 et poursuivi en collaboration avec la Voltaire Foundation depuis une dizaine d’années, et pour lequel elle a joué un rôle déterminant. Il recense les notes et les traces non-verbales laissées par Voltaire en marge des ouvrages de sa bibliothèque personnelle, conservée à Saint-Pétersbourg depuis la mort de l’écrivain. Les neuf volumes du Corpus recensent les traces de lecture sur 1687 ouvrages, dont certains sont copieusement annotés. En plus de la reproduction en quasi-facsimilé de tous ces marginalia et ces traces, chaque volume contient des centaines de notes des éditeurs qui expliquent les liens entre les lectures et les annotations de Voltaire, d’une part, et son œuvre, de l’autre. Les cinq premiers volumes ont fait l’objet d’une première publication à Berlin-Est avant que toute la collection soit intégrée aux Œuvres complètes de Voltaire d’Oxford en 2006. Mme Elaguina a raconté l’histoire fascinante de ce projet dans un article publié dans la Revue Voltaire. Nous avons collaboré ensemble aux volumes 6 (2006), 7 (2008), 8 (2012), et le neuvième et ultime volume, actuellement en cours de préparation, paraîtra au printemps prochain.

Un grand merci, et encore bravo Natalia!

– Nicholas Cronk, Janet Godden, Georges Pilard, Gillian Pink

The Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire: a new addition to the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire

In the autumn of 1744, amidst the turmoil of the War of the Austrian Succession, an anonymous, rather lengthy pamphlet entitled Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire appeared in print. It addressed the members of the Reichstag (the Imperial Diet) and urged them to take sides with Charles VII, Holy Roman Emperor, against Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria and Queen of Hungary and Bohemia. The Représentation circulated widely across Europe, and copies can still be found in Germany, Sweden, Slovakia, and the Netherlands, as well as in France. However, the sudden death of Charles VII on 20 January 1745 rendered the project expounded in the Représentation utterly impracticable, thus dooming the pamphlet to be quickly forgotten.

Page 1 of Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire, 1744 (image Gallica).

Page 1 of Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire, 1744 (image Gallica).

The Représentation briefly resurfaced in 1887, when Jacques-Victor-Albert, duc de Broglie, republished the pamphlet in the first issue of the Revue d’histoire diplomatique. De Broglie identified the author of the pamphlet as none other than Voltaire, and made the further claim that the latter had produced the text at the request of the marquis d’Argenson, then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Nevertheless, probably because de Broglie provided very little evidence to support his argument for Voltaire’s authorship, the Représentation again failed to garner long-lasting attention and, to the best of my knowledge, no further mentions of it were made in Voltairean scholarship.

Nicolas-Charles-Joseph Trublet.

Nicolas-Charles-Joseph Trublet.

In July 2015, however, I made a discovery that was to shed new light on this question. As I was working in the Archivio di Stato di Firenze, I found 170 letters from Nicolas-Charles-Joseph Trublet to Luigi Lorenzi, French Resident Minister to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Many of these letters provide insights into Voltaire’s activities in the 1740s. A letter dated 1 March 1743, in particular, the main subject of which is Voltaire’s comédie-ballet La Princesse de Navarre, proceeds explicitly to mention Voltaire as the author of the Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire.

After unearthing this document, I decided to investigate further. Off I went to Paris, and after a few days of research at the Archives du Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, the papers of Malbran de Lanoue (French ambassador to the Imperial Diet from 1738 to 1749) yielded a manuscript of the Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire. This manuscript is not in Voltaire’s hand, nor in that of any of his known secretaries. However, it bears several corrections which are in his hand. Furthermore, a marginal note on the front page reads: ‘cet écrit est du poète Voltaire’.

Study of this manuscript soon revealed significant similarities with other Voltairean texts, notably the Histoire de la Guerre de 1741, the Précis du siècle de Louis XV and the Mémoires pour servir à la vie de Monsieur de Voltaire. It also showed, however, remarkable differences from the text of the 1744 print edition that de Broglie had republished in the Revue d’histoire diplomatique in 1887. Another manuscript which I found amongst de Lanoue’s papers – the ‘Remarques de M. de Bussy sur l’écrit intitulé Représentations [sic] aux Etats de l’Empire de M. de Voltaire de novembre 1744’ – revealed that the manuscript of the Représentation had in fact been sent to diplomat François de Bussy for revision, before it was sent to press in 1744.

A manuscript with corrections in Voltaire’s hand, a marginal note unequivocally asserting Voltaire’s authorship, several textual similarities with other Voltairean works, an endorsement from Trublet… There seems to be sufficient evidence to include the Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire in the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire! [1]

– Ruggero Sciuto

[1] A critical edition of the Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire will be published in the forthcoming volume 29 of the Voltaire Foundation’s Œuvres completes de Voltaire, alongside Janet Godden and James Hanrahan’s edition of the Précis du siècle de Louis XV. In a brief introduction, I shall provide further evidence of Voltaire’s authorship and details on the pamphlet’s complex publication history. I shall also discuss the relationship between the Représentation and other diplomatic despatches that Voltaire penned on behalf of the marquis d’Argenson in the mid-1740s – e.g. the Lettre du Roi à la Czarine pour le projet de paix of May 1745, the Manifeste du Roi de France en faveur du prince Charles Edouard of December 1745 and, most importantly, the Représentations aux Etats-Généraux de Hollande (all three texts are already available in the Œuvres complètes). Finally, I shall consider François de Bussy’s interventionist approach in preparing Voltaire’s manuscript for publication, which further complicates the crucial question of authorship.

Quand Voltaire lisait Vauvenargues: conseils prodigués à un ami


Sculpture de Vauvenargues par Henri Pontier (1842-1926) en 1881 (Aix, Musée Granet; photo: Ch. Heirieis).

Voltaire est connu pour avoir annoté une grande partie des livres de sa bibliothèque personnelle, et la Voltaire Foundation édite, en collaboration avec nos collègues à la Bibliothèque nationale de Saint-Pétersbourg, la transcription complète des annotations. Certains volumes avec notes marginales, échappés de la bibliothèque de l’écrivain, ou offerts par lui à des amis, sont cependant conservés dans d’autres lieux. Tel est le cas d’un exemplaire de l’Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain (1746), de Luc de Clapiers, marquis de Vauvenargues, conservé à la Bibliothèque Méjanes à Aix-en-Provence, patrie de l’auteur. Il a été question de ce volume à une conférence lors des Journées du Patrimoine 2015, le samedi 19 septembre, à la Méjanes, pour fêter le tricentenaire de la naissance de Vauvenargues. A notre connaissance, c’est le seul volume annoté avec l’intention expresse de rendre l’objet corrigé et commenté à l’auteur afin qu’il puisse en faire une seconde édition. Vers le mois de février 1746, Voltaire a reçu son exemplaire de l’ouvrage que son ami venait de publier: J’ai passé plusieurs fois chez vous pour vous remercier d’avoir donné au public des pensées au-dessus de lui. […] Je n’ai lu encore que les deux tiers de votre livre. Je vais dévorer la troisième partie. [1] La lettre envoyée quelques mois plus tard montre qu’il a été convenu que Voltaire proposerait des corrections et des suggestions en vue d’une seconde édition: J’ai crayonné un des meilleurs livres que nous ayons en notre langue, après l’avoir relu avec un extrême recueillement. J’y ai admiré de nouveau cette belle âme si sublime, si éloquente et si vraie, cette foule d’idées neuves, ou rendues d’une manière si hardie, si précise, ces coups de pinceau si fiers et si tendres. Il ne tient qu’à vous de séparer cette profusion de diamants de quelques pierres fausses, ou enchâssées d’une manière étrangère à notre langue. Il faut que ce livre soit excellent d’un bout à l’autre. Je vous conjure de faire cet honneur à notre nation et à vous même, et de rendre ce service à l’esprit humain. Je me garde bien d’insister sur mes critiques. Je les soumets à votre raison, à votre goût et j’exclus l’amour propre de notre tribunal. [2] L’objet ‘crayonné’ demeure, et les traces au crayon et à l’encre laissent deviner par moments la chronologie de l’annotation. Les rares notes au crayon de plomb, à peine lisibles aujourd’hui, proviennent vraisemblablement de la première lecture, avant que Voltaire ne se décide à remettre l’exemplaire annoté à l’auteur. Parmi elles, quelques-unes sont apparemment inachevées et sibyllines, mais parfaitement compréhensible celle où Voltaire s’exclame ‘comment a-t-on pu faire si bien étant si jeune!’. Vauvenargues avait en effet trente ans au moment de la publication de son ouvrage (il meurt l’année suivante).

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.156.

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.156 (Bibliothèque Méjanes).

D’autres éléments matériels montrent qu’il y a bel et bien plusieurs strates d’annotation: la couleur des encres et la taille des caractères sont la preuve qu’après une première lecture (au cours de laquelle il note, à propos d’une déclaration du cardinal de Retz, ‘exemple qui ne prouve pas qu’il faut risquer des fautes’), Voltaire nuance sa pensée (en précisant, à l’aide d’une encre plus foncée: ‘mais qu’il faut se faire valoir’; voir l’illustration ci-contre). Voltaire disait vrai quand il écrivait à l’auteur ‘j’exclus l’amour-propre de notre tribunal’. On y trouve des louanges, certes (de nombreux ‘bien’ et ‘beau’, un ‘admirable’…), mais le but de l’opération était de permettre à Vauvenargues de faire une nouvelle édition revue et corrigée de son texte. Aussi trouve-t-on des commentaires moins flatteurs: ‘mauvaise expression et fausse idée’, ‘chapitre plein d’idées trop communes’, ‘manque de logique’, ‘louche’, ‘trivial’. Plus on avance dans le livre, plus les annotations sont brèves, et on voit Voltaire élaborer un système d’abréviations: ‘b’ pour ‘bien’ (de temps en temps un ‘tb’), ‘m’ pour ‘mal’ ou ‘mauvais’, ‘obs’ pour ‘obscur’, ‘triv’ pour ‘trivial’. On trouve même le laconique ‘2 et 2 font 4’ pour désigner des évidences, abrégé plus loin en ‘2 et 2’.

Abréviations de Voltaire, ‘2 et 2’, ‘m’ (Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.360).

Abréviations de Voltaire, ‘2 et 2’, ‘m’ dans l’Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.360 (Bibliothèque Méjanes).

L’exemplaire aixois ne comporte pas uniquement des traces de la main de Voltaire. Une fois en possession du volume annoté, Vauvenargues le parcourut lui-même en rajoutant quelques corrections, et surtout en supprimant des phrases, voire des paragraphes entiers. Ainsi, sur l’illustration ci-contre, le ‘nous’ manuscrit qui apparaît dans l’interligne de la réflexion XXVII est de la main de Vauvenargues, et le trait vertical qui barre les trois réflexions XXV-XXVII est de lui également. Une nouvelle édition paraît en 1747, où l’on constate que les suppressions effectuées sur la première édition ont bien été prises en compte dans la seconde.

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.47.

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.47 (Bibliothèque Méjanes).

Souvent (mais pas toujours!) les corrections proposées par Voltaire ont été intégrées au texte de la seconde édition. Par exemple, la note marginale ci-contre suggère de tourner la phrase autrement: ‘la joie est un sentiment plus pénétrant’, et la seconde édition reproduit exactement la tournure proposée par Voltaire. Mais ailleurs Vauvenargues réécrit son texte à sa façon, ou bien prend le parti de le réimprimer tel quel. En marge de ce ‘Conseil à un jeune homme’, Voltaire demande ‘pourquoi cet air de lettres familières’ (voir illustration ci-dessous), jugeant que cette forme d’adresse, ‘mon très cher ami’, n’a pas sa place dans un livre qui n’a pas de destinataire en particulier. Cependant ces mots demeurent inchangés dans le texte de 1747.

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.181.

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.181 (Bibliothèque Méjanes).

L’ancien officier qu’est Vauvenargues, dont c’est le premier ouvrage, ne se laisse pas intimider par l’homme de lettres déjà fort célèbre qu’est Voltaire. Tout porte à croire que les deux hommes s’étaient liés d’une véritable amitié, et si les commentaires de Voltaire sont sans complaisance, le temps qu’il a dû y consacrer montre bien l’affection qu’il éprouvait à l’égard de son jeune confrère. Le volume aujourd’hui conservé à Aix était d’abord un don de Vauvenargues, offert à son prestigieux ami. Quand Voltaire le lui rend, il devient don de soi, de son jugement, de son temps.

– Gillian Pink

[1] Voltaire à Vauvenargues; la lettre n’est pas datée, mais Th. Besterman la situe vers le 15 février 1746.

[2] Lettre située vers le 15 mai 1746 par Th. Besterman.