Voltaire, over the course of his long career, had a taste for publishing works under pseudonyms: perhaps most famously, M. le docteur Ralph, author of Candide, in whose pockets additions to the tale were supposedly found after the good doctor’s death. Also the rabbi Akib, the abbé Bazin, M. de Morza, to list but a few of his many noms de plume. More than a strategy to deflect the consequences of his more provocative and controversial writings (the anonymous Twitter handles and ‘sock-puppet accounts’ of the day), the practice also gave him playful enjoyment in the sheer variety of names and personas that he adopted.
All of Voltaire’s pseudonyms were not imaginary characters, however, and in the early days of 1764 a letter appeared in print, apparently a reply from his secretary Wagnière to one Ladouz, former secretary of one of Voltaire’s arch-enemies, the academician Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Pompignan (who in 1763 had arranged for his local church to be restored, an enterprise which provided Voltaire with the opportunity to poke fun in a series of amusing pamphlets). This Ladouz has supposedly written to Voltaire, seeking a formal attestation that he has not betrayed his erstwhile employer by sending compromising documents to Ferney.
Ladouz has not betrayed his master’s confidence, ‘Wagnière’ confirms; his own master’s knowledge of Mr Le Franc de Pompignan is confined to:
1. Some rather bad verse;
2. His speech to the Académie Française, in which he insults all men of letters;
3. A memorandum to the king in which he tells His Majesty that he has a fine library at Pompignan-lès-Montauban;
4. The description of a magnificent celebration that he organised at Pompignan, the procession in which he walked behind a young Jesuit, accompanied by local pipers, and the great feast for twenty-six that was the talk of the province;
5. A beautiful sermon of his own composition, in which he is said to be amongst the stars in the firmament, whilst the clergymen of Paris and all men of letters are in the mud at his feet.
If indeed Ladouz did write to Voltaire, the letter provided an excellent pretext to trot out again these lines of ridicule, which had already appeared under Voltaire’s own pen the year before. The Lettre du secrétaire de M. de Voltaire, au secrétaire de M. Le Franc de Pompignan may have begun life as a genuine letter, as the editor of his correspondence, Theodore Besterman, tells us, but anyone familiar with Voltaire’s writings against Le Franc will recognise the style and content of the Lettre. In fact, the author wrote to D’Alembert on the subject of the Lettre, quoting Renaissance poet Clément Marot (D11628):
Monsieur l’abbé et monsieur son valet
Sont faits égaux, tous deux comme de cire.
If anything, this aptly quoted verse is a tacit sign that his secretary has lent him his name – although even after the master’s death, Wagnière took responsibility for the piece. So was this then in fact a real letter, or does the epistolary form only serve further to broadcast material ridiculing Le Franc in a different guise and from a – supposedly – different pen? If it was a letter, how does its publication fit with eighteenth-century epistolary protocols?
The Lettre du secrétaire appears in Voltaire’s correspondence (D11616), and also appears in his complete works since the piece benefitted from a separate publication at his hands. This new edition has the advantage of focussing attention on the ambiguities of such a document, a short text that would otherwise be lost in the great mass of Voltaire’s writings and letters. It is published this month, along with the Lettre de M. de L’Ecluse, the Hymne chanté au village de Pompignan, the Relation du voyage de M. le marquis Le Franc de Pompignan, the Lettre de Paris, du 28 février 1763 and an Avis des editeurs, under the umbrella title ‘Writings on Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Pompignan’ in OCV, volume 57A.
– Gillian Pink