Les Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, the first 25 years – the pioneers

OCV – ‘one of the most significant and thoughtful scholarly ventures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries’ – John Renwick

The idea of publishing the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire is 50 this month. This has made us reflect on the many people who have been – and still are – working to realise this ambitious project in 2019. The current Vf in-house team have all been around at least ten years; however, only one of us was part of the first twenty-five years, so he was asked to write a blog!

Theodore Besterman

Theodore Besterman.

Theodore Deodatus Nathaniel Besterman, in the course of a life of extraordinary intellectual activity, became a passionate voltairien, at one time living in Voltaire’s house, Les Délices, and sleeping in the philosopher’s own bedroom. Whether Besterman’s earlier experience as research officer for the London Society for Psychical Research enabled any special insights through this location is not recorded, but he used his time in Geneva to produce an edition of Voltaire’s correspondence (107 volumes) and Notebooks, as well as starting the series Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century (now Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment). After moving back to England he proposed, at the second congress of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies at St Andrews in 1967 (the Society itself being in part Besterman’s creation), to produce a critical edition of the complete works of Voltaire, an offer enthusiastically received by Jean Ehrard, René Pomeau, Owen Taylor, Samuel Taylor and Jeroom Vercruysse. The Œuvres complètes de Voltaire were born and an international committee formed to direct the edition, including, as well as the above, William Barber (later general editor), Roland Mortier and Robert Niklaus. The Voltaire Foundation was based at Besterman’s house at Thorpe Mandeville in Oxfordshire.

Besterman immediately started a revised edition of the correspondence, to be called the ‘Definitive edition’ (1968-1977), and of the Notebooks, published in 1968. The following year saw the appearance of La Philosophie de l’histoire, edited by J. H. Brumfitt, and in this year too Besterman published his biography of Voltaire, which was to see two revised editions over the following six years, and translations into Italian and German in 1971.

Les Délices

The Maison Les Délices in its garden in Geneva (Wikimedia commons).

1970 saw Owen Taylor’s edition of La Henriade, a revision of his edition published in 1965 in vols 38-40 of Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century, this series also being a creation of Besterman while in Geneva. (Owen’s bequest still supports a travel grant established to support young researchers). In the same year Jeroom Vercruysse’s edition of La Pucelle appeared.

Research and publication progressed steadily, helped from 1974 by Samuel Taylor’s detailed recension of Voltaire’s emendations to his own text in the copy of the ‘encadrée’ edition in Voltaire’s own library in Leningrad (SVEC 124). In this year William Barber became general editor. David Williams completed his three-volume edition of the Commentaires sur Corneille and he continues to contribute to the series, most recently in the Nouveaux Mélanges (2017).

1976 brought great changes as Theodore Besterman died and the Voltaire Foundation was bequeathed to the University of Oxford. A small office was set up in Oxford in 1977, consisting of just two people, to be joined the following year by the present writer, whose initial responsibilities were the continuing publication of Ralph Leigh’s edition of Rousseau’s correspondence, which Besterman had also taken on, and the Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century series, now with Haydn Mason as general editor.

Publication of the complete works continued, with notably, in 1980, Voltaire’s most famous work, Candide, edited by René Pomeau, who had previously published his study La Religion de Voltaire and who went on to lead the team that wrote Voltaire en son temps, published by the Voltaire Foundation, a rich source for Voltaire studies. The number of international collaborators increased and Christiane Mervaud and Haydn Mason joined the committee. In 1984 La Défense de mon oncle and A Warburton, edited by José-Michel Moureaux, appeared and his work on Lettres sur les miracles will be published in 2018 in collaboration with Olivier Ferret.


Sir Isaac Newton by Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt. (Wikimedia commons).

In 1986 Le Droit du seigneur, edited by W. D. Howarth, Haydn Mason’s predecessor at Bristol University, was published and his edition of Le Dépositaire was revised by Russell Goulbourne and published in 2013. In 1987 John Renwick’s edition of André Destouches à Siam appeared in volume 62, and he continues to contribute widely to the series. Roland Mortier, whose Le Philosophe ignorant and L’Examen important de milord Bolingbroke also appeared in volume 62, is thanked for his work on the Fragment d’une lettre du lord Bolingbroke by Jean Dagen, whose edition appears in a volume to be published in 2017; and in 1988 Sylvain Menant joined the committee – his most recent contribution was published in 2014 in Contes de Guillaume Vadé.

Our 25-year survey closes with the publication of Voltaire’s magnum opus of scientific popularisation, the Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, edited by William Barber and Robert L. Walters. William’s editorship ended the following year.

This period saw the idea of a rare individual, who might, some thought, have almost believed himself to be a reincarnation of Voltaire, grow into reality through the collaboration of a large number of scholars in several countries and continents who laid a solid foundation for the next twenty-five years plus. To be continued…

– Martin Smith
Oxford, July 2017


The Œuvres complètes de Voltaire are nearly fifty years old

John Renwick has been a member of the ‘Œuvres complètes de Voltaire’ team since 1970, and of its Conseil scientifique since 1997. Within OCV, he has edited over fifty individual texts, from ‘Amulius et Numitor’ (1711) to the ‘Fragments sur l’histoire générale’ and the ‘Fragments sur l’Inde’ (1773). He has signed the edition of twenty-eight articles in the ‘Questions sur l’Encyclopédie’ and forty-five chapters of the ‘Essai sur les mœurs’, and more than sixty entries for the forthcoming volume 9 of the ‘Corpus des notes marginales’. He is the editor of the major text ‘Traité sur la tolérance’.


In a recent contribution (September 2016), Jeroom Vercruysse, the editor of Voltaire’s mock epic poem La Pucelle and many other texts since, reminds us of how he and a small number of colleagues were invited by Theodore Besterman to start producing a critical edition of Voltaire’s complete works. In it, he remembers – though fleetingly – how those ‘Founding Fathers’ translated their early aspirations into the concrete formulation of editorial policy. He mentions also their early recognition that such a vast corpus of work would require their having recourse to ‘d’autres dix-huitiémistes afin d’assurer la préparation et la publication de textes si divers’. And he concludes his reminiscences with the observation that ‘nous envisageons la sortie des derniers volumes vers 2020’.


His comments could not fail to elicit a positive response from this particular reader, who was one of the early second-generation recruits to be approached by Theodore Besterman (in 1970, I was a mere 31-year-old, the same age as Jeroom at the inception of the Œuvres complètes in 1967) and who, decades later (again like Jeroom), is still intimately associated with the enterprise which he also (just as fervently) hopes to see to its completion in 2020.


It is, however, and more precisely, the comments that Jeroom makes en filigrane about the original editorial approaches that embolden me to return to, and then to expand upon, a topic (that I first treated in 1994 [1]) that now – more than twenty years later – concerns more particularly the constant evolution of the original editorial principles over the fifty years that have intervened since inception in 1968 with the Notebooks, edited by Besterman, then in La Philosophie de l’histoire, edited by J.H. Brumfitt in 1969. Having constantly been a party to a redefinition and an expansion of those editorial parameters, I have been privileged, from beginning to what is now near-end, to witness the refinement of those parameters, a progressive process that has been responsible for making the OCV into what is arguably one of the most significant and thoughtful scholarly ventures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


The fact that it has also transpired to be a ‘formidable aventure intellectuelle’ makes it even more remarkable. How and why this came about is worth charting in a preliminary sketch that will one day (or so it is to be hoped) provide the impetus for someone to turn the whole question into a detailed study, because, in the time-honoured phrase, this topic is surely a beau sujet de thèse.

– John Renwick

[1] See John Renwick, ‘The Complete works of Voltaire: a review of the first twenty-five years’ in Pour encourager les autres. Studies for the tercentenary of Voltaire’s birth 1694-1994, SVEC 320, p.165-207.

A propos des Œuvres complètes ou comment tout a commencé

La toute récente réunion du Conseil scientifique des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, qui eut lieu à la Sorbonne le 16 juin 2016, est à l’origine de ces réminiscences de Jeroom Vercruysse sur les débuts du projet:

Après un après-midi de travail lors du congrès de la SIEDS de Saint-Andrews (1967), René Pomeau me glissa dans l’oreille: ‘Venez avec moi, Besterman veut nous voir’. Que nous voulait-il? Je connaissais le personnage, il avait publié mon premier article en 1959 et ma thèse l’année précédente. Nous voilà dans un salon de l’Université où nous rencontrâmes Jean Ehrard, Owen Taylor et Samuel Taylor. Besterman, que j’avais déjà rencontré plusieurs fois, ne dérogea pas à ses habitudes quelquefois assez brusques. ‘Messieurs,’ nous dit-il, ‘êtes-vous d’accord pour entreprendre une édition complète et critique des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire?’ La réponse fut unanime, ‘oui’. Un verre de sherry confirma le propos.

Il ne restait plus qu’à réaliser ce projet dont certains collègues avaient déjà rêvé. Mais nous étions loin, moi surtout, le cadet (j’avais 31 ans), d’entrevoir l’ampleur, la durée et la difficulté de l’entreprise. Aujourd’hui, près de 50 années plus tard, la fin du tunnel est en vue. Mais que de chemin parcouru, de difficultés surmontées! Un mois après le congrès nous fûmes invités au célèbre Reform Club de Londres. En hôte parfait, Besterman nous régala d’un repas dans un salon de ce club si fameux. Et nous tînmes ensuite notre première réunion du Comité scientifique que nous étions devenus. Œuvres complètes, critiques, cela allait de soi. Dans quel ordre devaient paraître les futurs volumes? Quelle ligne de conduite serait suivie pour préparer les textes?

OCV team

La réunion du Conseil scientifique des Œuvres complètes du 16 juin 2016. Assis, de gauche à droite: Marie-Hélène Cotoni, Christiane Mervaud, Jeroom Vercruysse; debout, de gauche à droite: Gérard Laudin, Gerhardt Stenger, Nicholas Cronk, John R. Iverson, Sylvain Menant, Russell Goulbourne, François Moureau.

Il suffit de prendre en main l’un des derniers tomes parus: il ressemble comme une goutte d’eau au premier sorti des presses. De nombreuses allées et venues entre Bruxelles, Genève, Londres et Paris (sans oublier les réunions tenues au cours des congrès des Lumières successifs), un courrier abondant, tout cela marcha le plus tranquillement du monde. Le premier volume publié fut La Henriade, dont O. Taylor avait déjà fourni une édition critique dans les Studies on Voltaire; il la révisa, l’adapta aux normes convenues et l’entreprise prit la route. Besterman me confia La Pucelle d’Orléans qui, débarrassée de ses oripeaux séculaires, vit le jour en 1971. Entre-temps chacun des membres du Conseil apporta son écot à l’entreprise. Mais il apparut très vite qu’il fallait recourir à d’autres dix-huitiémistes afin d’assurer la préparation et la publication de textes si divers. Ce ne fut guère une entreprise aisée pour tous les éditeurs, particulièrement pour ceux qui se chargèrent des ‘grands machins’.

Besterman me ‘colla’ les Œuvres alphabétiques. Bien. Je me mis au travail, mais je dus également trouver des collaborateurs qualifiés. Le Comité étendit ses compétences, augmenta ses effectifs, se renouvela car malheureusement il eut à déplorer des décès et des retraits. Une fois les textes attribués, le Comité dut, au fur et à mesure de l’arrivée des copies, procéder à des relectures, formuler des critiques et des suggestions souvent délicates, recourir à de nouvelles compétences. Des milliers de pages passèrent de mains en mains. Tout cela se passa dans une entente parfaite, jamais un mot plus vif que d’autres ne fut prononcé, et près d’un demi-siècle plus tard, je constate que le Conseil scientifique élargi assure toujours bénévolement ses devoirs avec soin, avec compétence et avec rigueur. Nous envisageons la sortie des derniers volumes vers 2020. Plût aux dieux que je sois encore là pour dire simplement ‘enfin’! Utinam dis placet!

– Jeroom Vercruysse, professeur émérite Vrije Universiteit, Bruxelles

Besterman’s commitment to the Eighteenth Century is still alive


Theodore Besterman in the late 1940s

I have always been intrigued by Theodore Besterman – the Voltaire Foundation’s founder. At 99 Banbury Road, Oxford – home of the Voltaire Foundation since 1993 – he is commemorated by a black bust sitting at the left end of the mantelpiece in the main room (which was named after him); at the right end of the mantelpiece sits a white bust of Voltaire, and a picture of a stern-looking Rousseau hangs on the wall between them. Our meetings are thus presided over by this august trio.

I had heard the name Besterman in my academic publishing career before joining the Voltaire Foundation, because as a bibliographer, he gave his name to the Besterman/McColvin Awards for reference works (in both print and electronic forms). These are awarded by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP).


The mantlepiece in the Besterman Room at the Voltaire Foundation, Oxford

Tristram Besterman has just written a most informative personal memoir about his step-grandfather for the VF website. His account joins Giles Barber’s biography of Besterman as well as Haydn Mason’s history of the Voltaire Foundation.

One of Besterman’s many significant contributions to 18th-century scholarship was to found the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (or ISECS), the ‘umbrella’ organisation for all thirty national eighteenth-century societies worldwide. The VF still provides the secretariat functions for ISECS to this day.

ISECS holds an international congress every four years and the VF will of course be attending the next congress in July 2015 in Rotterdam. We hope to meet up with many of our colleagues, contributors and friends at our bookstand.

The Voltaire Foundation's stand at the Colonial Williamsburg ASECS

There will be plenary lectures given by Dan Brewer and John Robertson (author of OUP’s Very Short Introduction to the Enlightenment, due in September 2015). In 2019 the ISECS congress will be held at St Andrews, which was the location of the first congress, in 1967.

Besterman also started the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series (in 1955), formerly known as Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century (or SVEC for short). After 60 years and over 500 books, it remains the leading series in the area of Enlightenment studies.

We are currently seeking to appoint a new General Editor of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.

The successful candidate would initially work alongside Professor Jonathan Mallinson who is standing down after 13 years. In 2016 he or she would take over as General Editor and be involved in appointing a deputy (who will be francophone if the General Editor is not, and vice versa).

Besterman’s legacy is still very much alive as demonstrated by the VF publications still rolling off the press – a new book in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series every month as well as six new volumes of the Complete works of Voltaire each year (the print edition is due for completion in 2018-2019). The VF’s blog gives an insight into the extended reach of our activities and some of our inner workings and musings – hence this blogpost.

– Clare

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