Wisdom in wax: eighteenth-century waxworks of Voltaire

In the late 1780s, Londoners had a rare opportunity to see the great writer and philosopher Voltaire with their own eyes for the cost of just one shilling. The fact that he had died eight years earlier was of no concern, for this Voltaire was sculpted entirely from wax.

Voltaire had been rendered in wax by one Mr Sylvester – an ‘eminent Artist’ who had recently trained at the Royal Academy in Paris – and housed in his Wax Work Cabinet. The Cabinet had first been on display in Paris, before moving to ‘Mr. Ansell’s Large Room, Spring Gardens, London’ – a street at the southeast extreme of St James’s, crossing the eastern end of The Mall, a fashionable quarter of the city inhabited by civil servants and politicians. The Cabinet was described as being ‘an assembly of the most distinguished potentates and characters in Europe’ including royalty from across Europe, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Madame du Barre, the goddess Venus, and the Countess de la Motte accompanied by a fortune teller.

Bodleian Library, Bodleian Library Waxworks 3 (12c), ‘For the inspection of the curious grand exhibition of royal wax-work’ (1794).

In January 1786, notices were placed in local newspapers declaring that Mr Sylvester’s Wax Work Cabinet was being moved ‘to that more centrical situation, the Lyceum, in the Strand’, a grander venue just a ten-minute walk from Spring Gardens. The Lyceum had been built in 1772 as an exhibition room for the use of the Royal Incorporated Society of Artists of Great Britain, having been designed by the architect James Paine to rival the ‘grand salons’ of Paris. It quickly became clear, however, that the Lyceum was a financial disaster as it could not compete with the Royal Academy. The building was subsequently sold in 1777, becoming an exchange, exhibition space, debating room, and gallery. It was while the Lyceum was in this state that Mr Sylvester moved his collection of wax works into the Grand Saloon in 1786, but it was not to last long; the Lyceum was put up for auction in March 1790 and though it did not sell, the space was instead repurposed, coming to house a Phantasmagoria that featured a menagerie of exotic animals, Mr Diller’s Philosophical Fireworks, and an Irish giant.

Advertisements for Mr Sylvester’s exhibition of the Wax Work Cabinet at the Lyceum proclaimed that the spectacle was designed ‘for the Inspection of the CURIOUS’ and it was here that Voltaire’s waxwork was prominently displayed alongside a host of other wax curios including ‘an exact Representation of The Seraglio’, the rulers of Germany, Russia, France, Spain, Prussia, Naples, and the Netherlands, and a rendition of the goddess Venus sleeping, though one newspaper reported that the most popular figures were those of the Princess Royal, the Prince of Wales, the Countess de la Motte, le Montrofin, and the Countess du Barre. Indeed, Mr. Sylvester was noted for his specialism in the life-sized reproduction of royal figures, making his inclusion of Voltaire in the midst of such royalty notable, and these noble figures were much admired by spectators. The actor and theatrical manager Henry Irving, for instance, visited the exhibition in November 1790 just before its closure and remarked upon the visit in the following way:

‘The enterprising Mr. Sylvester, always anxious to gratify the Curiosity of a generous Public, has added to his grand Exhibition a Model of the Head of the late Governor of the Bastille. He received the exact likeness from the same Gentleman who sent him the likeness of Baron Trenck, who happened to be on the spot when the Governor was executed, and got permission of the mob to take it off in plaster, which Mask he sent to Mr. Sylvester. N.B. Mr. Sylvester returns his most grateful Thanks to the Nobility and Gentry, and Public in general, for the very great encouragement he has received; and as he means to close his Exhibition very soon, admits Servants and Children at Half Price, viz., Sixpence only. That much admired Figure of the Sleeping Venus at Full Length.’ (Brereton, 1803, p.18)

From this account, it is clear that the exhibition was ever-evolving, adding new figures to an illustrious cast of which Voltaire was a steady constant.

The closure of the exhibition at the Lyceum did not signal the end of the Wax Work Cabinet, however. A newspaper advertisement from 1794 noted that the exhibition had moved to ‘No. 341, near Catherine-street, in the Strand’ and was now being run by Mrs Sylvester, the former proprietor’s wife. The Cabinet appears to have been well-travelled between its departure from the Lyceum and its arrival on the Strand, with the advertisement noting that the exhibition – including Voltaire – had been ‘displayed with so much éclat at Dublin, Edinburgh, and most of the principal Towns in England, and approved of by the most curious Connoisseurs, and chiefly by the most eminent Artists in most parts of Europe’. And, as was ever the case, the Cabinet continued to evolve and grow in size, now totalling fifty-two figures and including renderings of recent events such as the British naval victory over the French on 1st June 1794. The advertisement reported that the additions and alterations made by Mrs Sylvester had been well received, being ‘deservedly esteemed by an impartial Public, to be the first productions of the kind’.

This was not the first time that Voltaire had been rendered in wax and it certainly would not be the last. He had been the subject of the very first waxwork crafted by the now famous Marie Tussaud in 1777 when she was just 16 years old, for instance. Tussaud had made the cast of Voltaire’s face just two months before his death, and the resulting waxwork was initially displayed in the Salon de Cire sat at a desk surrounded by books. Voltaire himself had insisted on sending his own clothes to dress the waxwork and onlookers often remarked that his model was significantly scruffier than others on display (Pillbeam, 2006, p.29). Tussaud later brought both the Voltaire mould and waxwork to England, where they remain today, and one catalogue for her London exhibition remarked that ‘the most admirable specimen of her talent in the present collection is the portrait model of the most famous wit Voltaire’ (Pillbeam, 2006, p.173). Clearly her wax rendering of Voltaire was a big hit.

Tussaud’s uncle, Philippe Curtius, also created a wax figure of Voltaire but for a much more sombre purpose, this time to be used in his funeral procession. Here, the model of Voltaire lay on a sarcophagus placed in a funeral chariot that was drawn by twelve white horses, offering mourners one last chance to glimpse the writer before his burial. Unfortunately, heavy rain caused the vermillion robes in which the waxwork had been clothed to run, turning the effigy a somewhat grotesque shade of purple. So well-received was this figure, however, despite its ghoulish hue, that Curtius instigated a boom for wax effigies in funeral processions, with tourists attending funeral processions specifically to view the waxworks on display, as if they were carnivalesque floats. The advertisements for the Cabinet certainly were not wrong when they described the audience for waxworks as curious.

Waxworks of Voltaire were also made in miniature. In c.1790, for example, Francesco Orso created a set of miniature waxworks that included Voltaire, the only example of his waxwork to survive today. Orso was not so concerned with accuracy here as he was allegory and genre, situating his miniature Voltaire in a pastoral scene besides the other spiritual fathers of the French Revolution – Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin – and two children. This peaceful scene exudes an air of new beginnings and the blossoming of Spring after a long, hard winter. Other miniature waxworks of Voltaire were more gruesome, such as the 55 x 48.5 cm wax relief of Voltaire on his death bed produced by Samuel Percy in England in the late-eighteenth or early-nineteenth century, modelled on an earlier example by Philippe Curtius. Here, Voltaire is not delightfully posed in an allegorical pastoral scene but instead lies awkwardly across a green canopied bed as a maid enters to the left, raising her hands in horror at the sight. This was not a waxwork designed to glorify a great man as much as it was a scene intended to invoke an emotive response, with the artist depicting Voltaire as a frail, pained, and pitiful figure lacking any dignity in his final moments. Even more disturbing is a waxwork produced by Kaspar Berhard Hardy in c.1780, again of Voltaire on his deathbed. This time, the wider scene of the bedroom has been stripped away and the waxwork centres on Voltaire’s face and upper body, reclining ungracefully, his expression pained, as he takes his last breaths. Again, we see no glory in this 24 x 7 x 23.5 cm cased waxwork figure, no triumphal or defiant display in the face of his own mortality, but rather a pained and frightened Voltaire fearfully awaiting his death. There is an intimacy here, and a humbling of a great literary figure, stripping back the layers of celebrity to reveal a mere mortal, not so dissimilar to the viewer.

But why should waxworks of Voltaire have created such a draw for visitors? What was it about lifelike waxworks that proved to be such an attraction? And did visitors attach any emotion to their viewing of such figures? In the advertisement for Sylvester’s exhibition, Voltaire is described as ‘that justly admired French Genius, who died in Paris in the Year 1778, aged 85, and has been in his Life-time an intimate Friend to Pope, Congreve and Young’. He was not only an admired individual but also an influential one. Certainly, this celebrity could have been enough of a draw in and of itself, offering the public the chance to see great figures for themselves, with their own eyes.

There is, however, as Michelle E. Bloom has noted, something captivating about waxworks simply for their ability to blur boundaries (Bloom, 2003, pp.xi-xiii). No longer is the spectator sure of the dividing line between human being and inanimate form, life and death, celebrity and normality. The viewer knows that the Voltaire they are seeing is a mere artistic representation, that the real Voltaire has been dead for many years, and yet there is something so lifelike about the waxwork that it is as if the veil between life and death has been lifted, just for a moment. Indeed, waxworks had their origins in funeral effigies rather than art, being carried atop royal coffins across medieval and early modern Europe in order to provide onlookers with one last chance to catch a glimpse of someone of status. These effigies would often be displayed by the tomb of the deceased royal or elsewhere in the church after the funeral, becoming a popular attraction that visitors would sometimes have to pay to view. For many who had never seen a royal figure before, such displays of effigies in churches provided the rare opportunity to see the majesty of royalty for themselves, to get up close to a member of the royal family in a way that they never could have done in life, momentarily dismantling social divides.

Waxworks thus seem to be intimately intertwined with possibility. For many, it is unlikely that they will ever meet a celebrity. Yet a waxwork provides the opportunity to at least stand shoulder to shoulder with their likeness. At the same time, waxworks break down the barrier between celebrities and normal people. These were not attempts, necessarily, to glorify; waxworks did not smooth wrinkles, remove scars, or reverse time as lofty marble busts may have done. Instead, they portrayed the subject in intimate and realistic detail. When viewing a Voltaire waxwork, therefore, the spectator was not viewing a great marble effigy designed to instil a sense of grandeur – such as Jean-Antoine Houdon’s Seated Voltaire – or a trinket sized piece of memorabilia – like the statuettes featured in a recent study by Antoine Lilti – but rather a humbling glimpse of the real man behind the vast writings, warts and all. Such realistic representations were not always well received. Antonio Canova and commentator on the visual arts James Ralph both thought that waxworks were undignified, ‘expressing neither figure like statuary nor colour like painting’ (Craske, 1997, p.192-94).

But perhaps the purpose of the waxwork was never meant to be art. Perhaps instead the place of the waxwork was firmly entrenched in the juxtaposing notions of celebrity and humility. The ability to look a great celebrity in the eyes, to stand in their presence, and yet see them exactly as they were (a human being just like the viewer) was perhaps equally as emotive, albeit in a different way, as viewing a painting produced by a great master of a beautiful and idealised figure.

(L) Jean-Antoine Houdon, Seated Voltaire, ca.1779-1795, (R) Voltaire waxwork at Madame Tussaud.

Waxworks create a world of make-believe that somehow feels very real. The viewer knows that the slightly iridescent flesh and glassy eyes they are staring at have been shaped by human hands and yet there is the unnerving sense that when one turns ones back on a waxwork it may just come alive. To view figures like Voltaire in this way, to gaze upon them more intently than one ever could in polite society, and to note the most intimate details of their faces, blurs the boundary between normality and celebrity, life and death, mortality and immortality. It offers a unique and humbling chance to see notable figures as the human beings that they are or were and, as the advertisement for the Wax Work Cabinet proclaimed, was undeniably an experience for the curious.

Zoe Screti, Astra Foundation Research Fellow in Manuscript Studies at the Voltaire Foundation

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Editing and digitising marginalia

Voltaire’s comments on Frederick II’s L’Art de la guerre, Clement Draper’s depictions of chemical processes, Herman Melville’s pencil scores, or Samuel Beckett’s reading traces… these are all what we define as marginalia: the reader’s markings in the margins of a book. These markings are difficult to pin down in terms more specific than scribbles, references, and thoughts captured on a page. There is no apparent common rule that groups them together and specifies how they should be understood as a whole, even though they are often studied as an ensemble or a genre. Furthermore, the line – if there is a line – that defines the margins themselves is not always evident, and that is why scholars are constantly questioning what marginalia are, while trying to differentiate between the primary text and its annotations. As Laura Estill acknowledges in her article ‘Encoding the edge: manuscript marginalia and the TEI’, ‘perhaps there are easier distinctions to be made when marginalia is handwritten in printed books – although even then, in the case of authorial revisions, stop-press corrections, or (say) Whitman’s notes in another book, there is no easy answer as to what is “marginal”’.

A discussion of what exactly this marginal space is and how it interacts with the text is crucial when considering the central query of the Editing and Digitising Marginalia workshop: how can the marginalia of source material be encoded as fully, accurately, and helpfully as possible? By trying to define the purpose and character of Voltaire’s, Draper’s, Melville’s and Beckett’s marginalia, Nicholas Cronk, Gillian Pink, and Dan Barker; and Zoe Screti, Christopher Ohge, and Dirk Van Hulle respectively delved into the challenges of digitally editing marginalia, which requires a completely different framework of analysis compared to pre-digital editions or even digital facsimile editions. Following on from the OCTET colloquium on Writers’ Libraries, this workshop explored the importance of studying authors through their reading practices. It focused on the editorial choices behind digitally encoding marginalia, with the added layer of complexity that derives both from the difficulties and the possibilities of the digital medium.

When designing a data model that could represent marginalia as a key component of Voltaire’s complete works, for example, the verbal elements were comparatively easier to encode than the non-verbal marks. Voltaire used different materials to underline, draw, and mark the pages he was reading, or he folded, licked, and stuck them together. How can these practices possibly be translated into the digital sphere? For this digital project, the source material came from the transcribed print volumes of the Corpus des notes marginales de Voltaire, which were themselves one step removed from the original source material, since they had already undergone an editorial process that transformed the original squiggles into typeset signs.

Dan Barker, ‘The aim of digitising OCV’, picture taken by author.

Dan Barker, the Digital Consultant at the Voltaire Foundation, explained in his presentation ‘The aim of digitising OCV’ how he had created a system of mark types to record these marks in order to reproduce source material fully, accurately, and helpfully. He classified a mark according to nodes (the points where the lines meet or cross) or edges (uninterrupted lines) to convey their nature, presence, and relationship to the text. Even if the method does not account for the colour, medium, intensity, or even authorship of marginal marks, readers will be able to search for specific classifications of marks and see if Voltaire used them more than once and where. It is a process that operates within the principles proposed by Gillian Pink of what a new-born digital edition of a manuscript should be: legible, containing both visual and non-verbal elements, and searchable, taking into account the modernisation of the transcription to avoid the potential pitfalls of searching for idiosyncratic spellings.

The issue of searchability was further discussed by Zoe Screti, a postdoctoral researcher at the Voltaire Foundation, in her paper ‘Alchemical marginalia written in prison and cataloguing marginalia’. The quantity and diversity of Clement Draper’s marginalia, in the shape of memory aids, summaries, symbols, diagrams, or eyewitness accounts, are not reflected in the catalogue entries of his archival materials. That discrepancy points towards an incompatibility in the way catalogues were built and the questions that scholars are asking now, hence why Screti is updating the system with usability and consistency in mind, both of which aim to make sources of marginalia accessible and discoverable.

She has access to a subset of Voltaire’s manuscripts and is cataloguing them from scratch, which provides her with a decision-making margin that others might not be able to work with. They are also small in size, allowing for a detailed granularity that would be difficult to obtain if working with Draper’s notebooks, for example. But the challenges of ensuring that catalogues keep up with the pace of research on marginalia remain, in big and small collections alike. If we want to be able to locate specific categories of marginalia, as is the case with Voltaire’s non-verbal markings, and include nuances in our current search and text analysis tools, they need to appear in the catalogue entries, and that means going beyond filters and single codes.

Voltaire’s non-verbal annotations to the Marquis de Vauvenargues’s Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain and their appearance in the Voltaire Foundation’s edition of the marginalia.

Finally, both Melville’s and Beckett’s marginalia are representative of common methodological issues in terms of how to create a uniform TEI data model. As Christopher Ohge explained in his talk entitled ‘Melville’s Marginalia Online, with some general provocations’, there is no solution that covers all cases of marginalia encoding, and that is why current projects have very different data models. He provided an overview of those differences, showing how in Keats’s Paradise Lost, a Digital Edition or Whitman’s marginalia to Thoreau’s A week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, marginalia are wedged into the hierarchy of the existing text to make it work within different structures, while Archaeology of Reading has a bespoke XML tagging structure with a marginalia attribute.

But changing content IDs and crossing over the hierarchy of line elements or having a general term that does not include subtleties is not the methodological solution chosen for Melville’s Marginalia Online. This research tool uses software developed by the Whitman Project to generate the page coordinates of the already uploaded facsimile images, to find a page directly with a word search. Melville’s marginalia are encoded in a <div> tag with several attribute values, so as to include all detail and information. The question posed by Ohge then was as follows: how much context is needed to understand marginalia, and how much granularity?

In an intervention entitled ‘Editing Beckett’s Marginalia’, Dirk Van Hulle answered by stating that it depends on the author, the type of marginalia they wrote, and the resources available for the digital project that provides such context. One of the key elements that digital marginalia allows, as is the case with Beckett, is an insight not only into the reader himself, but the underlying structure of all his drafts and notebooks: a network of markings that, in turn, puts into context how his reading engendered his writing.

In order to make that network visible and searchable, one of the solutions going forward is to use IIIF (International Image Interoperability Framework) as a means of engaging with marginalia. Making resources IIIF compliant ensures they are interoperable with other software, as well as easy to maintain as an online resource with which scholars can interact. It is also culturally inclusive, as it operates on a ‘blank canvas’ principle meaning that non-codex objects can be presented in full.

A piece of marginalia in Voltaire’s copy of the Marquis de Vauvenargues’s Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain demonstrating a stark difference in line weight.

IIIF image viewers could potentially work with improving transcription software, such as Transkribus, to allow for comprehensive resources that can display an image of the page with all its marginalia, paratext, and physical attributes as well as an interactive description and viewable transcription. The ability to describe elements of a text accurately and efficiently via pinpointing areas that have their own locus of metadata, as IIIF is capable of, means that more effort can be devoted to accurate scholarship, which is precisely what Gillian Pink stated in her paper ‘Editing Voltaire’s commentary on Frederick II’s L’Art de la guerre – third time lucky?’ She proposed, for example, to use different colours for the different hands that worked on the manuscript (Frederick II, his secretary, and Voltaire) as a way to take advantage of annotation possibilities with IIIF. However, the question remains: how can we decide which textual blocks should be transcribed as a unit in order to properly represent Voltaire’s marginalia?

The various contributions to the Editing and Digitising Marginalia workshop helped us sketch some answers to this question. Nonetheless, many threads were left to pull, ensuring that, hopefully, there will be another workshop to show how all the projects have built on existing methods while defying their own limits and scope, so that we keep rediscovering authors through the marginal notes that they left.

– Joana Roque

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Meet the Suassos – tracing a family tree among Voltaire’s London patrons

One of the pleasures of exploring the recently completed Œuvres complètes de Voltaire is occasionally stumbling across hidden treasures which can enrich our understanding of the writer’s life and work. One such treasure, found in volume 6A, is the list of 342 subscribers who supported the publication of his epic poem, La Henriade, in London in 1728. It provides a fascinating insight into his connections and networks in the English capital and beyond. The list is printed in what could first appear to be a rather haphazard fashion, and certainly not in anything so easy to navigate as alphabetical order by name. Yet as one begins to delve into the identities behind the names, it becomes clear that certain family groups and other social and professional relationships are hidden in the ordering of the list.

René Pomeau has already illuminated some of these milieux and networks.[1] He identifies the Mendes d’Acosta family of bankers; a literary contingent that includes Horace Walpole, Congreve and Swift; an intellectual group, with Samuel Molyneux, Anthony Collins, Rev’d Dean Berkeley and Newton’s nephew John Conduitt; Anglicans and Quakers; some names plausibly from London’s Huguenot community; families belonging to the British aristocracy; and finally a number of ambassadors or other diplomats from Protestant European states (Denmark, Brunswick, Sweden, Holland, and Prussia).

But a list of subscribers should not be confused with a list of everyone known to Voltaire in England at the time. Just as those creating online petitions today exhort signatories to share the petition with their friends and family, so it appears to have been with literary subscriptions in the eighteenth century. Beyond the obvious names and the famous ones, then, many wider circles emerge from the list, often grouped together, but sometimes surprisingly not.

Detail from page nine of the list of subscribers to La Henriade (London, 1728), including the elusive Suassos.

As we worked to prepare this volume for publication, the names ‘Honourable Baron Swasso’, ‘Honourable Lady Swasso’ (p.9) and ‘Alvaro Lopes Swasso, Esq.’ (p.10) at first resisted identification. But family connections, in this case unearthed by Norma Perry, turned out to be the answer. The first two names appear in the list of subscribers just ahead of a group from the Mendes Dacosta family, mentioned above as one identified by René Pomeau: Anthony Moses Dacosta and his wife Catherine (‘Mrs Catherine D’acosta’). This couple (also cousins) were members of a large family who had emigrated to London to escape anti-Semitic persecution in Portugal in the seventeenth century, and had become naturalised and prosperous in their new home city. Another cousin, Anthony Jacob Dacosta, was a banker who had speculated badly and ended up bankrupt, ultimately fleeing to France at the end of 1725.

One of Anthony Jacob’s enraged creditors was none other than Voltaire himself, who, upon trying to present him with letters of credit in the summer of 1726, was apparently furious to find that his man had lost all his money and fled the country. Perry suggests that Voltaire may have encountered Anthony Moses while searching for Anthony Jacob. The ensuing interview went unexpectedly well given the circumstances: Voltaire appears to have subsequently been on friendly terms with Anthony Moses and his immediate family. Perry also proposes that Voltaire may have attended social gatherings at their main residence, Cromwell House; he certainly noted a witty exchange with Catherine in his notebook of the period: ‘Madame Acosta dit en ma présence à un abbé qui voulait la faire chrétienne, votre dieu, est-il né juif? Oui. A-t-il vécu juif? Oui. Est-il mort juif? Oui. Eh bien soyez donc juif.’ (Madame Acosta said in my presence to a cleric hoping to convert her to Christianity, Was your God born Jewish? Yes. Did he die Jewish? Yes. Well then, become Jewish. [Translation source])

Portrait of Alvaro Lopes Suasso by Catherine da Costa (1718, Joods Historisch Museum).

But, to return to our Suassos, the proximity of the Mendes Dacosta family to the baron and Lady ‘Swasso’ in the list was the clue which led us to their identity. Anthony Moses and Catherine’s daughter, Leonor Rachel, was married to the Dutch-Jewish baron Antonio Lopes Suasso, and was thus the ‘Lady Swasso’ of the subscribers. And Alvaro Lopes Suasso, who appears further down in the list on page ten, was Antonio’s brother. The Suassos were an eminent banking family in the Netherlands, fervent supporters of the House of Orange. Like Voltaire himself, Alvaro later became a member of the Royal Society, which Voltaire compares to the French Academy in the Lettres sur les Anglais, and our old friend Catherine da Costa, a talented miniaturist, painted his portrait, as well as (probably) that of her Suasso grandchildren (‘[Two young children holding an orange]’, gouache on ivory, ex Sothebys, 16 March 1999).

We can also identify Anthony Moses’ younger brother, Joseph. He subscribed for two books for himself, suggesting an even keener interest in either the work or the author than his brother had. Even Catherine’s brothers, Anthony and James ‘Mendoz’ (Mendes) put themselves down for a copy each. Directly below them, we find a certain ‘Abr. Telles, Esq’, who seems on initial research to have further Dutch-Jewish connections – perhaps another family friend, though we have not yet managed to pin down a specific relationship. And he had already subscribed to at least one other book alongside assorted Suassos and da Costas, a 1725 Vocabulary in Six Languages (which lists its subscribers in alphabetical order).

Details from pages five and nine of the list of subscribers to R. J. Andrée, A Vocabulary in Six Languages (London, 1725). Present in the list is Abraham Telles, along with several members of the da Costa and Suasso families.

Voltaire may have known other members of the family too, but it must be the case that some were approached to subscribe not by the author himself, but by other relations acting as intermediaries. Even this small section of the list of subscribers, then, which might at first glance appear an arid document devoid of interest, is testament to the influence of family connections in literary patronage of the period, and to the effectiveness of networks in a world before social media. These lists are rich sources of information and we can guarantee that there will be more stories to tell about this one in particular.

– Alison Oliver and Gillian Pink

[1] In ‘Voltaire en Angleterre. Les enseignements d’une liste de souscription’, Littératures III 4 (January 1955), p.67-76 (repr. Revue Voltaire 1, 2001, p.93-100).

Voltaire séducteur

Dans l’ensemble, la critique moderne s’est surtout intéressée à la signification des œuvres de Voltaire et particulièrement à leur portée philosophique. Le contexte dans lequel on l’a lu est celui des ‘philosophes des Lumières’, un groupe en réalité disparate et divisé, mais unifié dans l’historiographie par des buts communs, la lutte contre les préjugés et les progrès de la raison.

Ce sont bien les buts que Voltaire poursuit dans son œuvre, mais cette entreprise doit se concilier chez lui avec une préoccupation majeure, sa réussite littéraire. Cette préoccupation n’est évidemment pas étrangère à ses confrères en littérature, mais elle semble particulièrement puissante chez le ‘poète-philosophe’ qui a réussi à faire de son siècle, dans l’opinion publique, ‘le siècle de Voltaire’. Cette constatation, ou ce choix de lecture, conduit à scruter les rapports entre l’écrivain et son lecteur.

À côté d’une prise en compte des traces profondes, visibles ou cachées, que les péripéties de son existence ont laissées dans sa création littéraire, à côté de l’analyse des ambitions intellectuelles d’un grand esprit aux curiosités universelles, animé d’un intense ‘besoin de vérité’ (Marc Hersant), il y a place pour la description des méthodes que Voltaire a pratiquées dans tous les genres littéraires pour concilier son projet critique et ‘philosophique’ au sens du XVIIIe siècle avec les attentes et les résistances du lecteur de son temps auquel il pense en écrivant ou en dictant. Cette démarche critique a déjà été pratiquée à propos de ses lettres (notamment par Geneviève Haroche-Bouzinac) ou à propos de certains de ses écrits polémiques (notamment par Olivier Ferret). Mais elle joue un rôle permanent dans toutes les formes de l’écriture voltairienne.

Il suffit de feuilleter la correspondance de l’écrivain pour mesurer l’intérêt passionné avec lequel, de sa jeunesse à ses derniers jours, il sollicite et guette les avis des membres de son premier cercle de lecteurs, celui de connaissances fidèles, appartenant au monde auquel il est attaché, des camarades de collège comme Cideville aux animatrices de salons en vue comme Mme Du Deffand, ou à des personnalités de la cour, comme les d’Argental. La circulation de copies manuscrites en avant-première permet à Voltaire de tenir compte des réactions de ce public représentatif de l’élite sociale à laquelle il veut plaire, à la fois parce qu’elle a le pouvoir d’assurer le succès et parce qu’elle détient une influence majeure dans le domaine politique et moral.

Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemonnier, 1812, Lecture de la tragédie de ‘l’orphelin de la Chine’ de Voltaire dans le salon de madame Geoffrin, huile sur toile, Musée National du Château de Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison.

Ces ‘prépublications’ lui permettent de perfectionner une adaptation de ce qu’il écrit aux attentes et au goût du lecteur qu’il ambitionne de séduire. Ce lecteur est presque certainement catholique et de tendances conservatrices, même s’il existe des nuances entre la noblesse militaire et la bourgeoisie cultivée, par exemple. Pour conquérir ce public, il n’y a pas d’autre voie que celle d’un respect, au moins d’apparence, pour ses réflexes intellectuels, ses convictions et ses intérêts.

C’est ce que la finesse de Voltaire lui enseigne, mais c’est aussi ce que lui a appris la rhétorique de sa jeunesse, cette forme moderne de la seconde sophistique qui est enseignée dans les collèges de la Compagnie de Jésus. De là sort une véritable poétique voltairienne de la conciliation, qui englobe tous les aspects de la création littéraire: choix des genres, superposition des thématiques, captatio benevolentiae fondée sur un jeu de masques.

S’agit-il de dénoncer l’influence terrifiante de la religion sur l’action politique? Ce sera dans une épopée, genre académique, à sujet national et monarchique, avec des épisodes charmants ou terrifiants, comme celui des amours d’Henri ou celui du siège de Paris où la famine conduit à des comportements monstrueux. S’agit-il de remettre en question l’idéal chrétien de chasteté? Ce sera dans des contes en prose ou en vers, comme L’éducation d’une fille, qui célèbre l’union libre sur le mode gai et badin.

Le genre si sérieux et à la mode en Europe de l’histoire universelle est exploité pour dénoncer mille absurdités des croyances et des institutions, mais avec des brassées d’anecdotes et de scènes pittoresques, des aperçus exotiques, des réflexions qui font ressortir la supériorité de la civilisation où vivent les lecteurs contemporains, comme le fait la conclusion du Siècle de Louis XIV, histoire certes ‘philosophique’ d’un règne, mais farcie de ‘particularités et anecdotes’, de détails sur l’armée et les combats, de portraits de figures mondaines, de récits de fêtes.

Rien de plus respectable que la tragédie: ce genre, ornement des cours, rassemble tous les éléments de la culture officielle. C’est donc dans une tragédie comme Mahomet, d’inspiration si catholique en apparence qu’elle peut être dédiée au pape, que Voltaire dénonce l’imposture religieuse, support du despotisme. Il désarme ainsi la défiance de gens dont la vie est enracinée dans le catholicisme.

Pour se concilier un public idéologiquement hostile à ses convictions, mais dont les regards sont tournés vers les cours et les monarques, il consacre tout au long de sa carrière des ouvrages historiques à des figures royales, Charles XII, Louis XIV, Pierre le Grand, les souverains du Saint-Empire. Pour plaire à une aristocratie à dominante militaire, il donne à l’armée et à la guerre une large place, du Poème de Fontenoy à l’Essai sur les mœurs.

OCV, t.23, p.283.

Un autre remède à la défiance du lecteur qu’il veut choisir, c’est l’usage des vers. Fortement liés dans les esprits avec un loisir de qualité et avec une longue tradition classique, ils constituent un langage en général indépendant des réalités et des débats du temps (même si derrière l’aimable paravent des bergeries peut se cacher le loup de la satire). Nourris du souvenir d’Horace et de Lucrèce, les lecteurs auxquels s’adresse Voltaire sont prêts à accepter bien des audaces morales et philosophiques, sans y voir malice. Le poète Voltaire travaille ainsi, le plus souvent aimablement et gaîment, à faire accepter le philosophe Voltaire.

Bien d’autres ressources littéraires l’aident à concilier les attentes du public et son inspiration. Il mêle des thèmes audacieux, comme l’apologie du bonheur par la consommation, à des thèmes traditionnels, comme celui du bonheur rustique dans la simplicité (Discours en vers sur l’homme). Il présente dans le cadre de genres neutres et utilitaires à la mode comme le dictionnaire un mélange d‘informations inoffensives et d’idées subversives (Dictionnaire philosophique portatif).

En lisant de près, au cours d’une longue carrière de commentateur et d’éditeur de ses œuvres, des textes de Voltaire dans tous les genres qu’il a pratiqués, j’ai cru pouvoir discerner chez lui une anticipation permanente des réactions d’un certain lecteur auquel il ne cesse de penser. Il m’a semblé que cette préoccupation était en général plus décisive dans sa création que l’influence des modèles, le respect des règles, les pulsions de l’inconscient, la marque des expériences, la recherche de la cohérence intellectuelle… C’est elle qui mettait en musique tous ces matériaux et déterminait leur choix. Cette approche critique peut s’appliquer à d’autres auteurs; mais elle trouve dans l’œuvre de Voltaire un objet fascinant. Voltaire n’avait qu’un maître: son lecteur, tel qu’il le connaissait ou l’imaginait. C’est ce que j’ai essayé de montrer dans le livre que j’ai sous-titré: Essai sur la séduction littéraire.

Sylvain Menant, Voltaire et son lecteur, essai sur la séduction littéraire (Genève: Droz, 2021).

Voltaire est un écrivain du passé universellement célèbre, comme Shakespeare, Tolstoï, Molière, Balzac ou Goethe. L’essentiel de l’œuvre de ces derniers auteurs est largement connu par le public cultivé de tous les pays, dans la langue originale ou en traduction, mais ce n’est pas le cas pour Voltaire, même en France. Il ne surnage de son œuvre qu’un ou deux contes en prose, que lui-même considérait comme des à-côtés inavouables du monument littéraire et philosophique qu’il avait eu l’ambition de bâtir.

Subsistent aussi, et de façon plus évidente, une façon de penser, sceptique et ironique, ‘l’esprit voltairien’, et la réputation d’un maître de justice et de tolérance. Mais la connaissance de cet esprit est fondée sur des on-dit bien plutôt que sur une fréquentation directe des textes. La lecture de son œuvre s’est réduite de façon spectaculaire après sa mort, même si les éditions de ses œuvres complètes se sont multipliées depuis l’édition de Kehl, dont il a pu voir la préparation, jusqu’à la grande édition dont la Voltaire Foundation vient d’achever triomphalement la publication.

C’est que le lecteur pour lequel Voltaire a écrit son œuvre, qu’il a cherché et réussi à séduire, sans jamais se relâcher dans cette entreprise, ce lecteur n’est plus.

– Sylvain Menant

Sylvain Menant, professeur émérite à la Sorbonne (Sorbonne-Université), vient de recevoir le Grand Prix de la Critique 2022 de l’Académie française pour Voltaire et son lecteur, essai sur la séduction littéraire (Genève: Droz, 2021) et l’ensemble de ses travaux critiques.

Death of the author? Translation and the potential loss of authorship in Voltaire’s Commentaire historique

Voltaire’s autobiographical work, Commentaire historique sur les œuvres de l’auteur de La Henriade. Avec les pièces originales et les preuves (1776), is a text that challenges our understanding of the nascent autobiographical form at the end of Ancien Régime France. The text itself is divided into three sections: a prose part recounting Voltaire’s life; a collection of letters that cover an array of topics; and a poem, Sésostris. Unlike the intimate je in Rousseau’s Confessions, Voltaire’s piece is written in the third person: the narrative je and Voltaire are distinct. This stylistic peculiarity problematizes the question of whether or not Voltaire truly is the author; scholars such as I. O. Wade and Raymonde Morizot have, in fact, suggested that Jean-Louis Wagnière, Voltaire’s secretary, was the author of this work, whereas Nicholas Cronk, in his critical introduction to the Commentaire, proves that Voltaire was in fact the author. While these debates are understandably centered on the French edition of the text, I believe that a consideration of translations of this work may help us to understand the fact that there was not a fixed contemporary understanding of Voltaire’s work. The 1777 London translation, published a year before Voltaire’s death in 1778, may do just that. Despite the fact that eighteenth-century translators regularly took creative liberties in their work (for example, the English translator indicates that the poetry in the prose part is translated such that the reader will be entertained, and thus is not translated literally), I believe that the translation in the London edition highlights a degree of uncertainty around the nature of the original Commentaire historique.

Title page of the 1777 English translation.

The translation of the title is radical: Historical Memoirs of the Author of the Henriade. With some Original Pieces. To which are added Genuine Letters of Mr. de Voltaire. Taken from his Minutes. Translated from the French. The text itself undergoes a slight generic change, from the historical commentary to the memoir. The notion of ‘proof’, present in the original title, is implied here in the idea of ‘genuine’ letters, taken from Voltaire’s own minutes, which are the principal type of proof given, clarifying the ambiguous pièces originales et les preuves of the French title. It is through this substitution that we better understand what ‘proof’ means. The inclusion of the term ‘minutes’ may also be used to underscore a degree of authenticity, perhaps referencing the fact that the letters were transcribed in a way that was common near the end of Voltaire’s life: Voltaire dictated the letters, and Wagnière transcribed them. From his hand or from his mouth, the words are originally Voltaire’s. Conversely, the distance between the author and the subject of the memoirs is accentuated through the double reference to Voltaire, once implicitly, once explicitly. Lastly, the English title is perhaps inspired by the final sentence of the prose section of the Commentaire historique, translated directly as: ‘We shall now give some genuine letters of Mr. de Voltaire, from his own minutes, which are at present in our hands, and shall only publish such as we imagine may be of general utility.’ This distance, present in the text, is moved to the forefront through its inclusion in the title.

These paratextual oddities are further highlighted by the inclusion of an Advertisement that is not present in the French edition. The translator writes: ‘No character in the literary world is so universally known, nor has [sic] the works of any writer of any age been sought after with such avidity as the writing of him who is the subject of the following Memoirs.’ This introductory sentence raises a question about the perceived vagueness of the authorship. Why include this advertisement if the work is understood to be autobiographical? Perhaps the London editors are making the claim that Voltaire is in fact not the author, but rather simply the subject; perhaps they still consider that Voltaire is the author but are striving to enhance radically the distance between the author and the autobiographical subject.

Beginning of the ‘Advertisement’ in the English translation.

The beginning of the French edition of the Commentaire begins thus:

‘Je tâcherai, dans ces Commentaires sur un homme de lettres, de ne rien dire que d’un peu utile aux lettres; et surtout de ne rien avancer que sur des papiers originaux. Nous ne ferons aucun usage ni des satires, ni des panégyriques presque innombrables, qui ne seront pas appuyés sur des faits authentiques.’

The French, here, sees a movement from the je to the nous. The English, however, begins:

‘In these Memoirs, the subject of which is a literary man, we shall endeavour to avoid every thing which may not in some degree tend to the advantage of letters, and particularly make it our care to advance nothing, except on the authority of original papers. No use shall be made of the almost innumerable satires and panegyrics which have been published, unless they are found to be supported by facts properly authenticated.’

While the first-person plural ‘we’ is present in both the French and English editions, the English translator relies on it almost exclusively, removing the author – the first person singular, the je, ‘I’ – almost entirely from the text. In fact, apart from instances where the first person pronoun ‘I’ appears within a letter, the English translator seems to use it only a handful of times, sometimes directly, such as in the case, ‘Although I think nothing is more insipid than the details of infancy…’ (p. 2), and sometimes simply to turn a phrase, ‘The fanaticism of Nonotte was so great, that in I don’t know what, philosophical, anti-philosophical, religious Dictionary…’ (p. 147). Largely, however, the French je becomes the English we: ‘J’ai entendu dire’ becomes ‘But we have heard’; while ‘J’étais en 1732 à la première représentation de Zaïre…’, ‘We were present at the first representation of Zara…’ (p.13). While the je of the French allows for the insertion of a narratorial intimacy, where the je is both a witness to the events of Voltaire’s life and functions as the closest thing there is to autobiographical intimacy provided in this work, the we in the English removes any presence of a singular, autobiographical intimacy.

I would like to posit that the London translation of Voltaire’s Commentaire historique embodies contemporaneous uncertainty around the authorship of Voltaire’s autobiography. When the English edition was published in 1777, Voltaire was still alive. Are the changes thus simply superficial, ludic gestures on the part of a translator who was seeking to carry on Voltaire’s autobiographical game? Or do they lend themselves to a new understanding about how the English translators understood the authorship of the Commentaire? Regardless, the London edition complicates our understanding about the perceived authorship of the Commentaire historique following its publication near the end of Voltaire’s life.

– Ryan Brown, PhD student, University of Chicago

The Oxford Complete Works of Voltaire … complete!

The Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, one of the most complex publishing projects ever, has been underway since 1967. Two of the editors look back on this great undertaking.

Gillian Pink: It’s amazing to think that we’ve finally reached the end! When I tell non-specialists that our edition of Voltaire’s works runs to 205 volumes, they are always astonished to learn that he wrote so much. Certainly, his better-known works represent only a very small part of the whole.

Alison Oliver: That’s true – and there is so much to discover! We should remember also that almost exactly a quarter of those 205 volumes is correspondence – an astonishing editorial feat by our founder, Theodore Besterman, who edited it not once, but twice. The edition we use now is what he called ‘definitive’ – a bold claim even in 1968, especially as new letters are emerging even now.

GP: Yes, and while there have been fewer ‘new’ discoveries outside the correspondence, one obvious place in which our edition breaks fresh ground compared to its predecessors is in the inclusion of Voltaire’s marginalia. Publication began in the seventies as a separate project run by a team of Russian specialists, but it joined the Complete Works in the early 2000s and was finished here at the Voltaire Foundation, in collaboration with our Russian colleagues.

AO: All this adds up to an extraordinary body of work. Voltaire is an astonishingly versatile writer, and nothing was beneath his notice. For example, his support for victims of injustice, such as Jean Calas, is well known, but he also interested himself in more quotidian matters in his capacity of lord of the manor on his estate of Ferney on the Swiss border. His epic poems La Henriade and La Pucelle brought him fame (and infamy), but there are also gems of occasional verse in which his wit and style are encapsulated in just a few lines.

Gillian Pink and Alison Oliver.

GP: And the chronological organisation of the edition means that those lesser-known writings may gain more visibility: anyone consulting Œdipe [the play that made Voltaire famous in his twenties] in vol.1A may be interested to find the tantalising fragments of an even earlier play, Amulius et Numitor, dating from his school days. Or a reader interested in another of his well-known plays, Mahomet, would find, in the same volume 20B, the short prose text De l’Alcoran et de Mahomet, which was published with the play in Voltaire’s lifetime, but separated from it in all the posthumous editions until this one.

AO: What I like about the idea of the chronological principle is that it is non-judgemental. Literary judgements are apt to date badly, and we want the edition to be, as far as any can be, timeless. By organising according to chronology – at least as far as this can be determined – we are trying to provide a neutral framework on which to hang the content, rather than engage in judgements about genre, hierarchy and literary merit. The founders of the edition opted for ‘date of substantial composition’, rather than date of publication – for the sound reason that Voltaire did not always publish works (and sometimes ones of major importance) as soon as they were written. It’s true that the chronological principle has immeasurably complicated the publishing process… if we’d decided to put all the poetry together, for example, a single volume could potentially have been edited by an individual editor, with all of it ready to publish as soon as it was received. As it is, we’ve often had to hold back texts edited by one person while waiting for other editors to catch up.

GP: I laughed when you referred, very delicately, to ‘complicating the publishing process’! As we know so well, but our readers won’t, that number of 205 has been in constant flux over the years.

AO: We’ve recently been delving into the archives relating to the founding of the project. The fact that ‘as many as 200 volumes’ was mentioned way back in 1967 (before being dialled back later, and then eventually reached) surprised me for one! It’s also been interesting to discover that William Barber and Owen Taylor, who pitched the project to Besterman, initially envisaged only a fairly modest project – just a good, reliable text to replace that of the standard nineteenth-century edition then in use, with minimal introductions and annotation.

GP: These elements have certainly expanded over the years, and with them has come the need to split volumes. I think it was in 1990 that it was first deemed necessary to do that, with volume 63, because it became clear that the content would result in far too many pages to fit within a single physical binding. Since then, we’ve had not only pairs, like 75A and 75B, but as many as a four-way split, with 60A-D. This did allow us a certain amount of leeway sometimes in getting round the problem of waiting for contributors to submit their work, but must have confused librarians and frustrated readers. The Œuvres complètes were a sort of Penelope’s shroud, a seemingly ever-expanding universe of Voltaire, stretching endlessly into the future!

AO: It’s one of the challenges of taking on such an ambitious project, though. And over the course of the 50+ years of the endeavour, editorial standards have inevitably evolved. As the edition has grown, it has allowed scholars to study the Voltaire corpus in ways unimagined at the start of the project, and so it is unsurprising that the more we publish, the more there is to say!

GP: This is something we’re encountering right now as we prepare to make the print edition into a digital resource. Some of this is a (relatively) straightforward conversion process, but occasionally we’d quite like to be able to add little supplements to some of the volumes published longer ago.

AO: Yes, and there will be new ways of looking at the corpus by making it cross-searchable, adding metadata and links to other resources. It’s exciting to think of these possibilities for research evolving in ways that we can’t predict. But also reassuring to know that the books themselves will endure and will be on library shelves for generations to come.

– Alison Oliver and Gillian Pink

First blogged in: The Oxford Polyglot 2021-22, Issue 2, Hilary term 2022.

Les Lumières à Sherbrooke (Québec): Une exposition de documents originaux et un colloque sur Voltaire

Dans le cadre d’une exposition sur Voltaire s’est tenu un colloque, ‘Voltaire et les Lumières au Québec, histoire ancienne ou nécessité présente?’, les 7 et 8 avril 2022. L’exposition intitulée ‘Voltaire: sa vie, sa plume, son influence au Québec’, mettant en valeur la collection Jacqueline Lambert-David, au Centre d’archives Mgr-Antoine-Racine du 27 janvier au 23 juin 2022, représentait en effet le prétexte idéal pour réunir les chercheuses et les chercheurs autour d’enjeux philosophiques, politiques, artistiques, religieux et historiques, passés et présents. Nous présentons ici l’exposition, puis le colloque.

Une exposition exceptionnelle

L’exposition d’une sélection de manuscrits de la collection Jacqueline Lambert-David marque l’aboutissement de la première phase d’un projet mené conjointement par l’Université de Sherbrooke et la Voltaire Foundation de l’Université d’Oxford visant la numérisation et la mise en ligne de l’entièreté de cette collection de manuscrits voltairiens. La collection a été numérisée par les soins de la doctorante en histoire de l’Université de Sherbrooke Sonia Blouin. La Voltaire Foundation, de son côté, œuvre actuellement à la mise en ligne de la collection dans un avenir rapproché.

Cette collection fut en grande partie constituée entre 1848 et 1890 par les arrières-grands-parents et les grands-parents de Jacqueline Lambert-David, alors propriétaires du château de Ferney, l’ancienne demeure de Voltaire. Elle s’est considérablement enrichie dans les années 1950 par cette dernière grâce à de nouvelles acquisitions. Constituée surtout de copies de lettres, de poèmes et de manuscrits divers de Voltaire, la collection comprend notamment quelques inédits et 56 lettres autographes de Voltaire publiées entre 1953 et 1965 par Theodore Besterman dans la première édition de son Voltaire’s Correspondence.

Préparée par le Professeur Peter Southam, le Professeur Pierre Hébert et la commissaire invitée Chloë Southam, l’exposition ‘Voltaire: sa vie, sa plume, son influence au Québec’ permet de découvrir une soixantaine de documents de la collection Jacqueline Lambert-David, à laquelle s’ajoutent des écrits québécois sur Voltaire témoignant de son influence au Québec, de même que des périodiques ayant fait l’objet de censure en raison de leurs idées voltairiennes.

Deux journées de colloque pour cerner l’influence de Voltaire au Québec
Manuscrit type: affiche non datée de l’Epître à Uranie (photographie K. Boivin).

En 1945, l’historien Marcel Trudel signait un ouvrage qui fait date: L’Influence de Voltaire au Canada. Depuis ce temps, aucune étude d’envergure n’avait revisité cette question; tel était le but du colloque ‘Voltaire et les Lumières au Québec: histoire ancienne ou nécessité présente?’, organisé par les professeurs Pierre Hébert (U. de Sherbrooke), Bernard Andrès (U. du Québec à Montréal) et Nicholas Dion (U. de Sherbrooke). Ces échanges ont pris place dans le cadre des 61e journées scientifiques de l’Association québécoise pour l’étude de l’imprimé (AQEI) les 7 et 8 avril 2022 au Centre d’archives Mgr-Antoine-Racine ainsi qu’au Séminaire de Sherbrooke.

Micheline Cambron, professeure émérite de l’Université de Montréal, a ouvert la première journée en abordant ‘L’Ingénu de Voltaire. Lieux communs et mise en récit d’une quête épistémologique’. Scrutant minutieusement les modalités d’énonciation des lieux communs, elle a montré que les idées farfelues présentées comme du ‘déjà su’ apportent peu au conte; en revanche, par leur accumulation, le lecteur est amené à être attentif au caractère fallacieux d’une prémisse. En somme, la leçon de L’Ingénu mettrait en cause l’indécision devant laquelle on est placé devant les lieux communs.

Dans une communication ayant pour titre ‘Les épigones québécois de Voltaire et leur influence sur le développement actuel d’une culture laïque francophone au Québec’, Jacques G. Ruelland a présenté le parcours intellectuel des quatre ‘philosophes’ québécois du XVIIIe siècle associés aux idées des Lumières: Fleury Mesplet, Pierre du Calvet, Valentin Jautard et Pierre de Sales Laterrière. Ruelland a mis en lumière l’anticléricalisme déiste de ces quatre figures qui ont multiplié les démêlés avec les autorités en promouvant la culture laïque à l’époque de la Révolution française.

La présentation suivante, de Sébastien Drouin (U. de Toronto), a abordé l’‘Antiphilosophie et antivoltairianisme chez Joseph-Octave Plessis et Ignace Bourget’. Drouin a couplé l’analyse du contenu des bibliothèques de Mgrs Plessis (liste inédite) et de Bourget avec des extraits des écrits de ceux-ci, afin de faire apparaître les racines antiphilosophiques et antivoltairianistes de l’ultramontanisme au XIXe siècle québécois.

Joël Castonguay-Bélanger (U. de la Colombie-Britannique) a quant à lui traqué ‘Le centenaire de Voltaire dans la presse canadienne’. Contrairement au constat de Marcel Trudel selon lequel l’événement de 1878 serait passé inaperçu, le centenaire a fait couler beaucoup d’encre à partir de 1876, polarisant le discours de la presse entre voltairianistes et antivoltairianistes.

Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink (U. des Saarlandes, Allemagne), dans ‘Libéralisme radical, laïcité et héritage des Lumières au Québec à la fin du XIXe siècle – le rôle précurseur de Paul-Marc Sauvalle et d’Aristide Filiatreault, journalistes et intellectuels’, a révélé l’alliance improbable entre un journaliste distingué, orateur important et très présent dans les cercles sociaux (Sauvalle, 1857-1920) et un typographe effacé (Filiatreault, 1851-1913) qui animait des revues satiriques, en raison de leur goût commun pour la polémique. Tous deux ont fondé Canada-Revue, qualifiée de ‘journal huguenot’ par ses détracteurs – le clergé et la presse conservatrice – et censurée en 1892. D’après Lüsebrink, ce ‘libéralisme radical’ met cause la place dominante de l’Eglise dans la société québécoise en général et dans l’éducation en particulier (l’éducation au féminin est un combat corollaire).

Par la suite, Bernard Andrès (U. du Québec à Montréal) a présenté ‘Honoré Beaugrand (1846-1906) et l’émancipation maçonnique du Québec’. En 1873, Honoré Beaugrand rejoint la loge maçonnique King Philip à Fall River et déclare dans son journal son appartenance forte à la franc-maçonnerie. Beaugrand est le premier Canadien français à clamer haut et fort sa qualité de franc-maçon libéral. Ce libre-penseur participe notamment à la fondation de la loge montréalaise L’Emancipation (1895-1911), dont les valeurs sont issues des Lumières. Au Québec, l’absolue liberté de conscience qui fonde la franc-maçonnerie conduira aussi à l’émancipation graduelle de l’ultramontanisme, d’après Andrès.

Julien Vallières (Laboratoire d’analyse des discours et récits collectifs, U. McGill) a clos la journée en dépliant ‘L’influence de Rousseau au Canada [par] l’examen du discours de réception à Montréal (1900-1920)’. Vallières a souhaité vérifier de quelle manière le philosophe a influencé les acteurs de la vie culturelle au Québec. Entre autres, ses analyses révèlent que Rousseau est enseigné à l’Université Laval de Montréal dès 1901 ; qu’Etienne Parent s’inspire librement du penseur dans ‘Les rêveries d’un fumeur solitaire’ (1910) rédigées dans son journal de collège ; et que Les Confessions sont une lecture de jeunesse déterminante pour Claude-Henri Grignon, romancier et polémiste majeur des années 1930.

Lors de la seconde journée, les questions liées à la censure, à la laïcité et à la tolérance ont été au cœur des discussions. La première séance a eu pour point de départ l’écoute d’une émission de Radio-Collège diffusée en 1948. Dans ‘La vie et l’œuvre de Voltaire’, Raymond Tanghe s’entretient avec le révérend père Ernest Gagnon, jésuite, professeur à la Faculté des lettres de l’Université de Montréal, et Jean-Marie Laurence, professeur de littérature à l’Ecole normale de Montréal. Les deux invités condamnent l’épicurisme, l’égocentrisme et l’esprit étriqué de Voltaire, et ce, en s’appuyant vraisemblablement sur leur connaissance des morceaux choisis plutôt que des œuvres intégrales.

Marc André Bernier (U. du Québec à Trois-Rivières) a ensuite présenté la communication intitulée ‘Histoire-science et art du récit chez Marcel Trudel’. Son étude fine de L’Influence de Voltaire au Canada de Trudel a mis au jour certains paradoxes entre la démarche scientifique de l’historien et sa rhétorique, qui tient surtout de l’apologétique. Déterminé à mesurer le ‘volume du courant voltairien au Canada’, Trudel s’est donné pour mission d’établir des faits précis, ce qu’il peine à faire puisqu’une métaphore longuement filée de l’inondation tient lieu d’hypothèse de recherche. Autrement dit, la démarche scientifique de Trudel lui permet d’exposer sa thèse, tous les faits montrant que Voltaire a été ‘notre seul maître’, mais la conclusion reste étrangère à tous ces faits pour donner une explication apologétique: le Canada aurait été sauvé miraculeusement des ‘eaux’ voltairiennes par le clergé.

La communication suivante a permis justement d’éprouver cette hypothèse. Pierre Hébert (U. de Sherbrooke) a prononcé la communication ‘Une censure en crise: le Voltaire “post-Trudel”, 1945-1960’. Est-ce que le discours sur Voltaire peut être conçu comme une trace d’un signifié plus grand sur la censure dans ces années? Hébert a répondu à cette question grâce à un dépouillement systématique de la revue mensuelle Lectures et du quotidien Le Devoir durant les années 1945-1960. L’antivoltairianisme des années 1940 s’efface graduellement dans les pages du Devoir, contrairement à Lectures, revue catholique. A partir des années 1950, Voltaire occupe une place sans complexe dans les pages de ce journal plus indépendant. En quinze ans se serait opérée une fissuration notable, précédant l’effondrement complet du régime censorial clérical des lettres au Québec.

A la suite de Hébert, Charlène Deharbe et Hervé Guay (U. du Québec à Trois-Rivières) ont présenté une communication ayant pour titre ‘Voltaire sur les planches: l’adaptation théâtrale de Candide par Antoine Laprise’. S’intéressant à l’actualisation du roman voltairien par le Théâtre du sous-marin jaune à la fin de la décennie 1990, Deharbe et Guay ont montré que ce théâtre de marionnettes a permis une appropriation par le plus grand nombre d’une œuvre classique sur le mode ludique, un dialogue avec le non-spécialiste. Plus encore, cette lecture actualisante rendrait l’ironie plus tangible.

La dernière séance a tiré les fils de l’étoffe voltairienne jusqu’à nos jours. Nova Doyon (Cégep de Saint-Laurent) a abordé ‘La question de la liberté académique et des nouvelles sensibilités’. Comment présenter Candide au cégep (au Québec, une institution d’enseignement supérieur préuniversitaire) à l’heure des contraintes entourant la liberté académique? La conclusion ouverte de Doyon suggérait que Candide a encore beaucoup de choses à apprendre aux étudiantes et étudiants, mais qu’il est nécessaire d’être à l’écoute de leurs sensibilités. A cet égard, il est intéressant de noter que l’œuvre est suspecte aujourd’hui (esclavage, violences à caractère sexuel) pour des raisons bien différentes de jadis (anticléricalisme, libre pensée, pessimisme).

Le colloque s’est terminé par un regard d’ensemble d’Yvan Lamonde (U. McGill). Dans ‘La marche à la laïcité au Québec (1837-2022)’, Lamonde a montré que l’éducation a été un vecteur déterminant pour la laïcité au Québec depuis les Rébellions des Patriotes (1837-1838). En 1837, l’Eglise se met dans une position de médiation entre l’Eglise protestante et l’Etat (laïque). Le loyalisme du clergé est bénéfique à ce dernier, puisque les autorités britanniques placent l’éducation des francophones sous la responsabilité des confessions religieuses à partir de 1845. La suite de l’histoire consiste en une séparation progressive de l’Eglise et de l’Etat. Lamonde a retracé ainsi quelques jalons marquants de l’histoire de la laïcité jusqu’à nos jours, en suivant le fil rouge de l’éducation.

La liberté de pensée a été interrogée de diverses manières par la communauté scientifique rassemblée à Sherbrooke lors de ce colloque ‘Voltaire et les Lumières au Québec: histoire ancienne ou nécessité présente?’; l’exposition ‘Voltaire: sa vie, sa plume, son influence au Québec’, qui se tiendra jusqu’au 23 juin, invite à des réflexions semblables.

– Karol’Ann Boivin et Pierre Hébert

Voltaire, the Lettres sur les Anglais, and Enlightenment cosmopolitanism

Fougeret de Monbron, Le Cosmopolite ou le citoyen du monde, title page of the 1753 edition (BnF).

‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means’: so spoke Prime Minister Theresa May, addressing her party faithful at a conference in 2016, soon after the Brexit referendum. It was Diogenes the Cynic, two and a half millennia ago, who first styled himself a kosmou polites, a citizen of the world, and this Greek expression survives in many modern European languages. The term cosmopolite enters the French language in the sixteenth century, and still today it is often used, in a weak sense, to describe someone who is simply well travelled. Fougeret de Monbron, for example, in a book entitled Le Cosmopolite ou le citoyen du monde (1750), wrote about his travels in Europe: ‘L’univers est une espèce de livre dont on n’a lu que la première page quand on n’a vu que son pays.’

In the eighteenth century the term acquired greater ideological heft. The ethos of cosmopolitisme (a term first attested in the first half of the eighteenth century) characterises a mindset that was common to the European élite of the Enlightenment. Educated men and women of this period experienced a feeling of kinship with a broader humanity, that was separate from, and not in contradiction with, the patriotism they felt for their own countries. This cosmopolitan ethos is evident in a letter Voltaire wrote to César de Missy, then resident in London (D2648, 1 September 1742): ‘Je ne sais si le pays qui est devenu le vôtre est l’ennemi de celui que le hasard de la naissance a fait le mien, mais je sais bien que les esprits qui pensent comme vous sont de mon pays, et sont mes vrais amis.’

In his essay ‘Of goodness and goodness of nature’, Francis Bacon famously wrote that ‘if a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows that he is a citizen of the world.’ In this perspective, cosmopolitanism is closely linked with the idea of civility. As Keith Thomas writes, in his recent book In Pursuit of Civility (2018): ‘The friendly reception of foreign visitors had been an essential test of civility since classical times. In the early modern period, it became increasingly important, with the growth of travel, the migration of religious refugees and the vast expansion of international trade.’

I came to reflect on this question recently when I was writing the introduction to the Lettres sur les Anglais for the Complete works of Voltaire. In the opening sentence of the book (in its French-language version), the narrator – who sounds suspiciously like Voltaire – presents himself to the reader as an ‘homme raisonnable’, curious to learn more about the Quakers. He calls on an eminent Quaker who has retired to a country house on the edge of London, and there follows a scene of high comedy. The Frenchman, who bows and waves his hat in deferential mode, is utterly confounded by the plainly dressed Quaker who refuses to bow and scrape, and addresses his French visitor with the familiar ‘thou’ (I quote here the original English-language version of the text): ‘He did not uncover himself when I appeared, and advanced towards me without once stooping his body; but there appeared more politeness in the open, human air of his countenance, than in the custom of drawing one leg behind the other, and taking that from the head, which is made to cover it. Friend, he says to me, I perceive thou art a stranger…’

In the scene that follows, the French visitor is received with sincere hospitality, even though he finds it difficult at first to unlearn his French social manners: ‘I still continued to make some very unseasonable ceremonies, it not being easy to disengage one’s self at once from habits we have long been used to.’ After eating together, the two men fall into a discussion of religion. The Catholic visitor explains to his Quaker host that to be considered a true Christian he would need to be baptised, to which the Quaker objects that baptism is a ceremony inherited from Judaism, and that Christ himself never baptised his followers. The French narrator, who had begun by declaring his reasonableness, finds that he has no answer to the Quaker on this point of doctrine, but nor can he admit that he has lost the argument. ‘I had more sense than to contest with him, since there is no possibility of convincing an enthusiast’, he declares pompously, before quickly changing the subject.

The opening letter of the Lettres sur les Anglais has attracted much commentary. To begin with, it places the theme of religion front and centre, using a seemingly light and amusing dialogue to conduct what is in fact a brief but sophisticated consideration of the nature and foundation of Christian belief. In suggesting that different Christian traditions pick and choose between different parts of the Bible, Voltaire clearly hints at the superiority of a deistic form of belief that transcends the particular ceremonies of any one sect: ‘But art thou circumcised, added he [the Quaker]? I have not the honour to be so, says I. Well, friend, continues the Quaker, thou art a Christian without being circumcised, and I am one without being baptised.’

The deist undercurrent of this opening encounter between Catholic and Quaker is self-evident, but in other respects this first letter poses challenges to the reader. At the start, we are naturally drawn into complicity with the self-styled reasonable narrator, faced as he is by the comic and eccentric figure of the Quaker who steadfastly refuses to remove his beaver fur hat. But as their discussion evolves, we come increasingly to admire the Quaker’s solid virtues, and the ‘reasonable’ narrator loses our confidence as he loses the argument with the Quaker. Our sympathy for the two actors in this scene is further complicated by an awareness that it might loosely be based on reality: the real-life Voltaire, when he was in London, did indeed pay a visit to a prominent Quaker, Andrew Pitt, who lived outside London, in Hampstead; as for the argument about the Biblical arguments in favour of baptism, Voltaire himself did engage in just such an argument in London, as is recounted by the young Quaker Edward Higginson who taught Voltaire English. This opening letter is a piece of fiction, of course, but it is a fiction inspired by Voltaire’s lived experience in London in the 1720s.

Voltaire’s magisterial use of irony contributes to – while also complicating – our pleasure in reading this opening letter. Erich Auerbach wrote some memorable pages on what he called Voltaire’s ‘searchlight technique’, his use of defamiliarisation (where bowing becomes ‘the custom of drawing one leg behind the other’) to make us rethink apparently familiar concepts. The comic defamiliarisation of acts of social intercourse such as bowing or raising a hat seems harmless and innocent enough; but in Voltaire’s hands the technique is treacherous, as he then immediately applies it to a discussion of religious ritual (baptism, circumcision). The deconstruction of these Christian practices is anything but harmless or innocent, and the unwitting readers who thought they were laughing at an eccentric English Quaker or an overly ceremonious French Catholic suddenly find themselves complicit in mocking Christian doctrine.

For years we have been taught to read Voltaire’s Lettres sur les Anglais as a book ‘about the English’, but it is not only that, and it is perhaps not even mainly that. The opening juxtaposition of the Ancien Régime Catholic and the sober English Quaker is an object lesson in cultural difference, but it is also a demonstration of how those differences may be overcome: even while Voltaire has fun in pointing out what divides them, he also reminds us of what they have fundamentally in common: they share a meal together, in mutual respect and civility and, despite everything, they both identify as Christians. This lesson in tolerant understanding and exchange is a lesson for Voltaire’s readers, a lesson in how to read the book that they are just beginning, and more generally a lesson in how to lead their Enlightened lives. Civility and the ethic of cosmopolitanism are at the heart of this opening letter, and it is surely no coincidence that the word cosmopolitisme enters the French language at round about the time of the publication of the Lettres sur les Anglais.

Title page of Letters concerning the English nation (London, 1733).

Our new edition of the Lettres sur les Anglais reveals this text in a fresh light by emphasising also the European, we might say cosmopolitan, nature of its publication. For most of the twentieth century, following Lanson’s pioneering edition of the Lettres philosophiques in 1909, the Lettres were seen as a book about England, written for the French. This interpretation failed to take account of the crucial fact that an English translation of the work, Letters concerning the English nation, appeared in London in 1733, with Voltaire’s full knowledge, before the French language editions, published in London, Rouen and Paris in 1734. The new Oxford edition of the Lettres is the first to include the English text and to accord it its due importance. It is now clear that Voltaire wrote this text also for an Anglophone readership, and the Letters were a best-seller in Britain and Ireland throughout the eighteenth century. In its French-language version, this book was published in London as well as in France, and was then reprinted in the Low Countries and in Germany. Much attention has been paid to the high-profile censorship of the Lettres philosophiques in France in 1734 (and of course, censorship was always good for sales); far less attention has been paid to the fact that this book was quickly reprinted and read across Europe. With his Lettres sur les Anglais, Voltaire wrote a book designed for a European élite, the first cosmopolitan classic of the Enlightenment.

Aaron Hill (National Portrait Gallery).

In his Reith Lectures of 2016, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah talked about the ways in which people’s thinking about religion, nation, race and culture very often reflects misunderstandings about notions of identity: ‘If cosmopolitanism involves a simple recognition that our lives are interrelated in ways that transcend boundaries and that our human concerns must, too, it has brute reality on its side.’ That is an idea that the Enlightenment well understood and that Voltaire explores memorably in the Lettres sur les Anglais.

Aaron Hill, The Tragedy of Zara, 2nd ed. (London, 1736) (image from Biblio.com).

Voltaire’s cosmopolitan ambitions were certainly recognised in his lifetime, for example by Aaron Hill, the poet and dramatist who ran the Theatre Royal in London. He is remembered, among other things, as the author of Zara, an English rewriting of Zaïre, and by far the most successful English-language version of any Voltaire play in the eighteenth century. When Zara was first performed in London, Hill wrote to Voltaire as follows (D1082, 3 June 1736):

‘I found you born for no one country, by the embracing wideness of your sentiments; for, since you think for all mankind, all ages, and all languages, will claim the merit of your genius. Whatever narrowness there is in poets, there is none in poetry, at least, your poetry… What paints all manners, should delight all countries.’

– Nicholas Cronk

Endings and new beginnings: Voltaire’s seemingly infinite writings

Robert Darnton.

This week, Robert Darnton will be giving a lecture in Oxford, as part of a celebration to mark the publication of the final volumes of the Complete works of Voltaire. This project was first conceived in 1967, before the Voltaire Foundation came to Oxford in the 1970s; and as Greg Brown suggested, in a lecture given last week at the online Enlightenment Workshop, you could say the project goes back to the 1940s, when Theodore Besterman first had the idea of producing a new edition of Voltaire’s correspondence.

So the publication of all 205 volumes of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (known as OCV) marks an important moment in Enlightenment studies. Voltaire wrote a lot – one estimate puts the total at around 15 million words, which, as Besterman liked to say, is the equivalent of 20 Bibles. There have been previous ‘complete’ printings of Voltaire, most recently the so-called Moland edition in the 1870s and 1880s, but ours is the first ever critical scholarly edition. Every single work of Voltaire appears here with a full listing of all variants to the text, often extensive scholarly notes, and an introduction setting the work in its literary and historical context. Each text has been studied from the point of view of its printing history, and the astonishing extent of Voltaire’s detailed mastery of the print trade is revealed here for the first time.

Œuvres compètes de Voltaire.

But still, an anxiety remains: are these Complete works truly complete…? And what would ‘complete’ even mean, in the case of a writer like Voltaire? We include in OCV a number of texts published for the first time, most notably the marginal writings in the books in Voltaire’s library. Then there is another category of ‘new’ works, those that have always been available in theory, but that had become unrecognisable as a result of a profoundly corrupt print tradition. OCV reveals a number of masterpieces, including the Questions sur l’Encylopédie and the Commentaire historique sur les œuvres de l’auteur de La Henriade, works that have not been printed as Voltaire intended since the eighteenth century. And we have also done our best not to include works that Voltaire did not write: the Moland edition began by including Candide, seconde partie, then had to reprint the volume in question when it was remembered that this was a work by Henri-Joseph Dulaurens (who was deliberately trying to pass it off as being by Voltaire…). Our new edition pays particular attention to this question of attributed and attributable works.

The business of defining exactly the extent (and limits) of Voltaire’s œuvre is far from simple. New research happily generates more discoveries, and so more questions, and no doubt other works of Voltaire will be added to our existing corpus in the years to come. And as for Voltaire’s letters, it was certainly unwise of Besterman to have named his second, revised, version of the Correspondence, the ‘definitive’ edition.

And a new Voltaire letter in Electronic Enlightenment

New Voltaire letters appear in salerooms all the time, but few are as interesting as the one he wrote to Marie Leszczyńska, queen of France, that has recently been acquired by the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford. Written on 25 April 1728 from London, Voltaire asks the French queen for her protection for his recently published epic poem La Henriade. This is a remarkable letter, made more extraordinary by the fact that it is bound inside an edition of the poem – presumably the presentation copy intended for the queen – which is a hitherto unknown edition of the work, containing unrecorded variant readings of the poem. This new letter (D333a), written entirely in Voltaire’s hand, is being included this week in Electronic Enlightenment, where you can learn more about this amazing letter.

So as we celebrate the Complete works of Voltaire in its paper form, we can also celebrate new findings like this letter to the French queen. As one project finishes, another has started, and work is already under way on Digital Voltaire, a single-author database constructed with the materials contained in the 205 print volumes that will allow us to interrogate Voltaire’s writings in new ways – and to add new discoveries as they are made.

– Nicholas Cronk

Cramer, Voltaire et les Lumières: la librairie entre deux ères

Lettre de Voltaire à Gabriel Cramer (Institut et Musée Voltaire, ms.ca.229_001).

Pourtant serviteurs fidèles de la plume du philosophe depuis l’installation de ce dernier à Genève en 1754 et jusqu’à l’édition dite ‘encadrée’ de 1775, Gabriel et (dans une moindre mesure puisqu’il quitte la librairie en 1762) Philibert Cramer nous sont relativement peu connus. D’ailleurs, ce que l’on sait d’eux provient essentiellement des innombrables billets, corrections et plaintes en tout genre que leur adresse Voltaire. Tantôt paresseux, tantôt dissipés, voire parfois un peu filous, ils se montreraient, en général, incapables de satisfaire les exigences de Voltaire en matière d’impression de ses ouvrages. Asymétrique, incomplète, et en partie tournée pour dérouter les lois de censure, cette seule correspondance ne permet pourtant pas d’apprécier à sa juste valeur la collaboration entre Voltaire et ses imprimeurs-libraires genevois, ni de se rendre compte de ce qu’est la maison Cramer à Genève et dans l’Europe du livre au XVIIIe siècle.

Premièrement, focaliser l’histoire de la librairie Cramer sur ses seules années voltairiennes, aussi florissantes fussent-elles, ne conduit-il pas à négliger ce que Voltaire doit à ses librairies, et donc à minimiser l’importance de la maison Cramer avant Voltaire? Deuxièmement, tant par sa durée que par sa qualité – après tout, les Cramer font partie du cercle de Voltaire pendant plus de vingt ans – celle-ci ne peut se réduire à un rapport de force compliqué entre un auteur tyrannique et ses imprimeurs paresseux. Au contraire, n’évoque-t-elle pas jusqu’à une forme de connivence entre les deux parties? Troisièmement, c’est surtout par sa nature que la relation entre Voltaire et les Cramer doit être reconsidérée. En misant l’essentiel de leur activité sur la plume d’un seul auteur, aussi célèbre et productif soit-il, n’ont-ils pas fait œuvre de pionniers et anticipé le modèle éditorial des siècles suivants? Ce sont ces questions qu’aborde l’ouvrage De l’encre aux Lumières, récemment paru aux éditions Slatkine.

Portrait de Philibert Cramer, c.1758, par Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789).

Si la librairie Cramer nous est connue, c’est certes d’abord, grâce à Voltaire. Pourtant, Gabriel et Philibert Cramer sont les héritiers d’une maison solidement ancrée à Genève, issue d’une famille protestante présente dans la cité de Calvin depuis 1634, date de l’arrivée de leur ancêtre Jean-Ulrich Cramer. C’est d’ailleurs ce dernier qui, après avoir été reçu bourgeois en 1668, dirige son fils cadet Jean-Antoine (1655-1725) vers un apprentissage d’imprimeur-libraire auprès de la célèbre maison Chouet. Aussi étonnant qu’il puisse paraître, ce choix rappelle l’importance grandissante de l’industrie du livre à Genève, à partir du XVIIe siècle. La cité de Calvin, qui repose sur un territoire étroit, indépendant politiquement, protégé géographiquement des grandes puissances, se nourrit cependant de son commerce avec l’extérieur, notamment via le Rhône. Terre d’accueil de nombreux protestants en exil durant les XVIe et XVIIe siècles, Genève se spécialise dans l’industrie de la draperie, de l’orfèvrerie, de l’horlogerie, ainsi que, plus tardivement, de la librairie. Commerce ouvert sur l’Europe, la librairie contribue à la circulation des savoirs et des capitaux à partir de Genève, favorisant l’enrichissement de la cité-République; en retour, la censure y est modérée par rapport aux pays voisins. Les libraires peuvent même gravir les échelons de la très hiérarchisée société genevoise, tout en fournissant l’Europe en livres parfois interdits ailleurs. Ils étendent, dans le même temps, leur réseau vers des marchés toujours plus éloignés. Ainsi Jean-Antoine n’arrête-t-il pas son apprentissage au métier d’homme de plombs: son statut est bien celui d’un marchand, et sa carrière le conduit à sillonner les foires de livres de toute l’Europe.

Marque typographique de Léonard Chouet (image Universitat de Barcelona).

C’est sans doute dès cette époque que se construit l’impressionnant réseau de correspondants européens de la future librairie Cramer, dont témoigne encore aujourd’hui le ‘Grand Livre’ conservé aux Archives d’Etat de Genève. Jean-Antoine Cramer ne tarde pas, de son côté, à se rendre indispensable auprès de son maître Léonard Chouet (164?-1691), qui en fait même son associé en 1680 pour fonder l’enseigne ‘Léonard Chouet et Cie’. A la mort de Chouet, Cramer s’associe à Philibert Perachon (1667-1738) pour racheter le fonds de son ancien maître et faire prospérer la maison: pour cela, il fait notamment évoluer le catalogue, publiant moins d’ouvrages de théologie réformée, contre davantage d’ouvrages de droit, de médecine, de chimie ou d’anatomie. Malgré des temps difficiles, notamment au tournant des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècle, le succès est au rendez-vous et voit l’entreprise quitter les Rues Basses pour la fameuses Grande Rue de Genève.

A la mort de Jean-Antoine en 1725, c’est à son fils Guillaume-Philibert (1693-1737) que revient la tâche de reprendre le commerce, toujours avec Perachon. Epoux depuis peu de Jeanne-Louise de Tournes, elle aussi issue d’une importante famille de libraires genevo-lyonnaise, et héritier du fonds de Chouet et des contacts noués par son père, il dispose d’atouts solides à Genève et à l’étranger pour rendre son commerce incontournable. Son décès jeune, auquel s’ajoute une année après celui plus attendu de Philibert Perachon, accélère la transition vers l’ère de Gabriel et Philibert Cramer. Les deux fils de Guillaume-Philibert sont trop jeunes pour diriger l’entreprise. Ils sont d’abord placés sous la tutelle de leur mère, laquelle cède une part de l’entreprise aux frères Claude et Antoine Philibert le temps que ses fils accomplissent leur apprentissage et atteignent la majorité. La Société ‘Héritier Cramer et frères Philibert’ est créée en 1738. Elle devient ‘Frères Cramer et Claude Philibert’ en 1748, puis, enfin, ‘Frères Cramer’ en 1753. Durant ces quinze années, Gabriel Cramer fait évoluer son catalogue: en plus des classiques édités déjà du temps de son grand-père – comme les Opera Omnia de Cicéron – et de la littérature scientifique et religieuse en latin, à destination surtout des jésuites d’Espagne, on commence à trouver sous ses presses des livres en français, et même, dès 1749, un Zadig placé au milieu d’une Bibliothèque de campagne.

Cicéron, Opera Omnia (Basileæ, 1687) (Université de Basle).

Dresser, même succinctement, le parcours de la famille Cramer dans la librairie genevoise jusqu’à ce premier rendez-vous avec Voltaire, permet déjà de rappeler que, au moment où ils adressent une première lettre à l’auteur de Zadig, le 15 avril 1754 (D5575), Gabriel et Philibert ne se présentent pas en victime expiatoire. C’est autant leur connaissance du marché du livre que leur ascendance qui leur donnent des arguments pour tenir tête au patriarche. Imprimeurs-libraires avisés, au bénéfice d’un savoir-faire reconnu, bien ancré dans le tissu local, et disposant d’un solide réseau de diffusion dans l’Europe du livre du XVIIIe siècle, ils offrent en outre exactement ce que cherchait Voltaire après son échec à Potsdam: une presse à portée de main, à proximité de la France, habile à déjouer les autorités politiques et religieuses. Les Cramer trouvent de leur côté en Voltaire un auteur à la fois sulfureux, prolifique et célèbre, qui assure la prospérité de la maison. Bien plus, ce dernier développe avec Gabriel – qui se fait appeler ‘Caro’, ‘Frère’, ‘Prince’ ou ‘gros’ selon les humeurs de Voltaire – une véritable familiarité, nourrie par une passion commune pour le théâtre et les mondanités. L’un et l’autre maîtrisent parfaitement les rouages propres aux mondes du livre sous l’Ancien Régime et s’entendent à tirer les ficelles utiles au bon déploiement des activités de la presse. C’est à l’aune de cette relation particulière que se dévoile un rapport, inédit pour l’époque, entre un auteur et celui qui agit comme un véritable éditeur, au sens commercial du terme.

Gabriel Cramer, Introductions à l’analyse des lignes courbes algébriques (Genève, 1750).

Cette approche de la relation Cramer-Voltaire par le biais de l’histoire du livre permet de reconsidérer les forces en présence. Elle permet également de nuancer le récit de la fin de l’aventure éditoriale entre Voltaire et ses imprimeurs-libraires genevois. Souvent pensée comme la conséquence de la supposée paresse de l’‘éditeur’ ou de l’insatisfaction de l’auteur, ce récit gagne en consistance si on la replace dans la perspective de histoire de la librairie sous l’Ancien Régime. Il faut ainsi prendre en considération celui qui en est aussi un des principaux protagonistes: Charles-Joseph Panckoucke, libraire lillois, dont le but est de redonner à la librairie française la place qui lui revient dans un marché jusque-là dirigé par les presses clandestines étrangères. Force montante de la librairie en France depuis les années 1760, il s’immisce progressivement entre Cramer et Voltaire à partir des années 1770, au sein de deux collaborations importantes: une édition in-4o des œuvres de Voltaire qu’il subtilise à Cramer et un projet (avorté) de réédition de l’Encyclopédie entament en effet leur relation. Parfaitement décrit par Suzanne Tucoo-Chala, ces épisodes contribuent à éloigner Cramer de ses activités voltairiennes; le poussent à s’endetter fortement, en papier, mais aussi en presses destinées à imprimer les planches en taille douce; le conduisent à révéler à Panckoucke son réseau de diffusion. Fragilisé, Cramer a-t-il encore les ressources pour lutter avec Panckoucke? Sans compter que la perspective d’une dernière édition publiée en France paraît aussi séduire un Voltaire alors âgé et soucieux de sa postérité littéraire, et joue indubitablement en faveur du lillois lorsque celui-ci vient, accompagné de Decroix, proposer un nouveau plan de ses œuvres complètes. C’est symboliquement sur la dernière édition publiée par Cramer, l’édition dite ‘encadrée’, que Voltaire corrige les textes destinés désormais à Panckoucke.

En devenant les imprimeurs-libraires attitrés de Voltaire, les frères Cramer ont renouvelé la façon d’envisager le métier d’imprimeur-libraires. En misant presque toute leur activité sur un seul auteur, ils ont su s’appuyer sur un savoir faire et un réseau solidement ancré pour révolutionner le métier pratiqué par leurs ancêtres. Mais n’ont-ils pas dans le même temps contribué à façonner le modèle de l’éditeur qui s’implante, dès la fin du siècle, de façon plus aboutie, avec Panckoucke? Leur histoire s’achève bien là où commence L’autre histoire de l’édition française présentée par Jean-Yves Mollier, et qui conduit des débuts de Panckoucke à l’avènement des grandes maisons du XIXe siècle.

– Nicolas Morel