From catechisms to Voltaire: Religious tradition and change in eighteenth-century novels

Scholars of the Enlightenment have tended – like intellectual historians generally – to stress the movement’s newness, rather than its continuities with the past. Yet these continuities are many, and none are so little explored, perhaps (pace Carl Becker’s Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers), as religious continuities, with religion conceived not in theological terms, but as an everyday praxis of rituals, prayers, and religious reading.

Les Lumières catholiques et le roman français, edited by Isabelle Tremblay, is the January 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

No doubt some of the problem lies in essentialist concepts of ‘religious tradition’. In fact, traditions change over time, in response to specific historical configurations. One of the insights of Philippe Martin’s too-little-noticed Une religion des livres (1640-1850) is that popular devotional titles, such as catechisms and prayer books, were continually adapted and rewritten throughout the eighteenth century, both to suit the needs of successive generations and local dioceses.[1] In terms of print runs, these remained the best-selling titles of the period, right until the end of the century. On the eve of the French revolution, from 1777 to 1789, Jacques Coret’s Ange conducteur (1681) enjoyed a print run of 125,400 copies.[2] In the same years, in provincial cities alone, over 27,000 copies were printed of abbé Fleury’s Catéchisme historique (1683).[3] But how did these titles relate to the better-known literary productions of the Enlightenment? Were they read by different groups of readers, or was there some overlap? And if there was overlap, which titles shared shelf space with which other titles? Would a catechism sit comfortably on a nightstand next to Voltaire’s latest polemic? And if not, how did readers actually move from reading a religious catechism to reading a work by Voltaire?

One way to explore this question is to focus on private libraries and their holdings, as we do in a bibliometric project that will run until 2021, MEDIATE (Middlebrow Enlightenment: Disseminating Ideas, Authors, and Texts in Europe, 1665-1830). By studying both collocations – which titles are most often found in libraries next to one another – as well as specific title frequencies, this project hopes to shed light on titles that might have served as intellectual bridges between a traditional, religious worldview, and the new ideas associated with the Enlightenment.

But bibliometrics can only take us so far, and to really understand the impact of books on intellectual change, we need to study their contents. So another way to find out how readers might have moved from catechisms to Voltaire is to look more closely at the formal and discursive structures of these works. Catechisms are defined formally, for example, by their question-answer format. Yet religious books were not the only ones to use this structure. The catechism genre is referenced in publications ranging from Fleury’s Catéchisme to Voltaire’s Catéchisme de l’honnête homme (1764), or the revolutionary Catéchisme historique par une bonne citoyenne (c. 1790). A philosophe’s or a revolutionary’s use of the catechism format payed tribute to Christian tradition, even while explicitly distancing itself from it. At what point, then, did the religious reference no longer impact the reception of these texts, or ‘disappear’, to be replaced with ideas clearly aligned with the new?

Among the works that most insistently drew on religious formats were religiously-inspired pedagogical texts. Often female-authored, these titles re-used thematic elements and discursive structures associated with a Catholic worldview, joining them to Enlightenment pedagogical ideals. Texts such as Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s Education complète (1753), for example, used the catechism’s question-answer format to teach its young readers the history of the world, from the biblical Flood to the present day. In her best-selling Magasin des enfants (1756), to inculcate in her readers the elements of history, geography, and the natural sciences, Beaumont used religious number symbolism, structuring her narrative into seven days of dialogue between seven fictional pupils, punctuated by twelve fairy tales underlining specific moral points. In the pupils’ allegorical names, the medieval system of the seven vices and virtues was still recognizable. At the end of the century, Marie-Françoise Loquet adopted the system of vices and virtues in her Voyage de Sophie et d’Eulalie au palais du vrai Bonheur (1781), detailing a succession of encounters between the protagonists and personifications of the vices and virtues, in a quest to reach the abodes of Divine Charity and True Happiness.

Portrait of Madame de Genlis by Adelaide Labille-Guiard (public domain, courtesy of LA County Museum of Art).

But other pedagogical authors like Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis, while paying lip service to religious beliefs, de facto made little use of them. In her collection of tales Veillées du château (1782), Genlis foregrounded ‘the order in which I needed to present [my ideas] to gradually enlighten the spirit and elevate the soul’. But the content of her tales was so deeply indebted to the new scientific ideas of her age that their religious dimension disappeared from view. In one of the volume’s tales, ‘Alphonse et Dalinde’, Genlis took the reader on a dizzying tour of the world, describing a series of natural and man-made wonders, ranging from earthquakes, meteorites, automata, Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with electricity, and much more. So amazing are all these wonders that the author forgets, finally, to point out the divine hand at work in them. The tale ends up reading as a eulogy of modern science and rationality, in a world that no longer requires divine intervention.

So what remained in the writings of both religiously inspired pedagogical authors and philosophes, increasingly, were merely the formal and discursive structures of traditional religious genres, now emptied of their religious content. Bien étonnés de se trouver ensemble, the works of Madame de Genlis and of Voltaire do, in fact, surprisingly often find themselves close neighbours on the shelves of eighteenth-century readers, attesting to the conceptual bridge that pedagogical works such as Genlis’s provided between two worldviews that, at first sight, might appear difficult to reconcile.

– Alicia C. Montoya (Radboud University)


[1] Philippe Martin, Une religion des livres (1640-1850) (Paris, 2003).

[2] Simon Burrows, ‘Charmet and the book police: Clandestinity, illegality and popular reading in late Ancien Régime France’, French History and Civilization vol. 6 (2015), p. 34-55 (48).

[3] Julia Dominique, ‘Livres de classe et usages pédagogiques’, in Histoire de l’édition française, vol. 2: Le livre triomphant 1660-1830, éd. Henri-Jean Martin and Roger Chartier (Paris, 1990), p. 615-56 (629).

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Alicia C. Montoya explores how eighteenth-century readers might have moved from catechisms to Voltaire in her chapter of Les Lumières catholiques et le roman français (edited by Isabelle Tremblay), the latest volume to be published in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.


Il faut se plonger dans l’Essai sur les mœurs

Le titre est trompeur. Le lecteur peut croire que l’Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations est une brochure rassemblant des réflexions générales sur les diverses façons de vivre et de juger des hommes, comme on en a tant produit au siècle des Philosophes. Il s’agit en réalité du plus gros livre sans doute qu’ait écrit Voltaire, en pas moins de 197 chapitres, et d’une histoire du monde entier assez détaillée, d’ailleurs publiée d’abord sous le titre d’Abrégé de l’histoire universelle. Il a fallu neuf épais volumes à la Voltaire Foundation pour en publier une édition nouvelle dans les Œuvres complètes.

Essai sur les moeurs

OCV, t.21-27: l’ensemble complet de l’Essai, t.I-IX.

Le projet de l’écrivain entre dans ces programmes ambitieux qu’a lancés le Siècle des Lumières pour embrasser l’ensemble des faits ou des connaissances, comme L’Esprit des lois qui cherche à analyser les lois de tous les temps et de tous les pays, comme l’Histoire naturelle de Buffon qui entreprend une description raisonnée de tous les aspects de la nature vivante et inanimée, comme l’Histoire générale des voyages, comme l’Encyclopédie évidemment, rassemblement des connaissances de tous ordres. Voltaire, lui, a l’ambition de présenter et de comprendre l’humanité dans toute son extension géographique et chronologique, en plongeant dans le passé le plus lointain et en allant jusqu’aux événements les plus récents, en ne se bornant pas à l’histoire de l’Europe mais en explorant aussi le passé de l’Amérique et de l’Asie. L’écrivain toutefois est réaliste; il veut voir l’achèvement de son entreprise. Aussi se dispense-t-il de redire, par exemple, l’histoire de la Grèce et de la Rome antiques, si présente dans la mémoire du public cultivé grâce aux enseignements du collège et du théâtre tragique. Et pour l’histoire contemporaine, il a pu se contenter de reprendre le Siècle de Louis XIV, dont les frontières dépassent celles de la France, et le Précis du siècle de Louis XV. La tâche restait immense, et a occupé, sinon accaparé, Voltaire pendant au moins quinze ans, de 1741 à 1756.

Voltaire n’est pas le premier à avoir écrit une histoire universelle. Son œuvre est une réplique critique à celle de Bossuet, qui unifiait et expliquait le cours de l’histoire de l’humanité par le dessein divin du salut. Elle est aussi en concurrence, notamment, avec An Universal History, from the earliest account of time to the present dirigée par G. Sale qui paraît depuis 1736 en anglais et depuis 1742 en traduction française. Mais l’attrait de l’Essai tient à la façon personnelle d’écrire l’histoire qu’a inventée Voltaire. Il a choisi d’être omniprésent dans son récit et dans ses analyses, à la différence des historiens de métier, qui s’effacent derrière leur documentation. Alors qu’ils écrivent pour un public anonyme, Voltaire explique dès le début de son livre qu’il s’adresse à une lectrice de sa connaissance: c’est Mme Du Châtelet, qui n’aimait pas l’histoire et qu’il s’agit de convertir en dégageant les leçons du passé. Mme Du Châtelet meurt avant l’achèvement du livre, mais la fiction d’un texte adressé reste vivante jusqu’au bout.

OCV, t.23, p.283.

L’auteur est présent, commente son récit et sa façon de l’organiser, multiplie les remarques de tous ordres. C’est bien par cette pratique que le livre mérite son titre d’Essai. Elle donne un contenu philosophique continu au texte. Comme on peut s’y attendre, ce contenu philosophique est d’abord marqué par une vive critique du christianisme, qui en souligne les conflits internes et insiste sur les responsabilités du clergé ou de l’intolérance religieuse dans les convulsions politiques et les guerres. Mais ce thème obsessionnel chez Voltaire laisse une large place à des observations de tous ordres qui justifient dans le titre la présence des «mœurs» et des «nations». La couleur du récit est souvent rehaussée par des effets de contraste entre les caractères et les pratiques des différents peuples. Ainsi, au moment de la prise de Constantinople par les Croisés: «Les Grecs avaient souvent prié la Sainte Vierge en assassinant leurs princes. Les Français buvaient, chantaient, caressaient des filles dans la cathédrale en la pillant» (chap.57). Les vues générales foisonnent, et suggèrent une vision d’ensemble de l’histoire des hommes, vision dans l’ensemble pessimiste; ainsi à propos du culte des images: «Enfin cette pratique pieuse dégénéra en abus, comme toutes les choses humaines» (chap.14). Le lecteur, peu à peu, voit se dessiner une «philosophie de l’histoire» voltairienne: la formule servira de titre à un texte finalement placé en tête de l’ouvrage tout entier.

C’est un gros livre dont les dimensions peuvent rebuter le lecteur. Ne nous laissons pas détourner pourtant de ce produit savoureux du génie séducteur de Voltaire. Il n’est pas nécessaire de se plonger dans la succession de si nombreux chapitres. Des titres développés, une récapitulation finale aident à s’orienter dans cette forêt de faits, de guerres, de tableaux, de jugements, de portraits. Chaque chapitre tient en quelques pages, et chaque page est fragmentée en plusieurs paragraphes souvent brefs, faits de phrases simples généralement juxtaposées. Ce livre qui prétend être écrit pour une lectrice rétive cherche sans cesse à alléger l’effort du lecteur, à capter son intérêt pour les grandes comme pour les petites choses. Comme l’écrit Voltaire à propos d’une anecdote sur Tamerlan et ses conquêtes, «il est permis d’égayer ces événements horribles, et de mêler le petit au grand» (chap.88). Il est permis d’égayer, et il est permis d’abréger, ce que ne savent pas faire d’ordinaire les historiens. En cela, l’écrivain signifie et pratique sa souveraineté, qui est celle d’un honnête homme sûr de son jugement, ennemi méprisant des érudits de profession noyés dans les détails. Il conclut ainsi le chapitre 60: «Voilà tout ce qu’il vous convient de savoir des Tartares dans ces temps reculés».

OCV, t.24, p.360.

Car il s’agit de rester entre gens de bonne compagnie, qui ont le loisir de satisfaire leur curiosité pour des mondes et des temps lointains et le droit de tirer de leurs lectures des conséquences pour la société où ils vivent et qu’ils dominent. Voltaire ne cherche pas ici à fonder son prestige sur des découvertes d’archives ou des révélations de l’archéologie. Il se présente comme le compilateur intelligent et critique des historiens qui l’ont précédé. Mais sa supériorité tient à l’activité continuelle de son jugement, qui discute à tort ou à raison leurs affirmations, propose une vision vraisemblable des faits, en tire des leçons sur la nature de l’homme, sur sa constance et sa diversité, sur ce qu’il convient et ne convient pas de faire quand on gouverne, quand on fait et défait les lois, quand on veut développer une grande civilisation ou résister à sa déliquescence. C’est cette conversation d’un esprit brillant avec les voix multiples du passé que nous avons encore plaisir et profit à écouter dans l’Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations.

Il est question de l’Essai et de la conception voltairienne de l’histoire dans l’article de Robert Darnton récemment publié dans le New York Times.

– Sylvain Menant

La toute première édition critique de l’Essai sur les mœurs, publiée par la Voltaire Foundation, est désormais disponible dans son intégralité avec la publication du volume I, qui comprend l’Introduction générale.

In search of lost rhymes

Volume 84 of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (to be published next year by the Voltaire Foundation) includes a section containing a large number of poems that have at one time or another been attributed to Voltaire. Many are clearly not by Voltaire; a few can be shown to be by him; some remain undecided. The search for evidence and information to help establish the facts can follow unexpected paths.

In 1757 Le Portefeuille trouvé published a sextain which it attributed to Voltaire:

               Vers envoyés à M. Sylva
Au temple d’Epidaure on offrait les images
Des humains conservés et guéris par les dieux,
Sylva, qui de la mort est le maître comme eux,
Mérite les mêmes hommages:
Esculape nouveau, mes jours sont tes bienfaits,
Et tu vois ton ouvrage en revoyant mes traits.

Jean-Baptiste Silva (1682-1742) was a celebrated physician with whom Voltaire had had some dealings, and whom he praises in the second Discours sur l’homme. Voltaire, though, in the Notes sur M. de Morza (1774),[1] denied having written these lines. Nevertheless editors have continued to attribute them to him. In 1833 the Beuchot edition gives a fuller explanatory title: Vers envoyés à M. Sylva, premier médecin de la reine, avec le portrait de l’auteur, where the sense of the first and last lines becomes clearer.

In August 1778, three months after Voltaire’s death, the Journal des savants published the poem with the sextain followed by a quintain:

Esculape français, recevez cet hommage
De votre frère en Apollon.
Ce Dieu vous a laissé son plus bel héritage,
Tous les dons de l’esprit et ceux de la raison;
Mais je n’ai que des vers, hélas! pour mon partage.

In March 1779 L’Esprit des journaux gave the same text. What is to be made of this? Has someone merely added a few lines, or is this based on a manuscript found among Voltaire’s papers? The quintain seems an unnecessary addition.

An answer comes from an unforeseen quarter. In June 1915 Sir William Osler, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, and Student (that is, Fellow) at Christ Church College, published an article, ‘Israel and medicine’, in The Menorah Journal. In this he states:

‘One of the special treasures of my library is a volume of the Henriade superbly bound by Padeloup, and a presentation copy from Voltaire to de Silva, given me when I left Baltimore by my messmates in ‘The Ship of Fools’ (a dining club). Voltaire’s inscription reads as follows:

A Monsieur Silva, Esculape François. Recevez cet hommage de votre frère en Apollon. Ce Dieu vous a laissé son plus bel héritage, tous les Dons de l’esprit, tous ceux de la raison, et je n’eus que des Vers, hélas, pour mon partage.”’

Source: / BnF.

The edition in question is the quarto ‘Londres, 1741’ edition, actually the 1728 edition with a new title page.

Here we have, presented as continuous prose, the added lines of the poem. Osler’s description is confirmed in Bibliotheca Osleriana: a catalogue of books illustrating the history of medicine and science (Montreal, 1969), p.497, no.5551:

‘Presentation copy; in a contemporary olive morocco binding, finely tooled, by Padeloup. The flyleaf bears the following autograph inscription by Voltaire to J. B. Silva, his friend and physician’.

There follow the five lines of verse.

Image supplied by the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University.

Christ Church has a copy of La Henriade in its special collection, but unfortunately it is not this volume. Osler’s library was bequeathed to McGill University, his alma mater, and there the volume resides. Despite the confidence of Osler and the catalogue, the inscription is not in Voltaire’s hand. At this period, 1741-1742, Voltaire had several secretaries and it is not currently possible to establish if this hand belongs to one of them. It may indeed have been transcribed by a clerk in a printer’s office. The standard of writing is not as might be expected for a presentation.

So we do not have absolute proof that either of these poems is by Voltaire, but the evidence does suggest that they were.

– Martin Smith

[1] Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.76 (Oxford, 2013), p.544.

Would Voltaire have made a good PhD supervisor? Voltaire mentors Vauvenargues

Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues

Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues (1715-1747), by Charles Amédée Colin.

A current work in progress at the Voltaire Foundation relates to one of Voltaire’s less-discussed friendships that ended all too soon due to a fatal illness. On 4 April 1743, Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues, penned the philosophe an enthusiastic letter comparing the merits of France’s two most celebrated tragedians, Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine. The combination of strong opinions and well-placed flattery must have caught Voltaire’s attention, for he wrote back less than two weeks later. The 27-year-old Vauvenargues brazenly criticised Corneille’s declamatory style and lack of subtlety, arguing that ‘surtout Corneille paroît ignorer que les hommes se caractérisent souvent d’avantage par les choses qu’ils ne disent pas, que par celles qu’ils disent’. Never one to stand at the sidelines of a literary debate, Voltaire’s reply praised Vauvenargues for his good taste in preferring Racine while offering a judicious defence of Corneille, counting that ‘il y a des choses si sublimes dans Corneille au milieu de ses froids raisonnements, et même des choses si touchantes, qu’il doit être respecté avec ses défauts’ (15 April 1743). This began a lively exchange between the two men, as Vauvenargues iconoclastically refused to yield ground to Voltaire’s more balanced take on the playwright’s merits and flaws: ‘Monsieur, Je suis au désespoir que vous me forciez à respecter Corneille’ (22 April 1743).

As well as offering us an entertaining example of an eighteenth-century celebrity’s interactions with a fan, this exchange is important because, after befriending Voltaire, Vauvenargues began to see the philosophe as a mentor figure, asking him for advice on his own Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, which was supplemented by his Réflexions et maximes and published for the first time in 1746. Any PhD student can imagine the huge sigh of relief Vauvenargues must have let out when Voltaire wrote back on 15 February 1746 to say that he liked it even before he had finished reading it. The young author’s joy is palpable in his response to his mentor’s praise, thanking him for taking the time to provide suggestions and corrections for the work’s improvement (15 May 1746). Vauvenargues then substantially revised his text and published a second edition in 1747.

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.79 (Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence).

As part of our work on Voltaire’s marginalia, we are interested firstly in the kind of suggestions the philosophe made in the annotated copy he sent back to Vauvenargues, and secondly to what extent did the latter incorporate these suggestions into the revised version of his book. The work of cross-referencing the annotated first edition and the revised second edition revealed some interesting patterns. In the cases where the corrections are easy remedies, for example a different choice of wording or a quick clarificatory remark, Vauvenargues has mostly deferred to Voltaire’s wisdom and edited his manuscript accordingly. Things got trickier when Voltaire suggested structural changes or major additions, both things which Vauvenargues appeared more reluctant to carry out. This is most likely because the revisions were extremely time-sensitive, given that Vauvenargues was in ill-health and had to rush to edit and publish the second edition of his work before he died later that year at the age of thirty-one. It is perhaps for this reason that he did not find the time to develop a section on page 75 by which Voltaire has scribbled ‘cela merite plus de détail’.

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.86 (Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence).

As with any patterns, there are notable exceptions. More mystifying are instances such as on page 86 where Voltaire asks ‘pour quoy longue?’, seemingly questioning Vauvenargues’s choice of adjective. This should have been an easy fix for the marquis. In the second edition, however, Vauvenargues has edited this sentence but kept the very same adjective that Voltaire did not like: ‘L’étonnement une surprise longue & accablante; l’admiration une surprise pleine de respect.’ Similarly, one of the sassiest comments can be found on page 88 where Vauvenargues writes that ‘il y auroit là-dessus des réflexions à faire aussi nouvelles que curieuses’, to which Voltaire witheringly retorts ‘faites les donc’. Vauvenargues does indeed revise this passage in his second edition, but chooses not to elaborate on what these reflections might be, writing that he has ‘ni la volonté, ni le pouvoir’ to do so.

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.88 (Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence).

Like any good supervisor, Voltaire does not hold back in his criticism of his student’s work: what is most striking is the sheer volume of corrections, additions and suggestions, some of which are more helpful than others. Sometimes he is perhaps a little harsh, accusing Vauvenargues of writing ‘mauvaise poésie’ on more than a couple of occasions. One of his most scathing comments comes towards the end of the list of maxims that forms the second part of the text. Vauvenargues makes the not-very-insightful remark that ‘quelque amour qu’on ait pour les grandes affaires, il y a peu de lectures si ennuyeuses & si fatiguantes que celles d’un Traité entre des Princes’, next to which his mentor has incredulously scribbled ‘c’est bien la peine d’imprimer cela?’ It’s safe to say that any PhD student would be horrified to have elicited such a remark from their supervisor!

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.364 (Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence).

But above all, Voltaire is a meticulous reader, picking up on ideas repeated from many pages back and highlighting the slightest inconsistency. Equally, neither does he shy away from complimenting Vauvenargues’s work when it is deserving: several sections receive a smattering of ‘bien’, ‘beau’, ‘fort’, ‘excellent’ and even a ‘fin et profond et juste’, which more than make up for the moments of criticism.

– Sam Bailey

Sam is a PhD student at the University of Durham and a frequent VF collaborator.

An earlier blog post on this same subject by Gillian Pink can be found here.

‘Une encyclopédie de ma façon’: le chef-d’œuvre méconnu de Voltaire

Voltaire a toujours soutenu la grande entreprise collective de l’Encyclopédie dirigée par D’Alembert et Diderot (consulter cet ouvrage en français ou en anglais). Il a rédigé une quarantaine d’articles pour le dictionnaire, mais avait toutefois quelques réserves sur certains articles: ‘La France fournissait à l’Europe un Dictionnaire encyclopédique dont l’utilité était reconnue. Une foule d’articles excellents rachetaient bien quelques endroits qui n’étaient pas des mains des maîtres,’ écrit-il à Francesco Albergati Capacelli le 23 décembre 1760. Une quinzaine d’années plus tard, il fera imprimer le charmant conte De l’Encyclopédie, qui fera encore l’éloge de cet ouvrage tout en lui reconnaissant certains défauts. Voltaire trouvait notamment que les articles avaient tendance à être trop longs ou trop subjectifs: ‘Je suis encore fâché qu’on fasse des dissertations, qu’on donne des opinions particulières pour des vérités reconnues. Je voudrais partout la définition, et l’origine du mot avec des exemples’ (à D’Alembert, le 9 octobre [1756]).

Après l’achèvement de ce grand dictionnaire, l’éditeur Charles-Joseph Panckoucke forme le projet de publier une réédition avec des corrections. Cela donne à Voltaire l’occasion de proposer des réductions et des réécritures du texte. Un certain nombre de manuscrits trouvés parmi ses papiers après sa mort semblent témoigner de ses efforts dans ce sens, textes déjà publiés dans les Œuvres complètes de Voltaire. Cependant, cette entreprise ne sera pas menée à terme.

Voltaire se décide alors à faire un dictionnaire ‘de sa façon’, où il se sert peut-être de certains articles écrits pour Panckoucke, et où il redéploie quelques-uns des textes qu’il a rédigés pour l’Encyclopédie. On retrouve donc dans ses Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (1770-1772) des thèmes et des sujets qui lui sont chers et omniprésents dans son œuvre (tolérance, critique biblique, questions juridiques, superstition…). Mais étant donné que ce n’est plus un ouvrage de référence, l’auteur ne suit pas les consignes qu’il avait préconisées pour le dictionnaire collectif. Le caractère plus personnel de ses Questions lui permet d’adopter par moments un ton ludique: il invente la fiction plus ou moins transparente du Mont Krapack, où une petite société de gens de lettres est censée vivre et travailler aux Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. De nombreux articles jouent l’effet de surprise. Le titre ‘Montagne’ annonce un très court article (de 120 mots seulement) qui évoque la fable de La Fontaine où la montagne met au monde une souris, afin de railler les matérialistes de l’époque, qui voulaient que la matière ait produit le vivant. Sous le mot ‘Rare’, l’auteur congédie la signification du mot en physique pour proposer une méditation sur le sens moral et esthétique: ‘on n’admire jamais ce qui est commun’, affirme-t-il avant de considérer l’émotion que nous éprouvons face aux livres rares, aux trésors architecturaux, à un rhinocéros à Paris. La fine satire ‘Gargantua’, enfin, évoque bel et bien le personnage de Rabelais, mais constitue une sorte d’allégorie où l’auteur, en disputant ‘des esprits téméraires qui ont osé nier les prodiges de ce grand homme’, vise en fait les miracles vécus par et attribués à maints personnages des Saintes Ecritures (Moïse, Josué, Jésus…).

La collection complète des Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, publiée par la Voltaire Foundation.

L’ouvrage des Questions sur l’Encyclopédie a disparu dans les éditions posthumes de ses œuvres. L’édition de la Voltaire Foundation, composée de huit volumes (2007-2018) sous la direction de Nicholas Cronk et de Christiane Mervaud, dont l’introduction de Christiane Mervaud vient de paraître, permet de redécouvrir ce texte, le plus long et sans doute le plus varié de Voltaire. L’introduction est la première monographie à être consacrée à ce grand ouvrage, et rend compte de sa genèse, des réactions d’époque, de sa relation complexe avec l’Encyclopédie, et des stratégies d’écriture développées par l’auteur.

Nous remercions tous les collaborateurs de cette édition, qui ont participé à l’annotation des articles, à la préparation des index, aux vérifications bibliographiques. J’ai eu personnellement l’honneur et le grand plaisir d’être associée aux huit volumes de la collection, et d’être secrétaire de l’édition pour six d’entre eux. L’édition critique d’un ouvrage de cette envergure ne peut être qu’un travail d’équipe, en l’occurrence mené sur une période de plus de dix ans, et qui représente en miniature l’entreprise des Œuvres complètes, elle aussi sur le point d’être achevée.

– Gillian Pink

Voltaire: a life in letters

Commentaire historique

Title page of the first edition. With kind permission from the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: VET.FR.II.B.1997.

In the late summer of 1776 there appeared an anonymous Commentaire historique sur les œuvres de l’auteur de La Henriade. On the face of it, this biography of the 82-year-old Voltaire was written by a ‘man of letters’, not in his first youth either, with access to the great man and to the ‘chaos of his papers’. The work is indeed heavily reliant on Voltaire’s correspondence, both in the opening narrative and in the collection of letters that follows, but early readers were in no doubt that Voltaire had played an active part in its composition. As the reviewer of the Mémoires secrets put it in September 1776: ‘It is a third party who is supposed to be speaking; but from the style and favourable manner in which all the facts are presented, and from a multitude of secret and specific details besides, there can be no doubt that he supplied the materials and put in the colour’.

Letter from Commentaire historique

Manuscript of Voltaire’s letter to Dmitriy Alekseevich Golitsyn of 19 June 1773 in the hand of Durey de Morsan, corrected by Voltaire. With kind permission from the Royal Library of Belgium: Collection Launoit MS 315.

Not unusually, Voltaire denied being the author, arguing that he could not possibly have written something so self-indulgent. Word was that a certain Durey de Morsan had penned it, with Voltaire supplying the ‘anecdotes’ and the ‘style’ (according to Moultou writing to Meister on 4 November 1776). Durey de Morsan was perpetually in debt and lived at Ferney on and off between 1769 and 1774. He was certainly involved to some degree, but this may have been limited to copying letters (there are several in his hand) and signing a chit dated 1 May 1776 stating that he had seen the original documents and handed them over to Voltaire’s secretary Wagnière. (On Wagnière’s own later claims to be the author, see the ‘Révisions posthumes’ in volume 78B.)

Revisions by Wagnière on a copy of Commentaire historique

Revisions by Wagnière on a copy of the book sent to Catherine the Great after Voltaire’s death. With kind permission from the National Library of Russia: Bibliothèque de Voltaire 11-227.

The Commentaire historique continued to grow and change even after Durey de Morsan had returned the documents he had seen. Voltaire’s letter on the Ganganelli forgeries is dated 2 May, and the one to Faugères on the superiority of all things seventeenth-century seems to have been written the following day. No doubt some rewriting was necessary when Turgot, the Controller-General of Finances, fell from grace on 12 May. He still features in the Commentaire historique – not least in the poem Sésostris, addressed to the king in happier times and given particular prominence as the final item in the volume – but never by name.

Commentaire historique, declaration by Durey de Morsan

The Declarations by Durey de Morsan and Christin in the first edition. With kind permission from the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: VET.FR.II.B.1997.

On 1 June, it was the lawyer Christin who signed a statement vouching that the documents had been copied accurately (in fact the letters were sometimes ‘improved’ for publication). And still the Commentaire historique kept growing. Voltaire’s letter to Spallanzani on slugs, tardigrades, and the nature of the soul is dated 6 June, and his letter ‘Sur le fameux cocher Gilbert’ must be later than the 24th, when he discovered that Gilbert, a witness against his protégé Morangiès, was apparently a pickpocket and a counterfeiter. In early July the disgraced lawyer Simon Linguet, who had helped to defend La Barre in 1766 and Morangiès in 1772, visited Ferney. Although his name is reduced to an initial, he can be associated with a disproportionate number of the letters included, raising interesting questions about the selection criteria.

This edition of the Commentaire historique, with all its letters included and annotated for the first time, finally allows us to properly consider the text as a whole. I hope it might also help to demonstrate the usefulness of further work on the rest of Voltaire’s vast correspondence.

The Commentaire historique is publishing in two volumes in September 2018. Volume 78B contains the introduction and a dossier on the text’s posthumous fate, and volume 78C contains the full text, including the ‘lettres véritables’ normally stripped from it, and annotation.

– Alice Breathe


‘Vous êtes la première chose que je vois en m’éveillant’: portraits in Voltaire’s bedroom

Voltaire had many bedrooms during his long life, but the best documented is the one at the Château de Ferney, where he spent a considerable portion of his last twenty years, sleeping, working, or entertaining guests.[1]

The team recently restoring the château faced a quandary. Since Voltaire’s death, the pictures hanging in his bedroom have been changed and a cenotaph added, some of the room’s walls knocked down, and finally its contents transferred to a different room altogether. It was decided that, rather than recreating a room from the 1760s or 1770s that no longer exists, Voltaire’s ‘bedroom’ should be kept much as visitors have known it since the mid-nineteenth century.

Voltaire’s bedroom in his lifetime

Perhaps Voltaire’s bedroom at Ferney was originally hung with portraits of family members, including those done in pastel by his youngest niece, Mme Dompierre de Fontaine, of herself and of her son, as had been the case at Les Délices. Perhaps Mme Du Châtelet’s portrait was also there from the start.

By 1765, some friends in Paris had come up with the idea of getting Carmontelle’s gouache of the Calas family in prison engraved to raise money for the Calas family. On 17 January 1766, Voltaire wrote to Calas’s widow that he would keep the planned engraving at his bedside, even though he had never met her, ‘et le premier objet que je verrai en m’éveillant sera la vertu persécutée et respectée’. This in due course he did, writing on 9 May: ‘J’ai baisé votre estampe, Madame, je l’ai placée au chevet de mon lit. Vous et votre famille vous êtes la première chose que je vois en m’éveillant. Monsieur votre fils Pierre est parfaitement ressemblant, je suis persuadé que vous l’êtes de même’.

Jean Huber was no doubt the first to depict Voltaire in his bedroom, in a painting (or three) that displeased its main subject. This irreverent image of him in his nightclothes proliferated in the form of engravings: there is one with a maid, one with verse designed to irritate Voltaire, even one with a portrait of his arch-enemy Fréron hanging on his wall. Grimm reported in his Correspondance littéraire of 1 November 1772 that Voltaire had not yet forgiven Huber for this loss of control over his public image. But how faithful was the depiction of his bedroom? The version in the St Petersburg Hermitage Museum has red curtains, while the one at the Musée Voltaire has blue. Musée Carnavalet also has blue, but shows an engraving of Carmontelle’s painting of the Calas family in prison hanging near the head of the bed.

Le lever du philosophe de Ferney

Le lever du philosophe de Ferney, one of many engravings based on a painting by Jean Huber. Courtesy of the Centre d’iconographie of the Bibliothèque de Genève.

In 1774, a new portrait was given the distinction of being placed close to Voltaire’s bed. This time it was the actor Lekain as Nero drawn in pastel by Pierre Martin Barat: ‘Vous êtes à côté de mon lit, mon cher ami, et le souvenir de vos talents et de votre mérite sera toujours dans mon cœur’.

In June 1775, Amélie Suard mentioned two other images, Mme Du Châtelet’s portrait and a second Calas engraving, the one by Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki entitled Les adieux de Calas à sa famille, again inside Voltaire’s bed: ‘dans l’intérieur de son lit il a les deux gravures de la famille des Calas. Je ne connaissais pas encore celle qui représente la femme et les enfants de cette victime du fanatisme, embrassant leur père au moment où on va le mener au supplice; elle me fit l’impression la plus douloureuse, et je reprochai à M. de Voltaire de l’avoir placée de manière à l’avoir sans cesse sous ses yeux’. Mme Suard nevertheless went on to heap praise on Voltaire for the good he had done the whole of humanity. No doubt the engraving was to Voltaire as much a reminder of success as of ‘la vertu persécutée’.

In January 1776, another flurry of engravings set in Voltaire’s bedroom incurred his displeasure. Vivant Denon had visited in early July 1775 and showed Voltaire sitting up in bed, surrounded by members of his household and a mutual friend, the composer Jean-Benjamin de Laborde (although he had not been present at the time). Only the first Calas engraving can be seen inside Voltaire’s bed curtains. Was it the invasion of a ‘private’ space that Voltaire objected to? Or the juxtaposition of the serious Calas image and a frivolous social one? In any case, he complained to Vivant Denon that ‘Un homme qui se tiendrait dans l’attitude qu’on me donne, et qui rirait comme on me fait rire, serait trop ridicule’.

Le déjeuner de Ferney

Le déjeuner de Ferney, based on a picture by Vivant Denon, and engraved as part of a set with the Lever de Voltaire (above). The ‘déjeuner’ seems to consist of just one hot drink between, from left to right, Père Adam, Laborde, Voltaire, the servant known as la ‘belle Agathe’ (Agathe Perrachon, née Frik), and Mme Denis. Courtesy of the Centre d’iconographie of the Bibliothèque de Genève.

The inventory that was made of Voltaire’s property after his death lists ‘four medium paintings with gilded frames’ in his room, but only identifies one of his mother, Marie-Marguerite Arouet (possibly this painting), and one of his eldest niece and companion, Mme Denis (possibly the fourth image on this page, formerly attributed to Carle van Loo and now, tentatively, to François-Hubert Drouais,[2] and copied in pastel by Mme Denis’s sister, Mme Dompierre de Fontaine).

Voltaire’s bedroom after his death

The marquis de Villette soon bought the château and owned it until 1785. On 23 November 1779, the Mémoires secrets gave an extract from a letter stating that he had kept Voltaire’s room just as it was – while at the same time installing a cenotaph (later moved to the main salon) and assembling Voltaire’s favourite portraits there: apparently these included those of Catherine the Great, Frederick, one of Frederick’s sisters, Mme Du Châtelet, Lekain, D’Alembert, d’Argental, as well as Villette himself and his wife…

A 1781 engraving which seems to take artistic licence with the room’s layout shows the cenotaph and no fewer than forty easily identifiable portraits of illustrious contemporaries, men and women, lining the walls. A portrait of Mme Denis which looks very like a detail of the Vivant Denon engraving hangs in the place of honour at the head of the bed. No Calas engravings are visible.

Chambre du cœur de Voltaire

Chambre du cœur de Voltaire, drawn by Duché and engraved by François Denis Née, 1781. Courtesy of the Centre d’iconographie of the Bibliothèque de Genève.

The room looks quite different in an engraving from the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The bed curtains and cover have visibly shrunk as successive visitors cut small mementoes for themselves, and the portraits on show are limited to five: Catherine the Great’s portrait woven in silk by Philippe de Lasalle (given to Voltaire by Lasalle in 1771), Frederick the Great painted in oil by Anna Dorothea Liszewska Therbusch (sent by Frederick, at Voltaire’s request, in 1775), the previously mentioned pastel of Lekain by Barat (1774), a pastel of Voltaire attributed to Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1735?), and an oil painting of Mme Du Châtelet by Marie-Anne Loir (presumably before 1749).

Chambre de Voltaire à Ferney

Chambre de Voltaire à Ferney, by Charles Philibert Lasteyrie du Saillant, c.1820. Courtesy of the Centre d’iconographie of the Bibliothèque de Genève.

This matches the description by a visitor published in The New Monthly Magazine in 1824, which also lists the prints ‘on each side of the window which faces the bed’, i.e. the fourth wall not on the engraving. The line-up is now thoroughly male: Diderot, Newton, Franklin, Racine, Milton, Washington, Corneille, and Marmontel on one side, and Thomas, Leibnitz, Mairan, D’Alembert, Helvétius, and the duc de Choiseul on the other. The first Calas engraving and a ‘sort of emblematical print of the tomb of Voltaire in Paris, dedicated to la marquise de Villette, dame de Ferney’ complete the set for this wall.

The visitor then mentions two more pictures somewhat at odds with the royals and intellectuals filling the walls: ‘In another part of the room are two very pretty pictures of a boy and a Madonna-looking girl, which our old Cicerone said were painted by order of Voltaire. The boy is a Savoyard, with a tattered cocked-hat, and the young woman, we were told, was ‘La blanchisseuse’ […] If it were really of the blanchisseuse, I can only say that Voltaire had a very pretty washerwoman’. Another engraving situates a ‘repasseuse’ and a ‘ramoneur’ (no doubt the same blanchisseuse and Savoyard) on the left-hand side of the room.

Intérieur de la chambre de Voltaire à Ferney

Intérieur de la chambre de Voltaire à Ferney, painted by Jean DuBois and engraved by Spengler & Cie, c.1840. Courtesy of the Centre d’iconographie of the Bibliothèque de Genève.

Twenty years later, Jules Michelet’s guide must have had a more vivid imagination, since the historian noted in his journal for Monday 14 August 1843 that Voltaire had launched the career of the ‘savoyard’ who became an ironmonger on the corner of the rue de Beaune and that the ‘blanchisseuse’ was in fact a daughter he had had with one of Mme Denis’s chambermaids… In his Dictionary of pastellists, Neil Jeffares identifies her as the wife of Voltaire’s secretary Wagnière.[3] The Savoyard still hangs in Voltaire’s room and is sometimes identified as the pastel by Voltaire’s youngest niece of her son d’Hornoy that she sent him in 1755. It is clearly derived from Drouais’s Jeune garçon au tricorne and, since Mme Dompierre de Fontaine copied the Drouais painting of her sister, this doesn’t seem entirely implausible.

Flaubert left a soulful description of his visit to the château in 1845, carefully itemising the bed, the pictures, and the cenotaph, as so many had done before him, but also mentioning the wall hangings: ‘la tenture est de soie jaune à fleurs’ (the blue background having faded beyond recognition): ‘On voudrait y être enfermé pendant tout un jour à s’y promener seul. Triste et vide, le jour vert, livide du feuillage, pénétrait par les carreaux; on était pris d’une tristesse étrange, on regrettait cette belle vie remplie, cette existence si intellectuellement turbulente du dix-huitième siècle, et on se figurait l’homme passant de son salon dans sa chambre, ouvrant toutes ces portes…’

He must have been one of the last visitors to witness it in this state. Voltaire’s and his housekeeper’s rooms were soon knocked through and Voltaire’s room set up again in the now more appropriately sized ‘cabinet de tableaux et du billard’ on the other side of the central salon, where the large portrait of Queen Maria Theresa was presumably already set into the wall. Catherine the Great was hung at the head of the bed and Lekain under the little that was left of the canopy crown.

La chambre à coucher de Voltaire à Ferney

La chambre à coucher de Voltaire à Ferney, after a drawing by de Drée, 1869? Other drawings of Ferney by de Drée appeared in Le Monde illustré on 30 January 1869. Courtesy of the Centre d’iconographie of the Bibliothèque de Genève.

Later changes, which I won’t go into, are documented by photographs, like this postcard for the early twentieth-century tourist.

Château de Ferney – Chambre à coucher de Voltaire

Château de Ferney – Chambre à coucher de Voltaire, postcard by Charnaux frères et Co., Geneva. Courtesy of ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv.

Voltaire’s bedroom today

Today Maria Teresa still dominates the room, but the silk wall hangings and bed curtains and cover have been beautifully restored and Carmontelle’s Malheureuse famille Calas reclaimed its place inside the bed curtains. The other four pictures retained to decorate the room, besides various prints, are Voltaire himself and Lekain on the one side and Mme Du Châtelet and the Savoyard on the other. But if, like Flaubert, you wish to imagine Voltaire passing from his salon to his bedroom, you might want to stand in what is now the ‘cabinet de tableaux’ (moved into the much larger space of the two bedrooms knocked together) to do so.

– Alice Breathe

[1] Christophe Paillard, ‘Entre tourisme et pèlerinage, voyage d’affaires et expérience littéraire: Jean-Louis Wagnière, acteur et témoin de la “visite à Ferney”’, Orages 8, March 2009, p.21-50.

[2] With thanks to Neil Jeffares for pointing out that the oil painting of Mme Denis is no longer at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.

[3] Ref. J.9.2901.