The life of François-Marie Arouet, a.k.a. Voltaire (1694-1778), could hardly have been as colourful as that of the eponymous hero of his most famous novella, Candide. In his brief but eventful life, Candide encounters, inter alia, massacre, pillage, rape, piracy, mutilation, brutal militarism, cannibalism, slavery, bestiality, vivisection, religious fanaticism and political intolerance. After which, he turns his back on adventure and retires to cultivate his garden, a decision which evidently also appealed to his creator. In 1758 – just as he was writing Candide and following three decades of on-off nomadic wanderings – Voltaire bought an estate on the Franco-Swiss border at Ferney. There he would spend the rest of his life – as an improving landlord.
‘Cultivating his garden’ meant for Voltaire draining marshes, bringing disused land back under the plough, planting vines and fruit trees, creating a stud farm and establishing estate industries (silk weaving, pocket-watch manufacture etc). In an idyllic setting which commanded views over Mont Blanc, he henceforward devoted his life to his own and his tenants’ well-being. He abolished feudal dues, stimulated the local economy, welcomed industrious political refugees, staged festivals, parties and theatrical events and rebuilt the parish church. He was a model enlightened seigneur in an age of feudal reaction.
In order to cultivate his garden, Candide turned his back on the world; for Voltaire, cultivating his garden entailed grasping the spade, but not losing grip of the pen. Settlement at Ferney proved a way of engaging even more powerfully and more politically with the world than he had done before. Thus far, he had lived by writing – and after 1758 the words came just as abundantly. At a shrewd estimate, Roger Pearson calculates in his sprightly and thoroughly engaging biography, some fifteen million words flowed from Voltaire’s pen. The critical edition currently being published by Oxford’s Voltaire Foundation is scheduled to contain 85 volumes. As well as being the greatest French dramatist of his day, the most celebrated epic poet, the most penetrating historian, a dabbling scientist, a vigorous pamphleteer, an unbending anti-clerical polemicist and (as Pearson, a tad anachronistically, has it) ‘the first human rights campaigner of the modern era’, Voltaire was also one of the most prolific of letter-writers. Twenty-one thousand letters survive, to more than a thousand correspondents.
This logorrhoea is the biggest problem his biographer faces – a problem accentuated by the fact that the mountain of his words served to mythologise their author. Even by the end of his life, Voltaire was not so much viewed as a successful writer as revered (or, alternatively, denounced) as an institution. He was, and remains, an author who in many respects resists analysis. Roland Barthes dubbed him ‘the last happy writer’, and certainly he has little of the angst which we have come to expect of modern writers. ‘Of all men living the one he knows the least is himself,’ was his doctor’s comment.
Obsessive, driven, yet wilfully enigmatic, the man-myth Voltaire is difficult to grasp in one go. Yet this is what Pearson seeks to do, in a triumph of factual coverage and compression. Pearson’s prose, informal and allusive, flows at a hectic pace, evoking Voltaire’s own restless and impetuous energy, and simultaneously mimics his style. Indeed, the chapter-headings of Voltaire Almighty – for example, ‘How an Optimist Wrote a Masterpiece and Bought a Kingdom’ – read as though they have been lifted from Candide. This approach does have a cost. There is little time to pause for sustained reflection on, or analysis of individual works. This is particularly the case with Voltaire’s poetry and drama, which he would probably have regarded as his main claim to posterity’s approval. He would have been astonished that his Candide squib would become the opuscule for which he remained famous. Pearson portrays Voltaire less as a deep-thinking or imaginatively creative figure than as an Enlightenment action man and civil rights advocate. This may be a suitable characterisation for the early 21st century, but it underplays the extent to which Voltaire’s life was driven as much by a determined quest for literary immortality as ‘a life in pursuit of freedom’, as Pearson subtitles his biography.
Voltaire, who ultimately acquired much of his fame by attacking, subverting and flouting the legal system, had turned his back on becoming a lawyer himself. His father (at least according to his birth certificate) was François Arouet, a successful Parisian notary who trained as a lawyer so as to raise himself above his mercantile origins. The cursus honorum which such families followed in Bourbon France strongly indicated a career in law or royal administration for François-Marie. But Voltaire was having none of it. A star pupil of the Jesuits at the Collège (now Lycée) Louis-le-Grand, he wanted only to continue the activities which had made him a star: poetry, writing, rhetoric, theatre – and show. He also precociously displayed some of the scepticism towards organised religion which became a hallmark. (This may – or may not – be due to his allegedly being sodomised by his Jesuit masters.) Above all, Voltaire wanted to succeed – and to be seen to succeed. He was, his school confessor presciently noted, ‘devoured by a thirst for celebrity’. Many of his fellow pupils had been born with a silver spoon in their mouths: a duke and two future ministers of state were among his schoolfriends. Voltaire evidently liked keeping that sort of company, but would have to work hard to retain such friendships in the literary world.
As Antoine Lilti points out in his fine new study, Le Monde des salons, literary celebrity of the kind Voltaire sought was adjudicated and calibrated on the Parisian salon circuit. He had a heady introduction to this aspect of French cultural life when scarcely out of his teens. At Sceaux, in the salon of the duchesse du Maine, he tried out what was to be his first success, the play Oedipe, which went on to be performed by the Comédie-Française to great acclaim in 1718. He was similarly fêted for his epic poem, the Henriade, in 1723. Introduction at the court of young Louis XV, on salon recommendation, painlessly ensued.
Much recent work on the salons has portrayed them as ethereal intellectual institutions locked into the ‘bourgeois public sphere’, in which Enlightenment science and principled political opposition to the Bourbon regime were hatched. In what is an important revision, however, Lilti shows that though this may have been true of certain salons, in most cases and for most of the time they floated indeterminately at the interface between the royal court, the city of Paris and the republic of letters. Furthermore, the high nobility invariably retained its social dominance within them, collaborating with men of letters such as Voltaire to forge a new template of civil, polite, ‘Parisian’ sociability. Codes of salon conduct celebrating man-of-the-world, ‘society’ virtues – mondanité – owed more to Renaissance notions of sprezzatura than to bourgeois calculations of collective self-interest. Lilti also portrays the salons as places where one did more than just cold-bloodedly exchange ideas according to the precepts of Habermasian rationality: in salons, people ate, drank, sang, gambled, flirted and seduced within the framework of what was essentially a gift economy, where only boredom and bad manners were taboo.
As Pearson’s work confirms, Voltaire was indelibly marked by the time he spent in the salons. All through his life, his target audience was the men of letters and interested amateurs who frequented them. He himself preferred to be thought of as a man of letters rather than a mere author – a profession for which he expressed patrician disdain.
If Voltaire was the darling of the salons at the start of his career, brushes with authority were not slow in coming. They would become a speciality. Even before 1718, when, at the age of 24, he adopted the pseudonym Voltaire, the young writer had had his troubles. In 1717, he had been jailed in the Bastille for writing verse critical of the prince regent, the duc d’Orléans. In 1726, he would return to the state prison following an incident in which he insulted the son of the duc de Rohan. He was released on condition that he spend time in exile; he chose to travel to England. The literary wunderkind seemed to be in danger of blowing his career.
Despite his literary triumphs and his salon successes, Voltaire’s background and early life gave him a sulphurous reputation. The son of a notary was a rarity among the frequenters of the Paris salons, especially if, as was probably the case with Voltaire, he was – like Candide – a bastard (the result of a fling between his mother and an aristocratic rake-cum-librettist). Furthermore, early in his career, Voltaire had made a fortune through disreputable means, notably a rip-off of the state lottery in the late 1720s. In addition, his sex life was wilfully heterodox. In 1733, he embarked on a long and loving relationship with Madame du Châtelet, who combined the intellect of a brilliant mathematician with the social status of the wife of the hard-done-by marquis du Châtelet. After her postpartum death in 1749 (the baby was someone else’s), Voltaire was inconsolable, but not for very long. In the mid-1740s he had had a fling with his widowed niece Madame Denis, and he now became her lover again. She went with him when he settled at Ferney.
Bastardy, sexual irregularity (technically, incest), financial shadiness, a lowly social background – Voltaire could not be blamed for all of this. But his on-the-edge notoriety also owed much to his own choices, which, for one who aspired so viscerally to conventional literary success, were invariably ill-considered and reckless. The anti-clericalism which won him laughs in the loucher Parisian salons alienated a powerful and vengeful Church, and its devout supporters in the Bourbon political establishment. The Philosophical Letters (1734), which were based on his visit to England in the late 1720s, were a paean in praise of deism which lauded the openness and tolerance of one of France’s major political and religious enemies. Louis XV had never warmed to Voltaire; he positively chilled thereafter. Voltaire believed that social reform would come only from an enlightened ruler, and by the 1740s had managed to bring his relationship with the king sufficiently back on track to be appointed royal historiographer – though with the indignity of having to wheedle his way into the Académie Française by claiming to be a good Catholic. He wasted the opportunities that the post afforded, and in 1750 threw up his hands in disgust at life as a courtier – only to go off to a position in the court of Frederick II of Prussia, thereby burning his political boats in France. Yet after a short honeymoon in Potsdam, his conduct put him beyond the pale for Frederick, too. The decision to settle in Ferney was made when he was on the rebound from the king of Prussia and at daggers drawn with the king of France – who formally forbade him from coming to Paris or Versailles. By choosing for his new home in 1758 a site close to the Swiss border, which allowed for a hurried escape should Louis XV’s censorship police come knocking, he elected to continue living at the limit of political acceptability.
Pearson perhaps underplays how damaging it was for Voltaire to be away from Paris and its salons. As Stéphane Van Damme demonstrates in Paris, capitale philosophique: De la Fronde à la Révolution, Paris was the only theatre in which the fame Voltaire had craved since his schooldays could be attained.Home of the salons, the city was also the centre of the printing trades, the residence of the major philosophes, the centre of French science and philosophy, the home of luxury and good living, and the capital of the European Enlightenment. In deliberate opposition to the royal court at Versailles, the Parisian cityscape now defined the contours of taste, knowledge, savoir-vivre.
Pearson’s book allows us to glimpse the very artful ways in which Voltaire went about compensating for his physical absence from the heart of the cultural world – and converted it into one of his trump cards. Securely settled more than three hundred miles away, he became the absent presence at the heart of Parisian Enlightenment. He found that he was freer to write what he liked outside Paris, and to experiment not only with literary genres but also with political causes. The novella and the epigrammatic pamphlet were increasingly his stock in trade. He became a commentator on current affairs – but one who created the news as well as reporting it. In particular, he discovered the way that print could work as a political weapon. ‘If there is one thing that can stay the hand of fanatical rage,’ he noted, ‘it is publicity.’ His championing of victims of miscarriages of justice, starting with the famous Calas case in which he overturned the legal and religious establishments, revealed a new vocation. At Ferney he had the freedom – and the bravery – to put the freedom of others at the heart of his quest for celebrity.
Voltaire’s writings still circulated in Paris, sometimes freely, sometimes clandestinely. His work was sometimes avowed, sometimes attributed, sometimes anonymous. (Over his life, ‘Voltaire’ used more than two hundred other aliases.) His plays were still performed at the Comédie-Française. His epistolary relations with friends, ministers and salonnières were conducted in the firm expectation that his letters would be generously quoted. What Voltaire thought, felt, believed, opposed or was writing at Ferney were matters keenly felt in Paris. Ferney helped mythologise its owner.
He further contributed to his own myth by allowing his place of exile to become a site of cultural pilgrimage. He became, by his own somewhat graceless admission, ‘the innkeeper of Europe’. Visitors (who were admitted freely, but only on recommendation) sanctified a burgeoning cult of literary celebrity. ‘After having lived with kings,’ he remarked, ‘I made myself king in my own home.’ His friends in Paris were forever playing around with the idea of organising his return to the capital from his ‘little kingdom’ in the Alps – though Louis XV could not be moved to change his mind on the matter. As was to prove the case with Emiliano Zapata, the Voltaire myth actually functioned rather well in his absence of his anticipated return.
When he finally did return to Paris – in 1778, at the age of 84, under Louis XV’s successor – it proved an unqualified triumph. Parisians flocked to see him, not only to witness the myth made flesh, but also out of genuine historical curiosity. Voltaire was undoubtedly a ‘great man’ – for a generation which was keen on that category – but he was also excessively antique. His clothing looked as if it had been lifted from a Molière farce, his wig as if it had been retrieved from a Louis-Quatorzian dustbin. With regard to what he valued most, his literary reputation, he was more spectacle than inspiration. Though no one was insensitive enough to mention the fact to him, the world had moved on. His plays were now viewed as creaking if stately barges. His prose seemed out of date too: the sensibilities of readers had been turned upside down by the passionate introspection of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His religious views were seen as staid and passé; even the Church was less worried about Voltairean deism than the atheism and materialism of a new wave of philosophers. His attachment to enlightened absolutism seemed positively quaint when set against the radical imaginings of the younger generation. Received in honour by the Académie Française and fêted in the salons, his stay was mediatised most effectively in the public sphere of newspapers, coffee-houses and masonic lodges, which had existed only embryonically in the decades he had spent in the city.
It was not Voltaire’s fame which buckled under the impact of coming to Paris but his body, racked with disease and unable to deal with stamina-sapping public events, being endlessly on view, and having too many late nights and too much good living. He went out, his mistress recorded, ‘like a candle’.
This new Parisian world in which he seemed obsolete was one to whose making he had made a signal contribution. Though fixated on the opinion of a happy few of his salon-going peers, he had helped to create a mass market for philosophical works. He mocked writers who lived by their pens, yet had himself made such an economic proposition both desirable and worth aspiring to. Candide was one of the bestselling works of the European Enlightenment. His cheaply produced pamphlets and polemics reached parts of society well beyond those who could afford the folio volumes of the Encyclopédie. His pamphlets on causes célèbres like the Calas case inspired a generation of Revolutionaries. Freedom (including his own) and justice had been handsomely served by his lifelong quest for celebrity. He was the first Enlightenment writer to be buried in pomp in the Pantheon. By the late 1790s, counter-Revolutionaries were blaming Voltaire for both the Revolution and the Terror. This was ridiculous, but it paid eloquent (if backhanded) homage to an inspirational figure who proved that cultivating one’s garden could be a heroic enterprise.