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A proto-digital edition case study: Voltaire’s Précis du siècle de Louis XV

Introduction

For nearly fifty years, the Voltaire Foundation has been engaged on the monumental project of producing full, scientific critical editions of Voltaire’s complete works. True to the vision of our founder and benefactor Theodore Besterman, our books are (even if we say so ourselves) both handsome objects and functional tools, with all the information presented as clearly as possible. They are, however, printed books, a format which artificially confines the multi-dimensionality of Voltaire’s texts onto a two-dimensional printed page.

Our base text, chosen by the editor to reflect the version of Voltaire’s text that best represents his creative and intellectual intention, is given prominence on the printed page as the reading version, together with, at the foot of the page, variants from other manuscripts or editions in which there is reason to think he may have participated. These variants necessarily then assume the somewhat lesser status of ‘shadow texts’: they show the roads not taken, but they often shed important light on Voltaire’s changing preoccupations and working methods, which is of particular interest to scholars working on genetic textual scholarship, helping us to understand how the work came into being.

Variants in the Précis du siècle de Louis XV

To see how this works, let’s take a case study. This excerpt is from the Précis du siècle de Louis XV, edited by Janet Godden and James Hanrahan, part of the Voltaire Historian Leverhulme funded project.

Proof page of the Précis du Siècle de Louis XV

The Précis du siècle de Louis XV is one of Voltaire’s major contributions to the historiography of his own time, which he started to work on following his appointment as the royal historiographer in 1745. The image opposite (click on image to enlarge) is of an early working proof of the text for the edition that is currently being prepared. In this excerpt, from chapter 27, lines 50-80, Voltaire is discussing the voyage around the world by the English admiral Anson. After many hardships, Anson has passed to the Pacific Ocean and has made landfall on the Fernandez islands. For the purposes of genetic analysis of the text, the reader needs to know that the main reading version comes from an edition of 1775, the last authorised edition printed during Voltaire’s lifetime and which we know he revised shortly before his death. It therefore has a good claim to be the version of the text which best represents his ultimate intentions.

However, as with most of Voltaire’s work, we also need to bear in mind that there were previous versions of this work, both published and in manuscript, and that these also reflect Voltaire’s intentions at different points of the writing process. A critical edition which aims to be definitive must, therefore, give its readers access to these other versions. For reasons of economy and efficiency, the convention is to show where these other versions differ from the base text in variants at the foot of the page, using anchor words at the beginning and end of the variant passage to show the points at which the text diverges from the base text, and where it rejoins.

On this page, for example, we can see that lines 67 to 71 were added by Voltaire to editions after 1764 (see the fourth variant on the page, showing that in editions w56 to w64g the lines were missing). The critical apparatus earlier in the book will explain that in these particular earlier editions, abbreviated for convenience on the page, the text of the Précis du siècle de Louis XV formed part of Voltaire’s enormous universal history project, the Essai sur les mœurs, and was only spun off into a separate work in 1768 (when it was published at the end of the Siècle de Louis XIV), and then published as a completely standalone work in 1769.

Before the Précis: Histoire de la guerre de 1741

So far so complex. But in the case of the Précis, it gets more problematic. Before the publication of the Essai sur les mœurs in 1756 (w56 in our abbreviation), Voltaire had used much of the same material in a work on the history of the War of Austrian Succession, the Histoire de la Guerre de 1741. So our editors faced a dilemma. Should this work be treated as a variant text of the Précis and the readings it offers be shown at the foot of the page? We experimented with doing this (see the siglum G41 on the page shown above). But this turned out to be unsatisfactory for several reasons. First, the scope of the Histoire de la Guerre de 1741 (let’s call it G41 here too) is quite different from that of the Précis. Voltaire started writing the history of the war as the royal historiographer, which meant details of battles, lists of officers killed and wounded, exploits on the battlefield and so on. Yes, he uses a lot of this material in the Précis, but some cutting and reworking was necessary given the wider scope of the later work: it encompasses other elements of foreign policy, trade, domestic policy and court politics. Louis XV was younger than Voltaire himself, and when he started writing the Précis, Voltaire would not necessarily have expected to outlive the king (which he did, with Louis dying in 1774, four years before the historian). He was thus able to add a chapter on the king’s death to the work in a later edition.

All of this means that G41 should be considered as a text in its own right, separate from the Précis, not a straightforward variant of it. But it was never officially published by Voltaire and mostly exists in manuscript form: there are a handful of complete or semi-complete manuscripts, plus drafts of individual chapters, often in Voltaire’s own hand. To complicate things still further, a printed edition was published in 1755, but this was on the basis of a ‘purloined’ manuscript, and Voltaire lost no time in denouncing the publication (a posture he frequently adopted, and which did not seem to stop him from using the unofficial edition as his own base text when he came to write the Précis).

The following diagram (reproduced here by kind permission of James Hanrahan) gives a sense of some of these complexities:

The G41 manuscripts

So let’s go back a step and look at the equivalent text to the passage we’ve just seen, this time in the G41 version. Here is our working proof of the equivalent passage (ch.25, lines 51-73):

Page 322

Page 323

 

We can see immediately that the variants to this text are a lot more complicated than those of the Précis. The base text here is a manuscript (since Voltaire disowned the printed edition, we can’t really use that as reflecting his intentions, and in any case since the stolen manuscript it was based on was incomplete, the edition does not include the second half of the work into which this chapter falls). The manuscript chosen is the fair copy that Voltaire sent to Mme de Pompadour: although not in his own hand, we can surmise that it is the version he wished to be known. The other manuscripts mentioned in the variants can be described as follows:

  • A very early (possibly first) draft of the chapter, in Voltaire’s own handwriting (MS11).
  • A somewhat careless and scrappy copy, with no obvious interventions by Voltaire (MS10)
MS11, p.3

MS11, p.3
Photographic credit: The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

MS11, p.4

MS11, p.4
Photographic credit: The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

MS10 is of no great interest (the only variant in this passage being the omission of ‘eux’ in line 58), but MS11 offers a fascinating insight into Voltaire’s thought process as he composed his works. There are deletions (marked in our proofs by < and > around words) and additions above the line (using the ↑ sign with a + to mark the end of the addition). So for example, we can see the slight reworking of the sentence in lines 52-53, as Voltaire decides against the verb ‘écarter’ in favour of ‘disperser’, and later prefers ‘affreuse’ to his original ‘maligne’ to describe the attack of scurvy on board Anson’s ships. A few lines above, we can see how Voltaire adds in the margin a few more details about the exploits of one of Anson’s ships, before moving onto the disasters of the Cape Horn passage. Later, at line 73, the manuscript shows that Voltaire added in the margin a list of the next topics he wanted to cover (the Centurion, Gloucester and Tryal being names of Anson’s ships).

Important as they are for an understanding of how Voltaire worked and wrote, no one could really claim that these variants are particularly easy to read on the page (although they are probably more legible than the raw data of the manuscript). The symbols can be off-putting, and the economy of the fragments (only giving readings where they differ from the main text) means that the reader has to work quite hard to figure out how the fragments of the manuscript relate to the text, possibly flicking back in the volume to consult the section on the list of editions and manuscripts and the stated principles of the edition. Even more so when we also take into consideration the later version of the same passage later published as the Précis, in which these complexities are not immediately obvious. We can do a certain amount with cross-references and variants, but, for this text in particular, it really seems that we need more than this if readers are to fully appreciate and understand the genesis of this work and get closer to Voltaire’s working methods. The two-dimensional representation on the page has become a limiting factor.

A prototype digital edition

But the digital era opens up new possibilities which can potentially overcome this problem. We are no longer limited by what can be represented on a single, black and white page. With a digital edition (like the ‘fluid’ digital edition of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden) we can see some or all of the different states of the text at once. Doing something similar with this passage from the Précis du siècle de Louis XV is so much easier to read than the paper edition and enables a much swifter comparison and understanding of how the different versions were built up.

G41 (MS11)

G41 (MS3) EM P
cependant en doublant le cap horn apres avoir passé le detroit de le maire, des tempetes des tempetes extraordinaires battent ses vaissaux battent les vaissaux d’anson et les ecartent dispersent. un scorbut d’une nature plus maligne que affreuse fait perir la moitié des lequipages du vaissau que montoit le le seul vaissau du commodore il aborde avec le seul vaissau une son l’ile deserte de fernandes dans la mer pacifique du sud en remontant vers le tropique du capricorne. un lecteur raisonable qui voit avec quelque horeur tout ce que les hommes ces soins prodigieux que prennent les hommes pour se rendre malheureux eux et leurs semblables, aprendra peutetre avec satisfaction que george anson trouvant dans cette ile deserte le climat le plus doux et le terrain le plus fertile, y sema des legumes et des fruits qui dont il avoit aporté les semences et les noyaux et qui bientot couvrirent toute lile entiere. quelques des espagnols qui y relacherent quelques annees apres, ayant eté faits depuis prisonniers en angleterre, jugerent qu’il n’y avoit qu’anson qui eut pu faire ce bien, et l’en remercierent reparer par cette attention genereuse le mal que fait la guerre, et ils le remercierent comme leur bienfaicteur. on trouva sur la cote baucoup de lyons de mer, et de ces poissons que les matelots anglois qui se li dont les males se battent entre eux pour les femeles, et on fut etonné dy voir dans les plaines des chevres qui avoient les oreilles coupées, et qui par la servirent de preuve a l’histoire aux avantures dun anglois nommé Shelkirst qui avoit vecu seul abandonné dans cette ile, y avait vécu seul plusieurs annees. qu’il soit permis dadoucir par cettes petites circonstances la tristesse d’une histoire qui n’est quun tableau recit de huit annees de meurtres et de calamitez. Cependant en doublant le cap Horn, après avoir passé le détroit de le Maire, des tempêtes extraordinaires battent les vaisseaux d’Anson et les dispersent. Un scorbut d’une nature affreuse fait périr la moitié de l’équipage. Le seul vaisseau du commodore aborde l’île déserte de Fernandes dans la mer du Sud en remontant vers le tropique du Capricorne. Un lecteur raisonnable qui voit avec quelque horreur ces soins prodigieux que prennent les hommes pour se rendre malheureux eux et leurs semblables, apprendra peut-être avec satisfaction que George Anson trouvant dans cette île déserte le climat le plus doux et le terrain le plus fertile y sema des légumes et des fruits dont il avait apporté les semences et les noyaux et qui bientôt couvrirent l’île entière. Des Espagnols qui y relâchèrent quelques années après ayant été faits depuis prisonniers en Angleterre, jugèrent qu’il n’y avait qu’Anson qui eût pu réparer par cette attention généreuse le mal que fait la guerre, et ils le remercièrent comme leur bienfaiteur. On trouva sur la côte beaucoup de lions de mer, dont les mâles se battent entre eux pour les femelles, et on fut étonné d’y voir dans les plaines des chèvres qui avaient les oreilles coupées, et qui par là servirent de preuve aux aventures d’un Anglais nommé Shelkirst qui abandonné dans cette île y avait vécu seul plusieurs années. Qu’il soit permis d’adoucir par ces petites circonstances la tristesse d’une histoire qui n’est qu’un récit de huit années de meurtres et de calamités. Cependant en doublant le Cap Horn, après avoir passé le détroit de le Maire, des tempêtes extraordinaires battent les vaisseaux d’Anson et les dispersent. Un scorbut d’une nature affreuse fait périr la moitié de l’équipage. Le seul vaisseau du commodore aborde l’Ile déserte de Fernandès, dans la Mer du Sud, en remontant vers le Tropique du Capricorne. Un lecteur raisonnable qui voit avec quelque horreur ces soins prodigieux que prennent les hommes pour se rendre malheureux eux et leurs semblables, apprendra peut-être avec satisfaction que George Anson trouvant dans cette Ile déserte le climat le plus doux, et le terrain le plus fertile, y sema des légumes et des fruits dont il avait apporté les semences, et les noyaux, et qui bientôt couvrirent l’Ile entière. Des Espagnols qui y relâchèrent quelques années après, ayant été faits depuis prisonniers en Angleterre, jugèrent qu’il n’y avait qu’Anson qui eût pu réparer par cette attention généreuse le mal que fait la guerre, et ils le remercièrent comme leur bienfaiteur. Qu’il soit permis d’adoucir par ces petites circonstances la tristesse d’une histoire qui n’est qu’un récit de meurtres et de calamités.

Cependant en doublant le Cap-Horn, après avoir passé le détroit de le Maire, des tempêtes extraordinaires battent les vaisseaux d’Anson et les dispersent. Un scorbut d’une nature affreuse fait périr la moitié de l’équipage; le seul vaisseau du commodore aborde dans l’île déserte de Fernandez, dans la mer du Sud, en remontant vers le tropique du Capricorne.

Un lecteur raisonnable qui voit avec quelque horreur ces soins prodigieux que prennent les hommes pour se rendre malheureux eux et leurs semblables, apprendra peut-être avec satisfaction, que George Anson trouvant dans cette île déserte le climat le plus doux, et le terrain le plus fertile, y sema des légumes et des fruits, dont il avait apporté les semences, et les noyaux, et qui bientôt couvrirent l’île entière. Des Espagnols qui y relâchèrent quelques années après, ayant été faits depuis prisonniers en Angleterre, jugèrent qu’il n’y avait qu’Anson qui eût pu réparer par cette attention généreuse, le mal que fait la guerre; et ils le remercièrent comme leur bienfaiteur.

On trouva sur la côte beaucoup de lions de mer, dont les mâles se battent entre eux pour les femelles; et on fut étonné d’y voir dans les plaines des chèvres, qui avaient les oreilles coupées, et qui par là servirent de preuve aux aventures d’un Anglais, nommé Shelkirst, qui, abandonné dans cette île, y avait vécu seul plusieurs années. Qu’il soit permis d’adoucir par ces petites circonstances la tristesse d’une histoire qui n’est qu’un récit de meurtres et de calamités. Une observation plus intéressante fut celle de la variation de la boussole, qu’on trouva conforme au système de Halley. L’aiguille aimantée suivait exactement la route que ce grand astronome lui avait tracée. Il donna des lois à la matière magnétique, comme Newton en donna à toute la nature. Et cette petite escadre, qui n’allait franchir des mers inconnues que dans l’espérance du pillage, servait la philosophie sans le savoir.

Key:

Spelling has been modernised, except text in Voltaire’s own handwriting. Original punctuation and proper names have been retained.

yellow = added above the line

green = added on the line or in margin

strikethrough = cancelled text

List of versions:

G41 (MS11) = Holograph fragment of the Histoire de la guerre de 1741, conserved by the Morgan Library, New York.

G41 (MS3) = Histoire de la guerre de 1741, manuscript copy presented by Voltaire to Mme de Pompadour and conserved by the Bibliothèque de Méjanes, Aix en Provence.

EM (1756) = Essai sur l’histoire générale, et sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, in the Cramer edition of the complete works of Voltaire (1756).

P (1775) = Précis du siècle de Louis XV, in the Cramer encadrée edition of the complete works of Voltaire (Geneva, 1775).

In this prototype, we have concentrated on the main different versions, rather than showing transcriptions of all the different editions of the Essai sur les mœurs, for example, or later versions of the Précis once it became a discrete text which do not offer any variants to this passage from the base text. Even in this simplified version, however, the genesis of the text leaps out much more readily. The earliest draft shows Voltaire thinking as he writes and playing with different stylistic approaches, which are stabilised in the fair copy for presentation. At the point of incorporating this passage into the Essai sur les mœurs, a universal, global history covering the ancient world right up to his present day, he may have been under pressure to cut the local details of the fauna of the island, together with the reference to Shelkirst (or Selkirk, supposedly the inspiration for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe). Once the Précis is given its own separate status, however, these details find their way back in, and Voltaire also adds a note about the scientific progress made possible by empirical observations in the course of the expedition.

The parallel text model shown here works well for short passages such as this one, but one could envisage other ways of doing something similar, for example with mouseovers or pop-up windows. For a straightforward and clean reading experience the reader might wish to suppress the different versions, only bringing them into view again to analyse a specific point. Footnotes could be visible or hidden in the same way. As the field of digital scholarship evolves, we will be able to read these texts afresh, and, as is often the case when reading Voltaire, discover something new each time. As we approach the fifty-year anniversary of the foundation of the complete works project, it is heartening to reflect that Besterman’s vision for improving both the reading experience of Voltaire’s texts and an understanding of his working methods continues to be fulfilled in ways he could not have predicted.

Alison Oliver, Autumn 2016