Electronic Enlightenment (EE), an online collection of edited correspondence from the early modern period, has been an invaluable resource for me as a first-year modern languages student at Durham University. As part of the Reading French Literature module I have been studying my first work by Voltaire, the satirical novella L’Ingénu, and have used EE to explore Voltaire’s correspondence, pursuing my intuitive hunches about this text as well as finding out more about the context in which it was written.
Religion struck me as one of the main topics of discussion in L’Ingénu. In reading letters to and from Voltaire on EE, I began to better appreciate the extent of religious contention in eighteenth-century France. The theory of Creation is referenced in a seemingly poignant moment at the end of chapter 13, where l’Ingénu is touched by the sight of a beautiful woman: ‘il faut convenir que Dieu n’a créé les femmes que pour apprivoiser les hommes.’ However, shortly after this assertion, Voltaire writes, ‘C’est une absurdité, c’est un outrage au genre humain, c’est un attentat contre l’Etre infini et suprême de dire: Il y a une vérité essentielle à l’homme, et Dieu l’a cachée.’ Here the use of irony and of different narrative voices points to the value of turning to Voltaire’s correspondence, as this is an external source which may be used to compare Voltaire’s voice as a narrator with his supposedly real voice when in communication with his peers. Voltaire’s particular form of expression means that the reader can never be quite sure as to where his personal opinion lies. This is confirmed through a study of his correspondence, where we see him playing with different voices.
Letters from figures such as Jean Le Rond d’Alembert piqued my curiosity to read about religious policy in contemporary society. D’Alembert remarks about religious tensions and debate in France, ‘la censure de la Sorbonne contenait douze à quinze pages contre la Tolérance’ (14 August 1767). This source of ‘unofficial’ discourse between the two men corresponding in a personal capacity is useful in gauging a contemporary reaction to the public discourse and politics of the time and the context in which Voltaire wrote.
Without this letter, I would not have started to explore so keenly this facet of eighteenth-century society. Similar religious contention is revealed in Voltaire’s letter to Etienne Noël Damilaville, as he makes reference to the significance of truth and tolerance in religious debate: ‘Je sais avec quelle fureur le fanatisme s’élève contre la philosophie. Elle a deux filles qu’il voudrait faire périr comme Calas, ce sont la vérité et la tolérance’ (1 March 1765). The case of Jean Calas serves as an illustration of Voltaire’s discussion of religious intolerance. It prompted me to look further into the Calas story, and to learn about the inferior position of Protestants in France at the time.
This has influenced my reading of L’Ingénu, since it supported the idea that the protagonist was regarded as such a social outsider because of the uniformity and strictness with which Catholicism dominated. From reading Voltaire’s letters, we can acknowledge the position of the author. It is clear that he advocated religious freedom, and sought to denounce the Catholic Church, since he poses assertive questions such as: ‘comment obtenir justice? comment s’aller remettre en prison dans sa patrie où la moitié du peuple dit encore que le meurtre de Calas était juste?’ (1 March 1765).
Finally, reading a distinct form of material such as Voltaire’s letters, instead of solely his published writings, has made me consider the impact of the public and the motivation behind authorship. Much more assertive opinions regarding theological inclination are expressed in the evidently intimate, more personal letters than in Voltaire’s stories, and the subtlety of his opinions appears clearer when the richness of the correspondence in EE is taken into account.
– Hannah Hawken