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Catfishing Voltaire

Thursday, 24 August, 2017

Sam Bailey has just received an MSt in European Enlightenment studies from the University of Oxford with a distinction and won the Gerard Davis prize for his MSt dissertation. He is working at the Vf as a research assistant over the summer. In the coming academic year, he will begin an AHRC-funded PhD on representations of disability in seventeenth-century French cabaret poetry at the University of Durham.


Paul Desforges-Maillard, by Pieter Tanjé, 1756.

It is for good reason that the Republic of Letters is often referred to as a social network. A quick browse of the Electronic Enlightenment project reveals how seamlessly the lengthy written exchanges between the philosophes can be repurposed for digital publication. Indeed, the letters themselves, with their perplexing in-jokes, abbreviations and allusions, seem to invite the various cross-references and hyperlinks that can be added when publishing electronically. So strong are these parallels, that a recent seminar I attended involved a tangential discussion of whether Diderot would have liked Wikipedia. (For the record, we concluded that he would have admired the ambition of the project but would not have liked the fact that anyone can contribute).

As with their twenty-first-century counterparts, eighteenth-century social networks came with a host of pitfalls and were frequently hijacked for the purposes of trickery and even practical jokes. Indeed, a so-called mystification involved luring an unsuspecting gullible individual into a humorous trap designed to teach him or her to be more alert.[1] A particularly popular strategy was to adopt a false identity through which to communicate with one’s target, a ruse that bears a striking resemblance to the modern-day concept of ‘catfishing’. For those who don’t spend their time watching late-night American reality TV, catfishing is the social media phenomenon of creating a fake online profile to strike up a (usually romantic) relationship with a stranger.

The term originates from the 2010 film Catfish, which documents a real-life situation of this kind. A character explains that when transporting live cod for long distances, fishermen found that the flesh of the fish turned soft and mushy due to inactivity. Their solution was to place a small number of catfish into the tanks, which proceeded to chase the cod and keep them agile. There are people in life who are like those catfish, so the analogy goes, people whose unpredictable actions keep us alert and forever looking over our shoulders. Although the name and the online setting are new, the phenomenon of catfishing is most certainly very old.


Poem by Desforges-Maillard published in the July 1732 issue of the Mercure de France.

Towards the beginning of his life as a literary celebrity, Voltaire was embroiled in a saga very similar to a modern incident of catfishing when he became the unwitting victim of Paul Desforges-Maillard. As explained in the 1880 edition of his collected works, Desforges was a lawyer and amateur poet from Brittany who, despondent after many failed attempts at achieving literary recognition, tried an ingenious marketing strategy with the latest poem he sent to the Mercure de France. And so, ‘un beau jour de l’année 1732 […] le Mercure présenta à Voltaire, coquettement encadrée dans ses colonnes, la pièce de vers suivante, datée du Croisic, en Bretagne, et signée d’une femme’.[2]

The woman in question was one Mlle Malcrais de la Vigne, whose verses in the Mercure had already won her several admirers in the months leading up to this event. However, none were as distinguished as Voltaire. The verse ‘A M. Arouet de Voltaire…’ was an immediate hit, causing Desforges to continue publishing under the Malcrais pseudonym and receive further praise from many unsuspecting (male) readers. The seductive image of the ‘héroine du Mercure’, an unmarried, unknown woman, exiled far from metropolitan Paris in Brittany completely captured the imagination of the Parisian reading public.[3] Eventually, Malcrais’s verse received a laudatory, even flirtatious, response from Voltaire himself, who, by all accounts, had been duped: ‘Voltaire, ce prince des moqueurs, a aussi été moqué, joué, mystifié’.[4]


Poem (dated 15 August 1732) sent to the Mercure de France by Voltaire as a response to Desforges-Maillard’s poem.

Alain Viala recognises that ‘signer une œuvre publiée, c’est engager une image de soi’, and the pseudonymous identity of Mlle Malcrais de la Vigne is precisely that: a projection of a fabricated self-image designed to carry out a mystification of her readers and, specifically, to ensnare Voltaire, the prince of mockery himself.[5] Initially, wrote Desforges-Maillard in 1753, his objective was simple: ‘quand j'écrivis sous le nom de mlle de Malcrais; je ne voulais tromper que l'auteur du Mercure avec lequel j'étais brouillé, chacun prit la pilule et l'avala’.[6] How far we choose to believe this self-portrait of the catfish as a victim of circumstance is up to us, but it serves to highlight a risk inherent to pseudonymous publication, namely that one can never be sure how far the ruse will play out and exactly who it will deceive.

Desforges writes that Voltaire was ‘bien double, bien vain et bien mauvais’, in other words, just as much of a con-artist as the man behind Malcrais.[7] Far from a literary demi-god, Voltaire is, in Desforges’ view, no more than another cunning trickster who dons masks as and when he sees fit with a view to deceiving people into exalting him. While Desforges evidently had no qualms about deceiving a man he considered the arch-deceiver, even relishing the challenge, the moral limit for him came when, still publishing as Malcrais, he received a letter from the biographer Évrard Titon du Tillet praising her work. Desforges felt guilty for duping Titon du Tillet, a seemingly honourable man who was himself guilty of no trickery, and this caused him to reveal his true identity to his readers, who, predictably, promptly lost interest.[8]

Voltaire, however, never forgot, frequently evoking the Malcrais episode in his correspondence as the definitive example of all not being as it seems. Desforges is remembered, but only as Malcrais, the ‘muse androgyne’ to whom Voltaire continued to make reference in letters right up until 1770. Malcrais’ name is preserved in history as Voltaire’s catfish, the cautionary figure who kept him alert and ceaselessly reminded him that appearances may be deceiving.

– Sam Bailey

[1] For more on mystification, see Reginald McGinnis’s Essai sur l’origine de la mystification (Paris, 2009).

[2] Paul Desforges-Maillard, Poésies diverses de Desforges-Maillard (Paris, 1880), p. II.

[3] Desforges-Maillard, Poésies diverses, p. IX.

[4] Desforges-Maillard, Poésies diverses, p. I.

[5] Alain Viala, La Naissance de l’écrivain (Paris, 1985), p. 85.

[6] Desforges-Maillard to Gilles François de Beauvais, 21 June 1753.

[7] Desforges-Maillard to Gilles François de Beauvais, 21 June 1753'.

[8] The way in which Desforges revealed his true identity is yet another remarkable tale that allegedly involved him dressing as a woman and going to dinner with Voltaire. The full story can be found in the preface to the 1880 edition.

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