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Fake views: an unusual false attribution

Tuesday, 31 October, 2017

Voltaire Lettre

While looking for a pamphlet entitled Lettre de M. de B... à Monsieur de Voltaire I came across a Lettre de M. de Voltaire au peuple d’Angleterre, sur les écarts qu’il a fait paraître, au sujet des balladins français. I have located only four copies in library catalogues. The copy in the Taylorian Library used to belong to Theodore Besterman, who describes it in Some eighteenth-century Voltaire editions unknown to Bengesco (SVEC 111, 1973, no.352). Besterman swiftly dismisses the work in a note stating: ‘As a preface to this pamphlet is printed a letter from Voltaire to Garrick, oddly dated from Coppet, 29 November 1755, and no more authentic than the rest.’ But the work has some interest.

A first consideration with such publications is to assess whether the imprint is genuine: ‘A Londres: Chés J. Robinson, au Lion d’Or, dans Ludgate-Street. M.DCC.LV.’ The pamphlet was certainly printed in England, as is proved by the presence of a press-figure on p.2. The firm of J. Robinson was principally associated with religious publications, and some medical and scientific works, but also history and there was, in 1744, Stage policy detected; or some select pieces of theatrical secret history laid open: in a letter to a certain manager on his imaginary justification of his late conduct. By an impartial hand. So perhaps the imprint is genuine.

The word ‘baladin’ (in its modern spelling) is defined in the Robert dictionary: ‘Vx. Danseur de ballets; bouffon de comédie, comédien ambulant.’ It is not much used in modern French but was certainly well known in the eighteenth century. According to F. Noël’s Philologie française (Paris, 1831), ‘Les balladins étaient des danseurs qui vinrent d’Italie en France dans le 16e siècle.’ What appears to be the sole example of its use in Voltaire’s works is found in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, article ‘Anciens et modernes’: ‘Molière, dans ses bonnes pièces, est aussi supérieur au pur, mais froid Térence, et au farceur Aristophane, qu’au baladin Dancourt’ (OCV, vol.38, p.346). He uses the word in a letter to Marie-Louise Denis in 1744 (D3015): ‘Je me sens un peu honteux à mon âge de quitter ma filosofie et ma solitude pour être baladin des rois’; and to Tronchin and Richelieu in 1764. The ‘Lettre à M. Garrick’ in this pamphlet mentions ‘le genre balladin’. There is no evidence of any correspondence between Voltaire and Garrick before the mid-1760s.

Garrick by Gainsborough
Garrick by Gainsborough.

The anonymous writer has fluent French, is familiar with Voltaire’s work and makes some effort to imitate his style, with varying degrees of success, but he is probably English. The spelling is sometimes strange (‘tandîque’, ‘Etâts’, ‘interrêt’, ‘rivâle’); older verb endings are used (‘vous voyés’); ‘ce’ is often fused with the word that follows it (‘ceque’). The use of the word ‘Quixotisme’ in the ‘Lettre à M. Garrick’ surprises. It is not used anywhere by Voltaire, and indeed the word seems to be unknown in France, not recorded by either Littré or Robert. The only other example I have found in French is in a letter written by Joseph Conrad to Jean Masbrenier on 14 January 1913. In this letter Conrad is clearly translating from his own English. The word is therefore an anglicism. The real French term ‘donquichottisme’ is recorded in 1789, while ‘Quixotism’ is recorded in English from 1664.

The writer shows some knowledge of Voltaire’s private life in the ‘Extrait d’une lettre envoyée de Genève à Londres’ which introduces the pamphlet, and uses it well to give a spurious authenticity to the work. The letter is dated ‘Ornex, 30 novembre 1755’ and its writer claims that Voltaire was with them, visiting ‘le P. Vionnet’ ‘son bon ami, et son frère en Apollon, comme il l’appelle’. I have found no evidence to back up either of these claims, though Voltaire was at Les Délices at the time and so could have visited. Georges Vionnet taught rhetoric at the Collège de la Trinité in Lyon, and wrote some plays. Only one letter from Voltaire to Georges Vionnet is known, and refers to their plays: ‘J’ai l’honneur, mon révérend père, de vous marquer une très faible reconnaissance d’un fort beau présent [Vionnet’s Xerxès]. Vos manufactures de Lyon valent mieux que les nôtres; mais j’offre ce que j’ai [Voltaire’s Sémiramis]. Il me paraît que vous êtes un plus grand ennemi de Crébillon que moi. Vous avez fait plus de tort à son Xerxès, que je n’en ai fait à sa Sémiramis. Vous et moi, nous combattons contre lui. Il y a longtemps que je suis sous les étendards de votre société. Vous n’avez guère de plus mince soldat; mais aussi il n’y en a point de plus fidèle. Vous augmentez encore en moi cet attachement, par les sentiments particuliers que vous m’inspirez pour vous, et avec lesquels j’ai l’honneur d’être, etc.’ (14 December [1749], D4074). But Georges Vionnet died in December 1754. His brother Barthélemy also taught at the college, was also a playwright, and was still alive in 1762, but there is no evidence that Voltaire had contact with him.

The supposed addressee of the letter is unnamed. The Histoire tragique arrivée à l’encontre des danseurs françois ascribed to him, and which allegedly prompted Voltaire’s Lettre, does not appear to have survived, if it ever existed.

The ‘Extrait d’une lettre’ recounts how Voltaire amusingly defended his love of the English. The writer claims that the next morning (!) Voltaire’s ‘valet de chambre’ brought the Lettre au peuple d’Angleterre, and he has made a copy, which he encloses.

1763 Covent Garden riot
The 1763 Covent Garden riot.

The occasion for the pamphlet was a riot at the Drury Lane Theatre in November 1755. Riots were not unusual in theatreland. There had been one in 1737 when footmen were denied their usual free seats in the gallery. There was one in 1763 over increased ticket prices.

The 1755 riot was different, being political, and developed over several days. David Garrick had engaged the Frenchman Jean-Georges Noverre to produce a spectacular ballet.

Jean-Georges Noverre.

Noverre was an innovative and admired balletmaster who created some 150 ballets, of which none have come down to us, but his influence on ballet has been great. In 1754 his Fêtes chinoises had enchanted Paris, and Garrick asked for an even richer version for his London audience. Unfortunately for the production, tensions with France were growing – it was the eve of the Seven Years’ War – and a section of the audience was hostile. The Journal étranger of December 1755 (part 2) gives a detailed account of hostilities in the theatre. On the first performance (8 November), even in the King’s presence, there were whistles, jeers and shouts of ‘No French dancers!’ On 12 November the performance was interrupted by fighting between the nobility and the ‘parterre’. On the 14th the nobility were absent and the ‘peuple furieux’ drowned out the music. On the 15th, again in the absence of nobility, there was a full riot by the ‘Blagards’, which was put down by the militia. Garrick’s assistant promised there would be no further performances. On the 17th the nobility demanded the Fêtes chinoises. Some people repeated the cry for no French dancers. Garrick was summoned. He was unable to satisfy the rival parties but after much argument it was agreed to put on the ballet on the 18th. On that day the opposing sides were present in numbers, the nobility well armed. Total war in which the nobility were unable to overcome the rebels. The theatre was badly damaged; Garrick’s house in Southampton Street was attacked, with all the windows broken, and there was a risk it would be set on fire.

Garrick's house
Garrick’s house in Southampton Street, London.

The Journal étranger (p.235) concludes: ‘Il serait trop long d’entrer dans le détail des platitudes qui se sont débitées à Londres à cette occasion, comme chansons, pièces de vers, libelles, etc. On a poussé l’extravagance jusqu’à imprimer que les danseurs français étaient des officiers, et le Maître des ballets, le Prince Edouard.’ Reports also appeared in the Caledonian Mercury (27 November) and the Leeds intelligencer (2 December). A more colourful account is given in the footnote on p.41 of The Pin-basket to the children of Thespis by Anthony Pasquin [John Williams] (London, 1797).

A detailed examination of the whole affair is given in Hsin-yun Ou’s ‘The Chinese festival and the eighteenth-century London audience’ in The Wenshan Review of literature and culture, vol.2.1 (December 2008).

The scene is set and our anonymous writer, in the ‘Lettre à M. Garrick, pour servir d’Introduction’, starts off with a voltairean rhetorical question: ‘Est-il possible qu’un peuple qui passe dans toute l’Europe pour penser, se livre à des égarements aussi ridicules, que ceux où l’on m’écrit qu’il s’est jeté?’ and introduces the main text: ‘Je joins ici une lettre, dont l’objet roule uniquement à faire voir à cette sage nation, combien elle déroge à son honneur et à sa gloire, toutes les fois qu’elle s’abandonne à une passion marquée au coin de la haine et de la jalousie, pour des sujets aussi frivoles que celui du genre balladin.’

But is is perhaps in this introductory letter that there is a clue to the purpose of the deceit. Towards the end the writer clarifies what he means by ‘peuple’. It is not the common people: ‘La populace n’a ni yeux pour voir, ni oreilles pour entendre. […] C’est une machine informe et pesante, qui n’avance qu’autant qu’on lui donne de force. […] La populace eut vu jouer votre Ballet chinois avec des yeux aussi tranquilles que stupides, si quelque Mégère d’un souffle empesté, n’eût allumé le flambeau dont elle arma cette multitude insensée. C’est donc à ces personnes distinguées de la populace […] que j’adresse cette lettre; à ces personnes qui ont du bon-sens et de la raison, mais que le défaut d’expérience et le manque de réflection, empêchent d’en faire usage à propos; à ces personnes qui n’ayant ni les sentiments où est élevée la noblesse, ni l’ignorance où croupit la populace, tiennent justement le milieu entre le haut et le dernier rang d’une République. Ce sont ceux-là, que le mot de liberté, transporte, affole, enthousiaste; et qui donnant trop de feu à leurs passions, les consument au lieu de les nourrir, pour le soutien et pour l’éclat du corps républicain.’ An appeal to the middle classes for a political rebirth.

What are we to make of the expression ‘corps républicain’? It was not common in French at this time, but became so later in the century. But this is an Englishman writing. Is he appealing to the tradition of the Commonwealth men?

The Lettre de M. de Voltaire au peuple d’Angleterre itself contains a long satirical tirade in which the writer taunts the English with having abandoned their military glory in favour of defeating French dancers: ‘je demanderais aux Anglais, quels étaient leurs grands balladins du temps des Edouards, des Henris, des Elizabeth, des Cromwell? Quelle tache encore une fois pour ces grands princes, de n’avoir pas établi dans leurs états, des écoles de danse, d’escrime et de frisure!’ He thinks it fine to dispute the ‘gloire’ of Shakespeare and Molière, but not farce and ballet. He continues with a diatribe against the weakening of the nation who will not know the glory of arms and will despise battle and combat, and will have no ‘destinée’ but to go to the courts of princes to be diverted by leaps, dances, songs and farces. ‘Les Anglais ne sont point nés danseurs, ni friseurs, ni balladins. Ils ont l’esprit plus élevé; les grands objets font leur occupation: la liberté, la guerre, les sciences, les arts, les métiers, les manufactures et le commerce, voilà pourquoi est né un Anglais; et c’est une gloire pour eux de n’avoir jamais eu, et de n’avoir encore à présent ni friseur, ni danseur, ni balladin.’ The writer praises England, but condemns its concentration on trade and avidity for gold. He praises Louis XIV for forbidding his nobles to engage in commerce.

He writes too against the ‘Antigallicans’ who are hostile to the French, and who think: ‘il est bien cruel de voir notre argent que nous avons tant de peine à faire venir dans notre île, en sorte par la voye de tant d’étrangers, qui comme la fourmis, viennent ici faire leur provision, et vont ensuite la consumer ailleurs’. He argues forcefully that foreigners who earn money here also spend it here, supporting the economy. Here are interesting similarities with current arguments in Britain.

The letter ends in a mode of voltairean irony: ‘Mais silence .... je ne m’apperçois pas que pour un sujet aussi frivole que celui du Genre balladin, je me jette dans des réflexions profondes et à perte de vue. Que le peuple anglais s’obstine à écarter les danseurs français; qu’il nous apprenne qu’avec des batons il sait casser des lanternes; et qu’avec des cailloux il sait enfoncer des vitres; ne réformons personne, laissons le monde tel qu’il est, etc. etc.’

At a time when Europe and other parts of the world were moving towards war, the anonymous writer has used Voltaire’s prestige to support what is in effect a call to arms and moral regeneration, while avoiding simple jingoism.[1] Much emphasis is put on praise for England, but France is not disparaged. It is a clever piece of work and perhaps one of the ‘libelles’ referred to by the writer of the account in the Journal étranger. We unfortunately cannot know how widely the Lettre was read nor how much influence it had.

I have not found any clues to the identity of the writer. He was knowledgeable about Voltaire’s writings and some details of his private life. His French was good. He had strong views about the changes needed to make Britain powerful again. He admired France and Voltaire. At first blush one might think of Sir Everard Fawkener, who was a close friend and admirer of Voltaire and fluent in French. He had also been active in military matters, being from 1745 secretary to the duke of Cumberland, and diplomacy, having been made ambassador to the Sublime Porte in 1735. But this seems unlikely. The ageing Fawkener would by this time probably have been too troubled by his growing financial problems to be tempted to lead a campaign for national regeneration.[2] The Voltaire Foundation would be interested to receive suggestions of the writer’s identity.

– Martin Smith

[1] Voltaire’s celebrity was such that his name was falsely attached to many publications of different kinds, and for various purposes. For an account of this phenomenon see Nicholas Cronk, ‘The selfless author: Voltaire’s apocrypha’, Romanic Review 103.3-4 (2013), p.553-77.

[2] See Norma Perry, Sir Everard Fawkener, friend and correspondent of Voltaire, SVEC 133 (1975), ‘The last ten years’.