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Voltaire: a life in letters

Tuesday, 11 September, 2018
Voltaire, Commentaire historique
Title page of the first edition. With kind permission from the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: VET.FR.II.B.1997.

In the late summer of 1776 there appeared an anonymous Commentaire historique sur les œuvres de l’auteur de La Henriade. On the face of it, this biography of the 82-year-old Voltaire was written by a ‘man of letters’, not in his first youth either, with access to the great man and to the ‘chaos of his papers’. The work is indeed heavily reliant on Voltaire’s correspondence, both in the opening narrative and in the collection of letters that follows, but early readers were in no doubt that Voltaire had played an active part in its composition. As the reviewer of the Mémoires secrets put it in September 1776: ‘It is a third party who is supposed to be speaking; but from the style and favourable manner in which all the facts are presented, and from a multitude of secret and specific details besides, there can be no doubt that he supplied the materials and put in the colour’.

Voltaire, Commentaire historique

Manuscript of Voltaire’s letter to Dmitriy Alekseevich Golitsyn of 19 June 1773 in the hand of Durey de Morsan, corrected by Voltaire. With kind permission from the Royal Library of Belgium: Collection Launoit MS 315.

Not unusually, Voltaire denied being the author, arguing that he could not possibly have written something so self-indulgent. Word was that a certain Durey de Morsan had penned it, with Voltaire supplying the ‘anecdotes’ and the ‘style’ (according to Moultou writing to Meister on 4 November 1776). Durey de Morsan was perpetually in debt and lived at Ferney on and off between 1769 and 1774. He was certainly involved to some degree, but this may have been limited to copying letters (there are several in his hand) and signing a chit dated 1 May 1776 stating that he had seen the original documents and handed them over to Voltaire’s secretary Wagnière. (On Wagnière’s own later claims to be the author, see the ‘Révisions posthumes’ in volume 78B.)

Voltaire, Commentaire historique

Revisions by Wagnière on a copy of the book sent to Catherine the Great after Voltaire’s death. With kind permission from the National Library of Russia: Bibliothèque de Voltaire 11-227.

The Commentaire historique continued to grow and change even after Durey de Morsan had returned the documents he had seen. Voltaire’s letter on the Ganganelli forgeries is dated 2 May, and the one to Faugères on the superiority of all things seventeenth-century seems to have been written the following day. No doubt some rewriting was necessary when Turgot, the Controller-General of Finances, fell from grace on 12 May. He still features in the Commentaire historique – not least in the poem Sésostris, addressed to the king in happier times and given particular prominence as the final item in the volume – but never by name.

Voltaire, Commentaire historique

The Declarations by Durey de Morsan and Christin in the first edition. With kind permission from the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: VET.FR.II.B.1997.

On 1 June, it was the lawyer Christin who signed a statement vouching that the documents had been copied accurately (in fact the letters were sometimes ‘improved’ for publication). And still the Commentaire historique kept growing. Voltaire’s letter to Spallanzani on slugs, tardigrades, and the nature of the soul is dated 6 June, and his letter ‘Sur le fameux cocher Gilbert’ must be later than the 24th, when he discovered that Gilbert, a witness against his protégé Morangiès, was apparently a pickpocket and a counterfeiter. In early July the disgraced lawyer Simon Linguet, who had helped to defend La Barre in 1766 and Morangiès in 1772, visited Ferney. Although his name is reduced to an initial, he can be associated with a disproportionate number of the letters included, raising interesting questions about the selection criteria.

This edition of the Commentaire historique, with all its letters included and annotated for the first time, finally allows us to properly consider the text as a whole. I hope it might also help to demonstrate the usefulness of further work on the rest of Voltaire’s vast correspondence.

The Commentaire historique is publishing in two volumes in September 2018. Volume 78B contains the introduction and a dossier on the text’s posthumous fate, and volume 78C contains the full text, including the ‘lettres véritables’ normally stripped from it, and annotation.

– Alice Breathe

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