Voltaire and life writing

The 1750s were one of the most turbulent periods of Voltaire’s life. Grief-stricken after the death of Emilie du Châtelet in 1749, he accepted the invitation of Frederick the Great to travel to Potsdam for an extended stay at the Prussian court. This sojourn, which had started so promisingly, ended in ignominy and recrimination; and after a period of nomadism, he eventually found himself in 1758 setting up home in Ferney with his niece, Marie-Louise Denis. For Voltaire, it was a decade of extreme contrasts shaped by his relationship with Frederick, a period of supreme, seemingly unassailable celebrity and of public humiliation, of independence and exile, of power and vulnerability.

Voltaire composed two works that told the story of his time at the Prussian court, which concentrate particularly on his troubled relationship with Frederick: Paméla and the Mémoires pour servir à la vie de Monsieur de Voltaire. The texts are unusual in the works of Voltaire for two reasons: they are both written as first-person narratives, dealing with the actions and emotions of the writer; and they were both unpublished during the lifetime of the author (it would have been unthinkable to publish them while Frederick lived, and even more so after their later reconciliation). Paméla, a reworking of letters to Marie-Louise Denis during his years in Prussia (which were long thought to be an authentic correspondence), gives a very carefully constructed view of the period, where attitudes are modified, chronology manipulated, details omitted. The same is true of the Mémoires, where the perspective is different, but still issues are simplified, and evidence changed at will. Through these two texts, Voltaire speaks directly to posterity, as he seeks to claim the authority to write about himself, to create and control his image.

For Voltaire, this came in the form of people publishing his letters without his permission, many of which had been doctored or entirely forged. Notable examples were a letter published by Charles Palissot in 1760, a recueil of forged letters that appeared in 1764 and two further recueils in 1766. The latter of these also included an unauthorised and rather unflattering biography of Voltaire.

Voltaire’s legacy under threat

Voltaire found himself in a bit of an awkward position. He was, in principle, in favour of free speech and the freedom of the press, but his own honour and legacy were under threat by the increasing multitude of libellous publications about him. So, in spring 1776 he wrote the Commentaire historique as a somewhat frantic final effort to regain control over his legacy before he died. In this work, the philosophe aimed to dispel some myths about him by… creating some myths of his own.

The Commentaire historique is an operation in celebrity brand management. We can think of it like a social media profile: rather than depicting Voltaire as he really was, this work presents us with Voltaire as he wished others to perceive him. In this capacity, it is certainly not a transparent truth-telling enterprise. For one thing, Voltaire’s antagonistic, militant side is downplayed and there is no mention of the highly controversial Lettres philosophiques. Present-day readers might also be surprised by the absence of the short stories such as Candide for which he is best known today. Instead, Voltaire foregrounds the works he is most proud of, namely his theatre, poetry and above all the Henriade, all works that are not widely read today.

The Commentaire historique plays up to the unverified rumours surrounding the philosophe’s life. It begins, ‘Some say that François de Voltaire was born on the 20 February 1694; others the 20 November of the same year’ (Les uns font naître François de Voltaire le 20 février 1694; les autres le 20 novembre de la même année). As well as playfully refusing to reveal his own birthday, this makes it plain that we are getting Voltaire the celebrity, not François-Marie Arouet the man behind him.

Voltaire’s public image as presented in the Commentaire historique is a complex, multi-faceted entity. This series of introductory articles takes us through some of the profile pictures he uses and gives us a closer look at his various personas in one of the final major works of his life.

(With thanks to Sam Bailey, currently PhD candidate at Durham, who wrote the paragraphs on the Commentaire historique, as well as the guides below)

Voltaire Foundation

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