Back to top

A publishing challenge – the metamorphosis of a major work

Thursday, 27 August, 2020

Every project in the Complete Works of Voltaire corpus seems to have its own special features that make it not quite fit into the mould of what has gone before. Our team meetings ring to the sounds of editors wailing ‘But this is different !’ The principles that have served us well over the 50-year duration of the project have had to be agile and adaptable to cover the astonishing range of genres and styles covered by Voltaire.

Histoire de la guerre de 1741

‘Histoire de la guerre de 1741’, Amsterdam 1755 (left: Bnf, Paris; right: Bodley, Oxford)

Even by the standards of the Voltaire Foundation, though, the Précis du siècle de Louis XV presents a unique challenge because of its complex genesis. Much of the material in the chapters of the Précis which cover the War of the Austrian Succession was first written by Voltaire for his Histoire de la guerre de 1741, a project enthusiastically started when he was appointed as historiographe de France in the 1740s. He never published it himself (though it was published, supposedly unofficially, and at least twice, in 1755), but rewrote and integrated large parts of it in his ambitious universal history, the Essai sur les mœurs. Later, he separated the material on Louis XIV (to become the Siècle de Louis XIV) and Louis XV, and the Précis (which was by this time not really a précis) became a work in its own right in 1769, with later chapters added in the 1770s to take account of, amongst other things, the king’s unexpected death in 1774.

Essay sur l’histoire générale

‘Essay sur l’histoire générale’, [Geneva], 1756 (Bodley, Oxford)

This genesis means that the collation and presentation of variants is different from what we usually do. Our usual process goes something like this:

  1. Select a work by Voltaire
  2. Assess the different editions and manuscripts of the work and choose the most appropriate base text (for example, the version that was last overseen by Voltaire, or sometimes the first edition, or else the edition that was most widely read during his lifetime).
  3. Collate significant textual variants from other editions and manuscripts against the base text and present them neatly at the foot of the page.

Sometimes (particularly for example in the theatrical corpus) the variant versions are too divergent from the base text to be presented on the same page, and so in such cases we would print whole scenes or sections as an appendix, with a reference on the relevant page of the base text to direct the reader to where this material could be found.

Louis XV donnant la paix à l’Europe

‘Louis XV donnant la paix à l’Europe’. Laurent Cars after François Lemoyne (BnF, Réserve QB-201 (170, 9)-FT 4). By kind permission of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In the case of the Guerre/Précis project, though, it was clear that we were dealing with not one but (at least) two separate works. The remit of the Précis is much wider than the War of the Austrian Succession, the primary focus of the Guerre. Not to mention what we might call the Essai sur les mœurs stage in the middle, where the titles are dispensed with but the material is reused and moved around to create a narrative that fits into the wider universal history.

We decided early on that the Guerre needed therefore to be treated as a separate text, and, for the first time in a collection of Voltaire’s complete works, it is published in full. This has avoided some horrendous complexities of page layout had we tried to show all the Guerre material as variants to the Précis, as well as the awkwardness of chopping it up into gobbets for appendices. Being able to read the Guerre in its entirety allows the reader a richer understanding of this little-known and underrated text as well as of how it fits into the context of the Précis project. It has also allowed us to separate the manuscripts relating to the composition of the Guerre from those which relate specifically to the Précis, and to present variants from these in the most appropriate context.

However, it has meant that the overlap between the material in the Guerre and that of the Précis has to be shown in other ways. We decided to adopt the method of lightly shading passages in the Guerre to show when there is textual overlap between that text and the later Précis text. This has had the great advantage of showing the reader at a glance the scale of the reuse of this material, as well as allowing us to concentrate in greater detail on the text that is unique to the Guerre. For the shaded sections, readers are referred to the annotation of the Précis, whereas the unique Guerre text is annotated in full in that volume. As Voltaire edited the text as he reused it, we have ignored small differences in phrasing for the purposes of this exercise (see image for example) – but it does sometimes throw into relief small amendments made during the reuse process, for example, deciding to name someone, or amending figures of battlefield casualties etc. in response to new information.

Histoire de la Guerre de 1741 versus Précis du siècle de Louis XV

Above: ‘Histoire de la Guerre de 1741’, ch.24, l.264-69. Below: ‘Précis du siècle de Louis XV’, ch.26, l.78-83.

This decision necessitated another choice: should we shade only the material that was used in our base text of the Précis (Voltaire’s revised 1775 edition, amended by him shortly before his death in anticipation of a new version of his complete works), or should we include all the material that was taken forward from the Guerre, through the Essai and early standalone Précis editions, even if it was subsequently deleted? After discussion with the general editors, it was decided in the end that in the Guerre it was important to distinguish between what Voltaire reused, and what was only ever used in the Guerre. This means that not all the highlighted text will be found in the base text of our edition of the Précis – much of it can be found instead in the variants. The critical thing is that all the shaded text is accounted for and commented on in our edition of the Précis (OCV, vols.29A and 29B).

The Histoire de la guerre de 1741, OCV, vol.29C, publishing in October 2020, completes the three-volume set of the Précis du Siècle de Louis XV, with volumes 29A and 29B published earlier in the year, the general editors being Janet Godden and James Hanrahan.

Alison Oliver

Share