The definitive biography of Voltaire's life — from his scandalous love affairs and political maneuverings to his inspired philosophy.
From the author of Voltaire in Exile: The Last Years, 1753–1778 (2004), a psychologically intimate biography of the great writer and philosopher.
While it's important to recognize Voltaire (1694–1778) as symbolic of the French Enlightenment, it's also vital, writes Davidson, to understand Voltaire's motivations as an entertainer. At heart, whether the medium was fiction, poetry, polemic or history,he was a storyteller. Drawing from Voltaire's correspondence and other sources,the author's chronological narrative creates a complex, nuanced portrait of his subject and the times. From young adulthood, Voltaire resisted conformity, choosing to spite his father's demand that he go into the family law practice. His decision to pursue a literary career ultimately propelled him to immense celebrity and wealth, social advantages that allowed him to take risks in his work, which often resulted in imprisonment or exile. But Voltaire was an ardent defender of free speech and religious tolerance and was not deterred. In 1733, after spending almost three years in exile in England (where he learned to speakEnglish), Voltaire publishedLettres philosophiques(Letters concerning the English Nation), which became one of the most important and provocativepieces of the 18th century. Soon after, the French regime, insulted by Voltaire's intimations that British society was more respectful of human rights, issued another arrest warrant for Voltaire, and he was forced to flee. In the ensuing years, many of which were spent in Switzerland,Voltaire embarked on many love affairs, discovered the joys of scientific exploration, developed a relationship with Frederick the Great and continued to produce an astounding number of written works.Not untilthe end of his extraordinary life was he able to return to France, but he did so as a hero. Davidson's precise languagecapturesVoltaire in every facet, leaving the reader with renewed appreciation for his talent and humanity.
Unflinching and illuminating.
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By Ian Davidson
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Ian Davidson
All rights reserved.
VOLTAIRE WAS BORN in 1694, in the declining years of Louis XIV. He was not, of course, called 'Voltaire' at this stage. His real name was François Marie Arouet, and it was not until 1718, when he was twenty-four and a rising literary star, that he adopted the assumed name 'Voltaire'.
His father, François Arouet, was a successful lawyer with a flourishing professional practice at the heart of Paris, right next to the law courts and the parlement. Voltaire was the youngest of Arouet's three surviving children: the eldest was his brother, Armand, who was nine years older, born in 1685; the second was his sister, Marguerite-Catherine, who was eight years older, and born in 1686. Voltaire cordially detested Armand, whom he later despised as a fanatical member of the revivalist Jansenist sect; but he was deeply attached to his sister, Marguerite-Catherine, and when she married, he became very fond of her two daughters.
There are two uncertainties about Voltaire's birth; at least, there were in Voltaire's mind. Officially, he was born in Paris on 21 November 1694; he was baptised at the Église St André des Arts in Paris on 22 November, and the certificate says he was born the previous day. But Voltaire disputed that this was his birthday: in later life he maintained that he had in fact been born nine months earlier, on 20 February 1694. He also believed that his real father was not François Arouet but a shadowy figure called Rochebrune, who was some kind of mousquetaire, officer and occasional poet. He did not give any evidence for either belief.
Voltaire spent much of his youth in a solitary confrontation with his father, François Arouet. His mother, Marie-Marguerite Daumart, died young, on 13 July 1701, at the age of forty- one. His detested brother Armand must have left home in 1703 or 1704, when Voltaire was nine or ten; and his much-loved sister, Marguerite-Catherine, got married (to Pierre François Mignot) in 1709, when Voltaire was fifteen. So from the middle of his adolescence until he finally left home Voltaire lived alone with his domineering father.
François Arouet must have done very well financially, because he had been able to buy a law practice (cabinet de notaire) in Paris at the age of twenty-six. In 1696, two years after Voltaire was born, his father sold his law practice and bought instead the more elegant position of tax collector on spices at the Court of Public Accounts (Receveur des Épices à la Chambre des Comptes), which went with an official apartment in La Cour Vieille du Palais, near the Sainte-Chapelle.
It was a striking story of a family on the rise. Voltaire's great-grandfather had been a country landowner in Poitou; the grandfather (also called François Arouet) had moved to Paris as a trader in silk and cloth; and Voltaire's father completed the transition by becoming a lawyer. In short, the Arouet family was climbing the professional ladder fast and efficiently, and was well on its way to making the transition from the status of mere commoners to something more elevated.
Professional advancement also brought François Arouet personal and social preferment. His clients included such noble and influential names as the families of Saint-Simon, Villars, Villeroy and Richelieu. The old duc de Richelieu condescended to be godfather to Voltaire's elder brother, Armand; and his son went to the same school as Voltaire and remained a personal friend for life. Another client was Mademoiselle Ninon de Lenclos, one of the most celebrated and most beautiful courtesans of the reign of Louis XIV; Voltaire met her once, shortly before her death, when she was very old and he was very young.
Voltaire's father also knew some of the leading literary figures of the day, including the poet and essayist Nicolas Boileau, and the famous playwright Pierre Corneille; Voltaire could even have met Boileau, who died in 1711, though not Corneille, who died ten years before Voltaire was born.
Voltaire did not get on with his father: in particular, he and his father quarrelled repeatedly over Voltaire's desire to be a writer. Arouet père was convinced, conventionally enough, that he had done very well in his profession, and he did his best to persuade, and then to pressure, his son into following in his footsteps. Voltaire was equally determined to be a poet and not a lawyer. This debate turned virtually the whole of Voltaire's youth and adolescence into a ceaseless struggle of wills with his father.
Voltaire did not give up, and neither did his father. Voltaire resisted repeated efforts by his father to force him to follow a career in the law; and he eventually proved his point, when at the age of twenty-four he achieved a sensational success at the Comédie Française with his first tragedy, dipe; that same year he changed his name to Voltaire. His father died four years later, after grudgingly conceding that his son had talent, but he still tried to carry on the argument from beyond the grave by penalising Voltaire in his will.
Voltaire has left us almost no trace of his relationship with his parents, since he very seldom refers either to his father or to his mother in his letters. During his adolescence and youth he occasionally alluded to his father, but exclusively as an authority figure who must be obeyed or appeased; there is no trace in his letters at the time of his father as a human being. His mother died when he was only seven, and he does not even mention her in any letters until fifty years after her death. Perhaps Voltaire's idea that he was illegitimate was really just a story he told himself, for archetypal and mythical reasons, as a way of diminishing his father and rationalising the absence of his mother.
In October 1704, when Voltaire was ten years old, his father sent him, as a boarder, to the Collège de Louis-le-Grand, in the rue Saint-Jacques. This was one of the oldest schools in Paris, having been founded by the Jesuits in 1563 under the name Collège de Clermont. It was a very large school, with 3,000 pupils, of whom some 500 were boarders. Throughout most of its long history it had been in conflict with the university next door, which regarded it as an unfair competitor for students, for the Jesuits had decided that education was a charity and that tuition should be free. (The boarders had to pay boarding fees.) Although this conflict had in the past periodically caused trouble for the school, by the end of the seventeenth century the Jesuits were at the height of their power and influence in France, and in 1682 Louis XIV gave the college his patronage, and with it the right to call itself the Collège de Louis-le-Grand.
François Arouet's decision to send his younger son to a Jesuit school is tantalising. The Catholic Church in France was at the time riven by an intense antagonism between two rival sects, the Jesuits and the Jansenists, and Arouet père had sent his eldest son, Armand, to a Jansenist institution. There were doctrinal and specifically religious differences between the two sects, but from a political point of view the main difference between them was that the Jesuits tended to be identified with the monarchy and the court, whereas the Jansenists tended to be identified with the milieu of the law courts and the parlement, if only because the lawyers of the parlement saw their role as one of resistance or even opposition to the monarchy. For François Arouet, a professional lawyer, to send his eldest son to a Jansenist school might have been a natural reflex; what needs explaining is why he made a different choice for his second son.
The simplest, if speculative, explanation is that this shift corresponded to the rapid advancement of his own career. Armand Arouet was born in 1685, and so was ready for school in about 1695. In the following year his father bought the lucrative position of a receveur des épices, but he only secured the full benefits of the situation five years later, in 1701. So when Voltaire was ready for school, in 1704, his father was in the full flower of his prosperity, and he may have thought he could raise his sights to the Collège de Louis- le-Grand, which he may have perceived (rightly) as the school most favoured by the nobility, the rich and the powerful. In short, François Arouet's decision may have been motivated simply by an upward shift in his parental ambitions.
The régime at Louis-le-Grand was strict, and the academic standards high, with a curriculum consisting mainly of Latin. When he emerged seven years later, Voltaire was utterly familiar with the great Latin authors, and for the rest of his life he could readily quote apposite chunks of Virgil, Horace or Cicero. But his education was narrow: he learned little or no history (except ancient history), little or no mathematics, little or no science and little or no modern languages. This narrowness did not prove a material handicap, since he always intended to aim for a literary career. Moreover, he later acquired fluent English and Italian, as well as a certain amount of Spanish; and he even taught himself enough mathematics to persuade himself that he could understand Newton's theories of physics. But the paradox was that his Classical education was itself one-sided, since he learned little or no Greek; so when he set out to become a writer of classical tragedies, ultimately modelled on the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, he had no access to the originals, except through French or Latin translations.
The school is there still; it is now called the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. It is still one of the most prestigious schools in France; it is still a very large school, of 1,800 students; and it still takes in a significant minority of boarders (339 at the last count), who pay &8364;2,023 per year. But it is now co-educational, and the academic emphasis has shifted radically away from Latin to a pre-eminence in maths and science.
In one respect the school is unchanged: it has remained a top forcing ground for the power élite. Today admission is strictly based on intellectual competition, but in Voltaire's day it attracted pupils from many of the leading aristocratic and professional families, including some of the most glittering names of the nobility: Bourbon, Condé, Guise, Joyeuse, La Trémoïlle, Montmorency, La Tour d'Auvergne, Clermont-Tonnerre, Nemours, Noailles, Richelieu. This was the place to make contacts among the rich and the powerful, and one of the most enduring benefits of Voltaire's schooling was that it brought him a number of good friends from the élite of French society, many of whom remained friends for the rest of his life.
The friends Voltaire made at school generally came either from the nobility or from the most successful members of the upper ranks of the legal hierarchy, known as the noblesse de robe or robins. They included: the two brothers d' Argenson, the elder of whom (the marquis), later became Foreign Minister under Louis XV, the younger (the comte), minister of war; the duc de Richelieu, a great-nephew of Cardinal Richelieu, who became a leading courtier at Versailles and a marshal of the French army; and two literary friends, Pierre-Robert Le Cornier de Cideville, who became a conseiller at the parlement of Rouen; and the comte d' Argental, who became a conseiller at the parlement of Paris and remained one of Voltaire's dearest friends.
How close Voltaire was to any of these five during his school years we do not know. The elder d' Argenson was exactly the same age, and they may have been in the same class; but it seems that he was at Louis-le-Grand only during Voltaire's last two years there. The younger d' Argenson and the duc de Richelieu were two years younger than Voltaire. And d' Argental was six years younger, so he and Voltaire may not have known each other at all at school.
The only fellow-pupil of whom Voltaire has left any really vivid trace of friendship at the time of his school days, was a sixth young man, called Claude Philippe Fyot de La Marche, from a rich and powerful family linked to the parlement of Burgundy. Voltaire and Fyot de La Marche were in the same class and left school in the same year, 1711, but Fyot de la Marche evidently went home before the end of the school year, leaving Voltaire sad and lonely. Between May and August 1711, the seventeen-year-old Voltaire wrote him a sequence of five touchingly nostalgic letters, which are virtually the earliest letters that have come down to us.
I can assure you, without any pretence, that I really see that you are no longer here; every time that I look through the window, I see your empty room; I no longer hear your laughter in class; I miss you everywhere, and I have only the pleasure of writing to you, and of speaking about you with your other friends. I should gladly travel to Burgundy, to say what I am now writing; your departure so disoriented me, that I had neither the wit nor the strength to speak, when you came to say good-bye.
The last of this series of Voltaire's letters to Fyot de La Marche throws a vivid light on one aspect of the curriculum at the Collège Louis-le-Grand: the staging of plays, directed by the Jesuits and performed by the boys.
I have delayed writing to you for two or three days, in order to tell you news of the tragedy which Father Le Jay has just put on. Heavy rain made them divide the performance into two after-dinners, which gave as much pleasure to the students as pain to Father Le Jay; two monks broke their collarbones one after the other, so neatly, that it seemed they had fallen down just to entertain us; the nuncio of His Holiness gave us eight days holiday; M. Theuenart sang; Father Le Jay lost his voice; Father Porée prayed to God for fine weather, but at the height of his prayer the skies opened; that is more or less what has happened here; all that remains, for me to enjoy the holidays, is to have the pleasure of seeing you in Paris.
Voltaire's gentle mockery at the ineffectiveness of Father Porée's prayer is often cited as early evidence that he was already a sceptic about the Christian religion. Well, maybe; but almost any intelligent and highly educated adolescent is liable to question received orthodoxy, especially if it is preached in the hot-house of a high-pressure school. If a clever young man expresses mild derision at the ineffectiveness of a prayer for fine weather, it need not be taken as evidence of anything much, except that he is bold enough to express his scepticism in a letter to a friend.
The more interesting aspect of this letter to Fyot de La Marche is the light it throws on the Jesuits' practice of writing and staging plays for the boys to perform. This was no doubt in part a reflection of the importance of the theatre in high-society life in early eighteenth- century France and of the central role played in public entertainment by the Comédie Française. In turn, this early exposure to the experience of live, if amateur, theatre must have exerted a crucial influence on the formation of Voltaire's own sensibility, and may well have played a key role in encouraging him to venture into the writing of plays himself. The Jesuit fathers could not have foreseen that Voltaire would go on to be the most successful and celebrated writer of classical verse tragedies of his time.
After leaving school, Voltaire at first submitted to his father's wish that he follow a course at law school. But his heart was not in it, and he spent much of his time frequenting wits and poets, trying to become a wit and a poet himself, and above all seeking to socialise with those in high society or literary society, whom he might seek to impress and who might help him make his name. This party-going lifestyle was not at all what his father wanted to see, but Arouet clearly did not know how to deal with his recalcitrant son. At first, in the spring of 1713, he sent him out of Paris, to Caen in Normandy, but that did not last long. Then he tried to bribe him, by offering to buy him a position as a king's advocate; Voltaire turned down the offer. Then his father raised his price and offered to buy him a much more expensive position, as a conseiller at the parlement of Paris, which was equivalent to buying him an elevated place among the noblesse de robe. Voltaire again refused.
His father made another attempt to get Voltaire out of harm's way by sending him abroad. It so happened that Voltaire's godfather, the abbé de Châteauneuf, had a brother, Pierre- Antoine de Castagnère, marquis de Châteauneuf, who had just been appointed French ambassador to The Hague. Arouet asked him to take on Voltaire as his private secretary, the marquis obliged and Voltaire obeyed. No sooner had he arrived in The Hague, however, than he fell madly in love with a charming young woman, and she, apparently, with him. It was a most unsuitable relationship.
The mother of the girl, Madame du Noyer, was something of an adventuress, a French former Protestant who had abandoned her Protestantism and her husband in France, and was now living by her wits in The Hague, partly by editing a controversial news-sheet. She had two daughters: Anne-Marguerite, who had been twice married and twice widowed; and her younger sister, Catherine-Olympe, known as Pimpette. It was with Pimpette that Voltaire fell in love. She had already been engaged to a Protestant rebel leader from the Cévennes and abandoned by him. She had then married a self-styled baron de Winterfeldt, and borne a child by him, but he also abandoned her. So though she was not in any sense an innocent, she was still only twenty-one years old, two years older than Voltaire, and it is clear from his letters to her that she must have been absolutely enchanting.
Excerpted from Voltaire by Ian Davidson. Copyright © 2010 Ian Davidson. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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