Voltaire in France

I. IN PARIS: 1729–34

ON returning from England, late in 1728 or early in 1729, Voltaire took an inconspicuous lodging in St.-Germain-en-Laye, eleven miles northwest of Paris. He mobilized his friends to secure informal annulment of his exile from France and then from the capital. They succeeded, even to getting his royal pension restored; by April he was again bobbing about Paris. At one gathering he heard the mathematician La Condamine calculate that anyone who should buy all the tickets in a lottery just issued by the city of Paris would make a fortune. Voltaire rushed off, borrowed money from his banker friends, bought all the tickets, and won as predicted. The Comptroller General refused to pay; Voltaire took the matter to the courts, won his case, and was paid.1 Later in this year 1729 he traveled 150 miles—in two nights and a day—from Paris to Nancy to buy shares in the public funds of the Duke of Lorraine; this venture too brought him substantial gains. Voltaire the poet and philosopher was supported by Voltaire the financier.

In 1730 we see him back in Paris, feverish with enterprise. He had usually several literary irons in the fire, passing from one to another as if finding refreshment in the change without losing time. Now he was writing Letters on the English, and a History of Charles XII, and The Death of Mademoiselle Lecouvreur, and the beginnings of La Pucelle (The Maid). One day in 1730 the guests of the Duc de Richelieu, discussing Jeanne d’Arc, suggested to Voltaire that he write her history. Jeanne had not yet been accepted as the uncanonized patron saint of France; to the freethinker Voltaire the supernatural elements in her legend seemed to invite a humorous treatment; Richelieu dared him try it; Voltaire composed the proem that day. His plaint for Lecouvreur was not yet published, but his bumbling friend Nicolas Thieriot recited it too widely, and theological hornets resumed their buzzing around Voltaire’s head. As if hungry for enemies he staged on December 11 the story of Lucius Junius Brutus, who, in Livy’s account, had expelled King Tarquinius and shared in setting up the Roman Republic; the play denied the inviolability of kings, and proclaimed the right of the people to change their rulers. The actors complained that there was no love theme in the plot; Paris agreed that this was an absurd innovation; after fifteen performances it was withdrawn. Sixty-two years later it was revived with great success, for Paris was in a mood to guillotine Louis XVI.

Meanwhile he had secured the royal privilège to publish his Histoire de Charles XII, roi de Suède. Here was a subject that could hardly offend Louis XV or the Church, and it should please the Queen by its very favorable treatment of her father, Stanislas. An edition of 2,600 copies was printed when, without a word of warning, the royal permission was suddenly withdrawn, and the whole edition was confiscated except a copy in Voltaire’s possession. He protested to the Keeper of the Seals; he was informed that a change in foreign policy made it necessary to please Charles’s opponent and victim, Augustus “the Strong,” who was still king of Poland. Voltaire resolved to ignore the prohibition. He moved in disguise to Rouen, lived there for five months as an “English lord,” and directed the secret printing of his history. By October, 1731, it was circulating freely and selling like fiction.

Some critics claimed there was too much fiction in it; a learned historian has called it “a romance,” vivid in narrative, inaccurate in detail.2 Yet Voltaire had prepared the book with scholarly care. He had not only examined masses of state papers, but he had gone out of his way to consult men who could give him firsthand information: ex-King Stanislas, the Maréchal de Saxe, the Duchess of Marlborough, Bolingbroke, Axel Sparre (who had been at the battle of Narva), Fonseca (a Portuguese physician who had served in Turkey during Charles’s stay there), and Baron Fabrice (former secretary to Charles). Moreover, Voltaire had lived for a while with Baron von Görtz, Charles’s favorite minister; the execution of von Görtz in 1719 may have turned Voltaire to study the “Lion of the North.” In 1740 Joran Nordberg, who had served Charles as chaplain, published memoirs in which he pointed out inaccuracies in Voltaire’s narrative; Voltaire incorporated these corrections in subsequent editions. There were other flaws, especially in the detailed descriptions of battles. Later critics3 argued that Voltaire had overrated Charles as “perhaps the most extraordinary man who has ever been on earth, who united in himself all the great qualities of his ancestors, and who had no other defect or unhappiness except to have them all in excess.”4 The last word may redeem the hypertrophe. Voltaire explained that Charles “carried all the heroic virtues to that excess at which they become faults”; he listed these as prodigality, rashness, cruelty, tyranny, and inability to forgive; he showed how these faults in her King had injured Sweden; and he concluded that Charles “was an extraordinary rather than a great man.”5 In any case the book was a work not only of scholarship but of art—of structure, form, color, and style. Soon all educatedEurope was reading Charles XII, and Voltaire’s reputation achieved a spread and depth that it had not had before.

After his return from Rouen (August 5, 1731), Voltaire became the house guest of the Comtesse de Fontaine-Martel in her mansion near the Palais-Royal. She found him such pleasant company that she continued to lodge and feed him till May, 1733. He presided with incomparable vivacity at her literary suppers, and staged plays, preferably his own, in her private theater. During that stay he wrote the libretto for Rameau’s Samson (1732). It was presumably from the Comtesse’s box at the Théâtre-Français that he saw the failure of his Ériphile (1732), and the rapturous success of his romantic tragedy Zaïre (August 13, 1732). He wrote to a friend:

Never piece was so well played as Zaïre at the fourth representation. I wished you there; you would have seen that the public did not hate your friend. I appeared in a box, and the whole pit clapped me. I blushed, I hid myself, but I should be a hypocrite if I did not confess to you that I was sensibly touched.6

Of all his dramas this remained to the end his favorite. They are all dead now, slain by changing fashions of mood and style; but we should exhume at least one of them, for they played a fond and exciting role in his life. Zaïre is a Christian captured in her infancy by the Moslems during the Crusades, and brought up in the Islamic faith; she knows little of France except that it is the land of her birth. She is now a beauty in the seraglio of the Sultan Orosmane at Jerusalem. He has fallen in love with her, she with him; and when the play opens she is about to become his wife. Another Christian captive, Fatima, reproaches her for forgetting that she was once a Christian. In Zaïre’s reply Voltaire expresses the geographical determination of religious belief:

Our thoughts, our manners, our religion, all

Are formed by custom, and the powerful bent

Of early years. Born on the banks of Ganges

Zaïre had worshiped pagan deities;

At Paris I had been a Christian; here

I am a happy Mussulman. We know

But what we learn; the instructing parent’s hand

Graves in our feeble hearts those characters

Which time retouches, and examples fix

So deeply in the mind, that nought but God

Can e’er efface.7

Voltaire depicts Orosmane with evident predilection as a man with all the virtues except patience. The Christians are shocked to see that a Moslem can be as decent as any Christian, and the Sultan is surprised to find that a Christian can be good. He refuses to keep a harem and pledges himself to monogamy. But Voltaire is just to his Christian characters too; he writes gracious lines on the beauty of the truly Christian life. One Christian, Nerestam, also captured in infancy, grows up with Zaïre; he is freed on his pledge to return with ransoms for ten Christian captives. He goes, returns, devotes his private fortune to make up the required sum. Orosmane rewards him by liberating not ten but a hundred Christians. Nerestam grieves that these do not include either Zaïre or Lusignan, once (1186–87) the Christian king of Jerusalem. Zaïre pleads with Orosmane for Lusignan’s release; it is granted; the aged King identifies Zaïre as his daughter and Nerestam as his son. She is torn between her love for the generous Sultan and the demand of loyalty to her father, her brother, and their faith. Lusignan appeals to her to abandon Orosmane and Islam:

Oh, think on the pure blood

Within thy veins, the blood of twenty kings,

All Christians like myself, the blood of heroes,

Defenders of the faith, the blood of martyrs!

Thou art a stranger to thy mother’s fate;

Thou dost not know that in the very moment

That gave thee birth I saw her massacred

By those barbarians whose detested faith

Thou hast embraced. Thy brothers, the dear martyrs,

Stretch forth their hands from heaven, and wish to embrace

A sister; oh, remember them! That God,

Whom thou betrayest, for us and for mankind

Even in this place expired … .

Behold the sacred mountain where

Thy Saviour bled; the tomb whence he arose

Victorious; in each path where’er thou treadest

Shalt thou behold the footsteps of thy God;

Wilt thou renounce thy Maker?. . .

ZAÏRE. Dear author of my life,

My father, speak: What must I do?


At once my shame and sorrow with a word,

And say thou art a Christian

ZAÏRE. Then, my lord,

I am a Christian. …

LUSIGNAN. Swear thou wilt keep the fatal secret.

ZAÏRE. I swear.8

When Nerestam learns that she still intends to marry Orosmane he is tempted to kill her. He relents, but insists that she accept baptism; she agrees. He sends her a note appointing time and place for the ceremony; Orosmane, not knowing that Nerestam is her brother, mistakes the message for a love note. He comes upon Zaïre as she keeps the appointment, stabs her, finds out that the supposed lovers are brother and sister, and kills himself.

It is a plot cleverly conceived, consistently and dramatically developed, told in flowing melodious verse; and though the sentimental passages now seem overdone, we can understand why Paris took Zaïre and Orosmane to its heart, and why the good sad Queen wept when the play was performed for the court at Fontainebleau. Soon it was translated and produced in England, Italy, and Germany. Now Voltaire was hailed as the greatest living French poet, fit successor to Corneille and Racine. This did not rejoice Jean Baptiste Rousseau, French poet surviving in exile at Brussels; he judged Zaïre “trivial and flat, … an odious mélange of piety and libertinage.” Voltaire retorted with a long discourse in verse, Le Temple de goût (The Temple of Taste), pillorying Rousseau and exalting Molière.

His head was in the stars, but he did not cease to work. In the winter of 1732–33 he studied mathematics and Newton with his future victim Maupertuis, rewrote Ériphile, revised Zaïre and Charles XII, collected materials for Le Siècle de Louis XIV, put the finishing touches on his Lettres sur les Anglais, produced a new play, Adélaïde, and wrote innumerable trifles-letters, compliments, invitations, epigrams, amorous ditties—all agleam with wit in smoothly polished verse. When his landlady bountiful, Mme. de Fontaine-Martel, died, he moved to a house on the Rue du Long-Point, and engaged in the business of exporting wheat. Then, mingling commerce with romance, he met (1733) Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet. With that unique and enterprising woman his life was to be mingled till her death.

She was now twenty-six (he thirty-eight), and she already had a varied career behind her. Daughter of the Baron de Breteuil, she received an unusual education. At twelve she knew Latin and Italian, sang well, played the spinet; at fifteen she began to translate theAeneid into French verse; then she added English, and studied mathematics with Maupertuis. At nineteen she married the thirty-year-old Marquis Florent Claude du Châtelet-Lomont. She gave him three children, but otherwise they did not see very much of each other; he was usually with his regiment; she remained near the court, gambling for high stakes and experimenting with love. When her first paramour left her she took poison, but was forcibly saved by an emetic. She bore with experienced composure her desertion by a second gallant, the Duc de Richelieu, for all France knew his mobility.

Meeting the Marquise at dinner, Voltaire was not disturbed but rather delighted with her ability to converse on mathematics, astronomy, and Latin poetry. Her physical allure was not irresistible. Other women described her with relish. Hear Mme. du Deffand: “A woman big and dry, without hips, a shallow chest, … big arms, big legs, enormous feet, very small head, sharp features, pointed nose, two [!] small eyes of marine green, dark complexion, … bad teeth.”9 The Marquise de Créqui concurred: “She was a giantess … of wonderful strength, and was, besides, a marvel of awkwardness. She had a skin like a nutmeg grater, and altogether she resembled an ugly grenadier. And yet Voltaire spoke of her beauty!”10 And handsome Saint-Lambert made clandestine love to her when she was forty-two. We cannot trust these sisterly verdicts; femina feminae felis. We gather from her portraits that Émilie was tall and masculine, with high forehead, proud look, features not unattractive, and we are comforted to be told that she had a “bust voluptuous but firm.”11

Perhaps she had just enough of the man in her to complement the woman in Voltaire. However, she used every feminine device to round out her rather angular charms—cosmetics, perfume, jewels, lace. Voltaire smiled at her love of ornament, but he admired her enthusiasm for science and philosophy. Here was a woman who, even in the hum and froth of Paris and Versailles, could retire from the gambling table to study Newton and Locke. She not only read Newton, she understood him; it was she who translated thePrincipia into French. Voltaire found it convenient to have the same woman as his fellow student and his mistress. Already in 1734 he counted himself her accepted lover: “God! what pleasures I taste in your arms! How fortunate I am that I can admire her whom I love!”12

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