In May, 1753, Voltaire arrived in Strasbourg after a row with Frederick II, the King of Prussia, whom he had spent the previous three years in his service. In a letter to his niece, Madame Denis, Voltaire exclaimed, “Je suis retirer” (I can now rest). Voltaire had a great affection for this enchanting city in the Alsace region of eastern France which dates back to the Moyen Age.
Voltaire loved Strasbourg and spent a year here reflecting, rejuvenating and reveling in the culture and beauty that Strasbourg can bring. During this time, he wrote Madame Denis, over one hundred letters detailing his life.
When I lived in Paris, I found a delightful book which compiled these letters, Voltaire: Lettres D’Alsace a Sa Niece Madame Denis (Librairie Gallimard, 1938) and I was introduced to the world of 18th century Strasbourg.
As I read Lettres D’Alsace, I turned each page with anticipation hoping to see the name of my family (Chapeaux) among the pages. I was hoping to find something to this effect:
“Ma chère enfant, Today I met the most delightful jeune fille, Mlle Chapeaux, at La Bibliothèque Universitaire. She is a French Lit major at the Université, Lycée International and hopes to move to Boston soon to complete her studies at a new university there. Perhaps upon my next visit to see Monsieur Franklin (Benjamin), I will make contact with her”.
Alas, it was not so for his heart belonged to another! (Madame Denis!)
According to G. Jean-Aubry, the editor of these 100 letters by Voltaire in Lettres D’Alsace :
“Au cours de près de cent lettres, on pouvait suivre Voltaire, presque au jour le jour, pendant une année de sa vie : l’année la moins révélée, et peut-être la plus singulière. »
[“In the course of nearly one hundred letters, one can follow Voltaire, almost from day to day, during a year of his life: the year least revealed, and perhaps the most singular.”]
It was this life in Alsace, Strasbourg, then to Colmar, that inspired his great tragedies and comedies, including Candide (1759) and Siècle de Louis XIV:
” À Strasbourg, jusqu’à palais en prisons et en cabarets, j’ai tranquillement travaillé cinq heures par jour au même ouvrage ». [In Strasbourg, from palace to prison and in cabarets, I can work quietly for five hours a day on the same book.]
In his letters to Madame Denis, Voltaire recounts of his many liasons with friends and acquaintances from Strasbourg: Mr. Gayot, Mr. de Malzerbe, Mr Gaiot, Mrs de la Reinière, M. Bouret, Mr d’Argental, and Mr de Laleu. Perhaps these friends were also inspiration for his rich characters in Candide!
Voltaire also describes in great detail his adventures in the surrounding cities and regions of this Alsace region: Plobsheim, Frankfort (Franfurt), Manheim, Bruxelles (Brussels), to name a few.
In Lettres D’Alsace, Aubry states,
“Il y ouvre son cœur en toute confiance, car celle à qui il écrit lui est particulièrement chère, et leurs malheurs communs. » [He opens his heart with confidence, because the one to whom he writes is particularly dear to him, and their common misfortunes.] What a treasure! As a bonus, pour moi, I learned about the rich history, daily life and culture of my homeland, Strasbourg.
My great, great grandmother, Louisa Chapeaux, was born in this Alsatian region. In the early 1900’s her family emigrated to the United States. After learning about my family history, I soon visited Strasbourg with my daughter Kalie to make a connection with my past and hopefully meet a distant relative of ma famille Chapeaux.
Strasbourg is the capital and largest city of the east region of France and is the official seat of the European Parliament. It played an important part in the Protestant Reformation, with John Calvin’s influence, and was later home to Albert Schweitzer. Strasbourg is part of the Alsace-Lorraine region which has been fought over by the Prussians and French since 1870. Therefore, the culture and language are quite an amalgamation of French and German. These territories were ceded to Germany during World War II, but France regained them after Germany’s defeat in 1945.
Strasbourg is a very large city of approximately one million inhabitants. When we arrived in Strasbourg (a 2 1/2 hour train ride from Paris), we took a bus to the older part of the city. We wanted to take a bus into Germany, a 30-minute ride, to the Black Forest (of Hansel and Gretel lore), but realized that we might have trouble getting back into France at the border. We opted for the famous boat tour around the canals instead.
The open-air boat tour was complete with transferring in “locks” and a comical narration from an Irishman. To keep the tour interesting, the narrator would throw in gruesome details about the historic sites “and on your left, you will see a beautiful bridge built in the 1100’s… where the criminals were thrown into the canal in cages while women sat on the shore, knitting and mocking”. “And on your right is a King’s Inn built in the 1200’s which would be the choice of Inn by the Medici family…However it was completely gutted by a fire that killed most of the people when a fat monk got stuck in a window on the way out and all the people behind him perished”!!! At least my homestead has a colorful history!
One of the greatest aspects of Strasbourg is the incredible architecture. There are several medieval churches such as the Romanesque Église Saint-Étienne which hosts a Silbermann organ that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Albert Schweitzer played; the Gothic Église protestante Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune with Renaissance stained glass; and the Gothic Église Saint-Guillaume.
However, the most important church for me is the Église réformée Saint-Paul. As we were walking around Strasbourg, we noticed this beautiful Gothic church from a bridge and snapped a picture. When I returned home, I gave a framed picture of St. Paul’s to my friend Hilda who grew up in Saverne, a small town outside of Strasbourg. I thought she might enjoy a picture from the Alsace region to remind her of home. When she saw this picture, she became very emotional. This was the church where she was baptized as a young girl. What a blessing that I was drawn to this little church without knowing the personal significance. Perhaps my family also worshipped in this church with Hilda’s family. I like to think so!
I recently painted my impression of this church for my friend, Hilda:
[When I heard the recent news last night of this senseless, horrific shooting at the Christmas Market in Strasbourg, my heart sank. These past few weeks, I have been in the process of writing this blog about Strasbourg as part of my France: Revisited series. This city is near to my heart and I will revisit it in March of the new year and share with my husband this rich history and architecture of my home in France. My thoughts and prayers are with those affected by this tragedy.]
Aubry, G. Jean. Voltaire: Lettres D’Alsace a Sa Niece Madame Denis. Paris: Librairie Gallimard. 1938.
Copyright 2018 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowre (www.frenchquest.com)