In this blog post, I am reviewing a letter from Lettres D’Alsace, in which Voltaire is writing to his niece Madame Denis, from Colmar on Christmas day.
Unfortunately, he is not having a very good Christmas as he has just learned that part of his manuscript from Histoire universelle has been sold to the bookseller, Néaume, who has a bookshop in The Hague. (This would later be published as : Abregé de L’Histoire Universelle jusqu’á Charlesmagne à Charles Quint. see BNF link)
Néaume told Voltaire that he bought this manuscript from the valet of Prince Charles (142). [Side note: I visited Mauritius Museum in The Hague to see Vermeer’s iconic Girl With a Pearl Earring and View of the Delft in 2010 (See post) . Alas, it is possible that Voltaire never knew of the genius of Vermeer. Voltaire missed seeing these paintings at the Mauritius by 50 years.]
It was also rumored, according to Voltaire in his letter, that Frederick II, the King of Prussia gave Néaume the second manuscript of Histoire in which he entrusted to Frederick II (142). Because this work was publicized and caused much scandal, Voltaire could not take refuge in Constantinople, modern day Istanbul, Turkey.
However, Voltaire would later include Constantinople in his greatest work, Candide, 15 years later, in the chapter “Candide’s Voyage to Constantinople” in 1759.
In Candide, Voltaire brings his whole cast of characters together in Turkey to cultivate their garden. Catherine the Great was concerned with Christianity in the Ottoman Empire (she even named her grandson Konstantin to honor the Emperor) and promised Voltaire that she would go to war against the Ottoman empire in 1768 to conquer Constantinople for Voltaire so that he could retire in Turkey, just as his protagonist, Candide.
In closing his Christmas letter to Madame Denis, Voltaire also expresses his frustration that a manuscript of a play that he had been writing, la Pucelle, had been sold to Néaume and had been spread throughout Europe. La Pucelle, or The Maid of Orleans, was written as a satirical poem about the life of Joan of Arc, Jean d’Arc. This poem would be outlawed, burned and banned throughout Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries because of its mockery of Joan of Arc.
Voltaire would consequently publish an edited edition of this poem thirty years later.
[*Voltaire makes reference to “les enfans d’Hippocrate” in this letter to Madame Denis: “Vous faites des jaloux même parmi les enfants d’Hippocrate » I could not find the meaning of this statement; “You make the children of Hippocrates jealous”. Was this an expression of this time? Who are the children of Hippocrates? Can my French history readers help me with this?
In one short Christmas letter, Voltaire includes: Charlesmagne, Charles V, Berlin, The Hague, Constantinople, 2 books he has just written, and Hippocrates: not your typical Christmas letter!
Voltaire: Lettres D’Alsace A Sa Niece Madame Denis. (1938). Paris: Librarie Gallimard.
Copyright 2019 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)