Academic journal article Romance Notes

Voltaire's Satire on Frederick the Great: Candide, His Pothumous Memoires, Scarmendado, and Les Questions Sur l'Encyclopedie

Academic journal article Romance Notes

Voltaire's Satire on Frederick the Great: Candide, His Pothumous Memoires, Scarmendado, and Les Questions Sur l'Encyclopedie

Article excerpt

TOWARDS the end of his Histoire de l'Empire de Russie sous Pierre le Grand (1759-63), Voltaire indulges in the sort of spurious high-mindedness that later generations found distasteful in his work, and which undermined, in certain quarters, his reputation as a moralist. Relating Peter the Great's alleged role in the death by torture of his heir the Tsarevitch Alexis (1690-1718), the Enlightenment historian reminds the reader that in modern times the standards of "universal criticism"--in other words, the requirement to take into account all printed and manuscript sources, as well as personal testimony--make it more difficult than hitherto to impugn unfairly the reputation of historical figures. "Il suffisait," he writes, "d'une ligne dans Tacite ou dans Suetone, et meme dans les auteurs des legendes, pour rendre un prince odieux au monde, et pour perpetuer son opprobre de siecle en siecle" (857-858). What Voltaire is in effect saying is that historians of the past routinely used biased and carefully selected data to formulate unbalanced and unfair judgments and that, by contrast, the modern historian should recognize the duty to be both impartial and truthful.

Voltaire characteristically ignored this worthy ideal when, at the same time as he was writing the history of Peter the Great, he penned his Memoires pour servir a la vie de M. de Voltaire ecrits par lui-meme. These include a description of Frederick the Great which is partial, biased, and malicious, especially in relating the King's alleged homosexuality. How is it, we might ask, that could Voltaire act in a way wholly unfaithful to his own principles? Voltaire's Memoires only appeared after his death. There is nevertheless considerable evidence to suggest that he intended the manuscript for publication. A pirated edition was printed in 1784 under the title of La Vie privee du roi de Prusse. The book's scandalous revelations guaranteed that it was promptly banned by the authorities in France following a formal complaint by the Prussian Minister Goltz. The Memoires remained outside the Voltairean canon until Beaumarchais brought out the last (and seventieth) volume of the Kehl edition of Voltaire's Oeuvres in 1789, after the King of Prussia's death.

Anticipating the outrage that publication of the Memoires in the Kehl edition would unleash, the marquis de Villette--who incidentally was married to Voltaire's adopted niece--claimed in 1788 that Voltaire wrote them after his return from Prussia and that he burnt the manuscript following his reconciliation with Frederick sometime in the mid to late 1750s. Villette adds, however, that before Voltaire destroyed the manuscript, two copies had been made without his knowledge. We now know that Voltaire wrote his Memoires in the late 1750s, and that, far from destroying the manuscript, he commissioned at least five copies of it himself. One of these copies is in the same hand as the La Valliere manuscript of Candide (Wade 141). Voltaire must have known--indeed he must have hoped--that his Memoires would be published after his death. But why?

In a recent, annotated edition of the Memoires, Jacqueline Hellegouarc'h conjectures that Voltaire's purpose in composing this narrative was both personal and literary. On the personal side, Voltaire never forgave Frederick II for ordering his incarceration at Frankfurt and for holding him and his niece prisoner for five weeks in the late spring and early summer of 1753. Recent biographers agree that that incident had an effect on Voltaire as profound as the thrashing he had received some thirty years earlier from le chevalier de Rohan (Pomeau 737-748). Voltaire had this in common with the Bourbons: he never forgave and he never forgot. The malice evident in the Memoires has persuaded many that Voltaire's observations on Frederick the Great's sexual habits were not reliable. Carlyle, notably, dismissed Voltaire's assertions as a scandalous libel and most academic historians have followed suit (1:11-12). …

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