Cheryl Sawyer welcomes readers to her historical novels, blogs about discoveries in writing and research, and shares her experiences in the world of creative fiction. Cheryl has had a long career in book publishing, which she left in 2014, to write full-time. Her first historical novel was published by Random House in 1998 and her American debut in 2005 was acclaimed by Booklist as 'a grand and glorious delight'. More novels have been released in several languages by Penguin US, Bertelsmann, Mir Knigi, Via Magna, Domino, Reader's Digest and Endeavour Press UK. Cheryl Sawyer's work has been longlisted for awards by the Historical Novel Society and the American Library in Paris. She has recently completed an English Civil War trilogy with The Winter Prince, Farewell, Cavaliers and The King's Shadow. Peter James calls her work ‘historical fiction writing at its very best’.
Voltaire to the Crown Prince of Prussia, 1 September 1736
Monseigneur, I would needs be insensible not to be infinitely touched by the letter with which Your Royal Highness has deigned to honour me. It has greatly flattered my sense of pride; but my love for mankind, which has always ruled my heart and which has also—dare I say it—formed my character, affords me a pleasure that is a thousand times purer when I realise that there exists in the world a prince who thinks like a man: a philosopher prince who will make man happier.
Allow me to tell you that there is not a being on earth who will not derive blessed benefits from the care that you take to cultivate sound philosophy in a soul born to command. Believe me, the only truly good kings have been those who, like you, began by acquiring knowledge, by getting to know mankind, by loving the truth and by detesting persecution and superstition. No prince who thinks like this can fail to create a golden age in his realm. Why do so few kings seek such advantages? You have sensed the reason, monseigneur, which is that almost all concern themselves more with royalty than with humanity—whilst you do precisely the contrary.
Be assured that, provided tumultuous affairs of state and human wickedness do not alter such a divine character, you will be adored by your peoples and treasured by the entire world. Philosophers worthy of the name will hasten to your domains and, just as famous artists flock to countries where their art is most appreciated, thinkers will come to gather around your throne …
The image is a detail from an engraving that purports to show Voltaire turning from his desk to converse with Frederick the Great (V did in later years accept the king's invitation to the Prussian royal court)
From Émilie to Maupertuis, August 1736
Can it be that I must still write to you at the Pole? … They say in the newspapers that you risked being eaten alive by mosquitoes: I’m very happy to learn they treated you with respect (possibly you owed this to the protection of Monsieur de Réamur), because it doesn’t look as though they valued you as highly as the Lapp women do …
We’ve become absolute natural philosophers. The companion of my solitude has written an ‘Introduction’ to his Elements of Newton, which he has addressed to me—I’m sending you the frontispiece. I trust you’ll find the verses worthy of the philosopher they celebrate, and of the poet who wrote them. If you’d been amongst us, we would have asked your advice. For a long time you’ve been wanting to make a natural philosopher out of the first of our poets, and you’ve succeeded: your advice has greatly influenced his determination to follow his bent towards scientific knowledge. As for me, you have some idea of what I’m able to perform in physics and mathematics. I benefit from a big advantage over the greatest philosophers, because I’ve been taught by you
While you’re changing the shape of the Earth, please leave Cirey just as it is and above all remember how much we love you here.
From Voltaire to Mademoiselle Quinault [of the Comédie Française], 24 August 1736
Ah, my God, delightful Thalia, you only needed to say and I couldn’t be happier—you want four lines of verse for the ending, and quick, quick, here they are.
No, they’re not here. You’ll find them at the end of my letter.
Far from perfect, I know, but still, you haven’t had to wait long for them; and then, delightful Thalia, you’re allowed to throw them in the fire …
Actually I have some hopes of this piece by Gresset. When with your artistry you spread a few comic touches over this cold Gresset, it will be greatly to his benefit. Given your touch, Gresset may succeed, but if he fails I give Gresset up completely and it will be all Gresset’s fault.
But when you do me the honour of writing to me, you never tell me we’ve played such and such a piece, or that our theatre is doing well. You tell me nothing about the republic of drama; do you consider me as a limb severed from the body?
While I’ve been writing to you, beautiful Thalia, and thinking that it’s you whom I address, I have to admit that the verses I just thought up at your request are not worth the devil. So here’s my second version:
MADAME DE PORKYBACK, to Pridefool
Oh, well said—in the end I’ll make him mine,
My president; I’ll bring him into line
For you. Come on, you pedant, get us wed:
Just get me married and we’ll shake the bed.
The above might be a bit limp but you be the judge; you’re the expert on what makes people laugh. I have no idea myself and don’t consider myself in the least funny …
Thalia, Thalia, if I were in Paris I’d work for you alone. You’d turn me into an amphibious animal, comic for six months of the year and tragic the other six. The trouble is, the world contains a devil called Newton who has discovered exactly how much the sun weighs and defined the colours of the rays that constitute light. This strange man has my head in a whirl; please write to me and bring me back to the muses.
I’m tenderly devoted to you for ever; don’t forget me …
I’m at your feet.
The painting by Nattier depicts Thalia, the muse of drama.
From Émilie to Count Algarotti [in London], May 1736
Do you have the translation of the Essay on Man? Apparently it’s a great success in Paris, translated by Prévost. The Abbé du Resnel is publishing his own translation in verse. All this is quite astonishing, when you think they burned [Voltaire’s] Philosophical Letters. The more I read Pope’s work, the more I like it. In the fourth Epistle, which you refused to read with me at Cirey, I found a line that I very much like: ‘An honest man’s the noblest work of God.’
Voltaire was shocked by these two lines: ‘All reason’s pleasure, all the joys of sense/lie in three words, health, peace, and competence.’ Here is his reply:
Pope, wise English poet, so exalted
For his Parnassian moral thought, decrees
That life’s sole blessings are: to work with ease,
Enjoy good health and rest. He’s to be faulted!
What? In treasures that the gods devise—
Man’s happiest gifts, sent from heaven above—
This sad Englishman does not count love?
Pity Pope; he’s neither gay nor wise.
Voltaire strives not to be wistful about the Académie Française
From Voltaire to Monsieur de la Chaussée, 2 May 1736
A week ago, monsieur, I searched out your residence in order to present Alzire [his latest play] to the man in France who best knows and cultivates the art of poetry, which so difficult to practise. I think just as you do, monsieur, about the art that all the world believes they know, and that so few know at all …
Of our exacting art, the only aim
Is to be even more precise than prose;
Thus for verse of genius we claim
That from the language of the gods it rose.
It must be said that you’re more worthy than anyone to justify this claim.
Today it was suggested to me that I might be elected to the Académie Française, but neither the circumstances in which I find myself, nor my health—nor my liberty, which I cherish above all—permit me to dare think of it. I replied that the place should be destined for you, and if your merits did not already secure you complete support I would be honoured to cede to you the few votes upon which I would have been able to rely [La Chaussée was subsequently elected to the French Academy].
The image is of the Institut de France, where the Académie Française meets. Voltaire was of course never elected to the Academy--too much of a firebrand.
From Émilie to Count Algarotti in London, 10 April 1736
I’ve sent you, monsieur, an in-folio manuscript of mine, much less to be valued than the four printed pages enclosed here [Voltaire’s dedication to Émilie of his play, Alzire]. I would never dream of letting you read the excessive praise lavished on me in those pages, if they didn’t also do such sound justice to you. The play itself is not yet in print, and anyway it would have made the package too large. I implore you to make sure that the Queen of England sees it—she reads French perfectly—and also to make sure that, if Alzire is translated and printed in England, the Dedication is likewise …
I beg you to send me your news, so that I’ll know where to write to you next, since I believe England is about to lose you … I’ve had one letter from our two Laplanders [Maupertuis and Clairaut] just as they boarded ship. Farewell, monsieur, and write to me. Voltaire is still in that big nasty city [Paris] enjoying his triumph [at the theatre]—they’re mad about him. I should be very annoyed if these high honours in any way lowered your conduct—you are both made to love Cirey, and Cirey is where you are loved.
Image: the river running through the hamlet of Cirey-sur-Blaise.
Shakespeare gets Voltaire into trouble!
From Voltaire to the Abbé Asselin, 4 November 1735
'I’m sending you the last scene of La Mort de César, which is a pretty faithful translation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Accordingly, the piece takes its place as a singular and quite interesting work in the republic of letters—which is precisely the point of view from which any journalist ought to have examined my tragedy. It offers a true idea of English taste. One doesn’t demonstrate the poetic genius of a nation by translating its poets into prose, but by imitating their taste and style in verse. A dissertation on this taste, so different from our own, is just what one would have expected from the Abbé Desfontaines [fierce critic of V. in the journal Observations des Écrits Modernes]. He knows English; he must have read Shakespeare; he had the opportunity to enlighten the public about all this. If, instead of crying down my piece with ‘What bad verses! What hard verses!’ he had cared to distinguish between the printer and myself, and had the critical wisdom to demonstrate the differences in taste between nations, he would have done a service to literature and would not have affronted me.
'I know poetry well enough (even though I don’t write it any more) to be confident that this tragedy, as it is now being printed in Holland, has the greatest poetic power of anything I’ve written. All its foreign readers—who by the way recognise in this piece the bold strokes that are used in Italy and London, and that long ago were used in Athens—do me greater justice than the Abbé Desfontaines and my enemies …
'Disputes between people of letters only serve to make fools laugh at the expense of people of intelligence, and to dishonour talents that should be held in respect … I hope the Abbé will come round to me with the friendship that I have a right to expect of him; my friendship will not be altered by our differences of opinion. You may communicate this letter to him.
'With much gratitude, I am attached to you for life.'
The show goes on
Writing opera our way--spent yesterday with Nicholas Gentile working on the finale for Act I of Émilie & Voltaire. Beautiful music, folks!
Émilie to the Duc de Richelieu, towards the end of 1735
What did Émilie confide to her friend and former lover, Richelieu, while he was staying with her and Voltaire at Cirey? She claims to be able to feel two deep emotions 'without the slightest self-reproach'. Nonetheless, I'm guessing the secret she shared with Richelieu is a somewhat guilty one.
'The conversation I’ve just had with you proves to me that man is not free. I should never have told you what I just confessed, but I had to have the relief of letting you know that I’ve always judged you fairly, and always recognised your value. Friendship in a heart like yours seems to me the best gift that heaven could bestow, and I could never console myself if I weren’t quite sure that, despite all your resolutions, you’re impelled to feel the same about me …
'I’ve given up everything to live with the only person who has ever filled my heart and my mind, but I would give up everything in the universe—except him—to share all the sweetness of friendship with you. These two emotions are not at all incompatible, since my heart is able to feel both at once, without the slightest self-reproach. The only true passion I’ve ever experienced is for what I have now, and it forms the charm and torment of my life, the good and the evil; but I’ve only ever felt true friendship for Madame de Richelieu and you …
'I’m happy to have seen you once more, even if I never see you again. I’m even happy about my indiscretion, because it revealed my heart to you—but I would be very unhappy if you don’t cherish my friendship and continue to give me proof of it …
'Farewell. There will be no perfect happiness for me in this world unless I can unite the pleasure of living in it with you, and that of loving the man to whom I have consecrated my life.'
Image: reflections in the Blaise at Cirey.
From Voltaire to Thiériot, 3 November 1735
We have the Marquis Algarotti with us [at Cirey], a young man who knows the language and morals of every country, who writes poetry like Ariosto, and knows his Locke and Newton. He reads us dialogues that he has written on the interesting parts of philosophy. Even I have undertaken my little course in metaphysics, because it behoves one to take account of the things in this world.
We’ve been reading stanzas of Jeanne la Pucelle [Voltaire’s risqué satire on Joan of Arc], or else one of my tragedies, or a chapter of The Century of Louis XIV. From there we’ve come back to Newton and Locke—not without champagne and excellent meals, because we’re very voluptuous philosophers; and if not, we’d be quite unworthy of you and your delightful Pollion.
So there’s a pretty exact account of my present life. And that’s why I'm not with you, my dear Thiériot. But be assured that life is the sweeter to me because I know how agreeable yours is to you. My happiness sends its very best regards to yours. Pay court to your charming benefactor on my behalf.
With our friend, drink health to me
In champagne whose vivacity
Sparkles as brightly as his mind;
Whilst here at our suppers refined
I drink with sublime Émilie
To you in ambrosia divine.
Image: Le Déjeuner d’Huitres, the Oyster Lunch. In this painting of the period one sees that champagne is drunk from coupe-shaped glasses. Note the airborne stopper after a servant cuts the pack-thread that held it to the bottle neck.
From Émilie to Count Algarotti, October 1735
It’s only fair, monsieur, that since I’ve just come searching for you in Paris, you should come and do the same for me. It would be very remiss of you to leave for the North Pole [Algarotti considered joining Maupertuis on his expedition] without making a visit to the Champagne, and my constant hope is that you’re incapable of doing me such a bad turn.
You’ll find my château still unfinished, but I hope you’ll be happy with your accommodation and especially with the pleasure it will give me to welcome you. Voltaire, who shares that pleasure, and who longs for your coming with the eagerness inspired by your friendship, is getting ready to sing your polar exploits in verse: you can tune your instruments together … My library is attractive enough. Voltaire’s is full of narratives, mine is all natural philosophy. I’m learning Italian for your visit, but the labourers in wood and weave make it very difficult. I’m busier than a state minister and a great deal less anxious; which is pretty much what one needs to be happy. Your company will greatly enhance the charms of my solitude. Please come, monsieur, and be assured of the extreme pleasure it will give me to welcome you.
The image shows the little river flowing through the village of Cirey-sur-Blaise.
From Émilie to the Duc de Richelieu, October 1735
I’d begun my letter intending to give you a long list of all the dangers you’d face on coming here [to Cirey]: being poorly housed, finding a hundred labourers in the place—in the end, being poorly received, if ‘poorly’ is what you feel when you’re urgently awaited with the tenderest friendship. But here I am mentioning it all again, and I imagine you’ll forgive me for the messy organisation of my colony. Voltaire says I’m just like Dido—or an ant …
You can well believe that if love hadn’t called me here, I’d have stayed in Paris. But amongst everyone I know, yours is the only company I wish for. Just being with your friend is enough to put me off other men; so you can judge what his love does to me. I’m sending you a letter [in verse] that he wrote to a Venetian, Count Algarotti—I couldn’t resist it. I might have sent it to you as President of the Academy of Sciences but I much prefer sending it to you as my intimate friend. Only a few days pass here without Voltaire writing a few little stanzas, not to mention whole narratives: I’m thinking of making up an Emiliana of all his poetry from Cirey; it would form a lovely collection. Come and see us, then—what are you doing under canvas [on the Rhineland campaign] in weather like this? I very much hope they’re not going to start sending you on new forays. They’ve sent the battle sergeants off; I’d much rather know the date when you leave yourself.
Voltaire on plagiarism: to the Marquis de Caumont, August 1735
So, monsieur, you’ve found in the letters of the late Madame d’Uxelles some particulars that you think might be useful to me? I beg you to believe that everything is of use to me; things that appear indifferent to others may serve to characterise the century that I’m examining [V. was writing The Century of Louis XIV]. For example, the decree in council that freed from prison all the unfortunate people detained for witchcraft is much more important to me than a battle—because battles are fought throughout history, whereas the mentality of peoples, their tastes, their stupidities, have not always been the same. An error erased, an art invented or perfected, seems to me far superior to the glory of massacres and destruction.
I share your view, monsieur, of The Life of Turenne [a famous French general]. I don’t despise the historian and I admire the hero. It’s true that the Life didn’t interest me but on the other hand it contains several quite well-written passages. The work shows us an intellect that is cold, but brought on by reading good authors. The only thing that annoys me is that he’s like those weak stomachs that bring things up in the same state as they swallowed them. I’ll allow him imitation, since he’s a foreigner, but not plagiarism. He’s a Scot who’s made a lot of money in France, but he shouldn’t be stealing from people.
As for the hero, I still say that he changed his religion either out of weakness or because it was in his interests. For I refuse to believe it was from conviction. Right up to his death he had mistresses who laughed at him; at the head of armies he betrayed his king; he told a state secret to a young woman; he lost five or six battles; given all that, I think he’s one of the greatest men we’ve ever had.
Image: Turenne, 1611-1675
Nicholas Gentile studies in Lucca with Fondazione Giacomo Puccini
Instead of a letter from Émilie or Voltaire this week, here's a news flash from Nicholas Gentile:
'I was lucky enough to receive a grant this year from Fine Music Australia to write a new opera.
'Well the next chapter has arrived! I’m thrilled to have been accepted on scholarship to travel to Lucca, Italy this July to study at the Puccini International Opera Composition Course.
'I’ll get to work intensively with some of the finest composers and opera conductors in the world on my new opera, Émilie & Voltaire.
For continuing updates on the development of the opera please consider becoming a patron here.'
From Émilie to Maupertuis, summer, 1735
I didn’t receive the first letter you speak of but that doesn’t make me any less guilty for not having replied earlier to your last, or rather for not having expected it. But I wasn’t fit to write to you: I spend my life with masons, carpenters, wool carders and sculptors in stone; I can’t think any more. I’m no better fitted to write to you today, but I can’t resist doing so. I have to say how much I miss you in my solitude, and how little I regret the rest of Paris. If I weren’t here, I’d wish to be at Mont-Valérien … But you, you’re about to take a leap from Mont-Valérien to the North Pole; you’re deserting the Great Bear for Ursa Minor. You only love me when you can’t see me.
Here [at Cirey] Voltaire admires you more than ever and deserves to be your friend. If I could get you both together, I’d consider myself much luckier than Queen Christina: she left her kingdom [Sweden] to run after so-called learned men, while it’s in my own realm that I shall gather the kind of men she would have sought much further away than Rome. You know it’s only the first concession that mars our sense of self-importance: since I’ve dared to write to you from amongst my stone masons, you can count on my being punctilious from now on. Don’t punish me for being shy at first: send me your news—and believe me, neither Madame de Lauraguais, nor Madame de Saint-Pierre, nor all the duchesses in the world could possibly feel a more tender friendship for you than Madame de Cirey.
The image shows Maupertuis and his geometers/surveyors measuring an arc of meridian in the ice and snow of a river in Lapland: this is his expedition of 1736, to which Émilie refers, to prove Isaac Newton's theory that the Earth is relatively flatter at the poles.
From Voltaire to Nicolas-Claude Thiériot, 11 September 1735
These weekly letters, alternately by Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet, are chronological, otherwise I'd love to include here something beautiful by Voltaire on Notre-Dame, that beloved cathedral ravaged by fire just two days ago. However, as I recall, in his Temple du Goût, he preferred Baroque to Gothic architecture and considered Notre-Dame overdecorated. I'm sure he would have been devastated, however, by the catastrophe. It is heartening to hear President Macron's promise that the cathedral will be rebuilt.
I’m waiting for the delivery [of books and periodicals from Paris] without impatience, since I’m here with Émilie and The Century of Louis XIV, of which I’ve already done thirty years. There’s nothing in that century as admirable as she. She reads Virgil, Pope and algebra as one reads a novel. I can’t get over the ease with which she reads Pope’s essays ‘On Man’; it’s a work that sometimes presents problems for English readers.
If I weren’t by her side I’d be at yours, my dear friend. It’s ridiculous that we can be so happy while so far from each other. I’m truly delighted that Pollion la Popelinière thinks of me with some approval: ‘It’s to readers like him that I offer my writing.’ [A quote from the poet Boileau.] …
They say that Rameau’s opera would do well in the Indies. I think the profusion of his double crotchets might be putting off the Lully supporters. But in the end Rameau’s taste must become the dominant taste of our nation, as we become more knowledgeable over time. Ears are formed little by little. Two or three generations will alter the organs of a nation. Lully gave us a sense of hearing that we did not possess before. But men like Rameau will perfect it. You can tell me what you think about this, one hundred and fifty years from now.
My respectful compliments to your brothers and your sister. Adieu, I’ve a hundred letters to write. V.
Voltaire refers wittily here to Rameau’s opera-ballet Les Indes Galantes (pictured) which is still performed today—more than confirming his judgment of its longevity.
From Émilie to the Duc de Richelieu, September 1735
You’ll tell me I’m very difficult to deal with: I’m not happy with your letter. It’s not that it isn’t charming—it’s just too short; you don’t say anything about yourself. It’s true that you speak to me in a way that would make me even happier than I am, if that were possible. You must know how much I love you, since while I’m here in the midst of a felicity that fills both my heart and my soul, I still want to know what interests you, and share whatever happens to you. Your absence makes me feel I yet have something more to ask of the gods, and to be perfectly happy I should be able live between you and your friend: my heart is bold enough to desire it, and feels no shame over a sentiment that the tender friendship I feel for you will preserve within me, all my life.
You don’t tell me when you’ll come to see me, nor when you expect the campaign to be over, nor how tiresome it must be for you [Richelieu was brigadier-general in the Rhineland]. I’m quite happy to live cut off from the world, but I won’t be cut off from your friendship. Consider: if, in the boredom and inaction of this campaign you write such little letters to me, what will you do when you’re in Paris? You’ll forget me for six months! But at least I can be sure that you won’t fail to think of me with friendship and sensitivity.
From Voltaire to Cideville, August 1735
My dear Cideville, the sublime Émilie has heard and approved your delightful work [a pastoral poem] and she considers that the poet who can put such tenderness in the mouths of his untutored lovers must have a very knowledgeable heart.
Monsieur Linant [a young tutor hired by Voltaire for Émilie’s son] and I are living in her château. It falls to her to teach Latin to the preceptor, who will then pass on to the son what he has just received from the mother. From her, both of us will learn how to think. We should take advantage of such a happy time … To be worthy of her, one must be universal. For my part, I am at present her stone mason.
My hand, by turn in days of yore,
Though rather shaky, raised with pleasure
The flute of love in lightest measure
Or else the trumpet sound of war …
These days I’ve roundels to be made:
Pilasters, capitals I hone
From our rough unfashioned stone,
Wielding the chisel’s tempered blade …
Apollo built the majesty
Of Ilion for kings, but here
I’m happier in this wondrous sphere
As stone mason to Émilie.
Apollo, banished from Olympian
Heaven, regrets the azure space.
What could I miss in this fair place?
I’m the one in bliss empyrean.
I pity you, my friend, for not being here. How unfortunate you are, having to judge trials! Why don’t you leave all that behind to come and pay court to Émilie? Adieu my friend, I have to go off and lay a few planks, then hear some charming things said, and gain more from her conversation than I would from any books.
I’ve started work on the century of Louis XIV. I’ve no idea what to call it. It’s not a history at all, it’s the portrait of an admirable century. Vale, ama, scribe [Farewell, love, write].
Nota that the divine Émilie sends you a thousand compliments, and she’ll write to you if the stone masons don’t prevent her from doing so.
From Émilie to the Duc de Richelieu, April 1735
I prefer romantic gossip to intellectual and so, since you give me free rein, I imagine my letters will end up in-folio. Yours came at just the right moment; I was going to write to you, to get in first, and let you know exactly what you’re like: you’re nice to people for a week, you flirt with the idea of being friends—but on my side, since I take friendship the most seriously of all things in my life, I worried about your silence and it hurt. I said to myself, one is supposed to love one’s friends with all their faults. Monsieur de Richelieu is flighty and fickle—I’ll have to love him as he is. At heart I was conscious that I was by no means satisfied with this bargain … I still grieved over renouncing the beautiful chimera of having you as a friend. You, whom everyone else thinks made for flirtation, you, whom I would never have taken it into my head to love—but whose friendship I can no longer do without …
I leave [for Cirey] in four days, so I’m writing to you from the muddle of my departure. My thoughts are heavy but my heart is awash with joy. I hope this decision will persuade Voltaire that I love him, which puts everything else out of my mind. All I can see before me is the supreme happiness of wiping away his fears and spending my life with him. You’re mistaken … there’s a great difference between jealousy and the fear of not being loved enough. You can defend yourself against the first as long as there’s no foundation for it, but you can’t help being pricked and wounded by the second. The first is a troublesome feeling, while the second is an insidious anxiety, and there are fewer weapons and remedies to counter it—except mine, which is to go and be happy at Cirey. Behold, in all earnestness, the metaphysics of love: now you see where excess of passion leads me.
Voltaire to Monsieur de Cideville, 16 April 1735
VOLTAIRE ON TRENDINESS IN THE ARTS AND SCIENCES--there shouldn't be any!
Truly my dear friend I haven’t thanked you enough for the lovely group of poems that you sent me. I’ve just reread it with fresh pleasure. How I love the naivety of the pictures you paint! How happy and rich your imagination is! And what gives such inexpressible charm to it all is that everything comes from the heart. You’re always inspired by either love or friendship …
I lead a dissipated life in Paris and all poetic ideas have fled. Business and duties crush my imagination. I should pay you a visit in Rouen to revive me. Verse is no longer fashionable in Paris. Everyone’s started playing geometers or physicists. People are toying with reason. Sentiment, imagination and the graceful arts are banished. Any man who’d lived under Louis XIV and happened upon today’s society would not recognise the French: he’d think the Germans had taken over the country. Everywhere you look, literature is in decline. It’s not that I mind natural philosophy being cultivated, but I wouldn’t like it to become so tyrannical as to exclude all the rest. In France, it’s simply a fashion that’s replaced preceding ones and will be superseded in its turn. But no art, no science, should ever be in fashion. They must all go hand in hand, and be cultivated all the time. I’ve no desire to pay homage to fashion; I want to be able to go from a physics experiment to an opera or a play, and never allow my taste to be blunted by study. Your taste, my dear Cideville, will always underpin mine, but we ought to see each other; I need to spend a few months with you, but destiny separates us just when everything ought to bring us together … Vale. V.
Émilie to Pierre-Robert Le Cornier de Cideville, 31 March 1735
VOLTAIRE NO LONGER WANTED BY POLICE! Here's the good news in a letter that Émilie wrote from Paris.
'I’m depriving your friend, monsieur, of the pleasure of letting you know himself about his return to Paris; I feel and I share your joy. I was extremely pleased to see him; this business of his has gone on for so long that I was almost afraid it would never be over—but at last he has been returned to us. It’s to be hoped that never again will he put us through such acute distress. I don’t know whether you’ve received a letter from me that I asked Monsieur de Formont to deliver. I still flatter myself that one day I’ll bring you together in the country home where I intend to spend some time. I’m sure you realise how urgently I desire to meet someone for whom I’ve developed an esteem that arises from friendship—and that I hope friendship will cement.'
Pierre-Robert Le Cornier de Cideville was a magistrate and writer who lived in Rouen (pictured); he was one of Voltaire’s closest friends and they kept in touch mainly by correspondence—often in verse.
From Voltaire to the Comte d'Argental, December 1734
I’ve been leading a somewhat wandering life, my adorable friend, for more than a month; that’s what’s prevented me from writing to you. I think I’m finally about to enjoy the peace that your negotiations and good efforts have brought me. At last Madame de Richelieu is about to be given an audience. She won’t leave your Chancellor alone until peace has been granted, and I hope that at last this outrageous persecution over an innocent book will cease. As for me, I don’t mind telling you I’ll have to be pretty philosophical to forget the disgraceful manner in which I’ve been treated in my own country. Only friends such as yourself, and those others who’ve served me so well, could persuade me to stay in France.
If I don’t return soon, would you like me to send you a rather distinctive tragedy [Alzire, ou les Américains] that I’ve completed in my solitude? It’s a very Christian play that may well do me some favours with the devout; I’ll be delighted with that, as long as it doesn’t put off the audience in the stalls. It’s an entirely new world [the Peru of the conquistadors] with entirely new morals. I’m positive it would go down a treat in Panama or Fernambouc [in Brazil]. God grant that it’s not hissed at in Paris …
Is it true that they’re talking about leaving me in peace? I beg you to let me know what people are saying. There’ll hardly be an individual who doesn’t take an interest—like an ass that carries a double load in wartime.
Adieu, I love you as you deserved to be loved
The solitary swan is floating on the River Marne at Joinville, not far from Cirey. Voltaire was in fact hiding at Cirey when he wrote this letter.
From Émilie to Maupertuis, 23 October 1734
At last, monsieur, you’ve recalled my existence. I now have your letter from Basel, just when I’d given up hope of ever receiving another. I was ready to start hating geometry, which would have been no great loss to it but very unjust to you.
I’m here [at Cirey] in profound solitude [actually Voltaire was hiding there too], which suits me quite well; I divide my time between stone masons and John Locke—because, like any other woman, I want to get to the bottom of everything.
I wouldn’t have written to you about Voltaire this time, but you ask, so I must give you an answer. His affairs are in better shape at the moment than his health, which is the one thing that could prevent his going to Basel. However, the season is unfavourable for a hypochondriac. I’ve let him know that he ought to take my advice and travel to Paris with you when you go back. Please note that I want us all to be together there for midnight mass on Christmas Eve. By that time at least, his affairs should all be resolved.
Rameau was gallant enough to invite me to a rehearsal of Samson [libretto by Voltaire]. I realise I owe the invitation to you and truly my gratitude is in proportion to the pleasure the opera gave me, which is saying a lot. I particularly admired the overture, a chaconne, several violin passages, and the third and fifth act. If Voltaire is allowed to rejoin us this winter, he’ll give us an opera and a tragedy. He tells me he’s revised the opera and made Delilah a fine, upstanding character, despite the way she’s portrayed in Holy Scripture.
Voltaire to Madame de Champbonin, October 1734
Madame du Châtelet arrived [on a visit to Cirey] from Paris yesterday evening. She came at the very moment when I received a letter from her saying she would not arrive so soon. She is surrounded by two hundred bundles that turned up on the same day as herself. We have beds with no curtains, bedrooms with no windows, Chinese cabinets but no armchairs, charming phaetons and not a horse fit to pull them. In the midst of this disorder, Madame du Châtelet laughs and is charming. She came in a sort of tipcart for two; she’d had no sleep but was quite well. She asks me to send you a thousand compliments on her behalf. We’re about to patch old tapestries back together. We’re looking for curtains, we’re having doors made—all so we can have you to visit. I swear, joking apart, that you’ll be well looked after here. Farewell, madame, I am very tenderly and respectfully attached to you for life.
From Émilie to Maupertuis, 22 May 1734
I’ve sent your letter on to our unhappy Voltaire; if it reaches him, I know it will give him the greatest pleasure, because I know his esteem and friendship for you. I’ve no idea what’s happening to him; I’ve had no news since he left us. I hope he’s decided to make for Basel or Geneva … I’m told his book has been denounced by Parlement. This is a plot to destroy him, but his friends are the ones I feel painfully sorry for, because it will divide him from them for ever. As for him, he could make his home in any country, and I confess that however much I hate the idea, I’d a hundred times sooner he were in Switzerland than in Auxonne [in prison].
I’ve sent Voltaire’s address to La Condamine and asked him to give it to you; I beg you to write and tell Voltaire anything you may find out. He assures me it’s a safe address, and wherever he is in reality, letters are sure to reach him. Please don’t reveal it to anyone.
I’m convinced he’d profit from any words of wisdom you may send, if he should get the chance to act on them—but it looks as though his fate will be sad for his friends and shameful to his enemies. When it’s too late, they’ll be sorry.
The portrait is of Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, former mathematics tutor of both Voltaire and Émilie.
From Voltaire to René Hérault, May 1734
I’m surprised and pained, monsieur, that the yapping of my worthless enemies has imposed on a man as enlightened as yourself. Ought you to listen to the pious and idiotic clamouring of the superstitious imbeciles infected by Jansenism, who claim that by mocking the convulsions of the Quakers one is attacking God and the state? It is not for police prosecutors that I write: I write for men of intellect and education. Pay no heed, monsieur, to the idiotic crowd who sunt sicut equus et mulus quibus non est intellectus [are like horses and donkeys, incapable of understanding]: they grumble for a week without knowing why and then fall into total silence over things beyond their comprehension. Be so kind as consult such men as the following about my book [Philosophical Letters]: M. de Maupertuis, M. de Mairan, M. Boindin, M. de Fontenelle, M. du Fay, M. de Condamine. These are men who think, and whose sentiments gradually become those of the public, because in the long run the vulgar are always and in everything guided by a small number of superior minds, in both literature and politics.
My book has been translated into English and German, and has more admirers in Europe than worthless critics in France … I may have to seek in foreign countries the rest and consideration that I’m owed, at the very least, in my homeland. If so, I shall live where necessary in honour and without complaint. I shall miss only a few friends, and I shall never forget your goodness. I beg you to distinguish me, monsieur, from the crowd who are importuning you as a magistrate, and remember only, as I do, what a superior mind like yours owes to humanity. My gratitude will equal my attachment to you, and the tender and respectful zeal with which, as you know, I shall always be your very humble and obedient servant. Voltaire.
The image shows Cirey in the Haute Marne, where Voltaire was in hiding from the police at the time.
From Émilie to Aldonce de Sade, May 1734
Every week I'm sharing some of the correspondence of Gabrielle-Émilie de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, and her lover Voltaire. This letter was written during a crisis, just after an attempt by the king's gendarmes to arrest Voltaire in Burgundy and throw him into prison in the town of Auxonne (pictured). The legacy of these events is still felt by the lovers in the new opera, Émilie & Voltaire, being developed this year by Nicholas Gentile.
We must conclude that my friend Voltaire—you know my feelings for him—is in prison at Auxonne, near Dijon. He left us several days ago to take the waters at Plombières (his health has long required it) but gendarmes sent here by the Governor of Burgundy have brought a warrant for his arrest and he is to be imprisoned at Auxonne until further notice. … I can’t tell you how devastating this is; I can hardly bear to think of my best friend, whose health is so terrible, locked in a prison where he will surely die of suffering, if not of some illness. I have no news of him and can’t defy the might of such a minister [Chauvelin, Minister of Police] by sending him mine … But of what use to Voltaire are our tears and regrets? I have no hope. Monsieur de Chauvelin is inflexible and I am inconsolable: I’ll never get over the loss of such a friend. Flirtation or resentment—anything at all—will do to console us after losing a lover; but time, which heals all wounds, would only poison mine …
I’m going at once to my château in the country. I can’t stand society any longer. Men are so false, so unjust, so prejudiced, so tyrannical! I must either live alone, or with people who think as you do. One spends one’s existence with envious vipers—what’s the use being alive and young? I’d prefer to be fifty years old and live in the country with my friend, Madame de Richelieu and you. Alas, we spend our lives planning to be happy and we never manage it. Farewell, monsieur: I can feel my suffering diminish even as I write to you, but I don’t want to strain your friendship.
From Voltaire to La Condamine of the Academy of Sciences in Paris, January 1734
You will soon be seeing Madame du Châtelet. The friendship with which she honours me has not failed me in this pass. Her mind is worthy of you and her heart is worthy of her mind. The good offices she extends to her friends are as great as the keenness with which she learns languages and geometry, and when she has rendered us every imaginable service, she still thinks she has performed none; such is her intellect and her learning that she believes she knows nothing and has no idea how intelligent she is. Take her to your heart and let us be her admirers and friends as long as we live.
From Émilie to Maupertuis, April 1734
I’d like you to give me some lessons here [Château de Montjeu, Burgundy, pictured], but since you’re remaining in Paris I’ll hurry my return and get there at the end of June at the latest. I flatter myself that I’ll then prove somewhat less unworthy of your tutoring.
I’m not aiming to do well in geometry for my own sake; I’m more motivated by my pride in your reputation. It doesn’t seem right for anyone who has you as a teacher to make such mediocre progress, and I can’t tell you how much it shames me.
I’m here in the most beautiful place in the world, with the most wonderful people: all that’s missing is the pleasure of seeing and listening to you. When I told Voltaire I was writing to you, he asked me to tell you a thousand things on his account—he’s worried, quite rightly, about the fate of his Philosophical Letters [a new, controversial book]. He’s immensely flattered that his enemies believe you contributed to his essays on Newton, and if it weren’t for the fear that he’ll be arrested for writing them, I think your approbation would make up for everything else.
From Voltaire to Moncrif, April 1733
Every week this year I'm posting a letter by either Émilie du Châtelet or Voltaire, while composer Nicholas Gentile develops the new Australian opera on universal themes: Émilie & Voltaire. Here is Voltaire writing to librettist François-Augustin de Paradis de Moncrif. The image shows the opera house in Nancy.
'You’re the only person in the world capable of thinking about other people’s doings in the midst of all you have to do yourself. Rest assured, I’m full of gratitude. The opera went very well yesterday. I went along at the end, to see how things had gone, and I heard excellent news. The audience is looking forward to the changes to the third act. But the music will need to be very lively and striking. My credit with the ch. de B. [the composer, the Chevalier de Brassac] consists solely in my tender devotion to him. In no way am I a connoisseur of music, but I do have ears and I can see what audiences like, and I venture to beg our amiable chevalier, on behalf of those audiences, to augment the sweetness, grace and gallantry of his music with a little vivacity and tumult. If the third act delivers the brilliant effect that it should, I’m hoping for fifty performances. Ah, what fun we’ll have, confounding the fools and the scoffers! In that pleasant hope I remain the tenderest and most zealous of your servants. V.'
Letters from Émilie and Voltaire
Happy New Year! In 2019 Nicholas Gentile is composing Émilie & Voltaire with the assistance of the Fine Music 102.5 Kruger Scholarship. To introduce you to this exciting project, every week this year we’re posting an extract from a letter from one of these famous lovers: on music, the theatre, philosophy, Paris, Cirey, physics, mathematics, friends … and love.
An opera about Voltaire and Mme du Châtelet—what could be more natural? Voltaire, twelve years older than Émilie, claimed to remember her as a girl, but their first fateful encounter was at the opera in Paris in 1733: Moncrif’s The Empire of Love. So began a love affair that lasted until her death in 1749. Voltaire was a poet, playwright and librettist; Émilie played the harpsichord beautifully and sang whole operas by heart, her favourite composer being Destouches. Today's image is from Destouches' opera, Issé.
From Émilie to Aldonce de Sade, December 1733
Despite princesses and pompons, I give serious consideration to the fortunes of my friends … I abandon myself to society without caring for it very much. One inconsequential thing leads to another and I can often spend whole days without really feeling as though I’ve lived at all … I’m delighted that [Voltaire’s] Adélaïde pleased you: I was touched by it. I found it tender, noble, moving and well written; the fifth act is especially charming … Voltaire himself has been ill for three weeks and hasn’t been out. But his imagination is none the less lively and brilliant for that: he’s managed to complete two operas and hand one of them over to Rameau, to be performed in six months’ time. People are bound to have written to tell you what Rameau is like, and the different opinions that divide audiences as to his music: some think him divine and far superior to Lully; others think his work finely wrought, but not in the least pleasing or varied. I must admit I belong to the latter group: I like Issé [by Destouches] a hundred times better—it’s on at the moment and Mademoiselle Le Maure excels in the title role.