Nicholas Cronk’s talk, ‘Making an Anthology of Voltaire’s Letters: The Problems and the Pleasures’, focused on the lessons learned from his recent completion of an anthology of Voltaire’s letters for the French paperback collection, Folio. The collection reaches a broad audience, with a print run of over 10,000 copies costing around 10 Euros each. The publisher dictated certain conditions, like non-abridgement of the letters; the inclusion of letters by Voltaire only, without any addressed to him; and the inclusion of pictures of a few manuscripts. In reducing Voltaire’s corpus of some 16,000 letters to the 200 in the anthology, Prof. Cronk sought first and foremost to present the full range of letter styles and functions. The five primary lessons of the anthologising process were: (1) combination of chance and deliberation in the formation of the epistolary corpus; (2) the importance of the letter’s material form (from watermarks to subjection to censorship in the post); (3) the increasing prevalence of multiple addressees across Voltaire’s career (especially the inclusion of letters within others for forwarding by the first addressee); (4) the extreme variety of Voltaire’s reinventions of the self; (5) the ludic quality of the letter-writing process, even when no publication could be envisioned.
The discussion raised more questions about the anthologising process. Unlike some previous editors, Prof. Cronk included letters that Voltaire had re-written for eventual publication (especially those recounting his stay at the court of Frederick II). Not just the re-written texts, but all Voltaire’s letters play with the apparent opposition between spontaneity and literary set-pieces, authenticity and mastery of epistolary form. The apparatus for the Folio edition balances the publisher’s desire for minimal annotation with the scholar’s expertise: quotes are translated and identified in footnotes, while a single endnote for each letter glosses the letter’s general import and the essential references. The need for readers to grasp tone and meaning sometimes dictated the choice of letters: more self-explanatory letters were occasionally preferred over more subtle missives requiring greater background knowledge. In seeking ways to convey Voltaire’s games with self-image to young student readers, Prof. Cronk noticed the prevalence of Voltaire’s own (painted and sculpted) portraits as a theme in the letters: he accordingly selected a few of these letters for inclusion in the anthology.
Below are an opening and a closing from the Voltaire letters discussed at the meeting:
I have received your new book against mankind. I thank you for it. You will please those to whom you reveal the truth, and you will not improve them. You paint in most faithful colours the horrors of human society, from which ignorance and weakness expect so much pleasure. So much intelligence has never been used to seek to make us stupid.
One is tempted to walk on all fours after reading your book.’
(to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 30 August 1755)
[‘Select Letters of Voltaire, transl. and ed. by Theodore Besterman, London, Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1963, pp. 148-49]
‘Consolez vous aussi le plus tôt que vous pourrez, car rien n’est plus triste que d’avoir du chagrin; et pour vous consoler croyez que vous n’êtes ni le seul ni le premier qui ait été attrapé par le petit Suisse, car malheureusement le malheur d’autrui console.’
(to Jean Baptiste, marquis d’Albertas, c. 5 November 1761)
[Voltaire, ‘Correspondence and Related Documents’, ed. by Theodore Besterman, Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire, vols. 85-135, Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, 1968-77, D10137]
More information about the network and upcoming events can be found here