Voltaire was born in Paris in 1694, the third child of François Arouet, a well-connected professional notary from the upper bourgeoisie. Voltaire’s legal name was therefore François Marie Arouet; he assumed the name “Voltaire” in 1718, when he was twenty-four, shortly after the success of his first tragedy Oedipe. One theory is that he abandoned the name Arouet because he believed that he was the product of an affair between his mother and a man who was not his legal father.
Voltaire did not get on with his older brother Armand, who was a fundamentalist Catholic. However, he was fond of his sister Marguerite Catherine, who married a certain Pierre Mignot, and very fond of her three children: Marie Louise, the eldest, who became the wife and then widow of Nicolas Denis and was to become a very important part of Voltaire’s life in later years; Marie Elisabeth, who became the wife and then the widow of Nicolas Fontaine; and Alexandre Mignot, who took minor holy orders as an abbé.
Voltaire was educated at the Jesuits’ Collége de Louis-le-Grand, then as now one of the top secondary schools in Paris. There he learned a lot of Latin and little Greek, and acquired a taste for theatre. In later life he became fluent in Italian, Spanish and English, though he never mastered German.
Voltaire’s father made repeated efforts to persuade or even force him to settle down as a lawyer; but Voltaire was determined to try his luck as a writer in the rakish salon world of literary Paris. After scoring a hit with Oedipe, he scored another in 1723 with his epic poem La Henriade. But these triumphs tempted him to take scandalous risks above his station, and he was twice locked up in the Bastille. He was first imprisoned in 1717, for writing some verses which displeased the Prince Regent, and again in 1726, for trying to pick a fight with an arrogant young nobleman, the chevalier de Rohan.
Voltaire was only released from his second term of imprisonment on condition that he go into exile, and he chose to go to England, where he stayed for two years. It was an experience which left an indelible imprint on him: he immersed himself in English life, and he was deeply impressed by the liberty and pluralism of English society, political, social, commercial and religious. In the process, he became fluent in English (partly by the assiduous study of Shakespeare), so fluent that at one point he considered remaining in England as an English writer. Voltaire wrote up his observations of English life in a book called Lettres Philosophiques, most of which he wrote directly in English under the title Letters Concerning the English Nation.
On his return to Paris, in 1728, Voltaire resumed his life as a literary careerist. His main problem was shortage of money, aggravated by the fact that he was unable to lay his hands on his inheritance from his father (who had died in 1722). Many people assume that the immense popularity of his writings must have made him prosperous, but this is a misapprehension. At that time, and until the Revolution of 1798, there was no copyright law in France, and any author was at constant risk of having his works pirated and pillaged by unscrupulous publishers and booksellers. In the case of a writer as famous as Voltaire, this was not just a risk but a dead certainty. Moreover, much of Voltaire’s writing was scandalous or subversive; in these cases, not only did he not claim commercial ownership but he even denied authorship of works which everybody knew were written by him.
Voltaire should have been able to make money out of his plays. During much of his life, he was the most popular author at the Comédie Française, the leading officially authorised theatre in Paris, and in principle he would have been entitled to claim an author’s percentage. But Voltaire gave his plays to the actors at the Com’die Fran”aise for nothing; he hoped that they would reward his generosity by treating his texts with scrupulous respect, since they had a deplorable habit of rewriting scenes which they thought needed “improvement”. Unfortunately Voltaire’s calculation did not work out: the com’diens welcomed his plays, kept his share of the profits, and continued to rewrite them regardless.
In 1728, therefore, Voltaire decided to look for another way of making money, and he found it spectacularly later that year. The key event was the discovery, by one of his friends, the mathematician Charles Marie de La Condamine, that the authorities had made a major blunder in setting the terms of a state lottery. In order to promote the sale of tickets, they undertook to subsidise the prizes. What they did not realise, apparently, was that the prizes they were offering were significantly greater than the maximum revenue from ticket sales. It was possible, therefore, to make a guaranteed and entirely legal fortune by cornering the market, and buying up all the lottery tickets. Condamine and his friends put together a syndicate, in which Voltaire was included, and they made a large profit, month after month, for at least a year. It is not clear exactly how much Voltaire made out of this operation, but it must have been a very large sum, possibly half a million francs. Soon after this, he invested heavily in a speculative share operation launched by the duc de Lorraine, and sold out immediately at a large profit. By the time he was thirtysix, he had accumulated assets which may have amounted to about a million francs.
It is difficult to express Voltaire’s wealth in modern monetary terms because the scale of values then was so very different from what it is today. His biographer Theodore Besterman has suggested that one franc might have been roughly equivalent to one US dollar, but this seems a serious under-estimate. We should probably not try to reckon what one eighteenth-century franc would represent today, but rather what it represented then. In this perspective, it has been suggested that a man with an annual income of 15,000 francs (or livres) would have been wealthy, and one with an income of 30,000 francs would have been very wealthy. By this measure, Voltaire was very, very wealthy.
Voltaire sometimes talked in terms of livres, and sometimes in terms of francs; these were in fact alternative words for the same thing. The franc or livre (meaning “pound”) was divided into 20 sous (plural of sol), and the sol was divided into 12 deniers; the symbols for livres, sous and deniers were therefore £ s. d. The similarities with the English currency, until decimalisation in 1972, are striking. Moreover, although the English used the words pounds, shillings and pence, they employed the Latin-derived symbols £s. d. for the different units. In French, the currency symbols matched the words.
Now that he had acquired a large fortune, Voltaire was in a position to rub shoulders with the big players in the world of finance, and be admitted to some of their major operations. At that time, the French armed forces were supplied with provisions by private entrepreneurs, and the contract for this supply was currently held by the Páris-Duverney brothers. Voltaire invested in their operation and, after just one season, this brought him profits of 600,000 francs. He was now seriously rich, and the following year he at last secured his inheritance, of nearly 153,000 francs.
Voltaire distributed his new-found wealth among a wide variety of investments: public lotteries; bank deposits; French state debt; French army supplies; and the trading operations of the French Compagnie des Indes (French India Company), which he normally referred to as “Cadiz”, since that was its main port of operations. But above all, and increasingly over time, he invested his money in loans to dukes and princes.
When he was younger, he lent money to French dukes and princes, like the duc de Richelieu and the family of the prince de Guise; on his return to France from Prussia, when he was fearful of the vengeful hostility of Versailles, he preferred to lend to German dukes and princes, like the Elector-Palatine or the duke of Wurtemberg, especially when they had estates in France, which (Voltaire believed) could be mortgaged to him for greater security.
These personal loans were normally in the form of a rente viagáre, meaning a “loan for life”, which was cancelled when the lender died. The rate of interest varied according to the age of the lender: an elderly lender could expect to negotiate a higher rate of interest on the assumption that the loan would be extinguished sooner. But Voltaire defied the expectations of his borrowers by living to a great age, and was able, for many years, to demand an interest rate of 10 per cent, which was far above the normal banking deposit rate of 3 to 5 per cent. These loans were not risk-free, however, because the dukes and princes had a distressing tendency to fall behind with their payments, sometimes for years on end.
Over time, however, Voltaire became richer and richer, and his wealth gave him a crucial element of personal independence, without which he would scarcely have dared to challenge some of the worst aspects of the ancien r”gime.
In 1733, Voltaire became the lover of “Milie, marquise du Châtelet, a remarkable feminist exemplar of the Enlightenment, a mathematician and scientist, the wife of an amiable and complaisant army officer. She was twenty-seven, Voltaire nearly forty. This was to be his first long-term emotional attachment, and it marked him for life.
When Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques was published in 1734, it caused a massive scandal, since its praise of English liberty and tolerance was widely, and correctly, perceived as an attack on French absolutism and religious dogmatism. Voltaire fled Paris once again and took refuge in ‘milie’s ch”teau at Cirey in eastern France, where she soon joined him. They spent most of the next ten years together, mainly at Cirey, and formed a curious intellectual quasimatrimonial m”nage. They would pass mornings and afternoons reading and writing in their separate studies, and they would meet at meal-times. “Milie translated Newton’s Principia Mathematica and she inspired Voltaire to write an interpretation of the Eléments de la Philosophie de Newton; but he never persuaded her of the interest of history, which she regarded as little more than gossip.
Voltaire remained deeply committed to ‘milie until her death in 1749. But after living with her for ten years, he began to tire of her possessiveness and he longed once more for the bright lights. In 1744 he returned to Paris and chased preferment at court, for which he was rewarded with the post of Royal Historian. In 1746 he received the title Gentleman in Ordinary of the King’s Chamber, and was elected to the Acad’mie Fran”aise, the prestigious official club of leading intellectuals. In later life he would say that, of all the time he had wasted in his life, the periods he most regretted were those he had spent as a courtier.
In Paris, Voltaire took a new mistress: his eldest niece, MarieLouise Denis. He was fifty, she was thirty-two. During his lifetime, the real nature of Voltaire’s relationship with Mme Denis was a closely guarded secret, and his close friend Charles Augustin de Ferriol, comte d’Argental, was one of the few people who knew the truth. Positive evidence was missing until 1957, when Theodore Besterman discovered and published a series of very explicit love letters between Voltaire and Mme Denis.
In December 1745, he wrote to her from Versailles: “I don’t know when my affairs will allow me to leave a place I abhor. The court, society, the great ones of the earth bore me. I shall be happy only when I can live with you. Your company, and better health would make me happy. I kiss you a thousand times. My soul kisses yours, my prick, my heart are in love with you. I kiss your pretty arse and all your enchanting person.” (Vi baccio mille volte. La mia anima baccia la vostra, mio catzo, mio cuore sone inamorati di voi. Baccio il vostro gentil culo e tutta la vostra vezzosa persona.) Many of the most explicit love-letters between Voltaire and Mme Denis were written in Italian, possibly in the belief that this would protect their privacy from prying eyes.
In October 1746, he wrote to Mme Denis: “I want to drink [a] health with you. But I beg you to be sober, and to keep me sober. I ask your permission to let me bring my limpness. It would be better to have a hard-on, but whether I do or not, I shall always love you, you will be the only consolation of my life”. (Original in Italian)
In July 1748, he wrote to her: “If the poor state of my health permits, I shall throw myself at your knees and kiss all your Beauties. Meanwhile I place a thousand kisses on your round breasts, on your enchanting arse and on all your person which has so often given me a hard-on and plunged me in a river of delight.” (Original in Italian)
In 1748, partly no doubt as a result of Voltaire’s neglect, “Milie du Châtelet had a passionate affair with the marquis de Saint-Lambert: she was now forty-two, he was ten years younger. Unfortunately she became pregnant by him, and died after childbirth in 1749. Voltaire was devastated and sank into a deep depression; he returned briefly to Paris and installed Mme Denis, ostensibly just his dear niece, in the house in the rue Traversi’re which he had previously shared with Mme du Châtelet. But evidently he had to get away from the reminders of ‘milie, and instead of pursuing life in Paris with Mme Denis, he decided to move to Potsdam, the second royal residence of Prussia where the court of Frederick the Great was based.
Frederick had been flirting with Voltaire long before he came to the throne in 1740. It was only after another ten years of urging that he finally persuaded Voltaire to accept the post of Chamberlain and poet-in-residence. Voltaire arrived at Potsdam on 21 July 1750, and at first he was delighted with his new position: his main official task, helping to polish Frederick’s French prose and verse, took only a few hours of each day, and he was exempted from most courtly duties, apart from intimate suppers with the King. He thus had plenty of time for his own writing, which at this time was focused mainly on the research for his major historical work, Le Si”cle de Louis XIV.
But his stay soon turned sour. Voltaire may have hoped to be the tutor of the “philosopher-King” of Sans-Souci; but Frederick, though in some ways fascinated by Voltaire, in practice treated him as little more than a trophy intellectual, the most celebrated poetry sub-editor in Europe. Many years later, Voltaire quoted the bitter little anecdote, current at the time, in which Frederick had said, to an anxious rival jealous of Voltaire’s privileged position: ‘don’t worry: we shall squeeze the orange, and then, when we have swallowed the juice, we shall throw it away.” From that moment, Voltaire was resolved to protect the orange peel.
In Potsdam, Voltaire managed to get into a personal feud with Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, the (French) President of the Berlin Academy of Sciences and Belles-Lettres (and Voltaire’s predecessor in the bed of ‘milie du Châtelet). This quarrel brought Voltaire’s position at Potsdam to breaking point. In December 1752 he published a vitriolic pamphlet, denouncing and deriding his opponent; it caused a major scandal at court. The King was enraged, and had the pamphlet seized and ceremonially burned by the public executioner. Voltaire concluded that it was time to leave.
But when he attempted to resign, he found that he was not a free man; the King regarded him as a courtier and servant, and refused to let him go. When, however, a new pamphlet against Maupertuis (but not written by Voltaire) was published in London, in the middle of March 1753, the King sent him a brutal letter of dismissal. Ten days later, Voltaire left Potsdam for good, and set off for France. He was not to know that his return to France would not be any kind of home-coming, but that he would be met with a life sentence of banishment from which there would be no appeal; let alone that, on the way, he would have to endure a shocking lesson in the power and brutality of eighteenth-century despotism.
©2004 by Ian Davidson. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.