Voltaire : A sense of history, John Leigh

It was not only in his histories that Voltaire thought, worried and wrote about history. In fact, many of his most provocative and tantalising remarks on history lie outside the province of the so-called OEUVRES HISTORIQUES, in the vast expanses of his complete works, and historical events and historical figures elicit some of his most imaginative writing. Voltaire's propensity to write about history in works that are not histories sheds light on his historiographical thought and temper. The historian that emerges from these pages is, by turns, a feverish bedridden man haunted by the St Bartholomew massacre (an overwhelming preoccupation of Voltaire's, although it receives only cursory attention in the prose histories), an inspired poet mythologising Henri IV's epic adventures, a bawdy satirist amused by Joan od Arc, a raconteur nourished by historical anecdotes, even a doting uncle winking at his niece as he elaborates a philisophy of history. In all these forms and at all these times, an interest in history is integral and abiding.
   Far from being marginal or oblique, these works yield important insights into a pervasive Voltairean sense of history wich finds in these different forms both freedom and the traditions - and indeed often the readers - denied to the OEUVRES HISTORIQUES.
Moreover, innovative works like the HENRIADE and CANDIDE, wich fall into this category, prove as influential to historians as Voltaire's recognised histories. Voltaire's prodigious energy and versatility in fields other than history have probably harmed his reputation as a historian when, already in the eighteenth century, historians were increasingly expected to be specialists.
This study shows that Voltaire's historiographical thought ranges across areas and texts artificially sundered by subsequent editorial compartmentalisations, and it reveals a restlessly complex, intentive writer confronting history in numerous different guises. 

 

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Voltaire : A sense of history

John Leigh is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages, University of Cambridge, and a fellow of Fitzwilliam College. He has published an edition of Beamarchais's Figaro plays (1997) and an introductory study to eighteenth-century French literature, THE SEARCH FOR ENLIGHTENMENT (1999).

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