Fionnùala Sinclair admires a portrait of a satirical playwright who became a champion of free speech

“Voltaire’s voice is the voice of the Enlightenment”, Ian Davidson states in his prologue, but this biography expands greatly on the image of Voltaire the philosophe, outlining his consuming ambition, his love of women, his obsession with money and his paradoxical profligate spending. The picture that emerges is one of Voltaire as a human being, with his own letters providing a fascinating reservoir of information and anecdote. He was a prolific correspondent – the latest edition of his letters includes 15,284 written on such diverse subjects as his anxieties about his latest play, his literary quarrels, his constipation and its rhubarb cures, his finances, Newton’s theories, his new theatre and the difficulties of buying decent meat.

Born François-Marie Arouet in 1694, Voltaire changed his name at the age of 24 for unspecified reasons. This coincided neatly, however, with the major success of his first tragedy, Œdipe, at the Comédie-Française, a triumph that marked the culmination of his struggle to become a writer, in conflict with his father’s desire for him to follow in his footsteps as a lawyer. From this point on, Voltaire was bound to writing and the theatre. Yet his career was not assured: Voltaire was outspoken and rash, and the sharpness of his wit and his desire to shine often led him to take a step too far in his mockery of the social élite, including royalty and the court. Davidson outlines the historical and political background to Voltaire’s life and writing with a light touch, but he nonetheless sketches a fascinating picture of the climate of thought prevailing in 18th-century France. The death of Louis XIV in 1715, and the regency that followed, led to a rapid liberalisation of French mores, with satire and mockery, pleasure and enjoyment the order of the day. This was an explosive combination. Many felt that society and its manners were changing too much and too quickly, and it was inevitable that the butt of mockery would become first the government, then the regent, criticised for his gluttony, debauchery and womanising.

Voltaire’s first stint of exile was to the Limousin in 1716 for the penning of verses satirising the Duchesse de Berry, the regent’s daughter. Six months later, having directed his censure against the regent himself, he was arrested and sent to the Bastille. Further exiles were to follow over the years, significantly to England in 1726. This stay of more than two years provided the impetus and material for one of Voltaire’s best-known works, the Lettres Philosophiques, ostensibly an account of English life and culture, but obliquely a criticism of the oppressive French regime. Voltaire characterises the English as “a strange people”, but “a nation fond of their liberty, learned, witty, despising life and death, a nation of philosophers”. The freedom of thought and its expression which Voltaire discovered there suited his intellect and his temperament, and for the rest of his life he would contrast the liberty found in England and the Low Countries with the narrow-minded censorship and repressive regime of France.

It is the depiction of Voltaire’s complex character that makes this biography such a compelling read. Voltaire was, on many counts, anti-establishment, yet eager to gain public distinction and recognition through election to the esteemed Académie Française (he was initially rejected by the ultra-conservative membership dominated by the hierarchy of the Catholic church). He wrote and published works that were obviously bound to cause political and religious controversy, then denied their authorship. He was against repressive religions yet was not an atheist. Initially a playwright and poet, he later extended his repertoire to study philosophy and science, writing a popular account of Newton’s scientific discoveries. He was, by degrees, charming, joyful, loyal to friends and lovers, catty, offensive and depressed. Voltaire was a philosophe, but this does not mean that he was a philosopher in the modern sense, as he produced no corpus of original philosophical thought, as did Montesquieu or Rousseau. It was his dedication to the fundamental principles of the Enlightenment – freedom of speech, equality and justice – and his pursuit of change that made him iconic. “Écrasez l’infâme” (“crush the horror”) became his slogan.

Voltaire becomes increasingly likeable as a character as this study progresses. In life he developed from an impoverished, ambitious, rather self-obsessed young playwright to become a renowned, wealthy, and popular writer – his sceptical and subversive romp, Candide, sold at least 20,000 and maybe even as many as 30,000 copies on its publication in 1759, despite being banned in France by February of that year. Voltaire’s literary themes were reflected by his actions. He campaigned for legal justice and reform, intervening in several cases of miscarriage of justice leading to torture and execution. His final visit to Paris just prior to his death was a triumph – he was lauded at the performance of his final play, Irène, and followed in the streets by people who called him “defender of the poor and the oppressed”. He died at the age of 83. This biography opens up many areas of Voltaire’s life and debunks some of its mythologies (Voltaire was not an atheist; he loved women, but could be very faithful), giving us an insightful and entertaining picture of the man. It’s remarkable, too, how easily Voltaire’s philosophy of tolerance and justice relates to society today, and Davidson’s book is impressive on both counts.

Fionnùala Sinclair is fellow in French at Girton College, Cambridge. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds