He easily persuaded his niece to come and play hostess for him, since she had for some time been his paramour.
Born (1712) Marie Louise Mignot, she was the daughter of Voltaire’s sister Catherine. When Catherine died (1726), Voltaire assumed the protection of her children. In 1738, aged twenty-six but graced with a handsome dowry from her uncle, Marie Louise married Captain Nicolas Charles Denis, a minor official in the government. Six years later Denis died, just about the time that Voltaire and the Marquise removed to Paris. The widow sought comfort in Voltaire’s arms, and he found new warmth in hers. Apparently his avuncular affection was soon transformed into something quite uncanonical. In a letter of March 23, 1745, he addressed his niece as “my beloved.”89 III This could have been a term of innocent affection, but in December, two years before the Marquise met Saint-Lambert, Voltaire sent to the merry widow a letter which must be quoted verbatim to be believed:
Vi baccio mlle volte. La mia anima baccia la vostra, mio cazzo, mio cuore sono innamorati di voi. Baccio il vostro gentil culo e tutta la vostra persona.90 IV
Mme. Denis modestly crossed out some of these words, but presumably she responded amorously, for Voltaire wrote to her from Versailles on December 27, 1745:
My dear one, … you tell me that my letter gave pleasure even to your senses. Mine are like yours; I could not read the delicious words you wrote without feeling inflamed to the depths of my being. I paid your letter the tribute I should like to pay to the whole of your person.… I will love you until death.92
In three letters of 1746: “I count on kissing my beloved a thousand times.”93 “I should like to live at your feet and die in your arms.”94 “When shall I be able to live with you, forgotten by the whole world?”95 And on July 27, 1748:
Je ne viendrais que pour vous e se il povero stato della mia salute me lo permesse mi gitturai alle vostre genochia e baccarei tutte la vostra Belta. In tanto io figo mlle baccii alle tonde poppe, alle transportatrici natiche, a tutta la vostra persona che m’ha fatto tante volte rizzare e m’ha annegato in un fiume di delizie96 V
There is a dangerous age in men as well as in women; it lasts longer, and commits incredible follies. Voltaire was the most brilliant man of his century, but we should not rank him among the wise. A hundred times he fell into such foolishness, indiscretions, extremes, and childish tantrums as rejoiced his enemies and grieved his friends. Now, forgetting that verba volant but scripta manent, he put himself at the mercy of a niece who apparently was fond of him, but who loved his money with an expansive embrace; we shall find her using her power over him, and aggrandizing her fortune, to the day of his death. She was not a bad woman in terms of the time. But perhaps she went beyond the code of her age in taking a succession of lovers—Baculard d’Arnaud, Marmontel, the Marquis de Ximénès—to second her uncle’s attentions.98 Marmontel described her favorably in 1747: “That lady was agreeable with all her ugliness; and her easy and unaffected character had imbibed a tincture of that of her uncle. She had much of his taste, his gaiety, his exquisite politeness; so that her society was liked and courted.”99
On the day of Mme. du Châtelet’s death Voltaire wrote to his niece:
My dear child, I have just lost a friend of twenty years. For a long time now, you know, I have not looked upon Madame du Chastellet [sic] as a woman, and I am sure that you will enter into my cruel grief. It is frightful to have seen her die in such circumstances and for such a reason. I am not leaving Monsieur du Chastellet in our mutual sorrow.… From Cirey I shall come to Paris to embrace you, and to seek in you my one consolation, the only hope of my life.100
During the eight months that he now spent in the capital he received new urgings from Frederick, and he was in a mood to accept. Frederick offered him the post of chamberlain, free lodgings, and a salary of 5,000 thalers.101 Voltaire, who was a financier as well as a philosopher, asked the Prussian King to advance him, as a loan, sufficient funds to defray the cost of the journey. Frederick complied, but with sly reproof likened the poet to Horace, who thought it wise to “mix the useful with the agreeable.”102 Voltaire asked permission from the French King for his departure; Louis readily agreed, saying to his intimates, “This will make one madman the more at the court of Prussia, and one less at Versailles.”103
On June 10, 1750, Voltaire left Paris for Berlin.
I. “Barier engraves these features for your eyes; do look upon them with some pleasure. Your own are graved more deeply in my heart, but by a greater master still.”
II. “If you wish me still to love, bring me back the age of loves; in the twilight of my days revive, if it is possible, the dawn. We die twice, I see it well. To cease to love and be lovable is a death unbearable; to cease to live is nothing.”
III. This and the subsequent excerpts are taken from manuscript letters discovered by Theodore Besterman in 1957, and purchased by the Pierpont Morgan Library of New York from the descendants of Mme. Denis. Dr. Besterman, director of the Institut et Musée Voltaire at Les Délices, Geneva, published the text with a French translation asLettres d’amour de Voltaire à sa nièce (Paris, 1957), and with an English translation as The Love Letters of Voltaire to His Niece (London, 1958). All but four of the 142 letters are in Voltaire’s hand. Some of them are in Italian, which Mme. Denis could understand. The letters range from 1742 to 1750, but only three are definitely dated, so that their exact chronology is not certain. The dates given in our text are those assigned by Dr. Besterman.
IV. “I kiss you a thousand times. My soul kisses yours; my cazzo, my heart are enamored of you. I kiss your pretty bottom and all your person.”91
V. Translation by Dr. Besterman: “I shall be coming [to Paris] only for you, and if my miserable condition permits, I will throw myself at your knees and kiss all your beauties. In the meantime I press a thousand kisses on your round breasts, on your ravishing bottom, on all your person, which has so often given me erections and plunged me into a flood of delight.”97