François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, was born on 21 November 1694. Famed as a great Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher, Voltaire argued for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and most controversially at the time, the separation of church and state. Whilst he is best known for his satirical novella Candide (1759) and the Dictionnaire Philosophique (1764) – both espousing his views on society, Christianity, and morality – Voltaire’s private life is not as widely acknowledged.
The great author and philosopher was no stranger to scandal (both in the political, and personal realms) and was imprisoned on multiple occasions. Voltaire had numerous passionate affairs, most notably with Catherine Olympe Du Noyer (a French Protestant refugee known as ‘Pimpette’), Émilie du Châtelet (a married mother of three who was twelve years his junior), and Marie Louise Mignot (Voltaire’s niece). He engaged in an enormous amount of private correspondence with his lovers, much of which has been kept for posterity. Providing a fascinating insight into Voltaire’s inner-most emotions, his letters give a glimpse of his friendships, sorrows, joys and passionate desires…
In 1713, Voltaire’s father obtained a prestigious job for his son, as the secretary to the new French ambassador in the Netherlands. Whilst living in The Hague however, Voltaire fell in love with ‘Pimpette’ (a French Protestant refugee) – an outrageous union for the time. Their affair was discovered by the ambassador, and Voltaire was forced to return to France before the year was up. On 28th November 1713, he wrote the following desperate plea:
I am a prisoner here in the name of the King, but they can only take away my life and not my love for you. Yes, my adorable mistress, I will see you this evening even if it means losing my head on the scaffold. […]No, nothing can part me from you. Our love is based on virtue, it will last as long as our lives. Order the bootmaker to fetch a carriage—but no, I don’t want you to trust him. Be ready at four o’clock, I will wait for you near your street. Good-bye, there is nothing I would not risk for you, you deserve much more. Good-bye, my dear heart.
Despite the odds, the relationship continued for the next couple of years, with Voltaire still professing his love in February of 1715:
My dear Pimpette: Every post you miss writing to me makes me imagine that you have not received my letters, for I cannot believe that absence can have an effect on you which it never can have on me, and as I shall certainly love you for ever, I try to convince myself that you still love me.
In 1726 Voltaire was exiled to England, after an argument with a fellow nobleman who taunted the young writer on his nom de plume. Living in England, he was inspired by the contrast between Britain’s constitutional monarchy and French absolutism. After two and a half years in exile Voltaire returned to France, and in 1733 published a selection of essays on the superiority of the British political system. On translation into French they caused a massive scandal, and to avoid arrest Voltaire took refuge with Émilie du Châtelet, at her husband’s château. This was the start of an affair which lasted the next sixteen years. On their living situation, he jestingly noted:
She puts windows where I have put doors: she alters staircases into fireplaces, and fireplaces into staircases: she has limes planted where I had settled on elms: she has changed what I had made a vegetable plot into a flower garden. Indoors, she has done the work of a good fairy. Rags are bewitched into tapestry: she has found out the secret of furnishing Cirey out of nothing.
Émilie du Châtelet died after a complicated childbirth, in September of 1749, leaving Voltaire heartbroken. A philosopher, scientist and author in her own right, he wrote of her legacy:
A woman who translated Virgil, who translated and simplified Newton, and yet was perfectly unassuming in conversation and manner: a woman who never spoke ill of anyone and never uttered a lie: a constant and fearless friend — in a word, a great man, whom other women only thought of in connection with diamonds and dancing: for such a woman as this you cannot prevent my grieving all my life.
In spite of his attachment to the Marquise of Châtelet, in 1744 Voltaire had formed a new romantic relationship — with his niece, Marie Louise Mignot. There is much debate as to the nature of their association, and in a letter from 1747/8 he wrote:
How is my beloved? I have not yet seen her; but I am afire to see her every day, every hour.
Voltaire left behind a wealth of correspondence with Mignot, even sharing his intense grief at Châtelet’s death:
My dear, I have just lost one who was my friend for twenty years. You know that for a long time Madame Du Châtelet had no longer been a woman to me, and I am confident that you share my cruel sorrow. To have seen her die, and in such circumstances! And for such a reason! It is frightful.
Later in life, it is thought that Voltaire and Mignot co-habited platonically – and remained together until Voltaire’s death in 1778. Two weeks before his death, he wrote to the Baroness d’Argental poetically concluding:
I am ill, I suffer from head to toe. Only my heart is sound, and that is good for nothing.
A source of un-ending interest, Voltaire’s correspondence covers everything from personal and political events, to philosophy, science, and deepest sentiment. Offering a window into his and his companions’ milieu, they remain incredibly pertinent and moving over three centuries later. Born on this day in 1694 — a Happy Birthday to Voltaire, a man of love and letters!
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