The Next Great Costume Drama!


A few weeks ago here at HASM I asked: Is there a gap in the costume drama market? Is there any time in history that you feel is underrepresented by costume dramas or alternatively are you one of a growing number who are discontented with the way history is portrayed by the filmmakers? Tweet/Feedback me your thoughts on what periods in history you'd like to see dramatised and perhaps together we can usher in a new kind of costume drama.
Well, you did send me your thoughts and the results are in. There were many fascinating and thrilling ideas from out there in the blogosphere and amongst you twitterstorians but my favourite came from the Historyscientist, who thinks a great costume drama can be made from the "rollicking fast paced life of Voltaire, around the courts and beds of Europe, knocking off masterpieces one minute and courtesans the next. It could have a sort of road movie format".

Indeed a brief examination of Voltaire's biography would seem to contain every ingredient one could wish for to make an award winning costume drama. Remember where you heard it first!


Voltaire at 24, by Catherine Lusurier
François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, known by the pen name Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher famous for his wit and for his advocacy of civil liberties, including freedom of religion, freedom of expression, free trade and separation of church and state. Voltaire was a prolific writer, producing works in almost every literary form, including plays, poetry, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works. He wrote more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets. He was an outspoken supporter of social reform, despite strict censorship laws with harsh penalties for those who broke them. As a satirical polemicist, he frequently made use of his works to criticize intolerance, religious dogma and the French institutions of his day.

Catherine Olympe Dunoyer
François-Marie Arouet was born in Paris, the youngest of the five children. Some speculation surrounds his date of birth, which Voltaire always claimed to be 20 February 1694. Voltaire was educated by the Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand (1704–1711), where he learned Latin and Greek; later in life he became fluent in Italian, Spanish and English.
By the time he left school, Voltaire had decided he wanted to be a writer, against the wishes of his father, who wanted him to become a notary. Voltaire, pretending to work in Paris as an assistant to a notary, spent much of his time writing poetry. When his father found out, he sent Voltaire to study law, this time in Caen, (Normandy). Nevertheless, he continued to write, producing essays and historical studies. Voltaire's wit made him popular among some of the aristocratic families with whom he mixed. His father then obtained a job for him as a secretary to the French ambassador in the Netherlands, where Voltaire fell in love with a French Protestant refugee named Catherine Olympe Dunoyer. Their scandalous elopement was foiled by Voltaire's father and he was forced to return to France.

Most of Voltaire's early life revolved around Paris. From early on, Voltaire had trouble with the authorities for even mild critiques of the government and religious intolerance. These activities were to result in numerous imprisonments and exiles. One satirical verse about the Régent led to his imprisonment in the Bastille for eleven months. While there, he wrote his debut play, Oedipus. Its success established his reputation.

The name "Voltaire", which the author adopted in 1718, is an anagram of "AROVET LI," the Latinized spelling of his surname, Arouet, and the initial letters of "le jeune" ("the younger"). The name also echoes in reverse order the syllables of the name of a family château in the Poitou region: "Airvault". The adoption of the name "Voltaire" following his incarceration at the Bastille is seen by many to mark Voltaire's formal separation from his family and his past. Voltaire is additionally known to have used at least 178 separate pen names during his lifetime.

After Voltaire retorted to an insult from the young French nobleman Chevalier de Rohan in late 1725, the aristocratic Rohan family obtained a royal lettre de cachet, an often arbitrary penal decree signed by the French King (Louis XV, in the time of Voltaire) that was often bought by members of the wealthy nobility to dispose of undesirables. This warrant caused Voltaire to be imprisoned in the Bastille without a trial and without giving him an opportunity to defend himself. Fearing an indefinite prison sentence, Voltaire suggested that he be exiled to England as an alternative punishment, which the French authorities accepted. This incident marked the beginning of Voltaire's attempts to improve the French judicial system.

Voltaire's exile in Great Britain lasted nearly three years, and his experiences there greatly influenced his thinking. He was intrigued by Britain's constitutional monarchy in contrast to the French absolute monarchy, and by the country's greater support of the freedoms of speech and religion. He was also influenced by several neoclassical writers of the age, and developed an interest in earlier English literature, especially the works of Shakespeare, still relatively unknown in continental Europe.

After almost three years in exile, Voltaire returned to Paris and published his views on British attitudes toward government, literature, and religion in a collection of essays in letter form entitled "Letters concerning the English Nation" (London, 1733). Because Voltaire regarded the British constitutional monarchy as more developed and more respectful of human rights (particularly religious tolerance) than its French counterpart, the French publication of "Letters" caused controversy; the book was burnt and Voltaire was forced again to flee.

Émilie du Châtelet
Voltaire's next destination was the Château de Cirey, located on the borders of Champagne and Lorraine. The building was renovated with his money, and here he began a relationship with the Marquise du Châtelet, Gabrielle Émilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil (famous in her own right as Émilie du Châtelet). Cirey was owned by the Marquise's husband, Marquis Florent-Claude du Chatelet, who sometimes visited his wife and her lover at the chateau. The relationship, which lasted for fifteen years, had a significant intellectual element. Voltaire and the Marquise collected over 21,000 books, an enormous number for the time. Together, they studied these books and performed experiments in the "natural sciences" in his laboratory. Voltaire's experiments included an attempt to determine the elements of fire.

Having learned from his previous brushes with the authorities, Voltaire began his future habit of keeping out of personal harm's way, and denying any awkward responsibility. He continued to write plays, such as Mérope (or "La Mérope française") and began his long researches into science and history. Again, a main source of inspiration for Voltaire were the years of his British exile, during which he had been strongly influenced by the works of Sir Isaac Newton. Voltaire strongly believed in Newton's theories, especially concerning optics (Newton’s discovery that white light is composed of all the colours in the spectrum led to many experiments at Cirey), and gravity (Voltaire is the source of the famous story of Newton and the apple falling from the tree, which he had learned from Newton's niece in London and first mentioned in his Essai sur la poésie épique, or Essay on Epic Poetry).

Though deeply committed to the Marquise, Voltaire by 1744 found life at the château confining. On a visit to Paris that year, he found a new love: his niece. At first, his attraction to Marie Louise Mignot was clearly sexual, as evidenced by his letters to her (only discovered in 1937). Much later, they lived together, perhaps platonically, and remained together until Voltaire's death. Meanwhile, the Marquise also took a lover, the Marquis de Saint-Lambert.

Guests of Frederick the Great
After the death of the Marquise in childbirth in September 1749, Voltaire briefly returned to Paris and in 1750 moved to Potsdam to join Frederick the Great, a close friend and admirer of his. The king had repeatedly invited him to his palace, and now gave him a salary of 20,000 francs a year. Though life went well at first—in 1752 he wrote Micromégas, perhaps the first piece of science fiction involving ambassadors from another planet witnessing the follies of humankind—his relationship with Frederick the Great began to deteriorate and he encountered other difficulties. An argument with Maupertuis, the president of the Berlin Academy of Science, provoked Voltaire's Diatribe du docteur Akakia (Diatribe of Doctor Akakia), which satirized some of Maupertuis' theories and his abuse of power in his persecutions of a mutual acquaintance, Samuel Koënig. This greatly angered Frederick, who had all copies of the document burned and arrested Voltaire at an inn where he was staying along his journey home.

Voltaire headed toward Paris, but Louis XV banned him from the city, so instead he turned to Geneva, near which he bought a large estate (Les Délices). Though he was received openly at first, the law in Geneva which banned theatrical performances and the publication of The Maid of Orleans against his will made him move at the end of 1758 out of Geneva across the French border to Ferney, where he had bought an even larger estate, and led to Voltaire's writing of Candide, ou l'Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism) in 1759. This satire on Leibniz's philosophy of optimistic determinism remains the work for which Voltaire is perhaps best known. He would stay in Ferney for most of the remaining 20 years of his life, frequently entertaining distinguished guests, like James Boswell, Adam Smith, Giacomo Casanova, and Edward Gibbon.

Paris house where Voltaire died
In February 1778, Voltaire returned for the first time in 20 years to Paris, among other reasons to see the opening of his latest tragedy, Irene. The 5-day journey was too much for the 83-year old, and he believed he was about to die on 28 February, writing "I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition." However, he recovered, and in March saw a performance of Irene where he was treated by the audience as a returning hero. He soon became ill again and died on 30 May 1778. The accounts of his deathbed have been numerous and varying, and it has not been possible to establish the details of what precisely occurred. His enemies related that he repented and accepted the last rites given by a Catholic priest, or that he died under great torment, while his adherents told how he was defiant to his last breath.  According to one story, his last words were: "Now is not the time for making new enemies." It was his response to a priest at the side of his deathbed, asking Voltaire to renounce Satan.