Pearson, Roger. Voltaire Almighty. Chapter One is titled "Of Uncertain Birth" as Voltaire was probably a bastard. Indications are that his mother's association with the chevallier Guerin de Rochebrune resulted in Voltaire's birth, although he was ostensibly the son of her husband, Francois Arouet. He was born in 1694.
He was a precocious child who, according to one legend, memorized and was able to recite a 73 line poem by the age of three. Pearson leaves this story in the realm of legend, but the young Voltaire was obviously not an ordinary child. Educated by Jesuits, Voltaire developed a life-long antipathy toward the Catholic Church. I loved this passage: "Not so much an old-school-tie network as a cassock conspiracy to maintain power and influence through the advancement -- and consequent loyalty -- of the brightest men in France. And abroad. For at that time the Jesuits directed some 700 schools throughout the world." Regardless of his anti-Catholic stance, Voltaire received the best education available, although it was strictly regimented and often boring. Pearson relates a good deal about the strictures involved and the curriculum. In spite of his disdain for the Catholic religion, Voltaire did absorb many tenets from the Jesuits, including the "greater emphasis on God the heavenly Father, a compassionate deity with a broad understanding of human frailty and a limitless capacity to forgive us our sins." Jesus received less emphasis. The Jesuits were also characterized by their "urbane intellectual and moral flexibility" and these concepts marked Voltaire.
Difficulties began on graduation, as Voltaire did not want to become a lawyer; he wanted to be a poet. Arouet senior and junior found themselves at odds. The young Voltaire began keeping "bad company" and was a wild and willful young man determined to say what he thought. His outspokenness put him in actual physical danger as he published satires that could, and did, often result in visits to the Bastille. Voltaire was twice incarcerated, and it made an impression.
He wrote plays, tales, and poetry that were often outrageous, but were lively and witty, and his company was always entertaining. Remember that I chose this book partly based on the portrait on the cover and the sparkling nature of the eyes. I'm not the only one who noticed this: "Ah, those eyes! Everyone mentioned them, men as well as women, and they always would--even in his last years when he had become quite indisputably 'dried-up and bony'."
And all of his portraits emphasize those twinkling eyes, as do even pen and ink drawings.
On his meeting and subsequent relationship with Emilie du Chatelet, the biography becomes not just a historical review of events, but an absorbing drama. Emilie was married, but her husband interfered not at all and, in fact, allowed Voltaire to improve the marquis' chateau, adding an entire wing and many luxuries. Emilie, a "delectable, passionate, fun-loving, tempestuous, unpredictable, unreasonable, extremely intelligent" young woman, was the "leading female scientist and mathematician of her day."
Their long relationship, until her death at 43, was not always easy, but the meeting of their minds seems to have overcome all (and there were many) difficulties that threatened to destroy their love/friendship. She died giving birth to a lover's child, but Voltaire, who also had another relationship at the time (with, uh, his niece) was present. His recovery from her loss was slow.
This biography, although initially difficult to follow, seemed to coalesce as it proceeded. Voltaire's relationships, his writings, his money troubles (until the lottery and good financial decisions made him quite wealthy), his publishing difficulties, his exiles, his fear for his life, his founding of his own "kingdom," his attacks on Cathololic principles and support of Deism, his feuds with other important figures of his time, his egotism, his illness (real and imagined), his various homes and travels, his innovative practices at Ferney, his influence in overturning unjust sentences and support of the victim's families, his final return to Paris... a remarkable life. A fascinating life. An absorbing read.
Biography. 420 pages + (14 pages of Dramatis Personae! A chronological listing of events, notes, bibliography). Copyright 2005.