Voltaire always talked about new beginnings in his work. This is a common theme in most classical works. ‘The age of Voltaire’ has become synonymous with ‘the Enlightenment’, but although Voltaire’s eminence as a philosophe is self-evident, the precise originality of his thought and writings is less easily defined.
Born in Paris into a wealthy bourgeois family, he was a brilliant pupil of the Jesuits. His rejection of his father’s attempts to guide him into a career in the law was sealed in 1718, when he invented a new name for himself: ‘de Voltaire’. Voltaire is an anagram of ‘Arouet l(e) j(eune)’ (in the 18th century, i and j, and u andv, were typographically interchangeable). The addition of the aristocratic preposition ‘de’ may be an early sign of his social ambition, but the play on the verb volter, to turn abruptly, evokes a playful or ‘volatile’ quality which fortells the quick style, pervasive humour and irony that make Voltaire such an important figure in the history of the Enlightenment.
In the same year that he coined his new name, Voltaire enjoyed his first major literary success when his tragedy Œdipe was staged by the Comédie Française. Meanwhile he was working on an epic poem which had as its protagonist Henri IV, the much-loved French monarch who brought France’s civil wars to a close, and who, in Voltaire’s treatment, becomes a forerunner of religious toleration: La Ligue (later enlarged to become La Henriade) was first published in 1723. His reputation as a poet and dramatist was now comfortably established, and he decided to travel to England to oversee the publishing of the definitive edition of La Henriade. His departure for London was precipitated when he unwisely became involved in a humiliating argument with an aristocrat, who had him briefly interned in the Bastille.
The furore created by the publication in France in 1734 of the Letters philosophies led Voltaire to leave Paris and take refuge in the château of his mistress, Mme du Châtelet, at Cirey-en-Champagne. From 1734 until Mme du Châtelet’s death in 1749, this was his haven from the world. During this period, he studied and wrote intensively in a wide variety of areas, including science (Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, 1738), poetry (Le Mondain, 1736), drama (Mahomet, 1741), and fiction (Zadig, 1747). In the 1740s, Voltaire was briefly on better terms with the court: he was made royal historiographer in 1745, and the following year, after several failed attempts, he was finally elected to the Académie Française. He had turned fifty and was now the leading poet and dramatist of his day; perhaps even Voltaire did not imagine that the works which would make him even more celebrated still lay in the future.