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Voltaire's History of Charles XII, King of Sweden

213 pages
Library of Alexandria
The “Life of Charles XII” that Mr. John Burns once bought for a penny in the New Cut—an incident in itself historical if one looks at it in the right way—was, he writes to say, an English version of Voltaire’s book. The “Histoire de Charles XII, Roi de Suède,” was first published at Rouen in 1731, first freely translated into English by Alexander Henderson in 1734, and soon afterwards reduced into a chap-book, which made the King a proverbial hero in English fairs and market-places. There have been other translations since Henderson’s, and it is now retranslated by Miss Todhunter with a closer correspondence than his to Voltaire’s original. The book may claim a particular right to an English hearing, apart from the main interest of its subject. It was in England that the life of Charles XII was written by Voltaire, when he was on a visit of exigency there after the Rohan escapade and his second Bastille imprisonment. The effect of this stay in England was that of a determining event in his career. “Voltairism,” writes Mr. John Morley, “may be said to have begun from the flight of its founder from Paris to London. This, to borrow a name from the most memorable instance of outward change marking inward revolution, was the decisive ‘hegira,’ from which the philosophy of destruction in a formal shape may be held seriously to date.” We may supplement this passage from the criticism of a French critic of another school, who says, “England at this time was worked by a spirit of dogmatic irreligion which based itself on a false erudition, a bold criticism and an insidious metaphysic. It was the time of Woolston, of Toland, of Tindal, of Chubb, of Collins, of Bolingbroke. Until then, an insouciant disciple and imitator of the epicureans of the Temple and the roués of the Regency, Voltaire had only ventured on impiety by sallies; dogmas and mysteries had so far only inspired him with bon mots. In the school of the English philosophers he learnt to reason out his incredulity.” Voltaire had had time by this to mend his youth and find his intellectual stature. Born in 1694, he was now a man approaching thirty-three. He had written plays, for his love for the theatre, as it lasted late in him, began early; he had completed his epic, “la Henriade”; he had used his wit irresponsibly, and, thanks to it, had twice been in the Bastille. In England he learnt, if one may say so, to take his wit seriously, that is, to realize it as a decisive weapon in his inevitable revolt and warfare. Similarly he was to use some of his other faculties in their most adroit perfection. If in the “Henriade” the epic method had failed him, considered by the side of other poems as ambitious and as long, he was able to sit down on his return from his English exile and complete this rapid piece of biography, in effect a short prose epic, which shows us the narrative art used by a consummate master in that art. More than this we need not claim for him. If we admit Carlyle’s stigma of “persifleur” as applying to his first period, we need not go on to write him down now philosopher, by way of compensation, because he had studied for a brief period under certain notorious English philosophers. He was neither a persifleur nor a philosopher: he was a militant scribe and hyper-critic with a master bias, anti-religious or anti-Catholic, and an inimitable gift of expression. We see his gift in a very luminous special form in his “Charles XII,” which luckily need offend no man’s susceptibilities.