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  • What’s in a Name? Reflections on Voltaire’s Pamela
  • Jonathan Mallinson (bio)

Voltaire's letters to Mme Denis (his sister's daughter, Marie Louise Mignot) during his stay at the royal court of Frederick II of Prussia, as they appear in the Kehl and later editions, embody an unsparing critique of a ruler and his world. For more than two centuries, they were considered to be authentic, in spite of the discrepancies in tone or subject matter between these and letters written to other correspondents during the same period. In the last twenty years, research has established beyond doubt that Voltaire rewrote these letters during the winter of 1753–54 as a form of satirical revenge following his departure from Berlin, a project he refers to on a number of occasions in his correspondence with Mme Denis after his return.1 The discovery of this text, never intended for publication in the lifetime of the author, brings with it an unusual problem: the title.2 So far, in its [End Page 157] relatively short public life, it has been referred to in different ways: as Lettres de M. de Voltaire à Madame Denis, de Berlin; as Lettres de Prusse à madame Denis, sa nièce; and, most commonly, and perhaps most controversially of all, as Paméla.3

The reason behind the name "Paméla" is quite clear from one perspective: on several occasions Voltaire refers to Richardson's novel when he describes his rewriting project. In October 1753, Voltaire urges Mme Denis to return his letters, so he can begin his rewriting: "Il faut un ouvrage dans le goust de Paméla. Jamais je n'aurai ny tant de loisir pour y travailler, ny les idées si présentes."4 He refers to the project in the same terms in December 1753, in a letter jointly to Mme Denis and Marie Elisabeth de Dompierre de Fontaine: "Je suis actuellement occupé à rédiger, à mettre en ordre les lettres à une certaine Madame Daurade. C'est un manuscrit du seizième siècle qu'un fureteur m'a confié. On peut faire de ce rogaton un ouvrage dans le goût de Paméla, une espèce d'histoire intéressante et suivie qui sera curieuse pour le dix-neuvième siècle.5 And three weeks later he makes a similar comparison:

Mais de ces occupations la plus agréable et la plus chère a été de mettre en ordre nos lettres, de les ajuster, et d'en faire un recueil qui compose une histoire suivie, assez variée et assez intéressante. Elles sont naïves, c'est comme Paméla une histoire en lettres; il n'y a point d'humeur, cela fourmille d'anecdotes. Tout est dans la plus exacte vérité.6

What lies behind such references? On one level, of course, Voltaire refers to his project in these terms because he is writing a novel in letter form: "c'est comme Paméla une histoire en lettres." Certainly, the popularity of Richardson's epistolary text was remarkable. It circulated widely in an anonymous translation, entitled Paméla, ou la Vertu [End Page 158] recompensée (1741).7 Nivelle de La Chaussée dramatized it as Paméla (1743), albeit unsuccessfully; and Goldoni adapted it for the stage as Paméla nubile, a version freely translated by Mme Denis.8 It was parodied by Boissy as Paméla en France, ou la vertu mieux éprouvée (1745) and by Godard d'Aucour as La Déroute des Paméla (1744). Marmontel rewrote it as Laurette (1747–48), and Baculard d'Arnaud rewrote it as Fanni, ou la nouvelle Paméla (circa 1750). And yet, paradoxically, Voltaire's few other references to the novel in his correspondence indicate that he had a low opinion of this work. In a letter to d'Argental he declares: "Je n'aime pas assurément les longs et insupportables romans de Paméla et de Clarice. Ils ont réussi parce qu'ils ont excité la curiosité du lecteur, à travers un fatras d'inutilités."9 In a letter to Mme du Deffand, he praises the work of Ariosto, poorly translated...


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