Voltaire was the most famous writer of his day. Few of his books are now read. Candide remains popular and his history of the reign of Louis XIV, though inevitably superseded by modern scholarship, is still interesting and entertaining. His plays are not revived and his poetry is forgotten. His complete works stretch in a long line on library shelves and more than 10,000 of his letters have been published, but the books are mostly unopened now and the letters are used as a quarry by biographers. Yet even people who have never read a line he wrote know his name. He is, like Dr Johnson, a great and significant figure, though, in Voltaire’s case, without the advantage of a Boswell.
‘Voltaire’s voice is the voice of the Enlightenment’, as Ian Davidson writes in the introduction to this admirable biography. ‘He was the first example of a true international celebrity [and] one of Europe’s first public intellectuals, independent of any patron or employer ... It was Voltaire’s celebrity which