Voltaire’s Lettres sur les Anglais is a primer to the French Enlightenment. In this short collection of texts we find the themes of religious freedom, liberal government and commerce, empirical science, and philosophical enquiry that we now associate with certain thinkers and writers in eighteenth-century France – chief among them Voltaire. But this text was published for the first time in 1733, nearly twenty years before the first volume of the Encyclopédie, and thirty years before Voltaire’s own Traité sur la tolérance. Its origins date from even earlier: between 1726 and 1728, Voltaire lived in England, and it was his experiences there that inspired and informed his letters. But what brought the writer to England in the first place? Let us set the scene.
In January 1726, Voltaire, still relatively young at 31, was already an accomplished – yet controversial – rising star. He had made his name in 1718: figuratively, with a seven-month spell in the Bastille and the première of his acclaimed tragedy Œdipe, and then literally with his adoption of his famous nom de plume. His talent as a poet and dramaturge, along with his considerable business acumen, would, over the coming years, make his name all the more prominent. But it would be Voltaire’s name and the wit that built it that would land him back in the Bastille. There are differing accounts of the fateful encounter, but some time in December of 1725 or January of 1726, perhaps in the foyer of the Comédie-Française, Voltaire crossed paths with the Chevalier de Rohan-Chabot, a prominent member of one of the most eminent noble families in France.
‘Monsieur de Voltaire, Monsieur Arouet, what is your name, anyway?’ Rohan is reported to have asked.
‘I am not like those who dishonour the name they have inherited’, Voltaire replied. ‘I immortalise that which I have taken for myself.’ This sabre-sharp insult cut Rohan to the quick, and he nearly struck the young dramatist there and then with his stick, but restrained himself. Some days later, while Voltaire was dining at the residence of the Duc de Sully, a servant announced that there was someone at the door for him. Suspecting nothing, he went down the stairs to the front door and opened it. As soon as he emerged into the street, Voltaire was shoved into a carriage, and set upon by the Chevalier’s goons. ‘Avoid the head’, Rohan, who was supervising the pummelling, is supposed to have ordered. ‘Something good may yet come out of it.’
Voltaire walked away from this encounter with his body bruised, and his pride gravely injured. He decided he would challenge Rohan to a duel to preserve his honour – a shocking act of hubris from this bourgeois son of a notary. Before he could, though, Voltaire was arrested: on the night of 17 April, he was packed off to the Bastille. It took him a mere two weeks to negotiate his release, on the condition that he be taken to Calais, with the design of crossing to England. Prior to his imprisonment Voltaire had already been making plans to visit England through Bolingbroke’s network, with the intention of publishing La Henriade. His imprisonment, however, made the trip a necessity.
But what kind of England awaited Voltaire on the other side of the Channel? First, a little history. The previous century had been tumultuous for England, to say the least. Long-simmering tensions over the country’s religion and government boiled over in a Civil War pitting Parliamentarians, many of them Puritans, against Royalists. King Charles I was tried and executed, and a brief period of republican rule ensued, only to be ended when Charles II took back the throne in 1660. Concerns over the state religion persisted, but in 1688-1689, the Dutch Protestant William of Orange overthrew the Catholic James II in the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’, and passed a raft of bills that had the effect of putting the Protestant–Catholic question to rest for some time. In 1701 the Act of Settlement was passed, guaranteeing Protestant control of the Crown to this day.
By comparison to the domestic upheavals of the still well-remembered Stuart period, the England to which Voltaire fled in 1726 was politically tranquil. George I took a hands-off approach to governing, which he left to the government of Robert Walpole, now recognised as the first Prime Minister in the modern sense. Culturally, on the other hand, England – and especially London – was in healthy ferment. The latter years of the previous century had seen Newton revolutionise conceptions of the universe, and John Locke’s philosophy had prised open new ways of looking at politics, religion, and the human mind. Poets and satirists like Pope and Swift, both of whom Voltaire met, were in their prime, and had founded the Scriblerus Club with other like-minded writers. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele had founded Tatler and The Spectator in the 1710s, inventing modern journalism in the process. London was where the action was, and offered a welcome change from Paris, still arthritic with the absolutism of Louis XIV, by then ten years dead.
This guide to Voltaire’s Lettres sur les Anglais aims both to show some ways of approaching this multifaceted text, and to serve as a reader’s companion to it, filling in sometimes intricate context in what is hoped to be an accessible way. Feel free to navigate these pages, and their accompanying letters, in any order you choose.
Quakers in eighteenth-century England
Voltaire devotes the first four letters of this work to the Quakers. What was it about them that he found so extraordinary?
Religion in eighteenth-century England
‘This is the country of sects. An Englishman, being free, may take to Heaven whichever path appeals to him’.
John Locke and the question of the soul
Voltaire zeroes in on an element of Locke’s philosophy which caused a great deal of controversy: the question of the metaphysical nature of the soul.
In letters XIV-XVII of the Lettres sur les Anglais, Voltaire aims to share with his compatriots the enormity of Newton’s contribution to our understanding of the universe.