Lettres sur les Anglais (volumes 6A, 6B, 6C)
The Lettres sur les Anglais (also known as the Lettres philosophiques) is one of the key masterpieces of the European eighteenth century, a manifesto of Enlightenment thinking that helped to shape a way of understanding the world which remains influential to this day. It also marked a turning-point in Voltaire’s career when the poet and dramatist established himself as a prose writer of the first rank.
Drawing on the experiences of his stay in England (1726-1728), the Lettres are made up of a series of short articles, covering a range of themes, from religion and politics to literature, and they aim to present an overall view of contemporary English culture. Voltaire experiments with a new type of cultural history, suggesting the interconnection of religious tolerance, political freedom and a dynamic literary culture.
The first edition to appear was an English translation, Letters concerning the English Nation (London, 1733); the original French version followed, Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglais (London, 1734); and thirdly, a rather different French edition was published the same year under the title Lettres philosophiques: this French edition was immediately censored. The work continued to be published throughout the century, but it was a work with a scandalous reputation, and the title Lettres philosophiques had to be avoided for legal reasons.
Précis du siècle de Louis XV (volume 29)
The Précis du siècle de Louis XV is less a history than an account of Voltaire’s own world. For the early reign he draws heavily on the memoirs or letters of older men known to him personally, his ‘contacts’. For his years as historiographe du roi from 1745 to 1750 his knowledge is greatly enriched by his access to a wide range of state papers and by direct dealings with his contemporaries. For the Ferney years, the last 20 years of his life, he relies on what he reads in the press, his voluminous correspondence and, as the self-styled ‘aubergiste de l’Europe’, what he picks up in conversation from his many and varied visitors.
Despite Voltaire’s eagerness to participate in court life he both mocked and despised it. He was drawn to power but often had a low regard for those who wielded it. From 1745 until her death in 1764 his intermediary with the king was often Mme de Pompadour with whom he had been acquainted for several years and who took a particular interest in his dramatic works. For his part Louis XV disliked Voltaire and was suspicious of him. These threads are everywhere apparent in Voltaire’s correspondence and weave in and out of this text.