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Voltaire’s ‘Letters on the English’ and the story of smallpox

Wednesday, 27 May, 2020

‘It is inadvertently affirmed in the Christian countries of Europe, that the English are fools and madmen. Fools, because they give their children the small-pox to prevent their catching it; and madmen, because they wantonly communicate a certain and dreadful distemper to their children, merely to prevent an uncertain evil.’

Letters concerning the English Nation and smallpox

Title page of ‘Letters concerning the English nation’, London, 1733.

Here is Voltaire explaining inoculation to the French, quoted here in the translation Letters concerning the English nation, first printed in London in 1733 (published in French as the Lettres philosophiques). Voltaire lived in London between 1726 and 1728, and it is then that he learned at first hand about the English practice of inoculation. He decided, perhaps surprisingly, to include a letter on the subject in his Letters on the English, a work begun in London and published a few years later when he was back in France.

Letter 11, ‘On Inoculation’, is on the surface a description of how the English have embraced a modern medical technique then regarded with huge suspicion in France. But at its heart, this is a morality tale about the tension between empirical evidence and superstition, and that makes the letter seem a whole lot more topical. In her recent blog post, Leadership matters in the first days and weeks of an outbreak: lessons from the Great Plague of Marseille, 300 years later, Cindy Ermus wrote graphically about the outbreak of plague in Marseille in 1720, drawing uncomfortable parallels between the management of the crisis then and now. Voltaire’s letter on inoculation similarly acquires unexpected resonance in the context of the present crisis.

Letters concerning the English Nation and smallpox

‘Le célèbre docteur Ane voulant introduire la mode de l'inoculation, à Paris’ (c. 1784-1785). (BnF/Gallica)

The practice that Voltaire is describing is now strictly called variolation, and involves inoculating with the smallpox virus; inoculation with cowpox, that is vaccination, was a safer method introduced by Edward Jenner and others from the 1760s. Variolation was practiced widely in China, from where it spread to the Ottoman Empire and then to Europe. The first European country to take up variolation was England, where the practice became common from the 1720s, precisely the time when Voltaire was living in London.

Voltaire would have seen at first hand that even in England, inoculation was still mistrusted, and he uses what we would now call evidence-based argument to show the brute statistics of death. Modern journalists are currently talking a lot about the economic damage caused by the present pandemic, and the challenge of weighing human life against the health of the economy. Voltaire is in his time perhaps unusual in understanding that there is a link between a health crisis and a country’s commercial interests: ‘A trading nation is always watchful over its own interests, and grasps at every discovery that may be of advantage to its commerce.’

Letters concerning the English Nation and smallpox

Lady Montagu in Turkish dress, by Jean-Etienne Liotard (c.1756).

The most human note in Voltaire’s letter on inoculation is when he talks of the courage of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ‘a woman of as fine a genius, and endued with as great a strength of mind, as any of her sex in the British kingdoms’, who learned of inoculation in Constantinople (where her husband was British ambassador), and introduced the practice in England, with the active support of the Princess of Wales, Caroline of Anspach – ‘this Princess’, writes Voltaire, ‘born to encourage the whole circle of arts, and to do good to mankind’. The Letters on the English present a world of politics, science and literature that is predictably male-centred, and the letter on inoculation is a refreshing exception in presenting two remarkable female protagonists. And there have been journalists recently suggesting that many of the countries having most success in the fight against Covid-19 are those led by women…

Voltaire mentions in his letter the particularly severe epidemic that had swept Paris just a few years before he came to England: ‘Twenty thousand persons whom the small-pox swept away at Paris in 1723, would have been alive at this time’, he writes – no exaggeration, since modern historians put the figure at closer to 40,000 deaths. But what Voltaire does not say is that he experienced this epidemic at first hand. His close friend Génonville died of smallpox in September 1723, and in late October he went to stay with the président de Maisons at his house outside Paris, known nowadays as the château de Maisons-Laffitte (a beautiful baroque house designed by Mansart). From there he wrote to his friend the marquise de Bernières saying that ‘Paris is ravaged by this illness’ (30 October 1723), and listing their common friends who had died. Then Voltaire himself was diagnosed with smallpox, and he became dangerously ill, too ill to be moved. His friends feared for his life, a doctor was summoned from Paris (who apparently bled him copiously), and several weeks passed before he was out of danger. Finally, Voltaire was fit enough to leave the château de Maisons, and just as he left, a huge fire broke out, destroying a large part of the house: Voltaire’s visit to Maisons was not one his hosts quickly forgot.

Letters concerning the English Nation and smallpox

Château de Maisons-Laffitte, by Jacques Rigaud (1681-1754).

No sooner was Voltaire back in Paris than he got down to work. On the principle that you should never waste a good crisis, he wrote a poem addressed to Gervasi, the doctor who had, as he thought, saved him, and another poem to Mlle Lecouvreur, the great actress who had been present at Maisons when he was taken ill. He also wrote a letter to the baron de Breteuil (c. 5 December 1723), describing in fulsome detail the course of his illness; and then another anonymous letter appeared (c. 10 December 1723), apparently written to Voltaire by a fervent admirer, lauding the heroism of the poet, ‘truly the only poet’ in France, for having worked even during his illness. Voltaire could not have written a more glowing eulogy himself, and in fact that does seem to be what he did – forge a fan letter. These four pieces have long been known, but separately, and it was only when they were edited in the Oxford Complete Works of Voltaire (volume 3A, 2004, p.256-76) that we were able to understood for the first time that this amalgam of two prose letters and two poems was constructed deliberately as one single literary work, an epistle in prose and verse that Voltaire published in the Mercure de France in December 1723. The young ambitious poet had been out of the limelight for too long, and he was anxious to remind the literary world of the capital that he was back in Paris and in business – and his recovery from smallpox was a good story to tell.

What is interesting, to return to the Letters on the English, is that Voltaire does not tell that story here. This is a book written directly out of his experience of English life, but Voltaire never, ever, tells us everything. The Complete Works of Voltaire were begun in 1968, and the Voltaire Foundation plans to celebrate the completion of the 203 volumes at the end of 2020. When we chose the Letters on the English as the last major text to appear in the collection, we could not have known it would have this contemporary resonance. But Voltaire’s Enlightenment voice continues to resonate, powerfully, and often in ways we don’t expect.

– Nicholas Cronk

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