Oxford University professor and Voltaire scholar Nicholas Cronk has uncovered 14 previously unknown letters by Voltaire written during his almost-three-year exile in England. Professor Cronk, director of Oxford University’s Voltaire Foundation, found the letters while doing archival research in US libraries. Paul LeClerc, former president of the New York Public Library and a Voltaire scholar in his own right, asked Cronk to examine 11 letters by the French Enlightenment satirist they had recently purchased. Cronk found an additional two in the Morgan Library and Museum and one in the Columbia University library.
These letters shed new light on Voltaire’s time in England, confirming that he did indeed receive an impressive £200 pension from Robert Walpole’s government, a fact long debated by scholars, and underscoring Voltaire’s remarkable success at climbing the British social and literary ladder in a short period of time. He had arrived in England in 1726 a penniless poet and playwright with a knack for irritating the monarchy and aristocracy of France with his biting satire. He didn’t speak a word of English, and all he had to smooth his way was a letter of recommendation from the British ambassador to Paris. He learned fluent English in six months and was corresponding with royalty before a year had passed.
Professor Cronk said: “Voltaire spent two important but relatively undocumented years in England in his early thirties at a time when he was best known as a poet – he arrived with only a recommendation from the British Ambassador to Paris. While here, he was exposed to ideas of English writers and later took empiricism back to the Continent where it became the basis for the Enlightenment. These newly-discovered letters are therefore very interesting because they show how Voltaire’s close interaction with the English aristocracy exposed him to Enlightenment ideas and help us to piece together the nature of those interactions.”
One letter is from Voltaire to Lord Bathurst, a patron of the arts who often hosted great English thinkers at his manor, Richings, including Alexander Pope who wrote much of his translation of Homer there. In this letter Voltaire thanks Bathurst for “the freedom of your house and the many liberties I enjoyed in that fine library.” “This shows us one way in which Voltaire would have been exposed to so much of Shakespeare, Newton, Locke, Swift, Pope and others – both by reading their books in the library at Richings and perhaps even by meeting contemporary English thinkers,” Professor Cronk explained.
Shortly after his arrival, in June of 1727, King George I died and his son assumed the throne as King George II. This was a fortunate changing of the guard for Voltaire, because the new king’s wife Queen Caroline was a strong supporter of the arts with a particular love of poetry. Grabbing the social climbing bull by the horns, Voltaire published an English translation of La Henriade, his 1723 epic poem about French King Henri IV, dedicating it to Queen Caroline. The poem sold well and solidified his patronage at the highest levels of British society.
Queen Caroline was a political ally of Sir Robert Walpole and may have played a part in securing Voltaire that £200 grant. One of the most notable of the newly discovered letters was written by Voltaire to the Treasury confirming receipt of the money. He signs it “Francis Voltaire,” a unique autograph that combines an anglicized version of his first name François with his famous pseudonym.
His time in England introduced him to ideas that he would advocate for the rest of his life, including freedom of speech, religious tolerance and constitutional monarchy. After his return to France in 1729, he would praise those ideals in his Letters Concerning the English Nation, a collection of essays published first in English in 1733 and then in French a year later. The French publication caused a scandal, getting the publisher sent to the Bastille and forcing Voltaire to flee yet again.
The 14 letters have been scanned, digitized and uploaded to Oxford’s Bodleian Library’s Electronic Enlightenment website, a treasure trove of correspondence from over 6,000 writers, philosophers, and political leaders from the 17th and 18th centuries. In collaboration with Oxford’s Voltaire Foundation, Electronic Enlightenment is working on digitizing the definitive complete collection of Voltaire’s writings.
It’s subscription only, I’m sad to say, but if you have access to an institutional login, you can view the Voltaire letters here.