Rethinking Voltaire’s Lettres sur les Anglais: in the footsteps of Gustave Lanson

With the publication of volume 6B, containing the full annotated text of the Lettres philosophiques, we have just moved one step closer to celebrating the completion of the Complete works of Voltaire in 2021. We are familiar with the challenge of trying to make sense of a text that has hitherto been little studied – the recently completed edition of the Précis du siècle de Louis XV is a case in point. A challenge of a different sort is presented by the small number of texts that are well known and much edited: in these cases, is there anything left to say? That problem is especially stark in the case of the Lettres philosophiques, where one epoch-making critical edition, that of Gustave Lanson, casts a long shadow over those of us following in his footsteps.

Gustave Lanson

Gustave Lanson at work at the Sorbonne. (Bibliothèque de la Sorbonne; photographer unknown)

Lanson was a devoted lycée teacher much involved in the reform of the school syllabus before he became professor at the Sorbonne in 1904. He didn’t just edit the Lettres philosophiques, he pretty much invented the work for the twentieth century and beyond. The title was scarcely known in the nineteenth century, and the Lanson edition of 1909 (re)created it very deliberately to turn it into a teaching text.

In the years before the First World War, when Lanson was lecturing on Voltaire at the Sorbonne, the French faculty in Oxford was still in its infancy – its only significant contribution to Enlightenment studies was from Miss Eleanor Jourdain, vice-principal of St Hugh’s, who published an account of meeting the ghost of Marie-Antoinette at the Petit Trianon… but that story must wait for another blog. Voltaire first came onto the Oxford French syllabus in 1923, when the Siècle de Louis XIV was set for the Pass School (how many students read that work now?). Then, as part of a comprehensive revision of the syllabus in 1927, it was resolved, rather boldly, that the nineteenth century should begin in 1715, and so Voltaire became a prescribed author on the Finals syllabus (where he has remained ever since): the two works chosen for ‘special study’ were Candide (in the 1913 edition of André Morize, a pupil of Lanson) and the Lettres philosophiques (in Lanson’s own edition, of course). During World War II the teaching of Voltaire carried on unchanged and, given the impossibility of importing books from France, the Oxford publisher Basil Blackwell commissioned student editions of Candide and the Lettres philosophiques. The editors had to work quickly, and Owen Taylor’s edition of Candide came out in 1942, followed the year after by the Lettres philosophiques, edited by Frank Taylor, a tutor at Christ Church. This excellent edition remains in print and was still the prescribed edition in Oxford when I studied Voltaire as an undergraduate in the 1970s. I remember my surprise when I discovered at Thornton’s in Broad Street a copy of the original 1943 printing, produced on poor-quality paper with the ‘Book production war economy standard’ logo at the front. I didn’t know it at the time, but my introduction to Voltaire by way of the Lettres philosophiques was entirely due to Gustave Lanson.

Lettres philosophiques, ed. Gustave Lanson

Lettres philosophiques, ed. Gustave Lanson (1909).

Lanson taught literature at the Sorbonne at a time when ‘French literature’ was considered inferior to ‘History’ as a university subject. He devoted much of his career to defending the seriousness of literary study, hence the pressing need to produce a ‘scientific’ edition of a literary work that would prove the credentials of this emerging subject. So, the importance of Lanson’s Lettres philosophiques was not just that it was the first proper critical edition of any Voltaire work; it was intended to be the model for all future literary scholarship, no less. As he writes in his edition of the Lettres:

‘Il m’a paru utile de donner une édition critique des Lettres philosophiques, une édition qui fût non seulement la première édition critique de cet ouvrage, mais la première aussi, à ce que je crois, d’un écrit de Voltaire, et qui inaugurât une série de travaux qu’il serait vraiment temps de commencer.’

These circumstances help to explain both the strengths and some of the oddities of Lanson’s pioneering work. The bibliographical descriptions, for example, are needlessly complicated and confusing, with their stemmas of different textual traditions that Lanson seems to have borrowed from medievalist colleagues such as Joseph Bédier. This aspect of his editorial work has not been emulated, and we hope that the bibliographical section in our new edition will be simpler and clearer to follow.

Lettres philosophiques, ed. Gustave Lanson

Lanson’s stemma from the second edition. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

The annotation is a remarkable feature of Lanson’s edition. He explains that he does not aim to produce a historical commentary on the work, still less to say whether Voltaire’s judgements are well founded; nor does he wish to put Voltaire’s text in the context of earlier travel accounts to England (something that F. A. Taylor does in his edition). Instead, his goal is to identify and explain as precisely as possible the sources of Voltaire’s text:

‘Mon but a été d’aider à comprendre comment Voltaire a fait son livre, comment et sur quels matériaux son esprit a travaillé. J’ai voulu présenter un commentaire de “sources”, rien de plus. L’idéal eût été d’arriver à découvrir pour chaque phrase le fait, le texte ou le propos qui avait mis en branle l’intelligence ou l’imagination de Voltaire: on se fût ainsi rendu compte du travail intérieur qui les a utilisés, fécondés, déformés, transformés. Je n’ai pas besoin de dire que je n’ai pas atteint cet idéal.’

This ‘ideal’ of attempting to pin down the sources of every single phrase in the book strikes us now as somewhat surreal, and of course Lanson has been much mocked by later generations for his unrelenting positivism. Where Lanson produced his commentary in the form of long endnotes, our style of annotation is not only different in approach, it is also more concise. That said, we remain enormously indebted to Lanson’s work, which in important respects remains unsurpassed.

Letters concerning the English nation, first edition

Letters concerning the English nation, first edition.

A particular challenge posed by this text lies in the choice of base text and the presentation of (so-called) variants. The problem begins with the fact that there is not really one first edition. The work was initially published by William Bowyer in London, in English, as the Letters concerning the English nation (1733). Early in 1734 Bowyer produced in London the first French edition, the Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglais (with the false imprint ‘A Basle’); and then later that year, another enlarged French edition was published, without privilège, by Jore in Rouen. For Lanson, there was no problem: the English edition could be dismissed as a mere translation; and the first French edition had the double disadvantage of being foreign and of being less complete (it lacked the 25th letter on Pascal). It seemed obvious to him that the ‘real’ version of the text was the one published in France, the one that had caused the scandal that nearly landed Voltaire in jail. And so this multi-faceted work became reduced to the Lettres philosophiques, and the other two early versions, though noted, were eclipsed. There have been many editions of this work since 1909, and all editors have followed Lanson in their basic decision to choose the Jore printing over the other two.

Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglais, first edition in French

Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglais, first edition in French.

It was an American scholar, Harcourt Brown, who first confused this picture by arguing intriguingly in an article of 1967 that Voltaire had composed about half of the text in English, and that the Letters concerning the English nation were in fact part English original and part translation. His arguments were taken further by André-Michel Rousseau, who in 1964 had updated Lanson’s edition of the Lettres philosophiques, and who wrote a remarkable doctorat d’état on L’Angleterre et Voltaire. A.-M. Rousseau was originally invited to edit this work for the Complete works of Voltaire, and in a lecture given at the Taylor Institution in Oxford in 1978, celebrating the bicentenary of Voltaire’s death, he laid out his plan for an edition that would break radically with the Lanson tradition: he argued forcefully that the Jore French text was in many respects inferior to the Bowyer French version printed in London and, crucially, that it was this London version that lived on in later editions. He proposed therefore to side-line the Jore edition, and present the two London editions as a bilingual edition, with the English and French on facing pages:

‘Au lecteur du vingtième siècle, on doit la vérité: une édition bilingue. A main gauche, comme sur un clavier, l’anglais de Voltaire; à main droite, le français de Voltaire, non le texte imprimé par Jore, déjà légèrement, mais nettement marqué par la sénescence, mais la rédaction verte, drue, candide, de l’édition de Londres. En somme, les vraies “Lettres anglaises” – et parfois “philosophiques” – en un seul concert visuel.’

This was fighting talk – how I wish we had a podcast of that lecture, and how I wish Rousseau had gone on to produce his edition as planned. When I prepared the first modern edition of the Letters concerning the English nation, I still went along with the Harcourt Brown thesis that Voltaire had begun to write this book in English. But I soon began to have doubts, which I discussed over the years with a good friend, the late Pat Lee: in due course, we each found evidence disproving Harcourt Brown’s central argument, and there is now a scholarly consensus that Voltaire wrote this book in French, and that the English version is in its entirety a translation by John Lockman.

But that does not mean that Lanson was right to dismiss the English version out of hand. They may be a translation, but the Letters concerning the English nation are still, strictly speaking, the first edition of our work. More than that, there is clear evidence that from the start Voltaire intended his Lettres to appear in both French and English (even if he didn’t originally intend the English version to come out first). Lanson’s stirring declaration that the Lettres philosophiques were ‘the first bomb thrown at the Ancien Régime’ (the quote that launched a thousand essay questions…) makes sense in the context of the Third Republic, but is simply not sustainable when we examine the work’s complex international publishing history. Voltaire was clearly writing not just for a French readership, but also for English and European readers more widely. So, in the new Oxford edition, we will include the English version as a text possessing its intrinsic interest as part of the overall European reception of this work.

Where does that leave us with regard to the choice of copy text? Should we stay with Lanson in choosing the Jore edition, the Lettres philosophiques? Or should we follow A.-M. Rousseau’s preference for the Bowyer text, the Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglais? Rousseau was not wrong to say that the Bowyer printing is technically of higher quality than the Jore edition – the Rouen printer was producing a clandestine edition, and no doubt had to work fast. It is also true that because subsequent reworkings of the text mostly took the Bowyer edition as their starting point, the recording of variants to that edition is in practical terms simpler than recording variants to the Jore edition. Only the Jore edition, however, has the 25th letter, the Anti-Pascal, which was a key part of the book’s polemical impact; and Lanson is right to say that this edition provoked the censorship storm that overwhelmed Voltaire in 1734. Our decision was finely balanced but, in the end, we decided to keep Jore as the base text, not least so as to give the Anti-Pascal its proper prominence.

We resolved, however, to present the variants in a different way from Lanson. The variants in his edition are scrupulously recorded, of course, yet they are frankly hard to interpret, and we need to ask why that is. The censorship of the Lettres philosophiques was savage, and given that Voltaire was legally obliged to abandon the title, he worked to recast the work in a disguised form, under a different name. While individual ‘letters’ largely survive, redesignated as ‘chapters’ from 1739, they are in places substantially rewritten and transformed, and entirely new chapters are added. In other words, we are not dealing here with ‘one’ book and its textual ‘variants’, but rather with a shifting text that continued to evolve throughout Voltaire’s lifetime – so much so, indeed, that Voltaire really questions our received notion of a ‘fixed’ or ‘closed’ text. The challenge for the editor of a print edition is to find a way of taming this shifting entity within the two dimensions of the printed page. So, in our new edition, while we have retained the Lettres philosophiques as base text, we have given full prominence to the other French version, the Lettres écrites de Londres, by including its distinctive paratexts and index in a separate section, and we have created a third section, ‘Mélanges (1739-1775)’, which seeks to track and explain as clearly as we can the various permutations (not variants!) of the letters as they evolve over four decades.

This leaves the dilemma of the title. Our decision to name the overall edition the Lettres sur les Anglais certainly breaks with recent tradition, although the more familiar Lettres philosophiques has only been standard since Lanson imposed it in 1909. Before that, the work was habitually referred to as the Lettres anglaises or Lettres sur les Anglais, titles that Voltaire himself used in his letters. Writing after Voltaire’s death, both Condorcet and Frederick II refer to the Lettres sur les Anglais, and we have followed their example. The great advantage of this title is that it can designate collectively a whole cluster of related printed texts (and the associated manuscript Lettre sur M. Locke). In choosing this title, we wanted to emphasise the fundamentally fluid nature of the Lettres and not to single out any one expression in print.

For all Lanson’s supposedly ‘scientific’ critical approach, his edition of the Lettres philosophiques is a highly politicised work. The Entente cordiale of 1904 was an ambitious diplomatic attempt to strengthen the links between England and France at a moment when war with Germany seemed imminent. For this first exemplary scholarly edition, Lanson’s choice of a work in 1909 that celebrated European Enlightenment and the cultural connections between France and England was hardly fortuitous. And what of the new Oxford edition of the Lettres sur les Anglais, which emphasises Voltaire’s European readership, and that we have been working on in lockdown in 2020 while the UK was discussing severing its ties with the European Union? Whether its editors realise it or not, no critical edition is ever neutral.

Nicholas Cronk

Lettres sur les Anglais (II) was published in December 2020, an edition by Nicholas Cronk, Nick Treuherz, Nicolas Fréry and Ruggero Sciuto.


Artifex quidam nomine Newton

Oculus artificialis teledioptricus sive Telescopium

Oculus artificialis teledioptricus sive Telescopium, t.1, page de titre. (Google Books)

Dans la première réédition des Lettres philosophiques parue en 1739, Voltaire a remplacé la dernière phrase de la XVIe Lettre ‘Sur l’optique de M. Newton’ par les lignes suivantes: ‘Il était encore peu connu en Europe quand il fit cette découverte. J’ai vu un petit livre composé environ ce temps-là dans lequel, en parlant du télescope de Newton, on le prend pour un lunetier: Artifex quidam Anglus nomine Newton. La renommée l’a bien vengé depuis.’[1]

Gustave Lanson avait cherché en vain la source du syntagme latin que Voltaire répétera à chaque nouvelle édition jusqu’en 1756. Nous savons désormais qu’il l’a déniché dans l’ouvrage très technique d’un savant prémontré (et non jésuite, comme il l’écrira en 1756[2]), le bavarois Johann Zahn (1641-1707), publié à Würzburg en trois tomes en 1685-1686 sous le titre Oculus artificialis teledioptricus sive Telescopium. Dans cette nouvelle fin de la XVIe Lettre, Voltaire observe avec étonnement que la renommée de Newton, déjà bien établie en Angleterre grâce à son télescope et ses recherches sur la lumière publiées en 1672 et 1675, était encore inexistante sur le continent au moment où Zahn publia son ‘petit livre’ – un in-quarto de 181 pages tout de même. Alors que Voltaire a consacré, dans la première version de 1734, pas moins de trois lettres aux grandes découvertes de Newton, mentionnant comme en passant son invention du télescope à réflexion, cette invention acquiert de plus en plus d’importance dans les versions ultérieures grâce à l’immortelle formule du prémontré bavarois: Anglus quidam artifex Newtonus (Oculus artificialis, t.3, p.151).

Newtonian telescope

Réplique du télescope que Newton présenta à la Royal Society en 1672. (Wikimedia Commons, © Andrew Dunn)

De 1739 à 1756, ce syntagme latin revient avec insistance, mais la signification symbolique dont il est chargé change selon le contexte. En 1739, Voltaire peut se flatter d’avoir contribué à la renommée dont Newton commence à jouir sur le continent, mais un patriotisme étroit et borné continue de rejeter les découvertes du savant anglais pour des raisons mesquines de fierté nationale. Attaqué par le cartésien Banières d’être mauvais Français, Voltaire répond dans l’édition de 1742 que la renommée du ‘lunetier’ n’est plus à faire.

En 1751, Newton a définitivement gagné la partie mais l’affrontement entre les philosophes et leurs adversaires a commencé. Ceux-ci sont loin de confondre Newton avec un lunetier, mais lui intentent un procès en athéisme. Au moment où paraît le Discours préliminaire de D’Alembert, il ne s’agit plus de défendre Descartes contre Newton ni la France contre l’Angleterre, mais la nouvelle philosophie, dont les hérauts s’appellent Newton, Locke, Clarke et Leibniz.

En 1756, Voltaire modifie les lettres sur Newton une dernière fois, et de façon radicale: toute la partie scientifique est supprimée. Face au triomphe de Newton en France, il estime probablement que ses explications ne font plus le poids. Qui plus est, Voltaire a commencé à prendre ses distances avec la ‘métaphysique’ de Newton, attitude qui s’accentuera dans les années qui vont suivre.[3] Dans un court morceau intitulé sobrement ‘De Newton’, les trois découvertes du savant anglais sont ramassées dans un court paragraphe, puis Voltaire passe à l’invention du télescope à réflexion, à laquelle il accorde deux fois plus de place qu’au calcul infinitésimal, à l’attraction et à la lumière.

Ce qui reste, c’est l’ouvrier Newton, le faiseur de lunettes, artifex quidam. Voltaire avait le don de repérer et d’exploiter le détail qui fait mouche: après la pomme et le prisme, l’artifex quidam du prémontré bavarois Zahn s’est taillé une place de choix dans l’imaginaire scientifique voltairien.[4]

– Gerhardt Stenger

[1] Lettres philosophiques, suivies des Derniers écrits sur Dieu, éd. Gerhardt Stenger (Paris, 2006), p.170, var. b.

[2] Ibid., p.293.

[3] Voir l’introduction à notre édition des Lettres philosophiques, p.50-57.

[4] Voir notre article ‘Artifex quidam nomine Newton: à propos de la XVIe Lettre philosophique de Voltaire’ à paraître dans la Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France en novembre 2020.


L’âme de Voltaire dans tous ses états: l’édition critique de la version clandestine de la Lettre sur Locke

John Locke, par Godfrey Kneller (1697)

John Locke, par Godfrey Kneller (1697).

En 1733, la première version de la Lettre sur Locke est écartée par Voltaire des Lettres sur les Anglais à cause de ses audaces quasi-matérialistes qui risquent d’entraîner la censure de l’ensemble du recueil. Une nouvelle version sensiblement remaniée et édulcorée est finalement publiée en tant que lettre 13 de l’ouvrage. Mais Voltaire reprend la version d’origine en 1736 et développe la comparaison entre l’homme et l’animal, en allant bien au-delà des allusions prudentes de Locke dans son Essai sur l’entendement humain (1690): de la possibilité d’une “matière pensante”, le pas est glissant vers l’affirmation d’un lien essentiel entre l’“organisation” des corps et leurs propriétés cognitives. La Lettre lui échappe alors et connaît une circulation manuscrite et de nombreuses éditions au cours du dix-huitième siècle.

Paris, BnF (Arsenal): Ms 2557

Paris, BnF (Arsenal): Ms 2557.

Notre édition critique a exigé une véritable enquête de détective selon plusieurs pistes ouvertes par les “nouvelles à la main” qui annoncent au mois de juin 1736 la diffusion d’une version inédite de la Lettre sur Locke. Toutes ces pistes ont conduit à un recueil de manuscrits clandestins conservé à l’Arsenal, qui s’est révélé être la source de toutes les copies manuscrites connues et des très nombreuses éditions publiées au cours du dix-huitième siècle. Chemin faisant, il s’agissait de démasquer les ennemis de Voltaire et leurs complices – une bande de “usual suspects” – qui ont œuvré à la diffusion de la Lettre et d’autres écrits audacieux de Voltaire. On découvre ainsi au bout de l’enquête une stratégie concertée de comploteurs qui exploitent un aspect des compositions de Voltaire qui le rend vulnérable: son irréligion. Voltaire a beau tempêter, multipliant les dénégations et les désaveux; il porte plainte, il fait lancer des enquêtes, des perquisitions, des saisies, des arrestations et des interrogatoires; imprimeurs, libraires, colporteurs, pamphlétistes, journalistes, auteurs petits et grands, et un violoniste de l’opéra, tous y passent, mais rien n’y fait: dans l’ombre, les autorités de l’Etat veillent au grain et assurent l’impunité aux coupables.

Alexis Piron.

Alexis Piron, gravure de Nicolas Le Mir d’après un tableau de Nicolas Bernard Michel Lépicié, dans Œuvres choisies (Paris, Duchesne, 1773).

Nos recherches révèlent une série d’initiatives malveillantes de la part des ennemis de Voltaire, Alexis Piron en tête: il est jaloux des succès de Voltaire et indigné de la désinvolture méprisante que le poète-philosophe affiche à son égard. Or, Piron fréquente Moncrif à la Société du Bout du Banc; il obtient une copie de la Lettre clandestine et la fait publier par son complice “calotin”, le journaliste La Varenne. La Marre, le protégé de Voltaire, est déjà entré dans le complot : dès 1735, il collabore avec Moncrif dans la publication d’un Recueil du cosmopolite (1735) comportant la première édition – ignorée jusqu’ici – de l’Epître à Uranie. Ce recueil fait partie d’une véritable campagne de publication des écrits compromettants de Voltaire, comme le révèle le conte anti-voltairien de Piron intitulé La Malle-Bosse, publié pour la première fois dans les Mémoires de l’Académie des colporteurs (1748) et de nouveau dans les Voltariana (1749).

François-Augustin Paradis de Moncrif

François-Augustin Paradis de Moncrif, portrait attribué à Maurice-Quentin de La Tour.

Notre enquête fondée sur les ornements typographiques a permis d’identifier les principaux coupables: Prault fils, d’abord, qui recueille tout écrit compromettant qui sort de la plume de Voltaire; Simon fils, ensuite, qui se cache derrière le pseudonyme de “Pierre Poppy” et publie en 1738 la première édition française de la Lettre sur Locke. Quelques années plus tard, ce même Simon fils – imprimeur officiel de l’archevêque de Paris – publie, avec l’ornement caractéristique de la “tête de philosophe ébouriffé”, les Pensées philosophiques de Diderot et l’Essai sur lorigine des connaissances humaines de Condillac. Les ennemis de Voltaire publient ainsi les œuvres scandaleuses de Voltaire dans l’intention de le compromettre auprès des autorités en mettant en évidence ses convictions anti-chrétiennes. Maurepas n’attend qu’un tel prétexte pour le faire condamner.

Page de titre de l’édition publiée chez Pierre Poppy en 1744.

Autre piste qui impose, elle aussi, une révision de la biographie voltairienne: la Lettre de Voltaire est connue à la cour du prince royal Frédéric (futur roi Frédéric II) à Rheinsberg, malgré l’étroite surveillance dont celui-ci fait l’objet de la part du “diable” Manteuffel, qui défend l’autorité de la philosophie de Wolff, conçue comme indispensable à l’Etat de Brandebourg à la fois comme philosophie politique de la souveraineté et comme philosophie religieuse de l’immatérialité et de l’immortalité de l’âme. La diffusion de la Lettre au Brandebourg s’explique par une indiscrétion de Thiriot, le fidèle ami et secrétaire de Voltaire, qui se fait valoir auprès du futur roi Frédéric II de Prusse en lui envoyant la Lettre clandestine de Voltaire au mois de juin 1736, bien avant que Voltaire ne décide de le faire à son tour au mois de novembre: cet envoi par Thiriot entraîne, par l’intermédiaire du marquis de La Chétardie, la conversion philosophique du prince, qui rejette désormais l’autorité de Manteuffel et le système de Wolff. Il s’avère que la diffusion secrète de la Lettre sur Locke provoque la “conversion” philosophique du prince royal, la disgrâce de Manteuffel ainsi que la rupture définitive entre l’Aufklärung wolffienne et les Lumières voltairiennes.

C’est donc une histoire doublement secrète que révèle l’édition de la version clandestine de la Lettre sur Locke. C’est grâce à ces trahisons et à cette circulation clandestine que la Lettre de Voltaire a pu jouer son rôle – avec les réflexions de Guillaume Lamy, de Bayle, de Collins et de Toland – dans l’émergence de la pensée matérialiste au cœur des Lumières françaises.

– Antony McKenna et Gianluca Mori


Of Voltaire’s London years and the Lettres sur les Anglais

Thanks to support from the AHRC for the publication of one of the iconic texts of the Enlightenment, Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques, a.k.a. Lettres sur les Anglais (1733, published in English the same year under the title Letters concerning the English nation), the Voltaire Foundation launched both online and offline events this summer.

First page of the preface to the Letters concerning the English nation (London, 1733), the first edition of Voltaire’s text to be published.

First page of the preface to the Letters concerning the English nation (London, 1733), the first edition of Voltaire’s text to be published.

On 27 September Professor Nicholas Cronk gave a talk entitled ‘Voltaire in London: Cultural life in the 1720s’, hosted at the Handel House Museum in London. Handel lived at 25 Brook Street in Mayfair from 1723 to 1759; Voltaire, for his part, was lodging at a rather less smart address in Soho in the latter part of the 1720s. We do not know if Handel and Voltaire ever met, but both men made significant contributions to the cosmopolitan cultural life of London in the 1720s.

Voltaire was in his early thirties and already a well-known poet when he came to London to launch a subscription to publish La Henriade, an epic poem glorifying King Henri IV of France, which touches upon the evils of religious fanaticism, among other topics. Originally, he had hoped to get permission to have it published in France with a dedication to the young Louis XV, but the subject matter of his poem was such that permission was not granted. Voltaire decided to go to London to have it published by Huguenot printers, free from censorship, and the book was dedicated to Queen Caroline.

Voltaire settled at the White Perruke on Maiden Lane in Soho, in a Huguenot area of the capital where French was widely spoken and which extended to Spitalfields. He stayed in London for two and a half years and taught himself English. He was a regular visitor at the Drury Lane theatre, where he discovered Shakespeare. He read Gulliver’s Travels in English and attended an early performance of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera.

Voltaire read Addison’s Spectator, a publication whose tone and format was to prove a big influence on his own Lettres philosophiques. He met Pope, Gray and Swift, and was instrumental in popularizing Newton’s ideas in France. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1743.

(Bodleian Library, University of Oxford)

(Bodleian Library, University of Oxford)

Interestingly, an exhibition of waxworks organised on the Strand not long after Voltaire’s death featured an effigy of ‘that justly admired French genius’ who had been ‘in his lifetime an intimate friend to Pope, Congreve and Young’ – testament to the lasting impact of his stay in London many decades earlier.

Thanks to the AHRC grant, the Voltaire Foundation also commissioned Oxford DPhil student Cameron Quinn to write ‘Lettres sur les Anglais: getting your bearings’ for our website. This resource provides background information about the Lettres and their importance as a seminal text for the Enlightenment, and sheds light on the reasons that drove Voltaire to spend two years of his life in England; it also gives an overview of the political, as well as economic and cultural, situation in England during the years Voltaire lived here.

Thematic pages focus on several key topics that were important for society in general or to Voltaire in particular at the time the Lettres were written, and they also offer links to relevant websites. The themes covered are immensely varied in scope; they include, among others, religion, poetry, the Newtonian revolution, the English adoption of the practice of inoculation, and the question of the soul.

These webpages can be a resource for those without much prior knowledge of the wider historic or cultural contexts of the time, or of the issues at stake.

We hope our readers will enjoy this ‘rough guide’ to the Lettres sur les Anglais and the historical context in which they were written!

– Clare Fletcher

Voltaire’s London: Reconstructing a vision of London past

Academics are constantly reminded of the debts owed to previous generations of scholars. We footnote them, refer to their work, profit from their travails, build on their groundwork and sometimes correct their errors.

As the Voltaire Foundation embarks upon the critical edition of the Lettres sur les Anglais for the complete works collection, we are again delving back into the network of places that the Frenchman visited and people he encountered during his sojourn in England. A large number of scholars have already surveyed the terrain before. None, however, was quite so focussed as Norma Perry (1923-2007). Perry devoted herself to following Voltaire’s footsteps around London. She wrote a long article, ‘Voltaire in London’, for The Times which was published on 22 April 1978, demonstrating her commitment to academic impact!

It was also due to Perry that the plaque in Maiden Lane was established in 1979, and improved in 1994. Perry’s principal research outputs from her Voltaire research were Sir Everard Fawkener, Friend of Voltaire, published in the Studies in Voltaire and the eighteenth century series in 1975, and various articles and book chapters. Particularly noteworthy are the article ‘The Rainbow, the White Peruke and the Bedford Head: Voltaire’s London haunts’ (in SVEC 179, Oxford, 1979) and the chapter titled ‘City Life in the 1720s: the Example of Four of Voltaire’s Acquaintances’ in the 1994 book The Secular City: Studies in the Enlightenment presented to Haydn Mason.

Perry’s papers were left to the Taylorian Library in Oxford. Leafing through them, we learn of her singular quest to document any possible place Voltaire may (or may not!) have passed through. Her scholarship on Sir Everard Fawkener drew her to develop an interest for places Voltaire could have visited, and what those places may have looked like in the 1720s.


The various papers are also a window into research methods which remind us how far technology has come in thirty years. From the vantage point of 2016, the index cards, photographs (complete with negatives), stamped reproductions of engravings and copies of correspondence with numerous London councils seem almost as foreign as Voltaire’s own experience of London would have been. Perry’s intrepid investigations led her round London with a camera (loaded with film!) to document any possible trace of what Voltaire may have seen. This was a devoted quest, a fixation, an obsession almost. The papers function as both a testimony to Perry’s persistence and perhaps also as a warning to future scholars…


The warning is in many ways the obsession with possibilities, and the hypothetical. Perry used the evidence that is available to scholars: correspondence effectively reveals a network of people Voltaire knew and had dealings with. It also reveals the places Voltaire definitely visited. Perry’s index cards contain a whole host of ‘possible’ places Voltaire could have gone, which she subsequently investigated meticulously, honestly noting ‘no evidence’ for these. Despite this, she nevertheless ventured out to Cromwell House and photographed the fireplace, complete with its initials of the residents whom Voltaire might possibly have visited there, the Da Costa family.

The images Perry sought out are now often retrievable with the click of a mouse. Many of these images are fascinating and extremely useful in allowing us to picture the London which Voltaire was so enamoured by. The engravings of Marlborough House by Samuel Wale, for example, or images of Alexander Pope’s Villa, or Sutton Nicholls’ engraving of Covent Garden c.1720:

From Bowles, London Described or the most noted Regular Buildings, 1731.

From Bowles, London Described or the most noted Regular Buildings, 1731.

The British Library’s Crace collection of historical maps of London has great digital applications. Perry would obviously have been thrilled by the possibility of overlaying historical maps with modern day ones.

It goes without saying that despite these amazing advances, we are still significantly indebted to scholars like Perry who have done so much spadework on which we hope to build.

– Nick Treuherz

Voltaire: historian of modernity

Voltaire’s historical writings form a significant part of his output, including works on Louis XIV, Louis XV, Charles XII, Peter the Great, the Holy Roman Empire, and even a pioneering universal history. These histories were highly regarded in his lifetime, and Voltaire was a powerful influence on the other great historians of the age, Hume, Gibbon and Robertson.

Voltaire painted by Garneray, engraved by Alix.

Voltaire painted by Garneray, engraved by P. M. Alix. Voltaire’s achievements are listed as ‘Philosophie, Tragédie, Histoire, Poème, La Henriade, Comédies, Temple du goût, La Pucelle, Contes, Œuvres divers’. Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Despite this, writers now are uncomfortable in trying to explain the importance of Voltaire as a historian. Karen O’Brien, for example, remarks that ‘Voltaire’s histories have not recovered today from the low reputation to which they sank after the French Revolution’. [1] We typically criticise Voltaire’s histories for being polemical and tendentious: his determination to view everything from a resolutely modern point of view can make him seem naïve, and some find it puzzling that his histories were once held in such esteem.

The aim of the Voltaire: historian of modernity project is to come to a better understanding of Voltaire’s overall philosophical project, by focusing on a neglected aspect of his work: his determination to write ‘modern’ history. Much of his historical writing, especially in the earlier years, is devoted to the modern world. Voltaire first explores the defining characteristics of the modern world (the benefits of trade, the scientific revolution, religious toleration) in a book about England (Lettres sur les Anglais, or Lettres philosophiques), before studying the flourishing culture of France during the previous century (Le Siècle de Louis XIV). He then extends this exploration, forwards into modern France (Précis du siècle de Louis XV)and outwards into the recent history of the whole world (Essai sur les mœurs).

The study of recent history was, Voltaire declared bluntly, ‘a matter of necessity’. [2] The study of modern times was more precise than the study of ancient history, because sources were more numerous and more reliable. Most importantly – and here Voltaire seems influenced by the English writer Bolingbroke – modern history is best placed to offer us instructive examples. Traditionally, it had always been ancient history that was thought to be significant as a source of morally improving examples of conduct. Voltaire turns that idea on its head. As an Enlightenment philosopher, he wants to teach the lessons of free thought and religious tolerance, and he turns to modern history for telling examples to prove his point.

Voltaire’s histories are not in a separate category on the margins of his œuvre: they are at its very core. We need to (re)read the modern histories alongside Voltaire’s other polemical works, and to understand them as part of one and the same project. The spirit of criticism that characterises the Enlightenment begins when we scrutinise our own age, and we cannot fully understand Voltaire the philosopher without appreciating his commitment to the study of modern history. [3]

– Nicholas Cronk

[1] Narratives of Enlightenment: cosmopolitan history from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge, 1997), p.21.

[2] Conseils à un journaliste, see Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.20A (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, 2003), p.482.

[3] This blog post is based on an article that first appeared in the Leverhulme Trust Newsletter in 2014.