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 ‘Stories around the Lettres sur les Anglais’ 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 gallica.bnf.fr / 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.