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Voltaire’s English Years: (1726?1728)


ISSUE:  Spring 1977

EARLY in May 1726, the London newspapers announced the arrival of François Marie Arouet, the renowned French dramatist and poet who called himself Voltaire. About a week earlier he had been released from the Bastille after a two-week incarceration—nine years before he had spent eleven miserable months there—on condition that he go into exile. The first time he had been thrown into the grim Seine fortress on the trumped-up charge of libelling the Regent Phillip of Orleans and this time for challenging to a duel the Chevalier Rohan-Chabot, scion of one of the noblest families of France. Rohan-Chabot insulted him in the box of the actress Adrienne Lecouvreur at the Comédie Française and subsequently had his lackeys beat him up.

When he arrived in England, Voltaire was virtually unknown except to a small number of the cognoscenti. He had not yet written any significant prose; and of his dramas only one, Marianne, had been adapted to the English stage, and it was a failure. He had a few English friends and acquaintances of whom the closest was Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke, one of the architects of the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the Anglo-French Wars in 1713. He had come to know the Englishman quite well in France, where Bolingbroke had been in exile since the ascent of George I to the throne in 1714. A year before Voltaire’s arrival, Bolingbroke and his French wife had returned to England and purchased an estate at Dawley in Middlesex after getting permission from George I and parliamentary approval by paying the king’s German mistress, the Duchess of Kendal, a bribe of 100,000 pounds.

Voltaire’s selection of England as a place of exile was inspired, he recalled in a fragment of autobiography written late in life, by a desire to get away from his enemies and to publish a polished version of his epic La Ligue (later called the Henriade). The work could not be printed in France because it eulogized the liberal King Henri IV as well as Queen Elizabeth of England and the Protestants who were massacred, at the instigation of the monarchy, on St. Bartholomew’s Eve in 1565. Bolingbroke may also have influenced his decision to seek a haven in England.

Voltaire arrived with letters of introduction from the English ambassador in France, Horatio Walpole (brother of Prime Minister Robert Walpole), to the Duke of Newcastle, Secretary of State, and to Bubb Dodington (later Lord Melcombe), a leading Whig politician known to be a patron of men of letters. In 1726 the 32-year-old poet was already fairly affluent, thanks to pensions from Louis XV and his Queen Maria Leszczinska, a modest inheritance from his father, and successful business deals. Having been brought up in a wealthy bourgeois household—his father was a successful notary—and educated at the prestigious Jesuit College of Louis-le-Grand, a kind of French Eton, he realized early that in France financial independence was the key to intellectual independence.

“Do not neglect your fortune,” he once told a yoiing friend who wished to be a philosophe.” It is wise to be preoccupied with it. With it one has less fear of superstition and its surprises. A fortune easily maintains a philosophe in his independence. He has more courage to speak the truth; he runs fewer dangers; if this truth arouses the prejudiced people against him, he escapes more easily from their fury and their investigations. With money a man of letters is sure of finding an asylum, some corner of the earth where he may wish to rest.” In 1726, when his meteoric literary and social career was in eclipse, thanks to the Chevalier Rohan-Chabot, Voltaire found in liberal England a corner of the earth where he could nurse his wounds, so to speak, rekindle his literary fire, and start life anew. The result was a vastly changed personality, a man who was henceforth dedicated to the spread of liberal ideas, and a magnificent prose writer as well as poet. Moreover, in an age when it was virtually impossible to get rich in France by literary work alone, unless one had a munificent angel, Voltaire pursued two careers simultaneously, that of financier and entrepreneur and that of man of letters.

England was then enjoying an era of peace and prosperity. The wars which ended with the Peace of Utrecht were being forgotten. As Daniel Defoe reminded his readers in A Tour Through England and Wales published in 1728, England was a good place to live. As Defoe’s biographer Brian Fitzgerald says, “For him and his kind, for the merchants and manufacturers and freehold yeomen not less than for the grandees and the country squires, life was indeed good.” London was the financial, political, and intellectual capital of the spreading British empire, Here, wrote Pastor Wenderborn, a German visitor, “a man may live according to his own mind, or even his whim. . . . The friend of arts and science, the friend of religious liberty, the philosopher, the man who wishes to be secure against political and ecclesiastical tyrants, the man of business, the man of pleasure can nowhere be better off than in this metropolis.”

Voltaire quickly realized the truth of this observation. England was free of ubiquitous police spies, the air of freedom was intoxicating, and the panorama of English life aroused his insatiable curiosity and indefatigable energy.

II

Before venturing into English society, however, Voltaire was determined to perfect his ability to read and write and especially to speak English. We do not know how well he was acquainted with the language upon his arrival, but he could certainly read it with ease, and perhaps speak a little, with, of course, an accent that seemed comical to Englishmen. He settled down in the home of a friend, the wealthy merchant Everard Falkener, in the village of Wandsworth on the Thames and hired a young Quaker, Edward Higginson, to give him English lessons. He read widely in Falkener’s sumptuous library, doubtless perused newspapers and journals, and occasionally went up to London to attend the theatre, At Drury Lane the prompter provided him with the text of the play so he could follow the spoken words.

Voltaire’s first letter written in English, dated Oct. 26, 1726, shows that he already had a remarkable facility in the language though the niceties of irregular verbs, grammar, and spelling sometimes eluded him. Within a year, he undertook to write two long essays in English, one on epic poetry and the other on the civil wars in France, designed to advertise the forthcoming edition of the Henriade. Mrs. Delaney in a journalistic work published in January 1728, said: “We hope every day to see Mr. de Voltaire’s Henriade. . .. We have reason to hope that it will be a finished performance; and as he writes with uncommon elegance and force in English, though he has been but eighteen months in this country, we expect to find in his poem all that beauty and strength of which his native language is capable.”

Had Voltaire decided to settle permanently in England, as he sometimes thought during his exile, he would certainly have become a master of English prose. When he returned to France, he confessed that he was so accustomed to thinking and writing in English that he found it difficult to express himself in his native language. At Ferney, where he lived for a quarter century until his death in 1778, he acted as host to hordes of English visitors (like Boswell) and loved to converse with them in their language. His proudest boast was that he could swear as nobly as any English lord.

It was probably in the late summer of 1726 that Voltaire made his entry into society. Though his exact movements are difficult to trace, he probably met Alexander Pope about then as well as Jonathan Swift and other members of Bolingbroke’s circle. He dined with Pope and his 86-year-old mother at the poet’s villa on the Thames at Twickenham. He had read, at Bolingbroke’s suggestion, the “Rape of the Lock” and other works of Pope, and Pope, though not too well versed in French, had read Voltaire’s play Oedipe, a work which had made him famous. After Voltaire met the deformed poet, who was barely four and a half feet tall, suffered from various ailments, and was in constant pain, he admired the bard of Twickenham even more.

How often the two men met during Voltaire’s 30-month stay is not known. Although they had much in common, it is doubtful that they became well acquainted. Both were unusually sensitive to criticism—someone said that Voltaire had the most sensitive skin in Europe—and never forgot or forgave an animadversion on their writings or persons. There is but one letter extant from Voltaire to Pope and none from Pope to Voltaire. According to Joseph Spence, Pope’s gossipy “Boswell,” Voltaire behaved so rudely and blasphemously at their first meeting that the poet’s mother was shocked and he was never invited again, but this seems improbable as Voltaire had the manners of a polished courtier. Many such calumnies were circulated in England once Voltaire became the most famous writer in Europe, and by none were they more relished than such enemies of the irreligious crusader as Dr. Samuel Johnson, Horace Walpole, and his friend the poet Gray.

Voltaire met Swift during the Irish Dean’s visit to England in the spring and summer of 1727, perhaps through Bolingbroke, or possibly Lord Peterborough, the aged cavalier who in Paris had courted the popular Adrienne Lecouvreur. When Swift planned a visit to France in the summer of 1727, Voltaire sent him letters of introduction to Count de Morville, Louis XV’s Foreign Minister, and to Count de Maisons, a wealthy young farmer-general who was a close friend of Voltaire. Voltaire suggested that the Dean go by way of Rouen where “two or three of my intimate friends who are your admirers and who have learned English since I am in England, will give you a hundred directions for all the pleasures they are capable of, and provide you with all the requisite conveniences.” Swift’s Tale of A Tub had been translated into French and was widely read, and Gulliver’s Travels was about to come out in a translation by the Abbé Desfontaines, a friend (but later bitter enemy) of Voltaire.

Swift’s voyage never materialized because George I died that summer on his way to Hanover. Bolingbroke advised the Dean to stay in England since Walpole might be replaced by a Tory Prime Minister and the way opened for Swift to finally escape from Ireland and obtain preferment in England. These dreams vanished when Walpole won favor with Queen Caroline, wife of the new king, induced Parliament to raise the civil list by 100,000 pounds, and retained his post after it was briefly held by the incompetent Sir Spencer Compton.

We would like to know more about the relations of the two greatest satirists of the 18th century, but all we have are a few letters from Voltaire to Swift, In December 1727, he sent the Dean, who was back in Dublin, copies of his English essays and solicited his aid in securing subscriptions to the Henriade,which was almost ready for publication, signing himself “an admirer of yours, who owes to your writings the love he bears to your language, which has betrayed him into the rash attempt of writing in English.” The Dean was interested enough to obtain subscriptions from the Lord Lieutenant (Lord Garteret) and other English aristocrats and also wrote a brief preface for the Dublin edition of the essays.

Voltaire enormously admired Swift’s satires, marvelling that a Dean of the Anglican church could write such works with impunity whereas in France he would not only have lost his position but possibly his head.

Other prominent writers came into Voltaire’s orbit. John Gay showed him the manuscript of the Beggar’s Opera before it was produced and perhaps invited him to the premiere, which was a boisterous occasion with the town immensely relishing this takeoff on Walpole and the Whig politicians. Congreve, a dying man, was interviewed in his lodgings in Surrey Street, the Strand. Voltaire found the dramatist more interested in his social status, “a gentleman living a most quiet life,” than in the plays written many years earlier, which the playwright regarded “as trifles beneath his dignity,” thus eliciting from the interviewer the later comment that “if he had the misfortune of being only a gentleman like any other, I should never have come to see him.”

At the Palladian mansion of Eastbury, the seat of Bubb Dodington, Voltaire met Edward Young, author of Night Thoughts, and James Thomson, the young Scots author of The Seasons, both hangers-on of the fatuous but influential politico. It was Young who penned a famous description of Voltaire at that time,

You are so witty, profligate and thin,
At once we think thee Milton, Death and Sin,

written after a discussion perhaps of Milton’s Paradise Lost in Dodington’s home, where literature was a common topic of conversation along with politics.

III

The most important English influence on Voltaire, by far, was Shakespeare, whose works were probably unknown to him (and to France generally) before coming to England. Shakespeare was then the mainstay of the English stage, and his plays were frequently performed at the two or three theatres licensed by the Crown. During Voltaire’s sojourn, he had opportunities to see Hamlet, Othello, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, King Lear, and some of the historical plays, albeit in some instances in bastardized versions. The impression these loose Elizabethan dramas made upon him was a kind of antipathy and intense admiration.”I am going to tell you something rash but true,” he said in the English Letters, the book about England he wrote upon his return home.”The greatness of Shakespeare has been the ruin of the English stage. There are such beautiful scenes, such grand and terrible passages scattered throughout these monstrous farces of his called tragedies, that these plays have always been put on with great success. Time, which alone makes the reputation of men, in the end makes their faults respectable.” In other words, while seduced by the poetry and melodrama, Voltaire assailed Shakespeare for not following the rules laid down in Aristotle’s Poetics that a play must have the unities of time, place, and action, for not being a neoclassic dramatist like Racine, Corneille, and himself.

Ironically, while continuing to castigate Shakespeare to the end of his life, he borrowed not only themes but dramatic material from him, and bragged that he was the first to translate a Shakespearean play into French—parts of Hamlet.

England was a fascinating world for a foreign writer like Voltaire coming from an authoritarian land. The variety of literature not only was dazzling, but more important perhaps, the status of men of letters was far superior to that in France. There, Voltaire later wrote, they were treated usually with great condescension by the nobility and the Court, and such rewards as they received often came from wealthy patrons— even Racine was permitted to languish in poverty at the end of his life, But in England, “a man of merit always makes his fortune. In France Mr. Addision would have belonged to some academy, and would have been able to obtain, through the influence of some woman, a pension of 1200 livres. . . . In England, he was Secretary of State. . . . Mr. Congreve held an important office; Mr. Prior was a plenipotentiary. Dr. Swift is a Dean in Ireland and is more highly honored than the Primate.”

The Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey was proof of the honors accorded literary men.”It is not the tombs of kings that one admires here, but the monuments erected by the gratitude of the nation to the greatest of the men who have contributed to its glory. You will see there statues as one saw at Athens, those of such men as Sophocles and Plato; and I am convinced that the mere sight of these glorious monuments has roused more than one mind and been the making of more than one great man.”

IV

English political and religious institutions interested Voltaire enormously and to learn what he thought of them, as of other aspects of English life, one must turn to the English Letters. He surely attended sessions of that unique institution in Europe, Parliament; and hobnobbing with men like Bolingbroke and his friends (on the Tory side) and Whigs like Lord Chesterfield, who became one of his most intimate friends, he acquired a knowledge of England’s political system.

He realized that the House of Commons was becoming more powerful than the Lords as the old nobility died out and new peers were created.”All these peers,” he said, “who compose the upper house receive from the king their title and nothing more; hardly any of them owns the land whose name he bears. One is Duke of Dorset and hasn’t an inch of ground in Dorsetshire. Another is Earl of a village and scarcely knows where the village is situated. They have power in Parliament and nowhere else.” The crucial fact was that Parliament was designed to safeguard the liberties of the people, and while “it has doubtless cost a great deal to establish liberty in England, the idol of arbitrary power was drowned in seas of blood.” The French, he pointed out, “have not had fewer troubles nor poured out less blood, but the blood they shed for liberty only hardened their bondage.”

Voltaire was the first writer to disseminate in France the concept of democracy as practiced in England, antedating Montesquieu’s Esprit des Lois by many years. In letters from England to his intimate friend Thieriot he called himself a “republican” and vowed he was sick of courts and kings. One of the best things about the English system, he said in the English Letters, is that there is no arbitary taxation.”Nobody is downtrodden and nobody complains. The feet of the peasant are not tortured by wooden shoes, he eats white bread, he is well clothed, and he is not afraid to increase the number of his cattle or cover his roof with tile, lest his taxes be raised.”

Moreover, many peasants have acquired considerable property and “do not disdain to keep cultivating the soil that enriched them and on which they live as freemen. Nobody is exempted from taxes because he is a nobleman or priest.”

While pursuing his studies of English institutions, he made many important acquaintances. Lord Chesterfied introduced him to Sarah, the fiery dowager Duchess of Maryborough; to Baron Weipart Ludwig von Fabrice, chamberlain to George I, Elector of Hanover; and to Queen Caroline from whom he obtained permission to dedicate the Henriade (and thus erase the dedication to young Louis XV which graced the original edition). He dined with Lady Walpole and met her husband Sir Robert. All these associations gave rise many years later to the allegation that he was a spy for the Court and carried back to them information gained while visiting the opposition, Bolingbroke and his friends. This story may possibly be true; Voltaire in later life was known to spy for his country on such friends as Frederick the Great (who of course did not trust him). From a literary standpoint, some of these acquaintances proved immensely useful. Baron Fabrice, who had been ambassador to the Swedish Court and fought with George I against Charles XII, gave him the idea of writing the life of that turbulent monarch, and supplied him with material.

According to Oliver Goldsmith, Sarah, the widow of the Great Duke, having been at work on her memoirs for many years, hiring and firing a number of collaborators, sought out Voltaire as a likely candidate, But after he looked over her materials, and she “began to dictate the use she would have them turned to,” Voltaire no longer appeared the good-natured, complying creature which she took him for. He found “some characters were to be blackened without just grounds, some of her actions to be vindicated that deserved censure and a mistress (Queen Anne) to be exposed to whom she owed infinite obligations.” As Voltaire continued to comment in this vein, the Duchess’s quick temper flared, she snatched the manuscript out of his hands, and exclaimed, “I thought the man had sense; but I find him at bottom either a fool or a philosopher.” Nevertheless Sarah gave Voltaire much information about Marlborough’s campaigns and revealed intimate details which he used in his great biography, the Age of Louis XIV, published in 1739.

V

No facet of English life interested Voltaire more than religion. He marvelled at the tolerance and freedom of expression—as today an exiled Russian like Solzhenitsin does in England or the United States—which Dissenters enjoyed although they could not hold public office and suffered other legal disabilities. Christianity was openly attacked in a spate of tracts and treatises by the Deists; there was no state censorship; and even Deism or Atheism was an avowed belief, not as in France, kept secret. Unbelief was so common among the upper classes, said Montesquieu who visited England in 1731, that “if religion is spoken of, everybody laughs.”

The Quakers especially attracted Voltaire’s attention; he learned a great deal about them from his tutor Higginson and the retired draper Andrew Pitt. In the English Letters he describes a visit to Pitt’s modest home in the village of Hampstead. Never had he met anyone who had a nobler or more engaging air, but his dress was odd. He wore a large hat with a turned-down brim and a dark coat without pleats on the side or buttons on either pockets or sleeves. He received the poet with his hat on the head and greeted him without bowing. At times he talked like a fanatic and at other times quite sensibly. Oddly enough, the Quaker addressed him in the second person singular.

Pitt took him to a Quaker meeting near the Monument in London. Here the silence was punctuated by meaningless utterances from persons whom the spirit moved to express themselves.”Why do the more intelligent members of the sect put up with such nonsense?” Voltaire asked his companion. Pitt replied that “it is impossible to know whether a man who rises to speak will be moved by the Spirit or by madness,” and hence anybody was allowed to address the assembly, even women. Above all, Voltaire admired the Quakers not only for the simplicity of their lives and free manner of worship but also because they had no priests (and did very well without them, Pitt assured him) and refused to bear arms.

Voltaire was astonished to discover that while the different religious sects might detest each other, they managed to live quite amicably together, and this inspired his famous remark that “an Englishman, as a free man, goes to heaven by whatever route he pleases.” In France there was only one acceptable route—via Catholicism.

In the business world there was an easy intercourse between people of different faiths. At the Royal Exchange, “a place more venerable than many a court,” Jews, Mohammedans, Anabaptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Quakers trust one another and “reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt.” When they leave the Exchange, “some men to the synagogue, others in search of a drink; this man on his way to be baptized in a great tub in the name of the Father, by the Son, to the Holy Ghost; that man is having the foreskin of his son cut off. . .others are going to their church to await the inspiration of God with their hats on, and all are satisfied,”

“O blessed land!” exclaimed Voltaire in the English Letters.”It there were only one religion in England, there would be danger of tyranny; if there were two, they would cut each other’s throats; but there are thirty, and they live together in peace.”

VI

On March 28, 1727, Sir Isaac Newton died, aged 85, and was buried six days later in Westminster Abbey. Crowds gathered to watch the cortege, the coffin carried by the Lord High Chancellor, the Dukes of Montrose and Roxburgh, and the Earls of Pembroke, Sussex, and Macclesfield, all Fellows of the Royal Society, of which Newton was president. Among the crowd stood the slender, animated Voltaire. Few people, including Voltaire, had read any of Newton’s works; but as the discoverer of the laws of gravity and planetary motion, his name was a household word, and the entire nation went into mourning.

Perhaps no other single event during his visit so fixed itself in his mind.”The honors paid Newton,” he said, “were like those to a king who had benefited his subjects.” Remembering Bolingbroke’s advice to read the works of Newton and Locke, he looked forward to the publication, recently announced, of Pemberton’s popularization of Newton’s theories. It was in the collection of English books he took back to France. It became a bible to him, clearing away the cobwebs of his thinking by laying out the design of a well-ordered universe operating on fixed mathematical laws, and it thus not only gave the lie to the miracles claimed in both the Old and New Testaments but made impossible faith in the Christian religion. Years later, when living with his intellectual mistress Madame du Chatelet, he conducted experiments in physics and wrote a popular account of Newton’s work, the Elements of Newton’s Philosophy (1739), which made a considerable impact in France and started a craze for the study of physics that swept through high society.

Voltaire became acquainted with Dr. Samuel Clarke, who had translated Newton’s Optics into Latin and defended him against the criticism of Leibnitz, and with Newton’s niece, Clara Barton, who had been her uncle’s housekeeper. She told Voltaire that Newton got his inspiration for the law of gravity by observing an apple falling from a tree. This incident was first revealed to the world in Voltaire’s Elements.

An equally important result of his English visit was Voltaire’s acquaintance with the works of the Deists that were agitating religious circles. The names of Anthony Collins, Thomas Woolston, and Matthew Tindal are now forgotten except by students of free thought and religious history; their tracts and treatises gather dust on library shelves, but they had immense influence in the 18th century. Voltaire may have come across these works through Dr. Clarke or Pierre Desmaizeaux, a French exile who translated some of them into French. They supplied him with ideas and ammunition which he used freely in the anti-Christian crusade that absorbed the last two decades of his life, as for example in the Philosphical Dictionary, one of the most subversive works of the French Enlightenment.

While Voltaire was living in England, Woolston was publishing his famous Six Discourses on the Miracles of Christ,which savagely demolished their authenticity and argued that the resurrection of Jesus was “the most barefaced imposture ever put upon the world,” Anthony Collins’s Discourse on Freethinking, published in 1713, gave currency to the term free thinking and advocated the use of free thought as “a remedy to the great evil of superstition,” Collins attacked Christianity with the kind of irony which Voltaire found delicious and often imitated. He was still alive when Voltaire was in England, and the two men may have met through their mutual friend and Collins’s biographer, Desmaizeaux. Tindal’ s Christianity as Old as Creation appeared two years after Voltaire left England, but since he was always on the lookout for Deistic writings, a copy probably soon reached him. This book set forth the basic tenets of what was called in the 18th century “natural religion.” The Deistic works combined with the writings of Locke, Bacon, and others Voltaire read in England revolutionized his thinking, though he was by nature a skeptic, and there is substance to John Morley’s remark that “he left France a poet and returned a philosopher.”

VII

While engrossed in social and intellectual activities, Voltaire never lost sight of his primary mission—to publish a revised deluxe edition of the Henriade and make some money out of it. Special illustrations were brought from France, a London printer was engaged, and subscriptions were assiduously solicited by the author among his friends and acquaintances. The poem was flatteringly dedicated to Queen Caroline, “protectress of all arts and sciences, (and) best judge of them,” and it appeared in March 1728, a handsome gilt-edged quarto, priced at one guinea payable in advance. About 1500 copies were printed for the 344 subscribers headed by Lord Chesterfield and Lord Bolingbroke, each of whom took 20 copies. The list reads like Debrett’s Peerage. Two smaller octavo editions were also printed and quickly sold out, a remarkable record for a French poem in England.

We do not know how much Voltaire earned from these publications, a subject on which there has been much speculation. It may have been as much as 10,000 francs, the equivalent of some $12,000, a considerable sum in the 1720’s. It certainly augmented the author’s fortune which had been depleted by the bankruptcy of a Jewish banker in London on whom he had a letter of credit and by the withdrawal by the government of his royal pensions. Upon returning to France, he had large sums at his disposal, thanks to the Henriade mostly, and thus the book may be said to have been the foundation of his fortune.

After settling down anew in France, he joined a syndicate which subscribed to a lottery and won a stupendous amount of money. Thereafter his business activities spread widely, never interfering with his literary career (out of which he reaped little money). Always operating secretly through agents, he supplied foodstuffs to the army, thanks to connections with royal bankers or their mistresses; he speculated on the bourse, in grain futures, and other commodities; invested in cargoes going to Cadiz and made profits of 33 per cent; in short, wherever a franc was to be made, Voltaire was ready to gamble. Ultimately, he concentrated on lending huge sums at high interest rates, stipulating that the principal need not be paid back but that the interest accrue as long as he lived; in some cases this arrangement was extended to the lifetime of his niece, Madame Denis, with whom he lived the last 25 years of his life. His clients were men like the Due de Richelieu, the Due de Guise, the Elector Palatine, the Duke of Würtemberg, and other princelings who were frequently short of cash and had impeccable securities to offer. By the time Voltaire was 40, he was probably a millionaire.

Some time in the fall of 1728 Voltaire said farewell to the land he loved and would never see again, though he maintained a correspondence with a few close friends like Lord Chesterfield, Falkener, Dodington, and others. The only clue to the date of his departure is a letter of November 14, 1728 from Lord Peterborough to a friend who was working on an English translation of the Henriade (which he never finished):

It is as hard to account for our politics as for Mr. Voltaire’s resolutions and conduct; the country and people of England are in disgrace for the present, and (he) has taken his leave of us, as a foolish people who believe in God and trust in ministers; he has gone to Constantinople in order to believe in the Gospels, which he says it is impossible to do living among the teachers of Christianity.

Of course, the journey to Constantinople was a joke. Voltaire slipped out of England as quietly as he had some 30 months earlier. He stayed under cover in Normandy for several months, though he had secured royal permission to return, polishing the manuscript of the History of Charles XII, published in 1732, working on the tragedy Brutus, inspired by Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, sketching out the Age of Louis XIV, and writing the English Letters (known in France as the Lettres Philosophiques).

As usual, Voltaire planned the publication of his book on England secretly, knowing it could not obtain the royal imprimatur. He sent his friend Thieriot to England to oversee an English edition, which was published in 1732, and the next year had the French edition printed in Rouen and cautiously circulated sub rosa in Paris. He was well aware that this eulogy of a free people and their institutions would stir up the Establishment and risk another sojourn in the Bastille. In fact, as the book’s renown spread—people were avid to lay hands on a copy—the Count de Maurepas, Secretary of the King’s household, issued a lettre de cachet for the author’s arrest. Voltaire went into hiding. His rooms in Paris were searched and his papers rifled by the police. The Lettres Philosophiques was ordered by the Parliament of Paris to be burnt by the public hangman because it presented “the greatest danger for religion and public order.” Voltaire managed to escape the Bastille, but his printer was arrested and jailed. The hangman did not have the heart to destroy a copy of the book, which he read with relish, and he substituted another work. Voltaire’s first important prose work, the English Letters, never went out of print in the author’s lifetime, was frequently revised and enlarged by him, and remains one of his few works that is widely read. Although it seems relatively innocuous now, it was, in the words of the late Gustave Lanson, “the first bomb thrown at the Old Régime.” Thus we may say, perhaps, that the French Revolution began when Voltaire stepped on English shores, probably at Dover, on a sunny day in May 1726.

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