Two of the new letters shed new light on the extent of the author’s interactions with the English aristocracy and in one letter he even signs his name ‘Francis Voltaire’ – something he has never before been recorded as doing.
The letters have been edited by Professor Nicholas Cronk, director of Oxford University’s Voltaire Foundation and lecturer in the Medieval and Modern Languages Faculty, and are being made available online in the Bodleian Library’s Electronic Enlightenment project.
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.
In another letter, Voltaire writes to the Treasury to confirm receipt of a £200 grant from George II and signs his name ‘Francis Voltaire’. Professor Cronk said: ‘This is interesting in itself – the name ‘Voltaire’ was an invention (he was born ‘Francois Arouet’) so to call himself ‘Francis’ is an English invention of his original invention. But the letter’s significance lies in the fact that this grant probably came to Voltaire at the request of Queen Caroline, a protector of the arts, which reinforces just how closely Voltaire had integrated himself into the English aristocracy in such a short time.’