V. VOLTAIRE IN ENGLAND: 1726–28

There was a young Frenchman, in the England of 1726, who was to prove far more important than Handel in the history of the eighteenth century. Voltaire touched English shores at Greenwich, near London, on May 10 or 11. His first impression was enthusiastic. It was the week of the Greenwich Fair; the Thames was almost covered with boats and stately sails; the King was coming downstream in a decorated barge, preceded by a band. On shore men and women moved proudly on prancing horses; on foot were scores of pretty girls, dressed for a holiday. Voltaire, thirty-two, was stirred by their graceful figures, demure modesty, and rosy cheeks. He forgot them when he reached London and found that the banker on whose funds he had a letter of exchange for twenty thousand francs had declared bankruptcy. He was rescued by Everard Falkener, a merchant whom he had met in France; for some months he stayed at this generous Briton’s estate at Wandsworth, a suburb of London. George I, hearing of Voltaire’s contretemps, sent him a hundred guineas.

He had letters of introduction from Horatio Walpole, British ambassador to France, to many celebrities; sooner or later he met nearly everyone of any prominence in English letters or politics. He was received by Robert Walpole, prime minister; by the Duke of Newcastle; by Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough; by George Augustus and Caroline, Prince and Princess of Wales; and finally by the King, who gave him a valuable watch, which Voltaire sent as a peace offering to his father. He visited “mylord and my-lady Bolingbroke,” and “found their affection still the same.”77 In August he made a flying trip to France, still eager to fight Rohan, but probably to regulate his financial affairs. For three months he lived—part of the time with Swift—as guest of the third Earl of Peterborough. For another three months he enjoyed at Eastbury Manor the hospitality of Bubb Dodington, corrupt politician but kindly Maecenas to Fielding, Thomson, and Young. Voltaire met the two poets there, and read them with no profit. He set himself resolutely to learn the language; by the end of 1726 he was writing letters in English.78 For the first months he confined himself to circles where French was understood; but nearly all men and women of consequence in English letters or politics knew French. The notebooks that he now filled were written in either language, and show that he learned the wicked words first.

He developed such an acquaintance with English literature as no Frenchman of note acquired again till Hippolyte Taine. He read Bolingbroke, but found the Viscount’s pen less brilliant than his tongue; however, he may have taken from Bolingbroke’s Idea of a Patriot King the belief that the best chance of social reform would be through an enlightened monarchy. He made his way through Swift’s distilled hatreds, learned from him, perhaps, some arts of satire, and pronounced him “infinitely superior to Rabelais.”79 He read Milton, and pounced at once upon the fact that Satan was the real hero of Paradise Lost.80 We have seen elsewhere his confused reaction to Shakespeare—admiration of the “amiable barbarian’s” eloquence, “pearls” of sublimity or tenderness in an “enormous dunghill” of farces and vulgarities.81 He imitated Julius Caesar in La Mort de César, and Othello in Zaire. So Gulliver’s Travels reappeared in Micromégas, and Pope’s Essay on Man in the Discours en vers sur l’homme.

Soon after his arrival in England he went to see Pope. He was shocked by Pope’s deformity and sufferings, amazed by Pope’s sharpness of mind and phrase; he rated Pope’s Essay on Criticism above Boileau’s Art poétique.82 He visited the aging Congreve, and was piqued to find that the once great dramatist wished to be considered “not as an author but as a gentleman.”83 He learned with envy of the sinecures and pensions given to authors by English ministries before Walpole’s, and contrasted this with the fate of France’s leading poet, thrown into the Bastille for resenting a nobleman’s slur.

From literature he passed to science, met members of the Royal Society, and began that study of Newton which would enable him later to replace Descartes with Newton in France. He was deeply impressed by the ceremonial funeral given to Newton by the elite of England, and noted how the Anglican clergy welcomed a scientist into Westminster Abbey. Though he had become a deist before visiting England—had learned the art of doubt from Rabelais, Montaigne, Gassendi, Fontenelle, and Bayle—he now derived corroboration from the deists of England—Toland, Woolston, Tindal, Chubb, Collins, Middleton, and Bolingbroke; later his library would be armed with their books. Stronger still was the influence of Locke, whom Voltaire praised as the first to make a realistic study of the mind. He observed that very few of these insistent heretics had been imprisoned for their views; he remarked the growth of religious toleration since 1689; he thought there was no religious bigotry or fanaticism in England; even the Quakers had subsided into comfortable businessmen. He visited one of them, and was pleased to be told that Pennsylvania was a utopia without classes, wars, or enemies.84

“How I love the English!” he later wrote to Mme. du Deffand. “How I love these people who say what they think!”85 And again:

See what the laws of England have achieved: they have restored to every man his natural rights, from which nearly all monarchies have despoiled him. These rights are: full freedom of person and property; to speak to the nation through his pen; to be judged in criminal matters by a jury of free men; to be judged in any matter only according to precise laws; to profess in peace whatever religion he prefers, while abstaining from those employments to which only members of the Anglican Church are eligible.86

The last line shows that Voltaire recognized the limits of English freedom. He knew that religious liberty was far from complete; and in his notebooks he recorded the arrest of “Mr. Shipping” for derogatory remarks on the King’s speech.87 Either house of Parliament could summon authors to trial for unpleasant statements about M.P.s; the lord chamberlain could refuse to license plays; Defoe had been pilloried for a sarcastic pamphlet. Nevertheless, Voltaire felt, the government of England, corrupt as it was, gave the people a degree of liberty creatively stimulating in every area of life.

Here, for example, commerce was relatively free, not shackled by such internal tolls as hobbled it in France. Businessmen were honored with high posts in the administration; friend Falkener was soon to be made ambassador to Turkey. Voltaire the businessman liked the practicality of the English, their respect for facts, reality, utility, their simplicity of manners, habits, and dress even in opulence. Above all he liked the English middle class. He compared the English with their beer: froth at the top, dregs at the bottom, but the middle excellent88 “If I were to follow my inclination,” he wrote on August 12, 1726, “I would stay right here, for the sole purpose of learning to think”; and in a burst of enthusiasm he invited Thieriot to visit “a nation fond of their liberty, learned, witty, despising life and death, a nation of philosophers.”89

This love affair with England was clouded for a while by the suspicion, in Pope and others, that Voltaire was acting as a spy on his Tory friends for the Walpole ministry.90 The suspicion proved unjust and was soon rejected, and Voltaire won considerable popularity among the aristocracy, and the intelligentsia of London. When he decided to publish La Henriade in England, nearly all literate circles, beginning with George I, Princess Caroline, and the rival courts, sent in subscriptions; Swift solicited, or commanded, a number of these. When the poem appeared (1728) it was dedicated to Caroline, now Queen, with an incidental bouquet to George II, who responded with a gift of four hundred pounds and an invitation to royal suppers. Three editions were sold out in three weeks, despite the princely price of three guineas per copy; from this English edition Voltaire estimated his receipts at 150,000 francs. He used part of the money to help several Frenchmen in England;91 the remainder he invested so wisely that he later judged this windfall to have been the origin of his wealth. He never ceased to be grateful to England.

He owed to it, above all, an immense stimulation of mind and maturing of thought. When he returned from exile he brought Newton and Locke in his baggage; he spent part of his next twenty years introducing them to France. He brought also the English deists, who supplied him with some of the ammunition that he was to use in his war against l’infâme. As England under Charles II had learned good and evil from the France of Louis XIV, so the France of Louis XV was to learn from the England of 1680–1760. Nor was Voltaire the only medium of exchange in this generation; Montesquieu, Maupertuis, Prévost, Buffon, Raynal, Morellet, Lalande, Helvétius, Rousseau also came to England; and others who did not come learned enough English to become carriers of English ideas. Voltaire later summed up the debt in a letter to Helvétius:

We have borrowed, from the English, annuities, … sinking funds, the construction and maneuvering of ships, the laws of gravitation, … the seven primary colors, and inoculation. Imperceptibly we shall acquire from them their noble freedom of thought, and their profound contempt for the petty trifling of the schools.92

Nevertheless he was lonesome for France. England was ale, but France was wine. He repeatedly begged permission to return. Apparently it was granted on the mild condition that he avoid Paris for forty days. We do not know when he left England; probably in the fall of 1728. In March, 1729, he was in St.-Germain-en-Laye; on April 9 he was in Paris, chastened but indestructible, bursting with ideas, and itching to transform the world.


I. In Germany he signed himself Handel; in Italy and England, Händel.41

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!