Long-lost letters reveal the young Voltaire

More than a dozen letters penned by French Enlightenment figure Voltaire nearly 300 years ago have been uncovered recently and are now being studied by a British professor.

Oxford academic Nicholas Cronk said the discovery reveals how much the famed Frenchman – whose real name was François-Marie Arouet – profited financially and intellectually from his stay in England in the 1720s.

The missives include a signed acceptance from the 18th century iconoclast for a £200 grant from the Royal Family, according to the BBC.

While in England, the writer and philosopher abandoned the French spelling of his first name instead styling himself “Francis,” which Cronk says is hardly surprising, given that Voltaire was “hugely opportunistic.”

All told, there are 14 newly discovered letters which are being studied by the Oxford-based Voltaire Foundation.

The foundation is carrying out a mammoth work of scholarship in which it will spend, all told, a half century to produce a definitive collected work of all Voltaire’s writing. It is expected to be completed by 2018.

Cronk, the foundation’s director, says the new letters were found in US libraries.

They shed light on the short period spent by Voltaire in England early in his literary career, and demonstrated the rapidity with which he acquired links with the powerful and wealthy, and became influenced by the work of English philosophers and scientists, according to the BBC.

Voltaire took these ideas back to continental Europe, with his books being read in many countries.

Voltaire wound up in England in unusual fashion. While in Paris in 1725 he responded to an insult from a young French nobleman in kind and, as a result, was imprisoned in the Bastille without trial.

Fearing an indefinite prison sentence, Voltaire suggested that he be exiled to England as an alternative punishment, which the French authorities accepted.

During Voltaire’s nearly three years in England he was intrigued by the idea of a constitutional monarchy, in contrast to the French absolute monarchy, and by the country’s greater support of the freedoms of speech and religion.

He was also influenced by several neoclassical writers of the age, and developed an interest in earlier English literature, especially the works of Shakespeare, still relatively unknown in continental Europe.

He would go to become famous for his wit and for his advocacy of civil liberties, including freedom of religion, freedom of expression, free trade and separation of church and state.

“Voltaire came to England as a relatively unknown poet with only a recommendation from the British ambassador to Paris, so to make the aristocratic connections that he did shows him to be a brilliant social climber,” Cronk said.

The letters are the only known example of his using an English form of his first name, Francis, instead of Francois in French, according to the BBC.

His use of the Anglicized form of his name followed the receipt of a financial handout from the British court, which boosted his fledgling career.

Voltaire, ever the opportunist, made the canny move of dedicating a poem to the future Queen Caroline – and Cronk said she is likely to have been the instigator of the £200 payment.

“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,” he said.

The writer had already changed his surname. “Voltaire” was an invention, drawn from a Latin anagram of his family surname.

This latest find is unlikely to be the last word on finding more of Voltaire’s letters.

There are more than 20,000 letters from Voltaire known to scholars, but Cronk believes that there could still be thousands that remain unidentified.

(HT: A Blog About History)

One thought on “Long-lost letters reveal the young Voltaire

  1. Pingback: Classic Literature: Francois-Marie Arouet (1694 – 1778) aka Voltaire | Dispensable Thoughts

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