Letters concerning the English Nation

By Voltaire; Nicholas Cronk | Go to book overview

OXFORD WORLD'S CLASSICS


LETTERS CONCERNING THE ENGLISH NATION

VOLTAIRE was the assumed name of François-Marie Arouet ( 1694-1778). Born into a well-to-do Parisian family, he was educated at the leading Jesuit college in Paris. Having refused to follow his father and elder brother into the legal profession he soon won widespread acclaim for Œdipe (1718), the first of some fifty tragedies which he continued to write until the end of his life. His national epic La Henriade (1723) confirmed his reputation as the leading French literary figure of his generation. Following a quarrel with the worthless but influential aristocrat, the chevalier de Rohan, he travelled to England. This period ( 1726-8) was particularly formative, and his Letters concerning the English Nation ( 1733) constitute the first major expression of Voltaire's deism and his subsequent lifelong opposition to religious and political oppression. Following the happy years ( 1734-43) spent at Cirey with his mistress Mme Du Châtelet in the shared pursuit of several intellectual enthusiasms, notably the work of Isaac Newton, he enjoyed a brief interval of favour at court during which he was appointed Historiographer to the King. After the death of Mme Du Châtelet in 1749 he finally accepted an invitation to the court of Frederick of Prussia, but left in 1753 when life with this particular enlightened despot became intolerable. In 1755, after temporary sojourn in Colmar, he settled at Les Délices on the outskirts of Geneva. He then moved to nearby Ferney in 1759, the year Candide was published. Thereafter a spate of tragedies, stories, philosophical works, and polemical tracts, not to mention a huge number of letters, poured from his pen. The writer of competent tragedies had become the militant embodiment of the Age of Enlightenment. After the death of Louis XV in 1774 he eventually returned to Paris in 1778 for the performance of his last tragedy Irène. He was acclaimed and feted by the entire capital as the greatest living Frenchman and as one of the most effective champions of freedom, tolerance, and common sense the world has ever seen. He died there on 30 May 1778.

NICHOLAS CRONK is Fellow and Tutor in French at St Edmund Hall, and Faculty Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century French Literature in the University of Oxford.

-i-

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