Voltaire's English alter ego unmasked in letters discovered by Oxford University Professor

By Ruth Hazard | 20 January 2010 | Updated: 20 January 2012
A Signature of Francis Voltaire
© Electronic Enlightenment, Bodleian Libraries
An Oxford University academic has discovered the existence of Francois Voltaire’s English alter ego in a series of letters written by the French literary figure during his time in Britain.

In two of the correspondences, found by Professor Cronk during his archival research, the writer signs his name as "Francis" - the English version of the original.

This was not his first change of identity. Born as Francois-Marie Arouet, the philosopher, poet, novelist and historian became better known by his pen name, an anagram of his family's Latin heritage, "Arovet Li".

A further 12 letters also uncovered by the director of Oxford University's Voltaire Foundation offer a unique new insight into the time "Francis" spent here, a two-year period that has remained largely undocumented.

Writing from a letter by Francois Voltaire
© Electronic Enlightenment, Bodleian Libraries
"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," says Professor Cronk.

"These newly discovered letters are therefore very interesting because they show how Voltaire's close interaction with the English aristocracy exposed him to these ideas and help us to piece together the nature of those interactions."

Voltaire came to Britain following an incident in late 1725 where he insulted the French nobleman Chevalier de Rohan, and was facing an indefinite prison sentence.

Agreeing to be exiled to England as alternative punishment, he arrived with nothing more than a recommendation letter from the Ambassador in Paris.

Cronk's research found that in correspondence to Lord Bathurst, a patron of the arts who hosted great thinkers at his manor, the writer thanked him for "the freedom of your house and the many liberties I enjoyed in that fine library."

A letter by Voltaire
© Electronic Enlightenment, Bodleian Libraries
By staying at Bathurst's estate, Voltaire would have the opportunity to engage with contemporaries such as Shakespeare, Newton, Locke, Swift, Pope both through reading their books and getting to meet them in person.
In another letter, Voltaire writes to the treasury to confirm receipt of a £200 grant from George II.

This was likely to have been at the request of Queen Caroline, a protector of the arts, demonstrating just how closely the writer had integrated himself into English aristocracy in such a short time.

"To make the aristocratic connections that he did shows him to be a brilliant social climber," suggests Cronk.

"Sarkozy referred to the stay when, during his pre-election campaign, he told French businessmen in England that they were following in Voltaire's footsteps. So it is exciting to be able to add to the existing knowledge of this short but important visit."

The set of letters have been made available online in the Bodleian Library's Electronic Enlightenment project, which now houses the complete collection of Voltaire’s works and correspondence.

A letter written by Voltaire
© Electronic Enlightenment, Bodleian Libraries
They will be accompanied by academic commentary and other digital resources in the hope of opening up the study of Voltaire, allowing interested members to see the original texts for themselves without having to travel to the relevant library.

Professor Cronk estimates that as well as the 20,00 Voltaire letters known to scholars, there are thousands more that have yet to be identified.

The discovery is part of a 50-year project by the Voltaire foundation which aims to produce the definitive edition of the writer's complete works by 2018.
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