Episode 81: Voltaire in London
What would Voltaire make of London today? The great enlightened thinker spent a couple of years enjoying London's charms.
Of course, London has changed a lot since then, but some things never change and Voltaire would doubtless appreciate the city's sense of irony and humour.
Join Hazel Baker as she talks with City of London tour guide Ian McDiarmid to discuss Voltaire and his life in London.
Letters on England Voltaire, Penguin
Voltaire Almighty a life in pursuit of freedom, Roger Pearson Bloomsbury
The Huguenots of London, Robin Gwynn The Alpha Press
Hazel is an active Londoner, a keen theatre-goer and qualified CIGA London tour guide.
She has won awards for tour guiding and is proud to be involved with some great organisations. She is a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Marketors and am an honorary member of The Leaders Council.
Ian qualified as a City of London tour guide in 2017 and has a particular passion for Roman and Medieval history, having in an earlier incarnation studied history at Cambridge and London universities.
Guest: Ian McDiarmid
Ian qualified as a City of London tour guide in 2017 and has a particular passion for Roman and Medieval history, having in an earlier incarnation studied history at Cambridge and London universities.
Hazel Baker: If you stroll down Maiden Lane in London's West End, you'll come across a green plaque honouring the great Voltaire. Although he only spent a brief time in London, it made a lasting impression on him and helped shape his critical thinking.
What would Voltaire make of London today? The great enlightened thinker spent a couple of years enjoying London's charms. Of course, London has changed a lot since then, but some things never change and Voltaire would doubtless appreciate the city's sense of irony and humour.
Joining me in the studio today is City of London tour guide Ian McDiarmid to discuss Voltaire and his life in London. Hello Ian.
Ian McDiarmid: Hi there.
Hazel Baker: All right. It's not an obvious one, is it, Voltaire in London?
Ian McDiarmid: No. And you began by mentioning the plaque in Maiden Lane. And I've been thinking about plaques the past couple of days. I've never really thought about them before, but I have mixed feelings about them. And although I've never discussed this topic with anyone, I suspect my thoughts are probably shared by many. And that is that they are so often startlingly disappointing, particularly in South-West London, around Kensington and Belgravia. You see a plaque on a building across the road, and it's often something like "the most eminent, most dominant practitioner of garden design between 1860 and 1880" or something like that, with someone with a puffed up sense of their own importance, trying to puff themselves up a bit more by showing how important their house is. On the other hand, there are some good plaques like this one.
I like it partly because he's obviously so important, but also because Maiden Lane is a very pleasant street. I think there's nothing that remains from the time Voltaire was ther, I think it's all 19th century, isn't it? And I like it when a plaque tells you something, you didn't know. About somebody who's important and interesting, and it fires the imagination and this one does all of those things to me. And also when we walk past plaques, I tend to take them for granted, but actually reconstructing Voltaire's movements in London was quite difficult and it was done by Norma Perry, who, if I remember correctly, was a lecturer in English at Exeter university. And she did these extensive researches and it's difficult because, as you and I know with our kind of fumblings around with London history, fumblings around, in my case, perhaps they are a little bit more erudite in your case, Hazel, but it's difficult to pinpoint things down in the past often.
It's very frustrating. And she had a lot of difficulty, I think, because the names of streets change and references to buildings that aren’t there any more. Anyway, she finally did the research and this plaque was first put up there in 1979. And then it was then replaced by the one we see today in 1994. And they had a bit of a ceremony and they got the French ambassador along, which I quite like, because so often when you read the press, it's all about sort of troubles between Britain and France, such as between Boris Johnson and Macron and all the rest of it. But, obviously the ties between the two countries are very important.
Voltaire was a bit of an odd character. There are some uncomfortable things about his life. One of the things about him is he had a very long relationship and odd relationship with his niece, which has parallels with previous podcasts on eminent people like Dr Robert Hooke.
That there are hints of some rather dark financial dealings on his side. There's no such thing as a hero, and leaving the dark aside, he is, he was immensely clever, funny, and a critic of the regime.
So it was very interesting for me to see this plaque in Maiden Lane. I should perhaps mention his other places. He was here in London between May 1726 and Autumn 1728. And the first couple of months he spent in Wandsworth. He then moved to Durham court, which was on what is now John Adams street. So that's just to the South of the strand and then he moves just north of the Strand to where this plaque is on Maiden Lane and he remained there six months and then goes back to Wandsworth briefly and then goes back to France. So that's a sort of summary of his movements.
Hazel Baker: So we seem to like the West End?
Ian McDiarmid: Yes and Wandsworth. And I think there's a pattern here. And the pattern is partly former acquaintances of Voltaire in France. He knew Everard Fawkener who he stayed with in Wandsworth. He was a merchant, but he had ties with France. He was living in France and ran a dye works in Wandsworth, which along with Greenwich was, I think, the largest concentration of Huguenots, French Protestant immigrants outside the centre of London, certainly within theLondon area. So that's quite interesting. And then he moves up to Durham Court and Durham Court is the residence of the secretary of Lord Bolingbroke who had been in exile in France.
Voltaire pays this man for his rent, another connection with France and then he moves up to Maiden Lane and he stays in a property called The White Peruke, which this is a barbershop, run by a Huguenot. And I think this connection with the Huguenots is obviously important to Voltaire because as a great critic of the Catholic church in France, he would find anatural home among them to some extent though Voltaire was irritated by the more extreme and dour forms of Protestantism. But the kind of more libertarian Huguenots he could get on with quite well with. And of course, they were native French speakers. And one of the reasons he comes to London is because he's produced this great epic poem called the Henriade about Henry IV. And one of the things that he does in his great epic poem is to praise
Henry's rather tolerant attitude towards religion.
It was therefore quite difficult to publish in France. And what he wanted to do was to come over to England and get a really proper edition made. So that quite suited, I think, moving within the Huguenots.
There were two big centres of Huguenots in London. One is centred on the French church in a Threadneedle Street in the heart of the City. But the other is where he is, around the strand centred on the Savoy. Earlier on Charles II had granted Huguenots the right to a chapel in what had been the Savoy on condition that they followed the rights of the Church of England.
So the Huguenots around the Strand had the use of the Savoy chapel, and used the Book of Common Prayer translated into French, which caused a certain amount of friction with the more austere Protestants over in theCity. But nevertheless, there were these two great concentrations of Huguenots within central London.
The other one was centred on the City and in Spitalfields. Around the Strand there were lots of craftsmen, such as wig makers, hence the name of the White Perruke. So it was quite a sort of natural place for Voltaire to go.
Hazel Baker: And what do we know about his movements?
Ian McDiarmid: We know that he met the poet Alexander Pope and Jonathan swift, author of Gulliver's travels and John Gay, who is the author of the Beggar's opera. The stay in England and in London will lead to one of Voltaire's best known books, which has thad the original title in English ‘Letters Concerning the English Nation’, later known in English as the ‘Letters on England’.
The book is a series of letters, and in one of these he mentions the name of a couple of opera singers in the Haymarket. And therefore it's a logical conclusion to draw that he went to the Haymarket to see Handel’s operas sung by these people.
And we also know that he was presented at court and he was patronised by Queen Caroline. And he dedicates the edition of the Henriade to her as well.. He witnessed the state funeral of Isaac Newton in 1727, and Newton is an incredibly important influence on Voltaire.
When he goes back to France, he will have one of his most long standing relationships with Emilie du Chatelet. She will be the first person to translate the Principia into French.
Hazel Baker: And you mentioned getting a proper edition of the Henriade. What were the other reasons he came to England?
Ian McDiarmid: One is, I think a longstanding desire on his part probably to visit England, because of all of the things that Voltaire was opposed to in France. He disliked the Catholic church. He disliked the arbitrary and absolute French monarchy. England was an alternative model, a place where the government wasn't arbitrary, where the king was subject to the law, where you couldn't be put in prison without a trial, where the press was fairly free.
So a lot of the things that Voltaire naturally admired were things that England championed and therefore it was a natural place for him to be curious about and want to visit. The second reason for his leaving France to come to England is a rather more pressing one. And that is to get him out of the Bastille. Voltaire had been imprisoned in the Bastille before. Earlier on he had written scurrilous poetry about the prince regent and in particular recycled a fairly widespread rumor that the regent was having an incestuous relationship with his daughter. And that got him quite a lengthy spell in the Bastille without trial. And then just before his exit to England, he had insulted a French aristocrat, the Chevallier de Rohan.
And we don't precisely know what happened, but it looks as though de Rohan didn't like Voltaire very much. And he made some disparaging remark about Voltaire's relatively humble origins volt. His father was extremely rich by 18th century standards. He was a notary, but that made him a member of the bourgeoisie and not a noble. And secondly, Voltaire had adopted the name Voltaire. He was born Arrouet and therefore had taken on this name and it looks as though Rohan-Chabot made asked ‘Who are you? Are you Arrrouet? Or are you Voltaire?’ implying that his name's made up and that has has common origins and Voltaire came back at him with some pithy remark about bringing glory to his assumed name and not bringing the name of his ancestors into dishonour.
De Rohan-Cahbot has Voltaire beaten up, Voltaire challenges him to a duel, and he then gets Voltaire locked up in the Bastille. Voltaire remains there for just a couple of weeks this time and looks as though he's done some deal with the authorities and the authorities on the quiet say, okay, we'll let you out, but you have to stay outside
Paris, or they might have stipulated that they want him to get out of the kingdom as a whole. And it looks as though Voltaire is escorted to the French coast by an escort in the employ of the French crown, and hence over to England.
On the one hand he's brushing up against the autocratic arbitrary state in France, but again, it's him being indiscreet and getting himself into trouble. So this is fairly typical Voltaire. And then he flees over to England. So a mixture of motives for coming over here.
Hazel Baker: And how important was the trip to the Letters?
Ian McDiarmid: The Letters on England is perhaps I think nowadays Voltaire’s best-known work after Candide. He saw himself as a writer of great plays and epic poetry, but certainly in the English speaking world, these are the two works that he is best known for.
The Letters’ arguments are important also because they become a kind of manifesto for the Enlightenment in general. And the book has a rather mixed nature. On the one hand, superficially it's like a kind of travel book on England, but it's a travel book with a difference because people before Voltaire, when they'd been writing in general about England say, had been doing topographical surveys and Voltaire had no interest in that kind of thing at all.
And this is one of the difficulties Norma Perry I think had in tracing his movements in England: there are no topographical references at all. And in a way, that's disappointing because you'd love to see a description of London, but Voltaire is just not interested in that. It's about ideas. It's about describing England and it works on a couple of levels. On the one hand it's a summary of the English and describing to a French audience how odd the English are, which would meet with a ready audience. So there is a lot about English eccentricity, and I think the best bits of the book are the bits on English religion.
The first chapter is on the Quakers and the following letters are on other forms or religion in England. And this would work very well with a French audience. The Quakers weren't particularly significant and they certainly wouldn't merit the first chapter of a book in terms of the numerical presence.
I think to the eyes of Voltaire and indeed to a sort of French audience they are very strange. They don't take their hats off. They address people as ‘thou’ and Voltaire describes all this but behind this kind of flippancy, there is a deep reverence for England. And there's the great quote from the book about religion in England.
He says ‘If there was only one religion in England, there would be the danger of despotism, if they were two, they would cut each other's throat, but there are 30 and they live in peace and happiness.’
And this shows his deep reverence for England, although it's superficially taking the mickey out of the English. England is a tolerant society, according to Voltaire, where religion is not allowed to dominate life, where the English tolerate each other. And of course, this is the great thing about his writing a book on England: the real target of it is France.
The other chapters in the book often take on a more serious form.
So he writes a chapter, for example, on Mary Montagu Worsley who introduces Smallpox inoculation into England. And there, the point behind it is that the English have adopted this method and they've realised it's worked by experimentation. It works in England. This is widely diffused. We should be doing this in France as well.
And he writes Letters on Locke and Newton. And again, these don't have the kind of jokey feel of the coverage of religion in England. Just a serious thing, describing them and saying how important they are and how important in particular is their empirical method. And again, by implication, this is something that France should adopt.
And one of the phrases in the book is something along the lines of a French man who arrives in London will find philosophy like everything else, very much changed there. He had left the world a plenum and he now finds it a vacuum. And this is a reference to Descartes and Newton. Descartes' had explained what Newton would explain by gravity by describing the universe as full of vortices.
And this was how the motion of the planets for example, was explained. And of course Newton's universe is one where the force of gravity can act on bodies over long distances without the need for vortices. Voltaire is championing the cause of Newton.
Hazel Baker: So I've got a couple of questions. First one up is where were his books and papers published?
Ian McDiarmid: In a variety of places, first of all. But the problem was that in France, they had censorship. You might, if you were on the right side of things, have the king sanction your book and you could get it printed. Then there were lots of works to which the authorities turned a blind eye, and someone like Voltaire will get a lot of his work printed outside France in places like The Netherlands and also in Switzerland and then get them transported into France. And then there were the books that were outright banned, which again, you would then have to play a cat and mouse game with the authorities, getting them published abroad and smuggled into the country.
In England he is in the open and he's relying on the book publishers and a couple of these are based in the city. It is documented that Voltaire goes and visits one of these in the city. And then you've got a lot of the Huguenot skilled workers, either working in and around the Strand or in the City itself.
The Letters on England have quite a convoluted process of coming to publication.
The first version was published in English as Letters Concerning the English nation, as a translation of Voltaire's own French writing. And then in the same year he published the work in French in England. He then goes back to France and there publishes the work in French as the ‘Lettres Philosophiques.
I think there are two reasons for the changing title fromLetters Concerning the English Nation to Philosophical Letters. One is to probably to try and get a little bit under the radar of the French authorities. I thinkif they saw the title Letters on England, they'd be fairly wise as to what was going on, that there was likely to be a literary attack on France.
And secondly, he does a thing that's rather odd to a modern reader at the back of the book. He tacks on a 25th letter, which is about the thinking of Pascal, the great French philosopher. And this was a bit odd because it's got nothing to do with London, nothing to do with England, but reflects the book’s evolution as a kind of manifesto for the Enlightenment as a whole. Because again, by attacking Pascal, he's putting himself forward as a man who is very much on the side of empiricism.
Hazel Baker: Was he well-off?
Ian McDiarmid: Yes, he is because this became a best seller, particularly in England, but also in France as well. So he's a phenomenal publishing success. And throughout his life, he has a mixture of financial success and financial failures with his literary projects. But the ones that sort of fail, I don't think lose him a great deal of money. And he is an absolute publishing sensation. With this work. And also obviously later on with a couple of his works and in particular Candide, which again goes ballistic in terms of 18th century sales.
And then Voltaire is also quite well off. His father was rich and he left Voltaire an inheritance and then Voltaire seems to be spectacularly successful in making money. He has various ventures whereby he's lending money out, and notoriously he has this great scheme whereby he, and some colleagues later on make a huge amount of the French lottery, having realised that there was a fundamental flaw in the mathematics behind the lottery. And if you buy up certain tickets, you're pretty much guaranteed to win, and they do that and they make a huge amount of money.
Throughout his life. He is very wealthy and he later sets himself up as a kind of landed gentlemen in France, though near the Swiss border. He's in very close contact with Geneva at a place called Ferney, which is now known as Ferney-Voltaire and which is immediately north of Geneva, so he can get across the border if should he ever need to and escape the French authorities.
Hazel Baker: And you're saying it was the best-seller over here. I'm assuming that is an English version and the English quite liked being praised for their ability to get on. And our eccentricities is something we're quite proud of isn't it?
Ian McDiarmid: Yes, I think so. I think when I read the book that it's a great summary of what England is, if you're taking a very positive view of England, and also it's a sort of great call to what England could be, because it is deeply flattering. It is England as a land full of eccentrics and a land of toleration and a land which appreciates progress.
It's also a land of commerce ruled by parliament. And a lot of these things are relevant to the 18th century, but a lot of them are relevant now as well, I think. And indeed there's a great debate in the historiography on England as a whole in the 18th century as to whether England conforms to Voltaire's model as the one I've just described as a rather enlightened, progressive place. The other view is the one expressed later on in the century, by the American founding fathers, when they describe Englandt as being old corruption dominated by the aristocracy and completely at odds with the modern Republic that they're creating in America.
So you've got these two sides of the argument and inevitably modern historians debate along pretty much similar lines. There are certainly historians who think 18th century England was just another European ancient regime. And there are others who think that it is the most progressive part of Europe.
For my part I'm rather with Voltaire on that one in my non-expert appreciation of it. I think England conforms more to Voltaire's picture than the derogatory picture later presented by the American revolutionaries. And as I say, it was a great manifesto for the Enlightenment and it's also a great manifesto for what England can and should be today.
Hazel Baker: And do you think Voltaire would have thought himself as a philosopher or an author?
Ian McDiarmid: Both I think. Later on in his life at Ferney, he held court, people would come and visit him and ask for droplets of wisdom from the mouth of the great philosopher.
And the other thing to remember about him is not only his intellect, but the fact that he was extremely funny. The descriptions of the quakers, as you can see, are really going to be quite funny to an 18th century French audience in particular.
He loved being outrageous. When he goes back to France, he had this long relationship with Emilie Duchatelet. One of the things she does is that she opens his correspondence. Now that's quite a creepy thing and it might well be a kind of emotional thing to keep him close to her. But on the other hand, she was also very much concerned about him getting himself into trouble and she wants to keep an eye on him and stop him getting into arguments. He just couldn't stop himself, when he felt he had been insulted, and he was outrageous and very funny.
Hazel Baker: Thank you very much. Good.
Ian McDiarmid: My pleasure, Hazel.
And for listeners, if you want to know more about the 18th century, then jump on to the show notes for this episode of Voltaire in London.
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