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Amused and enthralled,
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This review is from: Letters on England (Classics) (Paperback)
Voltaire enjoyed his time in England, spending some time here in exile after one of his many disputes with the French court. In his best known work and masterpiece, Candide, or Optimism (Penguin Classics), the only time Voltaire makes a comment about the country is over the firing squad of Admiral Byng, who it is suggested was shot "pour encourager les autres," a phrase from French that has come into the English language.
More often Voltaire was positive about England, even if it was sometimes tempered with his famous sense of irony. These letters demonstrate this. For him, it was a place of tolerance and enlightenment. Not least religious tolerance, about which he observes, contrasting with his native France:
"If there were only one religion in England there would be danger of despotism, if there were two they would cut each other's throats, but there are thirty, and they live in peace and happiness."
He was not, however, blind to the intolerances he did find, noting for example that only Anglicans could hold certain positions in Government, though he still found the priests less corrupt. He also observed other religious sects at the time including the Presbyterians and above all the Quakers, admiring them for their piety and way of living. Though the admiration was also tinted with some amusement. The real religion in England, he states, is the Stock Exchange where people of all sects trade together.
In this book, Voltaire also looks at secular institutions such as Parliament, the Stock Exchange, theatre and the inoculation of smallpox which he admires. He is also interested in the science of Isaac Newton and the poetry of Alexander Pope as well as turning his thoughts back to French culture with a letter on Pascal. All of these observations are served up in this book with a combination of lightness of touch and perceptiveness. If at times he is satirical, at the same time there is that wonderful sense of sanity for which this writer is justifiably celebrated.
Readers of Voltaire's greatest work, "Candide" will find plenty more to enjoy here. In some ways, though written nearly three hundred years ago, one can also say little has changed. This is one of the most acute observations of the English character ever penned.