Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet) was born into a wealthy Parisian family in 1694. His intellectual powers made him a justly influential figure in the Enlightenment, but he seemed to court controversy, twice lampooning the regent Philipe D'Orleans, which earned him first exile from Paris, and then a year in the Bastille. On release, Voltaire continued to ride a roller-coaster between fame and ill-repute, becoming again a royal favourite until a love affair (and imminent duel) led to the threat of further imprisonment, a fate he escaped only by seeking exile across the Channel in May 1726. He would not return for almost three years.
Letters Concerning the English Nation is the fruit of this time in England, where he met King George I, perfected his English, and conversed with the likes of Jonathan Swift, Bolingbroke, and other lions of English Literary Society. He read widely, his open, analytical mind consuming a swathe of topics across the Arts and Science. The result is an enthralling series of essays, shot through with Voltaire's hallmark acerbic wit, celebrating the openness of 18th Century English society, its relatively meritocratic nature, and covering such disparate subjects as Trade, Sir Isaac Newton's Optics, Parliament, The Royal Society, Inoculation, John Locke, and The Quakers. Though lauded in Britain, in France this book was burned and the publisher jailed.