Rear Window: Age of Achievement: When Britain was Great and France was jealous

Share
Related Topics
'POSTERITY,' wrote Voltaire, 'will very possibly be surprised to hear that an island whose only produce is a little lead, tin, fuller's-earth and coarse wool should become so powerful by its commerce as to be able to send in 1723 three fleets at the same time to three different and far distanced parts of the globe.'

The island in question was Britain, by then already a naval force to be reckoned with. Writing in 1733, Voltaire apparently imagined a future time when it would seem incongruous to the French that Britain could ever have been a great power. He did not say how far distant that time might be, but perhaps it has finally arrived, after 261 years.

In Paris last week, the French Institute for International Relations produced a survey of world affairs which included a lengthy 'British dossier' that painted the picture of a country bypassed by history.

To study Britain, said the Institute, was to study decline. Beset by desperate economic and social problems, the British could think only of cheap sex scandals and empty political infighting. They turned their backs on Europe but failed to recognise that the United States no longer valued their friendship. Education and learning were so badly neglected that the country had slipped far behind its rivals, and even the current economic recovery had served only to highlight British shortcomings and hypocrisy.

Voltaire's England could hardly have been more different in character; indeed he was so impressed that he was even prepared to praise the English above his own countrymen: 'The French are of so flexible a disposition . . . that the monarch needs but command and he is instantly obeyed. The English generally think, and learning is had in greater honour among them than in our country.'

He wrote from first-hand knowledge, having spent more than two years in London, in 1726-28, during which he met Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and John Gay, was presented to George I and Sir Robert Walpole, attended the theatre often and mastered the language well enough to swear 'bloodily' (according to a friend) and write several literary works in English.

He came to publish an epic poem on French history, entitled La Henriade, which he thought would land him in trouble if produced in France. England was then, to many in on the Continent, a land of liberty and a refuge from autocratic monarchs. When Voltaire published his Letters Concerning the English Nation some years later he found no reason to depart from that view.

'The English,' he wrote, 'are the only nation who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of kings by resisting them; and who by a series of struggles have at last established that wise government where the Prince is all-powerful to do good and at the same time is restrained from committing evil; where the nobles are great without insolence . . . and where the people share in the government without confusion.'

The tax arrangements are such that 'no one is tyrannised over, and everyone is easy. The feet of the peasants are not bruised by wooden shoes; they eat white bread, are well clothed and are not afraid of increasing their stock of cattle nor of tiling their houses, from any apprehension that their taxes will be raised the year following.'

Voltaire was particularly impressed by English prowess in trade, which he thought tended to increase liberty and engender tolerant attitudes. 'Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London,' he urged, '. . . where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan and the Christian transact together as though they all professed the same religion and give the name of Infidel to none but bankrupts.'

He found his English hosts - even the nobility - attached to learning and science. A discussion of the ideas of Isaac Newton, whose funeral he witnessed in 1727, fills much of the Letters. Newton and Descartes are compared, broadly to the advantage of the Englishman.

Voltaire could, however, be critical. Shakespeare, he said, may have been a genius, but he 'had not so much as a single spark of good taste, or knew one rule of the drama'.

And he could be wrong: 'The English,' he wrote, 'are not fired with the splendid folly of making conquests, but would only prevent their neighbours from conquering. They are not only jealous of their own liberty, but even of that of other nations.' Within 30 years India, Canada and countless other distant lands had been conquered, and the British Empire was born. But that, as the French Institute would undoubtedly point out today, is history.

(Photographs omitted)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A royal serving the nation

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko prior to the start of the European Council Summit in Brussels last month  

David Cameron talks big but is waving a small stick at the Russian bear

Kim Sengupta
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003