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This richly evocative novel-in-letters tells the story of two Persian noblemen who have left their country—the modern Iran—to journey to Europe in search in wisdom. As they travel, they write home to wives and eunuchs in the harem and to friends in France and elsewhere. Their colorful observations on the culture differences between West and East conjure up Eastern sensuality, repression, and cruelty in contrast to the freer, more civilized West—but here also unworthy nobles and bishops, frivolous women in fashion, and conceited people of all kinds are satirized. Storytellers as well as letter-writers, Montesquieu’s Usbek and Rica are disrespectful and witty, but also serious moralists. Persian Letters was a succès de scandale in Paris society, and encapsulates the libertarian, critical spirit of the early eighteenth century.
C. J. Betts’s translation conveys the color of the original, and his introduction examines the inner meanings of Montesquieu’s satire. This edition also includes explanatory notes, appendices, and suggestions for further reading.
About the Author
Charles-Louis de Secondat was born in 1689 at La Brède, near Bordeaux, into an eminent family of parlementaires. His mother died when he was ten and Charles-Louis was sent to Paris to be educated and completed a law degree in Bordeaux in 1708. He returned to Paris in order to finish his education, staying until his father died in 1713. In 1714 he became a councilor at the Bordeaux Parlement and a year later married a Huguenot lady, Jeanne de Lartigue, probably for her money. They had three children. A year after their marriage Charles-Louis inherited the barony of Montesquieu and the post of président à mortier at the Bordeaux Parlement and five years later, in 1721, he published anonymously in Holland the Persian Letters, which ran into ten editions in one year. From 1721 to 1725 he lived in Paris frequenting fashionable society and conducting several love-affairs. He sold his post of président in 1726 because of financial difficulties, was elected to the French academy in 1727 and spent the next three years traveling in Europe (he stayed about eighteen months in England and became a freemason). He returned to France working mainly in Paris but occasionally traveling to the southwest to look after his estates and wine business. During this period his persistent eye troubles got worse and he gave up freemasonry because of the Church’s disapproval. In 1748 he published his most important work, The Spirit of Laws, which made an immediate impression and caused a lot of controversy. Montesquieu died in Paris of a fever in 1755. In 1751 The Spirit of Laws was placed on the Vatican Index and likewise the Persian Letters in 1761. Christopher Betts was born in 1936 and is at present a lecturer in the School of French Studies at the University of Warwick. Christopher Betts was born in 1936 and is at present a lecturer in the School of French Studies at the University of Warwick.