Voltaire at Ferney
When Voltaire sought refuge at Ferney in 1758, he had already led a tumultuous existence. He had been in or out of favour at various royal courts, writing successful plays or writing flops, jotting slanderous verses or penning philosophical works.
His first 66 years had been marked by fame and fortune—indeed, he was very wealthy—but also by scandal, grief, imprisonment and flight.
Voltaire had been living temporarily at Les D?lices in Geneva, but turmoil followed him wherever he went and, no longer feeling safe, in November 1758 he purchased land at Ferney. He said of the village’s forty inhabitants: “Half of them perish in squalor and the other half rot in hovels. My heart bleeds to see so much misery.” He decided to do something about it. He ordered the land to be cleared, trees to be planted, modern agricultural methods to be introduced, a tannery built, and a silk-stocking and watch factory opened. Seventeen years later he was able to describe to one of his correspondents that Ferney was now “an affluent little town of some twelve hundred useful souls”. He also built over 100 houses in addition to a school, a hospital and a water fountain. A regular market was instituted.
Voltaire’s purpose in buying this land was that, if threatened by the French authorities, he could quickly slip across the border into Geneva, and vice-versa if threatened by the Genevan authorities. In 1760 he took up permanent residence at the Ch?teau de Ferney with his niece Mme Denis.
At this time, Voltaire’s fame was worldwide. His salon was the intellectual capital of Europe and he welcomed countless famous visitors from England, France, Germany, Russia, Spain, Italy—among them Casanova. He became known as “the innkeeper of Europe”. From Ferney, he maintained an enormous correspondence: with philosophers, old friends, actors and actresses; with people of influence in the French court; with Frederick II of Prussia; with Catherine the Great of Russia (see box).
Voltaire renovated the old church in Ferney, which stood next to the chateau. He had Deo erexit Voltaire (Voltaire erected this to God) carved on the fa?ade. All European churches bear the name of a particular saint; to be different, Voltaire devoted his church not to a saint but to the honour of God. In 1826 Voltaire’s church was replaced by the present building in Ferney village (although the old church is still there).
He meddled in Geneva politics by taking the side of the workers and succeeded in suppressing the customs barrier between Geneva and the Pays de Gex. Voltaire was well liked by his servants and it was said of his cook that evidently she thought that she was preparing soup for God Himself. He gained enormous popularity and in 1777 was publicly thanked by the people of Ferney.
The patriarch of Ferney was also the indefatigable champion of lost causes, the defender of victims of intolerance and fanaticism. Through his vigorous intervention, he was able to overturn a number of scandalous miscarriages of justice. He was particularly ferocious in his opposition to l’inf?me, his word to designate religious bigotry and superstition. He produced a prodigious number of writings using an extraordinary variety of pseudonyms in favour of a simple religion based on tolerance, but would fail to shake the ecclesiastical institutions and people’s loyalty to their traditional faith. Nevertheless, he established some of the essential directions of modern humanism: great men are not those who go to war but rather those who advance civilization; religious toleration fosters progress and prosperity; scientific progress follows from reasoning based on observation of the facts; the purpose of life is not to reach heaven through penitence but to ensure the happiness of the greatest number of people through material prosperity; the rights of man shall be respected through the abolition of torture.
Voltaire continued to write plays while living at Ferney, though with no great success. However, on 10 February 1778, aged 84, and wishing to direct the rehearsals of his latest play, Ir?ne, he returned to Paris. He had not set foot there for twenty-eight years and was received in triumph. More than 300 persons called to see him on the following day. He entered the Acad?mie fran?aise on 30 March amid acclamation. When his new play opened, it was watched by delirious audiences and he was crowned in his box. The excitement proved too much for his old body. He was stricken with failing health and died on 30 May. His body was swiftly transported away by his nephew and given a Christian burial. The official prohibition of such a ceremony arrived just too late. In 1791, during the French Revolution (for which he was held responsible!), his remains were transferred to the Panth?on. (His body would subsequently be stolen from its tomb by a group of religious extremists in the nineteenth century and has never been found.)
While Voltaire’s correspondence is considered to be one of the greatest monuments of French literature, his epic poems and plays have now largely been forgotten. However, when Voltaire purchased the estate at Ferney he had just written his most famous book, Candide. Within a year it had been translated and published all over Europe. The story of Candide—not by any means a long book—is about a young well-born German who is pitched and tossed helplessly through a series of hair-raising misfortunes that take him nearly round the world. He survives by the skin of his teeth and sees much suffering. He has been led to believe that this is “the best of all possible worlds”, but just cannot accept it. Finding tranquillity at last, he discovers that the secret of happiness is “to cultivate one’s garden”. It is a dream of peace and security for a harassed and disillusioned traveller. Through wisdom, through faith in humanity and social progress, with a determination to take charge of one’s own life, Candide’s garden is a symbol of what can be achieved by industry and civilization. And this is precisely what Voltaire did at Ferney.
When Voltaire took possession of the Ch?teau de Ferney in 1758, it consisted of a central block in the style of an eighteenth-century mansion. The ruins of a defensive outer wall with watchtowers surrounded the courtyard. Voltaire set in motion a series of sweeping changes. First he demolished the fortifications and negotiated the exchange of parts of the estate with his neighbours to make his own land more regular in shape; an arrangement that was as advantageous to his neighbours as it was to himself. He then laid out extensive formal terraces with trees, walkways and a carp pond, bordered by orchards, chestnut trees, vineyards, mulberry trees and vegetable gardens. In about 1766, the chateau was extended symmetrically by the addition of a wing on each side, one of which contained Voltaire’s library. A nearby barn was converted into a theatre. One visitor estimated that the staff of 150 was required to run Voltaire’s houses, gardens and associated farms. In his correspondence Voltaire mentions his farm animals and his “eagle, fox and rabbits”. Catherine the Great of Russia was such a fan of Voltaire that, when he died, she had a model of his chateau made so that she could build a similar one at her summer residence of Tsarskoye-Selo near St Petersburg—but she never did. However, she did purchase his library and a marble sculpture of Voltaire and had them transported to Russia where they can now be found in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.