Voltaire Patriarch



IN October, 1758, Voltaire bought an ancient estate at Ferney, in the pays, or county, of Gex, which bordered on Switzerland. Soon thereafter he added, by a life purchase, the neighboring seigneury of Tournay; now he became legally a lord, and in legal matters he signed himself “Comte de Tournay”; he displayed his coat of arms over his portal and on his silver plate.1

He had lived at Les Délices in Geneva since 1755, and had played with pleasure and acclaim the role of a millionaire philosopher who entertained handsomely. But d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie article on Geneva, revealing the private heresies of its clergymen, subjected Voltaire to charges that he had betrayed them to his friend. He ceased to be persona grata on Swiss soil, and looked about him for another residence. Ferney was in France, but only three miles from Geneva; there he could thumb his nose at the Calvinist leaders; and if the Catholic leaders in Paris—250 miles away—should renew their campaign for his arrest, he could in an hour be across the frontier; meanwhile (1758-70) his friend the Duc de Choiseul was heading the French ministry. Perhaps to guard against confiscation through a veering of the political wind, he bought Ferney in the name of his niece Mme. Denis, merely stipulating with her that she should recognize him as master of the estate as long as he lived. Till 1764 Les Délices remained his principal home; he took his time remodeling the house at Ferney, and finally moved into it in that year.

The new mansion was of stone, was largely designed by Voltaire, and contained fourteen bedrooms; the seigneur had prepared for his court. “It is not a palace,” he wrote, “but a commodious country house, with lands adjacent that produce much hay, wheat, straw, and oats. I have some oaks as straight as pines, which touch the sky.”2 Tournay added an old château, a farm, a barn, stables, fields, and woods. Altogether his stables sheltered horses, oxen, and fifty cows; his barns were spacious enough to store the produce of his lands and yet leave room for wine presses, poultry yards, and a sheep fold; four hundred beehives kept the plantation humming; and the trees gave wood to warm the Master’s bones against the winter winds. He bought and planted young trees, and grew many more from seedlings in his hothouses. He extended the gardens and grounds around his home till they measured three miles in circuit; they included fruit trees, grapevines, and a great variety of flowers. All these structures, plants, and fields, and their thirty caretakers, he supervised in person. Now again, as when he entered Les Délices, he was so content that he forgot to die. He wrote to Mme. du Deffand: “I owe my life and health to the course I have taken. If I dared I would believe myself wise, so happy am I.”3

Over the thirty or more servants and guests who lived in the château Mme. Denis ruled with an uneven hand. She was good-natured, but she had a temper, and loved money just a little bit more than she loved anything else. She called her uncle stingy; he denied it; in any case he “transferred to her, little by little, the greater part of his fortune.”4 He had loved her as a child, then as a woman; now he was glad to have her as his maîtresse d’hôtel. She acted in the plays that he staged, and so well that he compared her to Clairon. This praise went to her head; she took to writing dramas herself, and Voltaire was hard put to dissuade her from exposing them to public view. She was bored by country life, and longed for Paris; it was partly to amuse her that Voltaire invited and tolerated so long a succession of guests. She did not care for his secretary Wagnière, but she was fond of Père Adam, the old Jesuit whom Voltaire welcomed to his household as a genial foe at chess—and whom he surprised one day at the feet of servant Barbara.5 Once, perhaps by letting Laharpe depart with one of the Master’s manuscripts, Denis so angered Voltaire that he sent her off to Paris—with an annuity of twenty thousand francs.6 After eighteen months he broke down, and begged her to return.

Ferney became a goal of pilgrimage for those who could afford travel and had savored enlightenment. Here came minor rulers like the Duke of Württemberg and the Elector Palatine, lords like the Prince de Ligne and the Dues de Richelieu and Villars, notables like Charles James Fox, gleaners like Burney and Boswell, rakes like Casanova, and a thousand lesser souls. He lied lamely when the uninvited came: “Tell them I am very sick,” “Tell them that I am dead”; but no one believed. “My God!” he wrote to the Marquis de Villette, “deliver me from my friends; I will take care of my enemies myself.”7

He had hardly settled down at Ferney when Boswell appeared (December 24, 1764), still warm with his visits to Rousseau. Voltaire sent down word that he was still in bed, and could not be disturbed. This was but a slight discouragement to the eager Scot; he stayed on doggedly till Voltaire came forth; they conversed briefly, then Voltaire retired to his study. On the following day, from an inn in Geneva, Boswell wrote to Mme. Denis:

I must beg your interest, Madam, in obtaining for me a very great favor from M. de Voltaire. I intend to have the honor to return to Ferney Wednesday or Thursday. The gates of this sober city shut at a most … absurd hour, so that one is obliged to post away after dinner before the illustrious landlord has had time to shine upon his guests. . . .

Is it possible, Madam, that I may be allowed to lodge one night under the roof of M. de Voltaire? I am a hardy and vigorous Scot. You may mount me to the highest and coldest garret. I shall not even refuse to sleep upon two chairs in the bedchamber of your maid.8

Voltaire bade his niece tell the Scot to come; there would be a bed for him. He came on December 27, spoke with Voltaire while Voltaire was playing chess, was charmed by the Master’s English conversation and curses, and then was “very genteelly lodged” in “a handsome room.”9 On the morrow he undertook to convert Voltaire to orthodox Christianity; soon Voltaire, almost fainting, had to beg a respite. A day later Boswell discussed his landlord’s religion with Père Adam, who told him, “I pray for Monsieur de Voltaire every day.... It is a pity that he is not a Christian. He has many Christian virtues. He has the most beautiful soul. He is benevolent; he is charitable; but he is very strongly prejudiced against the Christian religion.”10

To entertain his guests Voltaire provided food, wisdom, wit, and drama. Near his home he built a small theater; Gibbon, seeing it in 1763, described it as “very neat and well contrived, situated just by his chapel, which is far inferior to it.”11 The philosopher laughed at Rousseau and the Genevan ministers, who condemned the stage as the Devil’s rostrum. He trained not only Mme. Denis but his servants and guests to take parts in his and other plays; he himself pranced across the boards in principal roles; and professional actors were readily persuaded to perform for the most famous writer in the world.

Visitors found his appearance almost as fascinating as his conversation. The Prince de Ligne described him as muffled up in a flower-patterned dressing gown, an immense wig topped with a bonnet of black velvet, jacket of fine cotton reaching to his knees, red breeches, gray stockings, shoes of white cloth.12 His eyes were “brilliant and filled with fire,” according to Wagnière; and the same devoted secretary reported that his master “often washed his eyes with pure, cool water,” and “never used spectacles.”13 In the later years of his life, tired of shaving, he pulled out his beard with pincers. “He had a singular love for cleanliness and neatness,” Wagnière continues, “and was himself scrupulously clean.”14 He made frequent use of cosmetics, perfumes, and pomades; his keen sense of smell suffered from any offensive odor.15 He was “unbelievably thin,” with just enough flesh to cover his bones. Dr. Burney, after visiting him in 1770, wrote: “It is not easy to conceive it possible for life to subsist in a form so nearly composed of skin and bone. … He supposed I was anxious to form an idea of … one walking after death.”16 He described himself as “ridiculous for not being dead.”17

He was sick half his life. He had an especially sensitive epidermis; he complained frequently of various itches,18 perhaps from nervousness or excessive cleanliness. He suffered at times from strangury—slow and painful urination; in this regard he and Rousseau, so often at odds, were brothers under the skin. He drank coffee at every turn: fifty times a day, according to Frederick the Great;19 three times a day, said Wagnière.20 He laughed at doctors, and noted that Louis XV had outlived forty of his physicians; and “who ever heard of a centenarian doctor?”21—but he himself used many medicines. He agreed with Molière’s candidate for the M.D. that the best remedy in any serious illness is clister turn donare;22 he purged himself thrice a week with a cassia solution, or with a soapy enema.23 The best medicine, he thought, was preventive, and the best preventive was to clean the internal organs and the external integument.24 Despite his years, ailments, and visitors, he worked with the energy that comes to a man who does not carry surplus flesh. Wagnière reckoned that his master slept “not more than five or six hours” a day.25 He worked far into the night, and sometimes he roused Father Adam from bed to help him hunt a Greek word.26

He held action to be a good remedy for philosophy and suicide. Still better, action outdoors. Voltaire literally cultivated his garden; sometimes he plowed or sowed with his own hands.27 Mme. du Deffand detected in his letters the pleasure with which he saw his cabbages grow. He hoped that posterity would remember him at least for the thousands of trees that he had planted. He reclaimed wastelands and drained swamps. He set up a breeding stable, brought in ten mares, and welcomed the Marquis de Voyer’s offer of a stallion. “My seraglio is ready,” he wrote, “nothing is wanting but the sultan.... So much has been written of late years on population that I wish at least to people the land of Gex with horses, since I am little able to have the honor of increasing my own species.”28To the physiologist Haller he wrote: “The best thing we can do on this earth is to cultivate it; all other experiments in physics are by comparison children’s play. Honor to those who sow the earth; woe to the miserable man—crowned or helmeted or tonsured—who troubles it!”29

Not having enough land to give agricultural employment to all the population around him, he organized in Ferney and Tournay shops for watchmaking and the weaving of stockings—for which his mulberry trees grew silk. He gave employment to all who asked for it, until he had eight hundred persons working for him. He built a hundred houses for his workers, lent them money at four per cent, and helped them find markets for their products. Soon crowned heads were buying the watches of Ferney, and titled ladies, seduced by his letters, wore stockings some of which he claimed to have woven with his own hand. Catherine II bought Ferney watches to the value of 39,000 livres, and offered to help him find outlets in Asia. Within three years the watches, clocks, and jewelry made in Ferney went in regular shipments to Holland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Algeria, Turkey, Russia, China, and America. As a result of the new industries Ferney grew from a village of forty peasants to a population of twelve hundred during Voltaire’s stay. “Give me a fair chance,” he wrote to Richelieu, “and I am the man to build a city.”30 Catholics and Protestants lived in peace on the lands of the infidel.

His relations with his “vassals” were those of a bon seigneur. He treated them all with conscience and courtesy. “He talked with his peasants,” said the Prince de Ligne, “as if they were ambassadors.”31 He exempted them from the taxes on salt and tobacco (1775).32 He fought in vain but persistently to have all the peasants of the Pays de Gex freed from serfdom. When the region was threatened with famine he imported wheat from Sicily and sold it far below what it had cost him.33 While carrying on his war againstl’infâme—against superstition, obscurantism, and persecution—he spent much of his time in practical administration. He excused himself for not leaving Ferney to visit his friends: “I have eight hundred people to guide and sustain; … I cannot absent myself without having everything relapse into chaos.”34 His success as an administrator astonished all who saw the results. “He showed clear judgment and very good sense,” said one of his severest critics.35 Those whom he governed learned to love him; on one occasion they threw laurel leaves into his coach as he passed.36 The young people were especially fond of him, for he opened his château to them every Sunday for dancing and refreshments;37 he urged them on, and rejoiced in their joy. “He was very happy,” reported Mme. de Gallatin, “and did not perceive that he was eighty-two years old.”38 He perceived it, but was content. “Je deviens patriarche,” he wrote—“I am becoming a patriarch.”39

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