Switzerland and Voltaire



ON the Lyons road, just outside the gates of Geneva but within its jurisdiction, Voltaire at last found a place where he could lie down in security and peace, a spacious villa called St.-Jean, with terraced gardens descending to the Rhone. As the laws of the republic forbade the sale of land to any but Swiss Protestants, he provided the 87,000 francs that bought the property (February, 1755) through the agency of Labat de Grandcour and Jean Robert Tronchin.I With all the enthusiasm of a city dweller he bought chickens and a cow, sowed a vegetable garden, and planted trees; it had taken him sixty years to learn that “il faut cultiver notre jardin.” Now, he thought, he could forget Frederick, Louis XV, the Parlement of Paris, the bishops, the Jesuits; only his colic and his headaches remained. He was so pleased with his new home that he named it Les Délices (delights).II “I am so happy,” he wrote to Thieriot, “that I am ashamed.”1

As his clever investments were bringing him a lordly income, he indulged himself in lordly luxuries. He kept six horses, four carriages, a coachman, a postilion, two lackeys, a valet, a French cook, a secretary, and a monkey—with whom he liked to comparehomo sapiens. Over this establishment reigned Mme. Denis, whom Mme. d’Épinay, visiting Les Délices in 1757, described as

a fat little woman, as round as a ball, about fifty years of age; … ugly and good, untruthful without meaning it, and without malice. She has no intellect, and yet seems to have some; she … writes verses, argues rationally and irrationally; … without too great pretentiousness, and above all without offending anyone.… She adores her uncle, both as uncle and as a man; Voltaire loves her, laughs at her, and worships her. In a word, this house is a refuge for an assemblage of contraries, and a delightful spectacle for lookers-on.2

Another visitor, the rising poet Marmontel, described the new seigneur: “He was in bed when we arrived. He held out his arms, embraced me, and wept for joy.… ’You find me at the point of death,’ he said; ’come and restore me to life, or receive my last sigh’.… A moment later he said, ‘I will rise and dine with you.’”3

There was one drawback at Les Délices—it was cold in winter. Voltaire, having no flesh, needed heat. Near Lausanne he found a little hermitage, Monrion, whose position sheltered it from the north wind; he bought it, and spent there some winter months in 1755–57. In Lausanne itself he bought (June, 1757), on the Rue du Grand Chêne, a “house which would be called a palace in Italy,” with fifteen windows looking down upon the lake.III There, without any protest from the clergy, he staged plays, usually his own. “Tranquillity is a fine thing,” he wrote, “but ennui … belongs to the same family. To repulse the ugly relation I have set up a theater.”4

And so, oscillating between Geneva and Lausanne, he became acquainted with Switzerland.

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