In Voltaire’s Garden

Isabelle Mayault

The château at Ferney recently reopened to the public after three years of restoration and refurbishment. Except for the planes high above the lawns, flying in and out of Geneva airport, not much has changed at the château since Voltaire lived here between 1760 and his death in 1778. It’s easy to imagine him taking an afternoon stroll among the plane trees, Mont Blanc in the background, after a morning in bed dictating his voluminous correspondence to his private secretary. During his twenty years at Ferney, he wrote 6000 letters.

When Voltaire first visited, Ferney was a small village of 130 inhabitants, but it had at least one advantage to a polemicist used to falling out with the authorities: its strategic location just on the French side of the border with the republic of Geneva. Frederick the Great had recently chased Voltaire out of Berlin, and he was still unwelcome in Paris. (In his youth he had twice been imprisoned in the Bastille: for insulting the prince regent in 1717, and for challenging the Chevalier de Rohan to a duel in 1726.)

With the help of Swiss friends – notably the Cramer brothers, who later published the Poem on the Lisbon Disaster and Candide – Voltaire had settled in Geneva in 1754. Printing houses had flourished in the protestant city state, out of the reach of royal censors, but theatre was forbidden and after a few years Voltaire moved on.

The last words of Candide, ‘Il faut cultiver notre jardin,’ are often interpreted metaphorically, but Voltaire took them literally enough. He sold his garden produce in Geneva and at one point even considered building a harbour to expand his trade. ‘A hangout of 40 savages has become an opulent town,' he wrote, 'inhabited by 1200 useful souls.’ He drained swamps, planted potatoes, bought a seed drill and boasted to his Parisian friends of ploughing the fields himself. In his letters, he enjoyed referring to himself as a ‘farmer’ or ‘rural philosopher’.

Voltaire invited clockmakers from Geneva, the descendants of French protestants who had sought asylum in the city, to open workshops in Ferney. Bewildered spies from both France and Switzerland reported on the oddity of Catholics and Protestants living in harmony together. Voltaire sold clocks all over Europe. He once sent Catherine the Great twice as many watches as she’d ordered, then complained when her payment was 200 rubles short.

Voltaire often complained about being sick, and about Ferney’s long winters, signing his letters ‘the old hermit from Mount Jura’, but he wasn’t much of a hermit. Condorcet, d’Alembert, Pigalle and Denon were among the many intellectuals who stopped at Ferney for a few days en route to Italy. Voltaire would often have sixty or more guests to dinner, and organised plays, concerts and chess games.

He didn’t retreat from the world. When Jean Calas was falsely accused of killing one of his sons in Toulouse – French Protestants were suspected of violence towards children who wanted to convert to Catholicism – Voltaire took up his cause. After Calas’s execution, Voltaire invited some of his family to Ferney. The case inspired him to write the Treaty on Tolerance, which was a worldwide bestseller as recently as in 2015, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack.


  • 3 August 2018 at 3:58pm
    Fred Skolnik says:
    As long as I'm here:

    • 6 August 2018 at 1:22am
      David Gordon says: @ Fred Skolnik
      What are you doing over here Fred, shouldn't you be on the other thread?

      (PS I didn't much enjoy the fiction about Voltaire, and as a resident of Ferney-Voltaire, I feel modestly protective of him)

    • 6 August 2018 at 2:21pm
      dmr says: @ David Gordon
      Agreed. Mr Skolnik apparently fancies himself something of an author but he has few gifts as such. His prose-style is graceless and self-important,the tone bumptious and grating. Decidedly not up to the standard of the LRB though probably suitable for the Jerusalem Post snd its like.

    • 8 August 2018 at 10:03pm
      Simon Wood says: @ dmr
      Fred's prose style is stonking - I've tried to praise it here before. A paper that likes Shakespeare and the Bible can't fail to appreciate Fred's style.

      What is "the Jerusalem Post and its like"? Do you mean "its kind"?

      I don't think this Fred-bashing is smart. This is supposed to be a smart paper. We're not going to get smart by being small.

    • 9 August 2018 at 12:49pm
      dmr says: @ Simon Wood
      We must agree to differ about this, Mr Wood.

      Let readers judge for themselves.

    • 9 August 2018 at 1:25pm
      dmr says: @ dmr
      In speaking of the way he writes I'm not out to blacken Mr Skolnik's name. He can be relied upon to be his own worst enemy in this respect.

      But since you asked: together with the Jerusalem Post (a right-wing rag if ever there was one, but let that pass) the Times of Israel and YNet, two organs by which he appears to set great store, are the comparators. As with them, so with Mr Skolnik: the prose is by not actually bad, to be sure. Let's say that it's run of the mill at best, at worst galumphing, American English. That's to say, alright so far as it goes, perfectly serviceable in fact but nothing to write home about. Nothing remotely like the almost unfailingly sharp and scintillating manner of contributors to the LRB. Likening it to Shakespeare and the King James Version is pushing it a bit, don't you think Mr Wood?

      Not, mind you, that Mr Skolnik is personally to blame for the deficiencies of his writing. 54 years of expatriation and exposure to not very challenging forms of prose in English in the local press of his adopted country may be held to account for them. That, and perhaps an indifferent education at tertiary level in the u.s.a.

    • 9 August 2018 at 4:30pm
      Simon Wood says: @ dmr
      You see what I mean?

    • 14 August 2018 at 2:33pm
      John Cowan says: @ dmr
      Well, I trust that you are open to to the possibility that blog commenters here can be sharp and scintillating while writing American English (or in American English, as you please).

    • 14 August 2018 at 2:35pm
      John Cowan says: @ dmr
      I have never read the Jerusalem Post, but I have no problems characterizing Mr. Russell's style as not only grating but disgusting.

  • 6 August 2018 at 9:26am
    steve kay says:
    Well our Fred, thanks for publicly demonstrating that your "fiction" is as ill researched and badly written as your ranting elsewhere on LRB comments. Keep going, it's fine as long as you are expressing yourself, as Ronnie Laing might have said if you'd visited him.

    • 6 August 2018 at 10:00am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ steve kay
      Think of the link as an experiment - to see how much your resentment of me colors your judgment.

    • 6 August 2018 at 11:52am
      steve kay says: @ Fred Skolnik
      Here in Wales, Fred, it would colour my judgement.

    • 6 August 2018 at 12:11pm
      Fred Skolnik says: @ steve kay
      Judging by your somewhat vehement choice of words I would say that in your case the experiment was a success, even as far away as Wales.

  • 7 August 2018 at 7:40pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    I’m not going to Mr. Skolnik’s link, because I assume it takes the reader to a piece of historical fiction about Voltaire. Historical fiction tends to be a mixture of facts and counterfactual ideas along the lines of “might have been, could have been, should have been, etc.” and, as such, tends to diminish historical reality. A good biography is a better use of time (years ago I read an excellent biography of Voltaire by Theodore Besterman - hope I’ve spelled his name right). Voltaire is, of course, one of a dozen or so French and Scottish thinkers of the Enlightenment era whose work had a discernible effect on the political behavior of both leaders and followers of that time, an outcome that is bound to make many a present-day intellectual or public commentator envious. And he was anti-Semitic (I am guessing Mr. Skolnik goes into this), but not of the 20th century’s exterminationist ilk. I suppose he was equally opposed to all religious systems of belief except for those vague ideas related to pantheism and the non-denominational, non-intrusive Deity of various fantasies (akin to his other unreal ideas about the brotherly love prevailing among Moslems, Buddhists, primitive tribal peoples, etc.) He accomplished quite a lot for a neurotic, overly busy man, and a great deal of it was for the common good of his time and place. His bad or foolish ideas are just part of the mix.

  • 14 August 2018 at 7:35pm
    Fred Skolnik says:
    Sorry, friends, but I just can't resist this:

  • 17 August 2018 at 12:46am
    neddy says:
    I read and thoroughly enjoyed the link immediately above, provided by Fred Skolnik. I agree 100% with it, and consider it pin-point accurate in encapsulating Fred's detractors - all sneering critics of Israel, and all from the jealous and resentful left. Keep up the good work Fred; keep on calling out the hypocrites, keep laughing at their specious cant and self-adulation. I have one suggestion: your detractors should regularly read the Personals Column in the LRB. There they will find others with equally overblown opinions of themselves, in a context that just may - and I stress may - afford them some insight into themselves.

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