In March 1753 Voltaire’s three-year sojourn at the court of Frederick the Great came to an acrimonious end: so ill-tempered that, upon Voltaire’s arrival in Frankfurt on his way home, Frederick had him put under house arrest, for illegal possession of some of his (the King’s) poems. He was joined in Frankfurt by his niece and lover Mme Denis, and she was put under arrest likewise; and it was only through a public outcry that, in July, they were at last released. Whereupon Voltaire, inured to Fortune’s hard knocks and dirty tricks and quite uncowed, spent five luxurious weeks as the guest of two other highly placed friends, the Prince-Bishop of Mainz and the Elector Palatine.
He was fifty-nine years old and extremely rich, as the result of inspired finagling and large-scale speculation; and he had become moneylender to various French dukes and European crowned heads, an arrangement bringing not only profit but diplomatic influence. But our phrase “on his way home” needs correcting. For he had no home to come to, the French king Louis XV having let it be known that he would not be welcome in France. He would thus, for the rest of his life, be an exile: a situation that, so he would discover, suited him admirably. In 1755 he acquired a spacious mansion, renamed by him Les Délices, on the shores of Lake Geneva; and a year or two afterward he bought an extensive property in the village of Ferney, which had the advantage of lying (just) within French territory, enabling him to have a theater—something forbidden under Geneva law—and, in an emergency, to make a hasty retreat into Switzerland.
Ian Davidson has had the idea of writing the history not of Voltaire’s whole life but of its last twenty-five years. In this period, he argues, Voltaire “went through a remarkable process of moral development.” Up to then he had been “almost exclusively preoccupied with his literary career, with his friends, and with his comfort, in that order, and he showed little or no sign of anything resembling a social conscience, let alone for the welfare of the lower orders.” It was not till these later years that as the champion of several victims of appalling miscarriages of justice, resulting from a grotesquely antiquated French legal system, he became a campaigner for human rights. Moreover it was then that he first took up the cause of the propertyless and downtrodden. For this reason, in Davidson’s view, these final twenty-five years of his exile are the ones that really count for us now and that have saved his reputation from oblivion. Davidson may have a point, and his book is appealing, knowledgeable, and extremely readable.
Voltaire, who held that the purpose of life was action, was himself hyperactive; and this had unexpected consequences, for it has made it almost impossible to write his life. Between 1985 and 1994 there came out a huge biography in five volumes (Voltaire et son temps), edited…
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