- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 19, 2005


By Ian Davidson

Grove, $24, 343 pages, illus.

On Feb. 16, 1778, a Monday, Benjamin Franklin took along his grandson to meet Voltaire, who had only recently returned to Paris after a 25-year exile. The famous American asked the even more famous (many would have said infamous) Frenchman to bless the boy. Over the child’s head Voltaire intoned “God and liberty” in English.

British journalist Ian Davidson tells this story near the end of his often moving “Voltaire in Exile: The Last Years, 1753-78.” The ideal anecdote, it sums up so neatly the high regard much of the world had at the time for Voltaire that it’s easy to suspect it was invented. But it wasn’t. Twenty of the widely-admired writer’s friends and followers were present to repeat what they witnessed. The French champion of tolerance, modern science and the Enlightenment was sharing his legacy with an American counterpart who sought his approval.

The return to Paris after a quarter century’s absence had been a sublime moment for the 83-year-old Voltaire, who would die in six month’s time. Paris was where he had come to enormous fame and where he had been at the center of European intellectual life. But as Mr. Davidson shows, Voltaire had made those 25 years away from the capital and its advantages among the most creative in his long life, if not the most creative. In the provinces, he triumphed just as he had in the city.

Voltaire’s banishment had not come as a complete surprise when it finally happened. He knew that his passionate defense of freedom of thought and virulent attacks on superstition riled powerful authorities both in the Church and government who were eager to silence him. The question was, when?

Still, Voltaire was chagrined to learn when he was on his way home from a stay in Prussia as a guest of Frederick the Great that Louis XV did not want him to return to Paris, ever. The King issued no edict. Instead, he had his mistress, Madame de Pompadour mention the news in confidence to a friend, and by word of mouth it made its way to the unhappy writer.

Voltaire complied, instantly. For a while, he made his home in Geneva, just across the border from France. When that proved a problem — the Calvinist city could be as unhappy with Voltaire’s independent and stridently secular ways as Catholic Paris — he moved to France just across the border from Geneva, but still very far from Paris. With him in his exile was his niece, Marie Louise Denis, who had been Voltaire’s lover in the 1740s, though their relationship after than time remains uncertain.

It helped things greatly, as Mr. Davidson shows, that Voltaire was a very wealthy man who could afford to live comfortably and in style anywhere he chose. No Bohemian writer living from day to day in rags and squalor, he had made wise investments — loans to dukes and kings, French India Company stock and the like — that paid off well. Exile may have been spiritually depleting but it offered little physical hardship.

Nor did he waste time or find himself bored by the ways of small town and rural life. As a young man, Voltaire gained great fame — and a host of admirers — for his classical and formal tragedies and comedies, and in exile he contined to write plays and have them performed in his home.

He also wrote his masterpiece, “Candide,” the only of Voltaire’s works still widely read today. But in exile — and this is a major theme of Mr. Davidson’s book — Voltaire became much more than the writer and man he had been, as influential as his earlier life was. Nearing 60, Mr. Davidson argues, Voltaire redirected and signficantly deepened his life, plunging passionately and completely into new experiences and commitments.

Farming, gardening, and managing his estate came first, and Voltaire took to them immediately. Mr. Davidson offers long lists of the items he ordered to improve his home and land. They included artichoke bulbs, sage, lavender, rosemary, mint, strawberry bushes and other plants; the orders also mention “150 lbs. green paint,” “80 lbs strong glue” and the like. (Interestingly, the writer had so little judgment when it came to art that he ordered paintings by the square yard to adorn his walls.)

More surprising, perhaps, is the degree to which Voltaire involved himself in the daily workings of his new life, right down to the tiniest detail. “I must visit my small holdings,” he wrote to a friend, “I must look after my peasants and my cattle when they are ill, I must find husbands for the girls, and I must improve fields abandoned since the Flood.”

It’s Mr. Davidson’s point that immersion in the world he now found himself a part of made Voltaire — up to that time a city man, a habitue of salons and friend of the privileged — mindful for the first time of the suffering of the poor and how difficult their lives were. And this is no doubt true. “I see all around me the most frightful misery, in the midst of a smiling countryside,” the letter quoted in the previous paragraph concludes.

Farming wasn’t his only undertaking. He developed and presided, for example, over a center of watchmaking at his estate at Ferney. The watchmakers and their families he brought from Geneva. It proved a very profitable, productive business of which the writer was justly proud.

The watchmaking business also provided an opportunity for Voltaire to exercise his wit, of which he was never short. Asked why he had taken the great amount of time and effort required to make the community such a success, he responded: “I have done it purely out of vanity. they say that God created the world for his own glory. We must imitate him as far as possible.”

In exile, Voltaire likewise involved himself in prominent cases where he thought people had been profoundly wronged. The most famous of these affairs, which occupied him between 1761 and 1765, was that of Jean Calas, a prosperous Protestant cloth merchant of Toulouse, who had been accused and then executed for murdering his eldest son out of fear the young man was about to convert to Catholicism.

There were other cases, too, all of them adding to his fame. What Voltaire sought to bring to public attention in each of them was the total secrecy in which most French courts conducted their business, a secrecy that allowed judges to railroad the innocent.

He also denounced the frequent use of torture to exact confession. Sounding very modern, Voltaire explained in a letter written during the four years of the Calas affair, “If there is anything which can stop the frenzy of fanaticism, it is publlcity.”

Mr. Davidson shows us a Voltaire who could be enormously generous and a man who relished close friendships and cultivated them. He also gives us a very human Voltaire who rues in old age the fact that he has no children, then adopts a young woman and provides her with all the advantages of his wealth and name, proudly giving her away when she gets married years later.

But Mr. Davidson reminds us of the famous writer’s well-known anti-Semitism. Voltaire referred to Jews as “avaricious, calculating, money-mad.” And he points out that before dukes, kings and other highly-placed persons, Voltaire presented a “grovelling flattery” that “knew no shame and no restraint.”

But the trait that most disturbed his admirers and was frequently noted was his cowardice. Fear of government authorities could send this man so brave in his words into a panic in which he lost all dignity.

Still, the world owes much to this extraordinary man who made tolerance his watchword and opposed cruelty. As his disciple and early biographer Condorcet said, Voltaire “seemed to recognize only one glory, that of avenging humanity and rescuing victims of oppression.”

Mr. Davidson provides a varied look at a potent, creative man in the last 25 years of his life. What readers would probably like more of and which the author doesn’t provide in ample amounts are samples of the man’s marvelous wit. But Mr. Davidson does supply one of Voltaire’s best lines: “I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: ‘O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God granted it.”

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