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At home in Ferney

17 July 2004

12:00 AM

17 July 2004

12:00 AM

Voltaire in Exile Ian Davidson

Atlantic Books, pp.368, 19.99

Ian Davidson begins his book by telling us that Voltaire is a famous writer but that his work is largely unknown. True, his plays are no longer performed and his poems are no longer read. But when he tells us that his historical works are also ignored, those of us for whom Siècle de Louis Quatorze and Essai sur les moeurs are outstanding must surely protest.

That said, however, the section in which we are told what is still important in Voltaire is more acceptable. Firstly, he mentions Candide. This philosophical tale is singled out for praise, described as the author’s greatest and most enduring masterpiece. Then there are his letters. It has long been accepted that, addressed as they are to many hundreds of correspondents of differing professions, nationalities and importance, this collection is truly remarkable and is the finest existing guide to his life, activities and achievements. We are told that the complete edition of the correspondence totals some 15,284 letters. Finally, there are the campaigns that Voltaire fought against the miscarriages of justice that had been inflicted on certain unfortunate individuals. The most famous of these cases was that of Jean Calas from Toulouse, who was executed because he had allegedly killed his own son when he was supposedly converting to Catholicism.

The author points out that the examples he has given of Voltaire as a distinguished writer and eminent personality are taken from the last 25 years of his life when he was forced into exile by Louis XV. Paul Valéry, in a frequently quoted remark, said that, had Voltaire died at the age of 60, he would be largely forgotten today. He died in 1778, when he was 84.

This successful period in Voltaire’s life begins with the ending of his stay in Potsdam as the chosen companion to Frederick of Prussia. After almost three years, his disagreements with the king led to a letter of dismissal. On 26 March 1753, he left Potsdam. Owing to difficulties created by the King of Prussia and subsequently by the King of France, he spent months wandering about, looking for somewhere to live. Eventually, he discovered a country house on the outskirts of Geneva, which he named Les Délices, and the nearby ch

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