The Sketches of Switzerland (1836) is one of several travel accounts published by Cooper. His visit to Ferney is included in Letter XXV.
The day after my arrival I went to Ferney, the road leading us through a most beautiful country, which is not dotted, but covered by country houses, with their clouds of plantations. The distance is only five miles; but, short as it was, it took us out of Switzerland. The French have erected a noble cross at the frontiers, as it might be, in direct defiance of the heresy of their neighbours. It is new, and has probably been reared in the present pious reign, during which the church has suddenly be-come renovated, by the agency of a new dispensation of mira-cles.
Ferney owes its existence, as a village, to Voltaire. It is neater and better built than common; though it has much of the comfortless, out-of-door look of most French villages. The château, as the house is called, is a long, narrow, lantern-like building, a little larger than the "Hall" at Cooperstown, were the latter divided equally lengthwise. It has seven windows in front. The grounds are laid out in the formal French style, and are reasonably extensive. An avenue leads to the building; but there is little taste, and, I think, less comfort, in the general arrangement of the place.
Here, as Voltaire used to say, he "shook his wig and powdered the republic," a feat that was less improbable in his time, when wigs were so large and republics so small, than it would be today. The view is not particularly fine, for the whole of this shore of the lake is low, and the trees are so thick as to shut out the prospect. "Mon lac est le premier," must have alluded to what the lake is, in its finer parts, and not to the particular portion of it which is visible from Ferney.
We entered the house as freely as if it had been an inn. Others were there on the same errand; and, judging from what I saw, I should think the building, at this season of the year more especially, nearly useless as a residence. The rooms are small. In the salon are several copies of the old masters, and a picture that is said to be a conceit of the illustrious philosopher. It is a cumbrous allegory, in which the wit is smothered by the elaboration of the design. In charity, we are to believe that the principal idea was conceived in pleasantry; but the vanity of Voltaire was inordinate. His bedroom is decorated by some vilely executed prints, and his bedstead is worth just one dollar.
The church, of painful celebrity, is a small edifice that stands on the side of the avenue, and is much better suited to the being who caused it to be erected, than to the Being to whom it was dedicated. "Deo erexit Voltaire!" As Dogberry says, "and write God first; for God defend, but God should go before such villains!" This is the homage of a creature to his Creator; of one who could not foresee what a day would bring forth; who could not explain the physical phenomena of his existence; who did not know what life is, or what death will be, to the Intelligence that directs and governs all! As if in bitter contempt of a vanity so besotted, of a presumption so much beyond the bounds of probability, the inscription has been erased, and the place, when I saw it, had been converted into a receptacle for potatoes. The climax was fully worthy of the sentiment.
While speaking of Voltaire, I will advert to a fact of some interest, which I have overlooked, in writing to you from France. He died, as you know, at Paris, in 1779. By his will, the house he owned on the Quai Voltaire was to remain untenanted for fifty years from his death,* after which period it was to be opened, and certain manuscripts it contained were to be given to the world. The natural conjecture has been, that these manuscripts were written in conformity with the religious and political opinions that he believed would prevail in France in our time. The period for the accomplishment of this great prophecy is at hand; and we shall soon have an opportunity of knowing how far that "esprit" which is "partout" could carry its possessor into the depths of the unknown future; or what "Voltaire erexit Deus."
*On the return of the writer to Paris, in 1830, the period set by Voltaire had elapsed. The hotel was opened and repaired; and it is to be presumed the manuscripts had been examined. This occurred in 1829, or during the reign of Charles Xth and the Jesuits! Voltaire, his will, his opinions, and his wishes seemed to be forgotten alike; for all that was known of the matter was, that the hotel was no longer closed and uninhabited. If there is no error in the dates, it is probable that the ruling powers forbade the publication. The spasmodic state of religious inquiry, however, has passed, and is succeeded by the decencies of a political expediency; few appearing to trouble themselves about M. de Voltaire, his church, his prophecies, or his apotheosis.