E. M. Forster at Ferney

E. M. Forster visited Ferney in 1939; he published the following reflections in Two Cheers for Democracy (1951).

CULTIVATED MONKEYS, Charles and I clung to the iron palings of the park. Froggy as well as monkey, he appreciated better than I did what we saw, but even to me the sight was an exciting one. For this was Ferney. So this was Ferney! This was the house that Voltaire built, those were the trees he planted, here his niece, Madame Denis, and others whom I read about afterwards in La Vie Intime de Voltaire, by Perey and Maugras, a very entertaining book--here Madame Denis, anyhow lived, as shapeless as my sentence, but generally liked. With a heart like a warming pan and a figure like a dumpling, Madame Denis queened it here and reigned it, acted it and reacted it, danced it, reasoned it, unreasoned it, she drove in from Geneva to take possession covered with diamonds, she flounced away to Paris in a pet, she sneaked back. Voltaire was pleased when she arrived, thankful when she left, delighted when she returned. However, that is enough about Madame Denis for the moment. She is all in the book. We are clinging to the park railings.

Our feet slithered upon the uncomfortable parapet. We wished they were more prehensile. Craning our noses to the left, we could see the chapel. It was a small and simple structure, and it looked a trifle moisi. I cannot think of the right English equivalent of "moisi." "Mouldy" will not do. "Moisi" must stand. After all, we are in France. That always was the advantage of Ferney--it was just in France, and Voltaire, who preferred a pop­hole to a moat, could be over the border into Switzerland if he felt nervous, and back again if his nerves relaxed or reversed. The chapel ranked with the loca senta situ of which Virgil speaks, it had acquired the art of neglect with dignity, and had no wish to look trim. On its frontal was the famous inscription, "Deo erexit VOLTAIRE," and we saw with delight that the lettering of the Voltaire was twice the size of the Deity's. Proportion had been observed. Listen, while you look at this, to what they sang to him in the October of 1767, on the occasion of the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. They had begun the day by going to Mass, at two o'clock they had dined in state, a vast concourse of people, at six o'clock they attended a performance of two plays at his private theatre, and when this was over the actors and actresses, including Madame Denis, came forward in their brilliant dresses and grouped themselves around him and sang:

L'Eglise, dans ce jour, fait à tous ses dévots
Célébrer les vertus d'un pénitent austère.
Si l'Eglise a ses saints, le Pinde a ses héros,
Et nous fêtons ici le grand nom de Voltaire.

Then came fireworks, then an enormous supper, and then a ball at which Voltaire, who was over seventy, danced until midnight. Yes; the chapel has done well to observe proportion.

Straight ahead of us lay the chateau. It was quiet enough now, no singing, no guests, no work, the shutters were closed, the doors locked, and a man in an apron was sweeping up the leaves of 1939--not many of them, for our year was still at its June. Tourists were not admitted, and we were, we knew, almost the last of our sinewy tribe. Soon we should have to skedaddle for our tram. Lucky, happy we, to get this last peep at one of the symbols of European civilisation. Civilisation. Humanity. Enjoyment. That was what the agreeable white building said to us, that was what we carried away. It was not a large building and that has been part of the disaster. It was too small to cope with the modern world. A Ferney today would have to be enormous, with rolling staircases and microphones, if it was to function proportionately, and if it was enormous could it be Ferney? Even Voltaire felt that he saw too many people, and that the universe, though fortunately bounded by Russia, was upon too cumbrous a scale. He could just illuminate it, but only just, and he died without knowing that he was the last man who would ever perform such a feat and that Goethe would die asking for more light. On the crest of a wave Ferney sparkled. The boundaries of the universe were to extend bewilderingly, the common people were to neglect the pursuit of agriculture, and, worst of all, the human make­up was to reveal deadnesses and depths which no acuteness could penetrate and no benignity heal.

His end was actually at Paris, and technically not happy. "Count no man happy until he is dead," saith the spirit of dullness. Happiness up to one's final collapse is the better criterion, and this Voltaire achieved. The pains and fears of his last moments (which most of us are doomed to share) altered the sum of his life but inappreciably. The death­bed or death-tumble or death­jumble, death­battle, death­rattle, death-splinter, death­squirt, appalling as it will be to each deserted and dying individual, is a transition, not an epitome. It has no retrospective force. It does not taint (except in a gleam of diseased memory) any of the triumphs that have gone before. Against that over­emphasis, that priestly organisation of the death­moment, Voltaire had himself protested, it was part of the infamous thing he had tried to crush. His real end was Ferney, and there we saw him that afternoon, as a house and trees.

Suppose he had come out as a person, and seen our snouts, what would he have done? He would probably have gone in again. But he would possibly have been very kind, and with a twentieth­century kindness, for he had an up­to­date heart. When his secretary's children pestered him with questions which the eighteenth century deemed foolish, he would answer the questions seriously, and put aside his work to do so. When a waiter was nice to him at Maintz, he insisted on stopping at the hotel kept by the waiter's father at Strasburg. It turned out to be a dreadful doss­house, but he would not leave it, although he was at the height of his fame, for the reason that he had made a friendly compact with the Maintz waiter. Humanity to him was not a platform gesture. He got down to brass tacks over it. Humanity meant saving the Calas family, or being respectful to his secretary's children, or to an unimportant little domestic. "Oh, but that is not the whole story," saith the spirit of dullness, looking up from its ledger; "he was also a capricious, shifty, cruel, litigious, indecent, panicky capitalist; I have it all down." And that exercise of a summing-up goes on, summing up an achievement which is a pattern, not a sum, and a pattern so intricate that the eye rests with the most conviction upon the spots of gold. Whether he would have greeted us is doubtful. Madame Denis, ever too sensitive to externals, would have recoiled with a moue, I fear. But they would certainly have caught sight of us. I want to make that plain, for it brings out the restricted character of the site. It was more of a packet than a park. We and the chateau and the man sweeping leaves and the chapel and the porter's lodge were all bunched up together among residential greenery. There was nothing august or wide­sweeping in the demesne, though two hundred years ago, before the trees grew up, there must have been views of the lake. Oddly enough, I catch a parallel with Max Gate as I try to reconstruct. A nest made by a celebrated literary man, going a little untidy. But whereas Hardy belonged to the soil, the soil belonged to Voltaire, and one has not, when visiting Ferney, any poignant sense of locality. Here is merely a place which he happened to buy and make his own, after Cirey and Potsdam and Les Délices had failed, and it is appropriate that he should have failed to die in it, and that his corpse should have been bandied about in revolutions, and perhaps got mixed up with Rousseau's.

But one cannot cling for ever to an alien pale, or peep for ever at a scene with which curiosity and hope are one's only links. Monkeys must let go. "I am content to have seen Ferney," remarked Charles, as he dusted his paws. I popped the object into my pouch for future use. One never knows, and I had no idea how precious it would become to me in a year's time, nor how I should take it out, and discover that it had turned faintly radio­active. We caught the tram back to Geneva all right, crossed the almost unguarded frontier, and then we departed to our respective cages, which were closed and locked not long after we entered them.


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