Why would a world-famous writer and philosopher at the height of his creative powers choose to bury himself in a tiny hamlet of no more than 150 inhabitants in the middle of nowhere? Voltaire was a sociable being, certainly not someone to chase solitude, but what he did crave was freedom: to think and write what he pleased. And Ferney’s very isolation and distance from Paris were what made the location attractive to him.
After a stint in Prussia, Voltaire was aching to return to Paris, but Louis XV was not keen to have the writer back, agitating spirits. So in 1754 Voltaire started searching for a town with a thriving printing industry (he knew he couldn’t stop himself from writing). He was told that in Lyon he would be persona non grata (conservative archbishop etc.), so he settled initially in Geneva, a traditional place of refuge for Protestant French.
However, the Calvinist spirit of that town soon quashed his enthusiasm, so after just three years he escaped outside the city limits, to a domaine which had previously been disputed between Savoy and the Swiss: Fernex. So many place names in the area end in ‘x’ – Gex, Ornex, Echenevex, Founex, but the final letter is not pronounced, so one of the first things Voltaire did was change the spelling of the place-name to correspond phonetically.
Of course, Voltaire was already 64 when he moved to Ferney, so one might well have expected him to live in peaceable retirement, but he was not the kind to put on his slippers and smoke his pipe and just receive a couple of visitors with whom to reminisce about past glories. His energy was astounding, although even he could not have expected to live for another 20 years here.
By the time of his death, he had drained the marshes around the hamlet, created a flourishing town of more than 1200 inhabitants, predominantly Huguenot watchmakers and artisans who had fled the persecutions in Paris. He built a church, a school, a water reservoir, a theatre, many streets and houses, lent money for the artisans to set up their businesses (with an interest rate ten times lower than the usual ones), introduced a breed of sheep and cattle (their descendants still roam the fields around the chateau today) and new methods of farming, even tried to set up a silkworm farm.
Every year, he spent between 70 to 85% of his income on Ferney itself, and his niece Mme Denis claimed that the town ruined Voltaire. But he never regretted it.
After his death, unfortunately, things went belly up. Mme Denis couldn’t wait to leave the countryside and rush back to Paris, and in just 4 months she had sold the chateau, the library (to Catherine II of Russia) and the manuscript collection, as well as all precious objects. The chateau was bought and sold on in quick succession, most of its period detail was lost in the process, while bits and pieces of Voltaire’s heritage were sold or demolished. People began to abandon the village; the watch and jewellery makers moved back to Geneva.
It took over 100 years to reach the population levels of Voltaire’s time and 200 years to reach those prosperity levels once more. So it’s not surprising that the townspeople have always felt gratitude towards their benefactor and wanted to add his name to that of his village. They first did so in 1780, two years after Voltaire’s death, but in 1815 it reverted back to the old name. Napoleon could be very autocratic, when he wanted! Finally, with the celebration of the centenary of Voltaire’s death, in 1878 the village was allowed to change its name officially to ‘Ferney-Voltaire’.