Charles Burney

Charles Burney visits Ferney in July 1770. His text was published in the London Magazine (1770), volume xl, pp. 350-352.

'The going to M. Fritz at the time above-mentioned, broke into a plan I had formed of visiting M. de Voltaire at the same hour, with some other straingers, that were then going to Ferney; but to say the truth, besides the visit to Fritz being more my business, I did not much like going with these people, who had only a Bookseller to introduce them, & I had heard that some English had lately met with a rebuff from Voltaire by going without any letter of recommendation, or anything to recommend themselves. They were asked by him what they wanted. Upon their replying they wished only to see so extraordinary a man, he said--Well, gentlemen, you now see me, and did you take me to be a wild beast or a Monster that was fit only to be stared at, as a show?

This story very much frighted me; for not having any intention of going to Geneva, when I left London, or even Paris, I was quite unprovided with a pass-port however I was determined to see his place (which I took to be--Cette maison d'Aristippe, ces jardins d'Epicure: to which he retired in I755, but was mistaken). I drove to it alone, after I left Fritz. His house is 3 or 4 miles from Geneva, but near the lake, & I approached it with reverence, and a curiosity of the most minute kind. I enquired when I first trod on his domain; I had an intelligent and talkative coachman, who answered all my questions very satisfactorily. His estate is very large here, and he is building pretty farm-houses upon it. He has a quadrangular justice, or gallows, to show that he is the seigneur. One of his farms, or rather manufacturing houses (for he is establishing a manufacture upon his estate) was so handsome that I thought it was his chateau, but we drove to Ferney, through a charming country, covered with corn and vines, with a view of the lake and mountains above described. On the left hand, approaching the house, is a neat chapel with this inscription:


This seems a little ostentatious in one who has as little religion of any sort perhaps as may fall to the share of a thinking man. I wanted to write two lines of Pope used in the Inscript.

Who builds a Church to God & not to Fame
ne'er mars the Building with the Donor's name.'

I sent in to enquire whether a stranger might be allowed to see the house & was answered in the affirmative. The servant soon came & conducted me into the cabinet or closet where his master had just been writing, which is never shown when he is at home; but being walked out, I was allowed that privilege. From thence to the library. Not a very large one, but well filled. Here I found a whole length figure in marble of himself recumbent in one of the windows; & many curiosities in another room a bust of him self not 2 years since; his mother's picture; that of his niece, Madame Denis; her brother, M. Dupuis; the Calas family, &c &c. It is a very neat and elegant house, not large, or affectedly decorated. I should have said, that close to the chapel, between that and the house, is the theatre, he built some years ago in which he treated his friends with some of his own tragedies: it is now only used as a receptacle for wood and lumber, there having been no play acted in it these 4 years. The servant told me his master was 78, but very well. His words were these I1 travaille pendant dix heures chaque jour. He studies ten hours every day; writes constantly without spectacles, and walks out with only a domestic, very often a mile or two--"Et le voilà, là bas!"

He was going to his workmen. My heart leaped at the sight of so extraordinary a man. He had just then quitted his garden, and was crossing the court before his house. Seeing my chaise, and me on the point of mounting it, he made a sign to his servant, who had been my Cicerone, to go to him, in order, I suppose,to enquire who I was. After they had exchanged a few words together, he approached the place where I stood, motionless, in order to contemplate his person as much as I could when his eyes were turned from me; but on seeing him move towards me, I found myself drawn by some irresistible power towards him; and, with out, knowing what I did, I insensibly met him half way. It is not easy to conceive it possible for life to subsist in a form so nearly composed of mere skin and bone, as that of M. de Voltaire. He complained of decrepitude, and said he supposed I was curious to form an idea of the figure of one walking after death. However his eyes and whole countenance are still full of fire; and though so emaciated, a more lively expression cannot be imagined. He enquired after English news, and observed that poetical squabbles had given way to political ones; but seemed to think the spirit of opposition as necessary in poetry as in politics. "Les querelles d'auteurs sont pour le bien de la littérature, comme dans un gouvernement libre, les querelles des grands, et les clameurs des petits sont nécessaires à la liberté". (Disputes among authors are of use to literature; as the quarrels of the great, and the clamours of the little, in a free government, are necessary to liberty.) And added, "When critics are silent, it does not so much prove the age to be correct as dull". He enquired what poets we had now; and I told him we had Mason and Gray. They write but little, said he, and you seem to have no one who lords it over the rest like Dryden, Pope and Swift. I told him that it was, perhaps, one of the inconveniences of periodical journals, however well executed, that they often silenced modest men of genius, while impudent blockheads were impenetrable, and unable to feel the critic's scourge: that Mr. Gray and Mr. Mason had both been illiberally treated by mechanical critics, even in newspapers; and added, that modesty and love of quiet seemed in these gentlemen to have got the better even of their love of fame. During this conversation, we approached the buildings he was constructing near the road to his château. These, said he, pointing to them, are the most innocent, and, perhaps, the most useful of all my works. I observed that he had other works, which were of far more extensive use, and would be much more durable than those. He was so obliging as to show me several farm-houses he had built, and the plans of others; after which I took my leave, for fear of breaking in upon his time, being unwilling to rob the public of things so precious as the few remaining moments of this great and universal genius'.

Jean Huber, Voltaire en conversation avec un groupe de paysans à Ferney

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