John Conyers visited Voltaire during the summer months 1765. Sir Gavin de Beer and André-Michel Rousseau tentatively attribute the following account to him. It first appeared in the Annual Register for the year 1767, Characters (London 1800), x.60.
He has rented a house of the territory of Geneva, which he seldom visits; and the real cause of dislike was being prevented exhibiting a play there to the marshal duke de Richelieu; for at the instant, (which made the slight more conspicuous) they were going to lift the curtain, a caveat in form came from the states, and too powerfully attended to be gainsaid.
At Fernex, his place of residence, he found a large old French chateau, which he razed to the ground; and in its stead, has erected a very noble seat-like house; but preserving some awkward gateways, and turrets, the beauty of the building is much deformed on that front which faces the great road to Gex; and the back front is only visible to those walking there.
Notwithstanding his long stay in England, and his pretended attention to, and affectation of our taste and planting, building, and gardening, every part of his demesne is equally frenchified as any citizen's plat of ground in the environs of Paris. All his woods are cut into walks star-fashion; and all the variety consists in its being a star of greater or less magnitude, with more or fewer rays.
Being the first possessions he ever enjoyed, he takes all methods at table to inform his guests that every dish comes off the territoire; and as a gallows is the mark of a seigneurie or manor of France, he is not wanting also to inform you that he has as many potences as would string half the monarchs in Europe; and who, as he often says, deserve no other or better exaltation.
He seems fond (politically so, perhaps; because the English at Geneva are his best friends in all kind of subscriptions, witness his edition of Corneille) to recount the honours he received and connexions he made in England; and recounts that one evening all the geniuses were assembled in compliment to him, at the earl of Peterborough's on Parson's Green....
Mr. Voltaire's theatre is in one of his out-offices, is neatly fitted up, and may contain two hundred persons; two changes of scenes answer all the ends of French tragedy or comedy; tho' they begin to follow the English custom of late, and think unity of time and place not essential in the least to good plays.
Indeed, if my fancy stretches so far, as one night to imagine a parcel of deal planks to be Athens, the next evening Paris, and the day after old Rome; I may, by the same change of ideas, change the scenes too; and equally imagine the business of three days to be comprized into three hours; as that incidents of time and chance should fall into the compass of three hours; which it is impossible should have occurred in as many days.
But as French tragedy all centres in place-plot, and cabinet-conspiracy; and as all their species of comedy falls into the path of parlour intrigue, their stage may still support this folly half a century longer. The English being by their nature Ubiquarians, and seldom in one place long, must have canvass painted as thick as their ideas, or they would fall asleep.
To return to our little theatre at Fernex: the attendants are made up of the butler, coachman, groom, &c. I have caught the laughing dairy-maid in the habit of a priestess: and the old cook was found in the fact of being for that night a young vestal.
But what abates the whole pleasure, is the frequent and outrageous interruptions of Mr. Voltaire, who, when any passage goes wrong, never fails to proclaim it: and will cross the stage in his night-cap and gown to scold at an empress, or pull the cap of a queen.
Great wits, says an author, are surely allied to madness; one would imagine this who saw our epic-writer on such a night. I remember his coachman not entering time enough to lay him down gently in the hour of death, in the character of a Turkish slave, he changed this tragedy part into comic reasoning; and whimsically asked him for a receipt in full of all demands; "for I am sure", said Voltaire, "I must be in your debt, or you would not have used me so, as to let me die thus like a beggar".
After the most serious conclusion of a tragedy, or refined finishing of a comedy, this great man renders himself truly little, by some jest to the audience, lower, if possible, than a merry andrew's at Bartholomew fair....
Though never married himself, yet does he love to see others happy in that state; having, I heard him say, joined together eighteen couples of servants, during his residence at Fernex: scarce then above five years....
But to return to Fernex: the parish church forming part of the quadrangle or grand cour to the old chateau; and Voltaire being thereby intercepted a view of the lake, fairly sawed the church in two, without any spiritual licence for so doing; or, without a with your leave, or by your leave of the bishop or dean; but, as a salvo to the injury, he has put in very large capitals, distinguishable from the great road to the town of Gex (and so purposely intended) these words:
Deo Erexit Voltaire
Many epigrams, sonnets, and madrigals have been wrote on the occasion, but not one worthy of insertion; suffice it, that as the rule of his conduct is, in general, every school-boy can throw his squib of animadversion.
On the dissolution of the order of jesuits, and of course their dissipation, Voltaire selected one to be his table-companion, and fellow chess-player. The poor Pere Adam (that is his name) is forced to eat his pudding, and hold his tongue; for never was a Welsh curate so much the butt of his squire's arrows, as is this chaplain of his.
I give him a tide here Voltaire never intended him; but I know that the accidental residence of his jesuit in his house, has frequently given a handle for many to think and say, that, however ludicrous our epic is in public, that in private he is not without his fears; which he proved by having this reverend chaplain in his house and at his elbow; whereas it is well known that both the vespers and mattins of Mons. de Voltaire are chess and backgammon, piquet, or a game at quadrille.
When he invited the poor Pere Adam to his house, it is said he was ingenious enough to add, "if you can dare to live with a man who professes himself to have no religion at all, or, if any thing, is a stricter disciple of Confucius than you can be of your humble master, then come to me".
He seldom goes to bed till day-break, drinking coffee almost every half hour, and playing at chess; next day he is never visible till noon, and then disagreeably so; having but too often a dirty banjan, and unpowdered tye-wig, with the knots before; and a cap over that, either of silk or velvet embroidered; and being naturally hasty and waspish, I am often reminded of Lear as represented by a strolling company, where the wardrobe furnishes the same suit for that insane king, as for the Mahomet of some Turkish tragedy, incomplete at least, and at best very shabby.
The Jesuit residing with Mons. de Voltaire being rather a man of slight, than striking genius, often gives this head of the family an handle to make him the butt of conversation; however, the Pere Adam follows the old adage of, "eating his pudding, and holding his tongue".
Voltaire says of him often, Il est Pere Adam, mais pas le premier des hommes. He may be Father Adam, but is far from being the first of men....
To return to our lord-paramount at the chateau de Fernex, where he may be truly called such; the gay part of Geneva take delight in visiting him; but as he knows what is related to them, will reach the ears of their magistracy, he never fails saying the severest things an irritated genius can invent.
A gentleman's equipage not coming punctually, who was on a visit to him, he asked if the coachman was a Genevite; and being answered in the affirmative, he replied, "Oh! there the very servants are kings; no wonder you are so tyrannically used".
At another time (the reader must observe that Geneva has no territory) he said, supposing each free citizen of this great republic had a shirt, and would lend it on the occasion, they might cover their dominion with their own linen.
His house is a receptacle for all foreigners; and, as every such visitor strains his genius to entertain him, no wonder, by such a quick succession of all the several inhabitants of the four quarters of the world, that Voltaire has such an universal knowledge of mankind.
His conversation among men generally turns (and too unhappily so) on blasphemous subjects; and (which argues a great want of politeness) he generally increases his vein if any churchmen are present; nay, according to their rank, he augments or decreases his sallies, of what he falsely calls pleasantry....
With ladies, he is rather indecent; as with the church, he is but too apt to be ludicrous. Many of his late works will verify this; and I rather think that the sweepings of his brain, so lately published, are more owing to his flattering bookseller and his wife; who, like F-----r in Dublin, never care if Voltaire or Dean Swift suffer, so he or they can have venison in the proper season.
The salle à manger at Voltaire's is very dirty in general. And you will see servants waiting in waistcoats, and women at work (in not the most delicate of needle employment) while company of the first rank are at dinner. But his drawing-room, and other apartments, make ample amends for this carelessness; scarce any nobleman having a more elegant suite of chambers, either for state or convenience.
You would be surprised to see on what scraps of paper he writes his best hints for material works. I am amazed he can find them in the dissipated manner they lie. While he writes he always sits with his back to the fire; which is, perhaps, to save his eyes.
When he does dress (which is rare) no man produces a more varigated wardrobe: but so eccentric is he, that, in a suit of velvet and embroidery, I have seen him join the dance of some servants in the hall, on hearing the violin give the summons....
There is a monarchical, despotic state in this great man, which appears in his minutest actions. Thus, at table, he never comes in with the rest of the company; but will delay about any trifle; and, on entrance, loves to recal all the dishes, and disturb every part of the table, with placing and misplacing them, after every one else has been satisfied; which is rather disagreeable, when the appetite of the others has been satisfied; nothing being so unwelcome as the remnants of dishes half spoiled, and scraps of delicacies; which by these means, no longer are such....
He pretends to shew a turn for English improvements, from observations he made, or pretended to make in England, when he was there. But the attachment to French ornaments still prevails; and a flower-plat and fountain are, to him, greater embellishments than all the woods and waters of Chatsworth, a Castle Howard, or a Sturton....
Though Voltaire never would accept a title from any monarch, yet does he much attach himself to personages so adorned; nay, in the very opening of his letters, he will give a preference of reading to those with ducal coronets, over those of common earls, viscounts, or barons.
He complains much of an unconquerable dryness in his habit of body; "which", says he, "one day or other, must end me"; as if but for that he might live a century longer; and I am told, that in illness no man is so afraid of the devil's claws as himself; insomuch, that the most ignorant and mendicant priest can, at that time, have a way over him, which, in perfect health, the infallible head of the church would fail of.
The many presents from the great, of wine, and every delicacy which so many different countries afford, allow him to keep a better table than many of his equals in fortune; and, whether their favours arise from fear or love, he is equally gainer.
Most people think him, at least, twenty years older than he really is; appearing at the theatre of life so early (for he published at sixteen) many imagine him a man from that aera; when, in fact, he was only a strippling. Nor do I now believe him to be above seventy....
And now to return to Fernex once more, where we shall take leave of our hero, and leave him to the opinion of others, no less than his own opinion of himself; his great favourite is doctor Tronchin, whom he calls his AEsculapius. The wife of his book-seller seems very much to rule him, and alternately, one madame Relier, whose husband is a leading man in the present affairs of Geneva: a place which Voltaire has such an aversion to enter the walls of, that he has been known to sit in his coach at the very gates, and send for those persons he has any business or connections with to the window-side, and give them an audience with all the self-sufficiency of an eastern prince.
He is fond of driving a single-horse chair, and has a roan-horse, which the elector-palatine gave him at Manheim, because it happened to be foaled just under his eye from an Arabian mare.
He will sometimes drive more madly than Phaeton, and then at once fall into a solemnity of pace, as if composing some great work....
Methinks, I see him now with his whip in his hand, calling the whole house to go hunting (à la chasse, à la chasse), and when he had assembled everybody, it was only to walk round the house, and brush down the spiders and their webs, which the servants had neglected among the pillars of each portico of his building.
He will talk much of what the writers will say after his death; and often hints, that the conversation of Monsieur de Voltaire on his death-bed, cooked up by some Jesuit, will be a most delicious morsel for the Paris booksellers; "and the rascals will pick up many a good meal of my bones", says he, "bare as I am".
His kitchen-garden at Fernex is very large and convenient, but divided and subdivided so often by walls, looks rather unsightly; an open plat of ground would be too much exposed to heat, perhaps, to forward culinary productions; the frequent walls may rather create a necessary shade.
His love of dates, sweet oranges, and pomegranates, is very particular. Observe in the south of France, that the orange being grafted on the pomegranates, gives it a fine colour; and he will often hold it up and say, "This must have been the forbidden fruit".
His favourite productions in our language are, Garth's Dispensatory; Prior's Henry and Emma; Pope's Prologue to Cato; and the smaller works of Pope: but as to Shakespear and Milton, he can hardly speak of them with any degree of patience.
As he writes much from hear-say, no wonder he is so subject to errors in chronology, and even facts. In a late production of his, which he calls Contes or Tales, he declares, when writing a critique on the play of the Orphan, that Chamont, as a proof of the barbarity of the English stage, asks his sister, the fair and virtuous Monimia, if she has not lost her maidenhead; and affirms, that Polydore twice pulls his beloved and lovely orphan by the hair of her head across the stage.
Whether any young English gentleman, from design or ignorance, drew him into the scrape of committing this to the press I cannot say; but so it is-and I wish some comic genius of our island did not do it purposely to expose him, as, having endeavoured, or rather dared, as they would call it, to draw a picture of the English stage, without ever knowing its mere out-lines.
In his observations on the tragedy of Hamlet, (a play he utterly despises) he has hit on a blunder of our great English dramatic writer, which I could wish had not been so visible: viz
"And now", says he, "the first act ends with the king giving his royal orders (and which must never be disobeyed) to fire all the cannon round the ramparts, two hundred years before gunpowder was invented".
The famous soliloquy of, "To be, or not to be", he has variously burlesqued; as thus:
"To dance, or not to dance,
To drink, or not to drink,
To dress, or not to dress,
To ride, or not to ride,
To pay, or not to pay,
To sing, or not to sing, that is the question."...
On addressing a lady who had just lain in, he said, "And who was your midwife?" On her telling him Dr B----r, a man, he smiled; and said, "Well! give my respects to your husband, and tell him he is half a cuckold".
He gives no regular livery; so that his servants often wearing that of the last place they lived at, have the appearance of several gentlemens servants attending as on a visit to him.
He is fond of hawks; and as the adjacent Alps, and the vast chain of mountains, known by the name of Mont Jura, afford various species of these birds, his house is a menagerie of that kind; and he will sometimes amuse himself with letting them fly at a pigeon or tame fowl, about his house, calling them kings who tear the innocent subject to pieces.