James Boswell visits Ferney

Boswell was a visitor at Ferney late in December 1764:

I took the coach for Ferney, the seat of the illustrious Monsieur de Voltaire. I was in true spirits, the earth was covered with snow, I surveyed wild nature with a noble eye. I called up all the grand ideas which I have ever entertained of Voltaire. The first object that struck me was his church with this inscription: 'Deo erexit Voltaire MDCCLXI.' His château was handsome. I was received by two or three footmen, who showed me into a very elegant room. I sent by one of them a letter to Monsieur de Voltaire which I had from Colonel Constant at The Hague. He returned and told me, 'Monsieur de Voltaire is very much annoyed at being disturbed. He is abed.' I was afraid that I should not see him. Some ladies and gentlemen entered, and I was entertained for some time. At last Monsieur de Voltaire opened the door of his apartment, and stepped forth. I surveyed him with eager attention, and found him just as his print had made me conceive him. He received me with dignity, and that air of the world which a Frenchman acquires in such perfection. He had a slate-blue, fine frieze greatcoat night-gown, and a three-knotted wig. He sat erect upon his chair, and simpered when he spoke. He was not in spirits, nor I neither. All I presented was the 'foolish face of wondering praise'.

Between seven and eight we had a message that Voltaire was in the drawing-room. He always appears about this time anight, pulls his bell and cries, 'Fetch Père Adam'. The good Father is ready immediately, and they play at chess together. I stood by Monsieur de Voltaire and put him in tune. He spoke sometimes English and sometimes French. He gave me a sharp reproof for speaking fast. 'How fast you foreigners speak!' 'We think that the French do the same.' 'Well, at any rate, I don't. I speak slowly, that's what I do'; and this he said with a keen tone.

I returned yesterday to this enchanted castle. The magician appeared a very little before dinner. But in the evening he came into the drawing-room in great spirits. I placed myself by him. I touched the keys in unison with his imagination. I wish you had heard the music. He was all brilliance. He gave me continued flashes of wit. I got him to speak English, which he does in a degree that made me now and then start up and cry, 'Upon my soul this is astonishing!' When he talked our language he was animated with the soul of a Briton. He had bold flights. He had humour. He had an extravagance; he had a forcible oddity of style that the most comical of our dramatis personae could not have exceeded. He swore bloodily, as was the fashion when he was in England. He hummed a ballad; he repeated nonesense. Then he talked of our Constitution with a noble enthusiasm. I was proud to hear this from the mouth of an illustrious Frenchman. At last we came upon religion. Then did he rage. The company went to supper. Monsieur de Voltaire and I remained in the drawing-room with a great Bible before us; and if ever two mortal men disputed with vehemence, we did. Yes, upon that occasion he was one individual and I another. For a certain portion of time there was a fair opposition between Voltaire and Boswell. The daring bursts of his ridicule confounded my understanding. He stood like an orator of ancient Rome. Tully was never more agitated than he was. He went too far. His aged frame trembled beneath him. He cried, 'Oh, I am very sick; my head turns round', and he let himself gently fall upon an easy chair. He recovered. I resumed our conversation, but changed the tone. I talked to him serious and earnest. I demanded of him an honest confession of his real sentiments. He gave it me with candour and with a mild eloquence which touched my heart. I did not believe him capable of thinking in the manner that he declared to me was 'from the bottom of his heart'. He expressed his veneration--his love--of the Supreme Being, and his entire resignation to the will of Him who is All-wise. He expressed his desire to resemble the Author of Goodness by being good himself. His sentiments go no farther. He does not inflame his mind with grand hopes of the immortality of his soul. He says it may be, but he knows nothing of it. And his mind is in perfect tranquillity. It was moved; I was sorry. I doubted his sincerity. I called to him with emotion, 'Are you sincere? are you really sincere?' He answered, 'Before God, I am'. Then with the fire of him whose tragedies have so often shone on the theatre of Paris, he said, 'I suffer much. But I suffer with patience and resignation; not as a Christian--but as a man'.

Monsieur de Voltaire was very ill today, and had not appeared. I sent my respects to him, and begged to be allowed to take leave of him. He sent to me his compliments and said he would see me. I found him in the drawing-room, where I had near half an hour with him; at least, more than a quarter. I told him that I had marked his conversation. He seemed pleased. This last conversation shall also be marked. It was truly singular and solemn. I was quite in enthusiasm, quite agreeably mad to a certain degree. I asked his correspondence. He granted it. Is not this great?...

Well, I must here pause, and as an impartial philosopher decide concerning myself. What a singular being do I find myself! Let this my journal show what variety my mind is capable of. But am I not well received everywhere? Am I not particularly taken notice of by men of the most distinguished genius? And why? I have neither profound knowledge, strong judgment, nor constant gaiety. But I have a noble soul which still shines forth, a certain degree of knowledge, a multiplicity of ideas of all kinds, an original humour and turn of expression, and, I really believe, a remarkable knowledge of human nature. This is different from a knowledge of the world as much as is the knowledge of a florist, who understands perfectly the works of Nature, from that of him who understands flowers formed by art. The florist perceives in general that the artificial flowers are not natural, but whether they are made of gummed linen, of china, or of copper, he cannot tell. So I know in general your men of the world to be artificial, but am not able to develop their different qualities. What is really Man I think I know pretty well. With this I have a pliant ease of manner which must please. I can tune myself so to the tone of my bearable man I am with that he is as much at freedom as with another self, and, till I am gone, cannot imagine me as a stranger. Perhaps my talents are such as procure me more happiness than those of a more elevated kind. Were it not for my black hypochondria, I might be a practical epicurean.

I departed from this château in a most extraordinary humour, thinking hard, and wondering if I could possibly, when again in Scotland, again feel my most childish prejudices [...].

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