The Celebrities Of Geneva
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
It has been remarked as curious that the Age of Revolution at Geneva was also the Golden Age —if not of Genevan literature, which has never really had any Golden Age, at least of Genevan science, which was of world-wide renown.
The period is one in which notable names meet us at every turn. There were exiled Genevans, like de Lolme, holding their own in foreign political and intellectual circles; there were emigrant Genevan pastors holding aloft the lamps of culture and piety in many cities of England, France, Russia, Germany, and Denmark; there were Gene-vans, like Francois Lefort, holding the highest offices in the service of foreign rulers; and there were numbers of Genevans at Geneva of whom the cultivated grand tourist wrote in the tone of a disciple writing of his master. One can not glance at the history of the period without lighting upon names of note in almost all departments of endeavor. The period is that of de Saussure, Bourrit, the de Lucs, the two Hubers, great authorities respectively on bees and birds; Le Sage, who was one of Gibbon's rivals for the heart of Mademoiselle Suzanne Curchod; Senebier, the librarian who wrote the first literary history of Geneva; St. Ours and Arlaud, the painters; Charles Bonnet, the entomologist; Berenger and Picot, the historians; Tronchin, the physician; Trembley and Jallabert, the mathematicians; Dentan, minister and Alpine explorer; Pictet, the editor of the "Bibliotheque Universelle," still the leading Swiss literary review; and Odier, who taught Geneva the virtue of vaccination.
It is obviously impossible to dwell at length upon the careers of all these eminent men. As well might one attempt, in a survey on the same scale of English literature, to discuss in detail the careers of all the celebrities of the age of Anne. One can do little more than remark that the list is marvelously strong for a town of some 30,000 inhabitants, and that many of the names included in it are not only eminent, but interesting. Jean Andre de Luc, for example, has a double claim upon our attention as the inventor of the hygrometer and as the pioneer of the snow-peaks. He climbed the Buet as early as 1770, and wrote an account of his adventures on its summit and its slopes which has the true charm of Arcadian simplieity. He came to England, was appointed reader to Queen Charlotte, and lived in the enjoyment of that office, and in the gratifying knowledge that Her Majesty kept his presentation hygrometer in her private apartments, to the vener able age of ninety.
Bourrit is another interesting character—being, in fact, the spiritual ancestor of the modern Alpine Clubman. By profession he was Precentor of the Cathedral; but his heart was in the mountains. In the summer he climbed them, and in the winter he wrote books about them. One of his books was translated into English; and the list of subscribers, published with the translation, shows that the public which Bourrit addrest included Edmund Burke, Sir Joseph Banks, Bartolozzi, Fanny Burney, Angelica Kauffman, David Garrick, Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Augustus Selwyn, Jonas Hanway and Dr. Johnson. His writings earned him the honorable title of Historian (or Historiographer) of the Alps. Men of science wrote him letters; princes engaged upon the grand tour called to see him ; princesses sent him presents as tokens of their admiration and regard for the man who had taught them how the contemplation of mountain scenery might exalt the sentiments of the human mind.
Tronchin, too, is interesting; he was the first physician who recognized the therapeutic use of fresh air and exercise, hygienic boots, and open windows. So is Charle Bonnet, who was not afraid to stand up for orthodoxy against Voltaire; so is Mallet, who traveled as far as Lapland; and so is that man of whom his contemporaries always spoke, with the reverence of hero-worshipers, as "the illustrious de Saussure."
The name of which the Genevans are proudest is probably that of Rousseau, who has sometimes been spoken of as "the austere citizen of Geneva." But "austere" is a strange epithet to apply to the philosopher who endowed the Foundling Hospital with five illegitimate children; and Geneva can not claim a great share in a citizen who ran away from the town of his boyhood to avoid being thrashed for stealing apples. It was, indeed, at Geneva that Jean Jacques received from his aunt the disciplinary chastisement of which he gives such an exciting account in his "Confessions"; and he once returned to the city and received the Holy Communion there in later life. But that is all. Jean Jacques was not educated at Geneva, but in Savoy—at Annecy, at Turin, and at Chambery; his books were not printed at Geneva, tho one of them was publicly burned there, but in Paris and Amsterdam; it is not to Genevan but to French literature that he belongs.
We must visit Voltaire at Ferney, and Madame de Stael at Coppet. Let the patriarch come first. Voltaire was sixty years of age when he settled on the shores of the lake, where he was to remain for another four-and-twenty years; and he did not go there for his pleasure. He would have preferred to live in Paris, but was afraid of being locked up in the Bastille. As the great majority of the men of letters of the reign of Louis XV. were, at one time or another, locked up in the Bastille, his fears were probably well founded.
Moreover, notes of warning had reached his ears. "I dare not ask you to dine," a relative said to him, "because you are in bad odor at Court." So he betook' himself to Geneva, as so many Frenchmen, illustrious and otherwise, had done before, and acquired various properties—at Prangins, at Lausanne, at Saint-Jean (near Geneva), at Ferney, at Tournay, and elsewhere.
He was welcomed cordially. Dr. Tronehin, the eminent physician, cooperated in the legal fictions necessary to enable him to become a landowner in the republic. Cramer, the publisher, made a proposal for the issue of a complete and authorized edition of his works. All the best people called. "It is very pleasant," he was able to write, "to live in a country where rulers borrow your carriage to come to dinner with you."
Voltaire corresponded regularly with at least four reigning sovereigns, to say nothing of men of letters, Cardinals, and Marshals of France; and he kept open house for travelers of mark from every country in the world. Those of the travelers who wrote books never failed to devote a chapter to an account of a visit to Ferney; and from the mass of such descriptions we may select for quotation that written, in the stately style of the period, by Dr. John Moore, author of "Zeluco," then making the grand tour as tutor to the Duke of Hamilton.
"The most piercing eyes I ever beheld," the doctor writes, "are those of Voltaire, now in his eightieth year. His whole countenance is expressive of genius, observation, and extreme sensibility. In the morning he has a look of anxiety and discontent; but this gradually wears off, and after dinner he seems cheerful; yet an air of irony never entirely forsakes his face, but may always be observed lurking in his features whether he frowns or smiles. Composition is his principal amusement. No author who writes for daily bread, no young poet ardent for distinction, is more assiduous with his pen, or more anxious for fresh fame, than the wealthy and applauded Seigneur of Ferney. He lives in a very hospitable manner, and takes care always to have a good cook. He generally has two or three visitors from Paris, who stay with him a month or six weeks at a time. When they go, their places are soon sup-plied, so that there is a constant rotation of society at Ferney. These, with Voltaire's own family and his visitors from Geneva, compose a company of twelve or fourteen people, who dine daily at his table, whethers he appears or not. All who bring recommendations from his friends may depend upon being received, if he be not really indisposed. He often presents himself to the strangers who assemble every afternoon in his ante-chamber, altho they bring no particular recommendation."
It might have been added that when an interesting stranger who carried no introduction was passing through the town, Voltaire sometimes sent for him; but this experiment was not always a success, and failed most ludicrously in the case of Claude Gay, the Philadelphian Quaker, author of some theological works now forgotten, but then of note. The meeting was only arranged with diffieulty on the philosopher's undertaking to put a bridle on his tongue, and say nothing flippant about holy things. He tried to keep his promise, but the temptation was too strong for him. After a while he entangled his guest in a controversy concerning the proceedings of the patriarchs and the evidences of Christianity, and lost his temper on finding that his sarcasms failed to make their usual impression. The member of the Society of Friends, however, was not disconcerted. He rose from his place at the dinner-table, and replied : "Friend Voltaire ! perhaps thou mayst come to understand these matters rightly; in the meantime, finding I can do thee no good, I leave thee, and so fare thee well."
And so saying, he walked out and walked back to Geneva, while Voltaire retired in dudgeon to his room, and the company sat expecting something terrible to happen.
A word, in conclusion, about Coppet !
Necker bought the property from his old banking partner, Thelusson, for 500,000 livres in French money, and retired to live there when the French Revolution drove him out of politics. His daughter, Madame de Stael, inherited it from him, and made it famous.
Not that she loved Switzerland; it would be more true to say that she detested Switzerland. Swiss scenery meant nothing to her. When she was taken for an excursion to the glaciers, she asked what the crime was that she had to expiate by such a punishment; and she could look out on the blue waters of Lake Leman, and sigh for "the gutter of the Rue du Bac." Even to this day, the Swiss have hardly forgiven her for that, or for speaking of the Canton of Vaud as the country in which she had been "so intensely bored for such a number of years."
What she wanted was to live in Paris, to be a leader—or, rather, to be "the" leader—of Parisian society, to sit in a salon, the admired of all admirers, and to pull the wires of politics to the advantage of her friends. For a while she succeeded in doing this. It was she who persuaded Barras to give Talleyrand his political start in life. But whereas Barras was willing to act on her advice, Napoleon was by no means equally amenable to her influence. Almost from the first he regarded her as a mischief-maker; and when a spy brought him an intercepted letter in which Madame de Stael exprest her hope that none of the old aristocracy of France would condescend to accept appointments in the household of "the bourgeois of Corsica," he became her personal enemy, and, refusing her permission to live either in the capital or near it, practically compelled her to take refuge in her country seat. Her pleasaunce in that way became her gilded cage.
Perhaps she was not quite so unhappy there as she sometimes represented. If she could not go to Paris, many distinguished and brilliant Parisians came to Coppet, and met there many brilliant and distinguished Germans, Genevans, Italians, and Danes. The Parisian salon, reconstituted, flourished on Swiss soil. There visited there, at one time or another, Madame Recamier and Madame Krudner; Benjamin Constant, who was so long Madame de Staels lover; Bonstetten, the Voltairean philosopher; Frederika Brun, the Danish artist; Sismondi, the historian; Werner, the German poet; Karl Ritter, the German geographer; Baron de Voght; Monti, the Italian poet; Madame Vigee Le Brun; Cuvier; and Oelenschlaeger. From almost every one of them we have some pen-andink sketch of the life there. This, for instance, is the scene as it appeared to Madame Le Brun, who came to paint the hostess's portrait:
"I paint her in antique costume. She is not beautiful, but the animation of her visage takes the place of beauty. To aid the expression I wished to give her, I entreated her to recite tragic verses while I painted. She declaimed passages from Corneille and Racine. I find many persons established at Coppet. the beautiful Madame Recamier, the Comte de Sabran, a young English woman, Benjamin Constant, etc. Its society is continually renewed. They come to visit the illustrious exile who is pursued by the rancor of the Emperor. Her two sons are now with her, under the instruction of the German scholar Schlegel; her daughter is very beautiful, and has a passionate love - of study; she leaves her company free all the morning, but they unite in the evening. It is only after dinner that they can converse with her. She then walks in her salon, holding in her hand a little green branch; and her words have an ardor quite peculiar to her; it is impossible to interrupt her. At these times she produces on one the effect of an improvisatrice."
And here is a still more graphic description, taken from a letter written to Madame Recamier by Baron de Voght :
"It is to you that I owe my most amiable reception at Coppet. It is no doubt to the favorable expectations aroused by your friendship that I owe my intimate acquaintance with this remarkable woman. I might have met her without your assistance—some casual acquaintance would no doubt have introduced me—but I should never have penetrated to the intimacy of this sublime and beautiful soul, and should never have known how much better she is than her reputation. She is an angel sent from heaven to reveal the divine goodness upon earth. To make her irresistible, a pure ray of celestial light embellishes her spirit and makes her amiable from every point of view.
"At once profound and light, whether she is discovering a mysterious secret of the soul or grasping the lightest shadow of a sentiment, her genius shines without dazzling, and when the orb of light has disappeared, it leaves a pleasant twilight to follow it. . No doubt a few faults, a few weaknesses, occasionally veil this celestial apparition; even the initiated must sometimes be troubled by these eclipses, which the Genevan astronomers in vain endeavor to predict.
"My travels so far have been limited to journeys to Lausanne and Coppet, where I often stay three or four days. The life there suits me perfectly; the company is even more to my taste. I like Constant's wit, Schlegel's learning, Sabran's amiability, Sismondi's talent and character, the simple truthful disposition and just intellectual perceptions of Auguste,* the wit and sweetness of Albertine—I was forgetting Bonstetten, an excellent fellow, full of knowledge of all sorts, ready in wit, adaptable in character—in every way inspiring one's respect and confidenee.
"Your sublime friend looks and gives life to everything. She imparts intelligence to those around her. In every corner of the house some one is engaged in composing a great work.
Corinne is writing her delightful letters about Germany, which will, no doubt, prove to be the best thing she has ever done.
"The `Shunamitish Widow, an Oriental melodrama which she has just finished, will be played in October; it is charming. Coppet will be flooded with tears. Constant and Auguste are both composing tragedies; Sabran is writing a comic opera, and Sismondi a history; Schlegel is translating something; Bonstetten is busy with philosophy, and I am busy with my letter to Juliette."
Then, a month later:
"Since my last letter, Madame de Stael has read us several chapters of her work. Every-where it bears the marks of her talent. I wish I could persuade her to cut out everything in it connected with politics, and all the metaphors which interfere with its clarity, simplicity, and accuracy. What she needs to demonstrate is not her republicanism, but her wisdom. Mlle. Jenner played in one of Werner's tragedies which was given, last Friday, before an audience of twenty. She, Werner, and Schlegel played perfectly.. .
"The arrival in Switzerland of M. Cuvier has been a happy distraction for Madame de Stael; they spent two days together at Geneva, and were well pleased with each other. On her return to Coppet she found Middleton there, and in receiving his confidences forgot her troubles. Yesterday she resumed her work.
"The poet whose mystical and somber genius has caused us such profound emotions starts, in a few days' time, for Italy.
"I accompanied Corinne to Massot's. To alleviate the tedium of the sitting, a Mlle. Romilly played pleasantly on the harp, and the studio was a veritable temple of the Muses. . .
"Bonstetten gave us two readings of a Memoir on the Northern Alps. It began very well, but afterward it bored us. Madame de Stan resumed her reading, and there was no longer any question of being bored. It is marvelous how much she must have read and thought over to be able to find the opportunity of saying so many good things. One may differ from her, but one can not help delighting in her talent.
"And now here we are at Geneva, trying to reproduce Coppet at the Hotel des Balances. I am delightfully situated with a wide view over the Valley of Savoy, between the Alps and the Jura.
Yesterday evening the illusion of Coppet was complete. I had been with Madame de Stael to call on Madame Rilliet, who is so charming at her own fireside. On my return I played chess with Sismondi. Madame de Stael, Mlle. Randall, and Mlle. Jenner sat on the sofa chatting with Bonstetten and young Barante. We were as we had always been—as we were in the days that I shall never cease regretting."
Other descriptions exist in great abundance, but these suffice to serve our purpose. They show us the Coppet salon as it was pleasant, brilliant, unconventional; something like Holland House, but more Bohemian; something like Harley Street, but more select; something like Gad's Hill—which it resembled in the fact that the members of the house-parties were expected to spend their mornings at their desks—but on a higher social plane; a center at once of high thinking and frivolous behavior; of hard work and desperate love-making, which sometimes paved the way to trouble.