What was Voltaire’s conduct toward women?  Was he the libertine that some have painted him, or simply indifferent, or worse, as others have said?

In the company of women, he seems to have been polite and courteous, which is symbolic of that time.  However, he never sacrificed his moral tranquillity to them, nor his physical health which he knew to be delicate.

Like all young men, he had his moments.  Although, he never let his passion take control.

At the age of nineteen, he fell for the daughter of a starving writer, who saw him as easy game to be exploited.  Voltaire saw the danger, and shielded himself.  Up until he was almost forty, his love life does not appear to have been much more than “witty debauchery”.

His only known serious and lasting affection was for Mme du Chatelet.  Similar tastes and common work gave birth, at least on Voltaire’s side, to a sentiment which was not strictly platonic.  A small part of sensuality crept in.  This included a certain amount of jealousy, which is demonstrated by a scene he made when he surprised the lady in intimate “conversation” with Saint-Lambert.  A chamber maid reported the spicy details.

First of all, the Marquise tried to convince Voltaire that he had been mistaken about what he had seen, then:

“…  I have used up my health, my fortune, I have sacrificed everything for you, and you are unfaithful to me!” he moaned.

“No, I still love you,” she replied.  “But, for a long time now, you have been complaining that you are ill, that your strength is leaving you, that you can no longer continue.  I have been greatly afflicted by it;  I am far from wanting your death, your health is very dear to me;  no-one in the world is more sympathetic about it than I.  As for you, you have always shown great interest for mine;  you have knowledge of and have approved the diet which suits me, you have even favorised and shared it for as long as you were able.  Since you admit that you are only able to continue to take care of it at great damage to yourself, should you be upset when one of your friends replaces you?”

“Ah, Madame,”  replied Voltaire.  “You will always be right;  but, since things must be this way, at least let them not be within my sight.”

It does not seem possible to be more accomodating or more philosophical.  The most surprising part of the story is that, once the compromise was agreed upon, the love triangle lived in perfect harmony.  Only the death of Mme du Chatelet put an end to this methodically organized happiness.

Voltaire never recovered from the loss.  All of the love affairs attributed to him after that, are just gossip.  He occasionally flirted with a pretty woman, and took pleasure in having a plump, young girl or two next to him.  Even going so far as to caress their rounded arms.  But he went no further.  All of the other, more scandalous, stories about him are pure fiction.

In 1772, Voltaire is 78 years old.  The Marechal de Richelieu, a great debauchee, insinuates that Voltaire kept Mlle Raucourt in his bedroom for several hours, and that the result of this is a worrying loss of consciousness.

First of all, Voltaire doesn’t take the allegation seriously, and even sends the Marechal some light-hearted verses on the subject.  But the rumour swells, and he feels that he must give some sort of explanation.

It is true that he had received a beautiful young lady at Ferney, but it has been supposed, wrongly, that she had shown some kindness toward him, who was totally unable to respond to such a situation.  “Scandalmongers have invented this story and spread it throughout Paris… ”  It is very cruel to have done this to the poor girl, even more to himself, who is dying, literally, from his strangurie.  Even though, he can truthfully say that he does not deserve this illness;  and if he dies, it will be the most innocently in the world.

The letter which he wrote to the actress, after their interview, must convince the most incredulous.  “If I were twenty years old, if I had a body, a fortune and above all a heart worthy of you, you would have their homage;  but I have lost everything.  All that are left to me are eyes to see you, a soul to admire you and a hand to write to you.”

At four times twenty years old, the hermit of Ferney had not lost the secret of fashioning a madrigal.

Fourth part tomorrow.

Advertisements