Modern history


A year before his chastening stay in Saint-Lazare, Beaumarchais had an inspired promotional idea. He proposed to donate the proceeds from The Marriage of Figaro to a worthy cause: the encouragement of maternal breast-feeding. An Institute of Maternal Welfare was to be established in Paris that would provide subsidies to mothers who would otherwise have to send their infants out to village wet nurses in order to be able to work.

In Paris the lieutenant of police, Lenoir, thought that perhaps only one thirtieth of mothers of the twenty thousand babies born each year nursed their own babies. And these were almost exclusively from better-off families who followed Rousseau’s passionate advocacy of domestic breast-feeding. Others who could afford it had wet nurses come to their homes or sent their infants to the faubourgs. But the vast majority of modest and poor homes used an official bureau and its traveling agents – the meneurs – to find village wet nurses in the countryside around the capital. The poorest abandoned their children on church steps for the Foundling Hospital, and they too were farmed out to country wet nurses. For every one in two babies sent away in this manner, village wet nursing was a death warrant: urban poverty succored by rural destitution. Desperate for the pittance that they received for nursing, the women sometimes deceived the meneur about their lactating ability and fed the infant animal milk or a bouillie-pap, made of water and boiled (and often moldy) bread. Sometimes their mouths would be crammed with rotting rags. Infants sat in animal and human filth, were suspended on a hook in unchanged swaddling bands or were slung from the rafters in an improvised hammock. Dysenteric fevers put them out of their misery by the tens of thousands, and often the meneur responsible for informing the parents (or the Foundling Hospital) about the child’s progress would conceal its death and pocket the money.

Affected by reports of this cottage industry of death, Beaumarchais mobilized Figaro to come to the rescue of the nursing mother. A topical engraving celebrating his scheme shows Figaro distributing charity to generously endowed and contentedly nursing mothers while others behind him greet their liberator from a “prison for nurses.” A standing Philosopher shows this happy scene to “Welfare” while above them “Humanity” holds up a tablet inscribed “Succor for Nursing Mothers.”

Beaumarchais’ success at the theater was already galling enough for his enemies in Paris. They were certainly not prepared to have his halo shine even more brightly through philanthropy. But the Archbishop of Lyon got wind of the idea and welcomed the 85,000 livres donation that established an “Institute” in that city. By all accounts it was a success, reporting a marked decline in infant mortality. It was astute of Beaumar-chais, who was constantly on the defense against charges of libertinism, to associate himself with such a high-minded philanthropy. Against critics who dismissed his play as a comic trifle, full of witticisms but empty of substance, the scheme highlighted its underlying moral themes: the defense of nuptial innocence against aristocratic lust and force. Figaro is himself a foundling whose rediscovery of his mother is one of the means by which Almaviva’s strategies are thwarted. As much as in any of the “bourgeois dramas” of Sensibility of the 1750s, the triumph of virtue over vice (as well as intelligence over rank) is the clinching dénouement of The Marriage of Figaro.

Breast-feeding, moreover, was not just a concern of public health. It is true that its advocates did often emphasize how its reduction of infant deaths would enable France to escape the threat of depopulation (always on the official mind). But this rhetorical opposition between vitality and mortality, natural and social practice, drew its persuasiveness from the moral politics of the bosom. Resistance to breast-feeding, it had been argued, arose from the ascendancy of sensual self-indulgence over domestic duty. It was assumed that lactation and sexual activity were mutually exclusive for fear of tainting the milk or provoking the disgust of men. Thus male writers including Rousseau and his physician friend Dr. Tronchin often ascribed the decrease in maternal nursing to feminine wantonness or the anxiety against offending husbands. Marie-Angélique Le Rebours, however, who in 1767 published her Advice to Mothers Who Wish to Nurse Their Children, more reasonably blamed male resentment of the interruption of their sexual habits and criticized men who became violently jealous or incensed against the presence of crying babies. At stake was a contested view of the bosom as either a sensual enticement, half exhibited in fashionable décolletage, or as a natural gift offered in candid abundance from mother to child. In a play written to advertise the virtues of breast-feeding, The True Mother (of seven months) smartly rebukes her husband for treating her as an object of sexual gratification. “Are your senses so gross as to look on these breasts – the respectable treasures of nature – as merely an embellishment, destined to ornament the chest of women?”

Eroticism and maternity could, occasionally, become connected in irregular ways, at least in the experience of Rousseau, who was more influential than anyone in the campaign for home breast-feeding. In the Confessions he admitted (amongst other things) to being aroused by the glimpse of a swelling breast pressing against a muslin décolletage. Equally it was the discovery of an inverted nipple on the breast of a Venetian prostitute that for him transformed the girl from a creature of transcendent beauty into a repulsive and lubricious monster. The relationship which shaped his entire life was with his protectress, Mme de Warens (only twelve years older than he), whom, well after they had become lovers, he continued to address as “Mama.” Equally, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, the painter who more than any other artist made the idylls and dramas of domestic life a matter of public attention, and who was repeatedly congratulated by Denis Diderot for the morality of his subjects, was quite capable of a disingenuous manipulation of voluptuousness and innocence, as his White Hat of around 1780 more than adequately suggests.

For most of the public who read Rousseau, listened to Diderot’s “bourgeois dramas” at the Comédie-Française and saw Greuze’s paintings of domestic bliss and sorrow in the Salon, matters were much more simple. What was being proclaimed was the antithesis of rococo court culture with its wasteful indulgence in decoration, its insistence on wit and manner, graciousness and style. In place of these amoral formal effects, esteem was to be transferred to the realm of virtue. In this new world, heart was to be preferred to head; emotion to reason; nature to culture; spontaneity to calculation; simplicity to the ornate; innocence to experience; soul to intellect; the domestic to the fashionable; Shakespeare and Richardson to Molière and Corneille; English landscape gardening to French-Italian formal parks. It generated a new literary vocabulary, saturated with emotive associations that drowned out not only the light repartee of rococo wit, but even the hallowed sonorities of classicism. Lavish use of words like tendresse (tenderness) andâme (soul) conferred immediate membership in the community of Sensibility; and words that had been used more casually, like amitié (friendship), were invested with feelings of intense intimacy. Verbs like s’enivrer (to become drunk) when coupled withplaisir or passionbecame attributes of a noble rather than a depraved character. The key word was sensibilité: the intuitive capacity for intense feeling. To possess un coeur sensible (a feeling heart) was the precondition for morality.

Outward expressions of inner sentiments began, in this period, to be acceptable. Cameo pendants bearing the likeness of the beloved or lockets containing locks of hair from spouses or children became commonplace badges of the feeling heart. When the locks belonged to loved ones who had departed this world, the significance became even more poignant, and by the 1780s, uninhibited expressions of grief had already replaced stoical fatalism as the expected response to the death of a child. Love letters borrowed ecstatic hyperbole from Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloïse and then piled declarations of passion on top of that. In a not untypical example of her 180 love letters, Julie de Lespinasse, heroine of the Nouvelle Héloïse, gasped: “Mon ami, I love you as one must love, with excess, madness, rapture and despair.”

In this remade world of utterance and expression, tears were especially prized as evidence not of weakness but sublimity. They were cherished precisely because (it was assumed) they were unstoppable: the soul directly irrigating the countenance. Tears were the enemy of cosmetics and the saboteur of polite disguise. Most important, a good fit of crying indicated that the child had been miraculously preserved within the man or woman. So Rousseau’s heroes and heroines, beginning with himself, sob, weep and blubber at the slightest provocation; but so did reviewers of opera on hearing Gluck and Salon critics on beholding Greuze. On seeing the second version of the painter’s Girl Weeping over Her Dead Canary in the Salon of 1765, Charles Mathon de La Cour placed the girl’s age (around eleven) as exactly at the stage where “Nature begins to soften the heart to receive the sweetest impressions,” with the result that her tears were both childish and pre-adult. He then went on to examine in great detail the painterly treatment of this damp sorrow:

One sees that she has been crying for a long time and that she has finally given herself over to the prostration of a profound grief. Her eyelashes are wet, her eyelids red, her mouth still in the contraction that brings on tears; looking at her chest one can also feel the shudder of her sobs.

“Connoisseurs, women, fops, pedants, wits, the ignorant and the foolish,” he claimed, were “all of one mind about this painting,” for in it “one sees nature, one shares the grief of the girl and one wishes above all to console her. Several times I have passed whole hours in attentive contemplation so that I became drunk with a sweet and tender sadness.”

It was his ability to engage the viewer directly in the world of displayed emotions (while at the same time, as Michael Fried has argued, presenting the fiction of their obliviousness to the beholder) that accounts for the persuasive power of Greuze’s domestic operas. “Move me, astonish me, unnerve me, make me tremble, weep, shudder and rage,” demanded Diderot, and there is no doubt, at any rate, that in his most ambitious paintings – for example, The Village Bride of 1761 – Greuze did just that to a great many spectators. Many contemporaries report the onrush of feeling that struck the crowds who swarmed around the works so densely that, as Diderot tells us, one could barely fight one’s way through to see them. Of the drawings for the pair The Wicked Son and The Wicked Son Punished, which represented a young man deserting his family to join the military and his belated return to discover his father dead, Mathon de La Cour commented that he didn’t know whether he could advise Greuze to complete them as paintings, as “one suffers too much to see them [as it is]. They poison the soul with a sentiment so terrible and so profound that one has to avert one’s eyes.”

The drastic cultural alteration represented by this first hot eruption of the Romantic sensibility is of more than literary importance. It meant the creation of a spoken and written manner that would become the standard voice of the Revolution, shared by both its victims and its most implacable prosecutors. The speeches of Mirabeau and Robespierre as well as the letters of Desmoulins and Mme Roland and the orchestrated festivals of the Republic broadcast appeals to the soul, to tender humanity, Truth, Virtue, Nature and the idyll of family life. The virtues proclaimed in Greuze’s paintings formed the moral basis of what the Revolution was to understand as Virtue. “It is virtue that divines with the speed of instinct what will be conducive to the general advantage,” wrote Mercier in 1787. “Reason with its insidious language can paint the most equivocal enterprise in captivating colors but the virtuous heart will never forget the interests of the humblest citizen. Let us place the virtuous statesman before the clever politician.” This was exactly the view of Robespierre, for whom, as he often said, politics was nothing more than public morality. Motherhood; a contented conjugality in which casual lust was vanquished by conscientious lactation; respect for the old; gentleness to the young: all these values were held to be a school for citizenship. In this scheme of values there could be no distinction between the private and the public realm. Indeed, wholesome domesticity was officially considered a necessary attribute of patriotism. Its painterly apotheosis might be The Well-Beloved Mother, commissioned by the Farmer-General and prolific writer Laborde to display himself and his family in a state of exemplary domestic bliss. Shown at the Salon it was praised by Diderot as “excellent on two counts: as a work of art and as an example of the good life. It preaches population and depicts with great feeling the inestimable happiness and value of domestic felicity.”

The revolutionary generation grew up attuned to this overwrought manner of expression. Greuze stumbled badly in 1769 when he attempted to translate his father-son confrontation into the genre of history painting with a Severus and Caracalla, in which the Roman emperor accuses his son of conspiracy. Instead of promoting Greuze to the senior hierarchy of the Academy it produced the crushing public humiliation of an admission “in his capacity as genre painter.” But although his reputation faded somewhat in the 1770s before the newer more austere manner of Roman history painting, the domestic dramas of the 1750s and 1760s maintained their grip on the public’s imagination and even extended their reach through engraved versions by Jean-Georges Wille and others.

Though Greuze’s paintings, like Diderot’s plays and Rousseau’s novel, are sometimes classified as “bourgeois,” it is crucial to appreciate that their devotees began at the very top of French society. If the old regime was subverted by the cult of Sensibility, then much of the damage (as in so many other respects) was self-inflicted. The Marriage Contract, which actually represented a Protestant ceremony with a notary standing in for a priest, and which stood as the exact antithesis of grandiose dynastic marriages at Versailles, was bought by Louis XV’s Minister for the Arts, the Marquis de Marigny. His sister was the King’s mistress Madame de Pompadour and it was she who organized the first performance of Rousseau’s opera The Village Soothsayer at Fontainebleau in 1752. Its composer took great care to dress down for the occasion “with a rough-combed beard and ill-dressed wig.” In the simplicity of its rustic setting, story and music, the opera exemplified the victory of childlike Nature over the products of urban and court culture. The Mercure de France praised it precisely for the “truth and rare naivety of expression in the music.”

With the accession of Louis XVI, this infatuation did not go away. Indeed the King’s father, the Dauphin, was said to have been so moved by Rousseau’s praise for simple artisanal crafts that it was he who provided the education of a locksmith for his son. Guided by her dress-maker Rose Bertin, Marie-Antoinette made no secret of favoring the relatively simple costumes, much strewn with fresh flowers and bucolic affectations, that the cult required. Her friend Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun obliged further by painting her portrait in this startlingly informal manner, complete with straw baskets and bonnets. The creation at the Petit Trianon of the “Rustic Village” (Hameau Rustique) for the Queen by the landscape architect Mique, complete with beribboned cows, Alpine sheep and water mill, was a sincere if disastrously misjudged attempt to cultivate the innocence of rural life amidst the pomposity of court protocol. In 1789 it would seem an obscene parody for Marie-Antoinette to be playing shepherdess and boiling fresh eggs for her breakfast while scarecrow peasants begged on the roads of the Ile-de-France.

More astonishingly still, it was Marie-Antoinette who, in 1782, visited Rousseau’s grave at Ermenonville, twenty-five miles outside Paris. For if Sensibility was the unofficial religion of budding citizens, Ermenonville was their most hallowed shrine. It was there that the Marquis de Girardin, a wealthy cavalry officer and Farmer-General, had provided a last “hermitage” where Rousseau could work and walk in the near-solitude he recommended for himself and others. Childlike to the last, Rousseau had insisted on adopting Girardin and his wife as his latest and last “Mama and Papa.” He died at the beginning of July 1778, and was hardly cold before stories circulated in the capital speculating on his parting words to his wife Thérèse: expressions of remorse for having abandoned all five of their infant children to the Foundling Hospital, and the whereabouts of the “memoirs” or “confessions” that were said to be unprecedented in their candor and which certain famous persons – Diderot and Madame d’Epinay – were eager to see suppressed. Before long, curious sightseers began to arrive on the Girardin estate, beginning with the editors of the Journal de Paris, who had known Rousseau quite well and who were impatient to get their hands on any remaining literary fragments. By the middle of 1779, Rousseau, who had been shunned by so many during his life, was already acquiring the halo of immortality. A statue had been erected in Geneva, a bust modeled by Houdon in Paris; a semi-official Necrology of celebrated Frenchmen had included his portrait and eulogy along with those of Voltaire, Turenne and King Henri IV; and a revival of The Village Soothsayer was being performed to large audiences in Paris. In 1781 a collection of melodies by Rousseau called Consolations for the Sorrows of My Life was published and proceeds donated in the name of his widow to the Foundling Hospital. Among the subscribers were the Queen and Benjamin Franklin.

As early as 1780, so the author of the Mémoires Secrètes claimed, “half of France has transported itself to Ermenonville to visit the little island consecrated to him where the friends of his morals and his doctrine each year renew their little philosophical journey.” Luc-Vincent Thiéry included Ermenonville in his sightseeing guide of the country around Paris. But it was the estate-owner, the Marquis de Girardin, who thoughtfully provided the fullest walking itinerary for the pilgrim. His Promenade was a tour of the mental as well as topographical landscape of Rousseau’s sensibility. Girardin made it clear that his park was not to be regarded as a seigneurial estate but as a kind of free gift for all devotees. “There is no need for permission from the master to enter this park,” he emphasized, though he would be only too delighted to provide a personal guide for any “celebrated foreigners or artists.”

“It is to you, friends of Rousseau that I address myself,” wrote Girardin with the appropriate expression of sincerity, and his guide was written as if a friendly hand was leading the disciple through the scenery of virtue. It presupposed not only an intimate knowledge of Rousseau’s works and life (“here you can see his cabin”; there is where Saint-Preux brooded on his thwarted passion) but a shared taste in nature. The three-to four-hour walk began with a little hamlet, which according to Thiéry “seems inhabited by faithful lovers,” and proceeded to “a forest where the immense silence and solitude seizes one so that one advances with terror into the depths of the wood.” Surprised by the sudden appearance of a little temple consecrated to Nature, one emerged onto a plain where another monument to Philosophy stood, and thence to a “wilderness” planted only with pines, cedars and junipers, with craggy outcrops and cascades. From there one could walk to a lake beside which was a stone engraved with verses from both Petrarch and Julie of the Nouvelle Héloïse. After that might come some suggestion of the presence of man, but only at his most artisanally virtuous: the water mill and the wine press. A pre-ruined Gothic tower, streams full of fat fish, and a “Dutch” meadow stocked with fat cattle gave on to a space which on special days Girardin would fill with rustics, trained to look jolly, disporting themselves in innocent pastimes and musical games.

The Holy Grail of the pilgrimage was of course Rousseau’s tomb, set on the Isle of Poplars in the middle of the lake. There on a bench expressly provided for mothers to nurse their infants while other children played contentedly, they could contemplate the modest monument erected by Girardin. Its epitaph read

Among these poplars, beneath their peaceful shade

Rests Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Mothers, old men, children, true hearts and feeling souls

Your friend sleeps in this tomb

At this point, crying was obligatory. “Let your tears flow freely,” wrote Girardin, an authorial arm about the shoulder of the pilgrim. “Never will you have spilled such delicious or such well-merited teardrops.”

Some of the most ardent disciples went even further in search of the ghost of the solitary genius. Louis-Sébastien Mercier traveled through Switzerland with his friend the Genevan Etienne Claviére, visiting places and people of importance in Rousseau’s life. Manon Philipon, who as a girl had identified passionately with Julie, took her husband, the future Girondin Minister Roland, on a similar tour and managed to track down the mayor who had witnessed Rousseau’s marriage to Thérèse. Not content with her own private obsession she cast her husband in the role of Wolmar, the older, rather austere but devoted figure whom Julie dutifully marries in preference to the besotted young tutor Saint-Preux. Writing to Roland, she made this identification quite plain: “I have just devoured Julie as if it were not the fourth or fifth time… it seems to me that we would have lived very well with all those personages and that they would have found us as much to their taste as they are to ours.”

The publication of the Confessions in 1782, with its introductory promise to “display a portrait in every way true to nature,” only reinforced the intensely personal bond that Rousseau’s countless disciples felt with him. In his lifetime, as Robert Darnton has shown, they wrote to his publisher Marc-Michel Rey in Amsterdam inquiring after his personal welfare and health as though he were an intimate friend. Nothing in the Confessions – not the bald admission of the abandonment of his children, of his various addictions to masturbation and masochism, his share in a ménage àtrois with Mme de Warens and her herbalist – nothing could shake their faith in his essential moral purity. The breathtaking candor of his admissions of vice as well as virtue strengthened their view that he was the greatest honnête homme of their century. Rousseau’s paranoid conviction that he was persecuted by jealous philosophes such as his erstwhile friend Diderot as well as Voltaire and Melchior Grimm, fed the alienation felt by many writers who believed themselves unappreciated by the literary establishment in Paris. They too attributed this lack of recognition to a conspiracy of the mediocre. They also shared much of Rousseau’s ambivalence about the necessary dependence on aristocratic patrons and his scorn for corrupt fashion and the atrophied rule of Reason.

Rousseau, then, became the Divinity (apostrophized as such) of the literary underclass. Spurned, mistreated and nomadic, he was at once their consolation and their prophet. And they took as their gospel his commitments to Nature, Virtue and Truth.

Historians have long been concerned to judge Rousseau’s influence on the revolutionary generation by gauging that generation’s familiarity or unfamiliarity with the formal works of political theory, in particular The Social Contract. While there is growing evidence that this work was in fact read and understood before the Revolution, it is undoubtedly true that it never reached the huge and adoring readership of his educational “biography” Emile and the Nouvelle Héloïse. But to assume that those works had little influence on political allegiance is to adopt a much too narrow definition of the word political. As much as his writings dealing with sovereignty and the rights of man, Rousseau’s works dealing with personal virtue and the morality of social relations sharpened distaste for the status quo and defined a new allegiance. He created, in fact, a community of young believers. Their faith was in the possibility of a collective moral and political rebirth in which the innocence of childhood might be preserved into adulthood and through which virtue and freedom would be mutually sustained.

Just how this was to be accomplished was, in all of Rousseau’s writings, notoriously obscure. In his lifetime he had shown himself circumspect about, if not downright hostile to, any suggestion of revolt. What he invented was not a road map to revolution, but the idiom in which its discontents would be voiced and its goals articulated. And most of all he provided a way in which the torments of the ego – an increasingly popular pastime in the late eighteenth century – could be assuaged by membership in a society of friends. In place of an irreconcilable opposition between the individual, with his freedom intact, and a government eager to abridge it, Rousseau substituted a sovereignty in which liberty was not alienated but, as it were, placed in trust. The surrender of individual rights to the General Will was itself conditional on that entity preserving them, so that the citizen could truly claim (so the theory ran) that for the first time he governed himself.

The impossibly paradoxical nature of this bargain was to be revealed all too brutally during the Revolution itself. But for Rousseau’s acolytes in the 1780s, visions opened up of possible societies that might be capable of integrating the imperious “I” within the comradely “We.” That, at least, was the comforting vision offered by a two-act spectacle, The Assembly on the Elysian Fields, which represented Rousseau’s reception among the immortals. In attendance were, naturally, Julie with her afflicted lover Saint-Preux holding a bunch of roses; Emile attacked in the deep woods by a Monster of Fanaticism and rescued by Truth; and a scene where a nursing mother, a suckling child and a wet nurse extolled the virtues of the maternal breast. One feature of the spectacle, however, remained incongruous. Throughout the action Rousseau himself remained uncharacteristically silent, detached from his own creations. But it was only when his sentiments broadcast themselves through the power of public eloquence that they became the speech of revolution.

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