The winter of 1756—57 was heavy with events for Rousseau. At some time during those months he began to write the most famous novel of the eighteenth century: Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse. He conceived it first as a study in friendship and love: cousins Julie and Claire both love Saint-Preux, but when he seduces Julie Claire remains the loyal friend of both. Ashamed to write merely a romance, Rousseau proposed to raise the story to philosophy by having Julie become religious, and live in exemplary monogamy with Wolmar, a gentleman agnostic who has succumbed to Voltaire and Diderot. According to Rousseau’s Confessions:
The storm brought on by the Encyclopédie … was at this time at its height. Two parties, exasperated against each other to the last degree of fury, soon resembled enraged wolves … rather than Christians and philosophers who had a reciprocal wish to enlighten and convince each other and lead their brethren to the way of truth. … Being by nature an enemy to all spirit of party, I had freely spoken severe truths to each, but they had not listened. I thought of another expedient, which in my simplicity appeared to be admirable: this was to abate their mutual hatred by destroying their prejudices, and showing to each party the virtue and merit which in the other deserved public esteem and respect. This project … had the success that was to be expected: it drew together and united the rival parties for no other purpose than that of crushing the author. … Satisfied with … my plan, I returned to the situations in detail, … and there resulted Parts I and II of Héloïse .19
Every evening, by the fireside, he read some pages to Thérèse and Mme. Levasseur. Encouraged by the tears Thérèse shed, he submitted the manuscript to Mme. d’Épinay when she returned to her château, La Chevrette, a mile from the Hermitage. Her memoirs recall: “On our arrival here … we found Rousseau awaiting us. He was calm, and in the best temper in the world. He brought me an installment of a romance which he has commenced. … He returned to the Hermitage yesterday in order to continue this work, which he says constituted the happiness of his life.”20 Soon afterward she wrote to Grimm:
After dinner we read Rousseau’s manuscript. I do not know whether I am ill-disposed, but I am not satisfied with it. It is wonderfully well written, but it is too elaborate, and seems to be unreal and wanting in warmth. The characters do not say a word of what they ought to say; it is always the author who speaks. I do not know how to get out of it. I should not like to deceive Rousseau, and I cannot make up my mind to grieve him.21
Somehow, during that winter, Rousseau poured warmth into Julie. Was it because a living romance had come into his life? About January 30, 1757, he was visited by a lady whom he had met in Paris as the sister-in-law of Mme. d’Épinay. Élisabeth-Sophie de Bellegarde had married Comte d’Hou-detot, had left him, and had now for several years been the mistress of the Marquis de Saint-Lambert—once the rival of Voltaire for Mme. du Châtelet. Both her husband and her lover were off to the war. In the summer of 1756 the Comtesse had leased the Château of Eaubonne, some two and a half miles from the Hermitage. Saint-Lambert wrote to her that Rousseau was within riding distance of her, and suggested that she might mitigate her solitude by visiting the famous author who had put all civilization on the defensive. She went in a coach; when this stuck in the mire she continued on foot, and arrived with her shoes and her dress soiled with mud. “She made the place resound with laughter, in which I most heartily joined.”22 Thérèse gave her a change of clothing, and the Marquise stayed for “a rustic collation.” She was twenty-seven, Rousseau was forty-five. She had no special beauty of face or form, but her kindliness, good temper, and gay spirit brightened his somber life. The next afternoon she sent him a pretty letter, addressing him by the title he had taken after his repatriation in Geneva:
My dear Citizen, I return the garments which you were kind enough to lend me. In leaving I found a much better road, and I must tell you of my joy over that, because it makes it much more possible to see you again. I am sorry to have seen so little of you.... I would be less sorry if I were more free, and always sure of not disturbing you. Farewell, my dear Citizen, and I beg you to thank Mlle. Levasseur for all the kindness she showed me.23
A few days later Saint-Lambert returned from the front. In April he was recalled to service, and soon afterward the sprightly Comtesse pranced to the Hermitage on horseback, dressed like a man. Rousseau was shocked by the costume, but was soon conscious that it contained a charming woman. Leaving Thérèse to her housewifely chores, he and his guest walked out into the woods, and Mme. d’Houdetot told him how passionately she loved Saint-Lambert. In May he returned her visit, going to Eaubonne at a time when, she had told him, she would be “quite alone.” “In my frequent excursions to Eaubonne,” he says, “I sometimes slept there.... I saw her almost every day during three months.... I saw my Julie in Mme. d’Houdetot, and I soon saw nothing but Mme. d’Houdetot [in Julie], but with all the perfections with which I had adorned the idol of my heart.”24
For a time he so abandoned himself to “my delirium” that he ceased to work on his novel; instead he composed love letters, which he took care that she should find in the niches of Eaubonne’s trees. He told her that he was in love, not saying with whom; of course she knew. She reproved him, and protested that she belonged body and soul to Saint-Lambert, but she allowed his visits and ardent attentions to continue; after all, a woman exists only when she is loved, and doubly so when loved by two. “She refused me nothing that the most tender friendship could grant; yet she granted me nothing that rendered her unfaithful.” He tells of their “long and frequent conversations … during the four months we passed together in an intimacy almost without example between two friends of different sexes who contain themselves within the bounds which we never exceeded.”25 In his account of this liaison we find the Romantic movement in full swing: nothing in his novel could rival these ecstasies:
We were both intoxicated with the passion—she for her lover, I for her; our sighs and delicious tears were mingled together. … Amid this delicious intoxication she never forgot herself for a moment, and I solemnly protest that if ever, led away by my senses, I have attempted to render her unfaithful, I was never really desirous of succeeding. … The duty of self-denial had elevated my mind.... I might have committed the crime; it had been a hundred times committed in my heart; but to dishonor my Sophie! Ah, was ever this possible? No! I have told her a hundred times it was not.... I loved her too well to possess her. … Such was the sole enjoyment of a man of the most combustible constitution, but who was, at the same time, perhaps one of the most timid mortals Nature ever produced.26
Mme. d’Épinay noticed that her “bear” rarely came to see her now, and she soon learned of his trips to her sister-in-law. She was hurt. “It is hard, after all,” she wrote to Grimm in June, “that a philosopher should escape from you at the moment when you least expect it.”27 One day at Eaubonne Rousseau found “Sophie” in tears. Saint-Lambert had been informed of her flirtation, and (as she put it to Jean-Jacques) “ill informed of it. He does me justice, but he is vexed.... I am much afraid that your follies will cost me the repose of the rest of my days.”28 They agreed that it must have been Mme. d’Épinay who had told the secret to Saint-Lambert, for “we both knew that she corresponded with him.” Or she might have revealed it to Grimm, who occasionally saw Saint-Lambert in Westphalia. If we may accept Rousseau’s account, Mme. d’Épinay tried to secure from Thérèse the letters he had received from Mme. d’Houdetot. In a wild letter to his hostess he accused her of betraying him:
Two lovers [Sophie and Saint-Lambert], closely united and worthy of each other’s love, are dear to me.... I presume that attempts have been made to disunite them, and that I have been made use of to inspire one of the two with jealousy. The choice was not judicious, but it appeared convenient to the purposes of malice; and of this malice it is you whom I suspect to be guilty. … Thus the woman whom I most esteem would … have been loaded with the infamy of dividing her heart and her person between two lovers, and I with that of being one of these wretches. If I knew that but for a single moment in your life you ever had thought this, either of her or of myself, I should hate you until my last hour. But it is with having said, and not [merely] with having thought it, that I charge you.
Do you know in what manner I will make amends for my faults during the short space of time I have to remain near you? By doing what nobody but myself would do: by telling you freely what the world thinks of you, and the breaches that you have to repair in your reputation.29
Mme. d’Épinay, guilty or not (we do not know), was distressed by the violence of these accusations. She reported them to her distant lover Grimm. He replied that he had warned her against the “devilish scrapes” she would be involved in by letting the moody and incalculable Rousseau into the Hermitage.30 She invited Jean-Jacques to La Chevrette; she greeted him with an embrace and tears; he responded tear for tear; she gave him no explanation that we know of; he dined with her, slept in her house, and departed the next morning with expressions of friendship.
Diderot complicated the mess. He advised Rousseau to write to Saint-Lambert confessing his tenderness for Sophie, but assuring him of her fidelity. Rousseau (according to Diderot) promised to do so. But Mme. d’Houdetot begged him not to write, and to let her extricate herself in her own way from the difficulties in which his infatuation and her dalliance had placed her. When Saint-Lambert returned from the front Diderot spoke to him of the affair, assuming that Rousseau had confessed it. Rousseau reproached Diderot with betraying him; Diderot reproached Rousseau for deceiving him. Only Saint-Lambert behaved philosophically. He came with Sophie to the Hermitage; he “invited himself to dinner with me, … treated me severely but in a friendly manner,” and inflicted no worse punishment than to sleep and snore while Jean-Jacques read aloud his long letter to Voltaire. Mme. d’Houdetot, however, discouraged any further meetings with Rousseau. At her request he returned the letters she had written him, but when he asked for those that he had written to her she said she had burned them. “Of this,” he tells us, “I dared to doubt, … and doubt still. No such letters as mine to her were ever thrown into the fire. Those of Héloïse [to Abé-lard] have been found ardent; good heavens! what would have been said of these?”31 Wounded and ashamed, he retired into his imaginary world; he resumed the writing of La Nouvelle Héloïse, and poured into it the passions of his letters to Mme. d’Houdetot.
New humiliations awaited him when Grimm returned from the war (September, 1757). “I could scarcely recognize the same Grimm who” formerly had “thought himself honored when I cast my eyes upon him.”32 Rousseau could not understand Grimm’s coldness to him; he did not know that Grimm knew of the insulting letter to Mme. d’Épinay. Grimm was almost as self-centered as Jean-Jacques, but was otherwise antipodal to him in mind and character—skeptical, realistic, blunt, and hard.33 Rousseau with one letter had lost two friends.