The book that Voltaire misnamed had been for three years Rousseau’s refuge from his enemies, his friends, and the world. Begun in 1756, it was finished in September, 1758, was sent to a publisher in Holland, and appeared in February, 1761, as Julie, ou La Nouvelle Hélo’ïse, Lettres de deux amants , recueillies et publiées par J.-J. Rousseau. The letter form for a novel was already old, but was probably determined in this instance by the example of Richardson’s Clarissa.
The story is improbable but unique. Julie is the daughter, seventeen or so years old, of Baron d’Étange. Her mother invites the young and handsome Saint-Preux to be her tutor. The new Abélard falls in love with the new Héloïse, as any real mother would have foreseen. Soon he is sending his pupil love letters that set the tune for a century of romantic fiction:
I tremble as often as our hands meet, and I know not how it happens, but they meet constantly. I start as soon as I feel the touch of your finger; I am seized with a fever, or rather delirium, in these sports; my senses gradually forsake me; and when I am thus beside myself what can I say, what can I do, where hide myself, how be answerable for my behavior?56
He proposes to go away, but lets the word do for the deed.
Adieu, then, too charming Julie. … Tomorrow I shall be gone forever. But be assured that my violent spotless passion for you will end only with my life; that my heart, full of so divine an object, will never debase itself by admitting a second impression; that it will divide all its future homage between you and virtue; and that no other flame shall ever profane the altar at which Julie was adored.57
Julie may smile at this adoration, but she is too womanly to send so delightful an acolyte from the altar. She bids him postpone his flight. In any case the electric contact of male with female has set her in similar agitation; soon she confesses that she too has felt the mysterious sting: “The very first day we met I imbibed the poison which now infects my senses and my reason; I felt it instantly, and thine eyes, thy sentiments, thy discourse, thy guilty pen, daily increase its malignity.”58 Nevertheless he is not to ask for anything more sinful than a kiss. “Thou shalt be virtuous, or despised; I will be respectable, or be myself again; it is the only hope I have left that is preferable to the hope of death.” Saint-Preux agrees to unite delirium with virtue, but believes that this will require supernatural aid:
Celestial powers! … Inspire me with a soul that can bear felicity! Divine love! spirit of my existence, oh, support me, for I am ready to sink down under the weight of ecstasy! … Oh, how shall I withstand the rapid torrent of bliss which overflows my heart?—and how dispel the apprehensions of a timorously loving girl [une craintive amante ]?59
—and so on for 657 pages. At page 91 she kisses him. Words fail to tell “what became of me a moment after, when I felt—my hands shook—a gentle tremor—thy balmy lips—my Julie’s lips—pressed to mine, and myself within her arms! Quicker than lightning a sudden fire darted from my frame.”60 By Letter xxix he has seduced her, or she him. He meanders through reams of rapture, but she thinks all is lost. “One unguarded moment has betrayed me to endless misery. I am fallen into the abyss of infamy, from which there is no return.”61
Julie’s mother, having learned of her deflowering, dies of grief. The Baron vows to kill Saint-Preux, who thereupon begins a circumnavigation of the globe. In remorse and in obedience to her father, Julie marries Wolmar, a Russian of high birth and considerable years. Clandestinely she continues to correspond with Saint-Preux, and to feel for him a sentiment stronger than her dutiful attachment to her husband. She is surprised to find that Wolmar, though an atheist, is a good man, faithful to her, solicitous for her comfort, just and generous to all. In one of her letters to Saint-Preux she assures him that man and wife can find content in a mariage de convenance. But she never again knows full happiness. Her premarital deviation weighs on her memory. Finally she confesses to her husband that moment of sin. He has known of it, and resolved never to mention it; he tells her it was no sin at all; and to confirm her absolution he invites Saint-Preux to come and stay with them as tutor of their children. Saint-Preux comes, and we are assured that the three live together in harmony till death does them part. The incredible husband absents himself for several days. Julie and Saint-Preux go boating on the Lake of Geneva; they cross to Savoy, and he shows her the rocks upon which, in his banishment, he wrote her name; he weeps, she holds his trembling hand, but they return sinless to her home in Clarens, in the Pays de Vaud.62
They wonder how Wolmar can be so good without religious belief. Saint-Preux, who, like Julie, is a pious Protestant, explains the anomaly:
Having resided in Roman Catholic countries, he [Wolmar] has never been led to a better opinion of Christianity by what he found professed there. Their religion, he saw, tended only to the interest of their priests; it consisted entirely of ridiculous grimaces and a jargon of words without meaning. He perceived that men of sense and probity were unanimously of his opinion, and that they did not scruple to say so; nay, that the clergy themselves, under the rose, ridiculed in private what they inculcated and taught in public; hence he has often assured us that, after taking much time and pains in the search, he has never met with above three priests who believed in God.63
Rousseau adds, in a footnote: “God forbid that I should approve these hard and rash assertions!” Despite them, Wolmar regularly goes to Protestant services with Julie, out of respect for her and his neighbors. Julie and Saint-Preux see in him “the strangest absurdity”—a man “thinking like an infidel and acting like a Christian.”64
He did not deserve the final blow. Julie, dying of a fever contracted while saving her son from drowning, entrusts to Wolmar an unsealed letter to Saint-Preux, which declares to Saint-Preux that he has always been her only love. We can understand the permanence of that first impression, but why ‘reward her husband’s long fidelity and trust with so cruel a deathbed rejection? It is hardly consistent with the nobility with which the author has invested Julie’s character.
Nevertheless she is one of the great portraits in modern fiction. Though it was probably suggested by Richardson’s Clarissa, it was inspired by Rousseau’s own recollections: the two girls whose horses he had led across the stream at Annecy; the memories he treasured of Mme. de Warens in his first years under her protection; and then Mme. d’Houdetot, who had made him feel the overflow of love by damming his desire. Of course Julie is none of these women, and perhaps no woman that Rousseau had ever met, but only the composite ideal of his dreams. The picture is spoiled by Rousseau’s insistence upon making nearly all his characters talk like Rousseau; Julie, as motherhood deepens her, becomes a sage who discourses lengthily on everything from domestic economy to mystic union with God. “We will examine into the validity of this argument,” she says; but what lovable woman ever descended to such bathos?
Saint-Preux, of course, is especially Rousseau, sensitive to all the charms of women, longing to kneel at their idealized feet, and to pour out the eloquent phrases of devotion and passion that he has rehearsed in his loneliness. Rousseau describes him as “always perpetrating some madness, and always making a start at being wise.”65 Saint-Preux is an unbelievable prig compared with the frankly villainous Lovelace of Richardson. He too must mouth Rousseau: he describes Paris as a maelstrom of evils—great wealth, great poverty, incompetent government, bad air, bad music, trivial conversation, vain philosophy, and the almost total collapse of religion, morality, and marriage; he repeats the first Discourse on the natural goodness of man and the corrupting and degrading influences of civilization; and he compliments Julie and Wolmar on preferring the quiet and wholesome life of the countryside at Clarens.
Wolmar is the most original character in Rousseau’s gallery. Who was his model? Perhaps d’Holbach, the “amiable atheist,” the philosopher baron, the virtuous materialist, the devoted husband of one wife and then of her sister. And perhaps Saint-Lambert, who had shocked Rousseau by preaching atheism but had forgiven him for making love to his mistress. Rousseau candidly avows his use of living prototypes and personal memories:
Full of that which had befallen me, and still affected by so many violent emotions, my heart added the sentiment of its sufferings to the ideas with which meditation had inspired me. … Without perceiving it I described the situation I was then in, gave portraits of Grimm, Mme. d’Epinay, Mme. d’Houdetot, Saint-Lambert, and myself.66
Through these character portraits Rousseau expounded nearly all facets of his philosophy. He gave an ideal picture of a happy marriage, of an agricultural estate managed with efficiency, justice, and humanity, and of children brought up to be exemplary mixtures of freedom and obedience, restraint and intelligence. He anticipated the arguments of his Émile: that education should be first of the body to health, then of the character to a Stoic discipline, and only then of the intellect to reason. “The only means of rendering children docile,” says Julie, “is not to reason with them, but to convince them that reason is above their age”;67 there should be no appeal to reason, no intellectual education at all, before puberty. And the story went out of its way to discuss religion. Julie’s faith becomes the instrument of her redemption; the religious ceremony that sanctified her marriage brought her a sense of purification and dedication. But it is a strongly Protestant faith that pervades the book. Saint-Preux ridicules what seems to him the hypocrisy of the Catholic clergy in Paris, Wolmar denounces sacerdotal celibacy as a cover for adultery, and Rousseau in his own person adds: “To impose celibacy upon a group so numerous as the Roman clergy is not so much to forbid them to have women of their own, as to order them to satisfy themselves with the women of other men.”68 In passing Rousseau declares in favor of religious toleration, extending it even to atheists: “No true believer will be either intolerant or a persecutor. If I were a magistrate, and if the law pronounced the penalty of death against atheists, I would begin by burning, as such, whoever should come to inform against another.”69
The novel had an epochal influence in arousing Europe to the beauties and sublimities of nature. In Voltaire, Diderot, and d’Alembert the fever of philosophy and urban life had not encouraged sensitivity to the majesty of mountains and the kaleidoscope of the sky. Rousseau had the advantage of being born amid the most impressive scenery in Europe. He had walked from Geneva into Savoy, and across the Alps to Turin, and from Turin into France; he had savored the sights and sounds and fragrances of the countryside; he had felt every sunrise as the triumph of divinity over evil and doubt. He imagined a mystic accord between his moods and the changing temper of the earth and the air; his ecstasy of love embraced every tree and flower, every blade of grass. He climbed the Alps to midway of their height, and found a purity of air that seemed to cleanse and clear his thoughts. He described these experiences with such feeling and vividness that mountain climbing, especially in Switzerland, became one of Europe’s major sports.
Never before in modern literature had feeling, passion, and romantic love received so detailed and eloquent an exposition and defense. Reacting against the adoration of reason from Boileau to Voltaire, Rousseau proclaimed the primacy of feeling and ife right to be heard in the interpretation of life and the evaluation of creeds. With La Nouvelle Héloïse the Romantic movement raised its challenge to the classic age. Of course there had been romantic moments even in the classic heyday: Honoré d’Urfé had played with bucolic love in L’Astrée (1610-27); Mlle, de Scudéry had stretched amours to reams in Artamène, ou Le Grand Cyrus (1649-53); Mme. de La Fayette had married love and death in La Princesse de Clèves (1678); Racine had brought the same theme intoPhèdre(1677)—the very apex of the classic age. We recall how Rousseau had inherited old romances from his mother, and had read them with his father. As for the Alps, Albrecht von Haller had already sung their majesty (1729), and James Thomson had celebrated the beauty and terror of the seasons (1726-30). Jean-Jacques must have read Prévost’s Manon Lescaut (1731), and (since he could read English with difficulty) he must have been familiar with Richardson’s Clarissa (1747-48) in Prévost’s translation. From that two-thousand-page (still incomplete) seduction he took the letter form of narrative as congenial to psychological analysis; and he gave Julie a cousin confidante in Claire as Richardson had given Clarissa Miss Howe. Rousseau noted with resentment that Diderot published an ecstatic Éloge de Richardson (1761) soon after Julie, dimming Julie’s glory.
Julie is quite equal to Clarissa in originality and faults, far superior to it in style. Both are rich in improbabilities and heavy with sermons. But France, which excels the world in style, had never known the French language to take on such color, ardor, smoothness, and rhythm. Rousseau did not merely preach feeling, he had it; everything he touched was infused with sensitivity and sentiment, and though we may smile at his raptures we find ourselves warmed by his fire. We may resent, and hurry over, the untimely disquisitions, but we read on; and every now and then a scene intensely felt renews the life of the tale. Voltaire thought in ideas and wrote with epigrams; Rousseau saw in pictures and composed with sensations. His phrases and periods were not artless; he confessed that he turned them over in bed while the passion of the artist frightened sleep.70 “I must read Rousseau,” said Kant, “until his beauty of expression no longer distracts me, and only then can I examine him with reason.”71
Julie succeeded with everyone except the philosophes. Grimm called it “a feeble imitation” of Clarissa, and predicted that it would soon be forgotten.72 “No more about Jean-Jacques’ romance, if you please,” growled Voltaire (January 21, 1761); “I have read it, to my sorrow, and it would be to his if I had time to say what I think of this silly book.”73 A month later he said it in Lettres sur La Nouvelle Héloïse, published under a pseudonym. He pointed out grammatical errors, and gave no sign of appreciating Rousseau’s descriptions of nature—though he would later imitate Jean-Jacques by climbing a hill to worship the rising sun. Paris recognized Voltaire’s hand, and judged the patriarch to be bitten with jealousy.
Barring these pricks, Rousseau was delighted with the reception of his first full-length work. “In all literary history,” thought Michelet, “there had never been so great a success.”74 Edition followed edition, but printings fell far behind demand. Lines formed at the stores to buy the book; eager readers paid twelve sous per hour to borrow it; those who had it during the day rented it to others for the night.75 Rousseau told happily how one lady, all dressed to go to a ball at the Opéra, ordered her carriage, took up Juliemeanwhile, and became so interested that she read on till four in the morning while maid and horses waited.76 He ascribed his triumph to the pleasure women took in reading of love; but there were also women who were tired of being mistresses, and longed to be wives and to have fathers for their children. Hundreds of letters reached Rousseau at Montmorency, thanking him for his book; so many women tendered him their love that his imagination concluded: “There was not one woman in high life with whom I might not have succeeded had I undertaken to do it.”77
It was something new that a man should so completely reveal himself as Rousseau had done through Saint-Preux and Julie; and there is nothing so interesting as a human soul, even partly or unconsciously bared to view. Here, said Mme. de Staël, “all the veils of the heart have been rent.”78 Now began the reign of subjective literature, a long succession, lasting to our own days, of self-revelations, of hearts broken in print, of “beautiful souls” publicly bathing in tragedy. To be emotional, to express emotion and sentiment, became a fashion not only in France but in England and Germany. The classic mode of restraint, order, reason, and form began to fade away; the reign of the philosophes neared its end. After 1760 the eighteenth century belonged to Rousseau.79