Gender, Authenticity, and the Missive Letter in Eighteenth-Century France: Marie-Anne de la Tour, Rousseau's Real-Life Julie

Gender, Authenticity, and the Missive Letter in Eighteenth-Century France: Marie-Anne de la Tour, Rousseau's Real-Life Julie

Gender, Authenticity, and the Missive Letter in Eighteenth-Century France: Marie-Anne de la Tour, Rousseau's Real-Life Julie

Gender, Authenticity, and the Missive Letter in Eighteenth-Century France: Marie-Anne de la Tour, Rousseau's Real-Life Julie

Synopsis

This study examines authorial consciousness in the fifteen-year correspondence between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his most devoted fan, Marie-Anne de La Tour, who claimed to incarnate his heroine Julie of La Nouvelle Heloise. Far from the starry-eyed obsessive she is now assumed to have been, de La Tour was a woman writer eager for fame who pursued her goal of becoming an author through the vehicle of a private correspondence with a celebrity. In the eighteenth century, with the vogue for publishing the private in full force, missive letters were accorded great esthetic and publication value. Suspicion of intent to publish by writers of private letters was common, but this awareness has now been lost as the letter form has lost its publication potential. De La Tour's project of creating a publishable private correspondence with a famous author raises theoretical issues relevant not only to eighteenth-century studies but also to epistolary studies, reader-response theory, and gender theory. Mary McAlpin is Associate Professor of French and Chair of the French program at the University of Tennessee.

Excerpt

R. Let us assume the worst; my Julie….
N. Oh! if she had existed!
R. What then?
N. But surely it is only a fiction.

—Rousseau, “Préface dialoguée,”
Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse

On September 28, 1761, six months after the publication of his epistolary novel, Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse, Jean-Jacques Rousseau received a letter signed with the pseudonym “Claire,” after his heroine’s inseparable confidante. Claire had important information, for she wrote to tell Rousseau that the tragic conclusion to his work had been miraculously undone. His virtuous Julie had not died but lived on, in the person of Claire’s closest friend: “You will thus not learn, monsieur, who I am: but you will learn that Julie is not in the least dead, and that she lives to love you.” Rousseau uncharacteristically allowed himself to be drawn into a correspondence with the two women, although their true identities were unknown to him. While “Claire” (Marie-Madeleine Bernardoni) remained a part of the correspondence for only five months, her friend Marie-Anne de La Tour, the would-be Julie, went on to exchange 175 letters with Rousseau over some fifteen years.

De La Tour prepared a manuscript version of the lengthy exchange as early as 1770, but Rousseau refused to give her permission to publish. She kept her promise never to make the letters public, even after his death in 1778, although she did will her edited copy of the exchange to a Swiss publisher at her own death in 1789. First appearing in print in 1803, the Rousseau–de La Tour exchange has drawn readers for two principal reasons: its novelistic origins, in which fiction and reality seem to blur, and, of course, Rousseau’s immense fame. the letters of one of the most influential figures of the French Enlightenment are of obvious interest to scholars, given that they are assumed to reveal a more authentic version of his per-

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