When Girls Read Rousseau: The Case of Madame Roland

Article excerpt

We assume that life produces the autobiography as an act produces its consequences, but can we not suggest, with equal justice, that the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life and that whatever the writer does is in fact governed by the technical demands of self-portraiture and thus determined, in all its aspects, by the resources of his medium?

Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism

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IN the provocative statement above, Paul de Man reverses realist causality, in which literature reflects life, and claims that it is the autobiographical project that will "determine the life" of the writer. He does not resort to quotation marks to indicate that he means the "represented" life of the writer. Of course, for de Man, there is no "real life" outside of representation; there are merely different modes of figuration. (1) It might strike some as utterly incongruent to bring such an insight to bear on the writings of Marie-Jeanne Roland, a French Revolutionary writer who was executed during the Terror. But ultimately our knowledge of her life depends on an interpretation of her memoirs and letters, which is to say a reading of her discursive self. With this in mind, then, what were the "demands of self-portraiture" that determined her autobiographical project? To understand what these "demands" might have been, I analyze Jean-Jacques Rousseau's novel Julie: Ou La Nouvelle Heloise because its treatment of desire and feminine virtue would prove to be tremendously important to Roland as she crafted her story. (2) She used Rousseau's fiction to authorize a radical perspective on femininity in which she audaciously published the name of her lover while at the same time claiming exemplary status as wife and mother. So scandalous were these sections of her autobiography that they did not see the light of day for over sixty years. (3)

In the last thirty years, the question of Rousseau's appeal to women readers and writers has occupied much of the critical debate concerned with his influence and reception. (4) This debate has produced a wide spectrum of responses. For some critics, he is the very embodiment of misogyny, while, for others, he offered solace and hope to women for what otherwise would have been a dreary life. In her most informative book, Sexual Politics in the Enlightenment: Women Writers Read Rousseau, Mary Trouille points to a seeming contradiction or paradox that animates the lives of many of the women authors (Mme d'Epinay, Mme Roland, Mme de Stael, Mme de Genlis, Olympe de Gouge) whom she portrays in this work. Despite an excellent Introductory chapter where Trouille carefully delineates Rousseau's sexual politics and his allure for women readers, she nevertheless finds it difficult to account for his "appeal to women of superior gifts and idealistic expectations." (5) Why, for instance, did a certain Henriette feel compelled to engage in a conversation with the one man, Rousseau, who would surely not support her scholarly efforts as a woman? (6) Trouille is hardly the first critic to be perplexed, and indeed rather annoyed, by Rousseau's popularity. Louis Sebastien Mercier noted early on that "upon the publication of La Nouvelle Heloise, readers were extremely numerous, never had a work made a greater splash: but soon the readership was divided into two classes: the men of letters and the public." (7) The philosophes, with Voltaire leading the attack, roundly condemned the novel as utterly lacking in verisimilitude and good taste. (8)

By eighteenth-century standards, the philosophes were right. It should have been inconceivable that a "fallen" woman could be transformed into a near Christian exemplar as Julie was in this novel. Yet the "public" unanimously and in great numbers adored this book. Why, given its entirely "unrealistic" plot, did Rousseau's novel not strike its readers as preposterous? Through a reading of Madame Roland's letters and memoirs, I demonstrate that the novel's impact depended upon the reader's willingness to accept Rousseau's radical contention that Julie's "virtue" was an interiorized quality of heart or mind and not identical with her hymen. …

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