Charlecote Park

From the Library

By Len Mullenger

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Julie: ou la Nouvelle Héloïse ou lettres de deux amants habitants d’une petite ville aux pieds des Alpes recueillies et publiees (Julie: the new Heloise: letters from two lovers, living in a small town at the foot of the Alps) Paris 1813 (first published in 1761)


We need to know who is J-J Rousseau, who is Julie and who is Héloïse?

Rousseau (1712-1778) was a really odd character. If he had been born 100 years earlier we would have called him a true Rennaissance man. He was a French Philosopher (although born in Geneva) who seemed to support totalitarianism and Bertrand Russell considered that he paved the way for Nazi Germany. As a child he grew up as a Calvinist with their insistence of the total depravity of man but he felt that could not really be true so he converted to Catholicism, declaring that man was born angelic. He wrote later that he had always ‘believed myself to be, in all things, the best of men’. The truth was that he liked to go round exposing himself to women and whilst writing about the lovely innocence of children placed all five of his in a Parisian orphanage. He was later attacked for this by Voltaire. He was a scientist, writing a book on Botany which we have in the library. Rousseau was also a skilled composer who impressed King Louis VI who offered him a life-long pension – which Rousseau turned down. He also refused several other honours causing great offence. In his life he managed to upset everybody including both Protestants and Catholics and his books were often banned. Although he believed in democracy he also believed that individuals needed to conform and obey that which was for the greater good of the state even if it meant giving up their individual rights, in Rousseau’s words ‘they would be forced to be free’!. That would lead to totalitarianism. Rousseau ended up fleeing from country to country staying at one time with David Hume in England until he fell out with him and returned to France where he committed suicide.

To understand who Héloïse was we might remind ourselves of a recent scandal in 2012 when a married 28 year old Maths teacher, Jeremy Forrest, started an affair with a 14 year-old pupil and, when discovered over a year later, they fled to France. The Girl declared undying love for him as he was led away to start a five and a half year sentence. Her love died pretty quickly. But this is not a new phenomenon and we can go back to 1115. Peter Abelard at that time was a famous teaching philosopher and head of Notre Dame. Students were drawn from all countries because of the popularity of his teaching, including Héloïse d’Argenteuil, the niece of Canon Fulbert. She was a brilliant scholar in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Abelard and Héloïse started an affair and Abelard hoodwinked Canon Fulbert into allowing him to live in the same house. . Abelard was 36 years old but her age is less clear, probably early 20s. She was already known for her scholarship and practiced as a physician. Once aware of what was going on Canon Fulbert attempted to separate them but they continued to meet secretly and eventually Héloïse became pregnant. Abelard sent her away to live with his sister in Brittany where she gave birth to a boy she christened Astrolabe (as in the astronomical instrument). To appease Fulbert, Abelard agreed to marry Héloïse provided it was kept secret so as not to damage his career. Abelard then placed Héloïse in a convent supposedly for her own safety but really to get rid of her. She became a nun and eventually prioress. Fulbert was furious and one night a group of his friend set upon Abelard and castrated him. Abelard then became a monk and after some years started corresponding with Héloïse and the letters still exist. Héloïse and the nuns were expelled from their nunnery so Abelard set them up in their own community called The Paraclete and he became the Abbot. But his teachings were contentious and he was eventually excommunicated and banned from teaching. Abelard was the first to die and then Héloïse was eventually to lie with him.

Julie is a novel. It is an epistolary novel which means it is set as a series of letters. Letters are at once intimate and can express deep emotions in a way that seems real. Harking back to Héloïse and Abelard . Julie falls in love with her tutor Saint-Preux. Her father strongly oppose this as he has in mind a more aristocratic match. Saint-Preux is forced to leave Julie and travel round the world but they keep in touch through a series of letters. When he returns he finds Julie already married to an aristocrat, Wolmar. He finds them well suited and joins them as a friend. Out of a sense of honour he does not try to re-establish a relationship with Julie. Julie eventually dies trying to save a drowning child. The importance of this novel is that the letters try to explain passion for the first time and the nature of love and jealousy. This became the bedrock on which was built generations of romantic fiction.

Roussaeu writes in the introduction ‘This book is not meant to circulate in Society and is suitable for very few readers. The style will put off people of taste; the contents will alarm strict people; all the sentiments will be unnatural to those who do not believe in virtue. It is bound to displease the devout, the libertines, the philosophers: it is bound to shock gallant women, and scandalize honest ones. Whom then will it please? Perhaps no-one but me, but very certainly it will please no-one moderately.’

He underestimated the appeal of this book. It became the biggest selling book, so much so that the printer could not produce copies fast enough and had to resort to renting the book out on a daily basis. There were 70 editions in print before 1800, more than any other novel in history, Readers were overcome by emotion and Rousseau became the first celebrity author with women flocking to him. They identified closely with Julie and her death was traumatic to them. Many simply would not believe it was a work of fiction seeing their own lives reflected in the novel. Schopenhauer said Julie was one of the four greatest novels alongside Tristram Shandy, Wilhelm Meister and Don Quixote.

Julie is huge book. The English edition has over 700 pages including all the introduction , appendices and notes. The novel itself is about 500 pages. I don’t know how anyone could rent it and read it in a day. Rousseau had a lovely anecdote about a Lady on her way to the Opera in her carriage who started to read Julie and never got out, continuing to read until the following morning.

English Edition: Julie, or the New Heloise: Letters of Two Lovers Who Live in a Small Town at the Foot of the Alps v. 6 (Collected Writings of Rousseau) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Author), Jean Vache (Editor, Translator), Philip Stewart (Editor, Translator)Published by University Press of New England 1997

Len Mullenger – Volunteer Guide

Len Mullenger is a Sunday volunteer guide. Any comments are welcome and can be sent to

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