Books and Characters, by Lytton Strachey

The Rousseau Affair

No one who has made the slightest expedition into that curious and fascinating country, Eighteenth–Century France, can have come away from it without at least one impression strong upon him — that in no other place and at no other time have people ever squabbled so much. France in the eighteenth century, whatever else it may have been — however splendid in genius, in vitality, in noble accomplishment and high endeavour — was certainly not a quiet place to live in. One could never have been certain, when one woke up in the morning, whether, before the day was out, one would not be in the Bastille for something one had said at dinner, or have quarrelled with half one’s friends for something one had never said at all.

Of all the disputes and agitations of that agitated age none is more remarkable than the famous quarrel between Rousseau and his friends, which disturbed French society for so many years, and profoundly affected the life and the character of the most strange and perhaps the most potent of the precursors of the Revolution. The affair is constantly cropping up in the literature of the time; it occupies a prominent place in the later books of the Confessions; and there is an account of its earlier phases — an account written from the anti-Rousseau point of view — in the Mémoires of Madame d’Epinay. The whole story is an exceedingly complex one, and all the details of it have never been satisfactorily explained; but the general verdict of subsequent writers has been decidedly hostile to Rousseau, though it has not subscribed to all the virulent abuse poured upon him by his enemies at the time of the quarrel. This, indeed, is precisely the conclusion which an unprejudiced reader of the Confessions would naturally come to. Rousseau’s story, even as he himself tells it, does not carry conviction. He would have us believe that he was the victim of a vast and diabolical conspiracy, of which Grimm and Diderot were the moving spirits, which succeeded in alienating from him his dearest friends, and which eventually included all the ablest and most distinguished persons of the age. Not only does such a conspiracy appear, upon the face of it, highly improbable, but the evidence which Rousseau adduces to prove its existence seems totally insufficient; and the reader is left under the impression that the unfortunate Jean–Jacques was the victim, not of a plot contrived by rancorous enemies, but of his own perplexed, suspicious, and deluded mind. This conclusion is supported by the account of the affair given by contemporaries, and it is still further strengthened by Rousseau’s own writings subsequent to the Confessions, where his endless recriminations, his elaborate hypotheses, and his wild inferences bear all the appearance of mania. Here the matter has rested for many years; and it seemed improbable that any fresh reasons would arise for reopening the question. Mrs. F. Macdonald, however, in a recently-published work7, has produced some new and important evidence, which throws entirely fresh light upon certain obscure parts of this doubtful history; and is possibly of even greater interest. For it is Mrs. Macdonald’s contention that her new discovery completely overturns the orthodox theory, establishes the guilt of Grimm, Diderot, and the rest of the anti-Rousseau party, and proves that the story told in the Confessions is simply the truth.

If these conclusions really do follow from Mrs. Macdonald’s newly-discovered data, it would be difficult to over-estimate the value of her work, for the result of it would be nothing less than a revolution in our judgments upon some of the principal characters of the eighteenth century. To make it certain that Diderot was a cad and a cheat, that d’Alembert was a dupe, and Hume a liar — that, surely, were no small achievement. And, even if these conclusions do not follow from Mrs. Macdonald’s data, her work will still be valuable, owing to the data themselves. Her discoveries are important, whatever inferences may be drawn from them; and for this reason her book, ‘which represents,’ as she tells us, ‘twenty years of research,’ will be welcome to all students of that remarkable age.

Mrs. Macdonald’s principal revelations relate to the Mémoires of Madame d’Epinay. This work was first printed in 1818, and the concluding quarter of it contains an account of the Rousseau quarrel, the most detailed of all those written from the anti-Rousseau point of view. It has, however, always been doubtful how far the Mémoires were to be trusted as accurate records of historical fact. The manuscript disappeared; but it was known that the characters who, in the printed book, appear under the names of real persons, were given pseudonyms in the original document; and many of the minor statements contradicted known events. Had Madame d’Epinay merely intended to write a roman à clef? What seemed, so far as concerned the Rousseau narrative, to put this hypothesis out of court was the fact that the story of the quarrel as it appears in the Mémoires is, in its main outlines, substantiated both by Grimm’s references to Rousseau in his Correspondance Littéraire, and by a brief memorandum of Rousseau’s misconduct, drawn up by Diderot for his private use, and not published until many years after Madame d’Epinay’s death. Accordingly most writers on the subject have taken the accuracy of the Mémoires for granted; Sainte–Beuve, for instance, prefers the word of Madame d’Epinay to that of Rousseau, when there is a direct conflict of testimony; and Lord Morley, in his well-known biography, uses the Mémoires as an authority for many of the incidents which he relates. Mrs. Macdonald’s researches, however, have put an entirely different complexion on the case. She has discovered the manuscript from which the Mémoires were printed, and she has examined the original draft of this manuscript, which had been unearthed some years ago, but whose full import had been unaccountably neglected by previous scholars. From these researches, two facts have come to light. In the first place, the manuscript differs in many respects from the printed book, and, in particular, contains a conclusion of two hundred sheets, which has never been printed at all; the alterations were clearly made in order to conceal the inaccuracies of the manuscript; and the omitted conclusion is frankly and palpably a fiction. And in the second place, the original draft of the manuscript turns out to be the work of several hands; it contains, especially in those portions which concern Rousseau, many erasures, corrections, and notes, while several pages have been altogether cut out; most of the corrections were made by Madame d’Epinay herself; but in nearly every case these corrections carry out the instructions in the notes; and the notes themselves are in the handwriting of Diderot and Grimm. Mrs. Macdonald gives several facsimiles of pages in the original draft, which amply support her description of it; but it is to be hoped that before long she will be able to produce a new and complete edition of the Mémoires, with all the manuscript alterations clearly indicated; for until then it will be difficult to realise the exact condition of the text. However, it is now beyond dispute both that Madame d’Epinay’s narrative cannot be regarded as historically accurate, and that its agreement with the statements of Grimm and Diderot is by no means an independent confirmation of its truth, for Grimm and Diderot themselves had a hand in its compilation.

Thus far we are on firm ground. But what are the conclusions which Mrs. Macdonald builds up from these foundations? The account, she says, of Rousseau’s conduct and character, as it appears in the printed version, is hostile to him, but it was not the account which Madame d’Epinay herself originally wrote. The hostile narrative was, in effect, composed by Grimm and Diderot, who induced Madame d’Epinay to substitute it for her own story; and thus her own story could not have agreed with theirs. Madame d’Epinay knew the truth; she knew that Rousseau’s conduct had been honourable and wise; and so she had described it in her book; until, falling completely under the influence of Grimm and Diderot, she had allowed herself to become the instrument for blackening the reputation of her old friend. Mrs. Macdonald paints a lurid picture of the conspirators at work — of Diderot penning his false and malignant instructions, of Madame d’Epinay’s half-unwilling hand putting the last touches to the fraud, of Grimm, rushing back to Paris at the time of the Revolution, and risking his life in order to make quite certain that the result of all these efforts should reach posterity. Well! it would be difficult — perhaps it would be impossible — to prove conclusively that none of these things ever took place. The facts upon which Mrs. Macdonald lays so much stress — the mutilations, the additions, the instructing notes, the proved inaccuracy of the story the manuscripts tell — these facts, no doubt, may be explained by Mrs. Macdonald’s theories; but there are other facts — no less important, and no less certain — which are in direct contradiction to Mrs. Macdonald’s view, and over which she passes as lightly as she can. Putting aside the question of the Mémoires, we know nothing of Diderot which would lead us to entertain for a moment the supposition that he was a dishonourable and badhearted man; we do know that his writings bear the imprint of a singularly candid, noble, and fearless mind; we do know that he devoted his life, unflinchingly and unsparingly, to a great cause. We know less of Grimm; but it is at least certain that he was the intimate friend of Diderot, and of many more of the distinguished men of the time. Is all this evidence to be put on one side as of no account? Are we to dismiss it, as Mrs. Macdonald dismisses it, as merely ‘psychological’? Surely Diderot’s reputation as an honest man is as much a fact as his notes in the draft of the Mémoires. It is quite true that his reputation may have been ill-founded, that d’Alembert, and Turgot, and Hume may have been deluded, or may have been bribed, into admitting him to their friendship; but is it not clear that we ought not to believe any such hypotheses as these until we have before us such convincing proof of Diderot’s guilt that we must believe them? Mrs. Macdonald declares that she has produced such proof; and she points triumphantly to her garbled and concocted manuscripts. If there is indeed no explanation of these garblings and concoctions other than that which Mrs. Macdonald puts forward — that they were the outcome of a false and malicious conspiracy to blast the reputation of Rousseau — then we must admit that she is right, and that all our general ‘psychological’ considerations as to Diderot’s reputation in the world must be disregarded. But, before we come to this conclusion, how careful must we be to examine every other possible explanation of Mrs. Macdonald’s facts, how rigorously must we sift her own explanation of them, how eagerly must we seize upon every loophole of escape!

It is, I believe, possible to explain the condition of the d’Epinay manuscript without having recourse to the iconoclastic theory of Mrs. Macdonald. To explain everything, indeed, would be out of the question, owing to our insufficient data, and the extreme complexity of the events; all that we can hope to do is to suggest an explanation which will account for the most important of the known facts. Not the least interesting of Mrs. Macdonald’s discoveries went to show that the Mémoires, so far from being historically accurate, were in reality full of unfounded statements, that they concluded with an entirely imaginary narrative, and that, in short, they might be described, almost without exaggeration, in the very words with which Grimm himself actually did describe them in his Correspondance Littéraire, as ‘l’ébauche d’un long roman.’ Mrs. Macdonald eagerly lays emphasis upon this discovery, because she is, of course, anxious to prove that the most damning of all the accounts of Rousseau’s conduct is an untrue one. But she has proved too much. The Mémoires, she says, are a fiction; therefore the writers of them were liars. The answer is obvious: why should we not suppose that the writers were not liars at all, but simply novelists? Will not this hypothesis fit into the facts just as well as Mrs. Macdonald’s? Madame d’Epinay, let us suppose, wrote a narrative, partly imaginary and partly true, based upon her own experiences, but without any strict adherence to the actual course of events, and filled with personages whose actions were, in many cases, fictitious, but whose characters were, on the whole, moulded upon the actual characters of her friends. Let us suppose that when she had finished her work — a work full of subtle observation and delightful writing — she showed it to Grimm and Diderot. They had only one criticism to make: it related to her treatment of the character which had been moulded upon that of Rousseau. ‘Your Rousseau, chère Madame, is a very poor affair indeed! The most salient points in his character seem to have escaped you. We know what that man really was. We know how he behaved at that time. C’était un homme à faire peur. You have missed a great opportunity of drawing a fine picture of a hypocritical rascal.’ Whereupon they gave her their own impressions of Rousseau’s conduct, they showed her the letters that had passed between them, and they jotted down some notes for her guidance. She rewrote the story in accordance with their notes and their anecdotes; but she rearranged the incidents, she condensed or amplified the letters, as she thought fit — for she was not writing a history, but ‘l’ébauche d’un long roman.’ If we suppose that this, or something like this, was what occurred, shall we not have avoided the necessity for a theory so repugnant to common-sense as that which would impute to a man of recognised integrity the meanest of frauds?

To follow Mrs. Macdonald into the inner recesses and elaborations of her argument would be a difficult and tedious task. The circumstances with which she is principally concerned — the suspicions, the accusations, the anonymous letters, the intrigues, the endless problems as to whether Madame d’Epinay was jealous of Madame d’Houdetot, whether Thérèse told fibs, whether, on the 14th of the month, Grimm was grossly impertinent, and whether, on the 15th, Rousseau was outrageously rude, whether Rousseau revealed a secret to Diderot, which Diderot revealed to Saint–Lambert, and whether, if Diderot revealed it, he believed that Rousseau had revealed it before — these circumstances form, as Lord Morley says, ‘a tale of labyrinthine nightmares,’ and Mrs. Macdonald has done very little to mitigate either the contortions of the labyrinths or the horror of the dreams. Her book is exceedingly ill-arranged; it is enormously long, filling two large volumes, with an immense apparatus of appendices and notes; it is full of repetitions and of irrelevant matter; and the argument is so indistinctly set forth that even an instructed reader finds great difficulty in following its drift. Without, however, plunging into the abyss of complications which yawns for us in Mrs. Macdonald’s pages, it may be worth while to touch upon one point with which she has dealt (perhaps wisely for her own case!) only very slightly — the question of the motives which could have induced Grimm and Diderot to perpetuate a series of malignant lies.

It is, doubtless, conceivable that Grimm, who was Madame d’Epinay’s lover, was jealous of Rousseau, who was Madame d’Epinay’s friend. We know very little of Grimm’s character, but what we do know seems to show that he was a jealous man and an ambitious man; it is possible that a close alliance with Madame d’Epinay may have seemed to him a necessary step in his career; and it is conceivable that he may have determined not to rest until his most serious rival in Madame d’Epinay’s affections was utterly cast out. He was probably prejudiced against Rousseau from the beginning, and he may have allowed his prejudices to colour his view of Rousseau’s character and acts. The violence of the abuse which Grimm and the rest of the Encyclopaedists hurled against the miserable Jean–Jacques was certainly quite out of proportion to the real facts of the case. Whenever he is mentioned one is sure of hearing something about traître and mensonge and scélératesse. He is referred to as often as not as if he were some dangerous kind of wild beast. This was Grimm’s habitual language with regard to him; and this was the view of his character which Madame d’Epinay finally expressed in her book. The important question is — did Grimm know that Rousseau was in reality an honourable man, and, knowing this, did he deliberately defame him in order to drive him out of Madame d’Epinay’s affections? The answer, I think, must be in the negative, for the following reason. If Grimm had known that there was something to be ashamed of in the notes with which he had supplied Madame d’Epinay, and which led to the alteration of her Mémoires, he certainly would have destroyed the draft of the manuscript, which was the only record of those notes having ever been made. As it happens, we know that he had the opportunity of destroying the draft, and he did not do so. He came to Paris at the risk of his life in 1791, and stayed there for four months, with the object, according to his own account, of collecting papers belonging to the Empress Catherine, or, according to Mrs. Macdonald’s account, of having the rough draft of the Mémoires copied out by his secretary. Whatever his object, it is certain that the copy — that from which ultimately the Mémoires were printed — was made either at that time, or earlier; and that there was nothing on earth to prevent him, during the four months of his stay in Paris, from destroying the draft. Mrs. Macdonald’s explanation of this difficulty is lamentably weak. Grimm, she says, must have wished to get away from Paris ‘without arousing suspicion by destroying papers.’ This is indeed an ‘exquisite reason,’ which would have delighted that good knight Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Grimm had four months at his disposal; he was undisturbed in his own house; why should he not have burnt the draft page by page as it was copied out? There can be only one reply: Why should he?

If it is possible to suggest some fairly plausible motives which might conceivably have induced Grimm to blacken Rousseau’s character, the case of Diderot presents difficulties which are quite insurmountable. Mrs. Macdonald asserts that Diderot was jealous of Rousseau. Why? Because he was tired of hearing Rousseau described as ‘the virtuous’; that is all. Surely Mrs. Macdonald should have been the first to recognise that such an argument is a little too ‘psychological.’ The truth is that Diderot had nothing to gain by attacking Rousseau. He was not, like Grimm, in love with Madame d’Epinay; he was not a newcomer who had still to win for himself a position in the Parisian world. His acquaintance with Madame d’Epinay was slight; and, if there were any advances, they were from her side, for he was one of the most distinguished men of the day. In fact, the only reason that he could have had for abusing Rousseau was that he believed Rousseau deserved abuse. Whether he was right in believing so is a very different question. Most readers, at the present day, now that the whole noisy controversy has long taken its quiet place in the perspective of Time, would, I think, agree that Diderot and the rest of the Encyclopaedists were mistaken. As we see him now, in that long vista, Rousseau was not a wicked man; he was an unfortunate, a distracted, a deeply sensitive, a strangely complex, creature; and, above all else, he possessed one quality which cut him off from his contemporaries, which set an immense gulf betwixt him and them: he was modern. Among those quick, strong, fiery people of the eighteenth century, he belonged to another world — to the new world of self-consciousness, and doubt, and hesitation, of mysterious melancholy and quiet intimate delights, of long reflexions amid the solitudes of Nature, of infinite introspections amid the solitudes of the heart. Who can wonder that he was misunderstood, and buffeted, and driven mad? Who can wonder that, in his agitations, his perplexities, his writhings, he seemed, to the pupils of Voltaire, little less than a frenzied fiend? ‘Cet homme est un forcené!’ Diderot exclaims. ‘Je tâche en vain de faire de la poésie, mais cet homme me revient tout à travers mon travail; il me trouble, et je suis comme si j’avais à côté de moi un damné: il est damné, cela est sûr. . . . J’avoue que je n’ai jamais éprouvé un trouble d’âme si terrible que celui que j’ai . . . Que je ne revoie plus cet homme-là, il me ferait croire au diable et à l’enfer. Si je suis jamais forcé de retourner chez lui, je suis sûr que je frémirai tout le long du chemin: j’avais la fièvre en revenant . . . On entendait ses cris jusqu’au bout du jardin; et je le voyais! . . . Les poètes ont bien fait de mettre un intervalle immense entre le ciel et les enfers. En vérité, la main me tremble.’ Every word of that is stamped with sincerity; Diderot was writing from his heart. But he was wrong; the ‘intervalle immense,’ across which, so strangely and so horribly, he had caught glimpses of what he had never seen before, was not the abyss between heaven and hell, but between the old world and the new.

1907.

NOTES:

7. Jean Jacques Rousseau: a New Criticism, by Frederika Macdonald. In two volumes. Chapman and Hall. 1906.]

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:31