The morning of the 2nd of July 1778 the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau died unexpectedly at the age of 66. He had come back to Ermenonville, not too far from Paris, in the residence of marquess René-Louis de Girardin, great estimator of his work as well as one of his few friends and admirers left, considering the persecutory delusions that the philosopher would go through.

Rousseau in Ermenonville – painting by Georges-Frédéric Meyer

Above: public domain picture

Along with him his partner Thérèse Levasseur, one day back from a stroll in the park, he had his last breath in her arms.

She was the only constant presence in Rousseau’s life, who lost many friends, relatives and lovers along the way.  On the contrary though, Thérèse remained by his side for 40 years, even though he accepted to marry her only in 1768. The wedding however had no legal meaning since the ceremony was “in front of the nature”, with no religious of civil authority whatsoever witnessing the event.

Incision from 1783 with Rousseau and Marie-Thérèse Levasseur in 1778

That union was lasting from a long time although the two had very little in common. He was a philosopher, pedagogist, musician, and writer while her, even though not completely illiterate, barely read but struggled massively with math, remembering the order of the months, and recognising the different hours in a clock. Rousseau, the great pedagogist did not succeed to teach her anything, not even basic notions of a school education.

Perhaps it was handy to have a compliant wife, after the many laborious relationships with women of a higher cultural level he had to deal with? It could very well be, as  Thérèse reached a degree of submissiveness hard to fathom nowadays. Rousseau decided to abandon his 5 children to the public charity, arrived one after the other in a not so flourishing economical situation for the family; the couple could not provide with an adequate education for them.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau – painting by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1750/53 circa)

Above: public domain picture

This was common habit in Paris at that time and Rousseau, as a justification for his actions admitted:

Since this is the custom of the country, when you live in it, you may conform with it

And if Thérèse was opposed with the first child leaving, with the second one she could not find strength to say a word. “The following year same inconvenient and same expedient happened again. No new consideration from my side, no new acceptance from the mother: she obeyed while crying”.

Same followed with the other 3 children, despite some regret of his conscience many years afterwards in his “Confessions”. But it still seems that dealing with the topic was more of a strategy to find a valid justification in the eyes of his audience for his behaviour, so different from his teaching, than for a sincere remorse.

The story of the abandonment of his sons was well known in Paris. The philosopher Voltaire, who used to call the man “Judas of the brotherhood (of Philosophy), was one of the many people who had had several clashes with him. In 1764 he attacked him thoroughly, without mentioning his name:

“We recognise with sorrow that there’s a man who still carries along the menacing mark of his revelry and that, dressed up as a tumbler, he drags with himself in every village and every mountain that unhappy woman to whom he killed her mother and banished her sons to an institution”.

Those accusations of a father whose duties as an educator had not been respected could not be left unanswered so the philosopher let out his inner torments in his Confessions in order to “say it all”, all those facts that maybe he would have never confessed if they had remained unknown. Nothing was said about the sorrow of the mother if not that “obeyed while crying” note. Thérèse was just a shadow which lingered behind a great man, never with outlines of her own.

Of her it is known that she was 24 when the two met for the first time while Rosseau, in 1745 was 33. The philosopher drew an atrocious picture of the girl, forced to provide for her numerous and insolent family as a maid and laundress in a boarding house in the Latin Quarter of Paris. It is there that the two met up and from the beginning Rosseau pretended to be the defender of the weaks and helped the girl, shy and naive, that everyone was taking advantage of.

He made a few avances on her, she wavered, maybe scared by that smart way of speaking that she struggled to figure out; Rousseau imagined that behind that hesitation there was some unspeakable disease. The initial misunderstanding  faded away and that dubious union became the most long-lasting one of his life, even though he had many other relationships, troubled and often only out of convenience. But Thérèse, that ignorant poor woman was the only safe haven where to dock in moments of difficulty.

Painting of Marie-Thérèse Levasseur, 1791

Above: public domain picture

That woman, described as naive, silly and at the mercy of her family which exploited her was, between the two, the only one with practical skills. And it’s just in her own arms that he had his last breath there, in the house of the marquess René-Louis de Girardin. There he was buried, according to his will, in the island of Poplars surrounded by ponds. In 1794 his remains were subsequently transferred to the Pantheon of Paris, close to the ones of his enemy Voltaire.

The Pond and the Island of Poplars in Ermenonville

Above: picture by  P.poschadel via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Thérèse, universal heir of Rousseau, married a servant of the marquess who perhaps exploited her until she made some money, some which came from selling the manuscripts of the philosopher for a very low price. The woman eventually died poor in 1801.

Painting of Marie-Thérèse Levasseur when old

Above: public domain picture

A different representation of the woman came to us through G. Lenotre, meticulous researcher of the French Revolution who used to write his texts only by using primary sources: archives documents, letters and suchlike. In his “Vieilles maisons, vieux papiers” from 1930, he wrote:

“[…] she has never been able to remember the names of the months or reading the time in the clock. She is stupid, yet she has genius: it is her who rules (…) Through her gossips, she confuses him about the others, creates imaginary dangers, she takes him into a state of anxiousness. He has faith only in her; only her reveals to him the tricks of his enemies. Yet in moments of lucidity he recognises that she is the plague of his life.”

The only thing that is certain about Thérèse is that all the words said about her come from men, but we will never be able to understand how she actually was. The only thing that remains of her is the shadow behind the cumberson person of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

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