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Madame De Warens

ISSUE:  Summer 1933

Perhaps there is no woman of the eighteenth century whom we know so well by name and yet differ about so widely. Indeed, among all the notable figures of that century few, if any, have been discussed with so much confidence, on so slender a basis of facts. There is no doubt about her significance. She is the woman who meant more than any other for the man whom it is possible to regard as the chief spiritual force of modern times. It is of minor significance that she, also, more than any other, may be regarded as the original of the heroine of “La Nouvelle Heloise,” a novel which, however little read and little readable now, once moved the world of readers as no other novel has ever done, and may, indeed, still be said to live in the writings of novelists who perhaps never heard of it. We never forget how Madame de Warens initiated into love and life the youthful Rousseau, who was himself to become the initiator of coming generations.

If we realise all that Rousseau stands for in our world— whether for good or, as so many think, for evil—we need to know, as precisely as possible, what it was he met at that spot at Annecy which, even in old age, he still desired to see surrounded with railings of gold, and only to be approached on their knees by those who revere the monuments of human salvation. If we can imagine Rousseau looking down on earth today, one may well suppose that it is not the extent of his fame, or his infamy, in the world that touches him, but the fulfilment of that extravagant wish, exactly two centuries after the event (in 1928), in the delicately wrought and gilded ironwork which now encloses what is judged to have been that spot. Indeed, it records a memorable event in our civilization, if, as Michelet put it, Rousseau’s genius was born of Madame de Warens.

Yet, even for Rousseau, this woman was evidently always something of a mystery. He says much that is in her favour, much that is not; we cannot safely estimate her from his narrative. She was not only a person of peculiar temperament, but the first woman of breeding and culture and social attraction with whom he had come into intimate contact. He was evidently dazzled from the first moment when the brilliant, fair-haired, and blue-eyed figure so graciously received the runaway youth in a foreign land. It may well be that he never came to see her in any clear light, while it is certain that at some points, intentionally as well as unintentionally, she misled him. Today we know much more about her than Rousseau could know, and she has been the subject of numerous volumes. Yet still she appears a different person to different investigators. For some she is an enlightened religious mystic, for others a mean, superstitious little creature with an ill-regulated imagination; for some almost an erotomaniac, for others, on the contrary, a typical example of sexual anaesthesia. Even in discrepant aspects of character there may be elements of truth. But considerable discrimination is needed if we are to bring out a really harmonious picture from the data now accumulated around this woman.

The chief authorities for our new knowledge of Madame de Warens are a few men of letters and research in Switzerland and in Savoy, more especially de Montet as regards her early life in the Vaud country, Mugnier concerning her later life in Savoy, Eugene Ritter for her religious opinions and their sources. And more recently Benedetto from the Italian side has gone over the field in detail in a less friendly and somewhat debunking spirit, though even he at the end admits that, after all, there was real love in Rousseau’s transfiguration of Madame de Warens, and that it was she, above all others he loved or was loved by, whom Rousseau made the ideal woman.


Francoise-Louise de la Tour belonged to the aristocratic family who possessed Chatelard with its picturesque old castle on the hillside near Vevey, a familiar sight to the foreign colony now dwelling nearby at Montreux and Clarens. She was born in March, 1699, the second of three children and the only survivor. Her mother died in childbirth when Franchise was still an infant, and she was sent to her father’s two sisters, who lived at Le Basset close by,—old maids who, especially the elder, became devoted to the child and fully took a mother’s place. Her father married again and she remained with her aunts to the age of ten.

Many of us today are familiar with the Lake of Geneva’s stretch of shore between Vevey and Chillon. It long since grew civilised and commonplace. Along the main road are fashionable shops and crowds of tourists from many lands; even when we look up at the solemn Alps we find them dotted with big hotels. Yet it is a pleasant spot still, and with an abstracting imagination we can picture it as it was a century and more ago when the great champions and apostles of the new Romantic Movement—Byron and Shelley, Victor Hugo and George Sand, with the rest—came hither as pilgrims to the region whence their inspiration sprang. We may even be able to evoke the vision of what was seen here, a century still earlier, when the man from whom that inspiration chiefly emanated came on this scene to concentrate there his enthusiasm. It was in a delicious corner of that district that Francoise spent her early life. An undulating tableland on the sloping heights above the Clarens bay was the site of the little estate. (I have not seen it, and the crumbling house disappeared nearly half a century ago, but I follow the description of de Montet, who saw it just before.) This tableland is an oasis of greenery amid surrounding vineyards, with fine trees and glimpses of the great lake below the gracious descent of the green slopes, and behind, the majestic circle of the mountains which are the background to its limpid waters. The house, called Le Basset, was, though comfortable, a rather humble dwelling with a wooden gallery outside on which the doors and windows of the upper floor opened, as one may still see in old houses in that region. There yet remain a few of the splendid chestnuts which once formed a wood called “le bosquet, de Clar-ens”celebrated by Rousseau in the “Nouvelle Heloise,” and now often called “le bosquet de Julie” Madame de Warens, in character, tastes, and feelings, corresponds to Julie, although the heroine of the novel lived on a somewhat more magnificent scale. This was so not only because the scenes of the real girl’s life had been passed through an exalted imagination but also because Madame de Warens herself was never absolutely accurate regarding the details of the past, and was always willing to magnify events and leave out of account anything unfavourable to herself. It is a reticence which, like much else in her life, has not in the end proved altogether wise, for, as we shall see, it led Rousseau, by trusting to his imagination or to gossip, to defame unduly the woman to whom he owed so much and whom he so sincerely worshipped.

We know, however, all the essential facts of young Franchise’s life, and it is not difficult to reconstruct, At that time it was usual for the rural aristocracy to live in this simple fashion and they were not on that account the less considered. Francoise seems to have been a wild and indocile child who was rather spoilt by her aunts, doubtless charmed by her pretty face, her precociously alert intelligence, and that spirit of independence which was from the first a note of her character. But during the winter months the aunts occupied themselves with her education, and not without success. When she was nine years old her father’s new wife, in a letter still extant, tells of the progress Francoise has made in household and other affairs under her aunts’ care, “especially the elder who has a wonderful gift of education. Just imagine! She has so well fixed Franchise’s wildness that she has already read all the books at Le Basset!” We discern in the child the mixed traits of the woman.

But Francoise’s “wildness” was scarcely “fixed,” in spite of her love for her aunts. They were necessarily much absorbed in the care of the estate, and the child had ample opportunities to cultivate her refractory spirit of independence among the young villagers over whom she could play the mistress. When she was ten one of the aunts died and she was brought to the paternal home. On her father’s death shortly after, her stepmother decided that it would be best to send her to school at Lausanne. Here no doubt she acquired various accomplishments, though she never resigned herself to learn how to spell correctly, scarcely indeed a general accomplishment then, and difficult for many now. When at fifteen her education was considered complete, it seems to have been felt that she still needed to be kept under control, and a husband was speedily found for her.

At this point, however, some reference must be made to what may be regarded as an important early influence. The importance has by some been exaggerated and by others denied. Yet it has significance, and must not be passed over.

The ladies of Le Basset were on intimate terms with Magny, an old man who enjoyed a reverential esteem in the Pays de Vaud, although he was the leader there of the pietis-tic movement, by no means an orthodox position in a strictly Calvinistic land. Magny was in touch with the German mystical movement of that day which was bringing a new freedom and emotional depth into religion. An indifference to forms, a belief in intuition and impulse, a tendency to sum up the doctrines of religion in St. Augustine’s formula: “Love, and do what you like”—such were the characteristics of the new movement. They could not but appeal to a girl of Francoise’s temperament. In the “confessions of a beautiful soul” in “Wilhelm Meister,” Goethe recorded the inner life of a woman who had fallen under the influence of Moravian pietism, and like the woman of the “beautiful soul,” Madame de Warens could have said: “Nothing appears to me in the form of a law; it is an impulse that leads me; I follow my feelings and know as little of restraint as of repentance.” But the “beautiful soul” added that the impulse that led her always led her right, and that Madame could scarcely have ventured to claim; the elements of her nature were less happily tempered.

To have been bathed in this atmosphere before her feelings had been moulded into any rigid shape cannot but have affected the youthful Francoise. Her pietism remained rudimentary, but it so genuinely harmonised with her own temperament that she may never have realised how much she owed to Magny. It is impossible not to attach weight to her early association with him. It was so close that at the age of fourteen he acted as her tutor and then became her trustee. Later he felt entitled to behave as her spiritual guardian and would write to admonish her from time to time. On one such occasion she replied: “I do things with an indifference which sometimes surprises me.”

Her vague pietism certainly never became deep or definite, and it would seem that she never mentioned Magny’s name to Rousseau. Yet the religious ideas she transmitted to the youthful Jean Jacques were such as she may well have absorbed from her early teacher. Together, certainly, with other influences, it is these German religious ideas, filtered first through Magny and then through Madame de Warens, which reappear glorified in the “Vicaire Savoyard” and elsewhere in Rousseau’s writings as a mighty force which was to sweep away the cold deism of that age and almost to become a part of the modern spirit.

However uncertain her religious spirit, Francoise de la Tour had an eager thirst for knowledge, hardly satisfied by the modicum of instruction in which a girl’s education consisted, and she gratified this by devouring the medical and natural history books which had belonged to her grandfather, a doctor. Thus she acquired the taste for concocting drugs and for amateur doctoring which never left her and at one time induced her to urge Rousseau to become a doctor, without effect though he acquired a love for botanising. She later secured her husband’s copy of Bayle’s famous “Dictionary,” an extensive work which dealt with the whole sphere of knowledge in a free-spirited and entertaining manner, and it became her chief intellectual pleasure. For housewifely duties and domestic economy, all the efforts of aunts and stepmother could impart no aptitude; that was one chief source of the misfortunes she was plunged into throughout life.


Even at the age of fourteen, before her marriage, Mile. Francoise de la Tour was famed in the neighbourhood of Vevey for her gay and independent spirit, as well (so at least it was reported) as for the lively parties she presided over, with games and music and dancing. She associated much, indeed, with the peasant girls of the neighbourhood; it was thus she acquired, and, as we know, retained, the love of being surrounded by inferiors, and a delight in their admiration and subservience. She certainly caused some anxiety to the family. That may have been the reason why she was put under Magny’s care. That also may have been why in 1713, when she was still only fourteen, a husband was found for her. There could be no difficulty over that, for not only was Franchise a brilliant and seductive personality but she could bring her husband a substantial dowry, and Magny (when the two precious trustees disagreed over the marriage settlement) was appointed sole trustee.

The husband was a man of importance, and of solid if not exactly high character; he always possessed the esteem of his fellow-citizens, who placed him in numerous positions of local responsibility; and for a short time he was appointed tutor to a young German prince, which indicates that he was a man of some culture, as is also indicated by his purchase of Bayle’s expensive “Dictionary” and by the style of his letters.

This Captain Sebastien-Isaac de Loys was of good family and had been a soldier, serving in Sweden and elsewhere. We know him as de Warens (sometimes De Vuarens) from the little village of which he possessed the lordship for fifteen years, when he sold it. Madame de Warens claimed the title of “Baroness,” and sometimes attributed the title of “Baron” to her father, incorrectly, though he was of noble family; all she was entitled to be called was “Dame de Warens” and that not after the property had been disposed of. In Rousseau’s famous novel the petty lordship of Warens is magnified into the barony of D’Etanges and little Chailly figures as the domain of Clarens.

The young wife was twenty years younger than her husband, who certainly had a far greater influence in moulding her ideas than she led Rousseau to suspect. In some respects he admirably complemented her character, for he possessed all the stability, prudence, and common sense which she lacked. Consciously or unconsciously, also, he cannot but have carried further an education which hitherto had been rather elementary and uneven. But in other respects, as Benedetto has pointed out, his character has sometimes been too highly rated by biographers, and he may even have fostered the young girl’s defects. There are underlying elements of coarseness and vulgarity discernible in his conduct, and a tendency to moral indifference rather similar to his wife’s. If Magny had preached freedom on the spiritual plane, de Warens scarcely had strict principles on the intellectual and moral planes. Bayle and Saint-Evremond, the writers in whom, certainly first by her husband’s guidance, Madame delighted, could easily be associated with an attitude of refined and sceptical laxity. Thus the partners suited each other and lived for some time in harmony. They settled at Vevey, where many French Huguenots had settled after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and spent the autumn at Chailly—the vine district which was part of the bride’s dowry—in order to oversee the grape harvest.

Her husband was violently in love with his young bride, who was already growing into that early maturity of which she was to preserve the fresh bloom so long. We do not need to rely on Rousseau for the description of her charm; there is confirmation from independent sources. We hear especially of her beautiful blue eyes and dazzling complexion and fair hair (the cheveuux cendres so much admired in France) which she knew how to dress piquantly. She was short rather than tall and inclined to be a little too plump. Her voice was musical (they called it “argentine”) and she possessed a spirit of gaiety, of radiant vivacity. We hear from the first of her gracious air with strangers, and ready adaptability, the charm that won the boy Rousseau’s heart from the first moment he met her in Annecy. Even Benedetto, the least sympathetic of her biographers, admits her “sovereign talent of fascination.”

It is in 1715, when still but a girl of sixteen, that Madame first steps into public life and at once clearly reveals herself. By marriage she had lost her rights of citizenship at Vevey, and her husband possessed no such rights there; consequently she was unable to sell her wine in the town, for that was a privilege reserved to legalised citizens. She induced her husband to apply for these rights. But in the meantime, without waiting for the results of the application — and probably without consulting her husband, whose conduct as a citizen was always correct—she forthwith began to sell her wine in the town. It is an episode characteristic of the woman’s conduct throughout life. Her eager impetuosity could never wait for events to ripen; her plans must be carried out at once, recklessly, even, if need be, unscrupulously. The results, of course, were not usually happy. They were not so on the present occasion. The town council, which would certainly have granted the desired privilege, felt called upon to reprimand M. de Warens and to threaten more severe measures. Young Madame’s pride was hurt, all the more, doubtless, because she was in the wrong. Feeling her social position shaken, she agreed to an old wish of her husband to settie at Lausanne—persuading him, however, first to secure the Vevey citizenship—in the course of 1718. De Warens, being a native of Lausanne, was received with distinction. But living proved expensive there—as, in Madame de War-ens’s experience, indeed, it proved everywhere — and she persuaded her husband to secure further resources from his father. This led to quarrels and unpleasantness, and as Madame felt no attachment to Lausanne, they returned to Vevey where her husband received an official position, and the wife distinguished herself by her generosity and philanthropy.

At this point we have to consider a difficult and delicate question. Rousseau states definitely in the “Confessions” that young Madame de Warens was seduced by a certain M. de Tavel, who to effect his object had first persuaded her that morality and modesty were merely conventions, and that she afterwards, “it is said,” became the mistress of a Swiss ininister, one Perret. Both de Montet and Mugnier throw doubt on this statement, though Benedetto thinks it possible on the ground that de Tavel seems certainly to have been on friendly relations with the young wife. The question arises: How did Rousseau know? In after years he went to Vevey and the neighbourhood; during his stay there he associated mainly with the society that met in the parlours of small inns, and while such gossip as he might hear there concerning a woman who had abandoned both her husband and her religion would certainly be scandalous, it would certainly also be worthless. It is known that up even to her final departure from Switzerland Madame de Warens enjoyed the highest consideration, and as a rigid puritanical inquisition then ruled at Vevey this could not possibly have been the case had anything been publicly known of such episodes as Rousseau tells of, for in that case she would have been called before the bar of the Consistory. Her husband, in the end, had much fault to find—with her fondness for industrial enterprises, her extravagant generosity, the vanity that led her into exaggeration and falsehood, her independence and dislike of advice, her leaning to pietism, the ease with which she made acquaintance with people who flattered her; he even called her at last “an accomplished comedian”—but he never hinted that he suspected her of infidelity. If, therefore, rumours of immorality afterwards gathered around the name of the apostate and fugitive they could scarcely have proceeded from any reliable source.

We must fall back on the supposition that Rousseau’s statements are founded on the confidences of Madame de Warens herself. But here we have to remember the unquestionable fact, clearly to be seen in the “Confessions,” that, even with Rousseau, Madame de Warens was never communicative regarding those matters of her personal life, however remote, which might show her in an unfavourable light. It must be added that neither de Tavel nor Perret are unknown persons; the former was a colonel, an old friend of de Warens, but very seldom at Vevey though a native of that place; the latter was a clergyman, twenty-five years older than Madame de Warens, and a man of high position and unspotted reputation.

It seems most reasonable to conclude that Rousseau’s statements must be regarded as an effort of constructive imagination founded on slight data, which seemed to him sufficient basis for an episode enabling him to explain Madame de Warens’s character but which, in the light of our further knowledge today, cannot be unreservedly accepted. It is probable enough that de Tavel on his visits to Vevey brought a knowledge of the new, revolutionary moral maxims of Paris which the intelligent and inquisitive young woman was interested to learn, and that eventually these maxims mingled with the pietistic teaching of Magny—in a way that venerable teacher would have been far from approving—to prepare her for that indifference for conventions which her conduct subsequently showed. But that de Tavel sought to apply these maxims may well have been an ingenious supposition by which Rousseau supplemented the reticence of his informant. Had de Tavel been the cynical libertine which Rousseau’s statements imply, his intimate friend, de Warens, would scarcely have regarded him as a fit associate for his wife. We know that in several cases Rousseau has, on altogether inadequate grounds, attributed acts of early misconduct to other people, including the original of the Vicaire Savoyard, whom he highly esteemed, and it must not unduly surprise us that he has done so in the case of Madame de Warens. That he himself was a little uncertain about his statement as to de Tavel is suggested by the fact that he coupled it with the quite wanton rumour about Perret.

De Tavel has so often served, even in the hands of the most serious historians, as a stock example of the depravity of the eighteenth century, that it is time to insist that the one episode by which his name survives is probably a legend. Statements of the kind which Rousseau attributed to de Tavel were often made during the eighteenth century by philosophers in the seclusion of their studies; one may be permitted to doubt whether they proved dangerous even in that century. “One may be amused by a lover’s wit,” remarks Madame de Lursay in Crebillon’s “Egarements du Coeur” a few years later, “but it is not that which proves seductive; it is his embarrassment, the difficulty he finds in expressing himself, the confusion in his speech—that is what makes him dangerous!”


We now reach the circumstances that led up to the most decisive episode in the life of Madame de Warens — her abandonment of her home and her religion. In 1724 a young Frenchman, Elie Laffon, son of a refugee French Protestant minister, had arrived at Vevey, and, in accordance with the industrial traditions of the Huguenots, he proposed to start a factory of silk stockings. Madame de Warens, who had once been a pupil of Laffon’s sister, soon heard of the scheme and entered into it with enthusiasm. She was, as we know, attracted to business enterprises at an early age, and remained so to the end, the ardour of her commercial scheming always rendered more acute by her continual lack of money. Laffon needed assistance and capital, and without asking advice of her husband Madame engaged herself to take control of the whole business. De Warens opposed the scheme from the first, but his wife’s influence over him was still great; she induced him, against his own better judgment, to borrow money in all directions and to make many sacrifices.

It is needless to follow the history of the silk stocking factory, now known in all its details; the issue could not be doubtful. Madame had no real business capacity, and she even appropriated some of the money obtained for the factory to her own personal uses; Laffon with equally little business capacity seems to have followed her example. Things went from bad to worse, but Madame was too proud to confess failure. At last the strain began to affect her nerves. In 1725 she had to go across the lake to Aix-les-Bains, for treatment and distraction.

It was a fateful visit. She felt, in passing from Switzerland to Savoy—though Gray’s letters show that this was by no means the universal sentiment even at that time—as even today we feel in some degree, a delightful sense of contrast between the asperity of the one land and its people and the larger and more cheerful atmosphere of the other. Aix, as we learn from Casanova’s account of his stay there, was then on a humble scale what it has since become on a more magnificent and cosmopolitan scale, a region supremely well fitted to be the haunt of pleasure-seeker and health-seeker alike, and Madame de Warens, with her ever sanguine and volatile temperament, here soon recovered. She met during her stay a certain Madame de Bonnevaux, a connection of her husband, who belonged to Savoy and was a Catholic; by her she was taken to Chambery for the first time, and Madame de Bonnevaux would not have failed to make her realise how different was the tolerant Catholicism of Savoy from the austere Calvinism of the Vaud country. It is not necessary to suppose that at this moment Madame de Warens conceived the idea of flight, but when again at home she could not help knowing that a more delightful and congenial land lay on the other side of the lake, and when the stress of life became unbearable, that land appeared to her as a harbour of refuge. She was not so much converted to Catholicism as to the religion of Savoy, and her husband doubtless felt this when in later years he used to refer to his divorced wife as “la Savoyarde.” On reaching Vevey she openly declared how charmed she was with Savoy and how disgusted with the Pays de Vaud. The almost hopeless confusion into which she had plunged her affairs furnished ample cause for such disgust. The strain of pretending to her husband and her acquaintances that all was going well, and that nothing now was needed but a little more capital, became more severe than ever.

In the spring of 1726 she realised that the crash was approaching. Her pride would still not allow her to confess even to her husband, or to humiliate herself in the public eye. She preferred a secret flight—although that placed her husband in a much worse financial position than if she had stayed beside him—and with more or less certain knowledge of honours and pensions bestowed by the King of Sardinia on distinguished Swiss converts to Catholicism, she decided to cross the lake for ever. Having persuaded a doctor that she needed to visit the baths at Amphion in Savoy, she collected together as much furniture, linen, and plate as possible, together with the goods and money remaining at the factory, and had them conveyed to the boat; she always carried so much luggage when she travelled that this excited no notice. Her husband saw her off, one day in July, when accompanied by a servant maid she crossed the lake and went direct to Evian, where the King was then residing. At the earliest possible moment, when the King was going to mass with a few of his lords and Bishop Bernex of Annecy, she seized the prelate’s cassock and, falling on her knees, said: “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum, meum” The Bishop raised her up and after mass had a long conversation with her in his rooms. This time her plans had come off. She had left Vevey behind with all its torturing worries, her conversion was effected; she was being treated with distinction, soon to receive a pension, while the Bishop was warmly congratulated on the brilliant conquest he had made for the Church.

The matter has sometimes been left at that. But, as Benedetto has specially sought to make clear, there is more to be said. The anxiety on the part of the government of Savoy to regain both the old civil and ecclesiastical authority over Geneva, led King and Bishop to work together to gain influential converts and then undertake to reward them, at the same time, if possible, using them. Madame de Warens appeared an important convert, and a general sensation was caused by her capture. But even when we bear that in mind, the pension awarded her seems extravagant. It was larger even than the fee received by a senator.

If the terms of the decree conferring the pension are looked into it would appear that it was really not so much a pension as a salary and that it involved duties. These, there is reason to believe, were twofold, on the one hand to further the work of effecting conversions among fugitive Swiss immigrants from across the Lake (which throws a light on her reception of the boy Rousseau), and on the other hand to act, when required, as a political spy, a position for which her brilliant social qualities seemed to fit her.

The conversion may not be entirely explained on merely prudential grounds: Madame de Warens was not always guided by prudential considerations, and the step she had taken cost her anguish and sleepless nights. It was true that she had not been a convinced Calvinist; her religious beliefs, new and old, seem loosely held. Her old friend Magny came to see her shortly after her conversion, and declared on his return, to the astonishment of everyone, that he was entirely at rest in regard to her spiritual state; the testimony may be less to the credit of her genuine religious belief and genuine sincerity than to the skill her husband attributed to her as a comedian. The good Magny was seventy-six years of age, and no doubt eager to think well of his clever and vivacious young pupil. Perhaps the remorse which she found it hard to stifle had reference more to the husband she had abandoned than to the religion she had exchanged. There had indeed been no children of the union, though two children had been adopted, but it could scarcely be said that the marriage was altogether unhappy; the couple had drifted apart simply because the husband, who had begun by idolising his wife and allowing her to rule his actions, was now realising the abyss into which her impetuous recklessness, her vanity, and her business incapacity, had plunged him, while she, on her side, had no real sympathy with his strict and, as it seemed to her, narrow conceptions of honour and duty.

Her husband paid her two visits in Savoy. At the first visit to Evian, immediately after her conversion, she refrained from mentioning that episode. She asked him to send her his copy of Bayle’s “Dictionary,” and with it his own English gold-headed cane to use when she went out; these commissions he fulfilled. Once more he came to see her at the Convent of the Visitation at Annecy. She received him in bed, he wrote, to hide her confusion, and he was himself so overcome that at first he could not speak. When he began to talk of the fatal step which, as he now knew, she had taken, she pointed to a corner of the room, and on raising the tapestry he saw a little cupboard with an opening into the cloisters, and they spoke in whispers as they amicably settled their affairs before parting for ever. He noted with surprise, however, as he afterwards wrote, the slight importance which she seemed to attach to the forms of religion, the cavalier manner in which she treated him, her sudden changes from sorrow to joy, her strange proposition that since he was always tolerant in religious matters he too should become a Catholic. They parted, never to meet again. De Warens returned to Vevey and by his own skill and the good will of his fellow citizens slowly retrieved his financial position. At one moment, indeed, fearing ruin, he fled to England, and wrote from Islington a long letter to his brother, detailing the history of his separation from his wife, which is, after the “Confessions,” the most valuable document we possess in the light it throws on Madame de Warens’s history and character. Finding he could not obtain in England any position suited to his rank, he returned home and finally retired to Lausanne, where he died in 1754. At the instigation of his family he had obtained a formal divorce on the ground of his wife’s “malicious desertion and abjuration of Protestantism,” but he never married again.


When Madame de Warens settled in the delightful little town of Annecy—in a house to the west of the present episcopal residence, overlooking the Thion canal—she was nearly twenty-seven years of age. She was, her husband remarks, a woman of great intelligence, of much strength of will, and a delightful companion. Her faithful friend, de Conzie, who first knew her at this time, speaks of her charming laughter, her vivacious eyes, her intelligence, as giving an uncommon energy to everything she said, while she seemed to be entirely without affectation or insincerity.

It is not altogether easy to confirm all we hear of Madame de Warens’s appearance by turning to portraits. There are various alleged portraits extant, and there has been much difference of opinion as to which are genuine, and uncertainty as to what has become of others which are known to have existed. Even as early as 1790 (not long after Rousseau’s death) Madame de Charriere took much trouble to find one of the portraits, writing to several people, including Gibbon, who were supposed to possess it, but without success. A miniature in the Musee de Cluny has been accepted by good authorities but now seems doubtful, as also a pastel by La Tour and a painting attributed to Largilliere. A rather indifferent engraving of a portrait which disappeared more than a century ago is, however, almost beyond dispute; that, at all events, is the opinion of Benedetto, on what seems good grounds. It corresponds to the descriptions we have and represents a handsome woman with large eyes and vivacious expression and well-formed hands playing an instrument which looks like an organ. We know that she played the harpsichord and also sang.

There is one point in regard to Madame de Warens’s temperament which is of importance in the light it sheds on her life and actions, though so far it has attracted no attention. De Warens mentions, briefly and incidentally, without insistence, that his wife was hysterical (“sujette auos va-peurs”). The fact is significant: it explains the intelligent but too impetuous and ill-regulated activity which marked her whole life; it gives us the clue to that thread of slight mental anomaly and ill-balance which was fated to plunge her into difficulties at every step. We are not entirely dependent on her husband for our knowledge of this constitutional peculiarity. Rousseau also, equally little suspecting the significance of his statement as an index of abnormal nervous sensibility, mentions that at dinner she was so overcome by the odour of the dishes that she could seldom begin till he had finished, when he would begin again to keep her company. This statement of Rousseau’s is disputed by writers who say that Madame kept a good table and therefore was fond of good living, but I see no ground to dispute it. It confirms our suspicion that, like Rousseau himself, who was so irresistibly attracted to her, Madame de Warens, even though but in slight degree, was a constitutionally abnormal person.

She had the temperament of the extravert, full of romantic and ambitious dreams which with alarming versatility, and a show of brilliancy without solid foundation, she was always seeking to transform into reality, and always failing to achieve. Benedetto calls her a kind of superior Madame Bovary, with more vigour, and somewhat better equipment, and, one may add, more success.

In spite of her real or alleged lovers, I do not think she can be called sensual. Like many women of somewhat similar temperament she probably found satisfaction in an affection which took on maternal shapes and in the gratified vanity of a dominant nature. She possessed a high degree of what we should now call Narcissism, magnifying herself and everything connected with herself, suppressing anything that might hurt her pride. For the youthful Rousseau, fresh from puritanic Geneva, she could not but be at once not only a revelation but also an enigma. He never quite unravelled it, and she never aided him to do so. That is why his picture of her is so incoherent and contradictory, so that he represents her as at once the “best of women” and the victim of vulgar vices. He fitted her into his typical picture of human nature, which indeed his contemplation of her may have helped him to formulate: the human being who is born virtuous and led by external circumstances to vice.

We have seen that the evidence as to Madame de Warens’s infidelity to her husband rests on a weak foundation and may safely be rejected. The evidence regarding the divorced wife is usually considered to be less doubtful. Very shortly after settling at Annecy she was reported as living on intimate terms with her servant, the faithful steward of her affairs, Claude Anet. Rousseau has done full justice to the estimable and upright character of this young man; except his extreme devotion to his mistress no reproach has ever been cast on him. He was born at Montreux and belonged to a family which had long served the La Tour family. At the period we have now reached he was twenty-one years of age. It is probable that he already cherished devotion for Madame at Vevey; he prepared for his flight at the time that she was leaving; he left Switzerland soon afterwards to join her, and with her he abjured Protestantism. One is inclined at first to suspect (with M. Mugnier) that we have here an elopement, but on the whole the suspicion seems unnecessary and the financial ruin which hung over Madame amply accounts for her flight. It is clear that she gladly availed herself of Anet’s devotion, and accepted his sacrifices at a moment when she sorely needed them. When later she felt her loneliness in a foreign country, and knew that by the law of her own country, though not that of her new religion, she was a divorced woman, the close association with Claude Anet may have induced a warmer emotion than that of gratitude. The relationship, whatever it was, remained a secret, for though Savoy was a freer country than austere and inquisitorial Switzerland, social feeling would not have tolerated a lady whose steward was apparently her lover.

It may be noted that the three men whom we may regard as Madame de Warens’s lovers — Anet, Rousseau, and Wintzenried—were all Swiss Protestants who had abjured their religion; they were all younger than herself, and all of a lower social class. She never really changed under the influences of life; what she was in early youth she remained in age; in the mature woman we still see the little girl at Le Basset who delighted to lord it over the peasant children around her.

Rousseau, an unpromising runaway youth of sixteen, reached Annecy on Palm Sunday in 1728, and met Madame de Warens as, with her stick in her hand—the gold-headed cane, no doubt, that we know of—she was entering the church of the Cordeliers. It was a memorable day in his life, a more memorable one in hers than she was ever to know. As regards the years that followed at Annecy, the earlier years at Chambery, and the occupation of Les Charm-ettes, Rousseau’s “Confessions” is the prime authority for Madame de Warens’s life; it was, as we may otherwise conclude, the happiest and most peaceful stage of her existence, as well as supremely important to Rousseau. The incomparable pages which he has devoted to these years are on the whole so faithful in spirit, though often inaccurate in fact— partly through defects of memory and partly through unconscious self-deception — that the story need never be told again; no reader of the “Confessions” ever forgets it, and when he visits the secluded valley of Les Charmettes and enters the little house which is little changed since Rousseau left it, he seems to be returning to a spot he has known long before.

In 1744, after Rousseau had finally left Savoy to settle in Paris, the Spaniards had come to occupy Chambery; Madame de Warens for a time lost her pension and with her usual energy and skill in initiative she started a soap factory, and also, it appears, a chocolate factory, sending some of both products as a present to Rousseau. At the same time she began coal-mining and iron-mining operations, trying to establish a company. But, as we know, she could never carry through the schemes she was so clever in planning, and these new enterprises went through all the same stages to ruin as the silk stocking factory of twenty years earlier. Rousseau, himself struggling with difficulties of all kinds, sent her small sums from time to time. In 1754 she writes to him reproachfully that she is in the state mentioned in the “Imitation” wherein that fails us on which we had placed our chief hopes. “In spite of this,” she concludes, “I am and all my life will remain your loving mother.” Less than a month later she writes to the Court of Turin that she is “without bread and witfiout credit,” and solicits a loan from the King, as her pension is engaged by industrial obligations. In the same year, as Rousseau tells us, he came with Therese to see her at Chambery; he was afflicted at her condition and made the impracticable proposition that she should live with them in Paris. Of her jewels but one ring was now left, and this she wished to place on Therese’s hand. It was the last time Rousseau ever saw her. In 1761 the “Nouvelle Heloise” appeared and fascinated the attention of the world. By this time the woman who was its real heroine was old, poor, forgotten; some years before, she had become a chronic invalid; we do not know whether she ever read the famous novel she had so largely inspired or even heard of its fame. The year afterwards she died, and it was some months before Rousseau received the news of her death in a letter from de Conzie; she had left nothing behind her, wrote de Conzie, but the evidence of her piety and her poverty.

Sixteen years later Rousseau also died. The last words he ever wrote, the concluding lines of his “Reveries,” were devoted to the memory of his first meeting, exactly fifty years earlier, with that “best of women” to whom he owed those “four or five years wherein I enjoyed a century of life and of pure and full happiness.”


Madame de Warens has seemed to many who only know her through the “Confessions,” an enigma, almost a monstrosity. When all the facts of her life are before us, and we have patiently reconstructed them—and, where we cannot reconstruct, divined—we realise how little that is enigmatic remains. She was simply a restless, impetuous, erring, and suffering woman, of unusual intelligence, perhaps somewhat hysterical—less so than some women who have played a noble part in practical affairs, less so than many women whom we revere for their spiritual graces. Her life, when we understand it, was the natural outcome of her special constitution in reaction with circumstances. She presents, indeed, with the genius left out, much the same mixture of good and evil which the world has found so baffling in Rousseau himself. The explanation of the supposed enigma becomes therefore an interesting psychological study.

But Madame de Warens is something more than a mere subject for psychological study such as we might more profitably exercise nearer home. She is the only person who can claim to be the teacher of the man who was himself the greatest teacher of his century. When he went to her he was a vagabond apprentice in whom none could see any good. She raised him, succoured him, cherished him, surrounded him with her conscious and unconscious influence; she was the only education he ever received. When he left her he was no longer the worthless apprentice of an engraver, but the supreme master of all those arts which most powerfully evoke the ideals and emotions of mankind. And, as it has been well said, the golden age which Rousseau wished to bring back to earth was simply a generalisation of the life he had himself lived at Les Charmettes. We may or may not now open his books. For most people the immortal “Confessions” alone remain. Nevertheless Rousseau once moved the world, and whether or not we know it, his influence lives in us. When the curious critic takes up innumerable counters from among our current sentiments and beliefs, and seeks to decipher the effaced image and superscription, it is the pupil of Madame de Warens that he finds.


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