Rousseau (1712-1778) was a French philosopher and writer and, according to the introduction to my edition of this book (Oxford University Press), the originator of the modern autobiography.
For those reasons alone, it would be informative to read the story of his life. But, to my surprise, he had a very unusual life which merited documentation even apart from his celebrity as a famous philosopher. Reading the book took me ages which can be a bad sign (i.e. boredom) but in this case I was relishing it.
Rosseau wrote his life story over a fairly long period of time and strove to explain to readers about the negative as well as the positive parts of his character (hence the Confessions title). In later life he felt persecuted by his many famous friends and patrons. He certainly wassn’t afraid of pointing out their faults either, which is why the book was published only after his death. But it gave him the freedom to include events which otherwise would have reflected badly on him or landed him in jail for libel. If he was writing today, there’s no doubt the publisher’s legal team would heavily edit his narrative.
He was one of the first to include details of his early life and childhood in an autobiography. In his case he insisted that you couldn’t understand the grown man without knowing the formative events of his life. So I read about his poor relationship with his father, his education, boyish mischief (including peeing into the kettle of a grumpy neighbour while she was at church), early crushes, and his eventful young adulthood when he abandoned an apprenticeship. Thereafter he lived by his wits in great poverty, discovered girls and (sometimes sinister) clergy. He changes faith, travels widely, misses great opportunities, falls in love, steals, becomes a foreign diplomat, and becomes friends with high nobility despite his relatively humble birth in Switzerland. He’s also surprisingly frank about his amorous activities throughout his life – clearly 18th century French philosophers were a wild lot.
Considering Rousseau is well-known for his writing about education (which friends of mine studying that area tell me he is still referenced today) and remembering that he writes in a far from patronising way about his many female friends and patrons, it was surprising to find tucked away in the story the fact that his and his long-term partner Therese had five children, all of whom they gave away to orphanages. This wasn’t that unusual at the time, especially in improverished families, but I wasn’t surprised to find that his rivals used the information against him in later years. It’s clear, reading between the lines of his story, that he regretted the decision later but was unable to trace the children. This part of his life is only briefly included, so his confessions aren’t as complete as he boasts, despite their 650 pages of length.
Were the Confessions interesting even if you know nothing about Rousseau? Yes. Are they a modern autobiography? Yes, but the writing is of the 18th century style and because you’re unlikely to be up to date on French celebrity gossip of that period you will need to use the notes to work it out. Who is likely to enjoy this book? Anybody with an interest in writers, France, music (he was also a composer and musical innovator), or human nature. But be warned – he does go on a bit about his health.
“No one can write a man’s life except himself” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
(read Septemeber – November 2011)