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  • La Femme Mal Mariée: Mme d’Epinay’s Challenge to Julie and Emile

Louise d’Epinay is best remembered today as the wealthy patron of Rousseau who lent him l’Ermitage, where he wrote much of Julie. Among her contemporaries, d’Epinay was best known as a friend of the Encyclopedists, and her home attracted some of the most brilliant minds of her time, including Diderot, Duclos, d’Holbach, Grimm, Galiani, d’Alembert, and, of course, Rousseau. However, d’Epinay was not merely l’amie des philosophes; she was a gifted and prolific writer as well. Author of a remarkable eighteen-hundred-page autobiographical novel, Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant (not published until long after her death), she also wrote Les Conversations d’Emilie, a series of lively conversations between a mother and child, first published in 1773. Shortly before her death in 1783, an expanded version of this second work was awarded the Montyon Prix d’Utilité by the Académie Française for its contributions to the fields of pedagogy and child care. D’Epinay was also an important, albeit anonymous, contributor to the Correspondance littéraire, directed by Frédéric Melchior Grimm, her long-time friend and lover. During Grimm’s frequent absences abroad, she wrote many of the articles and occasionally served as unofficial director of the journal, with nominal help from Diderot. 1 In addition to these literary and journalistic endeavors, she maintained a lively correspondence with some of the most celebrated figures of her time, including Voltaire, Diderot, Galiani, and Catherine of Russia.

In studying Rousseau’s reception by eighteenth-century women writers, I have found d’Epinay’s response to him to be particularly important and complex. Not only was she his close friend (and later his bitter enemy), but, during the last thirty years of her life, she was engaged with him in an intense intellectual and literary rivalry that challenged his narrow vision of women’s role and capabilities. Over the years, they became rival figures of authority on the issue of women’s education and their proper role in society. In this article, I examine Rousseau’s determining influence on d’Epinay’s literary career and the challenge to his sexual politics that underlies her works.

Mme d’Epinay and Rousseau: Les Affaires de l’Ermitage

It was through her lover Francueil that d’Epinay became acquainted with Rousseau. Their first meeting probably took place in the summer of 1749, when Rousseau was invited to the d’Epinays’ country estate to help organize [End Page 42] a performance of his play L’Engagement téméraire. 2 He was then thirty-eight and still unknown; not until the following year would he attract attention in literary circles by winning the Académie de Dijon’s first prize with his Discours sur les sciences et les arts. However, Mme d’Epinay, like Francueil, quickly recognized that this shy Genevan was a man of superior intelligence and remarkable talent. In the hope of providing Rousseau with the security and peace of mind needed to develop his creative potential, d’Epinay would later offer him l’Ermitage, a small but comfortable house on the grounds of la Chevrette, her country estate north of Paris.

The six years leading up to this invitation were marked by significant changes in the lives of both d’Epinay and Rousseau. The latter would achieve celebrity with the success of his opera Le Devin du village and with the publication of his two discourses and his article on “Economie politique” in the Encyclopédie. During the same period, Mme d’Epinay would also become well known as a salonnière. Through Francueil, she befriended the novelist Duclos, who introduced her to the lively circle of literati hosted by Mlle Quinault. Later, through Grimm, she became friends with the Encyclopedists and was admitted to the distinguished d’Holbach coterie. 3 Thanks to these connections, d’Epinay’s home became the meeting place for some of the most important figures in Parisian literary and diplomatic circles. 4

It was both as a patron of the arts and letters and as a personal friend that Mme d’Epinay offered Rousseau l’Ermitage in 1756. It may well be, as Rousseau later charged, that her offer was motivated in part by the desire to have a literary celebrity as a permanent fixture in her constellation of stars. In the Confessions, he describes how his initial joy and gratitude gradually turned to resentment and even rage at the dependent role he was forced (or felt obligated) to play with her. Mme d’Epinay presents quite a different view. Like Diderot, 5 she underlines Rousseau’s moodiness, hypersensitivity, unsociability, and tendency to paranoia. The truth of the story no doubt lies somewhere in between the versions given by d’Epinay and Rousseau and by various witnesses who sought to corroborate or to contest the veracity of their accounts. It is not my purpose here to reiterate the tensions and misunderstandings that punctuated Rousseau’s two-year stay at l’Ermitage or to compare the rival versions of their successive quarrels and final falling-out presented by Rousseau in his Confessions and by d’Epinay in Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant. This has been done quite amply by other scholars. 6 Of greater interest to me is how the personal and literary rivalry between them served as a key motivating force and creative impetus behind d’Epinay’s autobiographical novel and her Conversations d’Emilie.

“Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant” as a Literary Response and Challenge to “Julie”

It was in the summer of 1756, during his solitary walks and reveries in the forest surrounding l’Ermitage, that Rousseau first imagined the characters [End Page 43] of Julie, Saint Preux, and Claire and began composing the letters between them that gradually developed into Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse. When d’Epinay returned to la Chevrette in the spring of 1757, Rousseau gave her the first two cahiers (probably Books I and II) of his novel to read. She recalls her first impressions of Julie in Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant, where she refers to Rousseau as René: “After lunch, we read René’s notebooks together. I don’t know why exactly, but I was disappointed. The manuscript is beautifully written, but it seems overdone to me and rather artificial. The characters don’t speak naturally; it’s always the author who speaks for them” (3:100). Her criticism of Rousseau’s style was harsher still in a later passage: “All his letters are so flowery, so overdone, that the style strikes me as cold and tiresome” (3:131). D’Epinay’s negative comments regarding the first two books of Rousseau’s novel parallel those made by a number of her contemporaries, including Mme du Deffand, Mme de Choiseul, Grimm, and Diderot. Diderot, for example, found the manuscript “feuillu” (wordy and redundant), as Rousseau himself later reported. 7

Although disappointed by Rousseau’s novel, d’Epinay seems to have found it sufficiently inspiring to try writing a novel of her own. 8 In a letter to her lover Volx (Grimm’s alter-ego in Montbrillant), d’Epinay’s heroine Emilie confides: “I just began writing a piece, and I’m quite satisfied with the beginning. It was René’s novel that gave me the idea of writing it. When I have a few notebooks finished, I’ll send them to you to find out if they are worth continuing” (3:131). Grimm was away on military duty for six months, and Roth (editor of the 1951 edition of Montbrillant) contends that d’Epinay’s primary motive for composing the novel was to amuse herself and her lover during his absence (3:131, n. 4). The desire to fill the emotional void caused by Grimm’s absence may also have been an important motivating factor, as Elisabeth Badinter has suggested (Emilie, Emilie, pp. 268–76). However, both these explanations trivialize the ambitiousness of d’Epinay’s project. In my view, it was above all her literary rivalry with Rousseau—the desire to measure her creative talents against his—that prompted d’Epinay to write her novel.

That Montbrillant was conceived as a response to Julie is made clear in the novel itself. In a letter to Volx, Emilie explains: “René’s book gave me the urge to write a novel in letter form. It seems to me that one needs only a natural style and good taste in order to write well in this genre” (3:118). D’Epinay’s literary rivalry with Rousseau is expressed most clearly in a letter from Volx to Emilie, in which he conveys his initial reaction to her novel: “It’s a masterpiece,” he declares.

If you take my advice, you won’t show this work to anyone until it is finished; for your writing might become constrained, your style less natural if you worried about your readers. Look upon your work as a monument reserved for yourself alone, and you will produce a work worthy of a woman of genius... As for René, if you have shown him any of this work, I predict trouble ahead. His judgment is too keen for him not to sense the huge difference between your Sophie and his boring, pedantic heroine.

(3:171–72) 9 [End Page 44]

In this passage, d’Epinay makes it clear that she created her heroine as a rival to Julie and wrote her novel as a challenge to La Nouvelle Héloïse. She was, moreover, fully confident that she would emerge victorious in her literary rivalry with Rousseau. “The author makes no show of false modesty,” notes Roth. “She ascribes to Grimm’s pen the same enthusiastic praise for her writing later expressed by Sainte-Beuve and the Goncourts” (3:172, n. 2).

Here, too, d’Epinay’s criticisms parallel those made by other critics, who found Julie’s long letters redundant, didactic, and often boring. For example, in a devastating review of Julie—“a work in which the author so nobly puts himself above the rules both of language and of decorum”— Voltaire was especially critical of the work’s moralizing tone. “All these grand adventures are embellished with wonderful commonplaces on virtue. Never was there a wench who preached so finely, nor a girl-seducing valet who philosophized so grandly. In this long novel, Jean-Jacques has managed to write three or four pages worth reading and about a thousand pages of moralizing speeches.” 10 Similarly, d’Epinay’s charge that Rousseau’s style lacked naturalness and taste echoes Fréron’s review in L’Année littéraire: “The style is often emphatic, incorrect, enigmatic, obscure, affected, and vulgar,” he charged. “The novel is filled with gibberish, false wit, and artificial images.” 11

Casting Volx in the role of omniscient literary critic, d’Epinay reiterates these criticisms of Julie and claims that she has avoided these problems in her own novel. Volx is especially impressed by the naturalness, realism, and spontaneity of her style. He is amazed that her first drafts require so few corrections: “So far, I haven’t found a single correction that needs to be made. It’s really hard to believe that this is only the first draft you’re sending me” (3:196). Contrary to Rousseau, who complained that writing was often a laborious and painful effort, requiring constant revisions, d’Epinay underlined the ease, rapidity, and pleasure with which she wrote.

Finally, in contrast to Rousseau’s “cold and tiresome style,” Volx praises Emilie’s ability to hold her reader’s interest. Despite his fatigue when he began her novel, Volx soon found himself totally absorbed by it: “I couldn’t put it down. At two in the morning, I was still reading” (3:171). Volx’s reaction to Emilie’s novel parallels Mme de Talmont’s experience reading Julie, which Rousseau relates in the Confessions. 12 Like Rousseau, d’Epinay invokes her ability to keep a reader awake all night as proof of her skill as a writer. Volx especially praises the vividness of her character portrayals and the liveliness of her dialogue: “Your portrait of Beauval is a masterpiece. Nothing could be truer to life, nor more delicate and refined” (3:124). And later: “Your work is truly a masterpiece and deserves to be published” (3:163).

What is most striking about d’Epinay’s self-appraisals is the recurrence of the label chef-d’œuvre, which she applies to her work more frequently than modesty would seem to permit, with such frequency in fact that the repetition has an almost incantatory effect—as if by repeating the claim she could make it come true. And indeed, the judgment of nineteenth-century critics such as Sainte-Beuve and the Goncourts seems to vindicate d’Epinay’s unwavering faith in her literary talents. Their praise is all the more impressive when one considers that the text published is an unfinished first draft. [End Page 45]

Since d’Epinay’s correspondence with Grimm appears to have been lost, 13 there is no way to know for certain whether the letters exchanged between Emilie and Volx in Montbrillant were actually exchanged in real life between d’Epinay and Grimm. Roth claims that the letters are largely fictional (Montbrillant, 3:172, n.2), while Schlobach suggests that some may be authentic (p. 23). Whether they were drawn from real life or not, these letters provide valuable insight into d’Epinay’s view of herself as a young woman writer embarking on a doubly ambitious project: writing her first novel and attempting to rival the work of a well-known male author.

Ignoring Volx’s instructions, Emilie does show her novel to René and to another friend, M. de Beauval (Margency), who express quite different reactions to her work:

René gave me many compliments. However, M. de Beauval said that...the style was too familiar and the overall structure very weak. I felt that what I had written was better than he thought, yet that it didn’t deserve all the praise René had given it. I was even tempted to interpret René’s admiration simply as surprise that my work wasn’t as bad as he expected.


René’s praise for Emilie’s writing—praise which she suspects to be ambivalent and insincere—presents an ironic contrast to Rousseau’s satiric and entirely negative judgment of d’Epinay’s literary efforts in the Confessions. 14 On the other hand, Beauval’s remark that Emilie’s novel was structurally weak and her style too familiar recalls criticisms made not of d’Epinay’s novel, but of Rousseau’s. Emilie is perplexed by these contradictory appraisals of her work, but Volx quickly reassures her in his next letter: “What you tell me about the various appraisals of your work is quite amusing. Have confidence in my good opinion of it and in your own, and I promise you that the public will agree with us in time” (3:196).

This passage, like the panegyrics that precede it, is clearly designed to elicit a positive response to d’Epinay’s own novel. Not only does it express her self-confidence as a writer, which remains unshaken despite ambivalent reactions from male readers; it also suggests her intention to publish her work and her faith that the public will appreciate its value. Given d’Epinay’s observations in her novel concerning the strong prejudices against women writers—“Few people are willing to acknowledge their talent, and many are apt to accuse them of literary pretensions” (3:141)—this unabashed expression of self-confidence constitutes a bold challenge to the literary and social conventions of the period.

“Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant” as an Ideological Challenge to “Julie”

Thus far, we have considered how Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant responds to Julie on a stylistic level. Let us now turn to the more complex issue of how d’Epinay’s novel responds to Rousseau’s on an ideological [End Page 46] level—that is, on the level of conventions, norms, ideals, and their representation. For not only is Montbrillant an eloquent response to the repression of female desire underlying Rousseau’s novel. It also represents the strivings of a woman writer to create within the confines of male-dominated novelistic genres—le roman aristocratique et mondain (the aristocratic, worldly novel best represented by Duclos’ works) 15 and le roman bourgeois epitomized by Julie—a roman de femme in which women’s experiences might be presented in a more authentic manner, in which their grievances and longings could be expressed from within, rather than viewed from the outside through the refractive lens of male desire and self-interest.

Through its detailed description of d’Epinay’s unhappy marriage, Montbrillant illustrates the painful dilemma of la femme mal mariée in eighteenth-century French society. Through her mother’s influence, Louise fervently believed in the Christian ideal of conjugal fidelity and the newly evolving bourgeois ideal of domesticity that together were to find their most powerful expression in Julie. Her husband, on the other hand, belonged to the generation of financiers of the haute bourgeoisie who attempted to rival the lifestyle of the French Court through ostentatious spending and by publicly flaunting their relations with richly kept courtesans. Along with other aristocratic values, he had adopted the conception of marriage prevailing among the court nobility, who accepted and even expected infidelity on the part of both spouses. The incompatibility of the young couple’s views on marriage and family life soon became evident through her husband’s flagrant love affairs, his virtual abandonment of his family, his financial irresponsibility, and his thwarting of Louise’s desire to breastfeed their children and to educate them at home. All these obstacles to domestic happiness, painstakingly described in her novel, challenge the idealized view of marriage presented in Julie.

In an effort to fill the emotional void created by the failure of her marriage, d’Epinay explored the various outlets available to married women of her age and class, with illuminating and sometimes painful results. In Montbrillant, she records her experiences at length, providing an inside view concerning the everyday lives of upper-class women of her period and valuable insight into the problems and frustrations they faced. Nearly all the options explored by d’Epinay in her life and later in her novel are also presented in Julie, either as acceptable or unacceptable outlets for female energies. However, the options Rousseau considers most appropriate for respectable married women—dedication to children and husband, close friendships with women, and religious devotion—are precisely the ones toward which d’Epinay expresses the most ambivalence. On the other hand, the options criticized most strongly by Rousseau—extramarital affairs and participation in literary and intellectual activities—are the very ones d’Epinay comes to view as the most fulfilling. In this way, Montbrillant challenges the feminine ideals of self-effacement and self-sacrifice advocated in Julie. By refusing to deny female ambitions and desires in her self-portrayal, d’Epinay provides a far more realistic view of the problems and tensions experienced by her female contemporaries and, in so doing, points to the distortions and blind spots [End Page 47] in Rousseau’s male-centered view of women. In many ways, Montbrillant can be read as a survival manual for eighteenth-century women in their struggle to find happiness and self-fulfillment despite woefully inadequate educations, repressive social conventions, unhappy and indissoluble marriages, and all the traps and contradictions of the double standard.

During the early years of her marriage, Emilie de Montbrillant feels continually torn between the morale chrétienne and esprit bourgeois of her mother on the one hand and the morale mondaine and esprit aristocratique of her husband and many of their friends on the other. Her mother had raised her to believe that a married woman’s principal duty was to devote herself to her husband and children and to maintain a reputation beyond reproach. The ideals of domesticity, chastity, and maternal devotion she preached were virtually identical to those Rousseau advocated in Julie. Emilie’s husband, on the other hand, encouraged her to engage in the activities and pleasures of la vie mondaine, like most women of her age and class. For a year or so, she tried in vain to sustain her husband’s affection by accompanying him to the opera, the theatre, balls, and soirées, despite her mother’s disapproval.

After the birth of her son, Emilie becomes increasingly disenchanted with the frivolity of society life. She asks to withdraw to their country home in order to take a more active role in the raising of their child, who was then living miles away with a wet nurse. However, her husband only ridicules her plan. When she expresses her hope that the presence of their son might rekindle her husband’s affection for her, he coldly replies: “I’m not about to come back to you. You are a child lost in your dreams.... The conventions of society and good taste simply don’t allow me to pay more attention to you or to show more affection” (1:395). This statement may appear exaggerated or even facetious to twentieth-century readers. Yet the extent to which it reflected prevailing attitudes toward marriage in mid-eighteenth-century France is illustrated by the fact that even thirty years later Condorcet was mocked by his friends for showing too much affection toward his wife in public and for appearing too frequently in her company. More than any other single passage in d’Epinay’s novel, this remark by M. de Montbrillant presents the strongest challenge to the ideal of companionate marriage advocated in Julie, for it illustrates the force of social attitudes and prejudices that prevented women like d’Epinay from realizing the domestic happiness that Rousseau promised to devoted wives and mothers. Without the participation of both spouses, there clearly could be no companionate marriage or any hope for the kind of family life portrayed in Rousseau’s novel.

Abandoned by her husband, Emilie tries for a time to fill her emotional needs through friendships with other women. When she becomes close friends with a young woman named Mlle Darcy, Emilie is too naïve to recognize the strong homoerotic overtones of their relationship. After Mlle Darcy’s first visit to the Montbrillants’ country estate, Emilie confides: “If you were a man, I would be frightened by the emptiness I’ve felt since you left” (1:453). Yet Mlle Darcy has a lover who occupies much of her time and affection, as does Emilie’s other closest friend, her cousin Mme de Sally. In her diary Emilie sadly writes: [End Page 48]

I feel such emptiness in my heart and search in vain for something to hold on to. When I try to explain my feelings to Mme de Sally, she only laughs at me. She claims that I’m all mixed up in my desires and that she is not so stupid as to take me at my word, since one fine morning she would find that she is only the shadow of what my heart seeks. Mlle Darcy gives me whatever spare time is left over from her liaison. As for my children, taking care of them is still only a duty for me and does not yet fill my heart.


Prisoner within the dominant heterosexual ideology, Emilie gradually comes to the conclusion that female friendship and even motherhood are but poor substitutes for what everyone around her considers the ultimate object of female desire: the love and companionship of a man.

This also seems to be the conclusion that Julie ultimately reaches at the end of Rousseau’s novel. After painfully repressing her passion for Saint Preux throughout her marriage—by sublimating it through religious pietism, devotion to her husband and children, and love for Claire—Julie finally recognizes its invincible power over her. The parallels between Julie’s relationship with Claire and Emilie’s friendships with Mlle Darcy and Mme de Sally are quite striking in this respect. However, what gradually emerges in Montbrillant is a pointed critique of the idealized view of female friendship presented in Julie. D’Epinay implicitly challenges this view by drawing attention to the homoeroticism underlying such friendships (which she considers a poor substitute for heterosexual relations) and to the rivalry and self-interest that made solidarity between women difficult, if not impossible, given the social and economic conditions of the period. Through her realistic portrayal of the intense jealousy Emilie feels toward her rivals and her bitter disenchantment when she discovers the self-interested perfidy of her two closest friends, d’Epinay points to the blind spots in Rousseau’s idealized view of female friendship.

While female rivalry is systematically suppressed in Julie, 16 along with all other disruptive forms of female desire, its constant recurrence in Montbrillant underlines the fact that, in eighteenth-century French society, rivalry among women was a fact of life. The intense competition for husbands on the marriage market, the widespread adultery and ostentatiously frivolous lifestyle prevalent among the upper classes, and the lack of serious outlets for female energies—all these factors fostered bitter rivalry among women. D’Epinay probes this situation in a series of conversations between Emilie and her sister-in-law, Mme de Ménil, who insists that women should recognize female rivalry for what it is: a role they are forced to play and which they should not allow to destroy their friendship or their sense of compassion for each other. “Nothing can excuse lack of solidarity between women,” she declares. “You’re indicting a good number of women,” replies Emilie.

[Ménil] Not so many as you think. I don’t believe women are naturally capricious, and when they quarrel, it’s almost always the fault of a third person. [Emilie] That’s because this third person often creates a rivalry between them. [Ménil] No, that’s not what I mean.... Each woman has only to make the best use of her advantages, and the one who misses her mark can then scorn [End Page 49] the fool who prefers her rival. But as for la pauvre préférée, the poor woman he prefers,...she eventually finds herself abandoned in turn. [Emilie] But what if la pauvre préférée taunts the other woman with her triumph? [Ménil] Oh! she’s an idiot who doesn’t deserve to be envied, because one should never take too seriously a role one is forced to play.


Despite the difficulties and dangers posed by genuine friendship between women, d’Epinay underscores its importance as a source of strength and consolation: “Since friendship is the best consolation for love, one should always seek out a close woman friend when one has a lover,” declares Mme de Ménil. “Men aren’t interested in friendship; they find its obligations too difficult to fulfill.... When they’ve slept with us regularly, they think they’ve satisfied all our needs” (2:327). It is ironic that Emilie’s most courageous act of solidarity toward another woman—honoring her dying sister-in-law’s request to burn her personal papers to hide an adulterous liaison—is misinterpreted as an act of self-interest and causes her to be publicly ostracized until the misunderstanding is finally resolved.

Since Emilie finds female friendship, society life, and even motherhood incapable of fulfilling the emotional void created by the failure of her marriage, it seems almost inevitable that she would eventually yield to the temptations and pressures of la morale mondaine, which her husband openly advocates and to which the majority of her friends tacitly subscribe. 17 When Emilie finally resolves to break off all intimate relations with her husband after he carelessly infects her with venereal disease, he nonchalantly replies: “Very well, Madame, just as you wish.... Let’s go peacefully our separate ways. For my part, I promise that I’ll approve anything you do, and I expect the same indulgence from you” (1:466). D’Epinay carefully reconstructs her husband’s complacent apology to illustrate the obstacles that lay in the way of realizing Rousseau’s ideal of conjugal felicity and also, no doubt, to excuse her own well-publicized liaisons with Francueil and Grimm.

Through Emilie, d’Epinay portrays herself both as sexually attractive and as a virtuous heroine in distress. (Both aspects of this self-portrait contradict Rousseau’s portrayal of d’Epinay in the Confessions as sexually unattractive and morally corrupt, unashamedly embracing Diderot’s “secret doctrine” of sexual libertinism.) After resisting efforts to seduce her by various men in her entourage, Emilie finally succumbs to the charms of Formeuse (Francueil). In her novel, d’Epinay attempts to justify their liaison by evoking her husband’s repeated infidelities, her earnest attempts to save their marriage, the impossibility of divorce, and the genuineness of her love for Formeuse. The belief that adultery is justified in a case like hers and that a woman has the right to search for love outside an unhappy marriage gradually becomes the core of a personal morality distinct from both the morale mondaine of her husband and the Christian morality of her mother. [End Page 50] This credo sustains Emilie through the pain and humiliation caused by Formeuse’s gradual abandonment of her for other women. She senses that happiness would still be possible for her if only she could find some worthier object for her affection.

Before Volx appears on the scene to console her, Emilie undergoes a long period of emotional desolation similar to what she experienced with her husband, but rendered more painful by her own sense of remorse and humiliation. Under her mother’s guidance, Emilie seems to undergo a religious conversion (not unlike Julie’s) and resolves to lead a pious, retired life. However, her confessor senses that Emilie’s sudden wish to renounce the world is neither genuine nor healthy. When he learns that her resolution has been prompted by an unhappy love affair, he wisely observes: “You are in the same situation as any unhappily married but respectable woman who still feels a need for love. God becomes the focus for a restless sensibility that is difficult to restrain. Are you prepared to lead a life of hypocrisy that can never satisfy your needs?” (2:371–72). The priest’s criticism of false conversions and of religious hypocrisy can be read as a critique of Julie’s conversion experience and of her efforts to sublimate her desire for Saint Preux through religious pietism. Emilie’s realization that it is not God she desires, but a lover, poses a direct challenge to the ideals of self-sacrifice and religious exaltation advocated in Rousseau’s novel. Although she admires and envies her mother’s genuine religious faith, she recognizes her inability to follow her example. Rejecting the masochistic martyrdom that Julie embraces, Emilie resolves to seek the fulfillment of her desires not in heaven, but on earth.

In Montbrillant, as in Julie, the expression of female desire through adulterous passion constitutes a central leitmotiv and mainspring of the plot. However, the ideological implications of the two novels are quite different. Although Julie ultimately acknowledges the invincible nature of her passion for Saint Preux, she steadfastly resists it in order to remain true to the ideals of conjugal fidelity, maternal devotion, and self-sacrifice to which she has devoted herself since her marriage. In Montbrillant, on the other hand, these ideals are thrown into question early in the novel, giving the heroine ample time to explore other outlets for her ambitions and desires—including the options criticized most strongly by Rousseau: extramarital affairs, creation of a literary salon, and active participation in the social and intellectual life of her period.

D’Epinay’s Response to Rousseau’s Vision of the Ideal Mother

D’Epinay’s strongest challenge to Rousseau in Montbrillant lies in her realistic portrayal of pregnancy, motherhood, and family life—a view that contrasts sharply with the idealized vision of domesticity presented in Julie and Emile. She expresses considerable ambivalence toward motherhood; yet, at the same time, she is highly critical of the social conventions and prejudices of her period that prevented the formation of strong family bonds. [End Page 51]

When Emilie becomes pregnant after three months of marriage, her first reaction is irritation that this will prevent her from accompanying her husband on his first six-month round of inspections as fermier général. She complains of nausea, depression, and general lassitude—banal symptoms from everyday life that never seem to enter Julie’s ethereal realm of existence. After she learns of her husband’s infidelity, she comes to resent the “creature” within her that forces her to go on living. Yet as the term of her pregnancy draws near, she is obsessed with the fear that she will die in childbirth or of childbed fever, as had a number of her friends. 18

To calm her fears, a family friend insists that breastfeeding would help protect her from childbed fever and strengthen the baby’s health as well. Emilie eagerly seizes upon this plan, but her mother opposes it: “This plan raised all kinds of fears in her mind: fear that her daughter might appear peculiar in the eyes of others, fear of ridicule if the plan failed, fears that her health might suffer. A new objection surfaced with every word” (1:288). Her mother finally agrees to the plan, as does her father-in-law, providing that Emilie’s doctor and husband consent to it. Encouraged by her doctor’s support, Emilie dutifully writes to her husband in the hope of gaining his approval. However, his callous response shatters her hopes and illustrates the total incompatibility of their views of parenthood.

You, nurse your child? I thought I’d die laughing...Do you think I’d ever consent to such a ridiculous idea? Certainly not. So, my dear, whatever the advice of the midwives and doctors may be, this plan is completely out of the question...What satisfaction can one possibly get from breastfeeding a child? Who are the ninnies who gave you that idea?


The arguments presented against maternal nursing by Emilie’s husband and mother provide a realistic picture of the often insurmountable prejudices and obstacles faced by middle- and upper-class mothers who wished to breastfeed their children. Her experience demonstrates what little voice women had even in the most important—and most personal—decisions affecting their lives. The rather glib advice in favor of breastfeeding that Rousseau offers to Countess Berthier in his correspondence with her 19 (and to women in general in Emile) seems highly unrealistic and impractical in light of the attitudes described so vividly in Montbrillant. Moreover, the long debate over breastfeeding in d’Epinay’s novel contrasts sharply with the total lack of reference to the subject in Julie.

Contrary to Emilie’s expectations, her delivery and recovery go well. Yet her joy is clouded by her mother’s choice of a wet nurse who lives almost thirty miles away. Not only is Emilie prevented from nursing her son, but even from seeing him more than once or twice a week, which hardly makes for strong family bonds.

Later in her novel, d’Epinay recalls how her husband constantly thwarted her plans and desires concerning the upbringing and education of their son and daughter. He ignores her objections to the mediocre tutor he chooses for their son, mocks the ambitiousness and unconventional nature of the [End Page 52] studies she proposes, and objects to the low priority she gives to les arts d’agrément (music, drawing, dance). His irresponsibility as a parent and his refusal to adopt his wife’s progressive plan for their children’s education contrasts sharply with the Wolmars’ affectionate cooperation in such matters. By illustrating the difficulties faced by women married to men whose views they do not share or respect, d’Epinay’s novel challenges the idyllic view of marriage and parenthood presented in Julie.

In Montbrillant, d’Epinay not only describes her frustrations and tribulations as a mother, but is surprisingly candid in expressing the ambivalence she feels toward her children. Despite her efforts to devote herself to her young children, she openly admits that they cannot console her for the loss of her husband’s affections. This candid recognition of her ambivalence toward motherhood contrasts with the suppression of maternal ambivalence in Julie. Whereas Julie pretends to fill the emotional void within her by playing the perfect mother, refusing to admit until her death that Saint Preux had always been the first object of her affections, Emilie openly expresses her conviction that children cannot fully satisfy a woman’s need for love and companionship.

In a clever subversion of the Rousseauian ideal of domesticity, Emilie uses her children’s education as a pretext to invite her lover to take up residence at her country estate. Later, he shares these tutorial duties with Volx (her second lover) in an amusing ménage à trois, from which Emilie’s husband is significantly absent. The parallels are of course striking with Julie’s plan to keep Saint Preux at Clarens as her sons’ tutor. Through her heroine, d’Epinay both mimics and mocks Julie’s exemplary motherhood.

In Montbrillant, d’Epinay repeatedly expresses guilt and frustration for not having lived up to the ideals of motherhood and domesticity she herself espoused. These feelings are especially apparent in a conversation between Emilie and her mother, who chides her for neglecting her maternal duties.

Now is the time to sow the seeds of a good upbringing. To do so, you must study your children’s inclinations and characters, which reveal themselves even in the cradle. Be with them continually.... It is not by playing music, acting in comedies, and busying yourself with other frivolous activities that you will prepare yourself for your new responsibilities or inspire your children with love for their own duties. When one is destined to serve as an example, one must be very scrupulous in all aspects of one’s behavior.


This idealized view of the mother’s crucial role as educator and moral exemplar for her children closely parallels the view presented by Rousseau in Julie and Emile. It is an ideal that d’Epinay had earnestly tried to follow after the birth of her son and which she articulated in a series of letters to her son when he was nine. Privately printed in 1759 and excerpted in Montbrillant, d’Epinay’s Lettres à mon fils constitute her first attempt to outline [End Page 53] principles and methods of education for parents who, like herself, wished to educate their children at home. 20 The problems women of the period faced in trying to attain this idealized vision of the mother-educator are described far more realistically by d’Epinay than by Rousseau, who largely ignores or dismisses such difficulties. What distinguishes d’Epinay’s novel from both Julie and Emile is her effort to articulate the complexities of such issues as mother-child relations, maternal breastfeeding, the choice between home-schooling and boarding-school education, and women’s participation in the broader cultural sphere beyond the home. By presenting opposing viewpoints on these issues, along with insights drawn from her own experience, d’Epinay offers a much richer and more nuanced view of the obstacles encountered by mothers who sought to follow Rousseau’s teachings, yet, at the same time, to fulfill their own needs and desires as women.

As her children grow older, Emilie begins to find great pleasure in their company. Yet her joy as a mother is clouded by the financial uncertainty of their situation and by her son’s increasingly marked resemblance to his father. D’Epinay’s forebodings turned out to be only too well justified, for, by the age of twenty-three, Louis d’Epinay had accumulated so many gambling debts that his parents had him imprisoned. 21 Her friend Galiani tried to console her by pointing to the inexorable influence of heredity: “Were you ever crazy enough to take Rousseau and his Emile seriously? Did you ever really believe that education...can change the way people act and think? If you think so, then take a wolf and turn it into a dog if you can.” 22

Writing to Diderot a year later, d’Epinay again evoked Rousseau’s theories of education as she bitterly reflected on her feelings of failure as a mother:

The claim that education can somehow be perfected reminds me of a conversation I had fifteen years ago with Jean-Jacques.... He maintained that, by nature, parents are ill-suited to raise their children. I lacked experience in those days and was filled with illusions. I found his opinion revolting. But now the illusions are shattered, and I admit that he was right. 23

Rather than find fault with Rousseau’s theories for the failure of her son’s education, d’Epinay blamed her own naïveté in believing she could overcome her son’s heredity and the negative influence of her husband’s example. In her discouragement, she even began to agree with Rousseau’s claim that parents are ill-equipped to raise children and would do better to send them away to state boarding schools. Yet this claim—which Rousseau doubtless made in part to defend the abandonment of his own children, and which he later developed in his Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne—is in complete contradiction with the pedagogical theories and the ideal of enlightened motherhood he presents in Julie and Emile. 24 At first, d’Epinay failed to recognize this contradiction and found herself trapped within it. However, in her Conversations d’Emilie, as we shall see, she works through the contradictions in Rousseau’s views on education, as well as the ambivalence they shared toward parenthood. [End Page 54]

Emilie vs. Emile: d’Epinay’s Views on Women’s Education

Both d’Epinay’s autobiographical writings and her pedagogical works can be read as a response to Rousseau’s views on female education— particularly to the narrow views set forth in Book V of Emile. In her autobiographical writings, d’Epinay carefully retraces and criticizes the upbringing she received as a child, which was not unlike the education outlined by Rousseau for Sophie. “I’m very ignorant,” she confides in her self-portrait. “My entire education was limited to the cultivation of female accomplishments and to becoming adept in the art of sophistry.” 25

In the early years of her marriage, d’Epinay claimed to have been primarily motivated in her studies by the desire to be better prepared to raise and educate her children. Soon, however, she came to view study not simply as a way to become a better mother, but as an end in itself yielding multiple benefits and satisfactions. Her view of women scholars was not without ambivalence, however. In a letter to Galiani, she stressed the risks and obstacles that women scholars faced: the danger of being justly criticized and ridiculed for displaying any pretension to wit or learning, of neglecting their primary duties as wives and mothers, and of trying to pursue studies that were too complex or otherwise inappropriate for their sex and that they were unable to apply in any useful manner. 26 Yet in the discussion that follows, she made it clear that the obstacles she was describing stemmed not from natural differences between the sexes, but from differences in social conditioning and inequalities in education. By underlining the complex network of social and educational constraints that prevented women from developing their full potential, d’Epinay implicitly challenged the view of women epitomized in Rousseau’s Emile.

Ever conscious of the pressures of social conventions and public opinion, d’Epinay concludes this letter to Galiani with a mixed message of inner liberation and outward conformism: “A woman of intelligence, wit, and character who possesses only a superficial knowledge of these fields which she cannot study in greater depth—such a woman would still be a very rare object, much loved and admired, so long as she remains free of literary and intellectual pretensions.” In her view, an accomplished, cultivated woman was worthy of admiration and respect, providing she maintain an outward appearance of modesty and decorum.

D’Epinay’s conviction that the physical and intellectual weakness of her women contemporaries was culturally conditioned and not determined by nature is expressed most explicitly in another letter to Galiani written in March, 1772, in which she presents a vigorous critique of Antoine-Léonard Thomas’ recently published Essai sur le caractère, les mœurs et l’esprit des femmes (Paris, 1772). D’Epinay’s response to Thomas is the most succinct and certainly the most candid statement of her views on “the woman question,” which [End Page 55] is not surprising, given its appearance in a private letter to a sympathetic and open-minded friend. The letter is also of great value in gauging d’Epinay’s reaction to Rousseau’s views on women, since Emile was the inspiration and source for much of what Thomas wrote in his essay. 27

D’Epinay carefully rebuts each of Thomas’ main arguments and points to the contradictions underlying them. In response to Thomas’ claim that women are “by nature” more easily agitated than men and more inclined to pettiness and political intrigue, d’Epinay argues that these personality traits were the result not of women’s nature, but of their social conditioning—their exclusion from constructive occupations and from the right to participate openly in public affairs. Above all, she contests Thomas’ argument that the physical and intellectual inferiority of her women contemporaries resulted from nature. “Men and women possess the same constitution and nature,” she declares.

The proof of this is that primitive women are as robust and agile as primitive men; the weakness of women’s minds and bodies is therefore due to their education and to the role assigned to them by society. Since men and women possess the same constitution and nature, they are capable of possessing the same failings, the same virtues, and the same vices. The virtues generally ascribed to women by society almost all run counter to nature and lead only to artificial, petty virtues and to very real vices.

(p. 254)

This last sentence constitutes an implicit attack on the ideals of “feminine” delicacy, modesty, and self-effacement advocated by Rousseau in Emile. In d’Epinay’s view, these ideals compelled women to repress their ambitions and talents and to seek frivolous and sometimes pernicious outlets for their energies. She maintained that the natural equality between the sexes could not be restored until these artificial and often oppressive models were rejected. However, she recognized that change would be difficult, particularly since the whole gender hierarchy was, in her view, founded on male self-interest: “It would no doubt take several generations to restore our natural condition. We would perhaps benefit from it, but men stand too much to lose,” she explains. “They are lucky indeed that we haven’t turned out any worse, after all they have done to denature us with their fine institutions” (p. 254).

Like d’Alembert in his famous response to Rousseau, 28 d’Epinay denounced male complicity with the status quo as the single greatest obstacle to equality between the sexes, and she insisted on the need to alter deeply rooted patterns of thought before any real progress could be made: “We need new heads to help us imagine things from a different point of view” (p. 255). Like d’Alembert, d’Epinay saw improved education as the key to future equality for women and as the surest means for her female contemporaries to achieve a certain degree of inner freedom despite the persistence of external inequalities. 29 Yet contrary to most male sympathizers with the plight of women, d’Epinay was not content to remain at the level of theory and generalizations in her denunciation of oppressive gender structures. In Montbrillant, she drew on her own experiences to illustrate in vivid detail [End Page 56] the economic, legal, and educational inequality of women and the stultifying effects of the roles and conventions imposed on them.

To help women provide a sounder education for themselves and their daughters, d’Epinay composed and published Les Conversations d’Emilie, a series of twenty dialogues between a mother and child. Spanning a period of five years beginning when the child was five, the dialogues provide detailed practical advice concerning the methods and materials to be used in the upbringing and instruction of girls by their mothers at home. The dialogues were patterned after conversations between d’Epinay and her granddaughter Emilie, who lived with her from 1769 until d’Epinay’s death in 1782.

In her biography, Badinter maintains that d’Epinay wrote Les Conversations d’Emilie to alleviate her feelings of guilt as a mother and to fill the loneliness caused by Grimm’s increasingly frequent absences. “Only the field of child care and education seemed worthy of her attention,” maintains Badinter. “It was a fresh new topic about which other women knew very little” (p. 445). I would dispute Badinter’s claims on several grounds. First, the subjects of pedagogy and home-schooling were both very much in vogue when d’Epinay began writing her Conversations around 1770, as d’Epinay herself remarks in her preface. 30 Second, Badinter implies that d’Epinay lacked ambition and talent outside the field of education, a contention amply disproved by her autobiographical writings, her correspondence, and her activities as an editor, journalist, and salonnière. Finally, I would dispute the narrowness of Badinter’s interpretation of Les Conversations d’Emilie as primarily a “grandmother’s revenge.” In my opinion, d’Epinay composed this work not merely as a means of reconciling her feelings of guilt as a mother with her ambitions as a writer and pedagogical theorist, but also—and above all—as a response and challenge to Emile.

In Les Conversations d’Emilie, d’Epinay points to four major shortcomings in Emile, which she strove to overcome in her own work. In her preface, she questions the practical value of abstract theoretical formulations and pedagogical systems in works such as Rousseau’s. “In the field of education, as in most other fields, general precepts are of little use,” she asserts. “By nature, they are too vague to indicate any precise course of action; in fact it’s not unusual to see people who preach the same maxims following entirely opposite paths” (1:vii). Second, d’Epinay underlines the fact that her own approach to education was drawn from her daily experience as the mother and educator of real children, which enabled her to join theory with practice and to gear her methods and goals to the real world. D’Epinay’s own experience as a mother and grandmother made her wary of pedagogical treatises written by men like Rousseau who never raised children of their own.

A third shortcoming of Emile that d’Epinay strove to avoid was Rousseau’s “imperative, didactic tone which people who a position of authority tend to adopt, without even realizing it” (1:vi). Instead of an abstract pedagogical [End Page 57] treatise thinly disguised as a novel, she offered her readers lively conversations drawn from life, in which theory and practice, as well as style and content, were perfectly fused. Moreover, her conversations with her granddaughter had shown her “the advantages of confidence, innocent irony, and playful allusions over dry precepts and stern reprimands” (1:v–vi).

It was above all the stultifying education traditionally given to women—and epitomized in the education prescribed for Sophie in Emile—that d’Epinay challenged in the Conversations. “I would not venture to set limits for what our sex can or cannot learn,” she declared. “When I was a child, girls usually were not taught much of anything. People never took our minds seriously and carefully avoided any kind of real instruction, since serious scholarship was considered totally inappropriate for our sex” (Conv. 12, 1:442–43). While Rousseau’s perspective was undeniably male-centered in the education he proposed for both Sophie and Emile, the view of education presented in Les Conversations d’Emilie is strikingly feminocentric. Written by a woman for women, d’Epinay’s book deals exclusively with the education of girls by their mothers. D’Epinay was not interested in raising a Sophie, whose main purpose in life was to please her husband and to submit to his whims, but rather an intelligent, autonomous woman capable of finding happiness and fulfillment in herself.

Unlike Rousseau’s Sophie, Emilie was taught to read and write before the age of five and, by the age of ten, had been introduced to a broad range of subjects, following a plan of studies quite ambitious for the period. However, the true originality of Les Conversations d’Emilie lies less in the plan or method of studies it proposed (which in fact resembled the more enlightened educations given to boys of the period) than in the distinctly feminocentric goals it sought to achieve and, above all, in the self-confidence and self-sufficiency it aimed to foster in women.

Contrary to Rousseau’s assertions in Book V of Emile, d’Epinay affirms the intellectual equality of women and their right to an equal education. She insists that the intellectual development of women is essential to their happiness and well-being. In contrast to the blind submission to authority instilled in Rousseau’s Sophie, d’Epinay encourages her granddaughter to think for herself. Yet ever conscious of the outer constraints placed on women by society, d’Epinay seeks to give Emilie an education that balances this sense of inner freedom and critical judgment with respect for social roles and conventions. Since her primary goal is to insure that her granddaughter is happy and well adjusted, she also teaches her basic social and housekeeping skills.

When Emilie is puzzled by satirical remarks she overhears concerning a bluestocking they know, d’Epinay is faced with the problem of explaining the prejudice against women intellectuals. She explains that it was not the woman’s knowledge in itself, but rather her scholarly pretensions and neglect of her domestic responsibilities that had led people to mock her.

In the final paragraphs of Les Conversations d’Emilie, d’Epinay addresses the crucial question left unresolved by Rousseau concerning the relative merits of public education (or boarding-school educations) as opposed to [End Page 58] the education of children by their parents at home. She alludes to Rousseau repeatedly as “mon censeur,” who favors certain pedagogical views and methods that young Emilie in turn criticizes and ridicules: “It seems to me, Maman, that your censor approves or disapproves of many things” (Conv. 20, 2:457). After poking fun at Rousseau’s views concerning the dangers of “une culture trop hative”—education that he claims is botched by introducing subjects too early—d’Epinay returns to the choice between public education and home-schooling: “My censor claims that a gardener who has only a single plant to take care of would run the risk of hampering its growth by too much attention; whereas if he were obliged to divide his time among a certain number of different plants, this danger would be avoided.” To which Emilie replies: “Goodness, Maman, your censor is starting to annoy me with all his talk about gardeners! He seems to take me for a head of lettuce whose only purpose in life is to vegetate!” (2:462). After further explanations of his views by her grandmother, Emilie impatiently exclaims: “Maman, your censor is an old chatterbox who will spoil our conversation if we let him go on preaching at us” (2:462).

Yet d’Epinay then surprises her granddaughter (and her readers) by offering a series of forceful arguments in favor of public education:

One of the key advantages of a republican form of government is the possibili-ty it provides of directly influencing the character of its people, of showing them their individual worth, which they might not have realized otherwise... Good public schools follow the republican model and offer the same advan-tages to their students. The instruction they provide is designed to enhance each student’s abilities and talents.... In such schools, the students’ individual efforts and talents...determine their success and rank.


This glowing tribute to public education seems strangely out of place at the end of a work ostensibly devoted to promoting progressive home-schooling for girls. However, d’Epinay fully recognized the disadvantages of educating children at home—particularly the danger of spoiling them with too much attention, the lack of social interaction and of healthy competition with other students, and the risk of inferior methods and materials due to parental inexperience or ineptitude. It was only because the boarding schools and convent educations then available for girls presented even greater problems that d’Epinay chose to educate her granddaughter at home: “After considerable uncertainty, I opted for the disadvantages of a private education, despite all its faults, to those of a public education which I could neither approve nor correct” (2:464). Referring again to her “censeur,” she maintains: “As soon as he establishes a public school that follows his own principles, I will be relieved of a great burden, and Emilie will be the first to prove the innumerable advantages of so desirable an institution” (2:458).

In this open-ended conclusion, d’Epinay was perhaps responding to the national education plan proposed by Rousseau to the government of Poland in his Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne (OC, 3:966–67). According to this plan, public education would be exclusively reserved for males, while [End Page 59] girls would be trained at home for their role as housewives and mothers. In her conditional support for public education, d’Epinay points to the contradictions inherent in Rousseau’s so-called republican plan, which served only to reinforce male domination by continuing to exclude women from the public sphere. In her critique of Rousseau’s views on public education, d’Epinay anticipated the protests later made against the revolutionary government in France by Condorcet, Gouges, and Wollstonecraft for its failure to provide equal education for women.

The Emergence of “un roman de femme”

In “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” Elaine Showalter calls for a reexamination of traditional accounts of literary influence in order to better trace the evolution of women’s writing and to better understand how male writers and critics have denied the influence of female precursors: “We must go beyond the assumption that women writers either imitate their male predecessors or revise them and that this simple dualism is adequate to describe the influences on the woman’s text,” she asserts. 31 Showalter agrees with Virginia Woolf’s view that women must think back through their mothers in order to write, but she insists that women writers unavoidably think back through their fathers as well. To help remedy the inadequacies of previous models of literary history, Showalter has proposed a dual-culture model, according to which women’s writing can be read as a double-voiced discourse, reflecting both the dominant male culture and a muted or repressed female culture. “Women writing are not, then, inside and outside of the male tradition,” she maintains, “they are inside two traditions simultaneously” (p. 32). 32

My study of Rousseau’s reception by his female contemporaries has been guided by this view of women as participants in a dual literary heritage and of their writing as an intertwining of dominant male and repressed female discourses. Elsewhere, I have examined how women writers responded to Rousseau on both a literary and ideological level and how their responses are in turn reflected in the style and structure of their writings. 33

In reaction to the prescriptive tendencies of male writings on women (a tendency particularly marked in Rousseau’s works and in the conduct books that proliferated in the late eighteenth century), d’Epinay and other writers of her period drew on the authority of their own experience in an effort to present a more authentically descriptive, feminocentric view of women’s lives. Instead of passively allowing male authors to tell them how they should be, they sought to describe how they actually were—or how they perceived themselves and other women to be. For example, in contrast to Rousseau’s prescriptive, moralistic pronouncements in favor of maternal breastfeeding, d’Epinay (like Roland and Staël) describes in realistic detail the practical problems—both social and physical—that women encountered when they tried to nurse their babies themselves. 34 The physical realities of the female condition (pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood, aging) are recurring themes in the writings of these women—details from daily life [End Page 60] generally ignored in male-authored texts of the period. In contrast to the idealized view of conjugal felicity presented by Rousseau, these women present a far more realistic (and generally more pessimistic) view of the realities of married life: financial and legal dependence upon irresponsible husbands, the injustices of the double standard, the frustrations of motherhood, and the daily misery of being tied for life to a man one does not love or even like. In their works, one finds recurring images of confinement (cage, prison, asylum, convent) that reflect the oppressed state of women in eighteenth-century society, their imprisonment within constraining roles and structures. These images of confinement and powerlessness in women’s texts contrast sharply with the recurring allusions to Julie’s “empire” and moral authority in La Nouvelle Héloïse. Yet their portrayal of this oppression in their writings constituted an act of individual and collective empowerment, a vehicle for social protest and social change.

Rejecting or subverting the traditional conventions of female modesty and silence advocated by Rousseau, these women strove to convey repressed female desires, thoughts, and emotions—to go beyond existing possibilities of expression by defying literary and social bienséances of what was considered “proper” for a woman to articulate. Their writing thus functions simultaneously as a historical record of their oppression and a mark of their defiance. 35 Each writer attempted to develop a style in which her grievances and longings could be expressed from within rather than viewed from outside through the distorting lens of male desire and self-interest. In order to do so, they needed to overcome the interiorized feelings of inferiority, the traditional prejudices against women writers, and the fear of censure conditioned in them by society—negative gender stereotypes that Rousseau’s writings both reflected and intensified. By questioning male figures of authority in general —and Rousseau in particular—these women gradually gained confidence in their own experience and point of view.

With the passage of time, d’Epinay gradually changed from an enthusiastic admirer of Rousseau into a resisting reader and protesting writer. Drawing on her experiences as a wife and mother, daughter and lover, and responding to the powerful impulse of her talents and ambitions, she came to view his limited vision of female destiny with increasing ambivalence. By engaging in an overt literary rivalry with the author of Julie and Emile, who epitomized all the traditional prejudices against women authors, d’Epinay both proclaimed and embodied her challenge to the male-dominated literary establishment.

Mary Trouille
Illinois State University


1. See Ruth Plaut Weinreb, “Mme d’Epinay’s Contributions to the Correspondance littéraire,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 18 (1988): 389–403, and the final chapter of her book Eagle in a Gauze Cage: Louise d’Epinay, femme de lettres (N.Y.: AMS, 1993), pp. 143–57.

2. See Zürich, “La première rencontre de Rousseau et Mme d’Epinay,” Annales J.-J. Rousseau 29 (1941–42).

3. Mme d’Epinay was an active participant in the discussions that took place at the Baron d’Holbach’s and not merely a passive spectator, as Alan Kors suggests: “While women were not generally welcome at the gatherings of d’Holbach’s circle, they frequently were invited to spend time at Grandval, where d’Holbach’s dinners were held during the summer months.” Kors adds, “At one time or another, Mme Geoffrin, Mme de Meaux, Mme de Saint-Aubin, Mme Riccoboni, Mme d’Houdetot, Mme d’Epinay, and Mlle d’Ette all dined with the thinkers of d’Holbach’s group” (D’Holbach’s Coterie: An Enlightenment in Paris [Princeton: Princeton Univ., 1976], pp. 106–07). The implication of Kors’ description is that the women simply dined and listened in silent admiration while the “thinkers” (exclusively male) engaged in brilliant conversation.

In a paper titled “Madame d’Epinay, Personnage Méconnu de la Coterie d’Holbach” (presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in 1986), Léa and Arié Gilon attempted to correct this distorted image of the role of d’Epinay and other women in the d’Holbach circle, insisting on their intellectual equality within the group and their active participation in the discussions. For further discussions of d’Epinay’s role among the Encyclopedists, see Elisabeth Badinter, Emilie, Emilie. L’Ambition féminine au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Flammarion, 1983), pp. 354–55, and esp. Weinreb, Eagle, pp. 99–105 & 116–20.

4. D’Epinay’s triumph as a salonnière is perhaps best reflected in the preference shown to her by l’abbé Galiani, the Neapolitan ambassador to France, whose brilliant mind and sparkling wit made him highly sought after in Parisian society. “He was all the rage, especially among the women, who competed for his attention,” notes Badinter. “Mme d’Epinay prevailed. Freer in mind and spirit than Mme Geoffrin, less prudish than Mme Necker, Louise established with him an ongoing intellectual exchange based on a deep mutual affection” (Emilie, Emilie, p. 388). After Galiani’s return to Naples in 1769, d’Epinay entered into a regular correspondence with him that would continue 14 years until her death. For an engaging account of d’Epinay’s long-standing friendship and correspondence with Galiani, see Francis Steegmuller, A Woman, a Man, and Two Kingdoms: The Story of Madame d’Epinay and the Abbé Galiani (N.Y.: Knopf, 1992). Also see Weinreb, Eagle, pp. 46–48 & 134–40. A 4-vol. unabridged edn. of the correspondence between d’Epinay and Galiani, edited by Georges Dulac and Daniel Maggetti, is currently being published by Desjonquères in Paris.

5. In his Tablettes, Diderot enumerates Rousseau’s “scélératesses” toward his former friends, and notably d’Epinay: “He wrote a letter attacking Mme d’Epinay that is monstrously ungrateful. The lady had given him a house at Chevrette, as well as money for all his basic expenses.... He accused her of being the most odious of women during the same period that he threw himself at her feet and begged her pardon for all his wrongs against her.... At a time when he owed everything to Mme d’Epinay and was living at her expense, he accused her of trying to take M. de Saint-Lambert away from Mme d’Houdetot, and of trying to win over Mlle Levasseur, so that she would intercept one of the letters that Rousseau wrote to Mme d’Houdetot.... This man is truly a monster” (cited by Georges Roth in his edn. of d’Epinay’s Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant, 3 vols. [Paris: Gallimard, 1951], 3:585–86. D’Epinay’s novel will be referred to hereafter as Montbrillant. All translations of this text and of the other texts cited in this article are mine.

6. The most notable of these comparative studies is Frederika MacDonald’s 2–vol. work, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A New Criticism (London: Chapman & Hall, 1906), in which she seeks to defend Rousseau against the “conspiracy of lies” allegedly woven against him by d’Epinay and her friends. MacDonald’s findings and hypotheses are reiterated by Georges Roth (who translated her book into French as La Légende de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1909) in his 1951 edn. of Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant. Support for Rousseau’s version of the story is also found in Victor de Musset-Pathay’s Histoire de la vie et des ouvrages de J.-J. Rousseau (Paris: J.-L. Brière, 1822) and his Anecdotes inédites pour servir de suite ou d’éclaircissements aux Mémoires de Madame d’Epinay (Paris: Baudouin, 1818); Paul Boiteau’s intro. to his edn. of Les Mémoires de Madame d’Epinay (Paris: Charpentier, 1863); G. Streckeisen-Moulton, J.-J. Rousseau, ses amis et ses ennemis (Paris: M. Lévy, 1865); Henri Guillemin, “Les affaires de l’Ermitage (1756–57): Examen critique des documents,” Annales J.-J. Rousseau 29 (1941–42): 58–275; and in R. A. Leigh’s “Note sur Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant et les Pseudo-Mémoires de Madame d’Epinay” in his edn. of Rousseau’s Correspondance complète, 50 vols. (Geneva: Institut Voltaire, 1966–67), 3:xxviii.

Support for d’Epinay’s version of the story is given by Lucien Perey and Gaston Maugras in Une Femme du Monde au XVIIIe siècle: Les Dernières Années de Mme d’Epinay (Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1883), pp. v–ix; Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve in his Causeries du lundi (Paris: Garnier, 1851–62), 2:187, 207 & 7:287, 328; and Saint-Marc Girardin in J.-J. Rousseau, sa vie et ses ouvrages (Paris: Charpentier, 1875).For a more balanced view of the controversy, see Yvon Belaval’s review of Roth’s edn. of Montbrillant in Critique 8, no. 56 (1952): 649–53; Jean Roussel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau en France après la Révolution, 1795–1830: Lectures et Légende (Paris: Colin, 1972), pp. 438–67; G. Charlier, “Mme d’Epinay et J.-J. Rousseau,” Revue de Belgique (1909): 1–18; Weinreb, Eagle, pp. 72–97; and Badinter’s preface to her edn. of d’Epinay’s novel, Les Contre-Confessions. Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant (Paris: Mercure de France, 1988), pp. ix–xxxii.

7. Confessions, in Œuvres complètes, ed. Bernard Gagnebin & Marcel Raymond, 4 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1959–67), 1:461. Rousseau seemed to agree with Diderot’s lukewarm appraisal of Books I and II of Julie: “I was well aware of these faults myself, but they arose from the feverish state of mind in which I wrote, and I was never able to correct them” (1:461). In the two prefaces to Julie, he may have been responding to the criticisms of the friends-turned-enemies to whom he had shown the manuscript. In the first preface, he warns: “Whoever decides to read these letters must arm himself with patience regarding the errors of language, the dull, emphatic style, and all the commonplaces expressed in inflated terms. He should remind himself beforehand that the authors of these letters were not French, nor were they intellectuals, academicians, or philosophers” (Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse, in OC, 2:6). Rousseau’s novel will be referred to hereafter as Julie and the Gallimard Pléiade edn. of his complete works as OC. Then, taking the role of devil’s advocate in the préface dialoguée that follows, he exclaims: “What a stilted epistolary style!... What bombast to say such ordinary things!... Even if your characters are drawn from nature, you must admit that their style is hardly natural” (2:13).

8. According to Roth, that novel was L’Histoire de Madame de Rambure, a purely fictional work that d’Epinay soon abandoned to write Montbrillant, a romanticized version of her own life’s story. “All that is left of this Histoire de Madame de Rambure (which no doubt was never written) is an outline and a list of six characters,” notes Roth. “Wife of the president of the Parlement of Aix, the heroine seems to have been a woman of the provincial bourgeoisie with three grown daughters to marry off. Knowing the author’s tastes at the time, it’s likely that the story took the form of a didactic treatise on conjugal feelings and behavior...tied together, of course, by some kind of sentimental plot” (Montbrillant, 1:xvi).

9. The Sophie referred to here is Sophie de Rambure, the heroine of the novel Emilie is writing and heroine of the novel that d’Epinay herself began writing before beginning Montbrillant.

10. Lettres à M. de Voltaire sur “La Nouvelle Héloïse” ou Aloisia de Jean-Jacques Rousseau [Jan. 1761], in Voltaire, Œuvres complètes, 52 vols. (Paris: Garnier, 1879), 24:469 & 474.

11. L’Année littéraire (Apr. 1761), 2:307.

12. In a footnote to this passage of the Confessions, Rousseau explains that it was not Mme de Talmont who stayed awake all night reading his novel, but “another lady whose name I do not know” (OC, 1:547).

13. See Jochen Schlobach, Correspondance inédite de Frédéric Melchior Grimm (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1972), pp. 20–23.

14. In the Confessions, Rousseau quips: “She decided to try her hand at literature and dabbled at writing novels, letters, comedies, short stories, and other such rubbish. But what amused her most was not so much to write them as to read them; and if she managed to scribble out two or three pages at a time, she insisted on finding at least two or three indulgent listeners with whom to share this huge production” (OC, 1:411). This passage reflects a deliberate attempt to ridicule d’Epinay as an author and to trivialize her work. By accusing her of laziness, dilettantism, and, above all, of vanity, Rousseau is both expressing and appealing to traditional misogynic prejudices and stereotypes concerning women writers. His choice of the pejorative terms “dabble,” “scribble,” and “rubbish” to describe her literary efforts, his ironic use of the phrase “huge production” to refer to her supposedly meager output, his insistence on the indulgence of her audience—all this is intended to deny the seriousness and significance of d’Epinay’s writing. On a deeper level, Rousseau’s satiric portrait of d’Epinay in the Confessions reflects the anxiety and rage generated by his financial dependence on her and by the threat she posed to him both as a woman and writer.

15. See in particular Duclos’ Confessions du Comte de *** (1742) and his Mémoires pour servir à l’Histoire des Mœurs (1751), which d’Epinay read and greatly admired. Both works are culminations of the roman aristocratique et mondain and of two subgenres often employed in such novels—the roman de mœurs and roman à portraits—which were to exert considerable influence on the composition of d’Epinay’s own novel. For further discussion of Duclos’ literary influence on d’Epinay, see Roth’s intro. to Montbrillant, 1:xvi.

16. In his Confessions, Rousseau acknowledges that he had consciously suppressed female rivalry in Julie: “I imagined two women friends, rather than two of my own sex; for, although examples of such friendships are rarer, they are also more beautiful.... I gave one of them a lover to whom the other was a tender friend and even something more; but I allowed no rivalry, quarrels, or jealousy between them; for I find it hard to imagine any painful feelings, and I did not wish to sully this charming picture with anything degrading to Nature” (OC, 1:430).

17. M. de Montbrillant’s apology for marital infidelity is reiterated later by Desbarres [Duclos]: “I do not consider it a crime for a woman to have a lover. Quite to the contrary. Let people suspect her liaison if they wish, so long as she does not call attention to it” (Montbrillant, 2:126).

18. In her Souvenirs, Mme d’Allard (d’Epinay’s granddaughter) notes that in d’Epinay’s circle of friends, 12 died of childbed fever before the age of 25 (cited by Roth, 1:286, n.1).

19. See Rousseau’s letter to Mme de Berthier, 17 Jan. 1770, in Correspondance Complète de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ed. R. A. Leigh (Geneva: Institut Voltaire, 1967), 37:205–07.

20. The principles and methods of education outlined in d’Epinay’s Lettres à mon fils are developed much more fully in her Conversations d’Emilie (1773), discussed at length in the following section.

21. “This was the only time that Louise and her husband ever made a decision together concerning the upbringing of their son,” remarks Badinter, who is careful to point out that it was not uncommon in 18th-century France for parents to have their children imprisoned even for less serious offenses (Emilie, Emilie, p. 382).

22. Letter from Galiani to d’Epinay, 19 Jan. 1771, in Fernando Galiani, Correspondance, ed. Perey & Maugras, 2 vols. (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1881), 1:342.

23. Letter from d’Epinay to Diderot, Jan. 1772, in Diderot, Correspondance, 12:29–30.

24. The antifamily undercurrents in Rousseau’s thought are particularly apparent in his Considérations sur le gouvernment de Pologne: “It is education that must give people a sense of national identity and control their opinions and tastes to such an extent that they become patriots by inclination, passion, even necessity.... In such a society, people see nothing but their fatherland and live for nothing else.... Since everyone is equal under the constitution, they should be raised together and in the same way.... These public boarding schools are the hope of the republic; on them depends the glory and fate of the nation” (in OC, 3:966–67). Similarly, in his Discours sur l’économie politique, Rousseau writes: “An even greater reason for not abandoning the children’s instruction to their fathers’ limited abilities and prejudices is that education is more important to the State than to the parents; for, following the normal course of nature, the father’s death often robs him of the final fruits of that education, whereas the nation feels its effects sooner or later. Thus the State remains, while the family dissolves” (3:260).

25. “Mon Portrait,” in Œuvres de Madame d’Epinay, ed. M. Challemel-Lacour, 2 vols. (Paris: A. Sauton, 1869), 2:5 [reprint of original Geneva edn. of 1759]. By “female accomplishments” (les arts d’agréments), d’Epinay is referring here to music, drawing, embroidery, and dance.

26. Letter from d’Epinay to Galiani, 20 Jan. 1771, in Galiani, Correspondance, 1:349. Subsequent quotations from this letter are from this same edn., 1:347–49.

27. Thomas’ arguments often seem to have been borrowed word for word from Emile. For example, he writes: “To one [sex], nature gave strong desires and the right to attack; to the other, it gave defensiveness and timid desires that attract while resisting” (Thomas, p. 77). As in Emile, the central argument that emerges in Thomas’ essay is that the differences and inequalities between the sexes are derived from nature. Thomas concludes his essay by criticizing the “unnatural” desire of women to meddle in politics or to participate in the public sphere in any other manner. Echoing Rousseau’s rhetoric of moral reform, Thomas urges his women readers to return to their “natural” role as mothers and guardians of domestic virtues in order to bring about the moral regeneration of society.

28. D’Alembert contests Rousseau’s view that women are by nature inferior to men, insisting that any moral or mental deficiencies displayed by women resulted not from nature, but from the oppressive cultural conditioning to which they had been subjected: “But if, unfortunately, you are right, what would be the sad cause for these weaknesses? They stem from the servitude and degrading condition in which we have placed women, the obstacles we put in the way of their mind and spirit, the trivial and humiliating banter to which we have reduced our interaction with them.... Their weaknesses are due above all to the disastrous, almost deadly education we prescribe for which all they learn is to disguise their true selves at all times, to repress their feelings, to hide all their thoughts and opinions” (Lettre à J.-J. Rousseau sur l’article “Genève” [1759], rep. in Œuvres complètes de d’Alembert [Berlin, 1822], 4:450–53.

29. For further discussion of d’Epinay’s response to Thomas’ essay, see my article “Sexual/ Textual Politics in the Enlightenment: Diderot and d’Epinay Respond to Thomas’s Essay on Women,” Romanic Review 84 (Mar. 1994): 98–116.

30. Les Conversations d’Emilie, 2 vols. (Paris: Belin, 1783), 1:viii–ix.

31. In Writing and Sexual Difference, ed. Elizabeth Abel (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1982), p. 34.

32. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar refer to this muted or repressed female tradition as a “palimpsest” within the dominant male tradition (The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination [New Haven: Yale Univ., 1979], p. 50). Nancy K. Miller also sees “another text” in women’s fiction, “more or less muted from novel to novel, but always there to be read” (“Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women’s Fiction,” PMLA 96 [Jan. 1981]: 47).

33. See my articles “Revolution in the Boudoir: Mme Roland’s Subversion of Rousseau’s Feminine Ideals,” Eighteenth-Century Life 13 (May 1989): 65–86; “A Bold New Vision of Woman: Staël and Wollstonecraft Respond to Rousseau,” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 292 (Winter 1991): 277–319; “The Failings of Rousseau’s Ideals of Domesticity and Sensibility,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 24 (Summer 1991): 451–83; and “Eighteenth-Century Amazons of the Pen: Stéphanie de Genlis and Olympe de Gouges,” in Eighteenth-Century French Women Writers and Intellectuals, ed. Roland Bonnel & Catherine Rubinger (N.Y.: Peter Lang, 1994), pp. 341–70.

34. A fervent disciple of Rousseau’s program of maternal nursing, Marie-Jeanne Roland breastfed her daughter faithfully, but only with considerable difficulty. She fell ill, lost her milk, and grew frantic when her baby began to show signs of malnutrition. Eventually, her determination won out. With the help of the Encyclopédie and medical manuals, she was able to restore her health through a special diet and to nurse her baby successfully. Her correspondence of the period is filled with detailed accounts of her difficulties. See her correspondence of Nov., 1781, through Jan., 1782, in Lettres de Madame Roland. Nouvelle série (1767–76), ed. Claude Perroud (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1913), pp. 57–58, 153–55, 164–65, & 168–69.

Similarly, the health hazards that nursing posed to some women and children are dramatically illustrated in Staël’s novel Delphine by the death of Léonce’s wife and son. Despite her increasingly weak condition and dwindling milk supply, Mathilde ignores both her doctor’s orders and Léonce’s pleas and stubbornly persists in breastfeeding her baby—at the urging of her father confessor, who insists it is her duty (Part VI, Letters 3–6 [Paris: editions des femmes, 1981], 2:305–15). Like Staël’s own refusal to nurse, this chapter in Delphine contradicts Staël’s rather pompous tribute to the Rousseauian ideals of motherhood and maternal breastfeeding in her Lettres sur les écrits et le caractère de J. J. Rousseau, in Œuvres complètes de Mme de Staël (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1838), 1:12.

35. See Cora Kaplan’s discussion of this dual function of women’s writing in “The Indefinite Disclosed: Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson,” in Women Writing and Writing About Women, ed. Mary Jacobus (N.Y.: Barnes & Noble, 1979), p. 64.

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