Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was one of the intellectual fathers of the French Revolution. Though he died eleven years before the storming of the Bastille, he was a favorite among the Jacobin Party (the most radical branch of the French Revolutionaries), and many of his ideas transformed modern Europe. His interests extended into philosophy, literature, sociology, music, and politics, and he advocated major reforms in everything from education to musical notation to political structures! After the publication of his Emile, he was banished from France and spent time in his native Switzerland and England before returning to Paris in the late 1760s. He died the year before Sophie was born.
Though her husband was illiterate, Madame Barat was an educated woman who cared deeply about her children’s education. She was a great reader, and I imagined her to have a book club in Joigny while Sophie was growing up. In Chapter 2 (“Barrels”), I have her little group of women meeting in a room next to Jacques’ workshop discussing Julie, or The New Heloise. This text is often called the first Romantic novel, and it was one of the best-selling books of the 18th century. An epistolary novel, it deals with the amorous relationship between a young girl and her tutor, Saint-Preux, and draws on the medieval story of Abelard and Heloise—a story that Sophie recounts to Célestine in Part 1. The image below shows an illustration from a 1774 English edition (“Julie kisses Saint Preux”).
Whether she actually read any of his works or not, Sophie would have been well aware of Rousseau—and undoubtedly had mixed feelings about some of his ideas.
Another major figure of the Enlightenment period who is mentioned in the novel is Rousseau’s frequent philosophical adversary, François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694-1778), who spent much of his own life fleeing the French authorities. He is briefly mentioned in Part 1 (“Barrels”) in the context of the political discussion going on in Jacques Barat’s workshop. In Part 2 (“Le Café Olympe”), Célestine glibly informs Sophie that the woman in one of the framed portraits, the physicist and mathematician Emilie du Châtelet, had an affair with him. In Part 3 (“Amazones”) we learn that one of Sophie’s first religious in Amiens, Henriette Ducis, is the niece of the poet who was elected to Voltaire’s chair at the Académie Française. When Philippine Duchesne leaves for the Americas in 1818, one of the nuns who accompanies her, Octavie Berthold, is the daughter of Voltaire’s private secretary.