by Maurice Quentin de la Tour
Mary Shelley saw Jean-Jacques
Rousseau as a man "with an imagination that warmed him
to daring." In her 1839 book, Eminent Literary and
Scientific Men of France Volume II, Shelley clearly conveys
the intellectual debt she has to Rousseau.
Although Shelley was
deeply influenced by Rousseau's work, she did not respect
some of his choices in life. He abandoned his children to
an orphanage, to which Shelley commented, "Rousseau
failed in this....the distortion of intellect that blinded
him to the first duties of life, we are inclined to believe
to be allied to that vein of insanity, that made him an example
among men for self-inflicted sufferings." She
felt that because he was the bearer of such intense intellect,
it was his right to bring up his children and pass on his
vast amounts of knowledge to them.
Rousseau also had relationships with various women, of which
Shelley did not fully approve. When comparing him to his wife
Therese, she scorned him, saying, "he
deserves more [blame] for having chosen, in the first place,
an ignorant woman, who had no qualities of heart to compensate
for stupidity; and secondly, for having injured instead of
improving her disposition by causing her to abandon her children,
and taking from her the occupations and interests that attend
maternity." Mary Shelley clearly did not approve
of his treatment of Therese and felt that he should have been
more sensible in his choice of a companion.
Despite how Mary Shelley
felt about Rousseau's personal affairs, she was incredibly
moved by his intellectual work, particularly, Emile.
She praised this piece and exalted Rousseau. She describes
it as a "success" and
"a book that deserves higher praise"
than his 1760 Nouvelle Heloise. Clearly, Mary Shelley
was moved by this work and was saddened that "this
admirable work, whence generations of men derive wisdom and
happiness, was the origin of violent persecution against the
author; and, by expelling him from his home, and exposing
him into a state of mind allied to madness, and devoted him
to poverty and sorrow to the end of his life."
She is obviously upset that such a renowned work would have
cost Rousseau happiness in life.
Although Mary Shelley's
critique of Rousseau is half critical and half enthusiastic,
she was deeply moved and influenced by his thoughts and dreams.
Her description of the Creature in Frankenstein closely
resembles her documentation of Rousseau's wanderings throughout
Europe during his days of exile. The proximity between the
two is unmistakable.
In many ways, Mary Shelley
personally related to Rousseau. Both of their mothers died
from childbirth complications, they were both dreamers, yet
outcasts, and both found inspiration in solitude. Their unspoken
connection comes clear through Mary Shelley's narration of
the life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.