Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Short Period of My Life’s Happiness at Charmettes

by Dan Kane and Shawn Clankie

The Savoie denotes both a region and province in southeastern France, comprising roughly that area between Geneva (and the Haute-Savoie region) and Grenoble (the seat of the Isre region). Chambry has for many centuries been the capital of the Savoie and the seat of the Dukes of Savoie. Modern Chambry is a city of 100,000, and a stop on the TGV line between Paris and Nice. Though no longer the small traders town and seat of the Savoie Dukes it was in the mid-18th century, there is nevertheless a sleepy quality that still characterizes Chambry. Nestled in the gentle foothills of the Alps, before they jut into the imposing and violent crags that seduced Lord Byron and a generation of Romantics, the modern city’s heart, and the meandering throughways of its narrow streets, can still seduce even the least sensitive traveler.

The largesse of its literary history, however, belies its small size and sleepy nature. The city is the hometown of the late 18th century writers the de Maistre brothers, Xavier (1763-1852) and Joseph (1753-1821), has played host and inspiration to the Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), who wrote of Lac du Bourget (the largest lake in France, visible on walks into the mountains that surround Chambry) and was married in the city’s cathedral, as well as such writers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Ren de Chateaubriand (1768-1848). Yet it is Rousseau who is to Chambry what Stendahl is to neighboring Grenoble.

It was in 1732 that Chambry’s charms captured the heart of the young Jean-Jacques Rousseau, twenty years old and only a few years after his flight from a Geneva engraver’s apprenticeship for a life that would prove most revolutionary. From 1732 to 1740 Rousseau shared a home and a bed with his older mistress Madame de Warens in Chambry, first in the city and then in a country house, nestled in the rising hills outside of it, named Les Charmettes. There, under the tutelage of Mme de Warens, or “maman”, as he affectionately called her, Rousseau learned of botany, music, love, and in the end, of disillusionment.

Rousseau reflects tenderly on his life in Chambry, and more particularly at Les Charmettes, in books five and six of his Confessions (not actually written until 1770), “Here,” he writes, “begins a period of eight or nine years, between my arrival at Chambry and my departure for Paris…during which time…my life was as simple as it was pleasant” and “my miscellaneous and inconsequent education achieved some consistency.” (Confessions, book 5).

Rousseau most likely arrived in town in 1732 (his Confessions, as he himself admits, are rather loose on the chronology, if not more consequential facts), in the company of Madame de Warens. Fresh from a failed attempt to seek his fortune in Paris, he had returned to the Savoy to secure the renewed patronage of Madame de Warens, the woman who had taken him under her wings five years earlier when he had fled Geneva, and who had overseen his conversion from Calvinism to Catholicism (a faith that soon left him cold). They originally took up residence in town, in a building which in fact still stands, though not dedicated to his memory. It was Rousseau’s ill health that first brought he and Madame de Warens to the rolling countryside outside Chambry and to a modest dwelling owned by an army officer and called Les Charmettes. Rousseau was, as he himself relates, suffering from “a case of the vapors” (Rousseau would forever view himself as persecuted by both men and disease; the Scottish philosopher David Hume even commented that this hypersensitivity made him seem like a man lacking an outer layer of skin). Rousseau spent only a brief two springs and summers at Les Charmettes between 1738 and 1740, but he would later look back on that brief interlude from the pages of his Confessions as the most ideal and happy period of his life, no doubt a partial illusion cast by nostalgia and future misery, but nevertheless indicative of the attraction Les Charmettes, Chambry, and the la vie compagnarde held for Rousseau. He would forever idealize the simple provincial life in his writings, urging a rejection of dogma and the contrivances of reason and “civilization” in favor of the spontaneity and purity found in the human emotions and in the pristine countryside. It was this part of Rousseau’s complex nature that earns him from some the title of “father of Romanticism”.

The modern traveler will find Les Charmettes remarkably well-preserved, and fortunately retaining as well its air of bucolic isolation, despite the rapid advances made in nearby Chambry. Though perhaps no longer so secluded from Chambry as to seem “300 miles away”, as Rousseau describes, Les Charmettes still conforms much to Rousseau’s depiction of it in his Confessions, “in front was a terraced garden; above it a vineyard, below it an orchard, facing it was a little chestnut plantation, close by was spring, and higher up the mountain were meadows for grazing cattle.” One of the bedrooms, in fact, contains the original furniture, and in the music room, which Mms. de Warens had built, one can still see the clavichord both she and Jean-Jacques played upon. In the garden a wisteria and pear tree remain the sole living witnesses to the twos former gambols.

Rousseau characterized his brief sojourn at Les Charmettes as “the short period of my life’s happiness.” Here he nursed his physical and psychosomatic ailments with long walks in the woods in the arms of maman, gardening, and in a vast campaign of reading and study to compensate for the proper education he had never received. He undertook the study of history and geography with particular zeal, though never warmed to Latin. One night, studying astronomy by candlelight on the terraced garden of Les Charmettes, Rousseau was mistaken by a local band of passing peasants as a practitioner of witchcraft. The small incident was cleared up, apparently not to the detriment of Rousseau’s faith in the simple country person. Though his ailments, whatever they truly consisted of, did not dissipate in the countryside, he nevertheless regained a certain vigor in the fresh air and carefree provincial life. It was a love for the outdoors that would remain with him in later years. “If you ever see me at the point of death,” he would write, “carry me into the shade of an oak, and I promise you I shall recover.” Another favorite pastime of Rousseau and Mme. Warens were the long walking excursions they took in the surrounding hills, maman often pointing out particular plants and giving Rousseau lessons in botany. One day-long hike that he took with maman stood out particularly in Rousseau’s mind. He wrote,

“We set out alone together in the early morning, after a mass that had been read by a visiting Carmelite at daybreak in a chapel belonging to the house. I had suggested walking along the opposite slope of the valley, where we had not yet been. We had sent our provisions on ahead, for the expedition was to take all day. Maman, although somewhat round and fat, was not a bad walker, and we went from hill to hill and from wood to wood, sometimes in the sun and sometimes in the shade, resting from time to time and forgetting our cares for hours on end, talking of ourselves, of our relationship, and of the sweetness of our lot, and offering up prayers for its continuance, which were not granted.”(Confessions, book 6)

The foreshadowing was apt, for Rousseau’s ideal life at Les Charmettes was short-lived, a brevity that no doubt added to its sweetness in memory. In 1739, at the encouragement of maman and now believing he was suffering from polypus of the heart, Rousseau set off to seek medical help in Montpellier. Along the way, he met Madame de Larnage, with whom Rousseau had a brief yet tawdry affair. Upon his return to Chambry, however, Rousseau found that maman too had taken a new lover. Despite maman’s insistence to Rousseau that they would be as intimate as they had been prior to his departure, their relationship began to deteriorate. It is unlikely that either Rousseau or Mme. de Warens could have known the extent to which these recent events would change both their lives. Rousseau, unnerved by losing maman to another man, buried himself in his studies and writing in his study at Les Charmettes. This would last only a short time. In 1740, again upon maman’s encouragement, and certainly by her arrangement, Rousseau took on a tutorship that took him out of Chambry. Yet, unable to tolerate his new pupils, Rousseau returned one final time to Les Charmettes before finally leaving for Paris in 1742. This was not only the end of Rousseau’s life at Les Charmettes, for maman too was to see her world come tumbling down. That same year her pension from the King of Sardinia was suspended, to be ultimately withdrawn in 1749. She died in poverty in 1762, and is buried in the churchyard of St. Pierre de Lemenc in Chambry.

Perhaps Tennessee Williams was correct when he wrote that memory is always played to music. Rousseau certainly looked back upon his time at Les Charmettes through his minds eye, a characteristic of his Confessions in general. Yet in such idealizing must lie more than a grain of truth. The modern visitor to Les Charmettes may very well find themselves basking in the tranquillity and perfection of the spot. In mid-autumn particularly, when the season is reverting to winter and the chestnuts begin to ripen and fall in heaps on the forest floor and a pleasant coolness blows down from the Alps, it is not hard to believe in Rousseau’s judgment of Les Charmettes, that “…in this spot true happiness and innocence dwell. If we do not find both of them here, it will be no good looking for them anywhere else.”

In 1989-90, we both had the opportunity to live in Rousseau’s world, as students at the Universit de Savoie. There we walked much of the area Rousseau had once botanized through arm in arm with maman amidst the fields of red poppies and forests of chestnut trees, visiting Les Charmettes and experiencing in full this simple life. Les Charmettes can be reached in a number of ways. Situated in the hills above Chambry, many people choose to visit by car. Yet, the best way to approach it is, as Rousseau and Mme. de Warens did, on foot. From Chambry, the 2km walk takes about half an hour at a leisurely pace. The easiest route is to begin at the Carr Curiel on the edge of town and to follow the Rue de la Rpublique as it heads eastward out of town. It will soon run into Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau which heads up to Les Charmettes. An alternative method is to take a half-day and to begin from the university to the south of town, wind gradually upward through the paysage following a series of country roads to approach Les Charmettes from the back. With a map from the local tourist office either route is easily navigable. After a visit to Les Charmettes it is not difficult to see why Rousseau called his stay there the short period of his life’s happiness. Les Charmettes is open daily (excluding Tuesdays and holidays) from10-12 and 2-4:30 (Oct. 1-March 31), and from 10-12 and 2-6 (April 1-Sept.30). Admission is 20fr.

Quotes from Rousseau’s Confessions are from the J.M. Cohen translation in the Penguin Books edition

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