Sunday, 17 July 2011

Rosseau- Fear and Loathing in the Staffordshire Moorlands

Jean Jacques Rousseau the father of the French Revolution, inspirer of the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the creator of the first autobiography and pioneer conservationist spent over 12 months in the remoteness of the Staffordshire Moorlands countryside. How this internationally known author who encouraged writers as diverse as Tolstoy, Lord Byron and Wordsworth came to live in the Staffordshire Moorlands during 1766-7 is told in "Rousseau’s Dog" by David Edmonds and John Eidinow published by Faber and Faber the book chronicles the spectacular falling out that he had with the equally famous historian and philosopher the Scots born David Hume.

Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712. His mother died in childbirth and he had a very difficult child hood of brutality and poverty. He came to writing late and achieved fame in an essay that promoted the notion of the "noble savage" and the belief that education was based on natural environment and kindness.

Their relationship was born of the persecution that the Swiss born writer was suffering following publication of his books Social Contract and his novel Emile. One of his principle targets was the Catholic Church, which he accused of fostering a spirit of dependency and of supporting tyranny. He particularly criticised the role that religion had in educating the young. These sentiments bought the wrath of the Church and the State down on his head in his adopted country France and in his autobiography "Confessions" he give a vivid account of the rage that his name induced in many during that time

"I was an infidel, an atheist, a lunatic a madman, a wild beast a wolf"

His house was attacked and stoned by an angry mob and he had no choice but to become a refugee in England. The agent for achieving this rescue was David Hume who met Rousseau in Paris when the Scot worked at the British embassy. At first the relationship was extremely cordial with compliments and displays of mutual admiration passing between them. Hume made the arrangements for Rousseau’s move to Britain where he arrived in January 1766. The journey to Britain was not without incident, foolishly he allowed his mistress the sexually insatiable Madame Levasser to travel later with the philanderer biographer James Boswell. An exhausted Boswell wrote" I was seduced in coach and inn 13 times between Paris and London. I drank to sustain my fading virility. How can Rousseau be so besotted to think her many children his"?
The cuckold he may have been but he was relieved to be in Britain and full of praise for a tolerant and open place contrasting it with the tyranny of France. He was lauded in London society for his celebrity status and his reputation as the foremost writer in Europe much to Hume’s annoyance. Everywhere his favourite dog Sultan which would keep his master company in his Staffordshire sojourn accompanied him.
Hume’s friends tried to warn the Scot of the neurotic character of Rousseau which began to show itself in the detestation that he felt for London with its hectic pace and squalor. An eventual solution was found when a Mr Davenport a businessman and MP offered him the use of Wotton Hall near Ellastone in the Peak District, which offered Rousseau the rural tranquillity that he sought. He paid £30 a year rent.

Philosopher, mistress and dog all arrived in Staffordshire in late March 1766. They had abandoned their children to an orphanage in Paris. He instantly fell in love with the area. Rousseau is also considered one of the first to take seriously environmental concerns very evident in his sentiments expressed in his writings.
"I feel indescribable ecstasy, delirium in melting, as it were, in identifying myself with the whole of nature… a landscape of meadow, trees and scattered farms and the whole bordered by rising land of each side".

The early spring was exceptionally cold and shortly after the arrival a heavy snowfall isolated the area for several days. However as the year progressed Rousseau began to relish his surroundings and began to explore the countryside. He would follow the course of the River Dove and as he had a keen interest in botany he would add to his collection of plants. There is a suggestion that he met with the lead miners at Stanton over the border in Derbyshire. His wandering figure was something of a strange sight for Moorlanders.
 Many years later William Howitt in "Visits to Remarkable Places" published in 1841 reported him dressed in Armenian cloak, a furred cap and long stripped robe with a belt. He spent time enjoying the quiet and solitude of the countryside away from the harassment of society. The locals still recall his memory 80 years on recalling the strange figure that some thought was an exiled potentate Howitt wrote down one old man’s comments in dialect

" What owd Ross Hall? Ay know him I did, well enough ah’ve seen him monny a tarm, every dee comin and gooin ins hays comical cap and ploddy gown an gathering hays yarbs. Thar were a lady hay cawd Madame Zell but war hays wife ah dunna know. Folks say shay wanna."

Another story has Erasmus Darwin scientist and inventor (and grandfather of Charles) wanting to engage with the philosopher attempted to ambush the Swiss when he was due to wander down a particular path and recognising that it was no accidental encounter was so distrustful that Darwin never attempted another meeting. One excursion took Rousseau through Leek on his way to visit Davenport in Cheshire. He also wrote much of his autobiography " Confessions" while living in Staffordshire.

However by the summer of1766 a storm was about to break that was to shatter this rural idyll. Rousseau mental state- based on a fear of being hounded and under threat of assassination by agents of the French Government- was perilous and he was on the verge of madness. Ironically the seclusion of the Staffordshire countryside exacerbated his fears.
A satirical letter mocking him for affecting suffering was in circulation. Rousseau believed that he was at the centre of an international conspiracy being created by Hume and wrote to the Scot with a detailed indictment of his alleged plotting. Their relationship deteriorated quickly and ended in recrimination and loathing.
Meanwhile his mistress was complaining about the remoteness and in the manner of a modern day WAG found the shops of Ashbourne unworthy of her custom.

Eventually having to endure another cold and wet spring at Wotton Rousseau whose sense of paranoia had heightened exacerbated by the sour feelings that his mistress had for the area. They hurriedly left in May 1767 staying for a short period in the Lincolnshire town of Spalding before he left he distributed his clothes among the poor of Ellastone. He continued to correspond with his Staffordshire friends for a number of years. He died in 1778. In 1794 at the height of the Revolution his body was exhumed and he lies in the Pantheon in Paris, a city which he despised in life. And yet in a curious way he lives on in a book that was published 38 years after his death

There is a strange footnote to Rousseau’s story in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein published in 1816. Frankenstein draws on many contemporary fears such as developments in science partly fuelled by the work on electricity by the Lichfield based Erasmus Darwin and yet perhaps there is another Staffordshire aspect to this greatest of Gothic novels. Mary Shelley was fascinated and horrified by the personality of Rousseau whose writings on education and the care of children are central to" Frankenstein". Some writers have claimed that there are many similarities in the story of the creature and the life of Rousseau. The Swiss writer suffered abandonment in his childhood as he in turn dumped his own children, was attacked by an outraged mob whipped up into a hysteria by priests denouncing him as an Anti Christ and like the creature was constantly on the move fearful of society and longing for peace and seclusion