Thérèse le Vasseur was the longstanding mistress of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau became involved with her in 1745 at the age of 33 and lived with her until his death in 1778. They never officially married, though Rousseau once declared her his wife before witnesses, and he had five children by her, all of whom he delivered somewhat infamously to a foundling hospital despite her protestations.
Formerly a seamstress, Thérèse met Rousseau while working as a maid at his hotel in Paris.By all accounts, she was slow-witted and unattractive. In his Confessions, Rousseau writes:
I at first attempted to improve her mind. In this my pains were useless. Her mind is as nature formed it: it was not susceptible of cultivation. I do not blush in acknowledging she never knew how to read well, although she writes tolerably. When I went to lodge in the Rue Neuve des Petits Champs, opposite to my windows at the Hotel de Ponchartrain, there was a sun-dial, on which for a whole month I used all my efforts to teach her to know the hours; yet, she scarcely knows them at present. She never could enumerate the twelve months of the year in order, and cannot distinguish one numeral from another, notwithstanding all the trouble I took endeavoring to teach them to her. She neither knows how to count money, nor to reckon the price of anything. The word which when she speaks, presents itself to her mind, is frequently opposite to that of which she means to make use. I formerly made a dictionary of her phrases, to amuse M. de Luxembourg, and her 'qui pro quos' often became celebrated among those with whom I was most intimate.
He nevertheless found in her a sort of rustic wisdom:
But this person,
so confined in her intellects, and, if the world pleases, so stupid, can
give excellent advice in cases of difficulty. In Switzerland, in
and in France, she frequently saw what I had not myself perceived; she
has often given me the best advice I could possibly follow; she has
rescued me from dangers into which I had blindly precipitated myself,
in the presence of princes and the great, her sentiments, good sense,
answers, and conduct have acquired her universal esteem, and myself the
most sincere congratulations on her merit. With persons whom we love,
sentiment fortifies the mind as well as the heart; and they who are thus
attached, have little need of searching for ideas elsewhere.
I lived with my Theresa as agreeably as with the finest genius in the
With her mother, Thérèse established Rousseau (and his friends) as a source of permanent income. As she got older, she turned increasingly to drink. Her presence in the philosopher's life was, to his friends and colleagues, a source of consternation and puzzlement.
In light of Rousseau's character, however, their affair becomes more understandable. Rousseau had lived for a time as a wandering vagrant and was never fully comfortable in the company of the elite. "I thought I perceived in her a woman of great sensibility, simple in her manners, and devoid of all coquetry," Rousseau wrote. He was additionally a man of tremendous ego and it is easy to imagine how her intellectual inferiority and total reliance might have put him at ease.
They lived relatively well together, all things considered. Rousseau was difficult company and alienated most of his friends at one point or another through his paranoia, petulance and self-centeredness, but to Thérèse he seems to have shown as much kindness as he was capable of. He was not faithful, but, from what we know, neither was she.
After Rousseau's death, Thérèse inherited all his assets, including the rights to his royalties. The next year, in 1779, she married Jean-Henri Bally, a valet, with whom she lived out the rest of her life. She died in 1801.
Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy
John Morley, Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions