Botanical exchanges: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Duchess of Portland

History of European Ideas 33 (2):142-156 (2007)
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In 1766 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in exile from France and Switzerland, came to England, where he made the acquaintance of Margaret Cavendish Harley Bentinck, Duchess of Portland. The two began to botanise together and to exchange letters about botany. These letters contain salient statements about Rousseau's views on natural theology, gardens, botanical texts and exotic botany. This exchange entailed not only discussions about plant identifications and other botanical matters, but most important, reciprocal gifts of books and specimens in the manner of gentlemanly scientific correspondence of the period. Rousseau volunteered his services as the Duchess's ‘herborist’ or plant collector, and collected specimens and seeds in her behalf; these were destined for her own extensive herbaria and other natural history collections. Rousseau, who elsewhere denied female talent for science, admired the Duchess's knowledge of natural history, acknowledging his own as inferior. Their correspondence ended when the Duchess sent him the Herbarium amboinense of Georg Rumpf , an important work of exotic botany. Rousseau considered exotic botany to be the antithesis of the domination-free nature from which he derived solace and inspiration



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