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Journeys In Thought - Rousseau In Staffordshire

Updated Monday 24th October 2005

Democrat or totalitarian, romantic or reactionary, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, arguably the leading figure in the 18th Century Enlightenment, continues to arouse heated disagreement. In January 1766, the Genevan born thinker arrived in England on a boat from France.

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Rousseau [Image: Copyright Mary Evans Picture Library] Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Mary Evans Picture Library

He was on the run, following the condemnation and public burning of his books on education and politics, Emile and The Social Contract. The brilliant Scottish historian and philosopher David Hume offered to arrange sanctuary for him in Britain. Hume even arranged for King George III to provide Rousseau with a pension.

When he arrived in London, Rousseau was a celebrity. His romantic novel, La Nouvelle Heloise, had been a best seller throughout Europe. Crowds strained to get a glimpse of the eccentrically dressed Rousseau – who wandered around town wearing an Armenian hat and a kaftan.

It was in part to escape from the attention that Rousseau moved to a remote part of the Peak District in Staffordshire. But, cut off from society, his contemplation about his very real enemies began to descend into paranoia. He became convinced that Hume was behind an international plot to discredit him – and confronted the Scotsman in a sprawling, demonic eighteen page letter. Hume, appalled, bewildered, and fearful for his reputation, published his own account of the breach, which became the talk of London and Paris.

After eighteen months in England, Rousseau - his mind now brimming with suspicion and distrust – suddenly upped and left. But part of the Staffordshire legacy was his extraordinary Confessions, seen as a landmark in the history of literature and the first modern autobiography.

Interviews for the programme include the academics John Hope Mason, Nicholas Philippson and John T Scott. Musicologist Jacqueline Waeber discusses Rousseau’s opera, Le Devin de Village. Performed in London while Rousseau was based there, this was an enormously successful entertainment in the eighteenth century.

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