Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Today marks 300 years since the birth of the French Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, born on 28 June 1712 (almost exactly 100 years before Dickens). According to A Tale of Two Cities: A Sourcebook (2006), edited by Ruth Glancy (pp. 30-31), Dickens acknowledged, in a letter to his friend, and fellow novelist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton (5 June 1860, Vol. IX of the Pilgrim Letters), that he used Rousseau’s famous, autobiographical Confessions (1781-88) as a source for his depiction of the socio-economic deprivation of the French poor in TOTC. After purchasing food from a peasant, who feels obliged to hide his meagre stores of food from the tax-collectors and pretend instead to starve, Rousseau remarks:

‘Here was the germ of that inextinguishable hatred which has since grown up in my heart against the vexations endured by the wretched populace and against their oppressors. […] I left his house full of compassion and indignation, and deploring the fate of those delightful regions which whom nature has lavished gifts only in order that they may become a prey to barbarous publicans.’

For Dickens, the early stages of the Revolution marked the just overthrow of a ruling class whose neglect, corruption and excesses exacerbated the sufferings of the urban and rural poor.

In the instalment we have just read (week 9), Dickens refers to ‘unbelieving philosophers’ at Monseigneur’s salon, which suggests a hit at Rousseau, but, as Glancy points out, Dickens makes no other reference to the philosophical or ideological origins of the Revolution, choosing, instead, to emphasise the socio-economic causes. Also, it seems clear from the above quote that Dickens shared much of Rousseau’s indignation, if not his philosophical beliefs.

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About Ben Winyard

Ben Winyard is a Senior Content Editor at Birkbeck, University of London. He completed his PhD at Birkbeck, where he also worked as an intern on '19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century' ( He also worked as a postdoctoral researcher and senior editor on the Dickens Journals Online project ( and he has been a co-organiser of the annual Dickens Day conference since 2005.

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