Rousseau’s Trapdoor

Contributor: Nicola J. Watson

Location: Restaurant and Hôtel de l’Île St Pierre, Lac de Bienne, Switzerland

Description: A wooden trapdoor set within the floor in the corner of a first-floor bedroom in the sole farmhouse on the Île St Pierre in the Lac de Bienne, Switzerland. Both its date of origin and original use are obscure. It achieved celebrity in the last decade of the eighteenth century through its association with the philosopher, novelist and essayist Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), and in particular with his posthumously published autobiographical writings, both the latter part of the Confessions (published first in 1789) and the volume of essays entitled Les Rêveries du Promeneur Solitaire (composed between 1776 and 1778, published in 1782). The fifth ‘Rêverie’ deals at length with Rousseau’s stay in the farmhouse on the Île for six weeks in the summer of 1765 before he was expelled as a political undesirable and departed for England. Both the Confessions and the Rêveries describe this summer as an idyllic pause in a sequence of persecutions and exiles.

This trapdoor achieved celebrity because it came to sum up Rousseau’s sojourn on the island. For Rousseau, the island offered him an escape. The trapdoor exemplified this, as it was said to be the way that he had escaped unwanted visitors. The beginnings of this story date from before the publication of either the Confessions or the Rêveries. The trapdoor itself was first mentioned in an account written in 1777 by a man called M. Desjobert of his literary pilgrimage to sites associated with the writer, including a visit to Rousseau’s bedroom, and the story was elaborated eleven years later in 1788 when it was first said that the trapdoor had provided a way for Rousseau to avoid ‘importuns.’ The numbers of the importunate to the farmhouse would only increase over the next twenty years, apparently providing an income for the family: in 1822 Louis Simond rather sourly noted that the farmhouse was now ‘a house of entertainment for curious travellers’ and that ‘a portly Swiss beauty, our landlady, introduced us to Rousseau’s room, in the state he left it, very scantily furnished, and the bare walls scribbled over with …enthusiastic rhapsodies about the Genevan philosopher’ (I, 62-3). The remains of these signatures and effusions are still on view. Tourist interest in the island was great enough to warrant the publication of a guidebook as early as 1815, L’Île S Pierre dite L’Île de Rousseau, dans le lac de Bienne à Berne, authored by ‘Sigismond Wagner’. Its account of the trapdoor is still more circumstantial. Having described the view from the window it observes that:

Outre de l’agrément de cette vue, un avantage particulier avoit décidé Rousseau à donner la preference à cette chamber sur toutes les autres de la maison, c’étoit un escalier dérobé qui conduisoit, au moyen d’une trappe, dans une chamber du rez-de-chaussée et de-là dans la campagne. Rousseau s’échappoit souvent par cette issue, quand le bruit qui se faisoit dans le corridor l’avertissoit de l’approche de quelque visite importune, et se hâtoit de se soustraire à leur vaine curioisité, en se réfugiant dans les endroits les plus solitaires du bois… (74).

[Besides the attraction of this view, one advantage in particular decided Rousseau’s preference for this room over all the others in the house, a secret staircase which led him, by way of a trapdoor, into a ground-floor room and from there into the countryside. Rousseau often escaped by this exit, when the noise in the corridor alerted him to the approach of some importunate visit, and he hastened to escape their vain curiosity by taking refuge in the most solitary places of the woods…]

In 1819, this story had enough traction to inform a depiction of the bedroom in Vues de différentes habitations de J. J. Rousseau, which shows the philosopher vanishing down through the trapdoor in the floor in order to escape the well-dressed visitors coming in through the door to pay their respects.

For Rousseau’s admirers and mythologizers this trapdoor came to epitomise the writer’s notorious disinclination to society’s surveillance and his preference for the delights of his own imagination, and in particular, reverie. The fame of the trapdoor attested, too, to a longing on the part of readers to experiment with being Rousseau through sharing in his fantasy of the Île St Pierre as an exit from the pressures of the world. More nebulously, the trapdoor concentrated the newly fashionable experience of visiting the home of a now-dead author; it suggested that the reason why tourists do not find Rousseau at home is that he has hastily and characteristically popped out to avoid them. The trapdoor thus describes in little the emerging phenomenon of romantic period literary tourism: the desire to supplement reading by visiting the scenes described by the author, so as to experiment with inhabiting that subjectivity more fully. The fame of this site attests to the pan-European cosmopolitan appeal of becoming Rousseau, attracting admirers from across Europe and Russia.

Creator: not known

Date: not known

Subject: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Media rights: photograph by Nicola J. Watson

Object type: building

Format: wood and metal

Language: not applicable

Publisher: Author

Location: Restaurant and Hôtel de l’Île St Pierre

Digital collection record: not available

Catalogue number: not available


Simond, Louis, Switzerland; or, A Journal of a Tour and Residence in that Country, in the years 1817, 1818, and 1819: followed by An Historical Sketch on the manners of Ancient and Modern Helvetia in which the events of our own time are fully detailed, together with the causes to which they may be referred. 2 vols. London: John Murray, 1822.

Sigismond Wagner [Sigmund von Wagner], L’Île Saint-Pierre ou L’Île de Rousseau. Ed. with introd. Pierre Kohler. Lausanne: Editions SPES, n.d.

Vues de différentes habitations de J.J.Rousseau. Paris: np, 1819.