During the Romantic period in the early nineteenth century, Switzerland and its Alps were most often portrayed as a kind of utopian alpine idyll, stocked with idealised democratic peasant republicans in harmony with nature. This was thanks firstly to the Swiss Confederation’s long history of independent republicanism and direct democracy, which appealed to both radical and conservative writers alike.
Added to this was a growing aesthetic appreciation of the country’s physical environment, the Swiss Alps providing perhaps the ultimate experience of the awe-inspiring natural sublime available to European writers of the period. This natural sublimity helped underwrite Switzerland’s political traditions, making that country—with its stunning mountain vistas, juxtaposed against its picturesque valleys—a place to bring together political and aesthetic longings, somewhere that could embody millenarian hopes for a new heaven and a new earth, for personal redemption, for the reconciliation of humankind with the natural world and the perfecting of human society.
At the same time, however, there was an older, shadow side associated with the Alps. For centuries, they had been feared as the abode of demons and dragons; a diabolical wilderness to pass through as swiftly as possible on the way to the more welcoming landscapes of the Italian peninsula. These Satanic Alps were the ideal setting for Gothic works written during this period.
Mary Shelley wrote two major novels which make use of Switzerland’s natural environment, in both its utopian and dystopian forms. The Last Man, published in 1826, presents of a vision of Switzerland as a utopian alpine refuge, clearly inspired by the author’s time in that country ten years earlier. In 1816, she and her future husband, Percy Shelley, spent the summer on the shores of Lake Geneva, along with her half-sister, Claire Clairmont, and the poet Lord Byron and his physician John Polidori. A rather different vision of the Alps helps infuse Shelley’s much better-known work from 1818, Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus, with a menacing, diabolical presence, as it does other Gothic works produced by this celebrated group of writers, such as Byron’s Manfred (1817), Polidori’s Ernestus Berchtold (1819) and Percy Shelley’s St. Irvyne, or, the Rosicrucian (1811).
Mountains had been viewed in both positive and negative terms throughout human history, but by the late seventeenth century in Europe, a more negative appraisal had become dominant, which saw mountains as not having been part of the original creation, only coming into existence after the Fall, or the Flood, and therefore being a result of divine punishment of the earth for the sins of humankind. Thomas Heyrick in 1691 described mountains as the ‘broken Ruines of the former World’.1 Mountains—and for Heyrick and many other poets of his time, this especially meant the Swiss Alps—were therefore prominent reminders of the fallen state of the world. There are also countless instances of traditions and superstitions linking not only Satan but demons, goblins, giants and dragons to various locations throughout the mountainous regions of Switzerland. These sorts of associations naturally made entering mountainous areas, such as the Swiss Alps, a doubly terrifying prospect to many travellers—not only were the landscapes intimidating and filled with physical danger, they were also closely connected with divine retribution and home to all kinds of evil. Many travellers’ accounts of crossing the Alps, well into the eighteenth century, bear this out.
The poet William Wordsworth expressed a degree of exasperation with the Swiss regarding their obsession with all things diabolical following his visit to the country in 1790. Writing in a footnote to his 1793 poem, Descriptive Sketches, he notes that ‘the Devil with his horns, etc., seems to be in their idea, the principal agent that brings about the sublime natural revolutions that take place daily before their eyes’. 2 These Satanic associations are still strong in many parts of the Alps. Most famously, in the Lötschental valley in Canton Valais in the south of Switzerland, the locals dress up as demonic-looking creatures known as Tschäggättä for the carnival season, to see off the end of winter.
The Satanic presence in Frankenstein is expressed in a variety of ways. Central to this is an ‘autonomy of consciousness’ exhibited by the creature; an independence of mind typically associated with the Satan of the Romantics, based on but not limited to John Milton’s portrayal of Satan in his seventeenth-century epic poem, Paradise Lost. Milton’s epic is cited by the creature as one of the most influential works he has read during his conversation with Victor, his creator, in a wooden hut on the side of Mont Blanc. The creature says that ‘many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition, for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me’.3 The relationships between God and Satan, God and Man, Satan and Man from Paradise Lost are thoroughly ‘satanised’ in Shelley’s work, becoming monstrous caricatures of the originals. Elsewhere in the novel, Victor refers to his creature in satanised terms, calling him ‘the filthy daemon’ when he encounters him on his return to Geneva, ‘daemon’ being a term used sixteen times throughout the novel to refer to the creature, along with ‘devil’ around twelve times and ‘fiend’ close to forty times. One of the first theatrical productions of Shelley’s novel opened on the eighteenth of August 1823 at the Royal Coburg Theatre in London, a play by Henry M. Milner titled Frankenstein, or the Demon of Switzerland. Switzerland and the Alps were a fitting home for Frankenstein’s creature and he is able very effectively to embody some of the diabolical presence inhabiting the Swiss mountains.
Peter Schock, in his influential study, Romantic Satanism (2003), demonstrates how the Romantics used Satan to ‘mythicize the human struggle against various forms of oppression and limitation’ thereby gaining a ‘mythic medium for articulating the hopes and fears their age aroused, for prophesying and inducing change’.4 Before them, in the 1790s, Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin, amongst others, identified Milton’s Satan as ‘an embodiment of the fully autonomous intellect that discerns and rejects the radical injustice of a “despotic” and “assumed” power analogous to the arbitrary authority of prescription and precedent that governed England’.5 This understanding of Satan as an autonomous force, opposed to the established power of a despotic, divinely-approved ruler, finds expression in Frankenstein, and, more than once, Shelley frames this opposition within the Swiss landscape, by making a contrast between the Jura mountains on Switzerland’s western border with France, and Mont Blanc to the southeast.
For example, just after Victor marries Elizabeth, he relates that ‘those were the last moments of my life during which I enjoyed the feeling of happiness’.6 He then goes on to describe the scene from the shores of the lake, ‘the beautiful Mont Blanc, and the assemblage of mountains that in vain endeavour to emulate her’ and on the opposite side, ‘the mighty Jura opposing its dark side to the ambition that would quit its native country, and an almost insurmountable barrier to the invader who should wish to enslave it’.7 Mont Blanc is a peak towards which our attention and our longing are drawn, heights towards which we aspire. The Jura is the opposite—it limits and contains and prevents exchange. These representations of the opposing mountain massifs, at either end of the pays de Vaud region and Lake Geneva, echo God and Satan, good and evil, light and dark, but, curiously, they reverse our expectations. It is the God of the establishment who limits and contains human ambition, just as the dark Jura does to those trying to leave or enter Switzerland. Mont Blanc, on the other hand, is the revolutionary angel of light, Lucifer, calling to his human subjects to emulate his autonomy. The presence of these mountains amplifies the sense of the country between them being contested land, an earthly paradise, a Garden of Eden, over which two titans struggle.
This topographically-based staging of the contest between autonomy and freedom on the one hand, and despotic control on the other, aligns with the political associations typically made with Switzerland during this period and also expresses something of the broader political debate which continued in the aftermath of the French Revolution, throughout the Napoleonic Wars and into the subsequent period of the European Restoration. It shows that such a topographic-political consolidation can be articulated using a Satanic paradigm just as validly as it is more frequently used by Romantic writers to associate divine approval with landscape and political goals. Switzerland, then, is as much the home of a diabolical dystopia as it is the seat of a divine utopia. As Wordsworth observed, the inhabitants of the Swiss Alps saw Satan as being ‘the principal agent’ at work in their homeland. Although Romantic writers were more likely to invoke an idyllic image of Switzerland, there are still numerous Romantic works which make use of a darker, Gothic depiction of the alpine land. Switzerland and the Alps can be deployed equally well on the side of good or evil, light or dark, establishment or alternative, stasis or revolution.
- Nicolson, Marjorie Hope. Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite. Weyerhaeuser Environmental Classics. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.
- Schock, Peter A. Romantic Satanism: Myth and the Historical Moment in Blake, Shelley and Byron. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
- Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Ronald Levao, and Susan J. Wolfson. The Annotated Frankenstein. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012.
- Wordsworth, William, and Eric Birdsall. Descriptive Sketches. The Cornell Wordsworth. edited by Eric Birdsall and Paul M. Zall 21 vols Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984.
- Heyrick qtd. in Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: the Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite, Weyerhaeuser Environmental Classics (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997). 230.
- William Wordsworth and Eric Birdsall, Descriptive Sketches, ed. Eric Birdsall and Paul M. Zall, 21 vols., The Cornell Wordsworth (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984). 84.
- Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Ronald Levao, and Susan J. Wolfson, The Annotated Frankenstein (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012). 210.
- Peter A. Schock, Romantic Satanism: Myth and the Historical Moment in Blake, Shelley and Byron (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). 36, 6.
- Ibid., 2.
- Shelley, Levao, and Wolfson, The Annotated Frankenstein. 284.
- Ibid., 284-5.