Printer-friendly versionSend by email


A city of about thirty thousand at the time of the novel, Geneva had long held an importance in central Europe incommensurate with its relatively modest size. John Calvin, arriving in this quiet city in 1536, transformed it into a center of the Reformation. In 1559, Calvin and Théodore de Bèze founded the University of Geneva to function as a center of Protestant intellectual inquiry. This orientation made a natural linkage between the University of Geneva and Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England that thrived throughout the later Renaissance.

That early sense of kinship the English felt for the Swiss was reinforced during Mary Shelley's age by two factors. One was the invasion of this neutral, unoffending country by the French in 1798, which became a major focus of government propaganda in England and effectively ended all sympathy for the course of the French Revolution by its intellectual elite. The second, and for Mary Shelley a more immediate factor, was the inveterate hostility to Napoleon practiced by the leading citizen of Geneva's small suburb of Coppet, Germaine de Staël, who there surrounded herself with a significant circle of independent and generally democratic thinkers like A. W. Schlegel and J. C. L. Simonde de Sismondi. The daughter of one of the few untouchable supporters of the early revolution, Jacques Necker, who kept France financially afloat during its turbulent transition from monarchy to jacobin directory, Germaine de Staël was banned from France by Napoleon and through her travels enjoyed a pan-European renown. Byron met her in London in 1813, a year before his publisher John Murray brought out her important work On Germany.

The circle surrounding Madame de Staël could be construed as an extension of the earlier source of independent intellectual energy provided by Geneva's most famous citizen in the eightenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. During the 1816 summer, Byron and Shelley undertook a boat tour of the northern shore of Lake Geneva with the particular aim of visiting locations associated with Rousseau and his writings. Although Mary remained behind, she would have shared their enthusiasm for this last great figure of the French Enlightenment. It could not have been absent from her mind that to begin a first-person narrative account, "I am by birth a Genevese" (I:1:1) would automatically remind readers of Rousseau's Confessions, the fourth paragraph of which begins in a similar manner. Rousseau's spirit, indeed, might be said to hover over the entire novel, from its emphasis on a new "noble savage" to its concern with education, particularly in the formation of the Creature, to its antiestablishment political undertones.

With such pronounced associations of relevance in both its past and recent history, Geneva stands as a perfect match for the other great center of the Enlightenment, St. Petersburg. As Chapter 1 issues, so to speak, from the voice of Victor Frankenstein identifying himself with the Swiss city, Letter 1 (I:L1:1) is dated by Robert Walton from the Russian capital. Together these figures and these cities represent the values of the Enlightenment that will be interrogated over and over in the subsequent pages of Mary Shelley's novel.