1814 Six-Week Tour

1814 Six-Week Tour

Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin, and Claire Clairmont spent six weeks of the summer of 1814 on a Petite Tour (one could hardly call it a Grand Tour, given their pecuniary hardships) through France, Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium. Most of what they saw no longer stands: the devastating Napoleonic and World Wars destroyed a tremendous number of pre-eighteenth century architecture across the continent. Still, a few sites remain: churches and castles that somehow managed to withstand the war's destruction and peace's urban renewal; and one or two buildings that escaped destruction largely due to their obscurity.

Percy and Mary Shelley's History of a Six Weeks' Tour was published in 1817. But reading about their first stop—in Calais— for example, modern visitors are left to wander Calais guessing at what the party might have seen. Even though they seemed to have remained close to the port, the Notre Dame Church (at the end of the Rue Duc de Guise) would have been readily visible, as well as Fort Risban (at the Base do Voile). Certainly they could not have missed the thirteenth century Tour de Guet, shown below.

The party was forced to wait in Calais for their luggage, but on the 30 July, about three in the afternoon, they set forth in a "ludicrous" French cabriolet drawn by three horses. Despite the coastal breezes, Mary suffered from the intense heat. They stayed at Boulogne, where Mary seems to have missed the moated thirteenth century chateau built for the local counts, but remarked upon her "ugly but remarkably good-tempered femme de chambre."

Due to the warm weather's "very bad effect" upon her health, Mary encouraged everyone "to hasten the journey as much as possible; and accordingly we did not rest the following night, and the next day, about two, arrived in Paris." There they rented a "dear, and not very pleasant" apartment and saw the sights—although the only ones Mary comments upon are the "Thuilleries," which she found "formal and uninteresting, in the French fashion, the trees cut into shapes, and without any grass"; and "the gate of St. Denis, a beautiful piece of sculpture" which made her muse upon the "Gothic barbarism of the conquerors of France" and "imagine that the days of Roman greatness were transported to Paris" (lithograph of St. Denis in 1834, courtesy of the Library of the City of Paris).


Overall, however, Mary considered her Paris stay an "imprisonment . . . which we found very irksome."

On 8 August, they departed Paris, stayed briefly at Charenton, and moved on to Guignes, where they stayed "in the same room and beds in which Napoleon and some of his Generals had rested during the late war." The hotel is still there today.

They then moved on to Provins, "the first place that struck us with interest" and the first place outside of Paris where Mary identifies specific sites. The view of the town was appealing: "we approached it at sunset. After having gained the summit of a hill, the prospect of the town opened upon us as it lay in the valley below; a rocky hill rose abruptly on one side, on the top of which stood a ruined citadel [the Tour Cesar, seen below] with extensive walls and towers . . . . "

". . . lower down, but beyond, was the cathedral [the twelfth century Collegiale Saint-Quiriace], and the whole formed a scene for painting."

Despite the coarse fare and uncomfortable beds at Provins, Mary seemed to have remembered the place fondly.

After a long and miserable journey, punctuated by fatigue, injury, filth, insects, heat, "stinking bacon, sour bread, and a few vegetables, which we were to dress for ourselves," the party arrived at Troyes, which Mary found "dirty and uninviting." They stopped at the coach house/inn, which still stands, and Mary "remained at the inn writing."

While Mary wrote, Shelley (sprained ankle and all) and Claire "visited the cathedral of the town" which still stands today.

They then moved on to Switzerland, noticing "a surprising difference" between the French and Swiss: "The Swiss cottages are much cleaner and neater, and the inhabitants exhibit the same contrast . . . . This superior cleanliness is chiefly produced by the difference of religion: travellers in Germany remark the same contrast between the protestant and catholic towns, although they be but a few leagues separate."

Most of Mary's commentary focuses on the magnificent scenery; her description of Neuchâtel, for example, is limited to its situation "in a narrow plain, between the mountains and its immense lake, and presents no additional aspect of peculiar interest." No mention is made of Neuchâtel's medieval castle and church.

Unable to procure economical housing, the party decided to return to London, choosing water travel as the most economical form of transit. They traveled to Lucerne in order to take advantage of the rivers of the Reuss and Rhine. As they left Lucerne, "the sky became clear, and the sun-beams dried and cheered us. We saw again, and for the last time, the rocky shores of this beautiful lake, its verdant isles, and snow-capt mountains."

They proceeded into Germany, and Mary's journal is once again unconcerned with local sites; the German trip is a fairly typical collection of descriptions of marvelous scenery and anecdotes about local boorishness: for example, "Our companions in this voyage were of the meanest class, smoked prodigiously, and were exceedingly disgusting. After having landed for refreshment in the middle of the day, we found, on our return to the boat, that our former seats were occupied; we took others, when the original possessors angrily, and almost with violence, insisted upon our leaving them. Their brutal rudeness to us, who did not understand their language, provoked S*** to knock one of the foremost down: he did not return the blow, but continued his vociferations until the boatmen interfered, and provided us with other seats."

The Rhine journey seems to have been a pleasant one, although again Mary is maddeningly vague about specifics. She refers her reader to the Third Canto of Byron's Childe Harold, "as they conjured before us these lovely scenes with the truth and vividness of painting, and with the exquisite addition of glowing language and a warm imagination." She mentions "hills covered with vines and trees, craggy cliffs crowned by desolate towers,

and wooded islands, where picturesque ruins peeped from behind the foliage, and cast the shadows of their forms on the troubled waters, which distorted without deforming them." She might well have been describing Burg Gutenfels (above) or Burg Rheinstein (below),

or any one of twenty-odd castles and ruins which can still be seen today:

Ruin Ehnrenfels, for example,

or the dreary Ruine Furstenburg.

"We heard the songs of the vintagers, and if surrounded by disgusting Germans, the sight was not so replete with enjoyment as I now fancy it to have been; yet memory, taking all the dark shades from the picture, presents this part of the Rhine to my remembrance as the loveliest paradise on earth."

In addition, they would have passed the ruined Frankenstein castle. There is some contention over whether Burg Frankenstein and the Frankenstein castle are indeed Shelley sites. Most Romantic specialists are fairly adamant about the lack of a link between the town, the castle, and the family name of Mary's protagonist. Visitors might be struck, however, by a number of lingering coincidences.

First, Mary's trip up the Rhine carried her within two miles of the castle site. The ruins stand on an imposing height, and its topmost towers could have been easily seen from the Rhine. She might very well have asked the locals about the ruin.

Second, there is the matter of the unfortunate Konrad Dipple, a student/alchemist/seeker of eternal life whose ill-fated quest seems to parallel Victor Frankenstein's own. Dipple was born in the castle in 1673, later wrote a university thesis on nothing ("De Nihilo"), and then returned to the castle to study and experiment in the tall tower rooms.

He believed that Prussic acid, when mixed properly with the body parts he managed to collect, was the key to a long—and possibly eternal—life. When he finally tried the mixture on himself in 1734, however, he died an excruciating death—probably from cyanide poisoning. Mary would have been interested in such local tales—in Brunen, she had carefully noted "the story of a priest and his mistress, who, flying from persecution, inhabited a cottage at the foot of the snows. One winter night an avalanche overwhelmed them, but their plaintive voices are still heard in stormy nights, calling for succour. . . ."

As Brian Bailey, who maintains a delightful Frankenstein website, points out: "The character of Victor Frankenstein is similar to the Alchemist Dipple.  Both had a passion for life.  Both left their university studies to delve into a dangerous science.  Both died tragically from the makings of their obsession—the obsession of harnessing life and the futile attempt to reject the manifestation of death."

The logical question, of course, is why on earth didn't Mary mention the legend, the castle, or even the city in her journals and introduction to Frankenstein. Perhaps she wished to separate her nightmare vision from the reality of history in order to underscore her status as a visionary writer. Or perhaps the omission was simply typical of her indifference to local sites.

In early-September, the Shelleys crossed into the Netherlands toward Rotterdam, where they hoped to book passage home. In Cleves, they would certainly have seen the Schwanenberg ("Swan Castle")

and the St. Maria Himmilfahrt Stifskirche.

In Nijmegen, Mary remarked upon a celebrated "flying bridge" which has long since been replaced by an up to date model, but the polygonal Valkhof chapel (known as the St. Nicolaaskapel), a remnant of Charlemagne's former residential palace, still exists,

as does the Romanesque half-ruined “Barbarossa” chapel (named in honor of Charlemagne's descendant), seen here from the back.

St. Stephen’s unusual spire would also have been visible.

The Shelley party was in Rotterdam ("remarkably clean") and Mary says nothing about the sights of the town. But the group surely would have seen at least the spires of the Rotterdam Cathedral.

They left on 9 September, after promising a boat captain payment when they reached Gravesend in England. There was a severe storm, however, and the ship sought the harbor at “Marsluys” (Massluis).

Given the storm, the weather would have hardly been appropriate for sightseeing, but even from the harbor they would have been able to see the spires of the Great Church of Massluis. They passed the time writing. Shelley worked on a novel called The Assassins; Mary assisted him, wrote in her journal, and started a story called "Hate." Claire began a short story entitled “Idiot.”

They were finally able to leave Rotterdam on 11 September, although the weather was still frightfully rough, and the crossing took two days. One can only imagine how glad the weary travellers were to be home.