Summer of Love: The Romantics at Lake Geneva


By Tony Perrottet | NYPL Allen and Wertheim Rooms

The republic of Switzerland is seldom thought of as a lusty outpost of bohemian creativity. But in the early 1800s, some of the world’s most flamboyant artists sought out the fleshpots of Lake Geneva. This beautiful mountain destination attracted a mix of freethinkers, sexual adventurers, philosophers, and exiles who attended literary salons that flourished in its thriving artistic community. During the summer of 1816, the most scandalous group descended from England in the wake of the devilishly handsome 28-year-old poet Lord Byron. For four months, Byron rented a villa by the electric-blue waters of Lake Geneva, where he hosted animated soirees. There, he was joined by the intense 23-year-old poet and radical Percy Bysshe Shelley; his soulful, auburn-haired, 18-year-old future wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (they didn’t marry until the end of 1816); and Mary’s adventurous stepsister, Claire Clairmont. The result was doubtless the most artistically productive vacation of the century.

The summer of 1816 was also noteworthy for a startling event in meteorological lore. The eruption of Mount Tambora in faraway Indonesia sent a cloud of volcanic ash across the northern hemisphere; it became “the year without a summer.” When Byron and his friends were trapped indoors by “an almost perpetual rain” and wild lightning storms, he proposed that each member of the group compose a horror story. It was here that Mary came up with the idea for Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Byron’s traveling companion and physician, John Polidori, wrote a nightmarish short story called The Vampyre. It was the first vampire story in English and would influence Bram Stoker’s Dracula some 80 years later.

The Romantic writers were delighted by the unspoiled vistas of Lake Geneva and its surrounding snow-capped mountains. This watercolor, “Mont Blanc after sunset from the Secheron,” was made by Thomas Henry Graham (1793–1881) during an 1818 tour of Switzerland and France. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection

Lake Geneva and its environs in Switzerland, as depicted in Johann Heinrich Weiss’s Atlas Suisse (1786–1802). Commenting on Weiss’s atlas, NYPL’s geospatial librarian Matt Knutzen observes: “It represents a landmark in alpine cartography. If you look closely, you can see the map was made using a method called Hachuring. Using this technique, the cartographer introduces an artificial light source, typically from the northwest, that represents slope, with small lines accumulating to create the illusion of light and shadow playing on the sides of mountains. The hachures, as the lines are called, run perpendicular to the elevation contours typically seen on topographic maps today. (For example, if you dropped a ball from the top of the mountain and it rolled down, the ball’s path would represent the general direction of the hachure lines.) In that way, they beautifully represent the topographic nuances and intricacies of the mountains and do a very nice job of differentiating among flat land, walled and fortified cities, villages, small castles, and the landed estates of the nobility. The atlas is a spectacular work of cartographic art. The multiple pages, each roughly two feet by three feet, are meant to be removed from the binding and put back together as a composite map to create a grand cartographic tapestry of Switzerland. Just about the only place such an expansive map could fit would be on the walls of a castle — which also suggests the audience for this map.” NYPL, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division

Byron had left England earlier in 1816, fleeing scandal: an ignominious divorce and gossip about his relationship with his half sister Augusta. He crossed the English Channel to France, visited the battlefield of Waterloo in Belgium, then traveled south along the Rhine in a reproduction of Napoleon’s coach, accompanied by a squadron of servants, a peacock, a monkey, and a dog. With its rich literary associations as the former home of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, and Edward Gibbon, Lake Geneva was an obvious choice for the dashing young sybarite to spend the summer. The region was also breathtakingly beautiful; its wild mountain landscape appealed to the Romantic writers’ longing for unspoiled nature. The Shelleys planned to rendezvous with Byron in Geneva — an arrangement prompted by Clairmont, who had been Byron’s lover back in England. The two parties met at a hotel outside the Geneva city walls in May, but soon moved to the nearby secluded farming village of Cologny to escape the English tourists Byron dubbed “staring Boobies.”

The young Romantics were bewitched by the Swiss landscape. In her letters, Mary raved about the near-tropical color of the lake, “blue as the heavens which it reflects,” and the clarity of the water, which on evening sailing trips revealed schools of fish darting across the pebbles below — one of many local scenes she would use in Frankenstein, in which the transgressive doctor, Victor Frankenstein, is a Geneva native. Today, the area’s profligate natural beauty remains intact. The croissant-shaped Lake Geneva is the largest and deepest of the Swiss lakes. Surrounded by snow-capped peaks, it enjoys a sunny microclimate that keeps the winters mild and summers almost tropical, earning it the title “Swiss Riviera.” There are even palm trees by the eastern shore, and the water is warm enough for swimming.

When Percy Shelley met Lord Byron in 1816, the latter was England’s most famous poet, thanks in part to the 1812 publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. NYPL, Berg Collection

Mary Shelley pronounced Lake Geneva’s water as “blue as the heavens which it reflects.” NYPL, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division

In Cologny, Byron settled into the luxurious Villa Diodati, which featured commanding views of Lake Geneva, while the Shelleys took up residence in the more humble Maison Chapuis, set by the water just below. Byron’s initial resistance to resuming his affair with Clairmont did not last long. (“I never loved her nor pretended to love her,” he later wrote, “but a man is a man — & if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours — there is but one way.”) The group regularly gathered at Villa Diodati, where they read German horror stories and learned about the latest scientific theories on galvanism, the life force, and animation from Dr. Polidori. Wine flowed copiously, as did laudanum, a form of liquefied opium. In the surreal, claustrophobic atmosphere, it’s not surprising that Mary became “possessed” by a story about a scientist who assembles a creature from stolen body parts and infuses it with life.

Today, Cologny is one of the most exclusive residential addresses in Europe. Divided into magnificent estates, it serves as home to bankers, sheiks, and European celebrities. The salmon-pink Villa Diodati is still in private hands. Its interior has been split into luxury apartments, but its exterior has changed very little from its appearance in 19th-century engravings and includes the expansive balcony where Byron finished the third canto of his popular Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Vineyards that once tumbled down to the water are now flower-filled gardens, though, and the Shelleys’ maison is gone.

When the rain finally lifted, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Byron set off on a weeklong sailing trip around Lake Geneva. They became literary pilgrims, seeking out the sites of the most beloved novel of their era, Rousseau’s epistolary love story Julie, or the New Heloïse.

Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati, ca. 1820, where, just a few years earlier, he challenged Mary Shelley to write the ghost story that became Frankenstein. NYPL, Print Collection

For the young poets, the trip’s highlight was the medieval fortress Château de Chillon. In the 16th century, it became notorious as a political prison. Shelley and Byron were deeply moved when a gendarme showed them the dungeon where an outspoken cleric, François Bonivard, had been chained to a pillar for six years. The dungeon remains an attraction. Guides point out where Byron supposedly carved his name into a pillar, the graffito protected under glass. After their visit, the poets spent the night nearby, where Byron stayed up late writing The Prisoner of Chillon, a poem about Bonivard, and Shelley worked on his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.

The writers also made grueling excursions into the Swiss Alps by horse and mule. They wrote vividly about feeling overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the peaks and waterfalls, rumbling avalanches, and the unearthly glaciers. One glacier, Byron wrote, was “like a frozen hurricane.” Mary Shelley drew on her impressions of this landscape to depict the arctic scenes in Frankenstein. With his visiting friend John Hobhouse, Byron made an ambitious alpine jaunt into the breathtaking Bernerse Oberland highlands and to the village of Lauterbrunnen, stunningly located in a deep gorge lined with waterfalls, one of which Byron described as “the tail of a white horse streaming in the wind.” Shelley wrote of the rigors of riding mules and enthused about hearing an avalanche amongst the “palaces of Nature” when he and Mary traveled to see Mont Blanc.

The Shelleys returned to London after the summer of 1816, largely because Clairmont had become pregnant as a result of her liaison with Byron. Within seven years, both Shelley and Byron were dead at young ages. Mary Shelley, in the introduction to an 1831 edition of Frankenstein, fondly recalled the “happy days” of 1816.

Byron composed The Prisoner of Chillon after he and Shelley visited the medieval Castle Chillon, which held political prisoners in earlier centuries. This engraving from 1828 was made by Robert Wallis (1794–1878) after the artist Clarkson Stanfield (1793–1867). NYPL, Picture Collection

At Castle Chillon, whose turrets rise dreamlike from Lake Geneva, waves lap right outside the barred windows of its dungeon; the imposing fortress still attracts curious writers and tourists. This 1832 engraving by Edward Francis Finden (1791–1857), after the artist James Duffield Harding (1798–1863) and a sketch by W. Page, was taken from the volume Finden's landscape illustrations to Mr. Murray's first complete and uniform edition of the life and works of Lord Byron. NYPL, Picture Collection

Byron’s presence in Switzerland caused quite a stir, and numerous memorials to him were erected throughout the villages he visited around Lake Geneva. The Hotel d’Angleterre, in Lausanne, celebrates its claim to fame with this marble plaque. Photo courtesy author

After the Shelleys left Switzerland at the end of the summer of 1816, Byron traveled to Italy, where he settled in Venice. The Shelleys visited him there in 1818, remaining in Italy until Percy’s death in 1822. A year later, Mary was forced to return to England, where she spent the rest of her life. NYPL, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division

New York–based author Tony Perrottet has written extensively about the history of travel. He is the author of five books, including Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists; Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped; and The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe, which began as an award-winning series for the online magazine Slate. A contributing writer at Smithsonian magazine, he also writes regularly for The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, and the London Sunday Times. His work has been translated into 10 languages and selected for the Best American Travel Writing series four times. He has used the collections of The New York Public Library for many years and been a writer in residence in both of the Library’s research study rooms, the Allen Room and the Wertheim Study.

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