A Frankenstein Travel Guide: Mary Shelley’s Journeys into the Sublime (Anniversary Series #2)
The second in my Frankenstein at 200 Anniversary Blog Series looks at one of the most crucial elements of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: the profound sense of place that Shelley evokes as Frankenstein pursues his creature through increasingly wild and inhospitable landscapes that are repeatedly linked with death and the supernatural. From the seas of ice that open and close the novel, threatening to swallow and crush Walton’s ship, to the glacial summits of Mont Blanc, landscapes indicate the wild, sublime and insurmountable limits of nature that Frankenstein has attempted to transgress in his scientific creation of the ‘monster’, but which ultimately still wield their immense and unforgiving power over his mortal frame. They also represent Frankenstein’s increasing distance from the safe comforts of home, family and society – Frankenstein’s only comfort in such wild and harsh terrain is the spirits of the dead that seem naturally at home in such regions. But did you know that Shelley’s depiction of these landscapes is drawn from her own exciting travels, and that her experiences in these incredible real-life places form one of the central inspirations behind her novel?
Mary Shelley spent much of her life travelling abroad. When she was just 16 years old, consumed by the fires of first love with her future husband, the already married Percy Shelley, she eloped with him to the continent leaving his pregnant wife behind (a source of continued scandal throughout her life). The lovers brought with them Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont. For six weeks they travelled across France, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands, travelling by boat, donkey, mule, carriage, and often slogging long distances on foot in the summer heat. “Nothing could be more barren and wretched than the track through which we now passed,” she records;
“the ground was chalky and uncovered even by grass, and where there had been any attempts made towards cultivation, the straggling ears of corn discovered more plainly the barren nature of the soil. Thousands of insects, which were of the same white colour as the road, infested our path; the sky was cloudless, and the sun darted its rays upon us, reflected back by the earth, until I nearly fainted under the heat.”
The going was often difficult, but they were rewarded too: “The glaciers, and the lakes, and the forests, and the fountains of the mighty Alps” that Mary “beheld in the enthusiasm of youth” left an indelible impression on her, stoking a passion for travel, the wild landscapes of nature, and the more liberal societies of the continent that would last her entire life. She would return with Percy and Claire to the continent in 1816, resulting in that famous Summer at the Villa Diodati where Frankenstein was born (in the writing of which she would draw heavily on these travels), and she would likewise spend much of her later life abroad, finding a particular sense of home in the mountainous regions of Italy.
“It was acting in a novel,” she would later say of her elopement and romantic travels through Europe; it was “being an incarnate romance.” For Mary, the experiences of travelling and writing were often inextricably intertwined. As well as reading heavily during her travels, she kept a journal and wrote letters, some of which would be published jointly with Percy in 1817 as A History of a Six Weeks’ Tour. She draws quite consciously on an established tradition at the time of the Romantic Grand Tour – a journey, primarily taken by young men, designed to broaden their experiences and cultural knowledge – and also of the well-established practice of Romantic writing about travel. Like Mary Shelley’s own Frankenstein, many of the hugely popular gothic novels (consumed at the time in proportions much like Twilight and Harry Potter today, and with similarly mixed praise and criticism) revolved around particular representations of landscapes that conformed to ideas of the ‘sublime.’
The ‘sublime’ was an aesthetic theory, most popularly espoused by philosophers like Joseph Addison and Edmund Burke, that valued experiences of vastness and greatness beyond the human ability to fathom. Opposed to beauty, the sublime often invoked a peculiarly pleasurable experience of terror and the sense of one’s own insignificance in the face of such insurmountable magnitude. From its earliest days, the Gothic was infused with the sublime, and drew on the terror invoked by the awesome power of nature, as well as the supernatural that was often connected with nature’s extreme limits. Naturally, the inhospitable and wild regions of the Alps – the highest and most vast mountain range in Europe – were foundational for many experiences of the sublime, including for Mary Shelley herself. Recording her own journey within the Alps, she writes:
“range after range of black mountains are seen extending one before the other, and far behind all, towering above every feature of the scene, the snowy Alps. They were an hundred miles distant, but reach so high in the heavens, that they look like those accumulated clouds of dazzling white that arrange themselves on the horizon during summer. Their immensity staggers the imagination, and so far surpasses all conception, that it requires an effort of the understanding to believe that they indeed form a part of the earth.”
Shelley repeats this language of the unearthly in Frankenstein, where it becomes a crucial means through which the sublime and terrifying limits of nature enact terror and a sense of the supernatural. As Frankenstein begins his narration of supernatural horror, he draws on the eerie power of the landscape to support his tale: “Were we among the tamer scenes of nature I might fear to encounter your unbelief, perhaps your ridicule; but many things will appear possible in these wild and mysterious regions.” When he is pursuing the creature, which is drawing him into ever more remote, wild and dangerous landscapes, he describes “The immense mountains and precipices that overhung me on every side, the sound of the river raging among the rocks, and the dashing of the waterfalls around” that “spoke of a power mighty as Omnipotence.” But what beauty this scene has is “augmented and rendered sublime by the mighty Alps, whose white and shining pyramids and domes towered above all, as belonging to another earth, the habitations of another race of beings.” This connection with the supernatural – “another earth” and “another race of beings” is particularly significant, since the ‘monster’ he has created, which he repeatedly refers to as a ‘demon,’ a ‘wretch’, a ‘spectre’ and even a ‘vampire’, is perfectly at home in these regions.
Drawing on her experiences of wild mountain storms during her stay in Geneva, Shelley describes the sublime experiences of Frankenstein’s encounter with the ‘monster’:
“the darkness and storm increased every minute, and the thunder burst with a terrific crash over my head. It was echoed from Salêve, the Juras, and the Alps of Savoy; vivid flashes of lightning dazzled my eyes, illuminating the lake, making it appear like a vast sheet of fire; then for an instant every thing seemed of a pitchy darkness, until the eye recovered itself from the preceding flash. The storm, as is often the case in Switzerland, appeared at once in various parts of the heavens. […] I perceived in the gloom a figure which stole from behind a clump of trees near me; I stood fixed, gazing intently: I could not be mistaken. A flash of lightning illuminated the object, and discovered its shape plainly to me; its gigantic stature, and the deformity of its aspect more hideous than belongs to humanity, instantly informed me that it was the wretch, the filthy dæmon, to whom I had given life. […] I thought of pursuing the devil; but it would have been in vain, for another flash discovered him to me hanging among the rocks of the nearly perpendicular ascent of Mont Salêve, a hill that bounds Plainpalais on the south. He soon reached the summit, and disappeared.”
It is no coincidence that it is in the seas of ice at the limit of the world and human scientific knowledge – the North Pole – that Frankenstein and the creature both meet their end. Shadows that have pursued each other beyond the bounds of nature, they are at last returned to the elements, in a fittingly sublime and gothic end: “lost in darkness and distance.”
What do you think of Mary Shelley’s travels or Frankenstein‘s landscapes? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Read Mary and Percy Shelley’s A History of a Six Weeks’ Tour online here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/52790/52790-h/52790-h.htm
Read Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful online here: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/burke/edmund/sublime/