The summer of love
Switzerland’s Lake Geneva and its Byronesque connections
WITH its high-flying bankers and glossy ski resorts, Switzerland is rarely thought of as a centre of bohemian creativity, but in the early 1800s Europe’s most flamboyant artists were drawn to Lake Geneva, where an underground party scene flourished.
The most scandalous group descended from England in the summer of 1816, in the wake of the Adonis-like, 28-year-old poet Lord Byron. For four months, Byron rented a luxury villa by Lake Geneva, where he hosted a string of erotic soirees. He was joined by the intense, 23-year-old poet Percy Shelley; his soulful 18-year-old mistress Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin; and Mary’s alluring step-sister Claire Clairmont. This was to be perhaps the most artistically productive vacation of the century.
The summer of 1816 was also noteworthy in that the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia sent a cloud of volcanic ash across the northern hemisphere. Trapped indoors for weeks by wild lightning storms, Byron proposed that each houseguest compose a horror story. The teenage Mary came up with the feverish idea for Frankenstein and Byron’s mentally disturbed physician John Polidori concocted The Vampyre, the first vampire story in English, which 80 years later would influence Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Today, the profligate natural beauty of this part of Switzerland is intact, so, like any 19th-century literary groupie, I plan to track down the sites visi- ted by the Romantic poets in Lake Geneva. Fortunately, this entails visiting one ravishing lakeside village after another using the network of elegant antique ferries. From the water, it’s easy to see why the bohemians of 1816 were so bewitched. Mary Shelley raved in letters about the startling colour of the lake (‘‘blue as the heavens which it reflects’’) and included its sites in Frankenstein .
During a break in the weather, Byron and Shelley went by boat to the Chateau de Chillon, a medieval castle still perched over crystalline waters. The castle was dreaded in the 16th century as a political prison, inspiring Byron to write The Prisoner of Chillon.
The dungeon is still open to the public, with waves lapping up to its barred windows, and you can see where Byron etched his name on a pillar, a graffito now protected under glass. In the nearby port of Ouchy, the inn where the pair stayed, Hotel d’Angleterre, is marked by a plaque. The most alluring literary shrines of the ‘‘Frankenstein summer’’ lie in the village of Cologny, where Byron rented the grandiose Villa Diodati with lake views, and the Shelleys lived in the more modest Maison Chapuis nestled below.
I arrive in Cologny by ferry and sweat up steep alleyways to Chemin de Ruth 9, where Diodati is carved into the stone gatepost of a rose-coloured mansion, now divided into apartments; its facade has changed little from 1816 engravings, including the pleasant balcony where Byron penned the third canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
The villa’s iron gate has been left open, so I stroll into the estate. As I peer through windows at chandeliers and ornate fittings, I visualise the holiday-makers of 1816 gathering by candlelight to discuss literature and love. It was a busy summer. Byron had begun an affair with Claire Clairmont in England, and succumbed again to her charms. ‘‘If a girl of 18 comes prancing to you at all hours, there is but one way,’’ he protested.
In mid-June began ‘‘an almost perpetual rain’’, Mary recalled, with thunderstorms sweeping from the mountains. The group read German horror stories while sampling liquefied opium. Mary dreamed the plot of Frankenstein and Byron encouraged her to turn it into a novel.
On my illicit stickybeaking, I have a vision of today’s less bohemian Swiss residents denouncing this intruder to the police. I scramble out through the security gate just before it clangs shut. montreux-palace.com angleterre-residence.ch myswitzerland.com
Erotic soirees enlivened Byron’s sojourn at Lake Geneva; Chateau de Chillon, left