Tales from the Frontier - No. 7

Switzerland is a curst, selfish, swinish country of brutes, placed in the most romantic region of the world
- Lord Byron

I think his Lordship is being a trifle unkind to the inhabitants of the land of William Tell and the Geneva Convention. But only a trifle. Why did he come to this harsh judgement? Did a lady from Berne resist his charms or one of his Zurich-bought insurance policies refuse to pay out? What was the explanation for his anti-Helvetian ire? He liked the snow-capped mountains well enough, but must have been convinced the lush valleys were occupied by a very unprepossessing class of peasant.

Maybe he was a touch liverish because he had recently split up from his wife of barely a year. She was Baroness Wentworth and being named after a golf course is known to be off-putting for a sensitive young poet. She might have been named after an American course and be Baroness Whistling Straits or Baroness Brickyard Crossing so it could have been much worse. But the Swiss could hardly be held responsible for his wife’s moniker.

He left England under a bit of a cloud. He was apparently dallying with his half-sister (not illegal but frowned on by the sister-less majority and presumably by the lady Wentworth), only to encounter a bigger continental cloud.

In Switzerland in mid-June it was almost perpetual rain due to an ash-laden volcanic eruption in Indonesia the previous year resulting in 1816 being named, ‘the year without summer’. Switzerland in cold rain can be almost as depressing as the Ruhr valley in any weather. (Maybe the real reason the Dambusters had a go at drowning it).

‘Wandering lonely as a cloud’ or the Byronic equivalent is no joy with rain coming down like stair rods. Icy water tops up your wellies, and your Young Romantics hairdo gets flattened resulting in it resembling large road kill. As a dedicated philanderer our George knew that looking like a rioter strafed by water cannon wouldn’t elicit a welcoming response from the local people. Being a wordsmith, ‘curst’ is probably the politest word he used as upper lips began to curl when he squelched into view. I write ‘people’ rather than ‘ladies’ because George was known to swing both ways and contempt for his sodden appearance would have been bipartisan. If the people weren’t ‘brutes’ they would have given the poor man a rub down and a hot toddy.

He and his team, including Mary Shelley before she married Percy Bysshe, did do a lot of wandering and Byron admired the ‘romantic region’ after clambering up and down a few mountains despite the weather. Byron had a lifelong propensity to seek ideal perfection in all of life’s experiences. He would have found plenty of that in the glorious mountains of the Bernese Oberland and the Alps but the inhabitants themselves certainly fell well short of ‘perfect’. The fact that Mary Shelley’s idea for Frankenstein’s monster was engendered in Switzerland is possibly coincidental. I have noticed a few flat heads but no eight-footers with neck bolts.

The Swiss, where Byron was staying near Geneva, are rather different from the Swiss on the other side of the border from here. There they tend to be more French than German and as an English aristocrat, Byron knew it was his duty to feel superior to, and disapprove of, the French. Presumably Swiss-French would have merited twofold rejection. Being doubly foreign and half-French has absolutely nothing going for it.

Byron was only in Switzerland for about four months so his judgement as well as being harsh was speedily arrived at. The few locals he did meet were probably just as wet and grumpy as he was and were more interested in getting into something warm and dry rather than chatting to a man reported to be, ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. They wouldn’t be too concerned as to what his Lordship thought of them since at this time he had no money to invest.

As his comment above shows, he was not in the airiest of moods or at his most charitable during his stay. It was about this time that he wrote Manfred and that is far from being a bubbly light-hearted piece – rather an accompaniment for a wrist slitting session. Not the kind of prose to appeal to the Swiss where the finest writing is reckoned to be that adorning high denomination banknotes.