Contents Index

Geneva, Switzerland

Geneva, the major French-speaking city of Switzerland, is situated at the western end of Lake Geneva in the southwestern corner of the country adjacent to France.

The Rhône River, which empties from the lake, runs through the city where it is joined by the Arve descending from the glaciers of Mont Blanc. The augmented river then flows eastward through France to connect with the Saône at Lyons, where it turns south to empty into the Mediterranean Sea near Arles. At 504 miles in length, the Rhône is one of the longest rivers in Europe.

This late nineteenth-century tourist map provides the simple geographical points of the city and its surroundings:


An earlier map, from the mid-nineteenth century, reveals additional features, including the ancient walls of the city, which in the Shelleys' day were locked at 10 o'clock each night:


Geneva had a turbulent history in the later eighteenth century, which is well represented (along with extended accounts of its earlier history, high level of education, and political system) by the entry in the 4th edition of the Encylopaedia Brittanica, published just before the city underwent yet another period of turbulence, in 1797. Mary Shelley herself provides a useful survey of the city and its surrounding geography in a letter, dated 1 June 1816, that she appended to A History of a Six Weeks' Tour, published a month before Frankenstein. At the time, the Shelleys had moved to Montalègre, part of the suburban enclave of Cologny on the eastern side of the Lake, near the Villa Diodati, which Byron had rented. The Maison Chapuis, where they lived, is no longer standing.

A city of about thirty thousand at the time of the novel, Geneva had long held an importance in central Europe incommensurate with its relatively modest size. John Calvin, arriving in this quiet city in 1536, transformed it into a center of the Reformation. In 1559, Calvin and Théodore de Bèze founded the University of Geneva to function as a center of Protestant intellectual inquiry. This orientation made a natural linkage between the University of Geneva and Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England that thrived throughout the later Renaissance.

That early sense of kinship the English felt for the Swiss was reinforced during Mary Shelley's age by two factors. One was the invasion of this neutral, unoffending country by the French in 1798, which became a major focus of government propaganda in England and effectively ended all sympathy for the course of the French Revolution by its intellectual elite. The second, and for Mary Shelley a more immediate factor, was the inveterate hostility to Napoleon practiced by the leading citizen of Geneva's small suburb of Coppet, Germaine de Staël, who there surrounded herself with a significant circle of independent and generally democratic thinkers like A. W. Schlegel and J. C. L. Simonde de Sismondi. The daughter of one of the few untouchable supporters of the early revolution, Jacques Necker, who kept France financially afloat during its turbulent transition from monarchy to jacobin directory, Germaine de Staël was banned from France by Napoleon and through her travels enjoyed a pan-European renown. Byron met her in London in 1813, a year before his publisher John Murray brought out her important work On Germany.

The circle surrounding Madame de Staël could be construed as an extension of the earlier source of independent intellectual energy provided by Geneva's most famous citizen in the eightenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. During the 1816 summer, Byron and Shelley undertook a boat tour of the northern shore of Lake Geneva with the particular aim of visiting locations associated with Rousseau and his writings. Although Mary remained behind, she would have shared their enthusiasm for this last great figure of the French Enlightenment. It could not have been absent from her mind that to begin a first-person narrative account, "I am by birth a Genevese" (1.1.1) would automatically remind readers of Rousseau's Confessions, the fourth paragraph of which begins in a similar manner. Rousseau's spirit, indeed, might be said to hover over the entire novel, from its emphasis on a new "noble savage" to its concern with education, particularly in the formation of the Creature, to its antiestablishment political undertones.

With such pronounced associations of relevance in both its past and recent history, Geneva stands as a perfect match for the other great center of the Enlightenment, St. Petersburg. As Chapter 1 issues, so to speak, from the voice of Victor Frankenstein identifying himself with the Swiss city, Letter 1.1 is dated by Robert Walton from the Russian capital. Together these figures and these cities represent the values of the Enlightenment that will be interrogated over and over in the subsequent pages of Mary Shelley's novel.