Mountain Thoroughfares: Charles Dickens and the Alps

By Bevin, Darren | Dickens Quarterly, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Mountain Thoroughfares: Charles Dickens and the Alps


Bevin, Darren, Dickens Quarterly


Charles Dickens's interest, exploration, and treatment of Switzerland and the Alps from the 1840s through to the late 1860s coincided with a period of rapid change in the region. The newly established rail network through Europe brought the Alps within the reach of the professional classes, (1) who were possibly inspired by the Romantic poetic heritage, geological studies by James Forbes and his contemporaries, the artistic interest conveyed by Turner and Ruskin, or popular entertainments on the Alps played out in London theatres. An increasing number came to occupy the stylish Alpine resorts and walk, climb, paint, conduct research or simply take in the air. The mountains were held to have cleaner and purer air appropriate for various health treatments, especially respiratory conditions, including tuberculosis. Sanatoria were opened in resorts like Davos that received patients including Elizabeth Gaskell and, later, Robert Louis Stevenson. In the Alps, the sick, the healthy and the fashionable converged. Dickens's fascination with the region stemmed from a personal attraction to the beauty and sublimity of the environment; from the idyllic valley floor to the desolate and vertiginous mountain passes. Both had a powerful hold on his imagination. His adoption of the environment in several works of fiction occurred at times when the Alps were particularly at the center of media attention.

His interest began in the mid-1840s while traveling between London and Italy. On recalling his journey over the St. Gotthard pass from Genoa in 1845, he wrote to John Forster that "the whole descent between Andermatt ... and Altdorf ... is the highest sublimation of all you can imagine in the way of Swiss scenery. Oh God! what a beautiful country it is!" (Letters 4: 321). Although an alpine crossing is briefly chronicled in Pictures from Italy (1846), it is his letters from this period that emphasize the power the landscape had over him. The following year he stayed for five months at the Rosemont in Lausanne, situated above Lake Geneva, working in a study on the first floor that looked out onto the lake and mountains. The building no longer exists although there is the Grande Rosemont on the Avenue Tissot parallel to the Avenue Charles Dickens, and with views of Lake Geneva now hampered by new development. During his time there he wrote The Battle of Life (1846) and the first three numbers of Dombey and Son. He struggled with both, particularly with the former, to the point of almost abandoning the Christmas story, partly because he had no city "noise and bustle" (Letters 4: 625) for distraction and inspiration. However, he cited one motive for residing in Lausanne as wanting "to get up some Mountain knowledge in all four seasons of the year, for purpose of fiction" (Letters 4: 539). In this respect the stay had a more positive outcome. The alpine pastures he explored would later inspire scenes in David Copperfield and Little Dorrit, and become a landscape to compare and contrast with the city.

Dickens was not the only one to have been astounded by the sublime nature of the St. Gotthard pass in 1845. Turner's watercolors of the pass in 1842-43 inspired Ruskin to travel to the same spot a month after Dickens. Ruskin created his own watercolors of the scene and then vividly described the area and its depiction by Turner in Of Mountain Beauty (1856), the fourth volume of Modern Painters. Despite Ruskin's promotion of the region however, it was the showman and entertainer Albert Smith who popularized the Alps to an English audience to an extent far greater than anyone before, and conveyed impressions and visual representations of the mountains to packed audiences in London between 1852 and 1858.

Smith was an admirer and acquaintance of Dickens. In the mid-1840s he had dramatized The Battle of Life and The Cricket on the Hearth for the stage. He had also tried to emulate Dickens in his novels The Adventures of Mr Ledbury and his friend, Jack Johnson (1844) and The Struggles and Adventures of Christopher Tadpole (1848). …

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