Will not the reader tire, if I should minutely describe our long-drawn journey from Paris to Geneva? If, day by day, I should record, in the form of a journal, the thronging miseries of our lot, could my hand write, or language afford words to express, the variety of our woe; the hustling and crowding of one deplorable event upon another?…the last events that marked our progress through France were so full of strange horror and gloomy misery…
“Patience, oh reader!” Mary Shelley continues in this passage I’ve omitted. Her narrator “dare(s) not pause” to offer the kind of detailed descriptive writing that even a “gentle” “compassionate” audience of the future, liberated from all low or morbid curiosity, might have looked for at this point, at last, in a novel about mass human extinction. “If I were to dissect each incident, every small fragment of a second would contain an harrowing tale, whose minutest word would curdle the blood in thy young veins,” reads almost like a taunt aimed at our inner thrill-seeker. There’s nothing to picture here but the shifting play of anthropomorphized abstractions.
Mary Shelley may have decided she could spare us all the trouble of writing in greater detail, because this wasn’t the first account she’d given the public of a trip across France. A month or so before Frankenstein was published on New Year’s Day, 1818, there appeared (to give its full title) History of A Six Weeks Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland: With Letters Descriptive of a Sail round the Lake of Geneva, and of the Glaciers of Chamouni(x). Issued anonymously like all her books, this small volume was co-authored by Mary and her husband Percy Shelley, a disinherited baronet and poet who also edited Frankenstein, his contribution in this case consisting of poems and a few letters written to friends. As explained in a Preface, the History of the title is an “imperfect” travel journal in which readers “will perhaps find some entertainment in following the author, with her husband and sister, on foot, through part of France and Switzerland. . .”
The journal dates from 1814 and though it never says so, follows Mary Shelley on her elopement from England to the Continent. She was still Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin then, travelling with Percy who was not her husband. They couldn’t marry because his wife was still alive, but they believed in free love, too, and so they eloped to the Continent. Mary’s stepsister, Mary Jane Vial, who preferred to call herself Claire Clairmont and who’d insisted on coming along, made three. Together they hoped to find a lovely cottage on an Alpine valley slope in Switzerland and settle down there.
The travel part opens with a bad Channel crossing which the travelers have brought upon themselves through the first of many bad decisions. After a terrible night they walk across the sands at Calais, an experience recalled in The Last Man. Like many people when they go abroad, the little party proceeds to fluctuate between extremes of tight-fistedness and self-indulgence. They squander funds on the way to Paris, then feel overcharged when they have to stay there longer than planned. At last someone in England sends more money; bills paid, they’re ready to leave for the really good life in Switzerland. As for transportation, it’s 1814: bicycles don’t exist, the French won’t build train tracks for decades, and the first Alpine railway is 70 years in the future. But instead of buying three seats in one of the many horse-drawn conveyances available, Percy has an inspiration: they’ll walk across France.
And here the History begins to join up with the later novel and become, like it, an indirect account of “thronging miseries,” varieties of woe, and pile-ups of deplorable events; only in the case of the History and the course of its six weeks, the sufferers are the pack animals.
The girls—Mary is 17, Claire’s a year younger—both like the sound of this walking idea. But though they’ve been raised to admire and cultivate liberal, radical, and permissive tendencies, in 1814 neither of the Godwin sisters is going to carry her own clothes around; girls and women of the proper class don’t. Nor do they walk that much. Percy might be able to manage a rucksack; at this point, however, they’re also traveling with a lot of things they bought in Paris including a good many books. So they decide to load everything together and “purchase an ass, to carry our portmanteau (a trunk) and one of us (the sisters) by turns. . .Early, therefore, on Monday, August 8th, S*** (Shelley) and C*** (Claire) went to the ass market, and purchased an ass. . .”
They buy a donkey, in other words; and probably not one of the bigger more expensive ones. Late that afternoon they leave their hotel in a carriage, “our little ass following.” So here it’s possible to picture a small donkey with its bridle tied to the rear of a horse-drawn carriage, forced to keep up, trotting trotting trotting with all its might in August heat through the strange filthy wet partially cobbled streets of Paris until its new owners get to the edge of the city, where they disembark and untie it. “It was dusk, and the ass seemed totally unable to bear one of us, appearing to sink under the portmanteau, although it was small and light.” (Really? And was the poor donkey actually carrying that portmanteau all along? When they’d have had to pay extra to load it on the carriage, isn’t it probable? These unanswered questions haunt M***’s History.) Leaving the city on foot, our three travelers are “merry enough” however on the three-mile walk that follows. They stop for the night at a pleasant town where they later sell the “useless” donkey.
In its place they buy a mule. This is a larger animal on which the girls can now take turns up beside portmanteau, and their party of three begins to cross France in earnest. Here on the losing side of the Napoleonic Wars, they’re soon encountering the aftermath of the rest of the Continent’s fatal revenge. Since they’re reliant on farmers and townsfolk for food and shelter, the general depopulation sometimes leaves them in dire straits. At sightings of distant steeples they shortcut across country only to find town after town abandoned or nearly so. Sometimes they haven’t found a place to stop by nightfall. Most people they encounter are poverty-stricken. By now Percy has sprained his ankle so he’s riding on the mule while the two girls walk.
A full-grown man of 22 and a petite teenage girl are two different things. And now we see this hero mule at its best—bearing up under the heavier load—taking each impulsive change of direction in stride—accepting its share of fatigue and bad accommodations and plodding ahead the next day just the same—an exceptionally strong steady character with signs of a Stoic philosopher’s detachment. All this can be inferred from M*** and her History’s failure, across 100 miles, to lodge one single complaint against the mule’s performance. The little party’s mostly unsuccessful search for a place with palatable food and clean beds continues until Troyes, where the mule, as a reward of virtue, gains its freedom from this escapade.
“S***’s sprain rendered our pedestrianism impossible. We accordingly sold our mule, and bought an open voiture (a cart) that went on four wheels, for five Napoleons, and hired a man with a mule for eight more, to convey us to Neuchâtel (in Switzerland) in six days.” Six days sounds like they’re pushing it; and regardless of all the exchange rates and relative values in play, the cart sounds cheap, maybe old and heavy. As it turns out, the previous mule might have been the Shelley-Godwin six week tour’s sole good investment. The voiturier at the reins gets them smoothly enough to Besançon but there he takes fright at the “delightful” view of mountainous hills up ahead signaling steeper ascents in the Jura to come. A man of the plains, he isn’t used to roads that climb; his mule presumably likewise. The old cart is bad enough and the portmanteau is probably no picnic; the three-person load is now a problem.
Something of a comedy ensues. The voiturier insists on stopping when the travelers don’t want to stop (“I have already said, that the hills scared his senses, and he had become disobliging, sullen, and stupid.”) Eventually, when they’ve wandered off to rest in a cool mountain forest, he gives them the slip and goes ahead, leaving word that they should catch up with him on foot. “S***’s sprain rendered him incapable of much exertion” but they manage the four miles or so to the next inn, where he’s left word again: he’ll meet them further down the road at a town on the French-Swiss border and if they’re not there by nightfall, he’ll leave their voiture for them and take his mule back to Troyes. In hindsight, that’s what he should have done anyway. Instead they contrive to catch up with him and the tour continues through the “divine” scenery of Switzerland, to the village of St Sulpice, two hundred miles plus from their original starting point.
The mule had latterly become very lame, and the man so disobliging, that we determined to engage a horse for the remainder of the way. Our voiturier had anticipated us, without in the least intimating his intention: he had determined to leave us at this village, and taken measures to that effect.
The feeling, in other words, is mutual. We can imagine taking a last sight of the man and his mule, from the back, as they face the return road to France. The five Napoleon cart is left to rot. Good thing the crazy English were too cheap to hire his cart; otherwise he’d have no choice now but to slip the harness over his own chest and pull it himself, to spare the animal.
Strange to think of that landscape crisscrossed and fertilized for thousands and thousands of years by those endless legions of pack animals—gone with a lost world, gone with the ass markets, the same way human beings get erased in The Last Man. The world empties out constantly despite all appearances.
Her first book also goes to show that Mary Shelley could do strong visually descriptive writing when she wanted to, or had time to, or maybe had occasional help from Percy. In France, she gives us the aftermath of brutal modern warfare and its effects on human life—her own, yes, but other people’s too. Timeless and futuristic scenes:
Nothing could be more barren and wretched than the track through which we now passed; 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. A village appeared at a distance, cheering us with a prospect of rest. It gave us new strength to proceed; but it was a wretched place, and afforded us but little relief. It had been once large and populous, but now the houses were roofless, and the ruins that lay scattered about, the gardens covered with the white dust of the torn cottages, the black burnt beams, and squalid looks of the inhabitants, presented in every direction the melancholy aspect of devastation. One house, a cabarêt, alone remained; we were here offered plenty of milk, stinking bacon, sour bread, and a few vegetables, which we were to dress for ourselves.