FROM PICTURESQUE TO SUBLIME: MARY SHELLEY
“The next day we pursued our journey upon mules; and as we ascended still higher, the valley assumed a more magnificent and astonishing character; and as we ascended still higher, the valley assumed a more magnificent and astonishing character. Ruined castles hanging on precipices of piny mountains; the impetuous Arves, and cottages every here and there peeping forth from among the trees, formed a scene of singular beauty. But it was augmented and rendered sublime by the mighty Alps, whose white and shining pyramids and domes towered above all, as belonging to another earth, the habitation of another race of beings.
We passed the bridge of Pelissier, where the ravine, which the river forms, opened before us, and we began to ascend the mountain that overhangs it. Soon after we entered the valley of the Chamounix. The valley is more wonderful and sublime, but not so beautiful and picturesque as that of the Servox, through which he had just passed. The high and shining mountains were its immediate boundaries; but we saw no more ruined castles and fertile fields. Immense glaciers approached the road; we heard the rumbling thunder of the falling avalanche, and marked the smoke of its passage. Mont Blanc, the supreme and magnificent Mont Blanc, raised itself from the surrounding aiguilles , and its tremendous dome overlooked the valley.
Mary Shelley Frankenstein Vol.2 Ch. 1
Mary Shelley’s novel was probably the most famous and certainly most significant of the Gothic genre of novels which came to the fore in the pre-Romantic period and especially in the decade of the 1790’s. Jane Austen read them with enthusiasm but when she started to write fiction, that same decade, her approach was supremely realistic working upon the ordinary world of everyday experience. Her first novel, Northanger Abbey satirises the popular cult of the Gothic and especially the novels of Mrs Ann Radcliffe.
Gothic novels were designed to lead the reader into an unfamiliar world of the weird and the terrifying. Their settings aim to chill and frighten: hence their ancient haunted castles, isolated mansions or ruins, graveyards, remote mountain lanscapes, where the helpless, isolated heroine-or occasional hero- will be exposed to extremes of threat.
The above passage from Shelley is remarkable, given the genre, for its specificity. These are named , identifiable places in the Alps, though in their otherness from the norm, they form a suitable setting (“as belonging to another earth, the habitation of another race of beings”) for the confrontation between Frankenstein and his creature.
We notice in the description that we are taken beyond the picturesque with white cottages peeping out among the forests and the castles and “fertile fields” all features of the picturesque and ordinarily beautiful to something tremendous, of extra dimension: in other words the sublime – “it was augmented and rendered sublime by the mighty Alps”. This is where wild nature expresses its inhuman otherness, it commands a feeling of awe beyond what might be familiarised as picturesque.
During the Romantic era the sublime took on a new emphasis. It was heralded by a work of aesthetics by Edmund Burke Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756). According to the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Simon Blackburn 1996) Burke’s work “marked a very early Romantic turn away from the 18th -century aesthetic of clarity and order, in favour of the imaginative power of the unbounded and infinite, and the unstated and unknown.”
The great Romantic poets sought out the mountains, as earlier poets had embarked on a Grand Tour. Wordsworth brought up in the Lake District ,anyway, explored also the Scottish Highlands, Snowdonia and the Alps. Famously, he wrote about the experience of crossing the Alps in Book 6 of “The Prelude”. Coleridge described the valley of the Chamouni in “Hymn Before Sunrise”. These two poems inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley, second generation Romantic, to another take on Alpine landscape, with his “Mont Blanc”. And relating to the description above in Frankenstein Percy and his young wife in 1814 together put together a journal of their travels in the area. The work was then edited by Mary, prefaced by Percy and published in November 1817 as History of a Six Week Tour .
The story of the novel developed from a later tour in 1817 when the Shelleys returned to the area living with Byron in his lodge near Geneva. The group, including Byron’s friend and physician Polidori, talking late into the night devised a ghost-writing competition they would all engage in. Percy’s tale did not develop , Byron began one on a vampire which Polidori later developed and published The Vampyre: A Tale . Mary’s mind was at first blank but then she crossed ideas of setting- the Alps and Republican Geneva- with her husband’s fascination with the new science of electricity and galvanism which provoked ideas about the creation of living beings. What starts as a great enterprise, the noble scientific idealism of Frankenstein, involves unhallowed desecration of the remains of corpses and he becomes increasingly obsessive and secretive. The resulting creation is a disaster. Frankenstein shrinks away in disgust at the ghastliness of the creature, rejecting and abandoning it. However the creature is not so readily dismissed and there follows a cycle of rejection and destruction from which neither can escape. So, along with its traditional gothic sensationalism and frightening violence, the work transcends the limitations of the genre developing a great cluster of ideas on idealism , the limits of scientific endeavour, the potential of science to be destructive rather than ameliorative of the human condition, the concept of the noble savage (from Rousseau) and the corruption in man and in society and social conditioning, the rejection of otherness and the operation of the mentality of revenge based on rejection. Thus the non-realism of the gothic is transcended to become a work of mythic portent in which the original Genesis story of creation (Milton’s Paradise Lost is frequently invoked) is re-adapted with the god of creation failing to re-connect with the creature who fails and who is other, causing a breakdown in the possibility of creative relations being established.
But I’ve rather exceeded my brief which was simply to tell how for the Romantics the sublime took on a new significance which drew them to mountains and the feeling of awe they induced. Once started one never quite knows where a blog might end up!