Journals 3.4 – A Year Abroad by Willard C. George (Part 4)

This is the final part of my article on George’s journal.  For the first, second and third parts, please see the entries posted on 15th June , 19th June and 23rd June 2015.


Zytglogge

Zytglogge, c. 1830.

The remainder of George’s journal takes on an entirely different tone, with his travels through the beautiful countryside of France and Switzerland. His journal is dominated by descriptions of scenery, which constantly inspired him. Travelling at first along the Rhine, he paints a stunning picture of his surroundings:

The finest scenery on this noble river is between Bonn and Mayence; and its principal features are the bold and picturesque highlands, that rise on each side, intersected with sunny and richly cultivated valleys; the old antiquated towns and villages, built without architectural taste or order, and standing with dilapidated walls, and gray, moss-covered ruins, as relics of an early age; and, more than all, the feudal castles that crown nearly every eminence, some of them inhabited by German princes, some standing in gloomy and solitary grandeur, and others laying in ruins; to these may be added the groves and orchards that stand on the sunny slopes and table lands, and the immense vineyards that adorn the highlands to their topmost cliffs. Altogether, it forms one of the most lovely and interesting spots in the world.

Mayence is of course the French name for Mainz, a German town which had previously been occupied by the French during the Napoleonic Wars. Crossing over into Switzerland, the scenery remained impressive, with the occasional exception:

These Swiss villages are queer affairs; the streets, or rather lanes, run in all directions without any order or regularity, the buildings are huddled together in every conceivable shape, and as for the style of architecture, that belongs to antediluvian times, and probably was among the scientific treasures taken from Noah’s ark. But there is one thing that distinguishes them from all other villages I have seen: instead of front yards and flower-beds, there are immense heaps of manure piled up in front of the houses, and often, through the whole length of the principal streets.

Every so often, reading old journals provides a stark reminder of just how much life has changed, and not just with something obvious like the lack of piles of manure nowadays! We tend to take for granted how easy it is to communicate with friends and relatives across great distances, but in George’s time a traveller or emigrant could often be lost track of, never to be found again, as in the following sad story:

We travelled ten miles to the town of Rheinfelden, and stopped at a little inn at some distance from the noise and bustle of the central streets. We found no company there, and for the first time we eat our dinner, consisting of bread and wine, alone. We saw no one, except a pretty girl, fourteen years old, who waited upon us; and on learning that we were Americans, she appeared deeply interested in us. We soon learned that her father was in America! She asked us a great many questions which, with her poor German, and our dull apprehension, we were poorly qualified to answer, but we did learn, however, that her father went to St Louis more than two years ago, with a design to find a suitable location, and then send for his family. About two months after his arrival there, his family received a letter from him, assuring them of his good health and prospects; since that time he has been silent. They had looked and sighed for tidings, but months, and even years, had rolled away, and no tidings had come. Poor girl! I could not resist the painful thought, that, with all her deep anxiety, she would see her father no more – that, alas, he had fallen a victim to the cholera that has almost depopulated St Louis since he wrote to his family, and would never relieve her tears and deep suspense.

Language was also a barrier to communications when George arrived in Zurich, and decided to stay at an inn, despite the place looking ‘somewhat dark and suspicious’, with people ‘loitering about’ and some ‘odors not the most agreeable’.

While we were eating our supper, a stranger made his appearance at our door, and greeted us with the familiar words, “good evening,” in broken English. Evidently, he had come to converse with us; but with all due gratitude for his good intentions, the interview added but little to our stock of information. H—– [George’s un-named friend] spoke a very little German, and I could muster just about as much French, and our visitor had still less English. For two hours we made up faces at each other, and tore English, Dutch and French all to pieces, and then we gave it up, no wiser than when we began.

The next day, George began the greatest adventure of his life, trekking through the Alps. The journey was often tiring, occasionally dangerous, but offered stunning views, day after day.

After a weary ascent through immense pastures filled with cattle and goats, we reached the top of the mountain at a point called Righi Staffel. What a magnificent scene rose, like magic, before us. At the same moment H—– and I uttered an involuntary exclamation of surprise. The first effect was really bewildering; but that immediately gave way to deep feeling of admiration and awe, such as I never felt before. I had often heard of the grand view from the top of Righi, but the reality so much exceeded all my highest expectations, that my surprise could not have been greater if I had expected nothing. I thought I had beheld scenery before, but never any thing combining so much grandeur, richness and variety, and on such a scale of vastness, as this. That was one of the richest moments in my life, and a man could afford to climb a dozen mountains to enjoy it!

Although the nature was faultless, the human nature that George encountered was less pleasant, due mainly to poverty in the Alpine region, historically the only poor area of Switzerland. Along the banks of the river Reuss, ‘while nature laid before us such a constant succession of varied and magnificent objects, human nature was fully represented by paltry meanness and beggary.’

Beggars assailed us at all points, and we passed one batch of no less than five. The inhabitants of these mountainous districts are miserable looking creatures; and generally, they are either swollen with the goitre, or rendered helpless and idiotic, by that still more terrible form of the same disease, ‘cretenism’. I have seen no such misery since I left Ireland.

George also found fault with the Swiss tradition of mercenary soldiers, which he considered ‘degrading to the Swiss character’. Four Swiss regiments had been employed by Napoleon, and veterans was later recruited into the French Foreign Legion to serve in Algeria. It was not until 1874 that any attempt was made to prevent foreign armies from recruiting Swiss troops, and an outright ban was not forthcoming until 1927. The problem George identified with the mercenary tradition was that the soldiers returned home ‘lawless and unprincipled to the lowest degree’ and subsequently became corrupting influences within their communities.

George did not reserve his disdain for the locals, though. When he met up with three Englishmen, to accompany him on the next leg of the journey, one of the party was described by George as ‘ignorant’.

He never had but one idea in his head, and that is embodied in two short words — THE Church. He lauded Old England and its many joys, and felt himself the best man in the kingdom; he laughed and smoked, and declared that he had money enough, and would go to America to see and judge for himself; he drank his wine, and marvelled greatly that we spoke English so well, even better, he thought, than many do in London.

George and his group of friends were beginning he most dangerous part of their journey, the Grimsel Pass (unpaved until 1894).

In a few minutes we were climbing the flanks of Grimsel; and they were so steep that it was difficult to ascend except on all-fours. The wind swept down fiercely from the glaciers above, and so cold as to chill the sweat on our reeking brows. That was the hardest climbing I ever undertook; and when we reached the top, and began to wade once more throng snow and ice, I thought I should freeze. On the top of Grimsel we passed the “Lake of the Dead.” It is a small, circular sheet of water, begirt with banks of snow, and bears this singular name from the circumstance that it is the tomb of many unfortunate travellers who have attempted to pass over Grimsel at an unfavorable season of the year, and perished in the snows.

However, the danger and the breathtaking setting was no reason to abandon the niceties of life:

On the top of the mountain, we refreshed ourselves with a nice dish of strawberries and cream, that a boy had just brought from a neighboring valley. While we were enjoying our fruit, a heavy snow-squall gathered around the mountain’s brow, and for a few minutes it blowed and snowed right merrily. Among all the crooks and turns of life, snow-storms and strawberries and cream, seldom come together!

Arriving in Bern, George was most impressed by the Zytglogge clock tower, which dates back to around 1220, but had had an extensive baroque renovation in 1770.

The famous clock tower, with its nest of wooden puppets, stands in the centre of the town. Just before noon, we joined the crowd that was waiting to see it strike. A minute or two before the clock strikes, a wooden cock crows twice and flaps his wings. Then a puppet strikes the hour on two bells, while a procession of bears move round on the platform below; when this is done, the central figure, seated on a throne, turns an hour glass, and as the great bell in the tower repeats the hour, it opens its mouth. It is one of the most remarkable pieces of machinery in the world.

George’s tour of the region concluded in Basle, before retracing his steps to Paris. His closing comments concern the costs of the trip and are therefore not a particularly fitting conclusion to his journal, so we will leave him instead in reflective mood, nearing the end of his travels:

Once more in Basle ! We arrived here early yesterday morning, after a fortnight’s ramble in Switzerland. We found ourselves in excellent spirits, but on the score of gentility, I cannot report quite so favorably. Our dickeys had settled down behind our cravats very sullenly; our boots indicated a great scarcity of brushes and blacking; and our coats and knapsacks bore the marks of mountain-climbing and hard service. But in two hours we repaired all damages, and appeared out in the streets quite as good as new. An hour before we started for Paris, I walked out upon the old bridge, and took one long – and the last look of the noble Rhine.


We will begin looking at another journal in a few days.  If you would like to receive an email each time a new entry is posted on this blog, please click the “Follow Windows into History” button on the right of the screen.  I welcome comments and suggestions.

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About Windows into History

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5 Responses to Journals 3.4 – A Year Abroad by Willard C. George (Part 4)

  1. I really need to read these journals!

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    • Roger Pocock says:

      If a few people are inspired by my blog to read these forgotten books then I will be very happy indeed, as that is the purpose of the blog! They can be found on archive.org, but I do suggest buying old second-hand copies where possible. It helps keep the book trade alive, and you somehow feel more connected to the history of the book if you read an actual copy. That might sound like an odd comment, and it’s hard to explain!

      Like

  2. Pingback: Blog News (13th July 2015) | Windows into History (Reblogs and News)

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