March 6, 2009

Mer de Glace

The glacier called Mer de glace — the Sea of Ice — carves its way through the Chamonix Valley north of Mont Blanc, the White Lady of the Alps. “This,” Mary Shelley wrote in her diary, “is the most desolate place in the world.”

Mary, eighteen years old, eloping with her future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, first set eyes on the Mer de Glace around noon on July 25th, 1816, on a trip away from their vacation residence in Cologny. There, a month earlier, visiting with their friend Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati, Mary had begun writing Frankenstein.

The Shelleys’ excursion to Montenvers and the Mer de Glace was a laborious one, hurried along by guides, riding mules along steep paths, always on the lookout for falling rocks. On the 24th, they were turned back by driving rain. Percy slipped and knocked himself out. On the 25th, reaching the glacier, they were so profoundly moved by the sights as to commit their impressions in several pieces of writing. Collaborating on a travelogue, History of a Six Week’s Tour (1817), they wrote of “a scene in truth of dizzying wonder… On all sides precipitous mountains, the abodes of unrelenting frost… they pierce the clouds like things not belonging to this earth.

The Mer de Glace appeared as “a mass of undulating ice… as if frost had suddenly bound up the waves and whirlpools of a mighty torrent.” The ice needles, rising 12 or 15 feet high, were intersected by vast crevices “of unfathomable depth”.

Percy would write a poem, Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni and Mary would translate her experience there in a vivid, key scene of the book she was even then composing.
In Frankenstein, The Monster has murdered Frankenstein’s young brother and framed the innocent Justine, who is hanged for the crime. Victor Frankenstein, filled with “sullen despair”, seeking peace and relief from “intolerable sensations”, sets off for Chamonix.

In Chapter 9, the trip is described with the meticulous detail of Mary’s fresh, real-life experience. Victor reaches the Sea of Ice, like Mary, just before noon, “gazing on this wonderful and stupendous scenemy heart which was before sorrowful, now swelled with something like joy”. Then, Frankenstein observes “the figure of a man, at some distance, advancing towards me with superhuman speed. He bounded over the crevices in the ice, among which I had walked with caution; his stature, also, as he approached, seemed to exceed that of manI perceived, as the shape came nearer (sight tremendous and abhorred!) that it was the wretch whom I had created.

Listen to my tale,” The Creature implores, “when you have heard that, abandon or commiserate me, as you shall judge that I deserve. But hear me.”

As they retreat to a nearby hut and the warmth of a fire, the book switches to The Monster’s narrative, of his awakening to life and abandonment, and how his cruel existence ignited his murderous revenge against his creator’s loved ones. Now, against the blackmail threat of more horrors, The Demon demands a mate. Upon Frankenstein’s reluctant agreement, The Creature dashes off across the traitorous terrain with supernatural ease. “I saw him descend the mountain with greater speed than the flight of an eagle, and quickly lost among the undulations of the sea of ice.

Mary Shelley had chosen the dramatic setting of this “most desolate place in the world” as the stage for Victor and his Creation’s momentous meeting. With the forsaken islands of the Orkneys where Frankenstein retreats to create The Monster’s mate, and the stark Arctic expanses that bookend the tale, the frozen sea of the Alps, Mer de Glace — experienced firsthand by the author — is another puzzle piece that comprise the cold, unforgiving and bleak landscape of Frankenstein.

In October 1991, an avant-garde opera entitled Mer de Glace premiered in Sydney, Australia. Composed by Richard Meale, with a libretto by David Malouf, it fuses Mary’s experiences with Shelley and Byron and her writing of Frankenstein.

Image sources: Mer de Glace from Google Earth. Mont Blanc from Wikipedia.
Extracts from Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s History of a Six-Week’s Tour (1917)
Amateur video of the Mer de Glace.

Related books:
Frankenstein sur la Mer de Glace, ou le voyage de Genève à Chamounix (2007), a book of Mary Shelley’s letters.
A meeting on the Mer de Glace: Frankenstein and the history of alpine mountaineering, by Jane Nardin, in Women’s Writings (1999).


Bubbashelby said...

That was an awesome post. Thanks for putting it together.

Anonymous said...

I can never see a long shot in a film of a lonely figure or two in the vast ice wastes (Superman, Jack London, etc.) w/o thinking of Victor and The Monster...

-Craig W.