Château de Chillon near Montreux on Lake Geneva has been a source of intense literary inspiration to British and American writers over the last centuries, ever since Lord Byron wrote his epic ‘Prisoner of Chillon’. A just-published anthology reveals how a fortress that has become Switzerland’s most visited monument may owe its world-wide celebrity more to literature than history.

The immediate success of the ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’ when it was published in 1816 confirmed Lord George Gordon Byron’s reputation as England’s greatest Romantic poet and ensured the enduring mystique of Chillon Castle.

To celebrate Byron’s legacy and cast a spotlight on the many writers who have written in English on the castle, Chillon: A Literary Guide has just been published in an easy-to-browse mini-format.

It includes the fiction, travel narratives, letters and poetry of close to 50 well-known British and American writers over several centuries.

“With 330,000 visitors a year, many of them English-speaking, it occurred to me that an anthology of texts by the British and American authors was a must,” says Jean-Pierre Pastori, director of the Foundation Château de Chillon, a writer in his own right.

Chillon Director Pastori presents just-published literary guide © Chantal Dervey

When he started his research, Pastori discovered the work of Patrick Vincent, a university professor in Neuchâtel who had already published ‘Switzerland as seen by writers of the English language’ (La Suisse vue par les ecrivains de langue anglaise).

Vincent, who was entrusted with the anthology by Pastori, tells Swisster: “I kept the creative treatment in mind when I selected the texts, leaving out the innumerable travel logs.”

The result is an anthology that besides Byron, offers passages by many important writers, including Percy Bysshe Shelley, James Fenimore Cooper, Dorothy Wordsworth, Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Ruskin, Mark Twain, Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

“I was amazed to discover that so many of them had visited the region,” says Pastori. “I was even more surprised to learn that Chillon has found its way into contemporary literature, as well as being a visual icon.”

He mentions Anita Brookner’s 1984 ‘Hotel du Lac’ and the 1979 science-fictionalized account of ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’ by the cult author James Patrick Kelly (excerpts included in the guide).

The fascination of so many authors from the English-speaking world for Chillon is universally attributed to Byron, who in the summer of 1816 visited Switzerland when he and his compatriots could again travel at last after the end of the Napoleonic wars.

Byron met fellow aristocrat and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in Geneva that year, “but it was the coldest and wettest summers ever recorded,” indicates Patrick Vincent. The three months of non-stop rain were to account for many literary masterpieces, including ‘Frankenstein’, by the 18-year-old Mary Shelley, Percy’s wife.

Vincent suggests that Chillon Castle was particularly bleak when Byron and Shelley visited the fortress during a lake tour in June 1816. Furthermore it still served as a prison and the guides often doubled up as prison guards.

“Chillon became a metaphor for arbitrary government in the poet’s mind,” Professor Vincent explains. “Byron, who was a liberal, reacted very negatively to the restoration of monarchies in Europe.”

‘The Prisoner of Chillon’ recounts the romanced ordeal of the Swiss abbot, patriot and historian François Bonivard, who was imprisoned in 1530 for having opposed the reigning monarch Charles III, Duke of Savoy, before being freed by the Bernese in 1536 when they conquered Vaud.

In his review when it was first published in 1816, Sir Walter Scott wrote that the object of Byron’s poem “is to consider captivity in the abstract, and to mark its effects in gradually chilling the mental powers as it benumbs and freezes the animal frame.”

Vincent elaborates this point by referring to Chillon as a place that “paradoxically stands for feudal tyranny and for what the poet memorably call the ‘Eternal Spirit of the chainless mind’.”

More than sixty years later, with his hallmark irreverence, Mark Twain, who “made pilgrimage to the dungeons”, discovered “a nice, cool, roomy place” and concluded “I think Bonivard’s sufferings have been overrated.”

‘Chillon: A Literary Guide’ is a pleasant walk through chilling imagery (Charles Dickens), lyrical outbursts (“If this be earth, what must Heaven be!” exclaimed Nathanial Hawthorne of the site), light-hearted suggestions (“We could turn them into a gymnasium,” said W. Somerset Maugham of the lower stories of the dungeon) and many more titbits, some grave, some philosophical, many amusing.

A reading will take place at the Castle on May 25 at 6pm by Patrick Vincent and two of his students. Entrance is free.

Château de Chillon

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, trained as a journalist, became an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London before moving to Switzerland, where she now covers the art beat and presides several associations.

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