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THE following pages represent an endeavour to nil an obvious 
gap in Alpine literature. After more than a century, Horace 
Benedict de Saussure still awaits his biographer. The fact has 
been proclaimed by two of his most distinguished successors in the 
University (formerly the Academy) of Geneva, the late Professor 
Ernest Naville and Professor Borgeaud. But their invitation has 
failed hitherto to call forth any local response. I had hoped that 
the pious task would be taken in hand by some Genevese man of 
letters, who, with all the advantage of local and technical know- 
ledge, would do full justice to the part played in life by his illus- 
trious fellow-citizen as a man of science and a mountain explorer, 
and would at the same time be able to appreciate the political 
services he endeavoured to render to the Republic in a tragical 
crisis in its history. It was this hope that first made me refrain 
when, as long ago as 1878, Ruskin from boyhood an eager reader 
of the Voyages dans les Alpes instigated by some articles on the 
lesser pioneers of the period I had contributed to the Alpine 
Journal (vol. ix.), proposed to me that I should write a life of 
de Saussure. In later years I found a more practical and con- 
clusive obstacle to the acceptance of the tempting suggestion in 
the difficulty of collecting the material needful without researches 
among the family papers and public archives preserved at Geneva 
and Berne, which would have involved a prolonged stay in 

This difficulty has recently been overcome by the kindness 
of Mr. H. F. Montagnier, an American gentleman known to his 
colleagues of the Alpine Club both as an assiduous climber and an 
accomplished student of the literature of mountain travel. Mr. 
Montagnier, finding himself resident in Switzerland and debarred 
from active service during the Great War, has at his own sugges- 
tion employed his leisure in ransacking public libraries and obtain- 
ing access to private collections in quest of material bearing on 


de Saussure's career, scientific, Alpine, political, and social. His 
efforts have been singularly successful. I have had brought under 
my eyes a mass of private correspondence, including letters between 
de Saussure and his scientific contemporaries, letters from and to 
his wife and nearest relations, and from his numerous friends in 
England and Paris. Mr. Montagnier has further had access to de 
Saussure's carefully kept journal of his Grand Tour of France, 
Holland, and England, as well as to the rough notebooks of many 
of his Alpine excursions, no account of which was included in the 
published Voyages. All this for the most part new material has 
been at my disposal. I have in addition made use, wherever pos- 
sible, of the short biographical notices or eulogies of de Saussure 
contributed by his contemporaries Senebier, Cuvier, de Candolle, 
and more recently by Forbes, Wolf, Sainte-Beuve, Sayous, Topffer, 
Favre, and Naville. Further, in order to realise to some extent 
the background against which de Saussure's figure must be set, 
I have turned over the pages of many local tracts and journals 
of the latter half of the eighteenth century and of some of the 
personal memoirs that throw light on the political and social 
state of Geneva during the most eventful period in its history : 
a period when not only Voltaire, Rousseau, and Bonnet, but 
visitors such as Madame d'Epinay and Grimm, Madame de Stael 
and Madame Necker, made it a centre of intellectual thought and 
activity. On the events of the succeeding years, when the internal 
quarrels of the Genevese reproduced on a small scale the miseries 
and crimes of the French Revolution, and finally wrecked their 
ancient Republic, several recently published volumes have thrown 
fresh light. They help to prove that throughout those political 
troubles de Saussure played a strenuous and persevering part 
a part that has not as yet been adequately recognised by local 
historians. I have done my best to bring out the patriotic 
aims of his action, as it presents itself when closely studied 
in contemporary memoirs and documents from a point of 
view free from all party bias. I have also given some 
space to his energetic and persistent attitude as an educational 
reformer, a capacity in which he showed a breadth of outlook 
in advance of his time, and even, perhaps, of our own. In 
short, I have tried to deal with de Saussure's lif e as a whole ; 
to present him not only in the two capacities in which his fame is 


best established as a geologist and Alpine explorer, but also as a 
member of society, a citizen and a philosopher in the wider 
eighteenth -century acceptation of that word. It has been no 
slight task to examine, set in order, and select from the mass of 
manuscript material generously placed at my disposal. But it has 
been lightened to me by the pleasure I have had in following de 
Saussure as a traveller over ground every step of which has been 
familiar to me for more than half a century, and through valleys and 
villages, many of which, when I first knew them some sixty years 
ago, had lost comparatively little of the primitive character and 
charm vividly portrayed in the Voyages. It is a satisfaction to me 
to have been able in this volume to pay in part, and to the best 
of my ability, a debt which has been long owing to the memory 
of de Saussure, not only from the mountaineers who, having con- 
quered the Alps and the ' inhospitable Caucasus,' are now wrestling 
with the Andes and the Himalaya, but from the great company 
of men and women who annually find rest and refreshment of body 
and soul in the mountains. I cannot hope to have surmounted 
all the difficulties that have faced me. But in so far as I may 
have succeeded in carrying out my intention, the credit will be 
largely due to the indefatigable aid I have received from Mr. 

I have to thank several of my friends, and in particular 
Professor Bonney, Professor Garwood, and Dr. Mill, for their help 
with respect to the chapters devoted to de Saussure's scientific 
work and achievements. To the published works of the Rev. 
W. A. B. Coolidge and Dr. Diibi I have made frequent reference, 
and the latter has further aided me with his friendly advice. Mrs. 
Rathbone has kindly allowed me to reproduce the drawing of 
Mont Blanc made by Mr. E. T. Compton for her father, my old 
friend, the late C. E. Mathews. 

Among the descendants of H. B. de Saussure and the members 
of old Genevese families who have been good enough to place at 
the disposal of my collaborator papers from their family archives, 
or otherwise to assist in the preparation of this volume, I desire 
specially to mention and thank : 

M. Horace de Saussure (a great-grandson), and other members of 
the de Saussure family in Geneva for allowing me to use the 
journals and papers of H. B. de Saussure in their possession. 


M. F. Louis Perrot (a descendant through H. B. de Saussure's only 
daughter, Mme. Necker-de Saussure), for placing at my disposal 
letters of H. B. de Saussure to his wife, and miniatures. 

Mme. Ferdinand de Saussure, for permission to reproduce several 
family portraits in the Townhouse in the Rue de la Cite, 

MM. Charles and Henry Turrettini (descendants), for permission 
to reproduce the portrait of Mme. Turrettini-Boissier, and the 
miniature of Mme. H. B. de Saussure. 

M. H. Necker (a descendant through Mme. Necker-de Saussure), 
for permission to look over the family correspondence in his 
possession, and to inspect H. B. de Saussure's Greek diary. 

Dr. Frederic Rilh'et, for allowing me the use of the papers of his 
ancestor, Marc Auguste Pictet, de Saussure's friend and 

Dr. H. Maillart-Gosse, for papers relating to the Col du Geant 
found among the MSS. of Henri Albert Gosse. 

Professor Charles Borgeaud, of the University of Geneva, for 
unpublished material, suggestions, and advice. 

M. Frederic Gardy, Director of the University Library of Geneva, 
M. Theophile Dufour, Honorary Director of the Public Library 
of Geneva, and the Directors of various other libraries, for 
their unvarying courtesy. 

MM. Paul Martin and Charles Roch, Archivist and Assistant- 
Archivist of the Republic and Canton of Geneva, for an 
immense amount of aid and advice in the task of recon- 
stituting de Saussure's political career, verifying dates, etc., 
in the archives of Geneva. 

M. Fernan Aubert, Keeper of the Manuscripts of the University 
Library in Geneva, for kindly advice and aid in connection 
with the splendid collection of manuscript material entrusted 
to his care. 

Miles. Danielle and Louise Plan, for much help in the difficult task 
of deciphering and copying the vast amount of unpublished 
material collected for this volume. 

September 1920. 



I. FORERUNNERS ...... 1 



IV. THE GRAND TOUR (1768-69) . . . . .91 
V. ITALY ........ 121 

vi. TEN YEARS' ALPINE TRAVEL (1774-84) . . . 142 

VII. THE BUET ....... 175 

VIII. MONT BLANC . . . . . . .197 

IX. THE COL DU GEANT . . . . . .242 

X. MONTE ROSA . . , . . . . 262 




XIV. POLITICS AND HOME LIFE (1781-92) .... 332 
XV. THE LAST YEARS ...... 365 



MILL ........ 457 


OF H. B. DE SAUSSURE ...... 467 

INDEX . 469 


Sketch, by Saint-Ours. 

From a photograph. 

From an old print. 


From portraits. 


From a photograph. 

From a photograph. 


From a portrait by Liotard. 

From miniatures. 

From a portrait by Jens Jitel. 

From a drawing by E. T. Gompton. 

From a contemporary print. 


From miniatures. 

Facing page 






. 142 
. 197 
. 252 

. 256 
. 256 



Facing page 


From a contemporary print. 

From a photograph. 


From photographt. 


From a contemporary print. 

H. B. DE SAUSSURE ...... 387 

From a portrait by Saint-Ovrs. 


From a portrait. 


From a sketch by Saint- Ours. 



ROUTE- MAP OF MONT BLANC . . . Facing page 225 


IN 1740, the date of Horace Benedict de Saussure's birth, a new 
period in European history was about to open. A few months 
later the disputed succession arising on the death of the Emperor 
Charles the Sixth was to involve the Continent in the confused 
Wars of the Spanish Succession. England under her Hanoverian 
kings could no longer hope to hold aloof from the quarrels of her 
neighbours, and Walpole's thirty years of inaction were drawing 
to their close. But the Swiss Cantons and the closely attached 
Republic of Geneva enjoyed the privilege of small States and were 
left outside the struggle, while for four years more England 
remained at peace with France. In 1740 young Englishmen of 
birth were still free to complete their education abroad, and to 
combine with the Grand Tour a course of lectures in the Protestant 
Academy on the shores of Lake Leman. There their studies were 
not so engrossing but that they found time to play Shakespeare 
to the Venerable Company of Pastors, and to reveal the existence 
of Mont Blanc and its glaciers to a world which for the moment 
found other things to think about. 

The publication of Windham's and Martel's modest accounts 
of their visits to the glaciers of Savoy was the seed from which, 
after an interval of nearly twenty years, was to spring the career 
of de Saussure. The fact is emphasised by his contemporary, 
Senebier. But there were other local influences, and above all 
the general atmosphere of the time, which contributed towards 
converting a young Genevese patrician into the first scientific 
explorer of the Alps. The latter half of the eighteenth century was 
a period of movement, not only in politics, but in thought, in 
literature, and in science. It witnessed in every direction the 
break up of old barriers. Students came out of their libraries 



and sought knowledge and inspiration from direct contact with 
nature and with one another. Most of the leaders of that 
generation have long since been commemorated by competent 
writers. But of one of them, the subject of this volume, no 
adequate Life has hitherto appeared. The lack points to a strange 
remissness on the part of his fellow-citizens, for de Saussure 
is the greatest man of science Geneva can boast, and material 
was not lacking in the Public Library and private cabinets of 
the town. 

De Saussure has two principal claims to our grateful remem- 
brance. He took a leading part in raising Geology to its high place 
among the physical sciences ; it is mainly to him we owe that 
we can count Alpine travel among the pleasures and consolations 
of life. These surely are services that called for an attempt to 
furnish some record of a career that has added largely to human 
knowledge and still more to human happiness. Yet in the words 
of his distinguished fellow-citizen, Professor Borgeaud, ' Horace 
Benedict de Saussure still awaits his biographer.' 

To the general reader of to-day de Saussure is known, if known 
at all, as the conqueror of Mont Blanc. But even from this aspect 
the part he played in creating the modern taste for Alpine scenery 
and travel has been but imperfectly appreciated. It may help 
my readers to realise the change in the attitude of men towards 
mountains effected by the lad who, at the age of twenty, walked 
to Chamonix and offered a reward to the first climber of Mont Blanc, 
if, before telling the story of his life, I ask them to cast a glance 
backwards, and in so doing to pay a brief tribute to certain of the 
rare spirits who in earlier centuries found health and happiness 
on the heights. I shall dwell more particularly on the age 
immediately preceding de Saussure 's own, the period before his 
personal influence had begun to make itself felt, the first sixty years 
of the eighteenth century, in which the outstanding figures are 
Rousseau and Voltaire in the Suisse Romande and Haller in 
German Switzerland. 

In the consciousness of simple peoples all waste places, whether 
seas, deserts, or mountains, are apt to be objects of religious awe ; 
they are regarded as portals to the unseen world. To the part 
played by mountains in the legendary dealings of Jehovah with 
his chosen people, the books of the Old Testament bear frequent 


witness, 1 and did space allow it would be easy to show a similar 
tendency among the nations of Farther Asia, the Chinese, 
Japanese, Tibetans, and Indians. But it is in ancient Greece, 
where primitive man, outgrowing his childhood with a rapidity 
unknown elsewhere, attained at a bound to a unique power of 
self-expression, that we recognise the best example of this primi- 
tive instinct in its highest development. The human mind abhors 
a void. It personifies the forces of nature, finding in solitudes 
a home for the supernatural ; peopling the uninhabitable with 
creatures of its own fancy. The Greek enthroned the synod of 
the gods upon the broad heights and serried crags of Olympus ; 
Pan held the wooded spurs of Parnassus ; Apollo and the Muses 
its twin peaks. The woods and the streams were the haunt 
of a crowd of nymphs and fauns. 

Races further advanced in civilisation are found to take a 
more practical and less poetical point of view. The characteristics 
that impress them most in mountains are that they are difficult, 
barren, inhospitable ; our own ancestors summed up their feelings 
in a single word, ' horrid.' 2 This was the attitude habitually shown 
in Roman literature. Not that there was any dislike or indiffer- 
ence to all sorts of natural scenery in the days of Augustus, such 
as there was in those of Louis Quatorze. The Roman citizen was 
keenly interested in the features of the world he had conquered 
and had to administer. Latin poetry is as crowded with place- 
names as Milton's, and the singularly appropriate epithets as a 
rule attached to each local feature show close and sympathetic 
observation. But nature was valued chiefly as a background 
and in so far as it contributed to human enjoyment ; it was shunned 
from the moment when it began to add to the toils or dangers of 
life. Virgil, Catullus, and the younger Pliny celebrated the 
Italian lakes or the Etrurian highlands ; Horace his quiet nook in 
the hills behind Tibur ; Ovid grew eloquent on the charms of his 
birthplace, Sulmo, the remote hill-town surrounded by running 

1 In the seventeenth century ' Bible Mountains ' were made the subject of 
a long rhymed poem entitled ' Ein lustig ernsthaf t poetisch Gastmal und Gespr&ch 
zweyer Bergen, namlich des Niesens und Stockhorns ' (Berne, 1606), by a worthy 
Swiss pastor named Rebmann. 

8 Horridus in Latin has a primary sense of ' bristling,' and is used of spears, 
or woods, or crags. Narrow gorges in the neighbourhood of the Italian lakes 
are locally known as Orridi. 


brooks and green meadows in the heart of the tawny Apennine. 
As a foreign critic has laid down, amcenitas, pleasantness, is the 
keynote to Roman appreciation of scenery. 1 We have no des- 
cription of the Passage of the Alps or of the Pyrenees from a 
picturesque point of view in Latin literature. Livy, Claudian, 
and Silius Italicus, when dealing with Alpine campaigns, emphasise 
only their disagreeable features. 

In the days of the Empire, while the Roman Peace lasted and 
Roman roads, with their elaborate system of inns and post houses, 
were kept in repair, the Alps were no very serious obstacle. They 
could be neglected, if not ignored. But when to the difficulties 
of broken tracks were added the dangers from Saracenic marauders 
or ordinary outlaws, they began to be looked on with extreme 
disfavour. In the tenth century an old English monk, who had 
doubtless suffered in crossing the Great St. Bernard on his way to 
Rome, wrote of ' the bitter blasts of glaciers and the Pennine 
army of evil spirits.' He used this quaint formula more than 
once as a malediction against any breaker of the covenants con- 
tained in the legal documents he was called on to draft. 2 It 
should be borne in mind that the mediaeval pilgrims to Rome 
generally crossed the passes at the worst possible season, before 
Easter, when the late avalanches are falling ; at the moment of 
the year when spring is holding her first revel in the lowlands, 
and her fingers have not yet spread the brilliant flower -carpet of 
an Alpine summer over the higher pastures, where the brown bare 
slopes are still flecked with ugly patches of half -melting snow. 

Thus the third or modern period, that of ' the love of the 
Alps,' was preceded by centuries during which the feeling for 
natural scenery was restricted within narrow bounds, and only 
such regions as could be put to human uses were brought within 
the reach of human sympathies. In the case of the High Alps, the 
discovery of such uses was very gradual. It came about mainly 
in this wise. As the years went on and the old order broke up, 
the Alpine valleys were found to contain retreats serviceable for 
the cure both of souls and bodies. The Church took the lead in 
familiarising men with mountains by showing that the solitudes 

1 Friedlander, Darstellungen aus der Sittengeschichte Koms, vol. ii. 
1 In some of the later documents a less-travelled scribe, puzzled by Pennine, 
substituted for it pemici. 


they had dreaded as the haunts of demons might serve as refuges 
from the turmoil and wickedness of the outer world. She set up 
her houses not only on the outskirts, but in the very heart of the 
Alps not only at Oropa, Novalesa, and Varallo, St. Gall and 
Einsiedeln, but also at Pesio, Chamonix, Engelberg, and Disentis, 
on the bleak crests of the St. Bernard and St. Gotthard and in 
the flowery wilderness of the Grande Chartreuse. The monks 
collected simples, they attended the sick, and thus the studies of 
botany and medicine went hand in hand. Glacier ice was found 
to be useful in fevers and ' most pertinacious toothache,' as well 
as to cool wine during the summer heats. The Alpine Baths 
sprang into repute. In the course of the sixteenth century fifty 
treatises dealing with twenty -one different resorts were published. 
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) mentions the Baths of Bormio, 
and Conrad Gesner (1516-1565) visited them. The waters of 
St. Moritz were said to supersede the juice of the grape, a quality 
the innkeepers of the Engadine have, in recent years, been at no 
pains to advertise. To Pfaffers wounded warriors went to be 
healed ; and it was reckoned a rival to the Swiss Baden as a scene 
of worldly dissipation. At the Baths of Loeche, as early as 1501, 
there was a large inn built by the Bishop of Sion, to which the 
patients were carried in panniers. Brigue, Tarasp, even remote 
spots such as the Baths of Masino, in a side glen of Val Tellina, 
Teniger Bad, 1 in the Biindner Oberland, had their votaries. 

These facts have to be kept in mind in any attempt to ascertain 
the origin and growth of men's relations to the Alps . In the Middle 
Ages they were no longer traversed only in haste by princes and 
pilgrims and commercial travellers, to whom they were mainly 
important as an inconvenient impediment on the roads to Italy. 
By means of the Alpine monasteries and Baths men of leisure and 
of such scientific interests as were alive at the time were brought 
into daily contact with the great mountains . Hence there arose 
it is true, in a relatively limited number of cases among men 
of independent and active minds, a certain interest in the 
physical aspects and features of the Alps. It manifested itself 
differently according to the individual ; the impulse might be 

1 Fifty years ago this Badhaus still retained its primitive simplicity. A 
series of wooden troughs resembling coffins so arranged as to fit into one another, 
head to feet, afforded opportunity for social bathing. 


botanical, medical, or even artistic curiosity ; it might spring 
from emotional feeling, or from a zest for climbing. It did not 
necessarily involve any love of mountain scenery, but it prepared 
the way for the growth of that sentiment. Juxtaposition revealed 
or created affinity. It would be easy to multiply instances of these 
exceptions to the temper of their age. But space forbids ; more- 
over, the roll of early contributors to Alpine literature has been 
called over of late years by several distinguished writers, some of 
whom have also been members of the craft of mountaineers. 

Foremost among the few forerunners to be mentioned here stands 
the name of Leonardo da Vinci. The world recognises him as a 
supreme artist. The literary or scientific critic knows him as one 
of the keenest observers, one of the widest and deepest thinkers 
of a great age, a Baconian before Bacon. Up to his day the 
scholastic mind had been a closed chamber. The Humanists 
remained in books. Physical science lives by original investiga- 
tion and experiment, not in a library. In thought and method 
Leonardo was a modern ; a mechanical inventor born out of his 
time ; a philosopher who brushed aside all orthodox hindrances 
and recognised a universe with constantly receding limits. 

Leonardo's marvellously varied activities are characteristically 
recorded, not in formal treatises, but in notebooks, sketches, and 
maps. The multitude of his ideas, his constant habit of verifying 
them by experiment, his passion for truth, stood in the way of 
any hasty theorising. A system, being, as he held, nothing else 
than the inclusion of particular truths in a higher and more 
comprehensive truth, could only be the result and crown of a 
life's work. In this respect, at least, we may recognise in him a 
kindred spirit to the author of the Voyages dans les Alpes, who 
left unwritten the volume which should have contained his 
' Theory of the Earth.' 

Leonardo's interest in the Alps was manifold. He abounds 
in practical notes that might serve for a modern guide-book. 
He reports that on the Grigna (the grey mountain opposite 
Cadenabbia above the Lecco branch of the Lake of Como) are 
' the biggest bare cliffs ' he knows ; that Val Sassina (a glen behind 
it) is full of the 'cose fantastiche ' he delights in ; that there are 
waterfalls seven hundred feet high on the way up to the Spliigen, 
which ' it is a pleasure to see ' ; that at the head of the Val Tellina 


there are Baths (at Bormio) and a group of snowy summits (the 
Ortler). He is not above chronicling for how many soldi a day 
you can get good living in the village inns, or how in the mountains 
behind Chiavenna the hunters pursue on hands and knees deer 
(probably chamois), bouquetin, and 'terrible bears.' He was, as 
his notes indicate, 1 once at Geneva, where he mentions the river 
Arve and the fair that was held in the suburb of St. Gervais at 
midsummer. It is possible that he may have been consulted on 
the project of new fortifications in hand about that date. 

But by far the most interesting of his mountain excursions 
was the ascent of a mountain he calls Mon Boso. For long it 
remained unidentified, and it is to an Italian writer, Signer 
Uzielli, that we owe the solving of the riddle. For I cannot but 
hold that he has been successful where I and many others had gone 
astray. The Italian Ordnance maps show that this name is still 
in use for two of the tops of the lofty crest that stretches down 
from Monte Rosa and divides Val Sesia from Val de Lys and the 
Biellese. 2 Leonardo, it may be objected, describes his Mon Boso 
as part of the range that divides France from Italy, from the base 
of which flow four rivers (identified elsewhere as the Rhine, Rhone, 
Po, and Danube) to the four different points of the compass. But 
at that date divisions in political geography were vague . Germany 
was generally regarded as ending at the limits of the Swiss Cantons 
that is, about the St. Gotthard. The Valais, under its Bishop, 
was connected more closely with Savoy than with the Empire. 
Again, with respect to the four rivers named, we have to remember 
that tributaries were often treated as sources, or rather that the 
particular source now recognised was not always that accepted 
by early geographers. Thus, for example, the Inn was reckoned 
the main stream of the Danube. 

There seems good reason to believe that Leonardo touched a 
glacier. He reports finding in July ' a huge mass of ice formed 

1 The notes are numbered 300, 1030, 1031, 1057, 1060 in Dr. Paul Richter's 
Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci (2nd vol., London, 1883). One of them is 
attached to a sketch. Dr. Richter's translations of notes 300 and 1060 stand 
in need of some correction. 

2 On a map of Lombardy published in 1749 ' M. Boso Rosa ' (sic) is printed 
north of the Val Sesia. This seems to indicate that the two names were either 
confused or used indifferently. Rosa (Ruize, Roesa = Glacier) may have been 
properly applied to the snows, Boso (Bosco ?) to the woods and pasturages below 
the snow level. 


by layers of hail.' This phrase may, no doubt, possibly be taken 
to refer to a snowfield. But the words are much more applicable 
to a glacier. It seems to me probable, taking into account 
Leonardo's remarks about the dark hue of the sky and the bright- 
ness of the sunshine, that he may have climbed to a height of 
about ten thousand feet above Gressoney or Alagna, on the edge 
of one of the glaciers of Monte Rosa. 

Leonardo found deeper sources of interest in Alpine scenery. 
These were not, as in the case of Petrarch, emotional ; they were 
connected with physical rather than with psychical problems. 
He was a geologist before geology. He looked to the mountains, 
as no one did again for more than two hundred years, for a key to 
the story of our globe. He attributed valley formation largely to 
the action of rivers. He noted the distribution of rocks and the 
frequent correspondence of the strata on the opposite flanks of 
defiles. He recognised the true significance of fossils, and denied 
the possibility of their being the records of a universal deluge, 
which he boldly discredited. He realised that the plain of 
Lombardy had once been a gulf of the Adriatic. He no doubt 
invoked too frequently the agency of catastrophic floods, but in 
this delusion he was to have many followers in future generations, 
among them de Saussure himself. Finally, as an artist he was 
quick to note the manifold effects of distance and atmosphere 
displayed in mountain landscapes, the gathering of the storm 
clouds below the naked peaks, the sharp definition of the ridges 
on the skyline compared to the relative softness of the lower 
slopes, seen through a denser atmosphere. 

In the early literature of the Alps no name is more worthy to 
be commemorated than that of Conrad Gesner of Zurich (1516- 
1565). In a relatively short life Gesner combined an amazing 
variety of intellectual activities ; he was in his many-sidedness a 
typical figure of the Renaissance. Remembered to-day chiefly 
as a botanist, he was also the author of the standard work of the 
time on zoology. Cuvier described him as the creator of scientific 
botany and the founder of zoology, ' a prodigy of industry, of 
knowledge and sagacity.' Despite his labours in natural science, 
Gesner was also active as a humanist and a man of letters ; he 
edited classics ; he was the compiler of a universal catalogue of 
authors and a volume containing an account of one hundred and 


thirty languages, ancient and modern. He also practised as a 
doctor ! But the trait that gives him a place here and endears 
him to all mountaineers is that he was the first man boldly to 
profess a love of climbing for its own sake, and to enjoy and 
depict in the modern spirit the incidents of Alpine travel. 

Gesner died at the early age of forty-nine, before he had had 
time to write the book on mountains which he tells us he had in 
his mind. But it is clear from the letter written in 1541 to a 
friend on The Admiration of Mountains? and from the preface to 
the account of his ascent of one of the summits of Pilatus in 
1550, that the seed he sowed, if it took long to spread abroad 
and germinate, 2 did not fall altogether on stony ground. Passages 
from both have been of late frequently quoted, but they can 
hardly be quoted too often. Here is an extract from the 
former : 

' I have determined, therefore,' writes Gesner to his friend, the 
most learned Avienus (his real name was Vogel), ' as long as God grants 
me life to climb every year several mountains, or at least one, in the 
flower-season, partly for the sake of botanical studies, partly for 
honest bodily exercise, and for my own satisfaction. For what, think 
you, must be the pleasure, what the delight a mind properly attuned 
feels when one gazes with admiration on the bulk of mountains and 
raises one's head among the clouds ! The consciousness is in some 
vague way impressed by the stupendous heights 3 and is drawn to the 
contemplation of the Great Architect. Men of dull mind admire 
nothing, sleep at home, never go out into the Theatre of the World, 
hide in corners, like dormice, through the winter, never recognise 
that the human race was sent into the world in order that through 
its marvels it should learn to recognise some higher Power, the Supreme 
Being Himself. . . . Let them roll like pigs in their mud ; let them 
he stupefied by the pursuit of gain and illiberal studies. Students 
of philosophy endeavour to view with the eyes both of their souls and 
bodies the glories of this earthly Paradise, and amongst these they 

1 Printed as a preface to his Libellus de Lacte. See Coolidge's J. Simler el les 
Origines de FAlpinisme for a full translation and comments. 

2 Simler, in the letter to the Bishop of Sion which introduces his History of 
the Valais (1574), paraphrases the former, and a hundred and thirty-four years 
later Scheuchzer started his Itinera Alpina (1708) with a long quotation from 
The Admiration of Mountains. 

3 Compare Tennyson's 

' Some vague emotion of delight 
In gazing up an Alpine height.' 


count by no means least the lofty and broken ridges of the mountains, 
their inaccessible precipices, the vastness of the slopes that rise heaven- 
ward, the steep crags, the shady woods.' 

In the Pilatus pamphlet l Gesner is equally emphatic. Here 
are a few sentences taken from several pages of a eulogy of 
mountaineering, wholly modern in the note they strike despite 
the trammels of a dead language to which Gesner succeeds in 
giving singular vivacity. In one sentence he celebrates the 
holiday humours often made a reproach by dyspeptic reviewers 
to the writers of Alpine articles. In the next he is anticipating 


* . . . deep music of the rolling world, 
Kindling within the strings of the waved air 
^Bolian modulations.' 

But let him speak for himself : 

' The agreeable conversation of companions, their quips and jests, 
will give pleasure ; then the delicious songs of the birds in the woods, 
and finally the very silence of the solitude. Here there can be no 
sounds to vex or harass the ears, no city riots or noise, no human 
strife. Here in the deep and solemn silence on the topmost crests of the 
mountains you mil seem to yourself almost to catch the music, if such 
there be, of the heavenly orbs.* 

' Let us conclude, therefore, that mountain walks, taken with 
friends, so long as the mind and body are capable of profiting by them, 
and the weather is suitable, afford the greatest possible enjoyment 
and the most delightful gratification to the senses. But there are no 
beds, feather mattresses, pillows ! Oh you mollycoddle ! (mollem et 
ejfeminatum hominem). Hay will serve for all ; hay soft and fragrant, 
a heap of various grasses and fragrant flowers. Your sleep will be 
the healthier and more refreshing. You will have hay for a pillow 
to your head, for a mattress to your body, and you will even spread 
it over you for a coverlet.' 

May we not claim Gesner as the spiritual father of all Alpine 
Clubs ? What would we give for him to have lived to tell us the 

1 Descripiio Montis Fracti, 1551. 

8 Auditum suaves sociorum sermones, joci, facetiaeque, oblectabunt: et 
avicularum in silvis suavissimi cantus, et ipsum denique solitudinis silentium. 
Nihil hie auribus raolestum esse potest, nihil importunum, nulli tumultus aut 
etrepitus urbani, nullae hominum rixae. Hlc in profundo et religiose quodam 
silentio ex pracaltis montium jugis, ipsam fere coelestium, si quae est, orbium 
harmoniam exaudire tibi videberis. 


story of ' the many and much loftier mountains [than Pilatus] in 
different parts of Switzerland which he had wandered amongst ' ? 

We may note in passing that the legend of Pilatus supplies an 
excellent illustration of the gradual decay of superstition. When 
we first hear any mention of the mountain, it is to be told how the 
ghost of the Roman Proconsul is doomed to sit every Good Friday 
in his red robes of office on a rocky throne in the hollow below 
the peaks. The magistrates of Lucerne forbade under pain of 
imprisonment and fine any rash intrusion on a spirit who, if 
disturbed, might visit the countryside with storms and floods. 
At a later date we find special permits given to discreet pro- 
fessors and students to visit the locality ' for scientific purposes.' 
Finally, incredulous pleasure-seekers throw stones into the dark 
tarn beneath whose waters the unquiet ghost once lurked ; 
Gesner botanises on its forbidden margin and nobody is the 

Gesner was by no means solitary in his generation in his 
enthusiasm for mountain travel. Hear his friend, Benoit Marti, 
a Professor of Classics at Berne. In 1557 he wrote as follows of 
the view from his native city : 

' These are the mountains which we love and delight in, when we 
gaze at them from the higher parts of our city and admire their mighty 
peaks arid broken crags that threaten to fall at any moment. On 
them we watch the risings and settings of the sun and seek signs of 
the weather. In them we find food not only for our eyes and our 
minds, but also for our bellies ' ; 

and he goes on to enumerate with equal enthusiasm the dairy 
products of the Oberland and the happy life of its population. 
This worthy man proceeds : 

' Who, then, would not admire, love, willingly visit, explore, and 
climb places of this sort ? I assuredly should call those who are not 
attracted by them mushrooms ; stupid, dull fishes ; slow tortoises ' 
(fungos ; stupidos, insulsos pisces ; lentasque chelonas). 

Having forcibly vented his scorn by these varied comparisons, he 
goes on : 

' In truth, I cannot describe the sort of affection and natural love 
by which I am drawn to the mountains, so that I am never happier 
than on their crests, and there are no wanderings dearer to me than 


those among them. . . . They are the Theatre of the Lord, displaying 
monuments of past ages, such as precipices, rocks, peaks, chasms, 
and never-melting glaciers.' 

The foregoing are only a selection from many equally enthusiastic 

Nor are their books the only evidence we have of the love 
of mountains in these scholars of the Renaissance. The moun- 
tains themselves bear, or once bore, records even more impressive. 
Most Swiss travellers have climbed to the picturesque old castle 
at Thun and seen, beyond the clear flood of the rushing Aar, the 
green heights of the outposts of the Alps, the Stockhorn and the 
Niesen. Our friend Marti, who scaled the former peak, records 
that he found on the summit 'tituli, rhythmi, et proverbia 
saxis inscripta una cum imaginibus et nominibus auctoram. Inter 
alia cujusdam docti et montium amoenitate capti observare 

licebat illud : 

t t/-\ 

(J T<av opuv 

' Inscriptions, rhymes, and old saws carved on the rocks with the 
reflections (?) and names of their authors. Amongst others was notice- 
able this record of some scholar captivated by the mountain charm, 
" The love of mountains is best." ' l 

One more example may be taken from the sixteenth century. 
Josias Simler, a pupil and the biographer of Gesner, published 
in 1574 a Description of Valais and the Alps. In a dedicatory 
letter to the Bishop of Sion, which, after the fashion of the time, 
serves as an introduction to the dainty little volume, he para- 
phrases the passage I have quoted from his master's Admiration 
of Mountains. Simler furnishes a great deal of topographical and 
practical information, not only as to the high passes then in use, 
but also on the precautions taken in crossing them. His readers 
find themselves assisting at the birth of the craft of mountaineering 
above the snow level. Simler describes in detail the passage of 
the St. The'odule, mentioning the employment of guides and the 
rope, the alpenstock, crampons, hoops for use on the feet on soft 
snow, glass spectacles (vitrea conspicilia), precautions against 

1 For further details see Coolidge's Josias Simler et les Origines de FAlpinisme, 
a vast volume full of specimens of and particulars relating to the early Alpine 
authors, and in particular to Conrad Gesner and Marti. 


frost-bite. The rope and dark spectacles were not adopted, 
either at Chamonix or in the Oberland, until two hundred years 
later. On the other hand, the ice-axe was a Chamonix invention, 
a combination of the short axe used by crystal-hunters and the 
alpenstock. 1 

The following quotation may serve to show that even at 
Simler's date Alpine travellers with a taste for mountain scenery 
were not unknown. He writes : 

' In the entire district, and particularly among the very lofty 
ranges by which the Valais is on all sides surrounded, wonders of 
nature offer themselves to our view and admiration. With my 
countrymen many of them have, through familiarity, lost their 
attraction ; but foreigners are overcome at the mere sight of the 
Alps, and regard as marvels what we through habit pay no atten- 
tion to.' 

After the flood-tide of the Renaissance there was a notable 
reaction in Alpine literature. Religious wars and controversies 
ravaged Europe and distracted men's minds. The invention of 
printing proved far from an unmixed boon to the human intelli- 
gence. When the new impulse had spent its force, men's minds 
grew less active and less open to fresh, first-hand impressions. 
Swiss professors students of philosophy, they called themselves 
became more bookish, they took facts at second-hand from their 
shelves instead of from the direct observation of nature. For 
several generations there were no more Conrad Gesners. 

The works published during the next hundred and fifty years 
paid relatively small attention to the mountain region. Their 
authors were more concerned with the towns than with the High 
Alps, with political and social statistics than with natural history. 
They had no difficulty in swallowing wonders ' miracles of 
nature ' or in accepting childish explanations of the physical 
problems that met their eyes . As late as Simler's day it was still 
held open to argument whether crystals such as were found in the 
Alpine crags might not be the result of intense and perpetual 

1 The cause of the distinction is obvious. Necessity is the mother of inven- 
tion. Natives of the Upper Valais who wanted to get to Val d'Aosta had to 
cross a glacier pass : the peasants of Chamonix could go round Mont Blanc ; 
but they needed a weapon to extract the crystals, the quest of which had de- 
veloped into a local industry. (See Evelyn's Diary.) 


frost. 1 Marc Lescarbot, a sceptical Frenchman who in 1618 
visited Switzerland and borrowed largely from Simler in his 
poetical description of the Alps, attacked the vulgar belief in some 
very dull lines : 

' Ecrivains qui couchez dans vos doctes esprits 
Le crystal etre glace, ou 1'avez vous appris ? 
Si le crystal est tel, pourquoi dans les val!6es 
Les Montagnes de glace en ce temps ecroulees 
Fondent-elles au feu ? ' 2 

and so on for several pages . But the superstition was too strong 
to be slain by so blunt a weapon as Lescarbot 's verse. 

In a volume known from its illustrator as Merian's Topographia 
Helvetiae, Rhaetiae, et Vallesiae (1642) we, for the first time, find 
the Grindelwald Glacier carefully described and depicted. About 
this date a certain number of Swiss students started in pursuit 
of a glacier theory and wrote more or less dull treatises. But it 
was not until the first decade of the eighteenth century that 
glacial problems were taken up seriously. The next landmark 
in Alpine literature is afforded by Johann Jakob Scheuchzer's 
voluminous works. The best known are Beschreibung der Natur- 
geschichten des Schweitzerlands, 1706-8, and the oddly named 
" > Ovpecn<f)oir'r}<t Helveticus sive Itinera Alpina tria(1708), republished 
and enlarged to four volumes in 1723. Scheuchzer (1672-1733) was 
by profession a doctor and by taste an energetic pedestrian. He 
was also a Fellow of the Royal Society. His rambles extended 
beyond the Bernese Oberland to Graubiinden, Glarus, Uri, and 
the Valais. His thick volumes of Alpine travel present a strange 
combination of topography, legend, and fiction with a sprinkling of 
such scientific observation as was current in his day. He not only 
called attention to the marvels of the Alps he added to them ! 
Yet Scheuchzer was an esteemed writer and obtained full recog- 
nition in the most learned circles. We owe to him some of the 

1 Strabo, bk. xi. ch. 6, describes how the natives of the Western Caucasus 
cross with the aid of snowshoes and toboggans its snows and glaciers. The phrase 
used is ' Tac x^vas nal TOVS KpvcrraXAovf.' This is the only reference to glaciers as 
distinct from snows that I remember in the classics. That in Greek the same 
word serves for both ice and crystal may have helped to create the subsequent 

2 Tableau de la Suisse et autres allies de la France el hautes Allemagnes, par 
Marc Lescarbot, advocat en Parleinent, 1618. 


first efforts at barometrical determinations of Alpine heights, the 
first serious attempt to theorise about such subjects as glacier 
motion, ice-caves, periodical winds, and intermittent springs. 
Sir Isaac Newton accepted the dedication of one edition of his 
work to our Royal Society, and the Fellows of that illustrious 
body vied with one another in supplying funds for illustrations, 
to which their names were severally attached. In so doing they, 
perhaps unwittingly, lent their sanction to a feature that makes 
Scheuchzer's travels still sought after a series of weird images of 
prodigious dragons sworn to have been seen, mostly after supper, 
by worthy and veracious peasants near their homes. These, 
however, were but an ornament to volumes which profess on their 
title-page to describe and illustrate ' whatever of rare and note- 
worthy in Nature, the Arts, or Antiquity is to be found in the 
Helvetic and Rhaetian Alps.' The subjects Scheuchzer most 
delights in after dragons are botany, Baths, pastoral industries, 
and milking utensils. 

Scheuchzer was not the first to introduce the Alps and their 
glaciers to English men of science. In 1669 the Royal Society had 
received a brief communication from a Mr. Muraltus of Berne, 
' Concerning the Icy and Crystalline Mountains of Helvetia called 
the Gletscher.' Four years later a ' worthy and obliging ' Monsieur 
Justel of Paris sent a further and equally brief report, adding 
that there was such another mountain near Geneva, and thus 
indicating the existence of Mont Blanc. 1 

Writing in 1685, Gilbert Burnet, afterwards Bishop of Salis- 
bury, in a letter to Robert Boyle, reported that ' one Hill not far 
from Geneva calTd Cursed, of which one-third is always covered 
with snow, is three miles in perpendicular height according to 
the observation of that incomparable mathematician and philo- 
sopher, Nicolas Fatio de Duillier.' 2 In 1709 the Bishop's son, 

1 See Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, vols. xlix and c. The 
reports are quoted in full in Coolidge's The Alps in Nature and History, and in 
Alpine Journal, vol. xiv. p. 319-20. 

2 N. F. de Duillier (1664-1753). There was much doubt and confusion as to 
the height of the Swiss peaks. The Schreckhorn and Finsteraarhorn were held 
the highest in the Oberland, but the St. Gotthard was thought by some to be 
still higher, and there was an old legend that Pizzo Stella in Graubiinden was 
the highest of all. It figures conspicuously in the corner of Scheuchzer's four- 
sheet map of Switzerland (1712), a copy of which is hung in the Royal Geogra- 
phical Society's House at Lowther Lodge. 


William Burnet, sent to Sir Hans Sloane, the President of the 
Royal Society, a further description of the Grindelwald Glaciers, 
and even made an attempt to propound a glacier theory. 

Scheuchzer had described his travels both in fluent Latin 
and in German. His successor, Gottlieb Sigmund Griiner, wrote 
only in German, in itself a significant fact. Unlike Scheuchzer, 
he was more of a compiler than a traveller. One of his contem- 
poraries calls him a ' chamber philosopher,' and de Saussure 
mentions that his bad health and ' certain physical defects ' 
compelled him to rely mainly on the reports of others. He 
employed a number of local correspondents, on whom he depended 
for his matter and his illustrations ; as to the latter, the artists 
appear to have been far from conscientious. 

Griiner was a practical book-maker and he wrote to meet a 
need which he was the first to recognise. There was, he saw, a 
public eager to read about the mountains and their natural 
wonders ; a demand which the many editions of the old ' D61ices 
de la Suisse ' of the first half of the eighteenth century (1714 and 
later), dealing mainly with the towns and humanity, had failed to 
satisfy. 1 His own countrymen, and the foreign Milords and Barons 
who were now making pilgrimage to the Glaciers of Grindelwald and 
Chamonix, wanted something better. These visitors were yearly 
growing more numerous. The inn which the pastor had started 
at Grindelwald was a profitable concern, and as early as 1748 its 
goodwill had been transferred to a peasant landlord. The Due 
de la Rochefoucauld had in 1762 followed Pococke and Windham 
to Chamonix. The ' Glaciers de Faucigny ' could hardly be left 
out, though the only picture of them procurable was certainly 
not according to nature, and had subsequently to be apologised 
for. Griiner, in writing to Wyttenbach, attributes it to Nicolas 
Fatio, who must therefore be reckoned among the early visitors 
to Chamonix. 

Griiner sets forth his purpose in a modest preface to the first 
edition of his work. He begins by asking those who know the 

1 It ia true that the author of an edition of 1730 is at pains to argue that, 
despite obvious objections, mountains as affording pasturage, game, mines, 
good frontiers, and ' a thousand natural rarities and curiosities,' may claim to 
be counted among the attractions of his country. But he proceeds to give 
thirty-two pages to dragons and only a passing reference to glaciers, with a plate 
of the Lower Grindelwald Glacier. 


Alps for further contributions that may help to give his volumes 
greater completeness in future issues. He proposes first to 
describe the Alps in history and nature, and then to deal with 
the physical problems they suggest, and in doing so to aim at 
plain description rather than fine writing at exactitude rather 
than novelty. 

The late Professor Bernard Studer, a very competent critic, 
passes an impartial judgment on the Eisgebirge. 1 

' Griiner,' he writes, ' by his industry has done good service to 
Natural Science in Switzerland. But, since his information was 
mostly indirect, gathered from correspondence or by word of mouth, 
and his own knowledge in Physics and the Natural Sciences was super- 
ficial, no thorough treatment of his subject must be looked for. Still 
his was the first successful attempt to produce a comprehensive survey 
of the Swiss Alps.' 

Studer goes on to praise Griiner's mineralogical chapters and 
to refer to his Theory of Glacier Motion, borrowed from two 
earlier authors, Hottinger and Altmann. 2 Griiner alleged that 
the advance of the ice was caused by its weight rather than, as 
had been suggested, by expansion due to summer warmth. 
Griiner's generalisations, when he went beyond local details, were 
apt to be unlucky ; for instance, he imagined a continuous sea 
of ice extending from the Rheinwaldhorn to Mont Blanc. The 
topography of the Aar Glaciers was too much for him. Even 
nearer home he is badly at fault. The Susten Pass he describes 
as too steep for travellers with weak heads ; the Wengern Alp as 
dangerous. Lack of method and critical power in the author 
result in his failure to weld his material so as to produce a satis- 
factory work. But such as they were, his volumes held the field. 
Their success encouraged Griiner to produce in 1778 (anony- 

1 Physische Geographic der Sckweiz, B. Studer, Bern, Zurich, 1863. B. Studer 
was a friend of Professor Forbes, who dedicated to him his work on the Alps. 

2 J. H. Hottinger' s tract is entitled Montium Glacialium Hdveticorum De- 
scriptio. Ephemerid. Mediate, Physicae, Germanicae Academiae naturae curio- 
sorum, Decuriae in., Annus nonus et decimus, Norimburgae, 1706. 

J. G. Altmann, in 1751, published, at Zurich, a work with the ambitious title, 
Versuch einer historischen und physischen Beschreibung der Helvetischen Eisberge. 
The original portion of it consists of the description of a visit to Grindelwald, of 
which a recognisable engraving is supplied. He considers the glaciers to be the 
outflow of a central ice-sea. His ideas as to the structure of the ice and the 
conditions of its movement are very crude. 



mously, with the false imprint 'London') a popular edition 
under a new title : Reisen durch die merkwurdigsten Gegenden 
Helvetiena, in two volumes. It was obviously aimed to catch the 
attention and serve the needs of the already rising tide of 
visitors to the glaciers. 

In this aim Griiner was, on the whole, successful. His work 
had no rivals. The best tribute to its position is the fact that de 
Saussure set himself to learn German, in order to be able to read 
it. 1 In the first volume of the Voyages he refers to Griiner in 
characteristically generous terms : 

' Many Swiss Naturalists or Geographers, Merian, Simler, Hottinger, 
Scheuchzer, and others, have dealt with glaciers. But no one has 
treated the subject more thoroughly than Monsieur G. S. Griiner. 
The descriptions which are the result of the author's own observa- 
tions are very accurate and satisfactory, but as he was unable himself 
to visit so many mountains he has been obliged to avail himself of 
the help of others. . . . M. Griiner's third volume is a treatise on the 
origin, nature, and differences of glaciers. In this the author has 
exhausted his subject as far as a physical subject can be said to be 
exhaustible, and although his opinion may not be shared on all points 
by physical inquirers, it would be difficult, as a whole, to give a better 
account of the various phenomena presented by these frozen masses. 
... As to the engraving which pretends to represent the Glaciers of 
Faucigny, I do not know who sent it to Monsieur Griiner, but it 
is certain that it bears no resemblance whatever to its alleged 

These words were published in 1779, the year following the 
appearance of the popular edition of Griiner's work, and also of 
his death. It is, I think, more than probable that the knowledge 
of the forthcoming appearance of the first volume of the Voyages 
incited Griiner to reissue his own book. 

The typical specimens I have cited from what we may call 
pre -alpine literature must suffice for my present purpose. They 
may serve to show the nature of the material bearing on the 
study to which he proposed to devote his life which lay at de 
Saussure's hands, and also to indicate the trend of men's minds 

1 Griiner's work was not translated into French until 1770. Writing to 
Wyttenbach he describes the translation as very faulty. In 1774 he was pro- 
posing to publish a description of the Aletsch Glacier. De Saussure never men- 
tions this greatest of Alpine ice-streams. 


in the century and country in which he was born towards the 
natural sciences connected with the history of the earth. 

We have seen how the enthusiasm of the old Renaissance 
scholars had died out in the denser atmosphere of the succeeding 
centuries, how their successors at Berne and Zurich had lived more 
in their libraries than on the mountains. The Reformation had, 
among its consequences, occupied men's minds with dogmatic 
disputes to the detriment of the natural sciences. Theology and 
dogma were doing their best to hinder the birth or check the 
growth of inconvenient rivals, the Logics that attempt to deal with 
ascertained facts. ' New Presbyter is but old priest writ large ' 
an ecclesiastical government naturally inclines to despotism, and 
Calvin's at Geneva was no exception to the rule. The control 
of the Venerable Company lay like a blight on many forms of 
independent mental activity. It was not until towards the close 
of the seventeenth century, when its tyranny had been relaxed, 
that the Republic produced any names that acquired in literature 
or physical science a more than local reputation. The chief 
agents in this great change, the admission of free inquiry and 
toleration in the place of dogma and persecution, were the Cartesian 
philosopher and magistrate, Jean Robert Chouet (1642-1731), 
and the liberal-minded pastor, Jean Alphonse Turrettini (1671- 
1737). Both were active champions of liberty, but of the two 
Turrettini was the more influential. His persuasive eloquence 
resounded in the pulpits of Geneva and was listened to with 
willing ears, and, if his dream of uniting the Protestant churches 
in a common bond remains still unfulfilled, he was successful in 
freeing his own city from the grosser forms of intellectual bondage 
in which it had been too long held. In the clerical oligarchy set 
up by Calvin he introduced the principle of individual liberty of 
mind of the English Puritans, and thus sowed the seeds which 
resulted in Rousseau and the Revolution of 1789. 1 

The results of this widening of the intellectual horizon were 
not, however, immediately manifest among the professors and 
the students of the Geneva Academy, at any rate in the field 
of physical research. Apart from his uncle Bonnet, it was to 
German Switzerland, to Albrecht von Haller and Griiner, that 

"- 1 See Professor Borgeaud's review of Vallette's J. J. Rousseau Oenevois, 
vol. viii, Annales de la Societe J. J. Rousseau, Geneve. 


the young de Saussure had chiefly to look for encouragement 
and guidance in his special field of investigation. 

It is not, I think, difficult to recognise further and adequate 
reasons for the relative backwardness of the Genevese in such 
branches of physical inquiry as related to their natural environ- 
ment. The Swiss Cantons include many mountain districts 
united to the lowlands by administrative and other bonds which 
bring the dwellers in the towns into frequent contact with their 
neighbours of the highlands. But independent Geneva, enclosed 
in its narrow plot on the banks of the Rhone, was further encom- 
passed by the domains of a dangerous neighbour, the Duke of 
Savoy. Its territory was less than a hundred square miles. 
Its inhabitants had no practical links with the country districts 
that lay beyond a short walk from their walls. Moreover, their 
social life and intellectual energies, so far as these had escaped 
from the rigid control of Calvinism, were profoundly influenced 
by those of the nation whose language they shared, their great 
neighbour France. And for a hundred years before the middle 
of the eighteenth century, French taste and intellect had turned 
their backs on natural scenery and research. 

At this date the old towns of France had not yet grown into 
cities, they had no manufacturing suburbs, their inhabitants felt 
little longing to escape from their surroundings into a purer air. 
Persons of wealth and fashion, when they moved, took, as far as 
possible, their environment and atmosphere with them. Their 
country homes, if of recent date, were Palladian mansions with 
pillared porticoes and balustrades. When they were not con- 
versing in salons, they were promenading on terraces and lawns, 
among elaborate parterres , and down interminable avenues . They 
were incapable of taking a rural walk or appreciating a woodland 
glade, unless, indeed, they had first dressed up as shepherds and 
shepherdesses. They had little indulgence for nature unadorned, 
except possibly in the form of a slender cascade. They preferred 
her made up and tricked out like a court lady by some gardener 
or architect. The feeling as to scenery reflected a hundred years 
earlier in the pages of Evelyn's Diary was still predominant up 
to the middle of the eighteenth century. For him the Forest of 
Fontainebleau was a confusion of ' hideous rocks ' and ' gloomy 
precipices.' He was only happy in the walled gardens, among the 


paved walks, fountains, and ' perspectives/ of which he saw and 
described so many. 

The generation of Louis Quinze lived physically and morally 
in an artificial world. Self-conscious, sentimental, engrossed in 
their own social relations, full of personal emotions, which, whether 
real or affected, they were at equal pains to cultivate, they had 
no eyes for the storm that was already looming on the near 

It was from England that one of the earliest indications of the 
change of feeling that, if still inarticulate, 1 was already in the air, 
was to come. Formal gardening was among the first formalities 
to be called in question. Pope and Addison were active in the 
attack on an art the main object of which seemed to be to thwart 
and contradict nature at every turn. The founders of a new school, 
calling themselves landscape gardeners, responded to their appeal. 
Kent and ' Capability Brown,' followed by Repton, led the return 
to rusticity. They endeavoured to restore or improve nature, 
but on her own lines. They removed the marks of man's labour 
by turning fields into parks, hedgerows into ornamental clumps, 
boundary walls into sunk ha-has, and straight terraces into ser- 
pentine walks. The new taste soon extended to the Continent ; 
the grounds of the Trianon remain as one of its more conspicuous 
examples. De Saussure, on the lake -shore at Genthod, imitated 
on a small scale the parks and gardens he had admired in Holland 
and Yorkshire, while a contemporary print shows that Bonnet's 
demesne on the hill above remained a specimen of the old style. 
Rousseau eagerly fell in with a change which fitted so well his 
mental attitude, and his description of Julie's garden at Clarens 
proves him a warm advocate of the English style as against French 
and Italian formality. We recognise that we are on the way to 
the mock ruins, artificial cascades, and shrubberies of the famous 
garden at Ermenonville. 

Rousseau himself was doubtless a powerful agent in this 
peaceable revolution, but he was far from being its originator. 
Such changes are not the works of any one man. From age to age 
tastes differ and fashion alters, whether in art, architecture, or 
gardens. This absence of any permanent standard results partly 

1 See in Mr. Gosse's recent volume. Some Diversions of a Man of Letters, the 
chapter on ' The Message of the Wartons.' 


from the differing material and social conditions of the times, 
partly from the desire, as old as Homer, of each generation to be 
better than, or at least other than its predecessor. I have dwelt on 
the revolution in gardening because it was a preliminary symptom 
of the far greater change that was to follow, the passion for wild 
scenery. But it was some time before the taste for artificial 
rusticity developed into a love of nature in her sterner moods, 
even in a region where she displays them so variously as on 
the shores of Lake Leman and in the highlands of Savoy. The 
Genevese still employed French architects to build them classical 
villas, and laid out formal frog-ponds in front of Mont 
Blanc ! 

How was the greater change brought about ? How was it 
that first rural and pastoral and then mountain landscape grew 
into popular favour, that the romantic succeeded to the classical ? 
I have already alluded, in speaking of landscape gardening, to the 
part played by Rousseau. Jean Jacques was one of the many 
voices which heralded a return to nature that was already more 
or less in the air. He was by far the most eloquent and vibrant 
among them. But as regards mountains, his appeal was not the 
first, and it had very definite limits. It had been preceded in 
Switzerland by another, larger in its scope, which at the time met 
with extraordinary success. Albrecht von Haller's poem on the 
Alps, first published at Berne in 1732, obtained at once a European 
reputation. 1 Haller, as I shall point out in a later chapter, was 
remarkable in many ways, but his supreme claim to the respect 
of all lovers of the Alps is that it was his influence that encouraged 
and inspired a young Genevese professor to make the mountains 
the study of his life. The conqueror of Mont Blanc looked up 
to the Bernese man of science as his beloved master. But if 
Haller was a primary agent and precursor in establishing a new 
relation between men and mountains, the founder of the cult 
was de Saussure. It was mainly through his practical example 
and his writings that the High Alps were brought within the scope 
of the new interest in natural scenery, that they won for themselves 
a place, grudgingly yielded at first, on men's lips as ' Beautiful 
Horrors,' and then came to be hailed by poets as the Palaces of 
Nature, and accepted by the European public as the Playground of 
1 Verauch Schweizerischer Oedichte. Bern, 1732. 


Europe. De Saussure was the true author of our modern 
passion for Alpine scenery, as well as the first systematic 
Alpine explorer. 

In making this claim I recognise that I am running counter 
to the common disposition to credit the creation of the love of 
the Alps to Rousseau, a tradition resting to a great extent on 
the authority of Chateaubriand, who disliked Rousseau and 
the Alps equally, and was delighted to couple them in his 

There were, no doubt, mental links between the author of 
the Nouvelle Heloise and the climber of Mont Blanc in their 
common appreciation of the virtues of the Alpine peasantry ; and 
in such phrases of de Saussure as ' Luxury and the love of money 
are the tomb of liberty ' we may seem to catch an echo of 
Rousseau's eloquence. But with respect to natural scenery, de 
Saussure 's appreciation was independent of and very much wider 
in scope than that of the guest of Les Charmettes. 

In an attempt to estimate the work of de Saussure it seems 
to me essential to reassert this fact, and it is the more essential 
since one so eminent, both as a critic and a climber, as Leslie 
Stephen has given his support to the popular tradition. In one 
of the opening chapters of The Playground of Europe (1871) he 
wrote as follows : 

' If Rousseau were tried for the crime of setting up mountains as 
objects of human worship he would be convicted by any impartial 
jury. He was aided, it is true, by accomplices, none of whom were 
more conspicuous than de Saussure.' 

Such a verdict, I venture to say, could only be returned by 
a jury which had not heard the competent witnesses, or had been 
wrongly charged from the Bench. Stephen goes on to call 
Rousseau ' The Columbus of the Alps, or the Luther of the new 
creed of Mountain Worship.' These comparisons are picturesque, 
but, I venture to think, unsustainable. 

In appealing against them I shall call as witnesses critics of 
the highest rank. Lord Morley has put the case fairly enough. 
Rousseau's attitude towards nature, he tells us, was closely 
connected with his politics and philosophy ; his praise of rustic 
or pastoral landscape was in great part inspired by his desire to 


contrast a complicated and corrupt civilisation with an idealised 
simple life. But in order to do this, writes Lord Morley, he 
did not have recourse to those aspects of nature ' which the poet 
of " Manfred " forced into an imputed sympathy with his own 
rebellion. Rousseau never moralised appalling landscapes ; the 
Alpine wastes had no attraction for him.' Again, 'The humble 
heights of the Jura and the lovely points of the valley of 
Chambery sufficed to give him all the pleasure of which he was 
capable.' l 

Sainte-Beuve has defined Rousseau's sphere of influence in 
the same sense with admirable clearness and more minuteness. 
There are, he points out, 2 three zones of Alpine scenery the 
lowlands or foothills, ending at the limit of the walnuts ; the 
middle zone, the region of mountain valleys, villages, and pine- 
forests ; and the upper zone, that of the high summer pastures 
and the eternal snows. 'Jean Jacques' I quote 'knew only 
the lowlands, the lakes, the gay cottages, and orchards. Les 
Charmettes remains his ideal. He never explored, or described 
in detail, even the middle zone. . . . The highest regions were in 
a sense the discovery and the conquest of the illustrious man of 
science, de Saussure.' The great French critic's verdict is definite 
and seems to me decisive . But it may be well to add the testimony 
of at least one local expert, Professor Philippe Godet of Neuchatel, 
an eminent historian of the literature of Romance Switzerland, 
whose work has been crowned by the French Academic des 
Lettres. 3 

' Rousseau,' he writes, ' had made his mark as a man of letters 
and a describer of scenery, but in his description he had never risen 
above the middle zone of our country. With de Saussure, the point 
of view is enlarged the High Alps become the central object of his 
studies ; he creates Alpine literature ; before him men talked about 
the sublime horrors of regions of which they knew nothing. From the 
date of the publication of his Voyages the horrors disappeared, the 
sublimity was better appreciated, descriptions in volumes inspired 
by the Alps became as numerous as the pictures of which their land- 
scapes furnished the motives. By climbing Mont Blanc the Genevese 

1 Life of Rousseau, vol. ii. pp. 77-9. 

2 See article on Topffer in his Causeries du Lundi, vol. viii. 
8 Histoire Littiraire de la Suisse Franfaise, Paris, 1890. 


writer opened a new path to the human spirit ; a domain of which 
Science, Art, and Letters are still far from having exhausted the 

Again the late M. Valletta, who, in his interesting volume, 
Rousseau Genevois (1911), is by no means disposed to minimise any 
claim that can fairly be put forward for his client, practically 
acquiesces in the view here suggested. He writes, ' To tell the 
truth, it is to the middle region of the mountains, among the 
buttresses of the Alpine giants, that St. Preux keeps. He pre- 
served a respectful distance from the high rocky peaks which he 
esteems inaccessible, and the glaciers from which the crags 
separated him. Still he was here, too, a forerunner ; he prepared 
and made ready the way for Bourrit and de Saussure.' 

Contemporary testimony as to the local influence of de 
Saussure 's example and teaching on his fellow-townsmen is 
afforded by Beckford, the creator of Font Hill. He visited 
Geneva in 1782, and on climbing the Saleve found its crest 
frequented by holiday-makers, on whom he spends a page of 
mild sarcasm. 

' The rage for natural history has so victoriously pervaded all 
ranks of people in the Republic that almost every day in the week 
sends forth some of its journeymen to ransack the neighbouring cliffs 
and transfix unhappy butterflies. Silversmiths and toymen, possessed 
by the spirit of Deluc's and de Saussure's lucubrations, throw away 
the light implements of their trade and sally forth with hammer and 
pickaxe to pound pebbles and knock at the door of every mountain 
for information. Instead of furbishing up teaspoons and sorting 
watchchains they talk of nothing but quartz and feldspath. One 
flourishes away on the durability of granite, whilst another treats 
calcareous rock with contempt ; but, as human pleasures are seldom 
perfect, permanent acrimonious disputes too frequently interrupt the 
calm of the philosophic excursion. Squabbles arise about the genus 
of a coralite, or concerning the element which has borne the greatest 
part in the convulsion of nature. The advocate of water too often 
sneaks home to his wife with a tattered collar, whilst the partisan of 
fire and volcanoes lies vanquished in a puddle or is winding up the 
clue of his argument in a solitary ditch. I cannot help thinking so 
diffused a taste for fossils and petrifactions is of no very particular 
benefit to the artisans of Geneva, and that watches would go as well 
though their makers were less enlightened.' 


Beside this may be put the testimony of Mademoiselle Rosalie 
de Constant, a friend of Mme. de StaSl. Referring to the eighties 
of the eighteenth century, she wrote : 

' It was only about this period that the gigantic nature by which 
we are surrounded began to be admired. Travellers from a distance 
came to Geneva in order to make the trip to Chamonix, which had 
only recently become known. Nothing can show more clearly the 
influence of faehion. It might seem that the great immovable moun- 
tains had only become noticeable since the observations and travels 
of Monsieur de Saussure.' 1 

A further and striking evidence of the growth during this 
decade of Alpine travel may be found in the long list of works 
and prints dealing with Switzerland appended to Ebel's guide- 
book (1793). 

If we turn to the pages of the Alpine travellers who were 
Rousseau's contemporaries to ascertain to what extent they were 
influenced by his writings, we find that Bourrit's passion for the 
Alps took possession of him in 1757, some years before the 
publication of the Nouvelle Helo'ise. The typical representative 
of the British tourist in Switzerland in Rousseau's and de 
Saussure 's day was Archdeacon Coxe. Coxe, whose book went 
through several editions, and was translated into French by 
Ramond, the well-known Pyrenean traveller, expressly states 
that the object of his journey was to study the glaciers of which 
he had read so much. He adds a list of the authors he has con- 
sulted, which includes most of the principal works of the Swiss 
naturalists. To ' anecdotes of Haller ' Coxe devotes a whole 
chapter. It was only at the end of his tour in 1776, when he 
reached Lausanne, that he borrowed a copy of the Nouvelle 
Helo'ise from a circulating library and went over its sites. It 
must be obvious, I think, to any attentive reader of his work 
that the worthy Archdeacon was first led to the mountains by 
the reports about the glaciers, and that he was in no sense a pupil 
and follower of Rousseau. 

Finally, let me turn to passages in Rousseau's own writings 
which have been cited in proof of his taste for mountain scenery. 

1 Sec Rosalie de Constant, sa famille et sea amis, par Mile. Lucie Achard, 
Geneve, 1902. 


It is quite true that he professed in youth 1 a liking for ' torrents, 
rocks, firs, dark woods, mountains, rough up-and-down -hill roads 
with precipices at hand to make me tremble.' But read the 
context ; the precipices he trembled at were those he could admire 
from a high road protected by a safe parapet, and the enjoyments 
he got from them were feeling dizzy and the puerile delight of 
dropping stones and watching them shiver before they reached the 
torrent below. He once penetrated as far as the Upper Valais. 
There he admired the cloud effects, enjoyed the qualities of the 
mountain air, and prophesied the air -cure . But he was far more 
interested in the Alpine peasantry than in the Alps themselves. 
There is nothing to prove that he ever noticed a snow-peak 
or admired a glacier. His descriptions of the details of the 
mountain landscape remain singularly vague and formless. So 
vague indeed are they that among the crowd of commentators on 
Rousseau's writings no one has yet ventured to identify the exact 
region of his rambles. Yet it seems to me a key is supplied by 
Bourrit in his Description des Alpes Pennine^ et EMtiennes (1782). 
He tells us how, after visiting Val d'Anniviers, he wandered 
on to a group of villages where he met with hospitality similar 
to that which had previously been shown to Rousseau by their 
inhabitants. The villages he names, Oberemps, Unteremps, 
Unterbeck, and Eggen (Bourrit prints Equen), can all be found on 
the Siegfried Map the two first above Turtmann, west of the 
Turtmann Thai, the others on the broad brows that overlook the 
Rhone valley between Turtmann and Visp. 2 

It is significant that, despite his many opportunities, Rousseau 
never cared to make a second pleasure trip to the mountains, or 

1 Confessions, part i. book iv., near end. 

2 At Geneva, where Rousseau's memory is still kept alive by a society named 
after him, students whose opinion carries just weight are inclined altogether 
to set aside the statement of Bourrit quoted above. The grounds, as I under- 
stand, alleged for this attitude are the lack of any direct evidence in Rousseau's 
writings as to the locality which afforded him material for the description of 
Alpine landscape and peasantry he puts into St. Preux's letter, and the habitual 
untrustworthiness of Bourrit. 

It is, doubtless, true that the only positive evidence in the case is Bourrit's 
assertion. But in my opinion considerable indirect support for it may be derived 
both from known facts and from Rousseau's language. If we turn to the Con- 
fessions (part ii. book viii.) we learn, first, that the descriptions in the Nouvelle 
Hiloise were framed on his own experience ; we learn further that Rousseau crossed 
the Simplon on his return from Venice in 1744, that the district he described was 


to visit the glaciers. In 1754 he sailed round the Lake of Geneva 
with his friend, old Deluc, a radical watchmaker, and his two 
talented sons, and in the same year the young Delucs made the 
first of their excursions into the Alps of Savoy. 1 But it did not 
occur to Rousseau, though he boasts himself a stout pedestrian, 
to join his friends in any of their Alpine rambles. In all his life 
he never crossed any Alpine pass, except the Mont Cenis and 
Simplon on his way to and from Italy, and these only of necessity. 
Of their scenery he says nothing. 

It may help me to emphasise Rousseau's point of view as I 
conceive it, if I compare it with that of some of his contemporaries 
in our own country. We find parallel instances of the period of 
transition in English literature. Take Cowper : to the English 
poet, we are told, ' everything he saw in the fields was an object 
of interest, he never in all his life let slip the opportunity of 
breathing fresh air and conversing with nature.' But when we 
look further into his letters it has to be admitted that the dweller 
in the fens found the scenery of Sussex oppressively mountainous ! 
Still, he gave voice to a fresh tendency in the mind of his generation, 
he took the lead in setting an example of close and sympathetic 
natural observation. He was related to Wordsworth in the same 
sense that Rousseau was related to Byron and Shelley. Other 
contemporary writers show more or less trace of the coming 
change. Addison was but slightly touched by it, yet he antici- 
pated Rousseau in appreciating to a certain extent the wilder 
aspects of the Lake of Geneva. He found the ' near prospect of 
the Alps from Thonon ' affected his mind with an ' agreeable kind 

in Haut Valais, and that no highway of traffic passed through it (Nouvdle Heloise, 
part i. letter 23). Now the villages mentioned by Bourrit are within the 
limits of the Haut Valais, and they lie close to, but well off, the Simplon road. 
Another point worthy of note is that, being near the linguistic frontier, French 
is understood by at least a portion of their population, and to Rousseau as well 
as to Bourrit this would be of importance in any attempts at social inter- 
course. Further, I find in the Jahrbuch of the Schweizer Alpenklub (vol. lii. 
p. 97) a description of these villages and the primitive customs they still 
retain, that corresponds very exactly with Rousseau's. 

1 Byron, in his letters (April 9, 1817), alludes to the trip. At that date 
the elder son, J. A. Deluc, F.R.S., then a nonagenarian, was living at or near 
Windsor. Byron had heard from his sister that the old man, having had ' The 
Prisoner of Chillon ' read to him, recalled his trip with Rousseau and recognised 
the correctness of the descriptions in the poem. See also the Confessions for 
an account of the voyage, part ii. book 8. 


of horror.' Gray was far more seriously impressed. After a 
visit to Scotland in 1765 he bursts out, ' The mountains are 
ecstatic, and ought to be visited in pilgrimage once a year. None 
but these monstrous children of God know how to join so much 
beauty with so much horror.' But a quarter of a century earlier 
(in 1739) his letters to his mother and West show him to have 
been in love with ' cliffs, precipices, and torrents,' and if he shud- 
dered on the Mont Cenis we must recollect that he crossed it in 
November, and even then, despite the wintry gloom, found ' some- 
thing fine ' in the scenery. Mr. Gosse, in his Life of Gray, tells 
us, ' In his youth he was the man who first looked on the sublimities 
of Alpine scenery with pleasure, and in old age he was to be the 
pioneer of Wordsworth in opening the eyes of Englishmen to the 
exquisite landscapes of Cumberland.' 1 Cowper and Gray were 
sensitive minds, leaders of their generation. But the attitude 
of a lady like Mrs. Thrale shows how much the old terror of 
rough places was giving way. She expresses herself as pleased 
with the Mont Cenis and delighted with the scenery of the asceht 
to the Brenner through the Trentino. 

The love of mountains, which Conrad Gesner had planted in 
Switzerland and Haller had watered, was taking root ; but it was 
de Saussure who spread it over Western Europe. Yet Rousseau 
must not be deprived of his due. To the sterner aspects of nature 
he was blind, to the voice of the mountains he shared the deafness 
of his generation. But in his appreciation of the sub -alpine 
region, the harmonious landscapes and delicious details of the 
Swiss lowlands, their lakes and lawns, their brown broad -roofed 
farms, their rich orchards and vineyards and narcissus meadows, 
he was a true pioneer. He inculcated and inspired a feeling which 
was capable of far wider application than he himself gave it. He 
helped to open men's eyes to the call of landscape, and in so 
doing he to some extent prepared their minds to take interest in 
and understand its more sublime forms. He was in this sense, 
but in this sense alone, a forerunner of de Saussure. Rousseau 
was the most eloquent of the many voices of the time that ex- 
pressed a feeling already in the air, the sentimental regard for 
natural scenery, untouched by human needs and incidents. 

1 Gilpin's Tours in the Lakes and Scotland were visible signs of the same 
spirit of appreciation (circa 1780). 


He was a preacher of the return to nature, but he was no 
prophet of the love of the Alps. His bust may be a most 
suitable adornment in a sub-alpine resort, it would be obviously 
out of place in any Alpine centre. It was de Saussure who 
led the nations to lift up their eyes to the eternal snows. 
Born and bred within a walk of the cliffs of the Saleve, the 
rocky rampart the crest of which overshadows the homes and 
forms a playground for the holidays of the Genevese, and 
brought up in sight of the glaciers of Mont Blanc, he drew 
the inspiration of his life's work from the scenes familiar to 
his childhood. 1 

1 The foregoing chapter makes, I need hardly say, no pretence to be a com- 
plete or even a general sketch of the early works more or less connected with 
mountains and their writers. Such sketches have been undertaken by very able 
hands by Leslie Stephen in The Playground of Europe, by Sir Frederick Pollock 
in the Alpine volume of the Badminton series, by Mr. Coolidge in several of his 
scholarly and laborious works. (See Josias Simler el lea Origines de VAlpinisme, 
Grenoble, 1904.) Mr. Gribble's volume, The Early Mountaineers, 1899, contains 
some curious reprints. 


IN the preceding chapter an attempt has been made to indicate 
the attitude of European culture towards the Alps previous to 
the middle of the eighteenth century and de Saussure's travels. 
I have endeavoured to show by a few selected examples how far 
preceding generations had carried their investigations into the 
physical features of mountain structure and the phenomena 
of the glacier region, and what feelings the wilder forms of 
scenery the waste places of the world raised in their 

But any portrait of Horace Benedict de Saussure which 
exhibited him only as an Alpine traveller and a diligent pursuer 
of several branches of natural science would be sadly incomplete. 
From the age of twenty-two this versatile patrician was busy as 
a hard-working professor, an educational reformer, and a leader 
in social activities, while in middle life he found himself forced 
to take a prominent part in the stormy politics of the little 
Republic. It seems therefore desirable to supply here as a 
further setting to the story of his life some account of the 
scenes in which it was lived, of the local aspect and surroundings 
of Geneva a hundred and fifty years ago, and of the social and 
political conditions that prevailed among its inhabitants. 

The point at which the Rhone issues from Lake Leman was 
indicated by nature for the site of an important town. An island x 
furnishes a convenient opportunity for bridging the impetuous 
river at the point where its translucent flood breaks out of the 
narrowing western horn of the great lake . A neighbouring height 

1 The present L'lle, not the little sandbank now planted and connected by 
a bridge which stands out in the lake and has since 1835 been known as the lie 


on the southern bank offers a ready-made bridge-head, taken 
advantage of even in the earliest times. Here, before the Romans 
came and the passes of the Pennine Alps had been brought into 
frequent use, was the spot where tribes and traders, moving south- 
wards from Central Europe and the Rhine towards Italy or 
Provence, would seek to cross the barrier of the Rhone. Here, at 
a later date, armies issuing from the defiles of the Western Alps 
might strike northwards for Central Gaul, or eastwards across the 
lowlands of Helvetia and past Aventicum to the Rhine. Caesar 
found Geneva ' the farthest town of the Allobroges and the 
nearest to the boundaries of the Helvetians ' ; he recognised its 
strategic importance and introduced its name into history. 1 

The Roman and Burgundian towns both kept exclusively to 
the high ground on the left bank of the Rhone. But under the 
rule of its bishops (1050-1535) the first walls, some of the towers 
of which still exist embedded in more modern buildings, took a 
wider circuit, and the streets and alleys began to stretch down 
to the lake and river-shore. Before the period with which we 
are concerned the latter half of the eighteenth century these 
limits had again been exceeded and Geneva had lost, externally 
at least, the mediaeval aspect still fortunately retained by several 
of the smaller towns in the low country between the Alps and the 
Jura. Its ancient towers and many -gated walls had been replaced 
by formidable bastions and broad grassy ramparts in the new 
style of military architecture which followed on the use of cannon. 
These fortifications, more adequate than the former walls to protect 
the citizens from any sudden attack on the part of their formidable 
neighbours, the Duke of Savoy or the French king, were planned 
and carried out early in the sixteenth century. They encircled 
both the city and St. Gervais, a considerable suburb, connected 
by bridges with the old town, that had grown up on the 
right bank of the Rhone, and in the sixteenth century was 
the seat of a famous fair. The lake-front was guarded by 
chains, and the river barricaded below the town with piles. In 
place of the many issues of the old walls the new ramparts were 

1 A long list of Roman inscriptions found in or near Geneva, given in Spon's 
History of Geneva (London, 1687), attests the early importance of the town. 
One of them, recording the death of C. Julius Caesar Longinus, a freedman of 
Julius Caesar, runs thus : ' Praeruptis montibus hue tandem veni ut hie locus 
meos contegeret cineres.' 



pierced by only three land gates, the Porte Neuve and the Port de 
Rive south of the Rhone, leading into Savoy, and the Porte de 
Cornavin in St. Gervais, leading to France and Switzerland. 
The business quarter lay on the lake or river -bank. If Geneva 
lacked the picturesque features of the old towns of the Swiss 
lowlands, its architecture had one characteristic of its own. 
In many of the streets of the lower town and round the 
market, the Place du Molard, broad overhanging penthouses, 
known as domes, supported from the ground on huge wooden 
pillars, sheltered the walls and windows and gave a cover from 
rough weather to pedestrians similar to that afforded elsewhere 
by arcades. Many of these structures remained till the middle 
of the nineteenth century. At their base between the footway 
and the road nestled rows of tiny wooden stalls or booths. One 
main street, the Rue de la Cite, or Grand' Rue, and many narrow 
lanes, almost staircases, like those of Edinburgh, led up from the 
river-bank, the centre of the commercial quarter, to the upper 
town, the aristocratic quarter. Here were clustered the Town 
Hall with its inclined passage up which the bewigged councillors 
could be carried in their sedan chairs, the Arsenal, the Hospital, 
the Cathedral, and the ' College,' a public school, the buildings 
of which have been little altered. The external aspect of the 
public edifices was solid but plain ; they reflected the austerity 
of the religion and life of their inhabitants. No gracious 
saints, no dancing figures, or grotesque troops of bears, presided 
over their fountains and their doorways. Eighteenth-century 
Geneva showed little sign of the joie de vivre of the Renaissance ; 
it lacked both the homely humour of the Teutonic mind and the 
poetical imagination of Catholic legend. 

Unlike the modern city, with its pretentious rows of open and 
wind-swept quays, old Geneva turned its back on its little port and 
the lake and the bleak north-easterly blasts which in winter blow 
over it. Its outlook lay towards the south-west and the sunshine. 
Early in the eighteenth century, as commercial and financial pros- 
perity increased, the more wealthy citizens bankers and mer- 
chants began to erect fine houses. These were mostly in the 
classical style of architecture then in vogue in France with some 
admixture of Italian features, such as internal courts and arcades, 
which might recall their old homes to refugees from Lucca or 



Cremona. 1 As the visitor climbed the Rue de la Cit<, which leads 
up from the bridges over the Rhone to the Cathedral, he had on his 
right near the beginning of the ascent a group of handsome houses 
that at the back enjoy a free view towards the Perte du Rhone. 
The largest of them was the Lullin mansion, de Saussure's town 
home . Higher up the street another row of stately edifices lines the 
ramparts, looking across the flat meadows of Plainpalais to the 
gap between the Saleve and the Jura, through which runs the road 
to Annecy. On the top of the slope was the shady terrace of 
La Treille, where the wealth and fashion of Geneva took their 
afternoon stroll in face of the winter sunsets, or lounged in summer 
evenings on the long bench, set with its back to the view, and 
discussed local politics. Of these there was seldom any lack in 
a town which habitually did its best to deserve the title, given to 
it by Alexander von Humboldt, of ' a stormy Athens.' 

Geneva in 1780 was relatively but a small city, not larger than 
many of the provincial towns of France. Its population, at the 
beginning of the century about twenty thousand, had according 
to an official census in 1781 risen to about twenty-five thousand. 
Its political affairs, however important in the eyes of its citizens, 
occupied therefore but a small place in the story of European 
politics. But it had an intellectual life and influence far beyond 
its material importance. Under Calvin it had become a city of 
refuge for all the more active spirits whom religious persecution 
had driven out of France or Italy, and the headquarters of an 
austere form of Protestantism. In the four months following 
the massacre of St. Bartholomew over sixteen hundred refugees, 
in the five weeks after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes eight 
thousand, entered the town. Many of these immigrants per- 
manently established themselves, not altogether to the satis- 
faction of the existing inhabitants, whose industries they invaded. 

Before the eighteenth century the famous fairs which had 
made Geneva a mart for all Europe had been superseded ; but 
the city had not lost its ancient industries, and it had added new 
ones. The chief of these, watchmaking, alone employed six 
thousand hands of both sexes. The cloth and shawl merchants 

1 The Reformation drove many families from Switzerland and Italy to 
Geneva. From Lucca came the Burlamaqui, Turrettini, Calandrini, and 


were prosperous, and several of them, turning bankers, had 
become the Rothschilds of the day and were ready to lend money 
even to princes. The citizens held investments in French 
securities the annual interest on which amounted in 1780, we 
are told, to sixteen millions of francs, and they had also large 
holdings in Holland and England. 

The society of Geneva, if it fell far short of the brilliancy 
and extravagance of the Parisian salons, was very subject 
to their influence. With wealth had come more or less leisure 
and luxury ; the upper classes were no longer content to 
submit to the sumptuary laws issued by a clerical committee. 
They assimilated to some extent the fashions of the French 
aristocracy and the mental atmosphere of the day. Their 
town mansions, though many and spacious, no longer 
sufficed them, and since the summer evenings were long and 
pleasant on the lake shores, and the city gates were regularly closed 
soon after sunset, they established country homes. Stately 
villas with terraced gardens replaced in the environs the homely 
granges of an earlier time. Their inmates must have seen Mont 
Blanc, but they took little notice of its distant snows. 1 De 
Saussure's contemporaries were not even sure on which side of 
Chamonix the ' Monts Maudits ' stood. A party of Englishmen 
might set out to investigate certain strange masses of ice hanging 
from them, that were said to penetrate the forests and invade 
the meadows. But the Genevese were only vaguely interested 
in these disagreeable and baleful curiosities . They laughed at their 
visitors . It was like Englishmen, they said, to take trouble for such 
an object but perhaps they were really looking for mines ; there 
were known to be minerals worked near Sallanches. At any rate 
this was the view taken at the time by some of the Savoyard 
authorities, who were very suspicious of their foreign visitors. 
Modern mountaineers in remote districts have often found 
themselves subject to similar surmises. When in 1868 English 

1 De Saussure's grandson, the late M. Henri de Saussure, pointed out at a 
Conference of Alpine Clubs held at Geneva in 1879, that the eighteenth century 
has left in the country-houses of the environs of the city, a permanent record of 
its taste in scenery. He said : 

' They most of them turn their backs to the view ; fashion at that date pre- 
ferred the picture formed by an artificial landscape ornamented with a geo- 
metrical frog-pond to the magnificent panorama of our Alps and our lake.' 


climbers first visited the Caucasus no Russian official could believe 
that we climbed Kasbek and Elbruz without a commercial or a 
political purpose, and twenty years later the Prince of Suanetia 
invited me to develop gold mines under the shadow of Ushba. 

The prosperity of Geneva was not confined to any single class, 
or even to the townspeople. The condition of the peasants in the 
rural districts of the Republic was a strong testimony to the 
efficiency of its government. The contrast between the Genevese 
territory and the neighbouring portions of Savoy is insisted on by 
every passing traveller by no one more forcibly than the poet 
Gray. 1 I quote from one of his letters written the year before 
de Saussure's birth. 

' To one that has passed through Savoy, as we did, nothing can be 
more striking than the contrast as soon as he approaches the town. 
Near the gates of Geneva runs the torrent Arve, which separates it 
from the King of Sardinia's dominions ; on the other side of it lies a 
country naturally, indeed, fine and fertile ; but you meet with nothing 
in it but meagre, ragged, barefooted peasants with their children in 
extreme misery and nastiness ; and even of these no great numbers. 
You no sooner have crossed the stream I have mentioned than poverty 
is no more ; not a beggar, hardly a discontented face to be seen ; 
numerous and well-dressed people swarming on the ramparts, drums 
beating, soldiers, well clothed and armed, exercising, and folk with 
business in their looks hurrying to and fro, all contribute to make 
any person who is not blind sensible what a difference there is between 
the two governments that are the causes of one view and the other.' 

With wealth came the call for luxury, and the natural result 
was frequent friction between the inhabitants and their paternal 
administration. From Calvin's day the government had taken 
on itself with an alacrity, if not an audacity, hardly equalled else- 
where, to decide what should be considered articles of luxury. In 
Geneva, however, the motive was not taxation, but prohibition. 
In 1646 the Senate, finding itself unequal to the task, deter- 
mined to appoint a special tribunal, known thenceforth as the 
Chambre de la Reformation, competent to enact and enforce a code 
of sumptuary laws. Liberty in thinking was won at Geneva before 
liberty in dress . This egregious board survived, though with gradu- 
ally diminishing powers, till 1770. No sentiment was too sacred, no 
1 Gray to his father, October 25, 1739. 


details were too intimate or too small for these meticulous pastors. 
They revelled in the regulation of funerals and mourning ; they 
forbade the use of monuments or inscribed tombstones ; they re- 
buked a husband for wearing too long a scarf on his wife's death, 
a mother for putting on black for her infant. Ladies might not 
carry their watches pinned on their breasts. Gowns without 
waistbands were forbidden, ' since a mother of a family ought 
not to think of her dress,' nor might she go to church in shoes, 
which is ' too unbecoming.' The materials of the ladies' gowns 
must not be of extravagant richness, nor must they wear lace, 
except on their inner garments ! The Chamber further made 
rules as to how many guests you might entertain, and how many 
courses you might offer them. Liveries were not allowed. Car- 
riages might only be used for long country drives. Even a bride 
was expected to walk to church, nor might she receive, or give, 
wedding presents. Babies' christening robes must be simple. 
Finally, some wiseacre (or wit ?) proposed that the Chamber 
' should establish a standard costume both for men and women, 
which should never be altered ' ! Is it to be wondered at if, under 
such provocation, there were many fair recalcitrants ? We are 
told of one petulant demoiselle who vented * incoherent words ' 
against the august tribunal. She was promptly fined fifty florins 
and costs, ' to be obtained by summary process.' It is pleasing 
to learn that a bold citizen was found with the good sense to retort 
by proposing that ' the Chamber of Reform be abolished, as use- 
less.' His fate has not been recorded. 

Happily, there is reason to believe that at the worst of times the 
critic of the Chamber I have just cited came near to expressing a 
fact, and it is clear that after the middle of the eighteenth century 
this petty tyranny had been greatly relaxed at any rate for the 
upper classes. By a singular inconsistency, even in the period 
of the strictest control, the standard of luxury permissible was 
graduated according to social rank. The wives of the principal 
officers of State were allowed special privileges in the way of 
decorating their persons, doubtless a pleasing substitute for the 
share in their husbands' civil designations accorded ladies in coun- 
tries east of the Rhine up to the present day. A print of 1789, 
commemorating a street procession held on one of the many recon- 
ciliations between the contending parties in the State, displays 


an exuberance and variety in the ladies' headgear which bears 
witness to their release from all restrictions. 

By those who held to the old religion, Geneva was reckoned 
the anti-Rome long before Voltaire had established himself on 
its borders as an anti-Pope. Of this religious rancour, Lassels a 
Catholic who travelled as tutor to young English gentlemen in 
the reign of James I., and produced a sort of embryo Handbook to 
Italy, a work which can still be read for the sake of some vigorous 
and picturesque touches may serve as an instance : 

' Geneva,' he writes, ' like a good sink at the bottom of three 
streets, is built at the bottom of Savoy, France, and Germany, and 
therefore fit to receive into it the corruption of the Apostates of the 
Roman Church.' 1 

It did not occur to the ingenious author of this somewhat crude 
comparison that he had put his finger on the main cause of the 
activity, both commercial and intellectual, of Geneva. The ad- 
vantage as a mart given to the town by its natural position was 
supplemented by its convenience as a city of refuge. Here, as 
elsewhere, intolerance had its natural effect in transplanting men of 
independence and energy of mind to a spot where they could enjoy 
relative freedom. That which is strained out by persecution is 
apt to be not the dregs but the life-blood of civilisation. The 
city on the Rhone owes most of its famous names to the immigra- 
tion provoked by the bigotry of its neighbours, France and Italy. 2 

To the intelligence of the Genevese of the eighteenth century 
and their relatively high standard of popular education many 
shrewd observers have borne witness. Of the general character 
of the citizens, of their pursuits and amusements, and their social 
habits we have a great deal of contemporary evidence. With a 
Parisian shopkeeper, Rousseau tells us, you could talk only of his 
trade ; a Genevese watchmaker would discuss literature or philo- 
sophy. The ordinary citizen was serious and intelligent ; fond 
of money, he regarded idleness as contemptible. But in conversa- 
tion he was apt to be long-winded and disputative. 

1 The Voyage of Italy, R. Lassels, 1670. Lassels describes the government 
of Geneva as ' a kind of democracy, or rather a kind of aristocracy, a mingling of 
laymen and ministers.' The lake, he declares, is ' absolutely the fairest he has 
seen, fairer than either the Lake Major, the Lake of Como, the Lake of Zurich, the 
Lake of Wallenstadt, the Lake of Iseo, the Lake of Morat, or the Lake of Garda.' 

2 Some of the families of Italian origin have already been mentioned. The 
Tronchins, the de Candolles, the Jalaberts, and many others were French. 


'While a Frenchman writes as he talks, these Genevese talk as 
they write ; they lecture in place of conversing ; they give one the 
impression that they always want to argue. ... In short, their con- 
versation is sustained, their speeches are harangues, and they gossip 
with a pulpit air. The Frenchman reads much, but nothing but new 
books, or rather he runs through them more to be able to say he has 
read them than for their own sake. The Genevese reads only good 
books he reads them to digest them ; he does not criticise them, but 
he knows them by heart. Women as well as men are given to books. 1 
It needs all the good sense of the men, all the gaiety of the women, 
and all the talent both sexes have in common to overcome in the men 
a touch of pedantry and in the women of preciosity.' 

The picture here drawn by Rousseau, himself by birth a 
Genevese, shows understanding and sympathy mixed with its 
criticism of his fellow-citizens. Voltaire, as might be expected, is 
far less appreciative. Established first at Les Delices, on the 
right bank of the Rhone close to the gates of Geneva, and after- 
wards a few miles off and outside its territory at Ferney, he 
amused himself by watching with a mischievous eye the doings 
of his neighbours, ready at any moment to make sport of their 
domestic troubles as far as he could venture to do so without 
risking his own convenience and social relations. 

He took pleasure in, from time to time, shocking the serious 
circles of the Upper Town by some literary freak. He found it an 
agreeable diversion to distract the Venerable Company by casting 
doubts through the Encyclopedic on its orthodoxy, or to intervene 
with irritating comments in the strife between political parties. 
The squire of Ferney was always ready to mock in sprightly rhymes 
the sober lives and solemn diversions of the citizens : 

' Noble cite, riche, fiere et sournoise ; 
On y calcule et jamais on n'y rit : 
L'art de Bareme 2 est le seul qui fleurit ; 
On hait le bal, on hait la comedie ; 
Pour tout plaisir Geneve psalmodie 
Du bon David les antiques concerts, 
Croyant que Dieu se plait aux mauvais vers.' 

1 The Genevese ladies wrote as well as read. De Saussure's wife and sister 
both produced novels, which, however, never got beyond MSS. His daughter 
was a well-known writer, and her work on L? Education Progressive won the 
highest praise from Amiel. See p. 400. 

8 Barreme (sic) was an editor of Ready Reckoners. 


By general consent, the great fault of Genevese society was 
its tendency to break up into small coteries. This began in 
childhood : a number of neighbours would arrange for their 
children to meet frequently at each other's houses, and the 
intimacies thus formed were apt to extend to after-life. About 
1739 the lack of public amusements drove the men to form clubs 
or circles , to hire in winter a room where they could meet frequently 
to discuss politics and exchange the talk of the town, in summer a 
garden on the lake where they could spend the long evenings. In 
1745 the Venerable Company of Pastors looked on these clubs with 
a pained disapproval. It complained to the Senate that there 
were too many of them no less than fifty in the town, where, 
' besides talking a great deal, perhaps too much, of politics and 
foreign affairs, it is certain that wine, gambling, the table, and 
loose conversation are the principal, if not only, attractions . Cards 
are played, even at the hour of the evening sermon.' The wives and 
daughters started in revenge similar, if less dissipated, assemblies. 
' As the men are more susceptible than gallant, the women are 
more romantic than coquettish,' writes an observer. The impres- 
sion left is of a society somewhat prim and decorous, taking itself 
seriously, and interested in serious subjects, in which the men 
who were not in business engaged in political administration, or 
literature, or learned pursuits ; while the women were apt to 
be either genuine femmes savantes interested in botany, like 
de Saussure's mother, or in education, like his daughter, or else 
full of domestic details and the home farm, like his wife. We 
find ourselves introduced to company that lacked the light- 
ness in give-and-take, and also the mockery and frivolity of the 
salons on the Seine, that had for its centre not a corrupt court, 
but a more or less austere and puritanical group of about a 
hundred 'noble families of the first quality' holders, present or 
past, of the higher offices in the State, who refused to intermarry 
or associate with the rest of the town. 

Madame Recamier is at pains to summarise the intellectual 
bent of Genevese society : 

' Observe them closely ; all these Genevese of the old stock have 
acuteness, moderation, a certain reserve, a power of patient and exact 
analysis, more learning than effect, more substance than show, and 
when they converse it is with more detail than colour, the touch of 


the pencil rather than the brush. They excel in observing and de- 
scribing mechanisms organic, physical, or psychological in extreme 
detail ; they examine at length each object as through the microscope ; 
they push patience to dullness ; they are ingenious, but lacking in 
breadth of view.' l 

In Mme. d'Epinay Geneva found a more appreciative guest. 
In 1758 she writes : 

' I have made myself a society of people who would be sought 
after anywhere. I get up between five and seven, all my mornings 
are free. At midday I come down on my terrace, and, if the weather 
is fine, walk in the public garden. Women here can go anywhere on 
foot, alone, without footmen or maids. Even foreigners would be 
remarked and followed if they did otherwise. I like, and avail 
myself of, this liberty. 

' I dine at one with M. Tronchin [the famous doctor] or at home. 
From two to six one pays or receives visits, at six all is dead in the 
town, and strangers find themselves in the most complete solitude, 
since the Genevese meet in their own sets. Each member holds an 
assembly in turn ; they take tea in the English fashion, but they do 
not limit themselves to this beverage ; there are plenty of cakes, coffee, 
and chocolate. The Assemblies, which are called Societies, are mixed, 
but girls are not admitted, they have their own Societies, where men 
and boys are only introduced when a member is married. 

' In these Societies the diversions vary with the age and tastes of 
their members. There is a good deal of play, they occupy themselves 
with needlework, sometimes with music. Gambling seems to be the 
ruling passion with the women, and I am surprised, for I was told that 
they were all as cultivated as those I have met, who are really so. 

' There are some " Societies " composed entirely of women. There 
are also assemblies of men, to which women are not admitted, which 
are called Cercles. But it is not true that the members smoke and 
get tipsy. These Cercles are held in rooms which are hired by sub- 
scription among a number of individuals of similar tastes. The 
members meet on a fixed day of the week, there is no eating or drink- 

1 ' Regardez-y bien ; tous ces Genevois de la vieille souche ont finesse, modera- 
tion, une certaine temperance, 1'analyse exacte, patiente, plus de savoir que 
d'effet, plus de fond que d'etalage et quand ils se produisent ils ont du dessin 
plutot que de la couleur, le trait de poh^on plutdt que du pinceau. Ils 
excellent a observer, a decrire les mecanismes, organiques, physiques, psycho- 
logiques dana un parfait detail ; ils regardent chaque piece a la loupe et longtemps, 
ils poussent la patience jusqu'a la monotonie, ils sont ingenieux mais sans une 
grande portee.' Souvenirs de Mme. liecamier, p. 135. 


ing, but a supply of newspapers and endless political discussions. 
They exhaust themselves in guesses and discoveries about the plans 
of the Great Powers, and when the event does not correspond with 
the guesses of these gentlemen, they are no less satisfied of their sagacity 
in having recognised, if not what the State in question has done, at 
least what it ought to have done ! After all, men are the same every- 
where, with some trifling differences, for I know originals of this sort 
in Paris ! Still, here they are more busy with their own affairs than 
with other people's. Nearly all the Genevese having their money 
invested in France, England, and Holland, they naturally take a par- 
ticular interest in current events. But I have wandered a long way 
from what I was trying to say, which, if I remember right, was that 
at six o'clock I find myself alone, or nearly so. Ah well ! It is the 
hour at which I should begin to live if I were here with my family 
and with you. 

' To sum up, the manners and the mode of life of these men are 
more sympathetic and satisfactory to observe than easy to describe. 
Virtue, honesty, and above all, simplicity form the base of their 
politics. But these qualities are all besprinkled with a slight coating 
of pedantry, which, as far as I can judge, is essential to the main- 
tenance of the simplicity which alone gives strength to their State.' 

Madame de Stael, on the other hand, is a severe critic. She 
recognised in the Upper Town most of the characteristic defects of 
the aristocracy of a petty State : pride, exclusiveness, a strict con- 
ventional standard, lack of sentiment, and a seriousness habitually 
verging on dullness and sometimes ending in morbid religious 
melancholy. English visitors of the time noted that suicides were 
frequent even in the upper class. 1 We shall meet with two 
instances among de Saussure's near relatives. Lady Shelley, 
the wife of Sir John Shelley, visiting Geneva in 1816, records a 

1 Since Senebier points out that it was only in the cases of suicide and adultery 
that Calvin's code affixed any definite penalty, the prevalence of what was termed 
dilire milancolique, must have been of long standing in Geneva. The Baron de 
Zurlauben's suggestion (in Laborde's volume) that the malady was introduced by 
English visitors may be summarily dismissed. Napoleon's Prefet du Leman in 
1812 furnished his government with a curious report on its alleged origin. He 
attributed it to a combination of causes : the influence of Calvinism, the habit of 
political disputes, sedentary occupations combined with the intellectual strain of 
serious studies, and, above all, the oppressive scale of the local landscape and the 
cold, uncertain, and depressing climate ! Dr. Moore in 1779 confirms in one respect 
the Prefet when he notes that ' it is not uncommon to find mechanics in the 
interval of their labours amusing themselves with the works of Locke, Montesquieu, 
Newton, and other productions of the same kind.' 


remark of his son Theodore, ' Ah, Madame, nous apprenons de 
bonne heure le metier de nous ennuyer.' l 

It is probable that to our countrymen and countrywomen 
the social atmosphere of the Upper Town proved more congenial 
than to visitors from the livelier salons on the Seine. At Geneva 
they found clubs where conversation was more like that at 
home, more solid, if less brilliant, than in the boudoirs of Paris, 
and where ladies were not so powerful and disturbing an influence. 
Rousseau asserts that English habits were the fashion at Geneva 
in his day ; Sismondi describes it as a town where French was 
spoken and written, but where people read and thought in English. 
In 1773-74, under the auspices of Lord Stanhope, an ' English 
Club ' was formed where debates, in which many of the leading 
citizens, including de Saussure, took part, were carried on in our 

The criticisms quoted above apply, no doubt, to the general 
tone of Genevese society, modified in the leading families by 
frequent connection with Paris and London. But they are more 
or less borne out by the character of the literary output of Geneva 
up to the middle of the eighteenth century. This consists in the 
main of juridical and theological works, or party pamphlets. Of 
imagination we find little trace ; of poetry there is a complete 
dearth apart from polemical rhymes. The glaciers of Savoy 
inspired no Genevese Shelley, or Coleridge, or Byron. The 
verses called forth by the earliest ascents of Mont Blanc were 
dull and lengthy squibs written by partisans anxious to assert 
the superior claims of Paccard, or Balmat, or de Saussure. 

The aristocracy willingly undertook and, on the whole, faith- 
fully carried out the public offices and duties of the State. But 
these were not incompatible with abundant leisure. In the 
absence, until Voltaire's day, of a theatre, social distractions were 
relatively few, and the upper class of both sexes found relaxation 
in their clubs and small social gatherings. 

1 Sir J. Shelley of Maresfield Park, Sussex. His wife's statement, though 
rashly endorsed by her grandson and editor, Mr. Edgcumbe, that ' he had the 
good fortune to accompany de Saussure in his remarkable ascent of Mont Blanc, 
is, it need hardly be said, a slip. Lady Shelley records that in 1787 her husband was 
at Geneva and had Pictet, de Saussure's friend and successor, for his tutor. Sir 
J. Shelley may possibly have been at Chamonix while de Saussure was staying 
there in 1787. Unnamed Englishmen are referred to in his and young Bourrit's 
diaries. See The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley (London, 1912). 


The religious authorities, if exacting in matters of morals 
and venturesomely meddlesome in sumptuary concerns, left 
sufficient freedom in the more important domain of thought. In 
the eighteenth century, so long as a man did not want to go to 
mass, or declare himself an atheist, or fail to show a proper degree 
of respect and deference to the authorities, he might live and 
philosophise in peace. The language, though not free from 
provincialisms, was that of the nation foremost at the time in 
science and civilisation. Secondary education was regarded as 
one of the duties of the State, but only so far as the classes that 
provided the clergy and the magistracy were concerned. It was 
for these that the studies of the Academy were designed. The 
course of instruction for boys at the College, a public school, 
was deficient. But the Academy obtained a reputation which 
drew to it the youth of other nations, including our own. Our 
countrymen do not seem, as a rule, to have formally matri- 
culated. They were ' coached ' by a professor, attended lectures, 
and boarded together in what they termed ' a common room.' 

No doubt the foreign students at the Academy were a valuable 
asset to the town. To Protestant parents and guardians Geneva, 
with its Calvinistic legislation, seemed to offer fewer dangers or 
distractions to youth than the capital cities of Europe. Dr. 
Moore, who travelled with the Duke of Hamilton, and visited with 
him the Mer de Glace in 1773, 1 recommended Geneva as preferable 
to any other place on the Continent for the education of an English 
lad. Here, he says, ' he may have a choice of men of eminence 
in every branch of literature to assist him in his studies. He will 
have constant opportunities of being in company with very in- 
genious people whose thoughts and conversation turn upon literary 
subjects. ... It may also be numbered among the advantages 
of this place that there are few objects of dissipation and hardly 
any sources of amusement besides those derived from the natural 
beauties of the country and from an intimacy with a people by 
whose conversation a young man can hardly fail to improve.' 

Apparently English youth found improving conversation with- 
out amusement somewhat monotonous. A singular instance 
of the exceptional tolerance shown to the band of our country- 

1 Moore'a View of Society and Manners in France, Switzerland, etc. (London, 


men who first explored Chamonix is recorded at length in the Life 
of Benjamin Stillingfleet, written by Archdeacon Coxe, the author 
of the work on Switzerland already referred to. Stillingfleet 
acted as tutor to young Mr. Windham of Felbrigg, who was 
one of the gay party ; another was a Mr. Neville, who while at 
Eton had taken a prominent part in school theatricals. These 
young gentlemen actually persuaded the Venerable Company to 
let them build a temporary theatre holding three hundred people. 
They played to crowded audiences Shakespeare and pantomimes ! 
Their natural style of acting was much admired. Mr. Hervey, 
who in 1768 became Earl of Bristol, took female parts, playing 
alternately as Lady Macbeth and Columbine, and was acclaimed 
as only second to the famous Parisian actress of the day, Mile. 
Clairon. Most surprising of all, the players invited the Venerable 
Company, and offered free passes to the four Syndics, as well as 
to the English students at the Academy. The city of Calvin was 
obviously on the path of perdition ! After this sidelight on the 
doings of 1741 even before the days of its arch-tempter Voltaire 
we read with less surprise how, forty years later, Beckford, in 1782, 
returning at night from an excursion to the Saleve, found the gates 
reopened to allow theatre-goers to get to their country homes. 
Beckford's reflections on this occasion, if forced and malicious, 
go some way to explain the fluid state of Genevese society imme- 
diately before the revolution. 

' The Comedie,' he writes, ' is become of wonderful importance. 
The days of rigidity and plain living have completely gone by ; the 
soft spirit of toleration, so eloquently insinuated by Voltaire, has 
removed all thorny fences, familiarised his numerous admirers with 
every innovation, and laughed scruples of every nature to scorn. 
Voltaire, indeed, may justly be styled the architect of that gay, well- 
ornamented bridge, by which free -thinking and immorality have been 
smuggled into the Republic under the mask of philosophy and liberality 
and sentiment. These monsters, like the Sin and Death of Milton, 
have made speedy and irreparable havoc. To facilitate their operations 
rose the genius of " Rentes viageres." At his bidding, tawdry villas, 
with their little pert groves of poplar and horse-chestnut, start up his 
power enables Madame C. D., the bookseller's lady, to amuse the 
D. of G. with assemblies, sets Parisian cabriolets and English phaetons 
rolling from one faro table to another, and launches innumerable plea- 
sure parties with banners and popguns on the lake, drumming and 


trumpeting away their time from morn till evening. I recollect, not 
many years past, how seldom the echoes of the mountains were profaned 
by such noises, and how rarely the drones of Geneva, if any there were 
in that once industrious city, had opportunities of displaying their 
idleness ; but now Dissipation reigns triumphant, and to pay the 
tribute she exacts, every fool runs headlong to throw his scrapings 
into the voracious whirlpool of annuities ; little caring, provided he 
feeds high and lolls in his carriage, what becomes of his posterity.' l 

1 Travels in Italy, with Sketches of Spain and Portugal, by the author of 
Vathek, 1834, vol. i. 


HORACE BENEDICT DE SAUSSUBE was born at Conches, an estate 
on the bank of the Arve, near Geneva, on the 17th February 
1740. His ancestors were among the many religious refugees who 
flocked from France and Italy to Geneva in the middle of the 
sixteenth century. Their name still survives in five villages in 
Lorraine which were at one time in the possession of the family. 
The most important of these ' Saulxures ' lies near Remiremont 
in the pleasant, wooded heart of the Vosges among the valleys 
north-west of the Ballon d' Alsace. The family pedigree starts 
with one Mongin de Saussure ' Seigneur de Dompmartin et de 
Monteuil sous la ville d'Amance en Lorraine,' who was born in the 
fifteenth century and held the office of Grand Falconer in the 
Court of two successive Dukes of Lorraine, Rene n. and Antoine 
the Good. He was succeeded in this dignity by his son, Antoine 
de Saussure (1514-69). The great event of Antoine's life, which 
was to affect the fortune of his descendants, is thus recorded in the 
Genealogy of the family printed at Lausanne, ' chez David Gentil,' 
in 1671 : 

' En 1'an 1551 Dieu Pillumina de la connaissance de la purete de S. 
Evangile. Au sujet duquel il fut arreste prisonnier par son Altesse 
de Lorraine et comparut pour ce fait a Nancy dans les Assises et 
Estats de la Noblesse de Lorraine. Et fut oblige ensuite de se retirer 
abandonnant tous ses biens fonds qui furent escheus au fisque du 
Prince. II se retira dans la ville de Metz en 1'an 1552 ou Dieu le rendit 
Pun des premiers organes de sa grace en la naissance de 1'figlise de 
Metz, avec un nomme Monsieur de Croppeville, Gentilhomme Picard. 
Ce que le rendit exile de la dite ville par authorite du Magistrat. De 
la il alia avec la famille de douze enfants a Strasbourg et puis a Neuf- 
chastel en Suisse et depuis a Geneve et enfin se rendit dans le Pays 
de Vaud sous la protection de leurs Excellences de Berne et s'arreta 
dans la ville de Lausanne ou il fut honore et gratuitement favorise 
de la Bourgeoisie de ladite ville en 1'an 1556.' 



It is recorded that Antoine's disgrace arose from a charge brought 
against him by Christine of Denmark, Duchess of Lorraine, of 
teaching heresy to her son, or, according to another account, to 
her husband. In Switzerland he became a friend of the leading 
Reformers, of Calvin at Geneva, Farel at Neuchatel, and Viret at 

Antoine de Saussure's grandson, Jean Baptiste (1576-1647), 
removed from Lausanne and settled at Geneva, where he married 
into another family of exiles, the Diodati of Lucca. 1 

Elie de Saussure, a son of Jean Baptiste, was in 1635 the first 
of the family to acquire the citizenship of Geneva. His grandson 
Theodore (1674-1750), the grandfather of Horace Benedict, became 
a member of the Senate in 1721, and one of the Syndics of the 
Republic in 1734. He was active in the service of the State, 
and his name appears frequently in the lists of officials of the 
time. He built the modest house at Frontenex, where he passed 
most of his days, and lived till 1750, ten years after his grandson's 
birth. Horace Benedict's father, Nicolas de Saussure, seems to 
have been contented to remain a country gentleman. He was 
elected in 1746 to the Council of Two Hundred, but declined to 
serve on the Senate. He had something of a scientific turn of 
mind, but his science was applied mainly to agriculture. It was, 
however, sufficient to obtain for him the honour of a respectful 
notice from Cuvier in the Biographic Universelle. His literary 
remains consist of tracts on The Methods of Cultivation, The 
Failure of the Wheat Crops, and The Pruning of Vines. His 
last effort, a treatise on Le Feu, principe de la fecondite des 
plantes et de la fertilite de la terre, was thought at the time to 
have some scientific value. His daughter-in-law describes Nicolas 
de Saussure at the age of seventy-three as always busy with his 

1 Daniel, a brother of Jean Baptiste de Saussure. established a branch of the 
family at Lausanne, members of which became, in due course, Town Councillors 
and Ministers of the Gospel, and played a prominent part in the social life of 
the Canton. About 1725 a Cesar de Saussure wrote letters from England which 
have been published abroad and in this country. See A Foreign View of England 
in the Reigns of George I. and George II. (London, 1902). At a later date we find 
at least two de Saussures of this branch settled in England. The Vaudois branch 
is now extinct. Another member of the family emigrated to America and had 
two sons, one of whom was killed in the attack on Savannah in the War of 
Revolution, while the other became an Under- Secretary of State and signed 
the first dollar bill issued by the Treasury of the United States. 


farming and an old system of physics, and but little interested in 
the stormy politics of the moment. Yet a few months before 
only his son's intervention had saved him from being held up as 
a hostage at the city gates and prevented from returning to his 
farm and his family. He died in 1792, at the age of eighty-three, 
predeceasing his son by only seven years. But there are few 
traces of any influence exercised by him on Horace Benedict's 
character and career. What correspondence between them has 
survived relates mainly to agricultural matters. 

Nicolas de Saussure was fortunate in his marriage with Mile. 
Renee de la Rive, 1 a member of a family of distinguished ability 
and considerable wealth, who brought him both happiness and 
an increase of fortune. During his father Theodore's lifetime 
Nicolas and his wife continued to live at Conches, a homely 
country-house situated in a bend of the Arve, some distance out- 
side the town near the Savoyard frontier. It had come into the 
family through the marriage in 1683 of an Anne de Saussure to 
Andrew Hamilton, a 'gentilhomme ecossais,' to whom it had 
belonged. Here, in the spring of 1740, Nicolas 's son was born 
and named Horace Benedict, after his maternal grandfather. 
The chief authority for the events of de Saussure's early life, apart 
from the Voyages, private diaries and letters, and official documents, 
is a little volume by his friend Senebier. 2 Senebier was a man of 
many accomplishments, a pastor, a naturalist, the author of a 
literary history of Geneva and the keeper of the Town Library. 
But he wrote in a style the style of Louis xvi. which has 
been admirably characterised by Sainte-Beuve : ' It is essentially 
well-mannered, flowing, and gay ; it breathes a virtuous senti- 
mentalism. Benevolence, desire for improvement, confidence, 
love of right, an optimism showy and quite amiable these are 
its moral characteristics, and the mixture finds easy expression 
in a form that is elegant, but inclined to flatness and too sugary.' 
Senebier is of his age to a degree that is often distressing, and 
Sainte-Beuve's criticism exactly fits his flowing and flowery 
periods. De Candolle, who knew Senebier well, while speaking 

1 A Pierre Louis de la Rive was among the first oil painters to represent Mont 
Blanc on canvas. A picture painted in 1802, taken from Secheron, is preserved 
in the Art Museum at Geneva. He also painted Mont Blanc from Sallanches. 

2 Memoire historique sur la Vie et les Ecrits de H. B. de Saussure, par Jean 
Senebier, Geneva, ix. (1801). 



of him with respect and affection as a man, fully confirms this 
opinion of him as an author. He writes: 'Arrived at Geneva, I 
made acquaintance with M. Senebier, who encouraged me in the 
wish to study the philosophy of plants, and gave me useful advice. 
He was a man of varied but superficial learning who had written 
a great many diffuse and ill-arranged books wanting in clearness 
of expression, without close argument, and in a wearisome style.' 
After describing Sene bier's merits as a botanist and chemist, 
de Candolle goes on to bear testimony to his inexhaustible kindness, 
and concludes : ' I became sincerely attached to him. I kept up 
intimate relations with this worthy man until his death. I have 
had his bust placed in the Botanical Garden at Geneva, and I have 
always preserved for his memory a most tender recollection and 
sincere gratitude.' 1 

The worthy Librarian's effusiveness frequently palls on the 
modern reader, but we do not doubt him when he assures us that de 
Saussure's invalid mother was the centre of his home and the 
main formative influence in his character. She was, he writes, 
' his best friend ; she taught him to endure hardships and privations, 
to sacrifice cheerfully pleasure to duty, and to possess the philo- 
sophic mind.' She is described as a woman of intellectual tastes 
who lived a more or less retired life hi her quiet home at Frontenex, 
surrounded by flowers and animals. From the time of the 
birth of her first child she never enjoyed good health and was 
constantly confined to her sofa, and both her children seem to 
have inherited her constitution and tastes rather than those of 
the robust country gentleman who was their father. 

Though by birth a citizen of Geneva, Horace Benedict was 
in no sense a town boy. Up to the age of twenty-five, until his 
marriage, his home was in the country, among fields and hedge- 
rows and poplar avenues, with a wonderful landscape of lake 
and mountain always within reach. At the age of ten, on his 
grandfather's death, his parents moved to the family property 
at Frontenex, near the Thonon road. They had no home in 
the city. 

To what extent his hero's career has been influenced by the 
surroundings of his childhood and early years must always be an 
interesting matter of inquiry to a biographer. De Saussure on 
1 Memoires et Souvenirs de A. P. de Candolle, p. 47, Geneve, Cherbuliez, 1862. 


the first page of his great work, the Voyages, has himself borne 
eloquent witness to the inspiration he drew from his environment. 
I quote the passage : 

' Geneva by its situation seema made to inspire a taste for Natural 
History. Nature presents herself in her most brilliant aspect. She 
displays an infinity of divine features, a lake brimming with clear 
and azure waters, from which issues a beautiful river, surrounded by 
charming hills which form the foreground of an amphitheatre of 
mountains, crowned by the majestic summits of the Alps. These are 
themselves dominated by Mont Blanc, clothed in a mantle of ice and 
eternal snows reaching down to its foot, and presenting a surprising 
contrast between its frosts and the beautiful verdure which covers 
the hills and the lower ranges. This grand spectacle delights the 
eyes and inspires the keenest desire to study and explore its marvels.' 

Before we pursue de Saussure's boyhood, the reader may, I 
trust, not be unwilling to join in a short pilgrimage to the three 
properties where de Saussure spent the best, if not the greatest, 
part of his life. They He in different directions, respectively south, 
east, and north-east of the town. 

The property at Conches, where de Saussure was born and 
where he passed his last years, was of some extent, and lay enclosed 
within a bend of the Arve, on its right bank, about two miles from 
the gates. The road leading to it, shaded by old oak-trees, passes 
between what were formerly open fields until the ground slopes 
somewhat sharply towards the river, the opposite bank of which is 
high, abrupt, and wooded. There seems reason to believe that 
the site of the old farmhouse was identical with that of a modern 
(or modernised) villa standing among meadows close to a pictur- 
esque weir. Near at hand an ancient barn and stable and some 
old garden walls indicate an earlier residence. There is little 
distant view, and in de Saussure's day Conches must have been a 
relatively remote and quiet retreat. 

Frontenex, the principal de Saussure estate, lies some two 
miles east of Geneva. It still remains in the state in which 
it was in the eighteenth century, when the Duke of Gordon, Lord 
Palmerston, and other young Englishmen of rank and fashion, 
who were being educated at Geneva, were glad to come out 
and be entertained by the worthy old patrician, his clever son, 
and handsome daughter. 


The buildings stand round three sides of a courtyard shaded 
by aged lime-trees ; a homely dwelling, similar in character to an 
English manor-house, occupies two sides, and the old barns and 
outbuildings , still primitive in character, the third . The approach 
is under a walnut avenue, and some specimen conifers, probably 
planted by de Saussure or his father, are scattered about the 
meadows. Conches and Frontenex were examples of the old- 
fashioned Genevese pleasure farms. 

Genthod, the mansion belonging to the Boissier sisters, where 
de Saussure, as he tells us, during many summers spent the 
happiest days of his life, was of a different type. It was the 
summer resort of a wealthy citizen. Situated four miles outside 
the town, on the north bank of the lake, and close to its shore, 
it stood at the spot whence the snows are seen to the greatest 
advantage. To the right of the Mole towers Mont Blanc, 
supported by the Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc de Tacul ' the 
staircase of Mont Blanc,' de Saussure tells us they were called 
at Geneva ; more to the left the Aiguille du Geant and Grandes 
Jorasses are seen dwarfed by the noble pyramid of the Aiguille 
Verte. This was the view that for twenty years at once delighted 
and distracted de Saussure until he at last succeeded in setting 
foot on the great mountain. The snows are seen through green 
vistas that may remind the visitor of an English park. There 
can be little doubt that de Saussure and his wife on their return 
from their visit to our country did their best to imitate on a small 
scale the surroundings of the great Yorkshire houses they had so 
much admired. The chief features of the Genthod grounds are 
still a long horseshoe avenue and a picturesque private port a 
hundred yards from the house. 

The Lullin villa both inside and out is a good specimen of 
a moderate -sized country-house in the formal French style. It 
shows a handsome fa9ade decorated with family arms, and 
some of the sitting-rooms retain their original panelling. Near 
at hand, but detached, is a long, low out-building which 
contains sitting-rooms that served de Saussure for his scientific 

On the slope above, at a distance of a few hundred yards, 
stands a larger house of the same epoch and style which through 
his marriage with Mile, de la Rive became Charles Bonnet's 


home. Old prints show that in the eighteenth century it had, 
in contrast to its neighbour, a formal garden of some extent, 
with terraces, obelisks, parterres, and specimens of the topiary 
art. This has been completely done away with by later 

As soon as he was old enough, at the age of six, the little Horace 
Benedict was sent to the College the public school of the city and 
at once won his first success by obtaining the Reading Prize. His 
biographer Senebier always on literary stilts celebrates this 
' triumph ' as ' the spark which lit in him the thirst for glory and 
led him to labour with so much ardour to merit it.' Surely a 
singularly unhappy flourish : for the conscious pursuit of glory 
is the last characteristic we shall recognise in the future career 
of a searcher after knowledge as modest and patient as he was 

At school the boy began to show that he had ideas of his own ; 
and, like most boys with ideas, he had also strong tastes, which to 
some extent interfered with his lessons. His country home, no 
doubt, helped to give him a zest for outdoor life. Long rambles 
and reading romances were his chief dissipations. But the child 
had the courage to place himself under discipline. He resolved 
to limit his country walks to one a week, and to put aside 
novels. In after years he could recall with pride that on his way 
home from school he had resisted the temptation to open the 
covers of the tempting volumes he was in the habit of bringing 
back for his mother. 

Of his school life and teaching de Saussure retained no 
favourable recollections. In after years he gave the most con- 
vincing proof of his feeling by his refusal to send his own children 
to the College. 

From school de Saussure, at the age of fourteen, passed on to 
the Academy, or, as we should call it, University. In his class, 
or in that above him, we find the names of the fathers of Sismondi, 
the historian, and de Candolle, the botanist, and of members of 
families subsequently connected with our own country, a Romilly, 
a Pasteur, a Thellusson, and a Marcet. 

Before he was eighteen the boy in the weekly tramps that 
formed a welcome interlude to classwork had explored many of 
the lower mountains in the immediate neighbourhood of Geneva : 


the Saleve, the Voirons, and the heights of the Jura. On these 
excursions he was wont to collect for his mother, who loved and 
studied flowers, specimens of all the species of the mountain flora 
that came in his way. Already he had been bitten with the 
mountain passion. In the ' Discours Preliminaire ' which intro- 
duces his Voyages, an autobiographical document of great interest, 
he recalls these early rambles r 1 

* I have had from childhood the most positive passion for the 
pleasures of the mountains. I still remember the sensation I felt 
when, for the first time, my hands touched the rocks of the Saleve 
and my eyes enjoyed its points of view.' 

As a rule, he tells us, he preferred solitary walks, since they 
left him more free to use his eyes. But he found com- 
panions for many of his youthful rambles in his contemporaries, 
Jean Louis Pictet (not to be confused with Marc Auguste Pictet, 
afterwards his great friend and successor in his professorship) 
and Fran9ois Jalabert, the son of a well-known scientist. The 
former was an astronomer who visited Siberia in 1768 to observe 
the transit of Venus, while the latter was something of an artist. 
Both at a later date joined de Saussure in some of his more 
extensive Alpine expeditions. 

These early excursions furnished many picturesque incidents 
which are pleasantly interspersed in the first volume of the 
Voyages. Here is a description of the deserted convent on Les 
Voirons (4856 feet) and its former inmates : 

' A Madonna held in repute in the neighbourhood is the object 
of their worship and the motive of their sojourn in so wild and cold a 
locality. I saw one of these martyrs of superstition, a victim of 
rheumatism and subject to frightful torments. Heaven, weary of 
their sufferings, allowed their wretched dwellings to be burnt ; they 
had the courage to pass one or two years in a vault the flames had 
spared, but at last gained permission to seek a milder climate, and the 
Madonna was transferred to Annecy. I always remember with a 
shudder the dark court which occupied the centre of the Convent 
it was a real ice-cave, filled with melting snow, and formed in the 
middle of the building a reservoir of cold and damp that became 
more dangerous as the outer air grew hotter.' [Voyages, 275.] 

1 See pp. 286-91. 


Of a visit to the Dole, one of the highest ridges of the Jura 
near Geneva, de Saussure gives a pleasant account : 

' To enjoy this view in all its brilliancy it ought to be seen as I 
once had the fortune to see it. A dense mist covered the lake, the 
hills which enclose it, and even the lower mountains. The top of the 
Dole and the High Alps were the only summits which raised their 
heads above this vast cloud-carpet, the upper surface of which was 
illumined by a brilliant sun. The snowy Alps, lit both by its direct 
rays and by the light which the clouds threw back on them, showed 
themselves in all their splendour and were visible at prodigious dis- 
tances. But my situation had something strange and terrible. I 
fancied myself alone on a rock in the middle of a stormy sea at a great 
distance from a continent fringed by a long reef of unapproachable 
rocks. Little by little the mists lifted, for a time enveloped me in 
their gloom, then, rising overhead, suddenly revealed the superb view 
of the lake and its shores, smiling, cultivated, and dotted with little 
towns and picturesque villages. 

' On the top of the Dole there is a considerable plain which forms 
a beautiful terrace covered with a carpet of grass. From time imme- 
morial this terrace is on the two first Sundays in August the rendez-vous 
of all the youth of both sexes from the villages in the Pays de Vaud 
situated near the foot of the mountain. The shepherds of the neigh- 
bouring chalets set aside for these two days milk and cream, and 
prepare all the varieties of delicacies that they can compose out of 
their dairy produce. 

' Here the holiday-makers enjoy the most varied pleasures ; some 
engage in athletic games, others dance on the crisp and elastic turf, 
which bounds beneath the robust and heavy tread of these worthy 
Helvetians. Others, again, seek rest and variety on the brink of the 
precipice and enjoy the fine view before their eyes. One peasant 
points out the tower of his village, recognises the fields and orchards 
that surround it, and recalls to memory the chief events of his life. 
Another, who has travelled, names all the towns of the district, and 
indicates the direction of the Mont Cenis, the road to Rome, that city 
celebrated even for those who do not look to it for pardons and dis- 
pensations. The bolder prove their courage by walking on the edge 
of the cliffs on the Genevese side of the mountain. Others, less boastful 
and more gallant, display their skill in collecting the flowers which grow 
on the steep crags. They pluck the Leontopodium, remarkable for its 
cotton-like sheath, the Senecio alpinus with its circle of golden rays, 
the pansy of the Alps which has the scent of lilies, the Satyrium nigrum 
with the perfume of vanilla, while the echoes of the neighbouring hills 


resound with bursts of lively and uncontrolled laughter, the sure 
accompaniment of simple and innocent pleasures. 

' But one day this mirth was checked by a fatal accident. A young 
couple married on the same morning had come, with all their wedding 
party, to the festival. To avoid for a moment the crowd, they had 
approached the edge of the mountain, when the bride's foot slipped, 
her husband tried to hold her, but was dragged over the precipice, 
and they both ended their li ves together on their happiest day ! A 
ruddy rock is pointed out which is reputed to be stained by their 
blood.' [Voyages, 355.] 

I quote this passage in full, since it illustrates several sides of de 
Saussure's character his feeling for nature, his early inclination 
for botany, and his sympathy, none the less real for being coloured 
in its expression by the sentiment of the day, for the simple life of 
country people. On another occasion he describes how he met a 
young girl from one of the villages on the Savoy shore of the 
Lake of Geneva, who, having been courted by a youth from Canton 
Fribourg, was starting off on a two days' tramp alone with her 
lover, in order to visit his home, and satisfy herself as to his means 
before accepting him. On this incident, as a proof both of the 
worldly prudence and the high moral standard of a peasantry 
who saw in it nothing compromising, de Saussure moralises 
sympathetically. It is in this direction far more than in connec- 
tion with the appreciation of the scenery of the High Alps that 
any trace of Rousseau's influence can be detected in his pages. 
He is always quick to record any human traits that interest him, 
and he does not hesitate in the Voyages to wedge them in between 
solid blocks of geological detail. 

Thus later in life he confesses to having filched some pears in 
passing an orchard in the Vallee de Montjoie, near St. Gervais, 
and having been delighted when the peasant woman to whom he 
offered payment replied : ' It is not for that I come ; He who 
made the fruits did not make them for a single owner.' No 
better proof could be offered of the rarity of visitors in 
de Saussure's day ! The indulgence that was extended to 
the pious pilgrim or rare wanderer could hardly hope to 
survive the inrush of the view-hunters and the visitors to the 

I must find space for one more passage, a description of the 


source of the Orbe in the Jura, that has attracted the admiration 
of literary critics : 

' We went to see this source where it issues at the mills of Bonport, 
and found it well worthy of the visit of the curious traveller. A semi- 
circular cliff, about 220 feet high, composed of great horizontal layers, 
cut vertically, and broken by lines of pines which grow on the shelves 
formed by its protruding salients, closes to the west the vale of Vallorbes. 
Loftier mountains clad in forests form a circle open only where it 
allows the course of the Orbe, which rises at the very foot of this cliff. 
Its waters of a perfect purity flow with majestic calm over a bed 
carpeted with a beautiful green moss, Fontinalis antipyretica. Soon, 
however, the centre of the current, quickened by the steep slope, 
breaks in foam against the rock which occupies the middle of its 
channel, while the sides, less troubled and still flowing smoothly over 
their green bed, make the whiteness of the central stream more notice- 
able ! Thus it glides out of sight, following the course of a deep glen 
clothed in pine-woods whose dark hue is rendered more striking by the 
brighter tone of the beeches that grow among them. Gazing at this 
source one understands how poets have been led to deify fountains, 
or to make them the homes of their divinities. The purity of the 
springs, the beautiful shades which surround them, the broken cliffs 
and dense forests which defend their access, this combination of 
charms, at once gentle and imposing, creates an impression difficult 
to express, and suggests the presence of a Being above humanity. 

' Ah ! had Petrarch discovered this source, and found here his 
Laura, how much would he have preferred it to that of Vaucluse, 
more abundant, perhaps, and swifter, but whose sterile rocks have 
neither the grandeur nor the rich setting which decorate ours.' 
[Voyages, 385.] 

This passage has been selected by Ruskin, a lifelong admirer of 
de Saussure, for special eulogy. It loses, no doubt, in translation, 
yet I cannot rank it as high as others in de Saussure 's works, less 
touched by the conventional classicism of his day. 

The two remarkable men whose influence most affected de 
Saussure 's early life and career must now be introduced to my 
readers. It was in 1756 that a sister of de Saussure 's mother, Mile. 
Jeanne Marie de la Rive, married Charles Bonnet, at that time 
one of the leading names in science and philosophy at Geneva and 
a man of European reputation. The relationship thus created 
was destined to be an enduring one. Fifty -four years afterwards 


in 1810 the uncle and nephew were coupled in the eulogy de- 
livered by Cuvier at the Institut de France on those of its members 
who had died during the French Revolution, a period the orator 
described as ' the fatal epoch when all personal merit, all inde- 
pendent pre-eminence, was odious to authority.' After another 
half -century Sainte-Beuve was to write of them as ' the two 
names that form the true crown of this great literary and scientific 
century of Geneva.' 

It was two years later that de Saussure first came in contact 
with Albrecht von Haller. 1 Their acquaintance was brought 
about in this wise. In 1758 Madame de Saussure 's health gave 
renewed cause for anxiety. For three years she had been under 
the care of Theodore Tronchin, the most famous doctor of his 
time, and a notable character in the Geneva and Paris of his day. 
An old friend of the de Saussure family, and destined to be closely 
connected with Horace Benedict in after years, he calls for some 
notice here. Tronchin's father had lost his fortune by the collapse 
of Law and the South Sea Bubble. At the age of eighteen 
Theodore came to England, where Lord Bolingbroke, with whom 
there was some family connection, introduced him to Swift, Pope, 
and Addison but not to a career. The youth went on to 
Holland, married a great-niece of John de Witte, and studied and 
successfully practised medicine for twenty-five years. When at 
the age of forty-five he set up in Geneva, Tronchin earned the 
cordial dislike of his colleagues by his contempt for the traditional 
treatment then in vogue . He ridiculed their antiquated ' systems,' 
he condemned their violent remedies, he called the medical 
science, as they practised it, 'the scourge of the human race,' he 
preached observing nature and helping it to cure itself. ' He,' 
wrote Grimm, ' treats not the sickness, but the sick man.' His 
favourite prescriptions were moderate diet, pure air, country life, 
riding above all, out-of-door exercise. He recommended an 
Abbe to chop wood and an Abbesse to do her own room and 
polish the floor ! He was an enthusiast for cold baths. ' As long 
as the Romans,' he wrote, ' after their exercise on the Campus 
Martius threw themselves into the Tiber they were the masters of 
the world ; the hot baths of Agrippa and Nero turned them into 
slaves.' If he made enemies in his own profession, he had for his 
1 For a fuller notice of Bonnet and A. von Haller, see chapter xvi. 


By Liotard 


friends the world of letters . To his lady patients who suffered from 
nerves Tronchin used very plain speaking, and they endured his 
scolding gladly. He became the fashion, and the arbiter of 
fashion. To take a morning walk in heelless shoes and a short 
dress was called ' tronchiner.' A bevy of fair ladies came from 
Paris to be under the physician a la mode ; there were not enough 
houses or apartments in Geneva to hold them. Madame d'Epinay 
was delighted to dine constantly with her doctor ; Grimm declared 
that all his patients became his friends. Voltaire rejoiced in his 
company and described him as six feet high, ' wise as ^Esculapius, 
and beautiful as Apollo ; no one talks better or more wittily.' 
Catherine, the Empress of Russia, tried to tempt him to St. 
Petersburg. In 1766 he left Geneva to become first physician 
to the Duke of Orleans at Paris, where he died fifteen years 
later at the age of seventy-four. His funeral was attended by 
a crowd of poor people whom he had benefited, and for 
whom he had reserved two hours a day for gratuitous 

This paragon of a doctor was on the most intimate terms 
with the de Saussure family ; but he could do nothing to restore 
Madame de Saussure 's health. It is easy to realise the dilemma 
of her relatives, their anxiety for a more vigorous treatment in 
accordance with the traditions of the orthodox medicine of the 
day, and at the same time their reluctance to slight an old family 
friend. In these circumstances it no doubt seemed a good 
arrangement for Madame de Saussure to have recourse to the 
waters of Bex, where she would find her brother-in-law Bonnet's 
friend, ' The Great Haller,' close at hand in his chateau at 
Roche, and could profit informally by his medical advice. It was 
convenient that her son should go with her and exercise his taste 
for botanising in a new field, the Alps of Vaud. Bonnet, who was 
in constant correspondence with Haller, wrote to him warmly 
recommending his nephew. Haller, who had promised himself 
literary leisure in his retirement, seems to have soon found his 
country home dull, and readily welcomed the youth who was so 
keen on botany and so eager to be of use in collecting for him. 
The link between them resulted in a lifelong friendship and 
produced a voluminous correspondence, much of which is still 
preserved in the Public Library at Berne. 


These two men, illustrious in their generation, were the chief 
formative influences in de Saussure's early manhood. Between 
them they gave a direction to his travels and encouragement to 
his scientific pursuits. In the course of a century and a half 
their fame has grown somewhat dim. I have therefore added 
in a supplementary chapter a brief sketch of their careers which 
may be of interest to some of my readers. 

In the year 1759 de Saussure finished his course at the 
Academy in the philosophy class, and publicly delivered and 
printed, apparently as a qualification for his degree, A Physical 
Discourse on Fire, 1 a tract on the transmission of heat from the 
sun's rays. Senebier tells us that ' it was remarkable for pre- 
cision of thought, clearness of style, and accuracy in excluding all 
hypothetical matter.' Amongst other details the student showed 
that dark objects are more quickly heated, an observation he was 
two years afterwards able to illustrate by the practice of Alpine 
peasants of spreading in spring black earth over their meadows 
to hasten the melting of the snow. About this date Haller's 
letters to him Haller was always formal in his superscription 
bear the title ' Avocat.' An explanation may be found in a 
passage in de Candolle's reminiscences. ' In 1796,' he writes, 
' I quitted the School of Philosophy. As a matter of form and 
following a prevalent custom, I entered that of Law, firmly resolved 
never to be a jurisconsult, or lawyer, but hoping to gain some 
knowledge of affairs.' The custom is not confined to Geneva : 
many Englishmen read law and are called to the Bar with a 
similar motive. 

De Saussure, now released for a time from his studies, found 
leisure for more extended rambles. He climbed the grassy cone 
of the Mole, a mountain which, rising conspicuously above 
Bonne ville, forms a prominent object in all southward views from 
the neighbourhood of Geneva, and had served the English party 
of 1741 as a natural belvedere for Mont Blanc. These excursions 
excited his youthful energy to further enterprise. The call of 
the snows became most urgent. ' I burnt,' he writes, ' with 
desire for a nearer view of the High Alps, which from the 
summit of our mountains appear so majestic.' 

The occasion came in the following year, 1760, a memorable 

1 Dissertatio physica de igne. 


date in de Saussure's life, that of the first of his many visits to 

There is no reason to think that the Campus Munitus l of old 
parchments, the once secluded dale lying immediately at the foot 
of the snows visible from the neighbourhood of Geneva, was unin- 
habited, or unknown, even in classical times. We have evidence 
in the shape of memorial inscriptions and a boundary stone of the 
permanent presence of Romans along its borders, on the sunny, 
vine -clad slopes of Passy, and on the wooded heights of the 
Forclaz above St. Gervais, which before the defile of Les Montets 
had been made passable, served as the chief means of access to the 
upper valley. From the end of the eleventh century its principal 
village, known as le Prieure" the modern Chamonix had been the 
seat of a religious house, many documents relating to which have 
been preserved and published. 2 It was dependent on the great 
Benedictine Abbey of St. Michel de la Cluse near Susa above the 
road to the Mont Cenis, to which the whole valley of Chamonix 
had been given by Count Aymon of Geneva by an Act of Donation 
dated 1091. As early as 1375 its Prior sent twelve baskets of 
what he described as most exquisite butter across the Great 
St. Bernard as an Easter offering to the Court of Savoy. In 
1458 we find one of his successors in office engaged in contracting 
for a road wide enough for 'two-horse wine-carts, each capable of 
carrying three barrels,' being kept in repair between Servoz and 
the upper valley. Two centuries later the Prior of the day was 
more banefully employed in superintending the burning of poor 
women as alleged heretics and sorceresses, and in confiscating 
their goods to ecclesiastical uses. The belief in witchcraft was 
widespread in the Alpine region. 

1 It has been commonly assumed that the Latin form represents accurately 
the original name of the valley, ' le champ muni,' and that this was a picturesque 
description of its situation enclosed by high mountains. It occurs to me that a 
primitive peasantry would be more likely to regard the singular feature of so 
large a cultivable expanse from its practical aspect. This undoubtedly imposed 
itself on its early visitors. For instance, Bordier, in his Voyage Pittoresque, writes 
as follows of ' the pleasant plain of Chamonix ' ' C'est un ovale long de trois lieues 
d'etendue sur un quart de lieue de largeur d'un terrain excellent, parfaitement uni, 
tel qu'on n'en voit point aux environs de Geneve.' Is not ' le champ uni ' a plausible 
origin for the name ? In this case a curious analogy would exist with the old name of 
Zermatt, ' Praborgne, Praborno, or Praborny ' (Whymper, Guidebook to Zermatt). 

2 See Histoire de la Vallee et du Prieure de Chamonix de X e au XI V e siecle, 
and Documents relatifs au Prieure et a la Vallee de Chamonix, par MM. Perrin et 
Bonnefoy (Chamb6ry, 3 vols., 1879, 1883, and 1887). 


During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Bishops on 
their pastoral rounds occasionally penetrated this remote corner 
of their diocese. In 1606 the valley received an episcopal saint, 
St. Fran9ois de Sales. Seventy-four years later another Bishop, 
Jean d'Arathon d'Alex, penetrated this corner of his diocese, and, 
we are told, successfully exorcised the glaciers, forcing them to 
retire ' half a quarter of a league.' But this exercise of episcopal 
authority was but a poor set-off for the executions and cruelties 
perpetrated in the name of religion. In the sixteenth century the 
Priory passed into the hands of the collegiate church of St. 
Jacques at Sallanches, and a period of disturbance followed. 
The Chamoniards on several occasions revolted against the 
exactions of their ecclesiastical lords. But it was not till 1786 
that the Commune succeeded in buying out the Priory at the cost 
of 58,000 livres. Had the Chamoniards endured patiently for 
another year or two the Revolution would have relieved them for 

The Reformation, in freeing Geneva from the rule of its Bishops, 
broke the links between the city and the highlands of Savoy. 1 
There is no evidence that any of these ecclesiastical visitors 
noticed the splendour of Mont Blanc. The distinction of being 
the first to do so was left to a layman, a Treasury clerk from 
Grenoble, who visited on business what he was pleased to call 
' ce pays affreux.' He seems to have been a shallow-witted person 
who lightened his official duties by amorous correspondence. 
Boileau, in his Repas Ridicule, alludes to him as a ' buffon plaisant,' 
* un 6crivain fort estime par les provinciaux.' At Chamonix 
he displayed his ingenuity by making the glaciers serve him to 
turn an elaborate compliment in a love-letter ' Madame,' he 
wrote in May 1669 : 

' I see here five mountains which resemble you as if they were 
yourself . . . five mountains, Madame, made of pure ice from head 
to foot . . . for the rest, Madame, there is nothing so magnificent 
as these mountains.' 2 

Le Pays' premature and probably fictitious enthusiasm for the 
glaciers had no immediate consequences. Their chaste magnifi- 

1 The see of the diocese was transferred to Annecy after 1635. 

2 Les Nouvelles (Euvres de M. le Pays, Amitiks, Amours, et Amourettes, were 
published at Amsterdam in 1687. See vol. ii. p. 124. 


cence remained for a century unsullied by any crowd of admirers. 
Chamonix was thought of at Geneva, as far as it was thought of at 
all, as a forbidding district inhabited by a peasantry of a more or 
less uncouth, if not dangerous, disposition, who made a precarious 
living by selling crystals, 1 butter, and honey, and telling strange 
tales of the 'frosty fairyland' which encompassed their home. 
The good citizens of Geneva no more looked on the glaciers of 
Savoy as an object for a holiday than the Russian officials at 
Kutais fifty years ago thought of pleasure -touring in Suanetia 
under the shadow of Tetnuld and Ushba. 

The dwellers in the vale of Chamonix had been discovered to 
their cost by clerics and clerks. But, with few exceptions, 2 their 
visitors before 1760 had been bound on business ; they had not 
gone beyond the chief village, or paid any particular attention to 
the strange features of the scenery. It was left to a party of our 
countrymen, most of them youths completing their education at 
Geneva, to furnish the world with the first detailed account of ' a 
visit to the Ice-Alps of Savoy.' The leaders of the expedition of 
eight Englishmen, which penetrated as far as the Montenvers, were 
Pococke, a well-known Eastern traveller, and Mr. Windham of 
Felbrigg. These adventurers were destined to be the forerunners of 
the host of ' visitors to the glaciers,' who a few years later disturbed 
Gibbon in his retreat at Lausanne. 3 In 1741 they were the first to 
reveal not only to the literary and scientific world of Europe, but 
also to the citizens of Geneva, that the glaciers of Grindelwald, 
already brought into notice by the scientists of Berne and the 
worthy Scheuchzer as 'miracles of nature,' had their rivals in Savoy. 
Windham's narrative has of late been often reprinted, condensed, 
and commented on, and need not be dealt with here in any detail. 3 
But it is due to our countrymen to point out that their story has 
been unfairly criticised. Their claim to be discoverers has been 

1 Crystals are mentioned by Evelyn as one of the chief articles of commerce 
at Geneva. 

* Amongst the exceptions before 1740 may be reckoned Fatio de Duillier, 
a Prince of Sulzbach in 1727, and soon after 1740 Firmin Abauzit. 

8 Archdeacon Coxe, in his Life of Benjamin Stillingfleet, mentions that Pococke 
and Windham were joint authors of the latter's letter, but were aided in its composi- 
tion by the latter's tutor, Stillingfleet. The title of the rare tract is 'An Account 
of the Glaciers or Ice Alps of Savoy in two letters, one from an English gentleman 
to his friend at Geneva, the other from Peter Martel, engineer, to the said 
English gentleman,' 1744. 


taken in far too literal a sense, while the more or less sarcastic 
comments made on their nervousness in going armed prove 
to be unreasonable. Contemporary records show that even 
twenty years later Savoy was infested with smugglers, tramps, and 
marauders to such an extent that the citizens of Geneva were in 
the habit of arming themselves before going a few miles into the 
environs. The doctor or the lawyer called to a sick-bed, the 
pedlar going the round with his wares, the landlord collecting his 
rents, did not set out without seeing to the priming of their 
pistols. In a letter dated 10th September 1761, de Saussure tells 
Haller the following story. Two German botanists had been 
recently murdered on the Saleve. They had fallen victims to a 
band of ' Bohemians ' who were lurking in the forests of Savoy. 
These marauders had been bold enough to enter villages and rob 
houses in broad daylight, until the Chamoniards turned out 
in force to ' hunt them down like wild beasts.' Fortunately 
for the Bohemians, 1 de Saussure writes, they escaped ; for had 
they been caught they would have been slain without any 
form of trial. He concludes by lamenting that he may have 
for a time to give up his solitary rambles on the heights round 

Senebier, de Saussure 's biographer, puts the case on the whole 
fairly enough : ' At Geneva,' he writes, ' in 1760 there was much 
talk of a journey made by some Englishmen to Chamonix ; this 

1 De Saussure's first visit was, it may be noted, in the year before the murders, 
but he went to Chamonix again in 1761. 'Bohemian ' was for a long time a common 
term for marauders in the Alps. Sebastian Munster, a professor at Basle, who 
published a Universal Cosmography in 1544, got into a scrape by asserting that 
the inhabitants of the Engadine were ' worse robbers than the Bohemians.' He 
had probably been taking a cure at St. Moritz, the waters of which were frequented 
from early times. It is amusing to learn that a solemn deputation was sent all 
the way from the valley to Basle to complain of the libel, with the result that due 
apology was offered and accepted. The disorders about 1760 were partly conse- 
quent on the Seven Years War, which was drawing towards its close. Troops of 
deserters and disbanded soldiers roamed the country and made the roads unsafe. 
Further evidence of the disturbed state of Faucigny at this period is found in a 
pleasant anecdote told by de Saussure himself of his reception at the Chartreuse 
of Le Reposoir. This lies in a secluded glen a few miles above Cluses, at the 
back of the Pointe Percee, a lion-like summit, the other side of which is a con- 
spicuous object from the Baths of St. Gervais and stands prominent against the 
sunset in the view from the Grands Mulcts. I give de Saussure's tale in his own 
words : 

' I have stayed at this Convent, a convenient resort for a naturalist, two or 
three times, and always been well received by the Chartreux. My first visit, 


district was then regarded as inaccessible ; it was a fairyland, 
where imagination and credulity amused themselves in placing 
the most absurd and terrifying phenomena it was the site of the 
" Montagnes Maudites." Senebier goes on : ' De Saussure 
formed the project of visiting Les Montagnes Maudites. I 
know not which is most admirable, the courage of the youth 
who braves opinion and carries out his wish despite it, or the 
good sense of his parents who contemned popular nervousness 
and had sufficient confidence in the prudence of their son to 
authorise his journey.' 

Adequate explanation of the comments on our countrymen's 
alleged timidity is not far to seek. They preferred tents to 
the wretched wine -shops which at that date were the only shelter 
at Chamonix ; they carried arms, and Pococke, who had travelled 
in the Levant, seems to have put on an Arab dressing-gown, 
and, abetted by his companions, mystified the simple inhabitants 
of Sallanches by pretending to be an Oriental potentate. This 
harmless jest was quite enough to afford to the Chamoniards 
* nation gaie et railleuse,' as de Saussure called them material 
for a tale which would be welcomed by their Genevese visitors, 
gossips by nature, and slightly annoyed that it should have been 
left to foreigners to reveal to the world wonders that had lain for 
centuries almost at their own gates within, even at that date, a 
long day's journey. It was natural enough that they should take 

however, gave them a great fright. At the time I was making a collection of 
Alpine birds. I carried a gun, my two servants who were with me had guns ; 
the hunters who served me as guides were also armed. It was a Thursday ; the 
Chartreux were enjoying the moment of recreation they term a spaciment they 
were taking the air in a wood near the Convent. By chance we approached 
through the same wood, and the peaceable hosts of this solitude, seeing themselves 
suddenly surrounded by armed strangers, thought that their last day had come, 
or at least that we were about to pillage their Convent. In vain I tried to explain 
to them my objects in travel ; curiosity seemed to them too feeble a motive 
to make anyone come to see mountains from their point of view gloomy and un- 
attractive ; and that all our armament was in order to kill little birds they looked 
on as a ridiculous and almost preposterous pretext. Notwithstanding, they 
invited us to enter the Convent and to refresh ourselves, being persuaded that in 
any case we should enter by force. It was only after having examined my 
scientific instruments and inspected us scrupulously that they persuaded them- 
selves that we had no evil designs.' [Voyages, 284.] 

The case, it may be noted, has points of resemblance with that of the English 
party, and indicates the general sense of insecurity in Savoy at this time. Even 
the unwarlike Bourrit took pistols with him when he went round Mont Blanc. 
It is true they were unloaded. 


a mild and harmless revenge by making fun out of any eccentricities 
in the Englishmen they could lay hold of. It gave them some- 
thing to laugh over at the afternoon tea-parties in the pleasant 
gardens on the shores of Lake Leman, while they glanced at the 
sunset on the snows they preferred to view from a discreet 
distance. 1 

Another glimpse of the supposed perils of a visit to the glaciers 
about this date is afforded by the high -spirited account of his 
own experiences given by de Saussure's friend, the young Due de 
la Rochefoucauld d'Enville, afterwards a victim of the Revolu- 
tion, who went to Chamonix in 1762. He does full justice to 
our countrymen, whom he imitated in taking arms. I quote a 
few lines : 

' Mr. Windham, a young Englishman of about twenty, carried out 
successfully this arduous journey ; it wanted an Englishman, or a 
knight-errant ; he was an Englishman ! It was worse than fighting 
with giants or winged dragons, sheep or windmills. It was a case of 
tramping through frightful regions by paths full of rocks fallen from 
the mountains, crossing streams, affronting the voracious insects with 
which the pothouses of Savoy are full ; his courage carried him over 
all these obstacles. Since his time all the English who come to Geneva 
make this journey, and some Genevese, but no Frenchmen had yet 
attempted it.' 2 

The immediate motive of de Saussure's first visit to 
Chamonix in 1760 had been the desire to collect plants for 
Haller. In that year Haller mentions him along with the 
collectors from whom he hopes for great results, while 
Bonnet writes, 'My nephew glories in contributing to your 
botanical studies.' A few weeks later we hear that the pupil 
has * created some new plants,' but later on he was appar- 
ently less successful, for Haller admonishes him gently as to his 
way of going to work. ' I fear, eager as you are, that on your 
excursions you walk a little too quickly ; one ought to go as slowly 

1 In the year following Windham's visit (1742) Pierre Mattel, an engineer living 
at Geneva, organised a party to repeat the trip of the Englishmen. He was better 
provided with instruments, and brought back some measurements and an attempt 
at a map. These he embodied in a narrative addressed to Windham, which is 
stated on the title-page to have been ' laid before the Royal Society.' It is not, 
however, included in any of its Transactions. 

1 See Annuaire du Club Alpin Fran$ais, 1893. 


as possible, and above all on the alps to sit down from time to 
time, even to lie down, so as to get a close view of the growing 
plants. A league traversed thus slowly will bring you a better 
return than two hurried over.' In a later letter de Saussure 
alleges as an excuse for his slender booty, the relative poverty of 
the flora of the Chamonix valley. 

De Saussure has given no separate account of this his first 
excursion to the snows, and his experiences have to be collected 
from different passages in the Voyages. At an age when walking 
for walking's sake is a pleasure to vigorous youth, he tramped 
alone all the fifty miles from Geneva. Up to Sallanches the road 
was excellent, for the rest of the way to the top of the defile 
of Les Montets there was only a rough cart-track hardly possible 
for wheels and liable to be interrupted by dangerous torrents. 

But the young collector found more than compensation by 
the roadside : 

' It is on these rocks,' he writes, ' that the first really Alpine 
plants one meets on the way to Chamonix grow. After the frosts and 
the occupations of winter have kept me for several months far from 
the High Alps, when I am at last able to return to them, the first 
Alpine plants, the moment that I recognise them, always give me a 
thrill of delight ; I feel then that I am in my element, in possession 
of the liveliest pleasures that the study of nature can give to its lovers. 
I rejoice to see again the Rhododendron ferrugineum, that charming 
bush whose ever-green branches are crowned by ruddy blossoms, the 
smell of which is as sweet as their colour is exquisite ; the Auricula of 
the Alps, which in our garden has gained richer hues, but fails to pre- 
serve its delicate perfume, is spread over these rocks, with the Astrantia 
alpina, the Saxifraga cotyledon, and many others.' [Voyages, 608.] 

De Saussure 's first impression of the glaciers follows : 

' On issuing from this wild and narrow defile [Les Montets] the 
traveller turns to the left, and enters the valley of Chamonix, the 
aspect of which is in contrast absolutely soft and smiling. The floor 
of the valley, which is in the form of a cradle with gently sloping sides, 
is covered with meadows between which the road passes, protected by 
low palings. The different glaciers which fall into the valley catch 
the eyes in succession. At first one notes only that of Taconnaz, which 
seems as if hanging on the steep slope of a narrow ravine, of which 
it occupies the bottom. But soon the eyes are drawn to the Glacier 


des Bossons, which is seen to descend from the summits neighbouring 
on Mont Blanc ; its icy masses, wrought into the form of huge pyramids, 
produce an astonishing effect in the centre of the pine woods which 
they traverse and overtop. These majestic glaciers, separated by 
great forests, and crowned by granite crags of astounding height cut in 
the form of great obelisks and mixed with snow and ice, present one 
of the noblest and most singular spectacles it is possible to imagine. 
The fresh and pure air one breathes, so different from the close atmo- 
sphere of the basins of Sallanches and Servoz, the good cultivation of 
the soil, the pretty hamlets met with at every step, when seen on a 
fine day, give the impression of a new world, a sort of earthly paradise, 
enclosed by a kindly Deity in the circle of the mountains. The road, 
continuously good and easy, 1 allows the traveller to give himself up 
to delicious reveries and the pleasant, varied, and novel ideas which 
crowd on his brain.' [Voyages, 510.] 

How are the ' Cursed Mountains ' transformed in the eyes of 
the youth who was to lead Europe to do them homage ! At the 
Prieure there was no accommodation except in one or two rough 
cabarets, so that the young traveller found lodging with the cure, 
doubtless in the pleasant house that still stands to the right of the 
church as one looks up the village street. He undertook what 
since Pococke and Windham's day was the inevitable excursion, 
that which was afterwards described by a French tourist as 
' le Mont Blanc jusqu'au Montenvers.' There he saw the 'Pierre 
des Anglais,' a shepherds' gite, under which local legend said 
it appears falsely that the English visitors had passed the night, 
but where, at any rate, they had lunched and drunk patriotic toasts, 
including the health of ' the Roi Georges ' a precedent the guides, 
no doubt pleased to share in the bottles opened, tried, we are told, 
to impose on travellers of other nationalities. 2 De Saussure, bolder 
than his predecessors, essayed the crossing of the glacier and 
visited the solitary shepherd who kept his flock on the scanty 
pasturage at the foot of the Aiguille du Dru. The old man asked for 
tobacco, which de Saussure could not supply, but he seemed to 
have no use for the coins offered him. 

De Saussure on this occasion also climbed the Brevent, guided 
by Pierre Simon, whom for many years he constantly employed. 

1 This refers to the open valley above Les Houches as contrasted to the 
defile of Les Montets. 

* Bordier, Voyage Pittoresque aux Olacilres de Savoie, Geneve, 1773. 


This was probably the first ascent by a tourist. The most inter- 
esting fact connected with de Saussure's 1760 visit is that he 
issued a notice in each parish of the valley offering a handsome 
reward to the first man to climb Mont Blanc, and further promising 
to recompense any adventurers for time lost in searching for a way. 
The amount offered has not been recorded. 

The young traveller's attention was not confined to the 
mountains, but extended also to their inhabitants. The human 
interest was always strong in de Saussure, whether in society or 
during his rambles. He tells us at the beginning of his chapter on 
the manners and customs of the Chamoniards that in his childhood 
the common folk at Geneva called the snowy mountains ' the 
Accursed Hills,' and believed that their eternal frosts the snow 
and ice that grew in the place of forests on their mountain sides 
were a punishment for the crimes committed by those who 
lived under them. Until the Savoy highlands became better 
known, this belief, absurd as it may seem, served as foundation 
for a distrust which obtained credit even among people who might 
have been expected to be above such prejudices. They had the 
excuse that their superstition was far from being singular ; the 
Pyrenees have their Maladetta, and many similar cases might be 
cited . Waste places had to be peopled ; and Christianity converted 
the classical fauns and nymphs either into demons and witches, 
or elves and fairies. 

During de Saussure's life a great change came over Chamonix. 
Up to 1765 the cure's house had afforded the only decent lodging in 
the village. Twenty years later it boasted three large and good 
inns and eighteen hundred tourists a year to fill them. This influx 
of visitors to a certain extent corrupted the simplicity of the 
inhabitants, but, apart from petty tricks used to obtain engage- 
ment as guides, they were, we are told, honest, serviceable, and 
well content with their pay of five or six francs a day. The male 
population in summer was greatly reduced by the number who 
sought employment abroad not only in the large towns, but as 
cheesemakers in the French and Italian Alps . In this art they had 
acquired a reputation which has lasted to the present day, and it 
is by no means rare to find a Chamoniard employed in a chalet far 
from his own valley. Those who stayed at home were little given 
to field labour, which they left mostly to the women. Before the 


career of guides was open to them they resorted either to the 
search for crystals or to chamois -hunting, both highly dangerous 
pursuits in which many lives were lost. De Saussure tells several 
dramatic stories of the perils of the chase and the jealousy of 
the hunters of different districts . The charge of luring peasants to 
destruction which has sometimes been brought against moun- 
taineers is obviously unsustainable, since the profession of guide is 
far less dangerous than the pursuits it has superseded. It is 
surprising to find as early as 1787 another charge a less serious 
one brought against the guides' employers. Tourists, a visitor 
alleges, anxious to make records so long to the Montenvers, 
so many minutes in crossing the Mer de Glace forced their 
laden guides to keep up an excessive pace, with the deplorable 
result that the guides, worn out by constant and excessive effort, 
became old men at forty. The same writer admits that many of 
the guides had already the fault of being too exacting, but points 
out that several may be found who retain the simplicity and 
disinterestedness of their fathers .* 

There can be no doubt that the new form of employment 
created by the visitors to the glaciers was a great boon to a district 
which could not maintain its population. Unlike as Bourrit 
points out the independent peasant -farmers of the Bernese 
Oberland, who found sufficient sustenance in their fields and 
broad alps, the Chamoniards, shut up in their narrow valley and 
subject to the exactions of a religious community, were ready to 
welcome eagerly any new mode of wage -earning. The relative 
poverty of Chamonix was one cause of its school of guides attaining 
to a pre-eminence which was not seriously contested for many 
years by the men of Grindelwald and the Hasli Thai. Another was 
the quickness with which they picked up the icecraft called for in 
ascents of Mont Blanc . In my own early years Chamonix men were 
unrivalled on a difficult glacier. Icefalls locally deemed impractic- 
able were a pastime to Frangois Devouassoud. Yet another 
qualification may be found in the wandering habit of the Savoyard 
peasantry. From very early days Chamoniards with their mules 
were ready to accompany travellers on extensive tours, and to act, 
as Ruskin's guide did, more or less as couriers. 

1 Excursion dans les Mines du Haul Faucigny, Berthoud van Berchem file 
(Lausanne, 1787). 


Bourrit reports that on one occasion when de Saussure was 
expected at Chamonix, a hunter who had gone out to secure a 
chamois as a present to him perished in the chase, and that de 
Saussure thereon behaved generously to his family. So great, 
Bourrit adds, was the respect felt for de Saussure in the valley, 
that the Chamoniards would habitually raise their hats in 
mentioning his name. Their famous visitor was by no means 
slow in returning the warm feelings entertained towards him by 
the comrades of his climbs. But at the same time he was very 
conscious of the weak points in the local character often brought 
out by the emergencies of travel. He records the devices by 
which on Mont Blanc his guides endeavoured to prevent him 
from camping on the snow, the sorry trick by which they sought to 
cut short his sojourn on the Col du Geant. But he has nothing but 
praise for his first guide, Pierre Simon, who died about 1780, and 
his successor, Marie Couttet. Of the former Bourrit has given us a 
picture : 

1 This guide is one of the best recommended of the valley, and he 
owes his reputation to M. de Saussure, who, recognising his good 
qualities, trained him in his various excursions. He is short of stature ; 
his head buried in a large hat ; small bright eyes, a short coat, heavy 
nailed shoes, and a spiked stick, a peculiar language as difficult to under- 
stand as to speak for everyone except his illustrious employer such 
are his external qualities. What made me choose him was that he 
was experienced, prudent, courageous, and faithful.' l 

The description will find an echo in the recollections of many 
more recent climbers. De Saussure's later guide, Marie Couttet, 
I picture as of the same type as his nephew, the guide of my own 
boyhood, Michel Alphonse Couttet, and his son, Ruskin's com- 
panion, Joseph Marie Couttet, so often mentioned in the pages of 
Prceterita, tall, upright, with an almost military bearing, in dis- 
position cautious, in conversation shrewd and sententious, on 
the road or in rough quarters full of devices for an employer's 
comfort, having for home a substantial house in the village. 
The Balmats of fifty years ago, one of whom was Sir Alfred 
Wills' guide, belonged to the same class. Balmat ' of Mont 
Blanc ' was of another type, the peasant proprietors of the 

1 Bourrit's Description des Aspects du Mont Blanc, 1776. 


outlying hamlets, who often either emigrated or sought to 
add to their scanty livelihood by crystal-hunting. De Saussure, 
though he employed him more than once, would seem never 
to have been on very cordial terms with him, or to have engaged 
him as his chief guide. The tradition in the de Saussure family, 
as reported by the late M. Henri de Saussure, is to the effect 
that Balmat did not work well with his fellows, amongst whom 
he was unpopular. Another of de Saussure's guides was Jean 
Louis Devouassoud, 'dit le Professeur.' His nickname suggests 
that the well-known guide and explorer, Franois Devouassoud, 
twice my companion in the Caucasus, may have inherited from 
him the fine manner and literary instincts that made him so 
delightful a companion to his many English employers. But I 
have not been able to trace the degree of relationship. Fra^ois' 
monument l stands beside the church door at Chamonix, and may, 
I trust, long preserve and hand down the memory of a man who 
embodied the traditional qualities of a great guide, and combined 
with them those of an intrepid traveller and a never-failing friend. 
De Saussure during this expedition made careful notes on the 
local methods of agriculture, and he is at pains to indicate a flaw in 
the communal system under which the pasturages and forests were 
administered. The peasant who owns no hayfields in the valley 
cannot feed cows in winter, and therefore gets no advantage from 
the common summer pasturage on the Alps. The ' wild hay ' cut 
on ledges inaccessible to four-footed animals will not suffice by itself 
to maintain a single cow. The remedy de Saussure suggested was 
that the wealthier peasants who profit by the pasturages should 
pay a rent or tax to the commune, to be used as a poor-rate. Up 
to recent years the absence of any poor-law at Chamonix has been 
met by the custom among the villagers of taking turns to lodge 
for a period the aged and infirm, or orphans who have no family 
to support them. 

1 Franois Devouassoud's monument, besides the names of some of his prin- 
cipal English friends, bears the following inscription : ' Fra^ois Joseph 
DeVouassoud MDCCCXXXH-MDCCCCV Viro integro Comiti Amico Sodali jucundo 
dilecto desiderate Duci sagaci indomito per xl. annos spectato ne tantae Virtutis 
Memoria et Exemplum perderetur hunc Lapidem nonnulli ex Amicis 
quos saepe inter Alpium Juga et Caucasi Nives duxerat ponendum cura- 
verunt.' It owes its Latin form to my late friends, Sir Richard Jebb and 
Mr. T. H. Rawlins, Vice-Provost of Eton. The latter was one of Francois' 


De Saussure points out the need of some winter occupation 
for the men. Wood-carving, he says, has never taken root in 
Savoy as in the Bernese Oberland. Many in the larger villages 
spend most of their time in drinking -shops, and gamble even for 
high stakes. In the more remote hamlets the evenings pass as 
in the play of the Soiree Villageoise. At nightfall everyone meets 
round the fire in the largest room, the women sew and card flax, 
or tell stories ; the men make bowls and spoons or other such 
articles in wood, and the mistress of the house is at no expense 
beyond providing a jug of water and a bowl of apples cooked in 
the cinders to serve as supper. 

' Their wits,' adds de Saussure, ' are keen and penetrating, their 
character is li vely and given to mockery ; they fasten with singular 
shrewdness on any eccentricities in strangers, and mimic them between 
themselves in the most amusing way. Nevertheless, they are capable 
of serious reflection. Many of them have attacked me on questions 
of religion or metaphysics, not so much on the points of difference 
between one religion and another as on general questions, in a way 
which showed that they had ideas of their own apart from those they 
had been brought up in.' [ Voyages, 744.] 

De Saussure proceeds to tell an affecting tale that has been 
already quoted more than once in connection with his travels : 

' Nothing of the sort surprised me more than a woman of Argentiere 
whose home I entered to ask for milk when coming down from the 
glacier in March 1764. The village had suffered from an epidemic of 
dysentery, which, some months previously, had carried off her father, 
her husband, and her brothers, so that she was left alone with three 
children in infancy. Her figure had something noble about it, and 
her countenance bore traces of a calm and deep sorrow which made it 
interesting. After she had given me the milk she asked who I was, 
and what I came for at that season. When she learned that I was 
Genevese, she said she could not believe that Protestants would be 
damned, that there were among us many honest people, and that 
God was too good and just to condemn us indiscriminately. Then 
after a moment's reflection, she added, shaking her head : " But what 
is very strange is that of so many who have gone, not one should 
have returned ; I," she added with an accent of sorrow, " who have 
so deeply mourned my husband and my brothers, who have never 
ceased thinking of them, who every night implore them with the 
utmost earnestness to tell me where they are, and in what state ah ! 


surely if they still exist somewhere they would not leave me in this 
uncertainty. But perhaps," she added, " I am not worthy of this 
privilege, perhaps the pure and innocent souls of these infants " she 
looked at their cradles as she spoke " enjoy their presence and the 
happiness which has been refused me." ' [Voyages, 744.] 

De Saussure goes on to moralise as follows : 

' This curious mixture of sense and superstition, expressed forcibly 
in the energetic local dialect, had something most out of the common, 
something in the classic style, or rather in that of Shakespeare ; and 
her situation, her solitude, this frenzy of a soul distracted by grief, 
made on me an impression which will never be effaced from my 
memory.' [Voyages, 744.]. 

His holiday over, de Saussure returned to his home at Geneva 
and his academic career. 

In 1761 he stood for the Chair of Mathematics. With this 
object he gave up for the moment the study of Physics and 
Natural Science, and ' crammed ' geometry. He was, however, 
honourably defeated by a formidable rival, Louis Bertrand, who 
was to be his future opponent in the educational controversy, and 
at a later date to serve on the same committee with him in the 
revolutionary epoch. Bertrand was nine years older and already 
a member of the Academy of Sciences of Berlin. For the next 
twelve months de Saussure consoled himself by returning to the 
classics, and in particular to the Greek and Latin poets. Through- 
out his life, though primarily a man of science, he was a consistent 
supporter of the claim of the Humanities to a place in education, 
and we shall discover him reading and quoting Homer, taking 
Horace up Mont Blanc, and keeping an intimate journal in Greek. 
He found another congenial occupation in prosecuting his 
botanical studies. In 1762 he composed a treatise, Sur VEpiderme 
des Feuilles et des Petales, of which Cuvier afterwards wrote : 
' This little work in itself gave him an honourable place among 
botanists.' He dedicated it to Haller, who contributed an appre- 
ciative preface. 

De Saussure found time to attend Tronchin's lectures on 
Physiology. He also (in 1761) put in a second visit to Chamonix, 
of which we have few particulars. He relates incidentally in the 
Voyages a narrow escape he and his guide had from a stone 


avalanche which fell from the moraine of the glacier under the 
Aiguille du Midi. 

In April 1762 another Professorship became vacant at the 
Academy, that of Philosophy. The title as understood at Geneva 
was a very comprehensive one. ' At this time,' writes a late 
Librarian of the Town Library at Geneva, ' Philosophy was held 
to include Psychology, Logic, Morals, and Divinity, and also the 
general principles of the Natural Sciences, with some acquaintance 
with the views of Bacon, Descartes, and Leibnitz.' The Venerable 
Company, the Pastors and Professors of the Academy, accordingly 
petitioned the Magnificent Council, which held Geneva under a 
wide-reaching control, that the Chair might be divided. Physical 
Science, they declared, was all the fashion, Rational Philosophy 
in great danger of being neglected. They talked, as clerical 
bodies are apt to talk, of ' the poison which spreads itself every- 
where and threatens to infect the sources of public education.' 
But their proposal was obviously sound . It was clearly monstrous 
to call on a Professor of Physical Science to spend half his time 
in teaching metaphysics, while his own students were receiving 
instruction in the subjects on which he was an expert from a man 
who could have but slender qualifications for the task. It was 
equally unfortunate and probably the Venerable Company 
resented it more that a master in Metaphysics and Morals 
should be called on to devote his energies to other and more 
secular subjects. 

The eloquence of the Pastors was fruitless ; the conservative 
Senate resolved that there should be no change made at the 
coming election, but that it should be left open to consideration 
at a future date whether the steps proposed by the Venerable 
Company were desirable. This date did not arrive until 1823 ! 
Even then no satisfactory conclusion was reached. 

In 1762 three candidates for the Professorship came forward. 
Each had to produce two theses, one on Philosophy and one on 
Natural Science. De Saussure was also able to adduce as a 
qualification his botanical tract. He now wrote on the ' Principal 
Causes of Errors arising from the Qualities of the Mind ' and ' On 
Rainbows, Halos, and Parhelia.' His candidature had the in- 
fluential support of ' The Great Haller,' and he was elected by a 
majority after a contest which is said ' to have done honour to 


the Academy.' His more formidable rival, Frai^ois Mercier, had 
subsequently a creditable career as a Professor and Rector of the 

On the 13th December two dignified representatives of the 
Venerable Company presented the young Professor of twenty-two 
for confirmation in his post to the Senate or Magnificent Council 
a body composed of twenty-five grave and reverend signers, 
robed and capped with the flowing wigs to wear which was a 
privilege of the aristocracy. The usual picturesque formalities 
having been duly observed and the matter voted on both by 
acclamation and ballot, de Saussure was introduced and took the 
customary oath. 

De Saussure's lectures have most of them perished, but 
fortunately enough material has been preserved among the papers 
of two of his pupils to enable us to form a fair idea of his philo- 
sophical position. Of his attitude towards physical inquiry, the 
Voyages, and above all the list of Agenda appended to their last 
volume, supply the best illustration. More will be said on these 
topics when we come to sum up his general character and position 
as an observer and philosopher. 

De Saussure lectured in French on Physics one year, and the 
next in Latin on Metaphysics. For his Inaugural Discourse, 
delivered in October 1763, the Professor chose a subject of 
practical and perennial interest, one which he was twelve years 
later to develop more fully. He writes to Haller : 

' On Friday I shall pronounce my Inaugural Discourse. I have 
taken as its subject " An Analysis of the Qualities necessary to form a 
Philosopher, and of the education to be given to children in order to 
foster or call forth such qualities." You will easily believe, Monsieur, 
that I am not going to sing the praises of the education in vogue with 
us and elsewhere, and that I do not insist on the study of Greek and 
Latin as the essential last touch in education.' 

In this matter de Saussure, himself no mean scholar, shows a 
singularly impartial mind. But let us hope that, as regards 
children (enfants is the word used), philosophy was given a re- 
stricted interpretation by the Professor of twenty-three. 

During 1762 de Saussure kept up a lively correspondence with 
Haller. The latter had, it appears, placed one of his sons in some 


commercial employ in Geneva. De Saussure bids him warn the 
youth to have nothing whatever to do with the German shopboys, 
who are in very bad repute owing to their conduct having been so 
disorderly that they have had to be publicly reprimanded. In 
April 1763 he writes to Haller a long memoir of twelve pages, 
entering in much medical detail into his mother's symptoms, 
and asking for a formal opinion. The patient, it seems, had again 
lost confidence in the favourite doctor of Geneva. No doubt she 
had many friends to suggest the expediency of taking other 
advice. Tronchin's treatment, which Madame de Saussure had 
been under for seven years, had been, her son writes, entirely 
palliative. Would not Haller come to her aid ? If he thought 
badly of her case, would he be good enough to say so in a private 
note, and not in a formal opinion, so that the patient might not be 
alarmed. The whole letter bears witness to the affection and 
tender solicitude of a devoted son. Nothing, however, came of it, 
as Madame de Saussure was unable to make the journey to Berne 
which Haller suggested, and Tronchin was again called in. 

His Professorship and his mother's health were not, however, 
de Saussure's only interests in the autumn of 1763. A still more 
absorbing one had come into his life. He was in love. The object 
of his affections was a girl of seventeen, Mile. Albertine Amelie 
Boissier, the eldest of three sisters, who were the great heiresses 
of the city, and also, says Senebier, ' conspicuous in the society of 
Geneva by their charms both of mind and person.' Looking at 
the ages of the young ladies the eldest was not yet eighteen the 
worthy Senebier would appear to be here somewhat anticipating 
events. They were the only surviving children of Jean Jacques 
Andre Boissier, described to Haller by his future son-in-law as 
' of a family not ancient, but wealthy and esteemed.' The Boissiers 
were prosperous bankers, and had a London house and English 
connections. Madame Boissier was the only daughter of a well- 
known professor and pastor, Ami Lullin (1695- 1756), himself the son 
of a prosperous banker, Jean Antoine Lullin, whose wealth he had 
inherited. It was therefore to his wife's parents that de Saussure 
owed not only most of his means, but the townhouse, counted the 
finest in Geneva, in which he spent a great part of his life. It was 
built according to the designs of Abeille, a celebrated architect of his 
day, and completed in 1707. It now remains quite unaltered and 


is still in the possession of the family. A stone mansion of admir- 
able proportions and dignified elevation, it occupies an excellent 
site fronting, but standing back from, the Rue de la Cit6, the 
steep street that leads from the Rhone to the Upper Town. 
The entrance is through a lodge and courtyard. At the back 
a broad terrace overlooks the ramparts, the Corraterie, and the 
meadows of Plainpalais, and commands a view extending to the 
distant Jura and the Perte du Rhone. The corner of this terrace 
is occupied by a low pavilion used by de Saussure as a con- 
venient laboratory and storehouse . According to tradition, Lullin 
never lived to cross his threshold or to climb his stately staircase. 
The story runs that the banker's coach broke down on his return 
from a long absence in Paris, and that in consequence he arrived 
so late that the city gates, always closed half an hour after sunset, 
were already shut. Forced to sleep at the inn outside the walls, 
he was suddenly taken ill and died before morning. 

Mile. Boissier's relatives desired that no formal engagement 
should take place till she was twenty. It was not till 1764 that 
de Saussure felt himself free to announce his approaching marriage 
to his friend at Roche. This is the description he gives of his 
betrothed in a letter to Haller : 

' She has the most beautiful, tender, and generous disposition ; 
devoted to her duty, she is made to render happy the man who appre- 
ciates her worth. Add a mind cultivated, sensitive, sympathetic, a 
gentle gaiety, a face in which all these qualities are expressed, a pleas- 
ing figure.' 

We are able to put the young lady's portrait of herself 
beside that given by her lover. Here are two extracts from 
her private diary : 

' I am fifteen and a half : I am plain, but not painfully so. Some 
people find an attraction in my air of gentleness and kindness. Am I 
clever ? No : still I am not actually stupid. My excessive nervous- 
ness keeps me from talking as much as I might. I am rather disposed 
to languor than to too much vivacity. I do not care for fashionable 
society, and, to put it shortly, idleness is my favourite passion, and 
one I ought to try to conquer. It often interferes with my studies, 
to which, however, I am devoted. Finally, the best part of me is 
my heart, which will perhaps prove my misfortune. Its sensibility is 
so excessive, it agitates itself so often about nothing, that my reason 

^hL. Jj. 

nf 18 

.^Z . .>6. fir < ^ 



really ought to control it. I trust, please God, I shall never love any 
object unworthy of my affection, but in those I love I disquiet myself 
over their faults and failings ; there are, however, few for whom I 
feel this kind of affection, and I believe that I am quick in recognising 
objects worthy of it.' 

Some three years later we find this discriminating young 
heiress reviewing her suitors and considering her settlement in 
life in a very independent spirit. It is evident that marriages at 
Geneva were not, as in France, wholly matters of family arrange- 
ment, and that those chiefly concerned enjoyed much liberty of 
choice : 

' I have not,' writes Mile. Boissier, ' seen anyone among the suitors 
brought forward this year who could induce me to change my state. 
All the same, my marriage has been constantly discussed : I am on 
the tapis, my friends send me congratulations. I shall be more cross- 
examined than ever next Monday, as the subject is a cavalier by 
whom some of my friends would have been pleased to be accorded the 
preference he has shown me which I could do without. Mama (her 
grandmother) is very strongly in his favour. He is of high character 
and a savant, and I am surprised he has made so little progress in a 
heart so easily touched by merit as mine. I am very young, in no 
hurry, very happy, and little influenced by worldly considerations or 
the glamour of fashion.' 

The diary concludes abruptly without any record of the final 
success of the savant in touching the heart of its writer. 

Of de Saussure himself at this period we have a companion 
portrait from the pen of Gray's Swiss friend, Charles Victor de 

' At twenty-four de Saussure came out, so to speak, from the 
maternal lap to enter on the world. He was already without know- 
ing it a great savant, witty, with a particular touch of naivetd which 
could not fail to please, and though he was not easily embarrassed, 
he almost invariably blushed when spoken to by a girl or a young 

The fortunate couple had to wait for two and a half years. 
Meantime, they were able to meet, de Saussure writes, ' at least 
once a week,' yet the lover's impatience and nervousness rendered 
him, according to his biographer, ' stormy and restless .' Philosophy 
apparently not proving a sufficient anodyne for love, he turned for 


relief to logic, in which he gave a successful course of lectures. In 
March of the year 1764 he found a further distraction in a third 
excursion to Chamonix, where he saw the landscape under snow and 
studied the glaciers in a new aspect. He notes that in the valley 
the snow was so hard that laden mules did not break the surface, 
and so deep that the palings between the fields were buried. 
This, however, can only have been the case at the head of the 
valley, as at Chamonix there was only eighteen inches. De 
Saussure's remarks on the aspect of the scenery in its winter garb 
are interesting. He wrote : 

' It was more wonderful than pleasing. The uniformity of white 
surfaces of enormous extent reaching from the tops of the mountains 
to the bottom of the valley, broken only by a few rocks where cliffs 
could not hold the snow, by forests of a dull grey hue, and by the Arve, 
which wound like a dark thread through the centre of the picture ; 
this combination, lit by the sun, had, in its grandeur and its dazzling 
purity, an element of death and infinite sadness. The glaciers, which 
so well ornament the landscape when their background is a beautiful 
green, made no effect in the middle of all this white, although when 
near at hand the ice-pyramids, whose sides remained bare, shone 
like emeralds under the fresh and white snow that capped their tops.' 
[Voyages, 730.] 

De Saussure added that his excursion had proved to him three 
things the formation of glaciers by the melting and refreezing of 
snow, their forward motion, and the permanence of the streams 
that issue from them. 1 

Three months later de Saussure gave an audience at the 

1 It may be convenient to take this opportunity to refer to recent observations 
os to the true origin of glacial streams in winter. 

Up to the present time it has been generally believed that the winter outflow, 
the perfectly clear water issuing at that season from the foot of the glacier, is the 
result of a continuous melting of the ice caused by the warmth of the earth. It 
seems strange that the fountains which break out from under the snow on bare 
slopes in winter, when all else is frozen, did not suggest either to de Saussure or 
to any of his scientific successors that the permanence of the glacial streams might 
be due to similar sources in the bed of the glacier. This somewhat obvious fact 
was not recognised until, in 1904, 1 pointed it out in an address to the Geographical 
Section of the British Association at Cambridge. It was subsequently observed 
independently by Professor Collet, formerly director of the Service des Eaux of 
the Swiss Government, and now Professor of Geology in the University of Geneva. 
Professor Collet has verified my observation and placed the matter beyond doubt 
by a careful analysis of the waters issuing from the ice at different seasons of the 
year. (The Academy became a University under Napoleon.) 


Academy the fruit of his experiences in his three first visits to 
Chamonix in a lecture entitled, ' A Description of the Glaciers of 
Savoy, and a Theory of their Formation.' In November he sent 
the MS. to Haller and asked for his advice as to whether it was 
worth publishing, but though Haller approved, publication seems to 
have been postponed. The material, no doubt, furnished the basis 
of the chapter ' Des Glaciers en general ' subsequently inserted 
in the Voyages. We recognise in it the first signs of a shift in the 
direction of de Saussure's scientific aims. Henceforth, though by 
no means off with botany, geology, regarded as the key to the 
history of our planet, becomes the first object of his pursuit and 
study. His letters to Haller at this time indicate the change. 
He does his best to soften to the great botanist the fact that 
collecting rare plants has ceased to be his principal aim. He 
writes : 

' I am very far from thinking of giving up botany ; plants shall 
fail me before I will fail them. I meditate some grandes courses on the 
Alps for next summer. The active life of a mountain naturalist has 
a singular attraction for me. Plants, minerals, strange animals, seem 
to grow under one's feet. The more general physical phenomena are 
alone sufficient to attract observers. The purity of the air, the agree- 
able temperature, the beauty of the landscape, would be enough to 
induce me to frequent the mountains.' 

His point of view is enlarging ; a special study of mosses, he 
writes, may have to wait, and the flora of Chamonix, he repeats, 
is deplorably poor. 

The following quotation from the anonymous journal of a 
visitor to Chamonix at this date (1764) bears witness to the 
reputation de Saussure had already attained. 

' Professor de Saussure is not one of those who rely on the report 
of others. Young and eager to learn, laborious and acute, he has 
visited the district three times, twice in the summer, and lastly in 
March, not without much fatigue and risk. His eager curiosity has 
placed him in a position to satisfy ours, and we reap tranquilly the 
fruit of his labours.' l 

De Saussure's marriage took place in the Chapel of the 
Hospital on the 12th May 1765. Mile. Boissier's sister, Jeanne 
Fran9oise, was married at the same time and place to Jean 

1 Published by M. Henri Ferrand in the Revue Alpine, 1912, pp. 103-6. 



Alphonse Turrettini, a member of an old family of Italian origin. 
De Saussure, by all accounts the most amiable of men in private 
life, entered warmly into the larger family circle now open to him. 
In the words of the sentimental Senebier, ' His expansive heart was 
not too narrow for the new relations which his marriage provided 
him ; he cherished with tenderness the amiable sisters of his wife, 
who like her united bodily graces to the charms of the mind, 
education, and true virtue.' The relatively early deaths of his 
two brothers-in-law, combined with the fact that the country-house 
at Genthod remained the joint property and summer residence of 
the three sisters, led to the continuance of a singularly intimate 
and affectionate relationship of which we shall come across fre- 
quent indications in de Saussure 's correspondence. 

At this point de Saussure 's biographer interpolates an anecdote 
suited to the sentiment of the day in order to illustrate his hero's 
kindness of heart. A few days after the wedding, news came 
to Geneva that his foster-brother had been arrested as a deserter 
at La Roche sur Foron in Faucigny, and was in danger of being 
shot ; de Saussure at once rushed off to the spot and was successful 
in obtaining a commutation of the sentence. On this Senebier 
exclaims : ' A quoi serviraient le genie et le savoir s'ils fletrissaient 
la sensibilite ? H est plus utile qu'on ne croit de peindre le cceur 
d'un observateur avant de raconter ses travaux.' The 'sensi- 
bility ' of the biographer is somewhat of a trial to the modern 
reader, and would not, I fancy, have been congenial to his 
subject ! 

His marriage put de Saussure and his bride to a test in most 
cases incidental to that relationship in life in an unusually severe 
form. It was an anxious matter to marry a youth who had 
already avowed a passion for mountains, and a special devotion to 
the inaccessible Monts Maudits, who had even gone further, and 
plotted ways and means for conquering their snows. This am- 
bition of de Saussure was, we are told by contemporaries, for years 
a constant source of uneasiness to his family. His wife in 
particular seems to have shown from the first, and never to have 
wholly overcome, a very natural anxiety. But his resolutions 
once formed were not easily set aside. He made up his mind, 
he tells us, to make every year an Alpine tour, and he did his 
best, while his health permitted, to carry out this intention. At 


this period he had Mont Blanc very much on the brain. Here 
is his confession in his own words : 

' It became for me a sort of illness. My eyes could not encounter 
this mountain, which one sees from so many spots in our neighbourhood, 
without my being seized with a pang.' [Voyages, 2023.] 

But if de Saussure was not to be diverted from the objects he had 
set before him, the survival of many of his letters of a later date 
enables us to appreciate with what tenderness he strove to soothe 
his wife's feelings. He writes : 

' I should be in despair if I thought that you did not love me too 
much to look on my travels with indifference. Your affection makes, 
I must confess, the whole happiness of my life. I could wish I 
swear to you to make to it a complete sacrifice, but how can I re- 
nounce a vocation which absorbs me, and thus abandon my career 
in the middle ? I assure you that I have done all that is humanly 
in my power to shorten my journey without spoiling it. For there 
would be no lack of people to say, " Why did not he see that ? " " Why 
did not he do this ? " And how could I venture to reply to my 
critics, " It was in order sooner to rejoin my wife" ? ' 

Again he replies to some badinage on her part : 

' I assure you I do not trouble myself much about mes belles. 
You, my children, my parents, are about the only objects that distract 
me from my philosophical contemplations. I include your sisters, to 
whom I am most sincerely attached.' 

On a later occasion (in 1783), in reply to some protest on her 
part, he urges the claims of science in a lighter vein : 

' In this Valle Leventina, which was new to me, I have made a 
number of observations of the greatest importance to me and quite 
beyond my hopes, but this is not what will interest you. You would 
like better God pardon me to see me as fat as a canon, asleep all 
day in the chimney corner after a good dinner, than to see me gain 
immortal fame by the most sublime discoveries at the cost of a few 
ounces of weight and several weeks of absence. If I make these 
journeys despite the uneasiness they cause you, it is because I regard 
it as an engagement of honour, that I feel myself bound to extend 
my knowledge on the subjects in question, and, as far as it depends on 
myself, to make my works perfect. I say to myself, "As an officer 
goes to the assault when it is sounded, as a merchant goes to the Fair 


on its day, so I ought to go to the mountains when I stand in need 
of observations." For how many years this feeling will last I cannot 
tell, but rest assured, my dear angel I tell you this to remove the 
doubt you express in your letter that when I have to give up you 
will not find me yawning in our daily life and sighing after the moun- 
tains. This long solitude does not give one a presentable figure. I see 
as I write my travelling coat hanging on its peg ; it has the look of a 
clown, of a peasant, which makes me die of laughter : never would the 
elegant Minette confess herself the sister-in-law of a man who wore 
such a garment ; yet under it is a heart that loves her and would 
assuredly make for her and her sisters far greater sacrifices than the 
wearers of the most fashionable waistcoats of Versailles.' 

His wife was not alone in her remonstrances. At another 
moment Bonnet, the anxious uncle, is ready with a suitable 
caution. ' Take care of your health, above all, run no risks ; you 
are now the head of a household, you are no longer your own 
property, you belong to your family, to your parents, and your 
friends. Never, then, put yourself in the case of becoming a 
martyr of natural science.' 

The argument may sound familiar to modern mountaineers, to 
some of whom it has been addressed, possibly with more reason. 
Yet, despite her frequent remonstrances, Madame de Saussure 
does not seem to have been given any serious ground for com- 
plaint. Her husband's journeys in the Pennine or Bernese Alps 
seldom went beyond the limits of a few weeks, and on his longer 
tours she was, as a rule, his companion. 

For the moment, however, it was physiological rather than 
Alpine studies that occupied the young husband's time. In 
September 1765, he is attacking deep problems. He writes to 
Bonnet : 

' I find very great difficulties in fixing the exact limit of animal 
life. I recognise clearly the movements of a We which is in appearance 
spontaneous, but since it appears to pass by insensible degrees from 
this movement to true life, I trace the similarity but fail to fix the 
interval. I wish, however, to go as far as my powers can take me. 
The further I advance, the better I see that as you, sir, used to say, 
one must embrace little in order to grasp firmly.' 

Here speaks the nephew of Bonnet. It was through his uncle 
that de Saussure was brought into correspondence and personal 


relations i with the celebrated naturalist, Spallanzani, who was 
prosecuting at Pa via his researches into the animalcules of infusoria 
and their modes of reproduction, and at a later date de Saussure 
made discoveries that led Spallanzani to congratulate Bonnet on 
there being another great naturalist in the world. 

De Saussure was shortly to be occupied with a domestic and 
less abstruse problem. His first child, a daughter, was born in 
1766, and christened Albertine Andrienne. 2 The young husband 
writes to inform Haller that he has become a father. 

' You will easily understand, sensible as you are, monsieur, that 
this event has distracted me somewhat from my ordinary occupations. 
My distraction has been increased owing to my reading and observa- 
tions having revealed to me a prodigious number of faults in the 
ordinary way of treating and dressing new-born infants, and I have 
been obliged to carry out myself, or at least to have carried out in my 
presence, all that was not according to custom ! ' 

A man must be bold indeed to have the courage of his opinions 
in such circumstances, and de Saussure had to face a grandmother- 
in-law ! This happy event was not the only interruption in his 
studies about this time. In October his father-in-law, M. Boissier, 
was found drowned in the Rhone . The evidence given at the inquest 
by Dr. Turton, a friend of the family, and afterwards physician to 
George in., who was at Geneva at the time, showed that he had 
committed suicide in an access of the acute melancholia for which, 
writing from Paris only two days before M. Boissier's death, Dr. 
Tronchin had advised change of scene as indispensable. The 
young couple were, no doubt, living with him at the time, in the 
great townhouse in the Rue de la Cite. De Saussure, writing to 
Haller, describes the calamity with much feeling : 

' I have had the misfortune to lose my father-in-law by a violent 
death while still in the prime of his life. I was deeply attached to him ; 
he was a man of intelligence, a wise counsellor, a good friend and 
father and citizen, who made the happiness of his family, who had 

1 De Saussure visited Spallanzani at Pa via in 1770. (See post.) 

2 By her marriage to Jacques Necker, a nephew of the statesman and a 
cousin of Madame de Stael, she became known in after life as Madame Necker-de 
Saussure. She inherited her father's tastes, assisted him at times by working 
out his observations, and followed in his footsteps in composing the work on 
education by which she is known to posterity. (See chap, xv.) 


filled several public offices with distinction, and would have succeeded 
to others. I have had to console myself, my wife, who was in the 
deepest affliction, and her sisters, rendered orphans by this death. 
We have passed these last ten or twelve days in the saddest way. 
They seem to have lasted twelve months.' 

He adds : 

' I have observed on this occasion the great resource that crushed 
and deeply grieved souls find in religion. It is the surest channel 
through which consolation can be bestowed, it is from it alone that 
arguments can be drawn for submitting with patience and resignation 
to misfortune, and my detestation of those who endeavour to deprive 
men of this precious refuge has been redoubled.' 

This is one of the few occasions on which de Saussure breaks 
his reserve on religious matters. His philosophical lectures, 
while giving little positive indication of the writer's doctrinal 
beliefs and sympathies, indicate a similar attitude of resolute 
opposition to the materialism of the day. 

Meanwhile the young Professor's time was, we gather from 
his correspondence, fully occupied. In addition to the work of 
his double Professorship, he was, in 1766, called on to act as 
Secretary of the Venerable Company of Pastors, which, amongst 
other duties, practically controlled the Academy. His mind was 
further diverted, somewhat unwillingly perhaps, from his travels 
and his scientific studies by a prolonged political correspondence 
with his friend Haller. This will be better postponed to a sub- 
sequent chapter. 

Marriage had naturally led to a sensible pause in de Saussure 's 
visits to the mountains. The summer of 1765 was a blank in 
his Alpine record. In 1766 we read only of an ascent of the Mole, 
and a short excursion to Samoens and Sixt. It was not till July 
1767 that he resumed his serious travels by a tour of Mont Blanc 
with two friends, Jean Louis Pictet l and Fra^ois Jalabert. 
Pictet was to provide a map, and Jalabert illustrations. The 
results were combined with those of earlier and later expeditions 
in the second volume of the Voyages. This journey, like all de 
Saussure 's Alpine expeditions, was very carefully planned. He at 
first proposed to start from the Mont Cenis and traverse to Val 

1 Pictet the Siberian traveller, not de Saussure's pupil and successor in his 


d'Aosta, possibly by the Col d'Iseran, but gave this up for the tour 
of Mont Blanc. De Saussure was already ambitious to enlarge 
his article on glaciers and to make it the foundation of a work 
that might supplement or supersede Griiner's Eisgebirge, which 
touched but slightly on the glaciers of Savoy. But though he and 
his friend Lord Stanhope, then residing at Geneva, were both hard 
at work learning German, he could not yet read it easily. So he 
wrote to Haller in May 1767 to inquire if Griiner's treatment of 
his subject was adequate from the local and scientific points of 
view, and to ask for a German dictionary. In August he further 
inquired if good German would be of any use where ' the Swiss 
idiom ' prevailed ! The reply encouraged him to carry out both 
his projected tour and his literary undertaking. 

In the middle of July he flew to the mountains, and left behind 
him the troubles and quarrels of Genevese politicians. It was his 
fourth visit to Chamonix. His programme is set out in a letter 
to Haller : 

' I shall make experiments on heat and cold, on the weight of the 
atmosphere, on electricity, on the magnet, and on the modes of repro- 
duction of animals, besides giving my greatest attention to natural 
history. I should like to bring back something to give you pleasure.' 

He was still eager to collect and add to the alpine flora. But 
geology was now his main object. He writes to Haller : ' I am 
going to work for you and myself.' 

De Saussure had not long to wait to study electric phenomena. 
The tour began with an ascent de Saussure's third of the 
Brevent. He writes to Haller from the chalets of Planpra, well 
known to modern tourists : ' It is with singular pleasure I give 
you news of a journey undertaken under your auspices.' He 
goes on to relate how, while on the top of the BreVent with his 
friends, his ' guides and domestics,' Pictet, on lifting a finger to 
point out one of the opposite peaks, heard a very lively whistling 
like that of an electric conductor (aigrette). 

* We all, and then our guides and domestics, who thought it great 
fun, did the same, with a like result, hearing from time to time the 
crackle of little sparks which slightly pricked our fingers. M. Jalabert, 
who had a hat trimmed with gold lace, heard all round its edge a 
very distinct and almost alarming noise.' 

Bonnet refers to this incident in a note to Haller : 

' Our great Alpinier (sic) l has told you something of his trip to 
the glaciers. He had a narrow escape of being beatified you will 
guess I refer to his electrification hi the clouds. The adventure is 
unique, and could not have been foreseen.' 

Most mountaineers nowadays have met with similar experiences. 
De Saussure occupied a wet morning in the chalet in 
writing to his wife, who was then expecting her second child, 
born in the following October. His conscience was obviously 
a little uneasy at having left her in the circumstances, 
and he did his best to console her for his absence by a letter 
inspired by the fondest affection, in which he first pictures her 
occupied with her year -old baby and her thoughts of her hus- 
band, while the elders talk politics, and then describes his own 
surroundings : 

' What a spectacle would present itself to my Albertine how she 
would enjoy its surprising novelty ! She would make fun of me ; she 
would press the mosses I had already pressed and would repeat 
" Hyposum siccatum " ! How she would laugh if she could see the three 
of us at this moment in a row on the straw of our chalet, making the 
most of the little light that comes through the gap left by a missing 
plank in our hovel, each writing on his knees to the person dearest to 
him. She would cast an eye on our three servants and four guides 
sitting round a fire built against the wall without any chimney. On 
this fire is a huge cauldron full of milk being boiled to make cheese ; 
beside it stands a tall shepherd, continually stirring the milk with a 
big ladle and burying his naked white arms in the depths of the 
cauldron. Turning her head, she would see through a hole in the wall 
a huge mass of ice hi the middle of a wood and a pasture covered with 
all sorts of flowers. What would strike her most by its oddity is a 
goat which, in its effort to find shelter from the rain, has climbed to 
the hole which serves us as a window and throws the shadow of its 
beard and horns across my paper.' 

De Saussure, one notes, is careful to leave out, no doubt as 
too alarming, the adventure with lightning just recorded. 

Before leaving Chamonix the travellers made an expedition 
to the Mer de Glace, and recognised that the interior of the chain 

1 This form, which has been superseded by Alpiniste, was doubtless formed 
by analogy to ' Crystallier,' used of the Chamonix crystal-seekers. 


was a vast reservoir, with plateaux and valleys filled with snow- 
fields which gave birth, both towards Savoy and Italy, to glaciers 
of every size and dimension. Above and around the snows towered 
apparently inaccessible granite peaks, split and torn by weather, 
from which blocks were continually falling. 

From the point of view of botany de Saussure once more ex- 
presses his disappointment with Chamonix. 

' The flora of the district,' he writes, ' is intolerably monotonous. 
I do not know whether it is the exposure, or the soil, or the neigh- 
bourhood of the glaciers, but it is always the same thing, and often 
nothing but bare rocks.' 

He does not seem to have explored on this or on any of his later 
tours the sunward slopes under the Aiguille de Varens, where the 
flora, favoured by a limestone soil, is of exceptional beauty. 

We note that the visitors to Savoy of the eighteenth century 
realised that the base of a great mountain is not the best point from 
which to appreciate its proportions. The aspects of Mont Blanc 
they most frequently admired and represented were those from the 
neighbourhood of Sallanches, which the modern tourist hurries 
past in a train. In this respect they showed more discrimination 
than their successors. But the spots from which the most perfect 
views of Mont Blanc may be gained have up to this day remained 
unknown and un visited. From the alps above Passy and Servoz 
the great mountain is seen from top to base framed in the ravine 
of the Arve. Here nature has risen to the occasion by providing 
that rarity in the Alps, an exquisitely wooded foreground for a 
great snow mountain. Above the vineyards of Passy terraced 
lawns, smooth enough to serve as cricket-grounds, are watered 
by clear sparkling brooks and encircled by mossy groves of 
beech and ash. Higher still in the heart of this wilderness, and 
approached by tracks known to few, a solitary pool hides among 
the pinewoods and reflects in its still waters the crowning snows 
of Mont Blanc, completing a picture worthy of a great painter or 
poet. May it be long before these ' sedes discretae piorum ' are 
invaded by the polluting multitude ! 

De Saussure now set out on his first tour of Mont Blanc. He 
dwells on the desolation and danger in bad weather of the Bon- 
homme, where one of his mules executed several somersaults on 


the brink of a precipice, fortunately without breaking the instru- 
ments it carried. The gloomy situation of "the huts of Chapieu 
so much affected the Genevese servants who accompanied the 
party that they laid a plot to force him to give up the Col de la 
Seigne and go round by the Little St. Bernard. He admired the 
splendid view through the pine stems of the precipices of Mont 
Blanc as he passed the foot of the Brenva Glacier. At Courmayeur, 
where he found a good inn and bathing guests, he would have 
liked to spend more time, but his companions were impatient, 
an incident which led him to reflect on the advantages for a 
student of solitary travel. The party returned by the Great 
St. Bernard to Martigny and the Lake of Geneva. 

Two months later, in October 1767, de Saussure's elder 
son, Nicolas Theodore, destined to be his father's companion 
and the sharer of his scientific tastes, was born. 

THE GRAND TOUR (1768-69) 

IN 1768 de Saussure wisely determined that it was time both to 
escape from the political crisis at Geneva and to give the Alps 
a rest. He made up his mind to show his young wife the world, 
and himself to study men as well as mountains . Having obtained 
leave of absence from his duties at the Academy, he accordingly 
set out on February 3rd with his wife, the Turrettinis, and his 
unmarried sister-in-law (whom he constantly alludes to as ' the 
charming Minette ') for Paris. The party lodged at the Hotel 
de la Paix in the Rue Richelieu, where Fra^ois Tronchin, a son 
of the doctor, had retained for them a sumptuous apartment full 
of tapestries and fine furniture with a vast salon hung with 
mirrors, of all of which he sent to Geneva a full and alluring 
inventory. 1 

Senebier in his Life gives the following summary of de Saussure's 
stay in Paris : 

' From the moment of his arrival he devoted all his mornings to 
work : he followed the private courses of Petit, Rouelle, and Jussieu ; 2 
he surprised those great men by the precision of his intellect and the 
originality of his views. Conchology was then the fashion ; de Saussure 
had not yet occupied himself with it, but he quickly became an expert, 
and pointed out to more than one amateur rare objects in his collec- 
tion which he had not recognised.' 

De Saussure was not content to use his time in Paris solely 
in gaining knowledge. He was curious to study the society of 

1 To be distinguished from Frai^ois Tronchin, an amateur and collector who 
made himself useful to Voltaire in business matters. (See Le Conseiller F. 
Tronchin et ses amis Voltaire, Diderot, Grimm, par Henri Tronchin, Paris, 

2 Pierre Petit (1728-1794), ' Geographe du Roi,' and student of physics ; 
G. F. Rouelle (1705-1770), Professor of Chemistry at the Jardin des Plantes ; 
B. de Jussieu (1699-1774), for many years ' demonstrates ' at the Jardin du Roi 
a leading botanist. 



the great city, and (continues Senebier) ' in the evening in the 
gay world he had the same success he had had in the morning 
with the savants.' 

De Saussure's own impressions of Paris, as recorded in his 
numerous letters and private journal, are more definite and vivid ; 
they have also something of the cruelty of youth. 

' In general,' he writes, ' I like the savants of Paris better than its 
beaux esprits ; the latter are insupportably vain, have no respect for 
things human or divine, calumniate pitilessly all that is in the opposite 
camp, and exercise in conversation an intolerable despotism. The 
savants, on the other hand, at least those I have met, are as modest 
as it is possible to be for Frenchmen ! Both classes spend but little 
time in their studies, and are consequently shallow. Pleasure, female 
society, and, above all, the passion of frequenting and paying court to 
the great, absorb the best part of their time. Thus they have often 
the satisfaction of making discoveries owing to their ignorance of those 
that have been already made ! ' 

The young Genevese Professor, it is clear, was by no means 
dazzled by the brilliancy of the glittering crust of Parisian life 
which twenty years later was to be shivered into fragments by the 
Great Revolution. The symptoms of the coming troubles did 
not altogether escape him. In the previous year (13th May 1767) 
he had written to Haller : 

' There is all over Europe a fermentation which aims at liberty, 
but of which the sequel in many instances must be a redoubling of 
slavery. An imperfect philosophy produces aspirations to a liberty 
without limits ; a more perfect philosophy, grounded on experience, 
will show that the tomb of liberty may be found in the cradle of 

One of de Saussure's most frequent haunts was the Jardin du 
Roi of which Buffon had long been the Director to which he 
went three times a week to study the plants. He writes to 
Bonnet : 

' I see very often Bernard de Jussieu, the father of French botanists. 
He is the living image of the serenity and peace of soul that the 
assiduous study of nature ought to give to the philosopher. He enjoys 
the most perfect old age, all his senses intact, an incomparable memory, 
a sweetness, a gaiety, an unrivalled amenity of character adorn in 

THE GRAND TOUR (1768-69) 93 

him the deepest and widest learning. Without ever mixing himself in 
the intrigues of the Academy, he is loved and respected by all the 
academicians ; always the same, always affable, always ready to 
instruct, he expresses his views with the noble assurance that springs 
from deep study and is far from either the insolence of pride, or the 
false pretence of an affected modesty. If he had your imagination, 
my dear uncle, he would be you.' 

Next to Jussieu, de Saussure saw most of Buffon, who was then 
at the height of his reputation, the most celebrated man of science 
of his day. Nevertheless, in writing to his correspondents, the 
young Genevese ventured on very critical appreciations of the 
author of the Epoques de la Nature. To his mother he writes : 

' It was the greatest pleasure for me to talk to him. He spoke 
coldly but politely of M. Bonnet, and I must confess in secret that to 
win his favour I let him see that I do not always agree with my dear 
uncle. M. de Buffon is tall and stout ; he has a countenance at first 
sight dull and heavy, but which becomes animated and full of life and 
expression when he talks. He is polite and suffers contradiction 
patiently a very rare quality here and he knows how to discuss the 
most deep and learned matters without using long words. We have 
had several interesting conversations on general physics. He asked 
for an abstract of my experiments on the heat of the sun, which I 
gave him. He is bold in his speculations, but he sustains them with 
force and genius : his conversation instructs me and gives me en- 
thusiasm and courage.' 

At a later date de Saussure writes in a different tone : 

' I have often had occasion to speak of M. de Buffon with members 
of the Academy. They do justice to the beauty of his style, but they 
think nothing of him as a man of science : they look on him neither 
as a physicist, nor a geometrician, nor a naturalist. His observations 
they account very inexact and his systems visionary. Perhaps jealousy 
enters into their judgment. M. de Buffon has, no doubt, excited it 
by his brilliancy : but it is certain his character also arouses hostility ; 
he is severe in his criticisms, despotic in his opinions, and very exacting 
in his friendships. In youth he had a satirical disposition that made 
him very formidable.' 

De Saussure, later in life, maintained this unfavourable view 
of Buffon's claims as a savant, characterising him as ' more of an 
orator than a naturalist.' 


Here is another character : 

' M. de Bomare, the author of the Dictionary, 1 if not a miracle 
like M. de Jussieu, is certainly the best man in the world. He is small, 
fat, pink and white, somewhat a victim to nerves ; a grocer by trade, 
but his wife keeps the shop. He has a pretty cabinet of natural 
history, which one reaches through the shop (where Madame Bomare 
sells dried figs and raisins), is profound in mineralogy, but a little 
superficial in all the rest.' 

To his mother de Saussure sent a lively social sketch : 
' A pretty new opera has been brought out called Les Moissonneurs, 
in which there is a song that runs : " Argent, argent, maitre du 
monde, tu regnes sur tous les etats." It is here [in Paris] above all 
that one realises the truth of the song, and on this account the place 
is not very agreeable for folk like us who are crushed between the 
high nobility and the financiers. Rich young men like the Lullins 
[the Genevese bankers, relations of Madame de Saussure] or birds of 
passage like ourselves can face the situation, but people of moderate 
fortune (and I call moderate anything under 60,000 livres de rente), 
who came to settle here would suffer constant inconveniences, unless 
they were wise enough to live on exactly the same scale as those of 
similar fortune ; but we Genevese who at home belong to the best set 
are apt to think ourselves made to hold our own with the best else- 
where, and have often occasion to regret it. The son of your neigh- 
bour, who could never have anticipated this, is beginning to realise 
it. He spent yesterday, as I do often, part of the afternoon at Mme. 
la Duchesse d'Enville's, who receives at that hour all that is most dis- 
tinguished in the kingdom. He confessed to me that he felt so 
small that he grew almost ashamed of the room he took on his chair. 
These people combine with the greatest politeness a tone and manners 
which naturally, at first meeting, create an impression. As for me, I 
am pretty well seasoned. But enough moralising : still this is a place 
for moralising, and it is one of the principal gains of this kind of journey. 
One sees so many strange sights, so many originals of every sort, so 
many follies of every variety, that one is perforce drawn to reflection. 
Where do you think these reflections carry me ? To you, my good 
mother, to the good education you gave me. I find continual occasion 
to apply the excellent lessons you gave me on the world and men, and 
then I regret that you are not planted invisibly on one of these gilded 
sofas to see what occupies me and to talk it over with me.' 

1 A Dictionary of Natural History. Valmont de Bomare was a considerable 
traveller, who visited most parts of Europe, Lapland, and Iceland in the employ 
of his Government, and made large collections. 

THE GRAND TOUR (1768-69) 95 

Of his wife, de Saussure writes : 

' My dear companion goes with me almost everywhere ; often she 
seizes things that escape me. Everyone is charmed to see a young 
wife accompany her husband on his travels, and share his occupations 
and his studies. She bears without any difficulty the fatigue and 
the little discomforts inseparable from travel ; always gay, always 
ready, she was destined to make my happiness.' 

He recounts her social successes, her manners, free equally 
from timidity or affectation, her tact in talking always at the 
right moment and to the point. ' I wish,' he adds, ' some of our 
mincing coquettes could come here ; they would realise that their 
style is lower middle -class, and even the worse sort of that.' 

Of the impression made by the three young Genevese ladies 
in the Paris salons we find an independent record in a letter 
written to de Saussure early in 1769 by the eloquent lawyer 
Loiseau de Mauleon, a friend of Voltaire, and remembered as the 
defender of the Galas. 1 The writer thanks de Saussure for 
sympathy on his mother's death, and then goes on to refer to the 
' quatre amies de 1'Hotel de la Paix.' Translation would here 
take away the charm of the original French. 

' Mes seules distractions sont de me rappeler cet extreme don de 
plaire que possede si parfaitement Madame Turrettin, 2 dont la beaute, 
1'esprit, la parole et la grace sont tellement d'accord et font un tout 
si exquis que de ma vie je n'y ay vu femme plus aimable. Je n'oublieray 
jamais non plus ce caractere si noble, si distingue, si rare de Madame 
Tronchin. 3 Je le trouvois sur sa physionomie, sur son maintien, sur 
son silence meme ; je 1'admirois avec un respect tendre. Elle m'a 
laisse des traces qui ne s'aneantiront qu'avec moy. Sa destinee me 
sera toujours chere. Et si quelque chose pouvoit jamais adoucir 
l'amertume des maux que j 'endure, dites luy, je vous prie, mon cher 
ami, que ce seroit le bonheur dont on m'assure que son nouvel etablisse- 
ment la fait jouir. Dites aussi, si vous le voulez bien, a votre respec- 
table femme combien je suis touche de 1'amitie qu'elle m'a montree 
a son retour de Londres. J'ay souvent dit a Mademoiselle Tronchin 4 
que je me reprochois de ne luy avoir pas assez fait voir les sentimens 

1 The Nouvelle Biographic Universelle states that de Mauleon died at the age 
of forty-three from depression caused by an unrequited love affair. 

2 The Genevese of this generation omitted the final ' i ' in Italian names. 

3 Mile. Boissier, ' Minette,' shortly after her return from Paris, married a son 
of the Procureur-General, J. R. Tronchin. 

4 A daughter of Dr. Tronchin. 


dont son merite vray m'avoit penetre. Ses lumieres, ses vertus et son 
amour vous font le plus heureux des hommes. Gardez longtemps un 
si cher tresor.' 

In addition to his family letters, de Saussure's intimate journal, 
written during his stay in Paris and Holland, has fortunately been 
preserved, and it shows that during the whole period he was 
assiduous in pursuing his scientific studies, visiting the savants 
of the day, and studying botany and horticulture at Choisy le Roi 
and at the Jardin du Roi with Coste, the chemical side of geology 
with Baume, and attending lectures by Valmont de Bomare. 
With the geologist Desmarets he talked over the basalts of 
Auvergne, the character of which was at that moment the sub- 
ject of an acute controversy between Werner and the French 
geologists. If he was eager in the pursuit of knowledge the 
patrician Professor found plenty of time for pleasure, and the five 
young people went out a great deal. De Saussure's journal 
gives evidence both of his taste for society and his keen interest 
in character in both sexes, while the affectionate letters, still 
preserved, that he received in later years from several of his 
friends among the French aristocracy, both men and women, 
show that the young Genevese philosopher was at least as inter- 
esting as he was interested. 

In Mile. Tronchin, the daughter of the celebrated Dr. Tronchin, 
who had a fine apartment in the Petit Jardin of the Palais Royal, 
the party found a friend who knew the town and no doubt 
furnished them with many introductions. They frequented the 
salon of the Duchesse d'Enville and dined with the delightful 
young Due de la Rochefoucauld, destined to be one of the victims 
of the Revolution, who had visited Geneva and Chamonix 
as early as 1762. They made the acquaintance of the Due 
d'Harcourt, 'le meilleur homme du monde et de la vieille 
roche.' His brother the Marquis and his wife de Saussure 
describes as ' couple charmant, bonnes gens, simples et honnetes.' 

De Saussure reports at length the conversation at the 
d'Envilles' of the Abbe Galiani, ' an original who talked sensibly 
and cleverly on politics.' J He discussed liberty and tyranny. 

1 See Lord Morley's Diderot, vol. ii. p. 272 : ' Galiani, the antiquary, the 
scholar, the politician, the incomparable mimic, the shrewdest, wittiest, and 
gayest of men after Voltaire.' He was the author of a work with the unpromising 

THE GRAND TOUR (1768-69) 97 

He denied the existence of real liberty anywhere either law or 
princes always restricted it, and according as the restrictions 
prevented people doing the things they wanted to, they thought 
themselves free or slaves. The man who did not like to be shut 
up by a lettre de cachet felt himself badly off in France ; the 
man who wanted to keep a mistress found no liberty in Geneva. 
In England, of all European States, there was least freedom less 
even than in Turkey. Tyranny was the result of a conspiracy 
of the more intelligent against the common herd ; a single genius 
could not maintain a tyranny. 

Another pleasant evening in famous company is thus recorded : 

' Supped with Madame d'Epinay, who put us much at our ease 
with Messieurs Crommelin [the Genevese Resident in Paris] and 
Grimm ; delighted with Madame d'Epinay, who is amiable and natural. 
M. Grimm has wit and experience ; he attacks the Government of his 
country on privileges, exemptions, taxes, etc.' 

Grimm would not take de Saussure to Baron Holbach's 
because 'attacks on religion formed there the only topic of 
conversation.' The Abb Morellet, in his Memoires, confirms 
this charge : ' On y disait des choses a faire cent f ois tomber le 
tonnerre sur la maison, s'il tombait pour cela.' 

Madame Necker, now at the height of her prosperity as the 
wife of the great banker and future Minister, at first affronted her 
compatriot by receiving him somewhat coldly, and he heartily 
vowed not to repeat the visit. ' Her head,' he writes, 'is turned ; 
she frequents the great and the beaux esprits, she gives herself 
ridiculous airs, all the world laughs at her, and most of all Mile. 
Clairon, to whom, nevertheless, she makes advances because 
she is in the height of the fashion.' It would seem as if 
Madame Necker was slow to open the doors of her salon to 
the three visitors from her own lake, while the young Genevese 
patrician probably resented any appearance of airs in the 
daughter of a Swiss minister, the Mile. Curchod whom Gibbon 
had courted and then fled from. But a month later the coldness 

title of Dialogues on the Trade in Grain. Voltaire vowed that ' Plato and Moliere 
must have combined to produce a book that was as amusing as the best of 
romances and as instructive as the best of serious works.' Galiani was at one 
time a frequent correspondent of Madame Necker. (See also Le Salon de Madame 
Necker par le Comte d'Haussonville, Paris, 1888.) 



dont son merite vray m'avoit penetre. Ses lumieres, sea vertus et son 
amour vous font le plus heureux des hommes. Gardez longtemps un 
si cher tresor.' 

In addition to his family letters, de Saussure's intimate journal, 
written during his stay in Paris and Holland, has fortunately been 
preserved, and it shows that during the whole period he was 
assiduous in pursuing his scientific studies, visiting the savants 
of the day, and studying botany and horticulture at Choisy le Roi 
and at the Jardin du Roi with Coste, the chemical side of geology 
with Baume, and attending lectures by Valmont de Bomare. 
With the geologist Desmarets he talked over the basalts of 
Auvergne, the character of which was at that moment the sub- 
ject of an acute controversy between Werner and the French 
geologists. If he was eager in the pursuit of knowledge the 
patrician Professor found plenty of time for pleasure, and the five 
young people went out a great deal. De Saussure's journal 
gives evidence both of his taste for society and his keen interest 
in character in both sexes, while the affectionate letters, still 
preserved, that he received in later years from several of his 
friends among the French aristocracy, both men and women, 
show that the young Genevese philosopher was at least as inter- 
esting as he was interested. 

In Mile. Tronchin, the daughter of the celebrated Dr. Tronchin, 
who had a fine apartment in the Petit Jardin of the Palais Royal, 
the party found a friend who knew the town and no doubt 
furnished them with many introductions. They frequented the 
salon of the Duchesse d'Enville and dined with the delightful 
young Due de la Rochefoucauld, destined to be one of the victims 
of the Revolution, who had visited Geneva and Chamonix 
as early as 1762. They made the acquaintance of the Due 
d'Harcourt, 'le meilleur homme du monde et de la vieille 
roche.' His brother the Marquis and his wife de Saussure 
describes as 'couple charmant, bonnes gens, simples et honnetes.' 

De Saussure reports at length the conversation at the 
d'Envilles' of the Abbe Galiani, ' an original who talked sensibly 
and cleverly on politics.' 1 He discussed liberty and tyranny. 

1 See Lord Morley's Diderot, vol. ii. p. 272 : ' Galiani, the antiquary, the 
scholar, the politician, the incomparable mimic, the shrewdest, wittiest, and 
gayest of men after Voltaire.' He was the author of a work with the unpromising 

THE GRAND TOUR (1768-69) 97 

He denied the existence of real liberty anywhere either law or 
princes always restricted it, and according as the restrictions 
prevented people doing the things they wanted to, they thought 
themselves free or slaves. The man who did not like to be shut 
up by a lettre de cachet felt himself badly off in France ; the 
man who wanted to keep a mistress found no liberty in Geneva. 
In England, of all European States, there was least freedom less 
even than in Turkey. Tyranny was the result of a conspiracy 
of the more intelligent against the common herd ; a single genius 
could not maintain a tyranny. 

Another pleasant evening in famous company is thus recorded : 

' Supped with Madame d'Epinay, who put us much at our ease 
with Messieurs Crommelin [the Genevese Resident in Paris] and 
Grimm ; delighted with Madame d'Epinay, who is amiable and natural. 
M. Grimm has wit and experience ; he attacks the Government of his 
country on privileges, exemptions, taxes, etc.' 

Grimm would not take de Saussure to Baron Holbach's 
because 'attacks on religion formed there the only topic of 
conversation.' The Abb6 Morellet, in his Memoires, confirms 
this charge : ' On y disait des choses a faire cent f ois tomber le 
tonnerre sur la maison, s'il tombait pour cela.' 

Madame Necker, now at the height of her prosperity as the 
wife of the great banker and future Minister, at first affronted her 
compatriot by receiving him somewhat coldly, and he heartily 
vowed not to repeat the visit. ' Her head,' he writes, ' is turned ; 
she frequents the great and the beaux esprits, she gives herself 
ridiculous airs, all the world laughs at her, and most of all Mile. 
Clairon, to whom, nevertheless, she makes advances because 
she is in the height of the fashion.' It would seem as if 
Madame Necker was slow to open the doors of her salon to 
the three visitors from her own lake, while the young Genevese 
patrician probably resented any appearance of airs in the 
daughter of a Swiss minister, the Mile. Curchod whom Gibbon 
had courted and then fled from. But a month later the coldness 

title of Dialogues on the Trade in Grain. Voltaire vowed that ' Plato and Moliere 
must have combined to produce a book that was as amusing as the best of 
romances and as instructive as the beat of serious works.' Galiani was at one 
time a frequent correspondent of Madame Necker. (See also Le Salon de Madame 
Necker par le Comte d'Haussonville, Paris, 1888.) 



had been removed. ' We see occasionally Madame Necker, who 
has at last invited our ladies. She has made great friends with 
me, and invites me constantly to dinner or supper, which I enjoy 
greatly, as she collects all the beaux esprits, the Encyclopaedists, 
and the poets. The majority of these people would be no good 
as friends, but they are interesting to see and know.' In after 
years Madame Necker became closely connected with de Saussure 
by her nephew's marriage to his daughter, and both she and 
her husband proved themselves very good friends to him in 
the adversity of his later years. 

The young party were frequent visitors to the Theatre Fran9ais 
and the Comedie Italienne. De Saussure had a great liking for 
the theatre, possibly due in part to the scanty opportunities of 
enjoying it at Geneva ! He surprises us in the Voyages by a 
suggestion in which, anticipating Byron's Manfred, he urges 
dramatic authors to find new scenes and subjects in the Alps. 
He even goes so far as to sketch a plot for a drama or opera. A 
' crystallier ' (the name given at Chamonix to those who made a 
living by seeking crystals among the glaciers) should risk his life in 
an attempt to reach a mass of crystal on the face of a precipice. 
He should be followed and rescued by the village maiden of his 
choice. De Saussure adds : ' The representation of these strange 
solitudes would enrich our theatrical scenery with an entire 
novelty ; in a similar way, these savage landscapes, the rocks that 
fall, the avalanches of snow and ice, the storms and majestic 
echoes of the high mountains, might inspire in a great musician 
new and sublime ideas.' During their travels the young couple 
seldom missed a theatrical performance, even in a provincial town. 

In Paris de Saussure renewed an agreeable acquaintance with 
the great tragic actress, Mile. Clairon the Sarah Bernhardt of her 
day whom he had doubtless met previously at Ferney when she 
was a guest of Voltaire. His wife records going to see her play in 
a private house with two tickets she had given her husband 
' a mark of the high favour in which he is with her ' and her 
enjoyment of the acting, although she was wedged in among a 
crowd of princesses and duchesses. De Saussure 's frequent calls 
were rewarded by an inspection of the actress's ' cabinet ' and 
choice library. ' A cabinet ' a collection of natural objects 
shells, birds, fossils, seaweeds it did not matter what was at 

THE GRAND TOUR (1768-69) 99 

that date and for half a century later a fashionable ornament 
to the house of a gentleman or a lady of taste both in France 
and England. De Saussure had the further privilege of being 
admitted to the select party that met at supper on Wednesdays 
at Mile. Clairon's house, where Marmontel led the conversation 
not at all to de Saussure 's satisfaction. He writes in his 
journal, 9th March : 

' Marmontel talked a great deal ; most of his stories were witty 
and in good taste, some, however, rather common, and all told too 
slowly. I recognised in him what I had been warned to expect in 
Parisian beaux esprits a very arbitrary tone, a habit of speaking of 
his set as the only one to be called philosophic, and of despising and 
making odious insinuations against those who did not belong to it, 
attacking their manners and their integrity, and throwing doubt on 
their aims. It was thus he spoke of M. Mirabeau, the Abbe Troublet, 
M. le Batteux, M. Grimm, the Bishop of Mirepoix, and many others 
whose names I forget. He was, however, backed and applauded by 
all the company.' 1 

On 25th March the party went to St. Denis to view a Court 
function and procession on the anniversary of the death of the 
Dauphine. There they saw the Dauphin, the future Louis xvi., 
' grand, pale et maigre, mais avec une physionomie bonne et 
douce, un peu celle d'un Anglais,' and the whole Court defiling 
in full dress. De Saussure 's ladies had to sit up all night with 
their coiffures arranged in order to be in time for the ceremony. 

The party stayed in Paris for four months, from February to 
10th June, when they parted, the Turrettinis taking back Mile. 
Boissier to Geneva, while de Saussure and his wife started for 
Holland. They passed through Compiegiie and Noyon, which 
interested them as the birthplace of Calvin, to St. Gobain, where 
they stayed three days in order to inspect the glass and chemical 
works of their friend M. Crommelin. From St. Gobain they 
drove by Ghent and Brussels. From Rotterdam they travelled 
in a canal boat to Leyden and by carriage to Amsterdam. 
There they were hospitably entertained by a wealthy Genevese 
of the name of Horngacher. 

In a letter written to the ' charmante Minette,' his younger 

1 J. F. Marmontel (1723-1799), a prolific writer of plays and stories. His 
Contes Moraux had considerable success. 


sister-in-law, shortly after his arrival in the Dutch capital, de 
Saussure summarises his first impressions of Holland and gives a 
pleasant picture of the relations of the gay young party, of which 
he, the eldest, was twenty -eight, that had just broken up : 

' Here we are, my dear Minette, since Thursday evening, the 23rd 
of this month, in the great and famous city of Amsterdam. Your 
sister seems to accommodate herself to it very well, and, if it were not 
for the regret we both feel at being separated from you three, I believe 
we should manage to amuse ourselves. It is quite another thing to 
Paris ; at Paris the beauty and the splendour is inside the houses, 
here it is outside. The city of Amsterdam and all Holland are beautiful 
beyond all anticipation and the most exaggerated ideas one could form 
of them ; but it is all a spectacle for the eyes. Enter the houses, and 
your eyes will still be satisfied by the pictures, the carpets, and the 
porcelain, but you will find no gaiety, no amusements, no Comidie 
Franfaise, hardly any conversation except about business. One must 
pass through Amsterdam and stay in Paris. 

' Good-bye, my dear and good sister, love me as I love you I can- 
not ask you for more. Give a thousand messages from me to Madame 
Turrettini. Despite our little skirmishes, I love her with all my heart ; 
she has a witchery which makes all the world feel an irresistible tender- 
ness for her ; this malady seized me on our first acquaintance, and I 
do not expect ever to get over it. My greetings to our good brother 
Turrettini. I long eagerly for us all to meet again, but I fear that we 
shall never be so closely united as we were at Paris. Amuse yourself 
as well as you can, and above all think often of the best friend you 
have in the world.' 

Minette followed faithfully one of her brother-in-law's injunc- 
tions. When the de Saussures returned to Geneva six months 
later, they found her married. Her wedded life was brief, and 
ended tragically in the suicide of her husband and the early deaths 
of both her children. But to the end of his life her affectionate 
relations with her brother-in-law remained unbroken. His letters 
home on his travels constantly contain messages to her and regrets 
that she is not at hand to discuss politics with him in his solitary 
inn. Madame de Saussure 's interests, one gathers, were of a 
more domestic order. 

Few of Madame Tronchin's letters have been preserved. But 
I have two before me written eighteen years later when she was 
spending the summer in the fashionable company of Spa. She 

THE GRAND TOUR (1768-69) 101 

protests that she is resisting the craze for gambling. ' I have to 
choose between the world and a regular life ; my wisdom prefers the 
last, the hours of play are too late, it lasts till five in the morning. 
It is not your sister-in-law who keeps it up.' She concludes, 'All 
I love most is at Genthod ; it is there that my eyes, my heart, and 
my tastes turn : you have a very large part, my best of friends.' 

Minette, we recognise, despite the sadness of her married life, 
must have been the gayest, the most spirited of the three sisters, 
and a fast companion and ally to the brother-in-law, whose social 
and political interests she shared and entered into. 

On the llth July the de Saussures left Amsterdam for the 
Hague, where they remained a fortnight, returning to Amsterdam 
to visit Haarlem and North Holland before again travelling south 
to Rotterdam on the way to embark for England. 

It is obvious from the diary that they saw Holland very 
thoroughly. Natural history cabinets and horticulture were the 
chief objects of de Saussure's study. But he also visited the 
museums and numerous private collections of pictures. 

According to the sententious Senebier, he succeeded in gaining 
the esteem of the local savants, ' despite his vivacity, which con- 
trasted so strongly with Dutch phlegm.' His own impressions 
of the country and its people are contained in a letter he wrote 
to Haller before embarking at Ostend. He finds 'the flat and 
learned Holland a country of fine gardens and heavy professors ' ; 
it is ' full of singular people who pursue in private and without 
any pretence either the fine arts, or rational philosophy, or natural 
history, and enjoy in silence and solitude the fruits of their studies 
and their labours.' 

He proceeds to illustrate this general criticism by particular 
instances. First we have a sketch of the Biermanns, father and 
son, who kept a shop on the Keysersgracht at Amsterdam, where 
they sold seaweeds and fossils and published magnificently 
illustrated botanical works. They were 'living specimens of 
the old Dutch type, the father in a big wig, black as jet, talking 
nothing but Latin and surrounded by his huge folios, rough but 
with a friendly air, and really learned in the Batavian fashion ; 
the son bald arid of mean appearance, clumsily modernised.' Then 
we hear of the Van der Meulens, ' the husband not even speaking 
Latin and no savant, but possessing a superb cabinet of natural 


history seaweeds, minerals, butterflies, agates, monsters, human 
and animal, preserved in spirits of wine a collection of extra- 
ordinary interest in the hands of an honest man, probably of little 
knowledge. One is tempted to think it luxury or ostentation, 
but the man is of such common appearance that you would not 
salute him if you met him in the street, and though he is very 
wealthy all about him is of the utmost simplicity. No, it is a 
singular taste for beautiful and rare objects, which he spends his 
life in arranging, admiring, and cataloguing. His wife also is 
quite common ; the house is thoroughly Dutch. One is offered 
food and drink alternately every half-hour ! * 

Another individual sketch is M. Brawers, the owner of a large 
collection, including Chinese lacquer, porcelain, and a roomful of 
Italian pictures : 

' A fine house, very ornate, but all in the Dutch taste ; that is, 
dull, heavy, graceless, but, on the other hand, finished, solid, and very 
clean. The master of the house sits in his dressing-gown on the 
ground floor smoking his pipe, with a silver bowl holding a piece of 
smouldering peat, and receiving with an uncouth air the compliments 
on his cabinet of visitors as they arrive or leave. He has no taste, 
and puts by the side of the greatest masterpieces pictures of a protege 
of his which are simply detestable. 

' At supper-parties all the dishes are put on the table at once, and 
the guests sit at it till they leave. The breakfasts are charming, 
social, and easy, and last all the morning round a beautiful mahogany 
table, with rye bread, butter, cakes, venison, and the eternal tea.' 

The Dutch gardens met with the travellers' unqualified appro- 
bation. At one house (M. Boreel's) near Amsterdam they 
admired superb pleached alleys, fish-ponds set in lawns and 
shaded by weeping willows, and, above all, the bosquet anglais, with 
winding paths and a variety of rare trees planted without any 
attempt at symmetry. 

Among his Dutch hosts de Saussure does not seem to have 
made many lasting friends. But the pleasure of his visit was 
greatly increased by the hospitality he received from Genevese 
settled in the country. There were at that time not a few. The 
two Protestant States had many links ; Geneva and Holland 
in the eighteenth century both held a high place in European 
finance, while the limited opportunities of the former sent its 

THE GRAND TOUR (1768-69) 103 

more adventurous sons to seek commercial success in larger 
fields, either in Holland or England. 

De Saussure's health, at no time robust, suffered from the 
relaxing climate of the Low Countries in midsummer, and in the 
middle of August the travellers turned their thoughts towards 
England. With our country Geneva had even more ties than 
with Holland, and the moment was opportune. Great Britain 
had emerged successful from the vicissitudes of the Seven Years 
War (1755-62). The island-state was on the point of developing 
into a world commonwealth, she ruled already in India and Canada, 
and had not yet lost her American colonies . Europe looked up to 
her as the chief among its nations. The domestic troubles, the 
riots connected with Wilkes's prosecution, interested they are 
often alluded to in letters from de Saussure's friends but were not 
of a sort to affect foreign visitors. The de Saussures had, more- 
over, strong personal inducements to undertake the journey. They 
had relations established as bankers in London, old family friends, 
such as Dr. Turton, and close acquaintances, members of the 
English aristocracy, who had been guests at Frontenex or in the 
townhouse, on whose welcome they could count. Foremost among 
them was Lord Palmerston, the father of the statesman, a D.C.L. 
of Oxford, a traveller, a man of taste and fashion, a member of 
' The Club,' an intimate friend of Reynolds, Garrick, and Gibbon. 
He visited Switzerland in 1763 and again in 1767. On the latter 
occasion he took with him William Pars, the artist of the Dilet- 
tanti Society, who made a drawing of the Mer de Glace, engraved 
with four other Alpine views by Woollett. There is nothing to 
show that de Saussure went to Chamonix with Lord Palmerston in 
1767, but in subsequent years he made at least one Alpine tour 
in his company. 

The ordinary route from Holland at that date was by Helvoet- 
sluys and Harwich, but de Saussure was dissuaded from attempt- 
ing it by his countryman Jalabert's * report of the terrors of the 
nineteen hours' passage. They found their friend at Rotterdam 
' bien triste, bien lugubre, ne disant plus de bien de FAngleterre, 
nous representant tout comme herisse de difficultes .' It is hard, 
perhaps, for islanders to realise the serious view taken by conti- 
nental Europeans even to-day of the perils of the short Channel 
1 The friend who accompanied him to Chamonix in 1767. 


passage. The sea anywhere is formidable to eyes and stomachs 
new to it. When Bernese guides are taken to the Caucasus it is not 
the risks of a strange mountain chain and wild people, but those 
of the Black Sea a name of terror that count most in their 
minds and alarm their families. De Saussure, writing to Bonnet, 
begs him not to tell his wife's grandmother, Madame Lullin, of 
their adventure till he can give the news that they are safe in 
England. In the end, to shorten the sea voyage, he hired a 
luxurious boat and sailed through the estuaries and among the 
islands to Flushing, and thence, after crossing the Scheldt, 
drove to Ostend. 

The Straits of Dover proved quite as great an ordeal as had 
been anticipated, and de Saussure's journal gives a tragic de- 
scription of physical sufferings so unfamiliar to the victim as to 
call from him for particular description. De Saussure is at pains 
to record that it was the downward roll that made him suffer 
most, and that he found temporary relief by accommodating 
his breathing to the movements of the vessel, drawing in 
his breath as it plunged. ' A lesson,' he remarks, ' for next 

In the circumstances it was surely brave of him to go on 
deck at 4 A.M. and view the scene. 

' The vessel was now in mid-Channel. No land was in sight. The 
wind was always very strong. Heavens ! how small did the packet 
that in the port had seemed so large, look now in the middle of this 
immense space. The sailors were lying down and perfectly still, for 
the steadiness of the breeze relieved them of their task. A profound 
silence prevailed everywhere ; there were no sounds except the wind 
in the sails and the noise of the waves beating on the sides of the 
ship, or against one another. The whole surroundings gave to the 
vessel an air of abandonment which was vaguely sad and terrible. I 
admired the perfect evenness of the horizon, which one sees nowhere 
else so well, and ' 

but we need follow no further. The poor passengers were kept 
three hours off Dover waiting to enter the harbour. On landing, 
de Saussure put on his best waistcoat and a red coat and went 
with his wife to the King's Head, a ' mediocre inn.' On the same 
afternoon they drove to Canterbury, arriving after dark, and 
leaving next morning at 5. 30 A.M., much too shattered, apparently, 

THE GRAND TOUR (1768-69) 105 

even to look at the cathedral. I quote the account in the diary 
of the drive to London : 

' The whole drive is very pretty ; the roads, except in the towns, 
and above all in the tiresome Rochester, are not bad. One passes 
cultivated valleys, charming hills often wooded, beautiful, deliciously 
green meadows, pleasant country houses scattered here and there. 
A well-clothed, well-looking peasantry, and women with large hats, 
gave us a good impression of England. Still, the gloomy forebodings 
of our Joseph [their servant] on English coinage added to all the 
warnings we had been given in Holland ; the effects of the movement 
of the vessel, which we still felt, and our general uncertainty as to our 
adventure, capped by the boredom of having our two servants in the 
carriage with us, took away a great deal from the pleasure of the 

The first view of London surprised them by the crowd of 
steeples, in the centre of which rose the dome of St. Paul's, and the 
number of vessels, which seemed to form part of the city and added 
to its apparent size. They drove up Pall Mall, and, after being 
warmly received by their old friend Dr. Turton, sought rooms at 
' The Gentleman's Hotel,' which, far from deserving its name, 
proved full of noxious insects. 

For the next day or two I transcribe the entries in de Saussure's 
journal : 

' Friday, 15th Augmt. 

' Rose early. Hairdresser who had been at Geneva. Breakfasted 
with Turton. Went with him to look for lodgings, to buy maps of 
London and England, to see Mr. Boissier [his cousin] at the Royal 
Exchange ; met Mr. Beauclerk, returned, took my wife to see lodgings, 
engaged those nearest Turton, very convenient, the landlady acting 
as cook, all for three guineas a week, dined there at once with Turton 
and young Fisher, very pleasant ; after dinner went to the Opera to 
hear La Buona Figliola, actors heavy, but fine voices and excellent 
orchestra. Dances vigorous but wanting in grace. Saw for the first 
time Miss Harriet Blosset, with Mr. Banks, 1 her betrothed. Returned 
on foot from the opera with them and supped together. The eldest 
daughter, tall, decided, agreeable, a great musician, splendid voice, 
fond of society, polished. The second Miss Harriet, desperately in 
love with Mr. Banks, from whom she was to part next day hitherto 

1 Sir Joseph Banks, afterwards president for many years of the Royal Society. 
His engagement to Miss Blosset is not referred to by his biographers. 


a prudent coquette, but now only intent on pleasing her lover, and 
resolved to spend in the country all the time he is away. The youngest, 
a Methodist devote, delighted to pass two or three years in the 
country with her sister and live out of the world. The mother, a 
good-natured little woman, talking politics. As Banks cannot speak 
a word of French, I could not judge of his abilities. [De Saussure 
apparently at this time could understand, but had great difficulty in 
speaking, English.] He seems to have a prodigious zest for natural 
history. I supped there with him and Dr. Solander, who is also start- 
ing with him for Isle St. George. They will work on natural history. 
They have an astronomer for the passage of Venus, a draughtsman, 
all the instruments, books, and appliances possible ; after observing 
the passage they will endeavour to make discoveries in the Southern 
Ocean and return by the East Indies. Miss Blosset, not knowing that 
he was to start next day, was quite gay. Banks drank freely to hide 
his feelings. He promised to come and see me at Geneva and bring 
me some curios. We were charmed to have made acquaintance with 
this family, and I particularly to have seen before his departure a 
remarkable man.' 

' 16th August. 

' Went with Turton to look for M. 1'Espinasse in Greek Street. 
We did not find him, but found at the Museum Dr. Matey, friendly, 
playing the agreeable, a stout little man : he greeted me cordially 
and promised me the run of the Museum . . . dined with Turton and 
Pictet on a fine piece of venison sent by Mrs. Blosset, went afterwards 
with Miss Blosset to Ranelagh. I was much astonished at this fine 
circular hall, admirably lit, with a great column in the centre, boxes 
all round, good music with the best singers from the opera, a large 
company promenading, listening to the music, or sitting down and 
taking tea, some in the boxes and others at the tables round the 
column, numbers of pretty girls.' 

' llth August. 

1 Rose early, studied English, visit from Lord Palmerston, who 
suggests we should go to York to see the races and return by Derby- 
shire. Called on the Misses Blosset, arranged for the theatre and ball, 
dined with Turton and the Misses Blosset and left my wife to dine 
alone and dress her hair at our lodgings. Went with Turton to the 
theatre to see The Suspicious Husband, in which, in honour of the King 
of Denmark, Garrick played Ranger, a part too young for him, but 
which he played as faithfully and agreeably as possible. The other 
actors also were very good. I enjoyed myself greatly. The short 

THE GRAND TOUR (1768-69) 107 

piece was a translation of The Oracle well played. The best actors 
from all the theatres had been collected in the King's honour. Garrick 
danced a quadrille with all the actors at the end of the principal piece. 
The pit encored him with noisy obstinacy. Fine theatre. Thence to 
supper with Mrs. Blosset and to the ball at the Redout with the eldest 
Miss Blosset. Ladies pay half a guinea, men a guinea. Fine room, 
fine company. Girls escorted by their " abbesses " ; youths accost 
them in passing, everything well conducted, with a singular air of 
propriety. Talked to Lord Palmerston, who explained to me the 
customs and the company and gave me an excellent itinerary, with 
three letters of introduction of the most obliging character, one for 
Sir George Savile, M.P. for the county of York, one for Lord John 
Cavendish, M.P. for the town, and one for Lord Rockingham, the 
Lord -Lieutenant of the county. Returned to bed at 2 A.M. nervous 
lest my wife might be lost in her sedan chair.' 
' 18th August. 

1 [The morning was spent in buying a carriage from M. I'Espinasse 
for twenty guineas and in inspecting various kinds of mathematical 

' Drove with Turton into the country with Lady Diana Boling- 
broke, 1 wife of Mr. Beauclerk. . . . The estate Mr. Beauclerk inhabits 
is very pretty, there is a fine collection of exotic trees with a pleasant 
path winding among them, diversified with points of view, little ponds, 
shady and sunny spots. Dined with My Lady, who knows and under- 
stands French, but does not like speaking it. After dinner looked at 
some instruments with Mr. Beauclerk. He studies mathematics with 
his wife, and is a man of great attainments. He took me to drive 
in a cabriolet in Richmond Park close to his house, pretty landscapes : 
returned to tea and drove back at night to London, talking of high- 
waymen, but seeing none.' 

' Went with my wife and Turton to breakfast with the Misses 
Blosset, met Mr. and Mrs. Earle, with whom we made a very pleasant 
acquaintance, he tall, a fine gentleman, she pale, thin, plain, affected 
by the death of a brother whom she had come to see, and found dead 
in London. 2 

1 Topham Beauclerk was a man of taste and the owner of a great library- 
He is best remembered as the friend of Dr. Johnson. Lady Diana, a daughter of 
the Duke of Marlborough, had been divorced by her first husband, the second 
Lord Bolingbroke. She was an artist of some ability and much esteemed by 
Horace Walpole. 

2 Mrs. Earle was a Miss Bouchier and the heiress of Benningborough Hall, 
Yorkshire, where the de Saussure's subsequently stayed. She lived to be eighty. 


' Mr. Earle gave me a good route to York and promised to meet 
us and entertain us at his home. Went with the ladies to hear the 
Musical Glasses of M. I'Espinasse; dined with Turton. Afterwards 
took Miss Harriet Blosset in my carriage to see the garden and the 
rosaries of Lyse, a gardener patronised by Mr. Banks, on the road 
to Richmond, walked about with her, collected many plants. The 
man seems a very good fellow, well-informed ; his trees are very reason- 
ably priced ; he promised me a catalogue ; the quantity he has is 
immense, most of them unknown in France. Thence, still with Miss 
Blosset, to see the insects of Mr. Banks, a superb collection beautifully 
arranged, insects pinned with the name underneath each, English and 
foreign, in drawers covered with glass and framed in cedarwood. Took 
tea with Mrs. Blosset, Miss Harriet, and her younger sister, the eldest 
had gone with my wife to the opera. I had a serious conversation 
with Miss Harriet. Her deep melancholy, her persuasion she should 
die, her firm resolve to live in the country to show her true love, make 
her very interesting.' 

Here we take leave of Miss Harriet as far as de Saussure is 
concerned. He may have renewed his interesting acquaintance 
on his return to London in the autumn, but of that period no 
diary remains. In the official biographies of Banks the young 
lady plays no part. But in a privately printed memoir of the 
time, Lady Mary Coke's Journal, I find a footnote which throws a 
sad light on the end of her love story : 

' August 11, 1771. Mr. Morrice was exceedingly droll, according to 
custom, and said he hoped Mr. Banks, who, since his return, had desired 
Miss Blosset will excuse him marrying her, will pay for the materials 
of all the worked waistcoats she made for him during the time he was 
sailing round the world.' 

On the 2 1st the most noteworthy event was a visit with Dr. 
Turton to a brother of the celebrated Wilkes, some three or 
four miles from London, where they found a ' famous painter ' 
(the name is left blank probably Sir Joshua Reynolds) and ' an 
author named Goldsmith,' ' un homme fort original, fort singulier, 
naturel, gai, vraiment comique dans ses idees et dans ses expres- 
sions.' Thence they all went to a house, ' a very fine bit of 

eight, and, having lost both her sons, left her property to the boys' great friend 
at Eton, Mr. Henry Dawney, the grandfather of the present Lord Downe. 
Benningborough was sold in 1917 by the then owner, Colonel Dawney. Pictured 
in Country Life, it was advertised as having ' matured gardens.' 

THE GRAND TOUR (1768-69) 109 

architecture, and full of the most beautiful pictures and marbles.' 
It was only to be visited with a permit from the owner, and it was 
a great favour of the painter to get them one. De Saussure 
mentions a portrait of Pope which has enabled me (by the 
friendly aid of Mr. Austin Dobson) to identify the house as in all 
probability Caen Wood House, between Hampstead andHighgate, 
then the property of Lord Mansfield. The diary continues : 

' 22nd. 

' To Tissot's shop, where I saw Graphometres he called theodo- 
lites, and other instruments, all very dear, but very good and well 

' Started in the afternoon for York. Four horses in the carriage, 
and our two servants on horseback, my wife but middlingly pleased 
to go, and I surprised, almost astounded, at this unforeseen and hastily 
undertaken journey.' 

The journey proved less formidable than it had seemed in 
prospect. The first night was spent at Stevenage. At Stamford 
the host of the inn, forewarned by Mr. Earle, was waiting to take 
the travellers to Burghley, where they were received by domestics 
carrying silver staves, and, despite de Saussure 's bad English, 
the housekeeper made herself very agreeable. They admired 
chiefly the pictures and the kitchen. 1 Next day, starting from 
Grantham, they reached York, having made the journey from 
London at the rate of seven and a half miles an hour. De 
Saussure is warm in praise of the roads : 

' It is delightful to roll rapidly on such roads, seldom straight, 
through beautiful country, rich and well cultivated. The peasantry 
are better dressed than in France or Switzerland, but less well off ; 
their cottages picturesque but wretched and white-washed.' 

At York, after a first night in a crowded inn, they found lodg- 
ings, and were speedily introduced to the fine society collected for 
the races : Sir George Savile, Lord Rockingham, recently Prime 
Minister, and his wife, Lord Scarborough, Lord John Cavendish, 
and a host of others. The races, the horses and jockeys, the 

1 Gilpin, who visited Burghley in 1776, writes : ' We must not leave this 
grand house without looking into the kitchen, which is a noble room and decorated 
with the ensign memorial of hospitality, an immense carcase of beef, well painted.' 
Observations relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty made in the year 1776 in 
several 'parts of Great Britain, particularly the Highlands of Scotland. 


crowd, all had the charm of novelty for the Genevese travellers. 
At supper they feasted on the ' singuliers oiseaux qui viennent 
de la province de Lincoln et qui sont si peu sociables, mais 
excellents.' Apparently bitterns, which in those days were held 
a choice dish . 

The York festival lasted a week. About noon the company 
went to the races. One day the de Saussures drove there in the 
carriage of Lady Rockingham, drawn by six horses and escorted 
by seven grooms in livery on horseback. Thence to the Assembly, 
for which they put on full dress on alternate days. De Saussure 
writes, ' Ce jour-ci les dames n'^taient pas habillees, elles le sont 
ou ne le sont pas, alternativement.' There were concerts and 
plays. One night a brilliant ball took place in ' the superb hall.' 
There was no lack of attention shown to the young Genevese 
couple. De Saussure had interesting conversations with the Whig 
statesman, Sir George Savile, on the government of England, and 
with the ' old and good ' Archbishop, ' si honnete, si poli.' On the 
last evening the company broke up with many regrets and promises 
to meet again, and the de Saussures received numerous invitations 
to various parts of the kingdom. They went off at once to pay 
their first visit to an English country-house, that of their new 
acquaintance, Mr. Earle, ten miles north of York. They were 
fortunate in lighting on a very good specimen of the Queen Anne 
period. Benningborough Hall is a fine brick mansion, with a 
' noble vestibule ' and a dancing-room, which had remained un- 
touched until the estate recently came into the market, a large 
garden going down to the river, a wooded park, and all the 
appurtenances of an English gentleman's place. ' Belle verdure 
de 1'Angleterre, a laquelle aucun pays du monde n'est comparable,' 
is a note in de Saussure 's journal. Their hosts were agreeable. 
' At tea we talked of the human race and of all our acquaintances. 
Mr. Earle seemed to me a good judge of men, fine perceptions and 
shrewd and strong ideas ; in general he is something of a pessimist, 
but he argues his case ably. His only fault seems to be a slight 
tendency to boast of himself and his country.' After a stay of 
two nights, Mr. Earle took his guests to view the sights of York- 
shire. They began with Castle Howard, where the magnificent 
gardens and hot -houses made a deep impression on the visitors. 
They admired also the house with its gallery of Italian paintings 

THE GRAND TOUR (1768-69) m 

and drawings by Holbein of the Court of Fra^ois Premier, which 
were shown by a ' concierge of a fine figure, very intelligent, and 
speaking Latin.' 

The next object was Duncombe Park, built by Vanbrugh, the 
seat of the Earl of Feversham, where they were invited to lunch 
and stay to dinner, though they saw nothing of the owner, who 
with his ladies spied them from a balcony overlooking the vestibule. 
Here they admired a Titian ' Venus and Adonis/ ' almost too 
beautiful.' Through rain, which prevented their seeing much of 
the park, they drove on to Helmsley, where de Saussure notes, 
' My farthest north, 54 16".' Here they parted with their kind 
guide, with promises to meet again at Geneva. Between Helmsley 
and Thirsk they crossed the moors, the barrenness of which was 
noted. Their naked slopes reminded (we are surprised to hear) 
de Saussure of his own country : possibly he had in his mind 
the heights of the Jura. ' Sportsmen,' he relates, * go and live 
on them in tents and pursue a kind of pheasant only to be found 
there.' Does he mean black game or grouse ? Despite his early 
shooting parties round the Reposoir, ornithology does not seem 
to have been one of our philosopher's strong points. 

The tourists next viewed Studley and Fountains Abbey. De 
Saussure, who shows far more enthusiasm for sylvan scenery, 
gardens, and classic summer-houses than for serious architecture, 
goes into ecstasies over the romantic ruins and the points of view. 
Here he encountered Mr. Pennant, 1 with a young companion from 
Harrogate ; ' full of a poetical verve which these beauties inflamed, 
he escaped from time to time in order to write down the verses 
which came into his head, and groaned at being obliged to crush 
his genius by legal studies.' 

They drove next to Hackfall and Mowbray Point. The im- 
pression it made on our travellers' eyes is remarkable : 

' One discovers of a sudden and without any warning the most 
charming point of view that can be imagined a little river winding 
through a deep glen, clothed in beautiful woods, broken only by bold 
crags which make a very fine contrast. The stream, which shows and 

1 This must have been the well-known author, naturalist, and traveller, 
whose Tour in Scotland Dr. Johnson warmly defended. This particular view is 
rapturously described by Pennant in a passage in his posthumous work, A Tour 
from Alston Moor to Harrowgate (sic) and Brimham Crags, 1904, cited in Murray's 
Handbook to Yorkshire. Who was the young poet ? 


previously, next received the travellers at Wentworth House, 
where they found agreeable feminine company. The size of the 
mansion impressed de Saussure. He repeats a mot of Sir George 
Savile, who, when Lady Rockingham hoped that the de Saussures 
would visit them if they lay on their road, had cried, ' Oh, the 
house is so large that if one end of it is not on your road, the 
other must be.' Before supper at 9.30 there were evening 
prayers in the chapel attached to the house, 'chose tres edifiante,' 
de Saussure remarks. They saw Wentworth Castle before return- 
ing to Sheffield, where the walls of their inn were hung with speci- 
mens of Scarborough seaweed in place of pictures. The process 
of manufacture of Sheffield plate was inspected, and then they 
started for another great place, Chatsworth. Here they were 
received by Lord John Cavendish, and found Horace Walpole and 
his friend General Conway, ' both very unaffected and amiable.' 
They talked of Rousseau and his imaginary fears of being pursued 
in England and forbidden to leave the country, and how he had 
begged General Conway to give him leave to depart, offering in 
return to write nothing more about Hume. Horace Walpole, 
whom de Saussure speaks of as ' the author of the letter of the 
King of Prussia to Rousseau,' he thought somewhat Frenchified 
and affected. But General Conway proved a most pleasant 
companion. By his advice the de Saussures drove to Matlock, 
where they admired the scenery and visited a lead-mine. The 
marvels of Chatsworth surprised them ; the house is described as 
' a fairy palace in a beautiful wilderness.' Lord John Cavendish 
gave de Saussure further light on the humours of a parliamentary 
election ; his own seat for York, he said, cost him 1000 a year, 
though his return was unopposed. Next day they drove on to the 
marble quarries at Bakewell and, over hills showing nothing 
but sheep and heather, to Castleton and the Peak Cavern, at that 
day one of the sights of England. 

At Manchester, a market town of forty thousand inhabitants, 
but not yet a city, a cotton manufactory was visited and an 
excursion made on the Bridge water Canal. De Saussure called 
on that strange collector, Sir Ashton Lever, who ruined himself 
in making a most heterogeneous museum, which subsequently, 
when shown at the Rotunda on the Surrey side, became one of 
the sights of London. He was then living at Allerington Hall, 

THE GRAND TOUR (1768-69) 115 

some six miles out of Manchester. ' A man of extraordinary 
vivacity, over forty, with the frame of individuals of great talents 
and strong passions, he has that manner and appearance ; for the 
rest lively, pleasant, agreeable, serviceable, at least towards myself.' 

At Buxton they found a good Bath-house and accommodation 
for visitors, and visited another cavern with stalactites, and a 
lead-mine belonging to the Duke of Devonshire near Eaton Hill, 
where de Saussure had to go down a great many awkward ladders 
and to crouch in low corridors. These subterranean excursions 
of her husband obviously bored Madame de Saussure, who was 
apt to be uneasy in his absence and impatient when his return was 

Here, on the 15th September, the surviving portion of de 
Saussure 's diary ends. 1 It is diffuse with respect to the many 
country seats, visits to which occupied a large part of the tour. 
The writer has an eye for detail in all things, and a very strong 
natural taste for sylvan landscapes and ornamental gardening. 
He admires the picturesque in English scenery, but prefers it as 
improved by man. The austere charm of the moors escapes him ; 
like Cobbett, he looks with disfavour on sheep and heather. In 
mineral products, and in natural eccentricities such as caverns, 
he is much interested, looking at them not from the tourist point 
of view, but as possible sources of information for his History of 
the Earth. 

The diary offers in one respect a singular illustration of how 
travel has been affected by the increase in travellers. In the 
eighteenth century a visitor to England could, on the strength 
of an introduction such as de Saussure 's from Lord Palmerston, 
count on being admitted at once both to the literary circle of the 
capital and the great houses of the country. At each of the 
latter the travellers spent two or three days, and in her letters 
home Madame de Saussure dwells on the kindness with which 
they were everywhere received. She adds that most Englishmen 
spoke French, though the accomplishment was not so common 
among the women. Her husband ' loves England prodigiously.' 
She obviously repeats what we are told was his favourite phrase. 

1 The manuscript diary I have had access to ends abruptly, leaving blank 
pages in the volume. All efforts to find its continuation if one exists have so 
far failed. 


There are few, if any, countries in Europe now where a stranger 
could at short notice hope for a similar welcome. In England de 
Saussure met with new minds and modes of life as well as fresh 
landscapes. Mores hominum multorum novit. 

For the rest of his stay in our country we have to piece 
together but scanty material. His letters show that he was back 
in town from his Midland tour on the 21st September, after a visit 
to Birmingham. On 3rd September he had written from Leeds 
to the Rector of the Academy at Geneva, begging for an ex- 
tension of his leave of absence. The reason he gave was that he 
had been disappointed on his arrival in his hope of mixing in the 
learned society of London. He continued : 

' I expected to find in the capital at least a great number of its 
literary men, but, to my great disappointment, I found only very few ; 
everyone except those whose business kept them in the City had gone 
into the country, and the fashionable quarter of London was as de- 
serted as our Grand' Rue during the unhappy Emigration [in 1766]. 
I was advised to make use of the season to visit some of the English 
counties which, owing to the mines or other natural curiosities they 
contain, deserve the attention of Natural Students. The beauty of 
the weather, and curiosity to see the horse-races at York and the fine 
company and the splendid entertainments which they are an occasion 
for, made this plan acceptable to my dear companion.' 

He went on to describe how he intended to fill up the time till 
the beginning of November by a trip to Cornwall and visits to 
the Universities. Then Parliament would have met, the Royal 
Society opened its session, and he would be able to encounter the 
men he most wanted to . He ended by suggesting that if the Rector 
thought his request for a prolongation of leave to February out 
of the question, he would say nothing about it, and promising 
to come back to his duties punctually at any date fixed. 

It is amusing to find de Saussure taking steps to have any 
prolongation of his absence broken gently to his parents and his 
wife's grandmother, Madame Lullin, who appears to have been 
an important personage in the family. He proposed to let his 
relations know of his further stay only when the time drew near, 
and then by successive suggestions of ' another week ! ' Heads 
of a family at Geneva seem to have exercised a control over the 
younger generation very alien to English custom. 

THE GRAND TOUR (1768-69) 117 

On the 10th October the de Saussures went to a masquerade 
given for the King of Denmark. 

' All the most beautiful and richest ladies in England were there 
in fancy dress of singular taste and magnificence. Several ladies, and 
among them Lady Spencer, one of our acquaintances, wore more than 
a hundred thousand pounds sterling worth of diamonds ! My wife 
was dressed as a Spaniard in pink and silver, which suited her admirably 
I have never seen her look better ; and all the sensible or frugal 
men were only in dominoes ! ' 

One of de Saussure's correspondents, Francois Tronchin, pleasantly 
alludes to 'the King, who was at Madame de Saussure's feet.' It 
was possibly on this occasion, though he is recorded to have met 
and danced with her previously at the Hague. 

Next day de Saussure, leaving his wife at Putney with her 
cousins the Boissiers, who had a banking house in London, started 
at midnight by coach to visit the mines in Cornwall. A letter 
written immediately after his return describes his experiences : 

' The journey was very laborious and fatiguing, but made well 
worth while by the beauty and singularity of all I saw. The Cornish 
climate is, I believe, the softest, the pleasantest, and the healthiest 
in Europe ; the land never experiences great heat or great cold ; 
myrtles, pomegranates, laurels, grow in the open air, and hardly ever 
suffer from frost ; provisions cost nothing ; fish is so cheap that for 
two shillings ten people can be fed, and the air is so pure that epidemics 
are unknown. The only drawback is the absence of trees at least of 
large trees ; whether from the sea-winds or the character of the soil, 
they fail to flourish. The crops, however, are successful.' 

Senebier in his Memoir asserts that de Saussure contracted in 
Cornwall a diphtheritic sore throat, the effects of which on his 
health were lasting. According to his biographer, he was attended 
by his friend, Dr. Turton, and after suffering a dangerous relapse 
from a visit to a flint-glass manufactory, was still an invalid when 
he started homewards at the New Year. 1 

This story is not borne out by any available evidence, and it 
is difficult to credit it in the face of de Saussure's testimony to 

1 Senebier wrote from recollections that were often inaccurate. For instance, 
he asserts that do Saussure met Banks and Solander on their return from their 
famous voyage, and was shown ' the curiosities of Otahiti.' In fact, de Saussure 
supped with Banks the night before his start. There is nothing in the letters 
written during the last weeks of the de Saussures' stay in England to confirm 


the Cornish climate and other facts. We know, for instance, 
that immediately on his return to London at the end of October 
he planned and carried out a trip to Cambridge and Oxford, and 
we have also a letter he wrote two days before starting on it to 
the Rector of the Academy of Geneva making a second appeal for 
an extension of his leave of absence (which was granted), and 
describing his successful visit to the Cornish mines and to the 
Land's End. 

To Cambridge de Saussure took letters of introduction to 
Dr. Rutherforth, the Regius Professor of Divinity, who was also 
a F.R.S. One wonders if he called on Gray, whose quiet had just 
been disturbed by the visit of the King of Denmark, and who was 
a few months later to be fascinated by de Saussure's and Bonnet's 
young neighbour and acquaintance, Bonstetten. Of his and his 
wife's visit to the sister University and Bath, the only record is a 
bill dated Oxford, 10th November, from one Joshua Platt for a 
collection of fossils. From its address we learn that the de 
Saussures were then staying with ' Mr. Hurst opposite Cumberland 
House, Pall Mall.' 

The loss of the diary of de Saussure's last weeks in England 
is unfortunate, and it is tantalising to read in a letter dated from 
London, 21st October : ' I have made the complete tour of England, 
and if I were not afraid that this letter would be drowned with 
the rest, I would tell you a vast number of things which perhaps 
might interest you.' It would seem that some catastrophe in 
the Channel must have occurred to previous letters. 

De Saussure was, Senebier tells us, taken sight-seeing in town 
by Dr. Matey, the Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society and 
Chief Librarian of the British Museum, whose ' taste, knowledge, 
and judgment ' were commended by Gibbon. Dr. Johnson, how- 
ever, wroth at some disrespectful comments on his Dictionary, 
threatened on one occasion to throw him into the Thames ! At 
the house of Sir John Pringle, the President of the Royal Society, 
de Saussure met many of the men of the day. But there is no 
record in the books of the Royal Society's Club of his having been, 

Senebier's statement as to his health ; on the contrary, they show both the de 
Saussures in active enjoyment of society. De Candolle, in an obituary notice of 
de Saussure, written immediately after his death (published in the Decade Philo- 
sophique, vol. iv., June 1799), states explicitly that his illness was camsed by his 
political exertions and anxieties. See also p. 129. 

THE GRAND TOUR (1768-69) 119 

like his son, a guest at any of its dinners . Nor have we any record 
of his presence at a meeting of the Society. Of the character 
of its meetings at a somewhat later date, as they appeared to a 
Genevese savant, a graphic description is given by the botanist 
de Candolle : 

1 Meetings of the Royal Society take place in the evening, and are 
arranged hi a way to deprive them of any interest. The papers are 
read by secretaries in the monotonous voice of people who take no 
interest in what they are reading ; no discussion on any of them is 
admitted, no material exhibits serve to awake attention. The Fellows 
are seated, like schoolboys, on benches facing the President. He 
wears a large, three-cornered hat on his head, which he lifts from 
time to time with a solemn air, when he has to announce the election 
of a new Fellow or to return thanks for the presentation of some work 
to the Society. . . . Nothing can be more monotonous or lifeless than 
these meetings, but I took a keen interest in them on account of the 
number of celebrities assembled, the brilliant series of works of which the 
Society can boast, and the position that it enjoys in the scientific world.' 

In private de Saussure must have met many of the leaders of 
the London world, both in science and society, but at this period 
unfortunately his letters are few. 

We know that he had congenial converse with Franklin on 
electrical problems, which he put to practical use on his return 
home. He frequently met Garrick, then at the height of his fame, 
and preparing for the Shakespeare festival of the following year. 
According to Senebier, he ' penetrated the profound philosophy 
of this unique actor and agreeable poet.' The Dowager Duchess 
of Portland presented him with a piece of marquetry made of 
* all the woods known.' Lord Warwick and Lord Algernon 
Percy, afterwards Duke of Northumberland, Lord Lyttelton and 
Horace Walpole were members of the society the Genevese 
travellers met or were entertained by. 

The last glimpse we get of the travellers in town is dining 
with Lord Warwick on 2nd January 1769. Two days later they 
left for Dover, and, after waiting for fine weather, crossed happily 
to Calais on the 7th. On landing de Saussure writes to his sister : 

' I confess I am leaving England with regret ; we were so kindly 
received. I found so much that was of interest for my pursuits, and 
the life led there suited me so well, that had not a tenderly loved father 


and mother, a sister, dear children, and a country, which, after all, 
has its attractions, called me home very strongly, I do not know 
how I could have returned.' 

The preference here expressed by de Saussure for England as 
a residence was shared by not a few of his countrymen. There 
were many family and business connections between the two 
Protestant States : to the serious side of the Genevese character 
London perhaps proved more congenial than Paris ; the Genevese 
patrician felt at home among the English aristocracy, while the 
Genevese radical who had reasons for leaving his native city 
found welcome and congenial employment in many quarters, and 
might even, like Deluc, the climber of the Buet, aspire to become 
' Reader to a Queen,' or with d'lvernois, to gain the honour of 

Fran9ois Tronchin, writing from Paris to de Saussure just 
before the latter left London, anticipated his friend's favourable 
opinion of English hospitality : 

' The country in which you are is perhaps of all the countries 
in the world the most attractive. You have not yet told me, but I 
venture to guess your feeling about it. I should have had more doubts 
as to Madame de Saussure's, if her letters did not altogether ease my 
mind as to her life in England. The Paradise of women is not identical 
with that of every man, and a country where men have the imperti- 
nence not to be always at their feet cannot be that which they like 
best. If you are really enthusiastic about the English we will talk 
about them as much as you like. Otherwise I shall regret your not 
having been granted by Heaven a soul of the English stamp and we 
will avoid the subject.' 

Madame de Saussure has answered for us Fran9ois Tronchin's 
question. The de Saussures liked England ' prodigiously.' 


ON 1st February 1769 de Saussure returned to Geneva to find 
his younger sister-in-law, the charming Minette, just married. 
The bridegroom was a son of the able politician, the Procureur- 
General Jean Robert Tronchin, whose memory has survived as 
the opponent who drew forth Rousseau's famous Lettres ecrites 
de la Montague. The family were on the point of giving a 
wedding ball in the great house in the Rue de la Cite, where they 
entertained three hundred guests and the dancing was kept up 
till eight in the morning. The fact is worth noting as proof that, 
whatever prejudices might remain against theatres, the austere 
rules of the city of Calvin had been considerably relaxed in 
respect of other forms of amusement. 

De Saussure found plenty of work awaiting him on his return : 
his lectures had to be resumed, the store of instruments, books, 
and objects he had collected abroad to be unpacked and studied. 
His travels, he tells Haller, in a letter congratulating him on having 
resisted all temptations from foreign kings and universities to 
quit Berne, had added to his taste for natural history. Hence- 
forth he intends physics and chemistry, ' with so much literature 
and society as may keep me from becoming a bear,' to form his 
main occupation and pleasure. With politics and office, for 
which he had never felt any attraction, the troubles of the times 
had, he writes, still further disgusted him. He ' prefers a tranquil 
independence to a stormy servitude.' Li the following year he 
refused a nomination to the Council of Two Hundred, of which 
he did not become a member till several years later. 

He was more agreeably engaged as a leading figure in the 
brilliant society that gathered at Geneva during the sixties 
and seventies of the eighteenth century. Himself a member of 

an old patrician family, and the husband of the eldest of the 


Boissier heiresses, de Saussure was closely connected with three 
of the most distinguished families in the city, the Tronchins, the 
Turrettinis, and the de la Rives. As the host and more or less 
the master of the mansion in the Rue de la Cite" and the beautiful 
country home on the lakeshore at Genthod, the young philosopher 
was obviously called on to take a conspicuous part in the social 
life and gaieties of the Upper Town. There was in Geneva at 
that time, before the troubles of the end of the century, a some- 
what exclusive set of the ' best families/ the ' Nobles ' and 
' Spectables ' of the old aristocracy, which was celebrated both 
for its agreeable and informal character and for its literary culture . 
It was one of the attractions that drew Voltaire to take up his 
abode in the neighbourhood. In the letters of the day we read 
of constant picnics and exchanges of visits between the inmates 
of the neighbouring country-houses in summer, and of afternoon 
assemblies and tea-parties in town during the winter. 

The long-standing connection between England and Geneva 
had grown very intimate. A common form of religion, coupled 
with educational advantages, drew many of our countrymen to 
the pleasant town on Lake Leman. But the particular magnet 
that brought some of the first families in France and England 
about 1760 was Dr. Tronchin. He made Geneva a fashionable 
health resort, and the ' world ' flocked to its favourite doctor as in 
later years it did to mineral spas to Homburg, Marienbad, and 
St. Moritz. So great was the crowd that lodgings were scarce 
and dear, and the Genevese, when they went out to their country 
villas for the summer, had no difficulty in letting their town houses . 
Voltaire and his theatre no doubt added to the double attraction 
of society and scenery. 

All our evidence and there is a good deal goes to show 
that de Saussure thoroughly enjoyed the social atmosphere by 
which he found himself surrounded. He was himself by all 
accounts an attractive personality, with a rare power of giving out 
the best of himself, full of sympathy among his friends and of 
natural gaiety in general society. In a note in an unusually 
lively strain written during his stay in England to Haller's son 
in Holland, he shows an eye keenly observant of personal traits. 
* If you meet on your way the wig of M. Biermann, the sword of 
M. 1'Amiral, the wife of M. Van der Meulen, or the eyebrows of 

ITALY 123 

M. Fizeau, please offer them my respects.' He goes on : ' I love 
with passion all ladies who are at once very charming and fond of 
natural science.' 1 He must have needed an expansive heart, 
for in the eighteenth century it was as fashionable with the fair 
sex to set up ' cabinets ' and pretend a taste for shells and fossils 
as it is in the twentieth to buy vellum -bound volumes of Greek 
philosophy and discuss psychical problems . 

Voltaire more than once expressed his warm esteem for his 
amiable country neighbour, to whom he gave an introduction to his 
friend the Cardinal de Bernis, then French Ambassador to the 
Vatican, for use on de Saussure's visit to Rome. In due course 
the Cardinal replied congratulating the host of Ferney on living 
in a society which had such an agreeable member. But the best 
evidence to de Saussure's talent for friendship is afforded by his 
private correspondence. From that we learn on what intimate, 
and often affectionate, terms he was, both with the English nobility 
and the great French ladies who on their visits to Geneva received 
the hospitality of the mansion in the Rue de la Cit6. The latter 
in their letters speedily drop the customary formalities and com- 
pliments of the time, and in their place end by assuring their 
' dear friend ' of a lifelong affection. 

The Geneva Visitors' List was a remarkable one. Among 
the celebrities from Paris were the philosophers Condorcet and 
d'Alembert ; Madame d'Epinay was Dr. Tronchin's favourite 
patient, and she delighted in his company as much as she profited 
by his prescriptions . Other distinguished visitors were the Duchesse 
d'Enville, 'the Philosophic Duchess,' mother of the young Due 
de la Rochefoucauld d'Enville ; Madame de Montesson, the 
acknowledged wife (though she did not take his name in society) 
of Louis Philippe, the fourth Due d' Orleans and father of Philippe 
Egalite ; the attractive and romantic Duchesse de Bourbon, his 
daughter and the mother of the Due d'Enghien ; Madame de 
Lezay-Marnesia, the wife of a Marquis de Lezay-Marn6sia, who 
travelled in America and wrote Letters from the Banks of the Ohio. 

With most of these de Saussure was on intimate terms. The 
Duchesse d'Enville and Madame de Montesson remained his 

1 De Saussure describes in this note the blackballing of Dr. J. Hill at the 
Royal Society. Hill was a successful producer of quack medicines. Dr. Johnson 
labelled him an ingenious man who had no veracity. 


constant correspondents, and their letters show a warmth of feeling 
and a certainty of meeting with a corresponding sympathy, both 
in happiness and sorrow, which is the best proof of true friend- 
ship. De Saussure's complete freedom from vanity and pedantry, 
coupled with his natural gaiety and a quick wit, must have 
appealed to the visitors from Paris, and doubtless formed a 
pleasing counterpoise both to the cynical if brilliant atmosphere of 
Ferney and the more serious tone of the coteries of the Upper 
Town. From England came Lord Palmerston ; Lord and Lady 
Stanhope, who lived at Geneva for several years for the educa- 
tion of their sons ; Lord Algernon Percy, and many others. 

De Saussure does not seem to have allowed himself to be 
distracted by the calls of society, or even by the duties of his 
professorship, from his life-work, original research. Before setting 
out (in 1767) on his northern tour he had been at pains to explain 
to Bonnet his aims and the causes of his delay in publishing his 
results : 

' Various tasks have retarded my Glaciers (sic). I am taking your 
advice, and writing down what I may forget and the points on which 
my impressions may grow faint. But I shall publish nothing for a 
long time. I realise that my work can only gain any value by the 
thoroughness of my investigations. Journeys have been made for 
more interesting objects, journeys more fatiguing, more dangerous, 
and more remarkable. What can I have to describe which has not 
been seen on a greater scale in the Cordilleras l and elsewhere ? What 
is wanted is a series of thoroughly carried out investigations into the 
causes of the low temperatures in the upper layers of the atmosphere, 
on electricity, on the chemical composition and the formation of 
mountains, on vapours, meteors, plants, animals.' 

In the early summer of 1769 de Saussure paid an unfruitful 
visit to the neighbourhood of Grenoble and Chambery and the 
Grande Chartreuse. He met with a snowstorm and a gale on the 
heights above the convent. On the Mont Granier (6358 feet), 
celebrated for a great landslip in 1248, he was more fortunate in 
his quest for flowering plants . At this period he was still occupy- 
ing himself a good deal with botany, and going over the different 
species represented in Haller's great work. 

1 A reference to the recent journeys (circa 1740) in the Andes of the French 
Academician, La Condamine, and his companions. 

ITALY 125 

In 1770 there was a renewal of political disorders in Geneva. 
Under the Edict of 1768 the unenfranchised ' Natif s ' who had 
taken part with the Representants in the late disputes had gained 
relief from some of their disabilities. But their position still left 
them with many just grievances. The Representants, on their 
part, recognised in the growing number and prosperous condition 
of the ' Natifs ' the prospect of a formidable rivalry, commercial 
as well as political. They showed no disposition to give them the 
civic vote or to combine with them in opposition to the patrician 
oligarchy. In a heated atmosphere a trifling incident often leads 
to serious consequences. In 1770 the Councils seized on the 
occasion of a riot arising out of the prosecution of an individual 
for reciting a satirical street ballad to pass an ordinance dis- 
solving the numerous clubs, which had played an important 
part in the recent struggles. In a city of so few amusements and 
among a race only too prone to talk and argument these social 
institutions filled an obvious need. But, as at Paris, they tended 
to become centres of political excitement and intrigue. The 
Councils next proceeded to make it penal to propose any further 
change in the political position of the ' Natifs,' and to banish their 
leaders. These measures, confirmed by the General Assembly, 
were for the time successful. The city was now to have some 
eleven years of relative tranquillity, at any rate on the surface, 
under its patrician government. But the old feuds were only 
dormant. The Representants continued to agitate for the 
promised Code ; the ' Natifs ' were still clamorous for the removal 
of their practical grievances. De Saussure, fully occupied in his 
own studies and duties at the Academy and divided in his sym- 
pathies, held consistently aloof from the politics of the hour. 

In 1770 his friend Lord Palmerston begged him to join a 
party, consisting of himself and two friends, in a visit to the 
glaciers of Chamonix and Grindelwald. He also asked him to 
recommend a German translation of Homer. Haller, on being 
appealed to, replied that he knew of none ! He advised de 
Saussure, apparently on botanical grounds, to prefer the Valais, 
the Grisons, and Val Tellina to the Bernese Oberland, but the 
suggestion was not followed. No record of the tour exists, 
but we learn from incidental allusions that it was carried out 
successfully. The party visited the Rhone Glacier, and early 


in August, perhaps on his return, de Saussure ascended the Dent 
de Jaman behind Montreux. He praises the view and tells an 
amusing story of a minister from the Pays de Vaud who went with 
him, but was so terrified on the descent that he had to be carried 
down by his legs and shoulders like a corpse. 1 

For the following summer (1771) a more ambitious plan was 
formed, a tour beginning in June with the Simplon, and having 
for its principal object the flora of the Italian Lakes . De Saussure 
rowed up Lago Maggiore to Locarno, crossed the Monte Cenere, 
ascended Monte Bre, visited Como and Pliny's Villa. He went 
on to Milan. In a long letter to his wife he describes how he was 
taken round the town by Pere Frisi, a Professor of Physics, 
Science, and Engineering, and introduced to Pere Boscovich, 
celebrated as a philosopher, an astronomer, and an optician. I 
quote part of the letter as a specimen of de Saussure in his lighter 
mood : 

' Pere Frisi took me in a carriage the round of the churches, and 
then we called together on Pere Boscovich, who was out, so we went 
on to the Corso. I noticed many fair ladies bow and smile to Pere 
Frisi. He told me the names of everyone, but he did not repeat a 
single scandalous tale of the kind you would have cared for ; he seems 
so good, so upright, that I believe he never thinks any evil. I took him 
home and had a long talk over physics and natural history ; conversa- 
tion with him is a great pleasure ; his gentleness and modesty are 

' Next day I visited Pere Boscovich. He is in quite a different 
style to Pere Frisi. His style is that of the French savant whose 
object is to make a great show of his learning and new ideas in your 
eyes, without thinking much of his visitor. Let me tell you something 
of his ideas. I am glad to write them down before I forget them. He 
does not believe that the soul has any fixed seat in the brain, but that 
it moves about from one place to another, so that if a man survives 
the loss of a great part of his brain from a wound, it is owing to his 
luck in the soul having been in the part of the brain that was un- 
touched, while another time a slight wound in the part where the 
soul is may cause death. He believes that if God created the world 
He must have created it such as it would have been had it previously 
existed for millions of years. At the moment of creation according 
to him the rivers filled their beds although the water had not flowed 

1 Voyages, section 1659. 

ITALY 127 

from the hills, vegetation was complete, the trees as big as if they had 
grown naturally. The earth, which cannot be fertile unless enriched 
by animal and vegetable ingredients, contained these ingredients as 
if it had been from all time. The petrifactions formed on mountains 
do not prove that the world has undergone revolutions that would 
require far more than six thousand years, because God, in creating it, 
created it, petrifactions and all, such as it would have been if it had 
really undergone these revolutions. 

' Here is certainly the most ingenious method ever invented for 
reconciling the story of Moses with natural history. He thinks that 
the only explanation of the prodigious disturbances of which con- 
tinual evidence is found in the mountains is that the subterranean 
fires have acted as mines and thrown them into the air, and that in 
falling again they have been heaped up pell-mell in all sorts of irregular 

' Pere Boscovich then described in detail the construction of a clock 
he had invented which is not subject to expansion by heat or con- 
traction by cold. At this moment he was summoned to take a class, 
and I think you won't be sorry, for all this astronomy must have 
bored you greatly. . . . Up to this point, my dear Albertine, I have 
told you frankly and honestly all I have done since my departure. 
But now I have to confess an escapade which I have concealed so as 
to save you anxiety ! You realise that I was very anxious to meet 
Pere Spallanzani, the great observer of animalcules, the reproducer of 
snails, salamanders, etc. I had hoped to find him at Milan ; not at 
all he was at Pavia, where he is a Professor. Pere Frisi put it into 
my head to go to Pavia ; he made it clear as day that this detour would 
only lengthen my journey by twenty-four hours, and that by hiring 
a carriage I could recover the time lost. As soon as it was made plain 
to me my return would not be put off, I was soon persuaded, but the 
trouble was to tell you, because had I done so you would have at once 
believed that from place to place I should go on to Rome, and who 
knows but that your tender anxiety would not have shortly made you 
see your husband at Naples and next at Constantinople ! 

' Two hours after I got to Pavia seven leagues from Milan I 
hastened to the Abbe Spallanzani, 1 who asked me to dinner. I had 
immense pleasure in talking to him ; my unexpected arrival seemed to 
be a joy and surprise to him, which flattered me greatly. He showed 
me all his microscopes and his instruments and talked a great deal 

1 Spallanzani was chiefly celebrated as a physiologist. His discoveries in 
the mode of reproduction of minute organisms proved the important fact that 
animalcules cannot develop in infusions that have been boiled and kept sealed. 


of M. Bonnet. I dined with him and some other Professors of Pavia ; 
they all three or four board together. They were very intimate between 
themselves, and see little of the Pavians, because they are all foreigners. 
They have succeeded some Pavia Professors who were donkeys ; the 
Emperor dismissed them and appointed the present ones, who are, 
accordingly, not looked on with too kind eyes at Pavia. One of the 
Professors, M. Moscati, has an electrical machine, not a very powerful 
one ; he showed me a curious experiment I shall repeat at Geneva. 
But the best thing Moscati has is a very young and very pretty wife, 
who had dined in town but came in in the evening. She could not 
speak French, but I understood her Italian and succeeded in making 
her understand mine. I addressed to her some gallant speeches, 
which she took in very good part, but her presence did not prevent 
us from making experiments with scorpions and salamanders and glow- 
worms. Her husband, however, complained all the time that she 
had no taste for such things, and would not attempt to learn about 
them. I thought to myself I was a far more fortunate husband ! 

' I amused and at the same time instructed myself. Raspberry 
syrup was served in place of supper, and at half -past eleven I took 
leave of this agreeable company, heaped with tokens of friendship, 
laden with books and a thousand little presents which they bestowed 
on me ; and neither the science and the wit of the Professors nor the 
beautiful eyes and soft Italian speeches of Madame Moscati could 
make me promise to put off my departure for a single day ! ' 

It will be noted here, and it holds good of his letters and 
diaries as a whole, that de Sauseure seldom refers to art or archi- 
tecture. In England, York Cathedral is the only building he 
mentions ; at Milan he passes unnoticed the Duomo, at Pavia the 
Certosa, at Venice St. Mark's, only at Rome do antiquities attract 
his notice, and even there the attraction was mainly historical. 
Next to nature, his interest lay in human beings, and letters such 
as the one translated above show that he understood and appre- 
ciated them. If de Saussure was, as he says, a fortunate husband, 
Madame de Saussure was a still more fortunate wife, despite such 
passing infidelities as were caused by the glaciers of Savoy. 

From Milan de Saussure returned to Geneva by Novara, 
Vercelli, Aosta, and the Great St. Bernard. 

De Saussure 's diary refers to a serious indisposition on the 
Great St. Bernard from which he suffered on his return from this 
trip. It may be remembered that Senebier, his biographer, asserts 

ITALY 129 

that de Saussure's bad health dated from his visit to the Cornish 
mines, an assertion that, as I have pointed out, receives no con- 
firmation from the contemporary correspondence that is avail- 
able. It is further contradicted by the detailed medical report on 
de Saussure's case made shortly after his death by his physician, 
Dr. Odier. The doctor's statement is definite and, I think, 
conclusive . 

' Professor de Saussure, accustomed from his childhood to mountain 
excursions, and in his expeditions to brave rain and snow, heat and 
cold and fatigue, had enjoyed generally good health, until, after a 
journey he made to the Borromean Islands in which he ate a quantity 
of unripe fruit, he was attacked some thirty years ago by a long and 
serious illness, which ruined his digestion and rendered him subject 
thenceforth to the most distressing symptoms.* 1 

It was during de Saussure's absence in Italy in 1771 that a 
fete, famous at the time, was given by Lord and Lady Stanhope 
on the occasion of their son, Lord Mahon, a youth of eighteen, 
having won the prize in the annual competition of the Archery 
Society. 2 The Stanhopes had been living in Geneva for ten 
years for the education of their boys, the elder of whom had died 
there in 1763. By their liberal charities and geniality they had 
made themselves very popular, and they now offered to provide 
the town not only with a feast, but with a brilliant spectacle. 
Unfortunately, on the day for which it was first fixed rain fell 
in torrents, and Madame de Saussure, who writes an account to 
her husband, tells him how all the gay decorations of the Pre 
1'Eveque, where tables were to have been spread, were ruined. 
A week later, however, the fete came off. There was a procession, 
with a car on which were perched twelve Cupids, children between 
three and eight, and a Mercury of fifteen. There was an obelisk 
decorated with the arms of Geneva and the Stanhopes, there were 
alfresco lunches and military dances, and, needless to add in 
Geneva, complimentary verses to the newly adopted citizen. 
According to an English visitor, Dr. Moore, 3 the young nobleman, 

1 Dr. Odier, who made a post-mortem examination, enters into very full 
medical details of his patient's symptoms and their causes. The reader must 
marvel at the pluck with which, despite such disqualifications, de Saussure 
persisted for twenty years in his mountaineering career. 

2 See L'ancienne Geneve, 1535-1798, L. Dufour Vernes (Geneva, 1909), for a 
full description of the connection of the Stanhopes with Geneva. 

3 See pp. 44, 135. 



while at Geneva, took vehemently the part of the Representants, 
refusing to associate with the aristocrats, and after the counter- 
revolution of 1782 resigning his citizenship by way of protest. 

In later years Lord Mahon gave proof of the influence his 
republican upbringing had had on his mind. He was popularly 
known as ' Citizen Stanhope,' or 'the mad Lord Stanhope.' At 
that date that an English peer should both profess Radicalism 
and show marked ability as a scientific inventor was doubtless 
held sufficient ground for the epithet. 

About this time de Saussure made practical use of his frequent 
talks with Franklin and his own electrical researches by fixing a 
lightning-conductor, a mast surmounted by an iron spike, said to 
have been 100 feet above the ground, to his townhouse. This 
portentous novelty was regarded with much distrust by his 
neighbours, who threatened a riot, and de Saussure was obliged 
to write a pamphlet to dissipate their fears. 1 A lightning-con- 
ductor still exists on the house. 

In the autumn of the next year, 1772, after an unsuccessful 
visit to the waters of Aix, his general health and his throat gave 
de Saussure such trouble that he was advised by Dr. Tronchin 2 
to pass the winter in the south. He writes to Haller : ' As 
the cold always disagrees with me, I am determined to spend the 
next winter in Naples.' He tells him he proposes to describe 
Italy from the point of view of natural science ; of books dealing 
with art and antiquity, of parleyings over pictures and raptures 
on rums, there were already, he held, enough. 

Accordingly, in the autumn of 1772 he set out, accompanied 
by his wife and his daughter, then a child of six. At the start he 
was so ill that there was some question whether his health would 
allow him to continue the journey, but once over the Mont Cenis 
he made rapid improvement, and was able to carry out his in- 
tentions very thoroughly. 

At Bologna de Saussure met and admired the celebrated 
lady doctor, Signora Laura Bassi. The party reached Florence 
at the end of October. There they made the acquaintance of 
Sir Horace Mann, the correspondent of Walpole. De Saussure 
1 This pamphlet was translated into Italian and reissued at Venice. 
8 So says Senebier. Dr. Tronchin had left Geneva for Paris in 1766. But 
his biographer indicates that he visited Geneva subsequently. (See Th. Tronchin, 
by H. Tronchin, Geneva, 1900.) 

ITALY 131 

had a long conversation with the Grand Duke, who surprised him 
by his ability and the extent of his scientific knowledge. They 
visited Volterra, where de Saussure noted the boracic acid works 
and the marine shells in the Etruscan walls. From Leghorn he 
boldly sailed to visit the iron mines in the island of Elba, and then, 
passing through Pisa and Siena, came to Rome. All he finds to 
say of Pisa is that, though very decayed, it has a good Museum 
of Natural History and an Observatory. 

Voltaire, as has been recorded, had furnished him with an 
introduction to the Cardinal de Bernis, the French Ambassador 
at Rome, who was also a poet, an ex-minister, and a man of the 
world. Its terms were an honour both to giver and receiver. 
' De Saussure,' writes Voltaire, ' is one of the first scientific 
men in Europe, and his modesty is equal to his knowledge.' The 
Cardinal secured for him and his brother-in-law, Turrettini, who 
was of the party, a private audience with the Pope, Clement xiv. 
They were received, writes de Saussure, ' with the simplicity 
and cordiality of a good Prior who offers to strangers the 
hospitality of his convent.' The genial Pope was so charmed 
with the little Albertine that he not only blessed but kissed her, 
and then turned to one of his Cardinals with the clerical joke : 
' H faut que je me confesse, parce que je viens d'embrasser une 
jolie fille.' Her delighted mother wrote home : * Albertine 's story 
is true. The Pope and the Cardinals talk of nothing but her ; all 
Rome is enchanted, and I am enchanted with Rome.' On the 
first visit of the family to Ferney after their return the honour 
was duly recounted to Voltaire, to whom it had been mainly due. 
' Well,' he exclaimed, ' since you have been kissed by the Pope, 
it is only fair you should be kissed by the Antipope.' This was 
not the only benediction the little Albertine received on her 
travels. On their way home her parents stopped at Berne, and 
she was taken to see ' le grand Haller.' In after years she de- 
scribed her recollection of the scene : ' Haller was very old and 
enveloped in a great dressing-gown, and I passed under an 
enormous table at which he was seated, to receive his blessing.' 

After three weeks at Rome, where de Saussure made some 
excursions with an English antiquarian and virtuoso named James 
Byers, and found the prodigies of art occupied him far more than 
he had expected, ' since true beauty attracts and transports even 


the profane,' the party went on by Gaeta and the coast road to the 
warmer climate of Naples . There de Saussure met with a most con- 
genial companion and guide in the English Minister, Sir William 
Hamilton, who had already lived at Naples for six years, and 
had recently published his Observations on Etna, Vesuvius, and 
other Volcanoes. 1 Hamilton was equally keen on natural science 
and on classical vases. He was delighted to act as de Saussure 's 
guide to Vesuvius. While the philosophers climbed, or wandered 
over the Phlegraean fields, their wives the first Lady Hamilton 
was then alive made friends. Then the whole company visited 
the islands, Procida and Ischia, listened to the improvisatori, 
who celebrated their visitors' arrival in appropriate chants, and 
studied the manners and customs of the peasants, which recalled 
to de Saussure Greece and Homer. Of this visit to Naples 
Senebier writes : 

' You should have heard de Saussure himself speak ; his enthusiasm 
returned in thinking of it, and he renewed his happiness in remem- 

Here is his own description, written on the spot to Madame 
Bonnet : 

' Oh, my aunt, my good aunt, this is the place, this is the climate 
you need to restore your health ; this air, pure, lovely, and soft, we 
breathe, this sun, whose heat is always tempered by a fresh breeze, 
these magnificent prospects, these woods of oranges and lemons en- 
closed by hedges of figs and aloes crowned by some great palm- trees ! ' 

and in another letter : 

' What an abode for a naturalist ! The earth covered with rare 
plants, the sea as yet hardly at all investigated by capable observers, 
ancient and modern volcanoes, and their various products, vapours, 
baths, mineral springs. To study this land as it deserves, not one man, 
but a thousand, not a few days, but centuries, would be needed. And 
imagine there is not a single man I repeat, not one to make such a 
study, I do not say his occupation, but his amusement.' 

The last sentence seems a little hard on Sir William Hamilton, 
who did occupy himself a good deal in a dilettante way at Naples. 
At any rate, he went up Vesuvius twenty-four times in four 

1 His Campi Phlegrcei, published in 1779, contains many references to de 

ITALY 133 

years, and fifty-eight times in all, and published a work in three 
volumes on the Campi Phlegrcei, besides making a collection 
of Greek and Roman vases which ' forms the groundwork of 
the present department of Greek and Roman antiquities at the 
British Museum.' 

At the Court the little Albertine repeated her Roman success. 
She recited fables before the Queen with much applause. 

During his stay at Naples de Saussure had an experience 
singularly appropriate for a practical student of electricity. 
This happened at an assembly of two or three hundred persons, 
including the Foreign Ministers and nobility of Naples, held 
in a palace inhabited by Lord Tilney, an Irish peer : 

' The guests, occupied in playing or conversing, were scattered about 
the six or seven rooms that formed the apartment, when of a sudden 
the house was struck by lightning. A brilliant flash passed before the 
eyes of each guest and a noise like the report of a pistol was heard. 
There was a general panic and a crowd of pale faces, in which one saw 
depicted fear, superstition, anxiety.' 

Some were unhurt, others felt a bruise or a pain in their limbs. 
Many were sprinkled with a bright dust, of which at first they could 
not imagine the origin. But they soon found that this dust came 
from the gilding of the cornices and furniture. Everywhere sofas 
and ceilings were blackened, burnt, and stript by the flash. 

' Though the danger was over,' writes de Saussure, ' knowledge of 
the risk run seemed only to increase the fright. People recognised on 
the sofa on which they had been sitting the traces of the flame that 
had run over it. The sofa most seriously damaged was that on which 
a Neapolitan princess had been sitting between two of her lovers ! 
It was undoubtedly due to the excessive gilding of the room that we 
owed our safety. Sir William Hamilton and I went next morning 
to examine the spot. He wrote an account for the Royal Society, and 
I one for Paris.' 

At Naples the party lingered till the beginning of May, when they 
sailed for Palermo, where they were entertained by the Viceroy 
and the local society of Princesses and Duchesses, and drove out 
to see the neighbouring churches, convents, and country seats. 
Thence they crossed the island to Catania, where they stayed 
with the Prince de Biscari, a rich and patriotic Sicilian and a 


collector of scientific tastes. On 5th June de Saussure ascended 
and measured the height of Etna, the altitude he obtained being 
34 metres (111 feet) more than that now adopted 3304 metres 
(10,841 feet). The reflections on the greatness of nature and the 
littleness of man, inspired by the view from the summit, are 
recorded at some length in a passage of unusual eloquence in the 
' Discours Preliminaire ' to his Voyages. 

From Naples the party returned through Rome to North Italy, 
stopping at Terni to see the waterfall, and then by Ancona, 
San Marino, Rimini, Ravenna, Bologna, Ferrara, Padua, to 
Venice. At Padua he renewed his acquaintance with the cele- 
brated Spallanzani, whom he had already met at Pavia in 1771, 
and at Venice he again met Boscovich, the mathematician 
and astronomer who on the suppression of the order of the 
Jesuits had exchanged his professorship at the Collegio Romano 
for a chair in the University of Padua. He adds a witty epigram 
to the description of the latter given to his wife two years 
previously, and already quoted : 

' He delights,' de Saussure says, ' in making a display of systems 
and new ideas. His talk is a lecture, and he admires the lecturer 
(II professe en causant et s' admire professant).' 

The party returned by Tyrol that is, no doubt, by the 
Brenner 1 and passing through Zurich, Basle, and Berne, reached 
Geneva in August. It had been de Saussure's intention to publish 
a ' Naturalist's Tour in Italy,' but his customary diffidence and 
dislike of literary work led to its indefinite postponement, and the 
greater part of the letters he wrote to his two chief correspondents, 
Bonnet and Haller, have perished. The few that have been 
preserved make us regret their loss. In one of them he speaks of 
himself as a bad letter -writer ; but bad letter-writers often write 
the best letters ! 

The only literary results of his journey were two articles, 
' Idee Generate de la Constitution Physique d'ltalie,' published 

1 At that date it was for carriage travellers the only alternative to the Mont 
Cenis. Thus Gibbon, prevented by the war with France from crossing the Mont 
Cenis to join his friends in Italy, writes to Lady Elizabeth Foster : ' My aged 
and gouty limbs would have failed me in the bold attempt of scaling St. Bernard, 
and I wanted patience to undertake the circum-itineration of the Tyrol.' ' Circum- 
itineration ' is appropriately expressive. 

ITALY 135 

in the first volume of the Voyage en Italic of Lalande (1786), which, 
though no doubt valuable at the time, does not now seem more 
than an average encyclopaedia article ; and a Letter addressed 
to Sir William Hamilton on ' La Geographic Physique d'ltalie,' 
published in the seventh volume of the Journal de Physique. 
They were both highly praised by a competent contemporary 
critic Rome de 1'Isle. He wrote to de Saussure : 

' Your learned and luminous description of your Italian journey 
reveals a profound naturalist. It sweeps away the empty hypotheses 
of our geological theories as the north wind sweeps away the clouds 

which the western seas send us.' 

The following passage from the Letter may serve as a specimen 

of de Saussure's clear and complete method of scientific exposition : 

' All this vast plain of Lombardy, the greatest and the richest in 
Europe, which, beginning at Turin, extends to Bologna, Ancona, and 
Venice, is nothing else than the deposit of the rivers which descend 
from the Alps and Apennines. These great streams, rapid at their 
sources, tear up the surface of the ground and carry with them frag- 
ments of the rocks ; but, gradually slackening their current, they 
deposit in succession the material with which they are laden ; these 
deposits are governed by the weight and the bulk of the material ; 
the same stream which at Turin carries large stones, lays down on 
the edge of the sea only sand and a fine and impalpable mud ; yet the 
continual accumulation of this mud extends the borders of the dry 
land, fills little by little the lagoons of Venice, and will end by one 
day joining it to the Continent.' 

An event of a very serious and distressing character served 
to hasten the de Saussures' return from Italy. The details given 
here are borrowed from the work of the doctor who about this 
date accompanied the Duke of Hamilton to Chamonix and the 
Mer de Glace. 1 

In 1773 Jean Louis Tronchin, then a young man of twenty- 
eight, the husband of de Saussure's younger sister-in-law, shot 
himself in his own house, apparently without any warning. He 
had been married only four years. Our countryman takes the 

1 His name was John Moore, M.D. He was a prolific writer and the father 
of Sir John Moore, who died at Corunna. (See A View of Society and Manners 
in France, Swtzerland, and Germany, by a Gentleman, London, 1779.) His 
portrait was included in a group sold in the Hamilton sale at Christie's in November 
1919. See also pp. 44, 129. 


occasion to moralise on the frequency of suicides at Geneva, of 
which, he says, there had been a ' multiplicity of instances ' 
during his stay. Having pointed out that the climate and 
coal fogs, commonly alleged as the causes of suicide in England, 
cannot here be held responsible, he falls back on the safe 
conclusion that melancholia is an illness ! How far frequent 
intermarriages and a depressing creed may have been responsible 
for the tragedies recorded he does not pause to inquire. 

During de Saussure's absence in Italy another incident had 
occurred which is recorded in several of the Memoirs of the time. 
While he was in England in 1768 his sister Judith, then twenty- 
three, had sent him a lively account of an agreeable evening with 
Voltaire. She wrote : 

* We have had a very pleasant summer one of the most brilliant 
on record in our poor Geneva. Comedies were played at Pregny. 
The Demoiselles Sales have plenty of talent and are really charming 
girls, to whom the public, often unfair, has done great injustice. The 
Enfant Prodigue was played. M. de Voltaire came from Ferney to 
enjoy the success of his piece. I was enchanted to find myself sitting 
next him. He talked of you, and charged me to write and tell you 
" he had had the happiness to pass two hours at my side." He asked 
me to dinner. I think we shall go one of these days. How does your 
wife amuse herself in London ? One hears it is not a place where 
women much enjoy themselves.' l 

The two households were already on friendly terms, and the 
expected invitation soon came and led to others. It is evident 
that. the old wit found the young lady good company, and their 
acquaintanceship ripened and led to some correspondence, for 
on Voltaire's death, Judith wrote to ask that the ' one or two 
letters ' she had written to him might, if found, be returned to her. 

Four years later her brother, in a letter from Naples, charged his 
father to transmit through Judith, when next she visited Voltaire, 
news of the performance of his plays L'Ecossaise and Tancrede. 
She was to tell him that they had been played at Naples by a French 
company, the best ever seen out of Paris, and had had an astonish- 
ing success, so that stalls were selling at a louis : the King had 
sent for the company to Caserta to give the pieces there, and their 

1 Englishmen at this date were generally believed to bo too much absorbed 
in business or sport to pay the other sex the attention they were accustomed to 
on the Continent. 

ITALY 137 

author was as famous and admired at Naples as in Paris. This 
was written in February 1773. Some weeks previously, probably 
in December, on a day when Judith had been invited to Ferney, 
Voltaire, feeling unequal to entertain a large house -party, left, 
as he frequently did, his niece, Madame Denis, to take his place, 
while he dined tete-a-tete with Judith. The host was seventy- 
eight ; his guest twenty-seven, and there should have been no 
excuse for scandal. But no doubt the other guests were not 
dumb in their disappointment, and in a town at that date much 
addicted to ill-natured gossip, Voltaire afforded a tempting and 
provoking subject. 

A version of the incident, coloured and exaggerated by malicious 
tongues, was spread abroad and reported in Paris, and even reached 
the ears of Louis Quinze, who through the Due de Richelieu sent a 
ribald message to the Patriarch of Ferney. Voltaire replied as 
his years doubly justified him in doing by a repetition of the 
Horatian /w<7e suspicari which would have been in better taste 
had he shown more resentment of an unmannerly insult to his 
guest. The serious annoyance caused to its victim is shown in 
the bitter comments on the bad manners of the Genevese we find 
in letters written by Judith to her brother and sister-in-law many 
years afterwards. 1 That she had ample grounds for her resent- 
ment, one at least of the contemporary journals that has survived 
offers conclusive evidence. Grimm's comment on the affair is 
to the point : ' See how calumny with its venomous tongue pursues 
innocence and beauty ! ' Since one of the first acts of the de 
Saussures on their return from Italy was to call on Voltaire to 
thank him for the introduction to the Vatican he had given them, 
it is obvious that the family treated the town talk with the 
contempt it deserved. 

It will be convenient to conclude this chapter by the story 
of the subsequent career of Horace Benedict's only sister, who 
sympathised with his pursuits and appears to have shared his 
inherited weakness of constitution. 

In 1768 we already hear of her suffering from eye trouble ; 

1 Judith evidently shared her brother's power of expressing resentment of any 
groundless and impertinent criticism or comment. She wrote to her brother : 
' Nous sommes furieusement mechants dans notre charmante Republique. Je suia 
persuad6e qu'on poijrrait parcourir le monde entier sans trouver une ville oh la 
mechancete soit poussee aussi loin.' 


in 1773 she was in the doctor's hands, and Haller was consulted. 
Somewhat later she was recommended to seek a warmer climate 
than that of Geneva in winter, and she consequently took up 
her abode at Montpellier, which before the French Revolution 
and the rise of the Riviera was both an important administrative 
centre and the fashionable resort of invalids from Paris, and even 
from our own country. Here as a lady of great intelligence, 
some personal attraction, and an independent fortune she soon 
found herself welcomed as a member of the best society of the 
town, and made many friends, English as well as French. Among 
the latter was Madame Roland, with whom she stayed at her 
rustic home, ' le Clos en Beaujolais.' 1 

Mile, de Saussure, though she retained property in the town 
and from time to time paid visits to her parents at Frontenex 
and her brother at Genthod, or stayed for a few weeks in sum- 
mer in one of the smaller towns on the lake, never returned 
to live at Geneva. In the autumn of 1780, at the conclusion 
of a tour of the Riviera, de Saussure paid her a brief visit at 
Montpellier, where she entertained him and introduced him 
and his companion Pictet to her brilliant circle of friends. 
Pictet describes her as making an agreeable impression, though 
her good looks and complexion had suffered from constant 

On his return to Geneva, de Saussure wrote to his sister ex- 
pressing his pleasure at having found her in pleasant surroundings 
and among good friends. 

' Yet,' he continues, ' you will leave next spring those amiable 
inhabitants of Montpellier to return to the bosom of a family which 
knows how to love you even better than they do. I, and we all of us, 
look forward to this moment with the greatest impatience. Take care 
of yourself, and avoid carefully any indisposition that may deprive 
us of this happiness.' 

The Genevese revolution of February 1781, described in letters 
from de Saussure and his father to Judith, may have put a stop 

1 Madame Roland, in 1787, visited Western Switzerland and Grindelwald 
(see her Leltres sur la Suisse, 1787). For her relations with Geneva and the 
Gosse family, see Un Genevois d'autrefois, par Mile. Danielle Plan (Geneva, 1909). 
Monsieur Roland, when appointed a member of the Society of Arts, wrote to 
' M. de Saussure ' as secretary, thanking him. Theodore de Saussure then 
held the office. 

ITALY 139 

to this projected visit. A year later Madame de Saussure reports 
to Judith the state of the family : 

' Your mother is always solitary. . . . Your father is always busy 
with his farm and an antiquated system of physics ; even politics 
are a feeble distraction to him. Your brother is very well and em- 
braces you tenderly. Your niece [Albertine de Saussure] is surrounded 
by extracts and works of devotion : she is to take her first communion 
at Easter. I only see my children when they are at their Latin lesson 
or out walking.' 

Mile, de Saussure kept up a constant correspondence with 
her family, and such of her letters as have been preserved tell 
of much social gaiety. More than once she begs her brother 
to send her one of the famous lake trout from Geneva as a con- 
tribution to her or her friends' entertainments. These fish were 
often dispatched as far as Paris, and we read on one occasion 
of the Envoy of the Genevese Republic there begging that a 
particularly fine specimen may be provided as a compliment to 
the First Consul (Bonaparte), whom at the moment it was very 
desirable to propitiate. Mile, de Saussure would sometimes 
send her brother in return geological specimens collected by the 
travelled members of the French nobility who frequented her 
salon. From time to time she consulted him as to her treatment 
of her admirers, or recommended some of her agreeable English 
acquaintances to his care. But though she paid occasional visits 
to Genthod, she never showed a disposition to return to Geneva for 
any length of time. For her summer holidays she preferred the 
Cevennes, or, if she wished to meet her family, Nyon or one of 
the smaller Swiss towns on the lake. 

In 1785, however, Judith visited her relations at Geneva, and 
she was there again in 1790. We next hear of her in July 
1792, undeterred by the Revolution, staying in Paris with her 
brother's friend Madame de Montesson. On the llth she writes 
to him : 

' It is quite true that Paris is very gloomy, and may at any 
moment become dangerous, but you know my character. When 
those to whom I am attached are in danger, I suffer more when I am 
separated from them than when I share the danger, and this was 
why I was so ill and shaken last year on the 13th February. I was at 


Genthod ; had I been at Geneva and able to know from moment to 
moment what was going on and that you were safe, I should not 
have been the victim of the darkest forebodings.' l 

She goes on to describe vividly Louis Seize 's character : 

* He has plenty of physical courage, but no resolution. He yields 
to the last advice given him, and his feebleness and vacillation endanger 
the lives not only of those who are attached to him, but of all the 
people of Paris and France, because, as a Jacobin very truly said 
the other day, "If there is a revolution, all who have anything to lose 
will be robbed and murdered ! " ' 

Judith must have kept a home, or at any rate property, in 
Geneva, for in 1794 the revolutionaries seized in her apartments 
895 ounces of silver and 8687 florins. The last letter I have of 
hers is to her sister-in-law, written in reply to one describing 
Bonaparte's visit to Madame de Saussure in May 1800 during her 
early widowhood. Madame de Saussure 's letter is unfortunately 
missing. Judith avows herself one of the warmest admirers of 
Bonaparte ; she sees no one else capable of giving peace and a 
stable government to France, and her feelings towards him, she 
writes, are those of devotion and gratitude. Is the rumour true 
that he is going to take the command of the army in Italy, where 
he will be proclaimed Emperor ? She concludes by expressing 
her regret that her sister-in-law had not seized the opportunity 
for obtaining from the First Consul some favours for her family or 
her friends. 

Judith published in 1808 a little volume entitled Anecdotes 
extraites de la Volumineuse Histoire de Russie de Le Clerc, par 
Mile, de Saussure, auteur de Veloge de M. le Comte de Perigord. 
Its interest for us lies in the preface, in which she states that when 
at Geneva in 1795 she had tried to distract her brother by reading 
to him these extracts, as he was too ill to attempt the original 
work. She now publishes them because ' she loves all that reminds 
her of her brother,' and adds that she would have dedicated 
them to his memory had she not desired to pay a compliment to 
M. Baume, her doctor at Montpellier, to whom she owed much. 
A copy of the book is preserved in the library at Genthod. 

I have put together in these few pages the little we know of 

1 This was the date of the revolt of the peasants led by Grenus. (See p. 359.) 

ITALY 141 

Judith de Saussure. The impression left by the few letters and 
the scattered references available is that of a woman endowed in 
youth with good looks and high spirits, and through life possessed 
of much force and independence of character. 1 That she found 
the home life at Frontenex with her invalid mother and agricultural 
father irksome ; that she was out of sympathy with the social 
coteries of Geneva, and never forgave the grievous slight that had 
been put on her, is obvious. At Montpellier she showed herself 
ready to take a leading part in society as far as her health allowed 
her. Though her life as a whole was a detached one, she succeeded 
in making many friends, both French and English, and in keeping 
at bay at least one admirer. She sympathised keenly with her 
brother's scientific pursuits, and was active in taking advantage 
of any opportunity to help him to add to his collections. She 
did her best to cheer him in his last illness and to keep alive his 
memory after his death. 

1 Judith de Saussure is thus described by a contemporary : ' She had a regular 
profile, with finely modelled features, large deep-coloured eyes which threw up 
the whiteness of her complexion ; brown hair, which she powdered in her youth. 
She was short, but had a perfect figure, which she retained to an advanced age.' 
(Kohler's Madame de Stael et la Suisse, Lausanne, Paris, 1916.) 


THE warmth of the south had done its work in restoring de 
Saussure to health. For a long interval after his return from 
Italy we hear no more complaints of any serious or prolonged 
indisposition. Though he was often in doctors' hands and his 
digestion remained always difficult and precarious, he was able 
during the next sixteen years, with but one interruption, to 
lead a life of various activity as a hard-working Professor, a 
man of science, a citizen, and a mountain traveller. 

These were the years of his principal Alpine explorations, 
which culminated in 1787-88 and 1789 in the ascent of Mont 
Blanc, the stay on the Col du Geant, and the tour of Monte 
Rosa. It will be on the whole more convenient at this point 
to abandon chronological order for a time and to give in the 
following chapters a consecutive account of de Saussure 's career 
as a scientific mountaineer, reserving for subsequent pages the 
narrative of his home life and political activities and of the mis- 
fortunes that clouded his last years . 

The period from 1774 to 1784, covering the middle years of de 
Saussure 's life (thirty-four to forty-four), was one of continual 
activity in travel and observation. The available record of it is 
considerable : in addition to the Voyages, I have had the advantage 
of reading several of his private diaries and many intimate letters 
to his wife and family. The diaries were based on rough notes, 
made in a pocket-book while on the road, and often in the saddle, 
which he was in the habit of writing out fair but in a hand at times 
almost illegible every few days. His wife's constant anxiety 
during his absences, which seems to have diminished but little with 
years and habit, had this good result. It made her devoted 
husband an excellent correspondent. His letters not only add 
to the human incidents recorded in the Voyages, but often bring 
into relief fresh traits in de Saussure 's character. 



By Jens Juel 


I shall not attempt here to follow in their chronological order 
the Alpine tours of which we have records. In his Voyages de 
Saussure summarised and combined the results of several tours 
under three separate headings. The first of these is the tour of 
Mont Blanc. This, de Saussure, when in 1786 he published the 
second of his four volumes, had already made four times. He 
gives as a second ' Voyage ' his passage of the Mont Cenis and his 
visits to the Riviera and Provence. 1 The third 'Voyage ' is a 
very condensed account of his many visits to the Gries, the St. 
Gotthard, and the Italian lakes. 

Further journeys, of which little or no mention is found in the 
Voyages, are that of 1777 to the Bernese Oberland and over the 
St. Gotthard and Gries to the Lake of Como, returning by the 
Spliigen, Chur, Wallenstadt, and Zurich, and that of 1784, mainly 
sub -alpine, which included a visit to Engelberg and an ascent 
of the Graustock (8737 feet) above the Joch Pass. 

De Saussure had made his first tour of Mont Blanc in 1767 
in company with Jean Louis Pictet, an astronomer and student 
of physics, and a young friend, Jalabert. On his second tour in 
1774 he was alone with his guides. On his third tour, in 1778, he 
had the company of Jean Trembley, and his pupil and greatest 
ally, Marc Auguste Pictet. In the published narrative he refers to 
the advantage and pleasure he derived from their company ; but 
his subsequent practice indicates that there were certain drawbacks. 
De Saussure found that his observations often took more time than 
his companions wished to spend. In later Alpine journeys, when 
not travelling with his wife and family or his son, he, as a rule, 
went alone, no doubt finding it left his attention more free to keep 
his notebooks in constant use. 

His letters to his wife written during his second journey, in 
1774, furnish many picturesque details of Alpine travel in its 
earlier stages . Here is the description of his quarters at Sallanches : 

' The inn has a long gallery, not ornamented with pictures and 
sculptures like that of the Villa Lullin, 2 but with a view of the course 
of the Arve through a valley surrounded by mountains of immense 
height arid the strangest forms crowned by Mont Blanc, which nowhere 

1 They are dealt with in chapters xiii. and xiv. 

- The villa at Genthod, which belonged to his wife's family. 


looks so majestic as from here. Its head, which pierces above the 
clouds, resembles a cloud whiter than the rest, so that those who see 
it for the first time cannot believe it to be a mountain.' 

The story is continued in a letter written from Courmayeur a 
week later : 

' On Monday morning the rain prevented me from starting from 
Sallanches, for I had determined, as much for the sake of my observa- 
tions as for my own personal comfort, never to travel in the rain. 
I got up late and spent the morning in putting in order all my luggage, 
testing its arrangement on the mules, going over my agenda, and such- 
like jobs. M. Efsancet, my host, who is a young gallant of Sallanches, 
gave me more of his company than I wanted, and treated me to the 
sweet melody of a carillon made up of cowbells which he had invented. 
If he had not put a fancy price on it, I might have bought it for Milord 
Jack [his seven-year-old son] to meet his taste for good music. He 
told me news that grieved me the death of Madame Charlet of 
Chamonix, the wife of the Chatelain, the lady who thought it such a 
pity I must be damned. . . . About midday the weather cleared, and 
I started. Here is the order of march we keep on all the good roads. 
For we have two orders of battle. One for good roads and one for 
difficult passes. On the good roads Pierre Simon [his guide] plays 
the part of Volante, he leads the march on foot with, in place of a 
banner, his big tin box, and for a staff of command my alpenstock ; 
next comes your husband, mounted on his mule, looking about him 
right and left, and noting down all he sees in his red pocket-book ; for 
my mule has such gentle paces that I can write very legibly while he 
moves ; I have written as much as eight pages a day in this way. 
Next comes Charles [his servant], also on his mule, looking at all the 
mountains with startled eyes, and whenever he sees a specially terrible 
and needle-like one, inquiring : " Monsieur, shall we ascend that 
mountain ? " Then comes the baggage mule charged with my basket 
covered with oil-cloth. Last, Favret, on foot, closes the march. In 
difficult places the baggage mule goes first and all the rest follow on 

' Thus we jog-trotted to St. Gervais, where I halted to make some 
observations, and then we entered the valley which leads to the 
Bonhomme. I slept at Contamines, and as the cabaret was so bad 
that Pierre Simon (who also fills the place of mariclial des logis, and 
goes ahead to prepare my lodging when we draw near) thought I should 
not be comfortable, he went to ask for a bed at the Cure's. The Cure 
was away from home, but his Vicaire, who is called Monsieur 1'Abbe, 
took on himself to receive us, and since it would have been beneath his 


dignity to come and tell me so on the public road, he sent one of his 
pensionnaires, a young scholar who puts all the ink of the place on his 
fingers and on his coat, so as to prevent any mistake as to his being a 
student. The young ambassador came, with many bows, to tell me 
I should be welcome, that it was much regretted M. le Cure was away, 
but that in his absence M. 1'Abbe would do his best to receive me 
properly. I got down, therefore, and found M. 1'Abbe on the step of 
his door. He is a little hump-back who attempts fine language. He 
conducted me very politely to a rising ground where I wished to make 
my observations, and gave me his company for the evening. 

* He had read the Voyage Pittoresque [obviously Bordier's little 
volume published in the previous year] with the greatest satisfaction, 
and consequently did me the honour to take me for its author. I, as 
you may imagine, disowned it, and even ventured such light criticisms 
as I could without disputing the opinion expressed by M. 1'Abbe. 
"It is true," he said, " that it is not written in that sublime style 
which, when you have read one page, forces you to read all ; one can 
read it by fits and starts, but that is just what I like." All the same, 
M. 1'Abbe is a great reader ; he has poor health, which does not allow 
him to drink, and books, when he can get them, are his only pleasure. 
He complained much of the tipsiness and the rough manners of his 
brethren. We had a specimen that very day. About 10 P.M. we heard 
a terrible noise : it was a Vicaire, who, having supped two leagues off 
on the mountains, came to spend the evening with the local Cure. 
Already almost tipsy, he called for wine, drank three or four glasses, 
and then went on to continue his round. 

' Next day I resumed my march, in spite of the urgent entreaties 
of M. 1'Abbe, who wanted to take me to dine with the Cure of Notre 
Dame de la Gorge, where all the Cures of the neighbourhood were 
dining. I was so terrified at the idea of this fete that I even went 
out of my way so as not to pass Notre Dame ! 

' From this point one begins to climb by a path very good for 
foot-travellers, but very laborious for the mules, which delayed us a 
little ; but the greatest hindrance was the rain, which began to fall 
heavily. We, who are prudence itself, did not think it suitable weather 
for crossing the Bonhomme, and we halted at the highest inhabited 
chalets we met with. These, which are only occupied at midsummer, 
are named the chalets of Nant Borrant. At one of them wine is sold, 
and it calls itself, consequently, a cabaret. We turned our mules to 
it. Under the eaves was a little girl of the age and height of my dear 
Albertine, who, when she saw us approach, ran into the house like 
a mouse into its hole, and shut the door behind her. 


' It needed long negotiations through the keyhole before she could 
make up her mind to let us in, as she was alone. At last she opened, 
and even rendered us all the little services in her power. She is really 
as pretty as Albertine, and talks Savoyard as well as Albertine does 
French ; she described everything, the farm, the cows, the goats, 
the names of the mountains ; she had been once on a very steep 
glacier one sees from the chalet. I had time enough to make friends 
with her, since we were forced to spend the day and sleep there. But 
you need not be anxious, my dear angel, about my food. I had an 
excellent stew in a pot which Jeanne had made for me. Charles, who 
is very good in the kitchen, made me a soup and cooked some eggs. 
And as to sleeping, I had a good bed and slept better than I have 
ever slept in my life. The mountain hay has a delicious smell that of 
the best tea, and I have been parfumi au thi for two days. In the 
evening the rain stopped, and I took some strolls about the chalet 
which gave me several interesting observations. 

' On Wednesday morning we set out to cross the Bonhomme ; it 
is a mountain-pass closed at its head by a lofty ridge with pointed crags 
on either side, which look like the horns one makes when playing at 
horns with the fingers. The local wits say that it is from these horns 
that the name of Bonhomme comes. 

' Our passage was extremely fortunate, the snow, of which we had 
two leagues, 1 was of exactly the right consistence, neither too soft 
nor too hard. The weather was beautiful ; no sun (which I should 
have been glad of for observations), and a few clouds on the peaks. 
But it was excellent weather for travel and for observing rocks. I had 
a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction ; this one day gave me more 
ideas on the structure of our globe than all the work I did between the 
College Prize Day and my start. The descent of the mountain is very 
easy ; it is over a pasturage four leagues in extent, on what, for these 
mountains, is a gentle slope without a single mauvais pas. I did it 
all on foot and without fatigue. From the top of the pass the village 
where one sleeps is visible at such a depth beneath one's feet that 
one would say it was at the bottom of hell, and yet when one gets 
there and consults the barometer, one is surprised to find one is still 
at the height of the Dole. It is only inhabited in summer. This place 
is called Chapieu ; it is perhaps of all the inhabited places in the world 
the most savage and terrible. It consists of a dozen miserable huts 

1 Leagues with de Saussure is a vague measure. It appears generally to be 
equivalent on the mountains to an hour's walk. There must, anyhow, have 
been a very unusual amount of snow for the middle of July. I have, however 
found an hour's snow on the pass in August. 


built against the hillside, having opposite them the stony bed of the 
torrent and on all sides mountains of alarming height which offer only 
snow and barren rocks. In every direction one hears the hideous 
roar of torrents. A man not accustomed to similar situations might 
easily contract melancholia. Charles, who was much more tired than 
I, and perturbed to an indescribable extent by the passage of the 
mountain, was, as you may imagine, not cheered up ; he managed, 
however, to take great care of my belongings and to cook my supper, 
and I was better satisfied with him than I could have hoped to be. 
I had the honour to sleep in a bed, but I regretted my hay of the 
previous night, for the bed was harder than a plank, while my hay 
was most luxurious.' 

It may be remembered that on de Saussure's first tour of 
Mont Blanc in 1767, the Genevese servants of the party had been 
so terrified by the Bonhomme that on being told at Chapieu that 
the Col de la Seigne was worse, they plotted to force the travellers 
to go round by the Little St. Bernard : 

' It seemed to us amusing,' de Saussure wrote, ' to find ourselves 
in the position of the navigators who, setting out for great discoveries, 
have to combat the mutiny of their crews.' 

The accommodation at Chapieu remained very much the same 
for the next eighty years, and de Saussure's description might 
very well have served as late as 1856, when the writer first visited 
the spot. Nor does he exaggerate in his denunciation of the 
landscape. It attains a stony ugliness rare in the Alps, at any 
rate outside Dauphine. 

At the head of the glen above Chapieu the gorge expands into 
a pastoral basin, which contains the alp of Les Mottets. De 
Saussure, always interested in peasant life, describes his reception 
there : 

' A short distance above the hamlet of Glacier is a large chalet 
inhabited by a family of peasants from St. Maurice in the Tarentaise. 
All the surrounding pastures belong to this family, and they are 
extensive enough to feed in summer a herd of cows, of which sixty 
are their own. This is a considerable and rare fortune in the district ; 
with such resources it would be possible not only to live without 
working, but even to occupy a good position in a town. Yet these 
people have lost nothing of the simplicity of their condition : the wife 
of the head of the family passes the summer at the chalet, and looks 


after its management, while the husband remains in the plain to see to 
the field labours. These good people lodged me in their chalet in 1781. 
They had not much spare room, because their son, who had just married, 
had come with his wife to pass some days on the mountains with his 
mother. They found, however, a corner and some dry hay for me, 
and I had my share of a lamb which had been killed to feast the 
newly married pair. Although they were of the most perfect straight- 
forwardness, and had an address and manners appropriate to their 
condition, one saw that they were conscious of their prosperity and 
the power they had of living in different conditions.' [Voyages, 839.] 

I return to de Saussure's letter to his wife. It ends thus : 

' Next morning I mounted my mule to cross another ridge which 
has to be passed on the way to Courmayeur. It is called the Col de 
la Seigne, and is about the same height as the Bonhomme, but much 
gentler. We crossed it without difficulty or fatigue. I saw the 
magnificent glaciers at the back of Mont Blanc and the tremendous 
mountains of snow and granite between which they issue. This 
route through the A116e Blanche is above all description, so I shall 
not attempt any, the more as the express messenger I am sending to 
carry this letter to Martigny is growing impatient. Farewell, my 
dear angel ; rest assured that I shall always take care of myself, and 
that you will see me return better in health and richer in knowledge 
than when I set out.' l 

Of the peasants of Courmayeur de Saussure gives in the 
Voyages the following account : 

' The people of Courmayeur are very good folk, and although they 
talk the Savoyard patois and like to be held Savoyards, they share 
to some extent the physical and moral qualities of Italians dark 
complexions, aquiline noses, black hair and eyes, and something of 
that tendency to boastfuhiess and exaggeration which is characteristic 
of southern races. I may give an instance. Descending alone and 
on foot by a steep and narrow path above Courmayeur, I overtook 
a peasant mounted on a mule laden with two great bales of hay, 
which was going very slowly. It was impossible to pass without his 
drawing his mule to one side. I very politely begged him to do this, 
pointing out that the flies attracted by his mule and the heat were 

1 The messenger to whom this missive was entrusted made a mistake which 
naturally infuriated de Saussure ; he brought it back with him from Martigny, 
leaving there in its place a letter de Saussure was expecting from his wife. The 
ordinary post at that date between Geneva and the Val d'Aosta by the Mont Cenis 
and Turin was too slow to be any use to the traveller. It was not till he reached 
the Great St. Bernard that any home news reached him. 


inconveniencing me greatly. This man, who doubtless believed that 
I only went on foot because I could not afford to ride, answered me 
with a really comic air of dignity. I ought, he said, " to bear the 
discomfort patiently, since it was quite right that those on foot should 
suffer something at the hands of those who were on horseback.' ' Never- 
theless, he let me pass, no doubt to make me feel doubly his superiority.' 
[Voyage*, 884.] 

From Courmayeur de Saussure in 1778 made his second ascent 
of the Crammont. He writes : 

' I felt an inexpressible satisfaction in finding myself on this 
magnificent belvedere, which had given me so much pleasure four years 
earlier. The air was perfectly clear, the sun threw a great flood of 
light on Mont Blanc and all its chain ; no vestige of cloud or vapour 
robbed us of the view of the objects we had come to gaze on, and 
the certainty of enjoying for several hours this great spectacle gave 
the mind an assurance which doubled the feeling of enjoyment. My 
first object was to revise and complete the notes I had taken in 1774, 
but I soon found this work distasteful ; it seemed to me that it was 
an insult to the sublimity of the scene to compare it to anything but 
itself. I began accordingly my observations afresh. . . .' 

' It is a law general to all the primitive mountains that the secondary 
chains which flank them on either side have their strata tilted towards 
the central range. ... I saw the primitive chain composed of layers 
which may be regarded as strata ; these strata are vertical in the central 
range, while those of the secondary ridges, almost vertical where they 
abut on the former, become less inclined as they are more distant, and 
as they recede farther and farther approach gradually to the horizontal. 

' I thus recognised that the relations between the primitive and 
the secondary mountains which I had already noticed in the sub- 
stances of which they consist extend also to the form and position 
of their strata, since all the secondary summits in view culminated 
in pyramidal blades with sharp edges like Mont Blanc and the primitive 
mountains. I concluded from these characteristics that since the 
secondary mountains had been formed in the bosom of the waters, the 
primitive must have had the same origin. Retracing in my brain 
the succession of the great revolutions which our globe has undergone, 
I saw the sea, covering the whole surface of the globe, form by succes- 
sive deposits and crystallisations first the primitive mountains, then 
the secondary. I saw these deposits arrange themselves symmetrically 
in concentric beds, and subsequently the fire or other elastic fluids 
contained in the interior of the globe lift and break up this crust and 


thus press out the interior and primitive part of this crust, leaving the 
exterior or secondary portions piled up against the interior beds. I 
saw next the waters precipitate themselves into the gulfs split open 
and emptied by the explosion of the elastic fluids [gases ?] , and these 
waters, rushing towards the gulfs, carry with them to great distances 
the blocks we find on our plains. I saw finally, after the retreat of the 
waters, the germs of plants and animals, fertilised by the atmosphere 
newly created, begin to develop on the ground abandoned by the 
waters and in the waters themselves where they were retained in the 
hollows of the surface.' [Voyages, 909-919.] 

The ascent of the Crammont had not been de Saussure's only 
expedition from Courmayeur on his previous visit in 1774. Having 
found a chamois -hunter nicknamed Patience l who knew the moun- 
tains well, he started with him and his servant (de Saussure's valets 
probably found his service trying they were, at any rate, fre- 
quently changed) to explore the upper part of the Miage Glacier. 
He was anxious to reconnoitre all the possible approaches to Mont 
Blanc. Having apparently no rope, the party halted at the point 
where the crevasses became covered with snow and took to the 
rocky slopes on the left bank of the glacier. Having reached a 
height of 8240 feet, further progress was judged impracticable. 
De Saussure speaks of the head of the Miage as a barrier that would 
always be impracticable except to chamois. It is obvious, there- 
fore, that no rumours of early passages of the Col de Miage were 
brought to his ears. Since such rumours subsequently reached 
Napoleon and caused local inquiry to be made, this must at first 
sight seem remarkable. But we may surmise that refugees' and 
smugglers' passes were for good reason apt to be little talked about. 

In 1778 de Saussure and his friends rode their mules down 
the long and hot Val d'Aosta from Courmayeur to Ivrea. His 
remarks on the road are almost entirely geological. He just notes 
in passing the snows above the openings of the Val de Rhemes and 
Val Savaranche, Mont Emilius, and the valley that leads to Mont 
Cervin, as he calls the Matterhorn. 

From Ivrea, despite the trying heat of midsummer, the com- 
pany rode out towards the Lake of Vivarone to examine the great 
banks of transported material which spread out fan -wise, like a 

1 His real name was Jean Laurent Jordanay. He kept an inn at Courmayeur. 
The fact that he guided de Saussure is mentioned in the entry of his death in 
the Parish Register. 


gigantic rampart, from the mouth of Val d'Aosta. He at once 
recognised that the character of the boulders showed that they had 
come from the recesses of the central chain. But as to the mode 
of their transport, so obvious to our eyes, he remained absolutely 
blind ; he was too firmly imbued with the current belief in the 
agency of prehistoric floods. 

It must be matter of astonishment to every modern moun- 
taineer who reads the Voyages that anyone with de Saussure's 
opportunities of observation should have failed to recognise a 
connection between the moraines of existing glaciers and these 
monuments of their great predecessors. But de Saussure passes 
on, serenely unconscious of the inference that to our eyes seems in- 
evitable. Yet he had noted that in the valley of Chamonix great 
banks marked former fluctuations of the ice, and that it was the 
glacier that had brought the Pierre des Anglais to the Montenvers. 

But the usually cautious philosopher on this occasion went out 
of his way to make matters worse. So unsuspicious was he of 
any possibility of error that he paused to congratulate himself 
on his demonstration. After reminding his readers that he had 
pointed out that the erratic blocks on the northern flank of the 
Alps ' have been carried there by impetuous currents descending 
from the heights,' he argued that it follows that on the opposite 
flank a similar agency had produced a similar effect, and that 
' in the great flood the waters burst forth with equal fury on both 
sides of the chain.' He concluded : 

' I know not if I am under an illusion, but it appears to me that, 
short of the evidence of eye-witnesses, it is impossible to imagine 
monuments that bear witness to and verify a fact with greater force.' 

So far as the identity of the active agency on both sides of the 
Alps was concerned, his argument was sound, but unfortunately 
he was altogether mistaken as to the nature of that agency. 

The Hospice of the St. Bernard was on many occasions used by 
de Saussure as a centre for excursions. It had the advantage of 
its great height ; he also found there a capable and congenial 
companion in the Abbe Murith, at one time Prior of the convent, 
and afterwards Cur6 of Liddes. This worthy priest was the 
first climber of the Velan (12,353 feet), the snowy dome which 
overlooks the Hospice. He would seem to have had more success 
on the mountains than in the management of a parish, for his 


sojourn at Liddes (1778-91) was marked by a succession of law- 
suits. It was apparently the custom for the Cur6 to conduct 
two processions a week between Easter and Midsummer in return 
for which he was entitled to receive a cheese from each family 
of his parishioners. A number having refused their offering, 
Murith appealed to the law, obtained a judgment in his favour, 
and proceeded, perhaps rashly, to read it out from the pulpit. 
The aggrieved parish took its defeat ill, followed their pastor 
to his home, and turned him out, ' without giving him time to get 
his dinner, or even his hat.' Ten days later he was reinstated 
by the ' Baron de Preux, Governor, and the Banneret Barberini 
of the Dixaine of Sion.' But ecclesiastical discipline having 
been thus vindicated, the energetic Cure was judiciously promoted 
to the Priory of Martigny. 

In 1779 Murith, then thirty-seven, succeeded in climbing the 
Velan. No account of his expedition, except a travestied report 
by Bourrit, was to hand until Mr. Montagnier lighted on the 
following letter addressed to de Saussure : 

' 5th Sept. 1779. 

' MONSIEUR, After great labours, difficulties, and fatigues, I have 
at last succeeded in transporting myself, with thermometer, barometer, 
and a compass with level, to the summit of Mont Velan by a terrible 

' Why did I not have you at my side ? You would have enjoyed 
on the 31st August the finest sight it is possible for an amateur of 
mountains and glaciers to imagine. You would even have been in a 
position to compare in a vast circle all the mountains and their different 
heights, from Turin to the Little St. Bernard, from Mont Blanc to the 
Lake of Geneva, from Vevey to the St. Gotthard, from the St. Gotthard 
to Turin in a word, what would you not have seen ? But I dare not 
promise to give you the enjoyment of this ravishing spectacle. I had 
too much difficulty, despite my hardihood, myself to gain this icy 
colossus. . . .' 

In 1781 de Saussure was taken by Murith to the Otemma 
Glacier in Val de Bagnes. His manuscript journal contains a 
careful notice, the first on record, of the veined structure of the 
ice, which is nowhere referred to in the Voyages. 

In treating of the St. Bernard, de Saussure breaks his usual 
practice in order to give a historical sketch of the monastery ; 
to this he adds an account of the rescue work done by the monks 


and a warm tribute to their arduous and self-sacrificing lives a 
tribute which, coming from a Protestant source, no doubt had 
double weight. It seems to have been at least partly called forth 
by libellous attacks calculated to interfere with the monks in 
obtaining the subscriptions on which they in great part depended, 
since many of the legacies left them by pious donors in return for 
service rendered had lapsed after the Reformation . Amongst these 
were lands in diverse countries, including some in England. It 
is worth note that de Saussure bears explicit witness to the great 
service rendered by the famous dogs in tracking and discovering 
travellers lost in the snow, which has been treated as more or 
less apocryphal by some recent writers. 

De Saussure found the Hospice an excellent centre for ex- 
cursions, and in 1774 climbed the Chenalette and several other 
panoramic points of about 9000 feet in height in the range between 
it and the Val Ferret. 1 He also visited, both in 1767 and 1778, the 
Valsorey Glacier, which lies at the north-east foot of Mont Velan, 
and is familiar to modern mountaineers who make use of the 
so-called high-level route from Chamonix to Zermatt. A basin 
contained by two of its tributaries was formerly filled by a lake 
known as the Gouille a Vassu, the waters of which periodically 
broke loose and caused inundations in the lower valley. 

De Saussure suggests that these outbreaks were due to the 
subglacial streams which drained the lake becoming frozen in 
winter and their channels blocked, so that the meltings of the 
upper slopes accumulated in spring in the basin until a fresh issue 
was suddenly forced. 

It must have been on one of the tours summarised in this 
Voyage that de Saussure stayed with another clerical friend. 
J. M. Clement, the Vicaire of Val d'Hliez, who was, in 1784, the 
first to climb the Dent du Midi. The worthy Vicaire was not 
only a mountaineer, but a naturalist and book-collector, and the 
walls of his guest-chamber were lined with some eight hundred 
volumes. When during de Saussure 's visit a shelf collapsed on 
his bed, his host excused himself on the ground that since it was 
the weight of the copy of the Voyages, which de Saussure had 

1 During these excursions he observed, and was at a loss to account for, a 
sheet of highly polished rock marked with striations, mentioned also in King's 
Italian Valleys of the Alps. He also noted the occurrence of veins of limestone 
cutting at a right angle the strata of quartz. 


presented to him in a handsome binding, that had caused the 
accident, it must be laid to the charge ' of the frightful luxury 
of you Genevese.' De Saussure comments thus on the scene: 
' Comme je fus grond6 par ce bon ecctesiastique et quel plaisir 
me fit cette scene, digne de la plume de Sterne et du pinceau 
d'Hogarth.' l Clement must have been a most attractive character. 
His friend the Doyen Bridel describes him thus : 

' A discreet and modest priest, a benefactor of the poor and the 
rich, a trusty and disinterested friend, an indefatigable worker, he 
earned the esteem and regret of all who knew him. His library, the 
richest in Vallais, specially in natural history and languages, was all 
he possessed, and his only pleasure.' 

The last group of tours the only one mainly in the Swiss 
Alps dealt with in the Voyages is introduced by de Saussure 
in the following terms : 2 

' My third journey, which includes the crossing of the Alps by the 
Gries, the Grimsel, and the Furca del Bosco, seems to me, I must 
confess, interesting as a whole, at any rate for those who are in the least 
curious as to the natural history of mountains. 

' These great mountain ranges of granite, whether solid or foliated, 
of which I have studied the structure with the greatest care, the 
magnificent horizontal beds of the veined granites of St. Roch, the 
great and singular exfoliations of these granites, the progressive 
change in the nature of their upper beds arising from their more recent 
date, seem to me facts of the greatest importance for the Theory. 

' And readers who have no taste for geology will, I trust, read 
with pleasure of the source of the Rhone, its glacier, that of the Gries, 
and the other grand and beautiful scenes presented by nature in this 
savage and little-known region. 

' As to the Theory, I have in this volume followed the same method 
as in the preceding ones : I have laid down principles as I observed the 
facts which seemed to me to establish them. But of a complete 
system I suspend any publication. I wait in order to make the obser- 
vations I have planned and of which I have need in order to decide 
questions which seem to me still problematic. 20th November 1795.' 

In truth, as a careful reader will note, de Saussure thinks 
as well as observes as he proceeds. He not infrequently makes, 
almost as an aside, some important scientific induction. 

1 Wolf's BiograpJiien zur Kulturgeschichte der Schweiz, vol. iii. (Zurich, 1868). 
8 Preface to vol. iii. 


De Saussure, who, in order to verify and complete his observa- 
tions, was very apt to return to sites already visited in place of 
breaking new ground, paid repeated visits to the Gries, Grimsel, 
and St. Gotthard. The fame of this portion of the Alpine range 
as the source of the great rivers of Central Europe would seem 
to have drawn him to it and prevented him from turning his steps 
to other regions, such as the Grisons or the South-western Alps. 1 

There was up to this time a lingering belief derived from 
Roman times that the Summae Alpes of the old writers must 
deserve their name. As to the relative height of the individual 
Alpine summits, there was also very considerable doubt. The 
height of Mont Blanc, it is true, had been ascertained with approxi- 
mate accuracy, but its supremacy was still vigorously contested. 
The rivals put forward by Swiss observers were the Schreckhorn 
(until the superior height of the Finsteraarhorn had been recog- 
nised) and certain vaguely indicated summits in the St. Gotthard 
group. 2 

The claim thus set up gave de Saussure an active interest 
in investigating this portion of the chain. 

In 1775 he wrote to Haller for an itinerary of a tour east of the 
St. Gotthard among the sources of the Rhine. Haller discouraged 
any attempt to reach the Hinter Rhein Thai by a more direct 
route than the San Bernardino. The passage of the ' Monte 
Avicula,' the Rheinwald group, he wrote, was impracticable ; 
such a short cut would be full of interest, no doubt, but ' you 
are a citizen and a married man, and mere curiosity ought not 
to lead you to expose yourself in order to see snow and ice.' 

De Saussure acted on this prudent advice, and, in fact, no 
direct pass from Val Blenio to the Hinter Rhein was made until 
late in the nineteenth century. De Saussure did not even follow 
Haller 's recommendation to cross the San Bernardino, but in 

1 The Rhone, the Rhine, and the Inn (representing the Danube). By count- 
ing the Ticino as a source of the Po, a fourth was added. Orographers were not 
very particular in early times. See also p. 7. 

2 The observer mainly responsible for this confusion was a Genevese who had 
a singularly chequered and unfortunate career, by name Micheli du Crest. After 
serving in his youth in one of the Swiss regiments in France, he was employed on 
the Committee entrusted with the new fortifications of Geneva. He rashly took 
the occasion not only to differ from, but to criticise his colleagues, and to accuse 
them of laying a needless burden of taxation on their fellow-citizens. Despite 
sundry condemnations, he persisted in his criticisms with so much acerbity 
that the Senate not only banished him, but condemned him to death in his 


1777, when he carried out his project of visiting the Orisons, used 
the Spliigen. 

The tour round which he centres his third ' Voyage ' is that of 
1783. Crossing the Col de Jaman from Vevey, he passed down 
the Simmenthal, noting its picturesque wooden cottages and dairy 
farms. Small properties, he points out, are invariably found to 
stand in the way of good agriculture. At Spiez, on the Lake 
of Thun, he embarked on a boat the crew of which was an old 
woman, a girl, and one man, and landed at the inn at Neuhaus. 
Interlaken had not yet grown from a convent and a nunnery into 
a tourist resort. But on the Grimsel track there were plenty of 
inns, good and indifferent, at Brienz, Meiringen, Guttannen, the 
Grimsel Hospice, Obergestelen. This is accounted for by the 
considerable traffic to and from Italy that then followed the 
Grimsel and the Gries. Most of the villagers at Guttannen spoke 
Italian, and the innkeeper had cut on his walls an Italian motto : 
' H passato mi castiga, il presente mi displace, il futuro mi 
spaventa,' which, de Saussure remarks, ' might have better suited 
an Englishman devoured by spleen.' The Handegg chalet served 
as a restaurant ; but the waterfall, hid in its chasm, escaped the 
traveller's notice. He observes the polished rocks that make the 
track dangerous for mules, but again they fail to suggest to him 
their glacial origin. 

At the Grimsel Hospice the accommodation was rough, but 
the food good, and the innkeeper's family very hospitable. De 
Saussure found a guide to take him to the Aar Glaciers, the lower 
ends of which he explored pretty thoroughly. They were already 
among the recognised sights of the Oberland, and often visited 
by the early Alpine artists. At Obergestelen de Saussure was 
taken ill, and the greedy innkeeper tried to turn him out of the 
house, so as not to lose his Sunday customers, but finally, ' by means 
of money, which was the real object of this villain, he was persuaded 
to let me stay.' 

absence. Taking refuge in the Bernese territory, he fared little better from the 
local government, who found an excuse they thought sufficient for interning him 
in the castle of Aarburg as a political prisoner. Here he sought occupation in 
drawing a panorama of the portion of the Alps visible from his terrace in fine 
weather, and endeavouring to identify the summits and ascertain their heights. 
In neither effort was he very successful. What were the summits he wrongly 
identified as belonging to the St. Gotthard group, to which he assigned heights of 
over 16,000 and 17,000 feet, must be left uncertain. 


Of the Gries a full topographic account is given, and when 
de Saussure gets to the Tosa Falls he allows himself a description 
of that splendid cataract, which, by force of accumulation of precise 
detail, becomes picturesque : 

' This oratory is built on the edge of a cliff of 500 or 600 feet, over 
which the Tosa throws itself, forming the most beautifully diversified 
features possible. It starts by falling perpendicularly into a deep 
horizontal hollow in the rock resembling an immense shell, from which 
the water rebounds to a great height in jets of admirable beauty and 
volume. All these streams fall back on to a protruding crag, which 
they envelope, forming a cylindrical column of water which breaks 
upon rocks inclined and coloured like those of the Grimsel, and ends 
by sliding over them in an infinity of diverging and varying sheets.' 
[Voyages, 1742.] 

I add another picture from this noble valley : 

' The Tosa suddenly throws itself with a terrible roar into a chasm, 
along which the path follows it. As we approached, a dense mist rose 
out of the gulf, hiding the path we had to follow and appearing like the 
smoke of a great caldron, while the falling torrent represented the 
boiling contents. A pine wood, dark and thick, which clothed the 
approach to this ravine, rendered its aspect more alarming. It is 
new and extraordinary spectacles of this sort, such unlooked-for 
incidents, which lend its indescribable charm to travel among the 
great mountains and make those who have once enjoyed them unable 
any longer to endure the monotony of the plains.' [Voyages, 1746.] 

At Formazza he found 

' the inn in the Italian style, rooms crowded with images, but at 
least well whitewashed, and far more cleanliness and friendliness than 
in the Upper Vallais. As a rule the houses are larger and better built, 
and the peasantry appear in much better circumstances.' [Voyages, 

The beauty of the lower Val Formazza made a deep impression 
on de Saussure, who could appreciate romantic scenery, even 
though he missed in it the classical grace of a Claude or a Poussin 

' It does not offer, like the Vale of Chamonix, the great spectacle 
of glaciers, but in its place has a softer and more pastoral air ; its crags, 
mixed with fields and forests, have no rude or savage features. The 
valley is sprinkled with hamlets whose neat white houses have a 
charming effect set in the rich verdure which carpets its slopes, and 


every here and there little rocky hillocks, covered with branching 
larches, suggest a sacred grove, in the middle of which one looks for 
an altar or a statue.' 

From Crodo in Val Formazza, de Saussure made in 1775 a 
plunge across the mountains by an unfrequented track to the 
head of Lago Maggiore. His route lay over a rough pass known 
as the Furca del Bosco, and down Val di Bosco, a side glen of Val 
Maggia. At Cerentino, its principal village, he passed the night, 
and met with quarters characteristic of this region. The house 
externally was uninviting, but within he found to his surprise the 
table laid with silver and his bed provided with damask sheets. 
The peasants of this region frequently emigrate, make small 
fortunes abroad, chiefly in South America, and return to live in 
their native villages, where they build large houses their neigh- 
bours call palazzi, and find it a pleasant variety to take in the 
rare passing traveller. 

At Cevio, where de Saussure entered the main valley, he records 
an amusing encounter. 

While taking an observation to ascertain the height of the 
place above the sea, he was greeted and invited to enter by the 
bailli or chief magistrate of Val Maggia. He gives the following 
account of the interview which followed : 

' It being some time,' writes de Saussure, ' since I had had any 
news from the civilised world, I accepted the invitation, hoping to 
learn some. What was my surprise when the bailli told me that 
though it was long since he had a letter from the other side of the 
Alps, he should be happy to give an answer to any inquiry I might 
wish to make. At the same time he showed me an old black seal, 
and this was the oracle which answered all his questions. He held in 
his hand a string, to the end of which the seal was attached, and he 
dangled the seal thus fastened in the centre of a drinking-glass. Little 
by little the trembling of the hand communicated to the thread and 
seal a motion which made the latter strike against the sides of the 
glass. The number of the blows indicated the answer to the question 
which the person who held the string had in his mind. He assured 
me, with the seriousness of profound conviction, that he knew by this 
means not only everything that was going on at home, but also the 
elections for the Council of Basle, and the number of votes each 
candidate had obtained. He questioned me on the object of my travels, 
and after having learnt it, showed me in his almanac the age which 


common chronology gives the world, and asked me what I thought 
about it. I told him that my observations of mountains had led me 
to look on the world as somewhat older. " Ah," he answered with 
an air of triumph, " my seal had already told me so, because the other 
day I had the patience to count the blows while reflecting on the 
world's age, and I found it was four years older than it is set down 
in this almanac." ' [Voyages, 1782 ] 

From Cevio de Saussure took the road through the deep trench 
of the lower Val Maggia to Locarno, thus missing by a mile or two 
one of the most exquisite spots in the Italian Alps, Bignasco. 
This village, a cluster of a few houses, is situated at the junction 
of the two glens that unite to form the main Val Maggia. One of 
the happiest of my Alpine memories is of a day spent there in 
1864, when there was no regular inn, but guests were received, as 
in de Saussure's time, in a private house that stands between the 
two torrents. From its upper windows the eyes look up the 
long vista of Val Bavona over a foreground of trellised vineyards, 
through receding distances of granite cliffs and forested bluffs, to 
the snows of the Basodino. At one's feet arched bridges span two 
amazingly clear and blue torrents, linking banks draped in chestnut 
and birch groves and carpeted with bushes of Alpine rhododen- 
dron, here growing among the vines and far below its usual level. 

On an earlier passage of the Gries de Saussure had descended 
past Domo d'Ossola to Lago Maggiore. He pronounces what most 
travellers who do not aim at singularity in taste will consider a 
just verdict on the Isola Bella. The formal garden, he admits, has 
gone out of fashion, yet even those who prefer, as a rule, nature less 
lavishly adorned may, he suggests, here make an exception. He 
confesses to have found singular pleasure in wandering round the 
shady laurel groves and statued terraces of oranges and lemons, 
and enjoying the exquisite views of the lake and mountains 
that open on all sides of Count Borromeo's superb fantasy. 

From Locarno de Saussure took the road of the St. Gotthard 
through Bellinzona. 1 At Airolo, the village at the southern foot 
of the pass, he on two occasions made some stay. On his second 
visit (1783) he was sorry not to find the crystal-hunter who had 

1 On the Grimsel-Griea road there was no lack of inns : on the St. Gotthard, 
those at Bellinzona, Airolo, and Andermatt are noted as good ; at Dazio Grande, 
Giornico, Goschrncn, r.,ncl Fliielen there was passable accommodation. 


served as his guide eight years previously. The poor man, he 
tells us, had gone out with his children to collect wild hay, and had 
told them to start home with their burden and that he would 
soon follow. He failed to do so, and when sought for was found 
lying dead with his hands crossed on his chest as if in peaceable 
sleep. De Saussure comments : 

' A hard-working and good life ending in so gentle a death, in an 
attitude which seemed to indicate that, feeling his powers failing, he 
had addressed to Heaven his last looks and his last thoughts, had 
inspired in the village a kind of reverence for his memory.' [ Voyages, 

De Saussure made it his first business on reaching Airolo 
to climb to a height on the southern side of Val Leventina 
whence he would get a general view of the peaks round the St. 
Gotthard Pass. He recognised at once that there was no peak 
rivalling Mont Blanc or the Oberland summits, and correctly 
estimated that the ' Gletscherberg,' north of the Furka (pro- 
bably the Galenstock), the loftiest, did not reach 12,000 feet. 
This disco very, de Saussure says, 'somewhat diminished his respect 
for the St. Gotthard.' 

Some letters written to his wife in 1777 and 1783 give a lively 
picture of travel at that date : 

' The situation of Airolo,' de Saussure writes, ' is unique for a 
naturalist, surrounded by very high mountains, almost all accessible 
through a smiling valley inhabited by a friendly population which 
understands rocks, and provided with a very good inn, managed by 
zealous and polite hosts, excellent air, good water, and delicious 
salmon trout. 

' I am very pleased with Joseph (his servant) ; he has charming 
manners and is very attentive. He does not love and climb rocks 
as well as I do, but it is unreasonable to ask this of a man not born in 
the Alps ; still he is much better in these respects than Charles [his 
predecessor]. He looks so well in his blue uniform, which we told 
him to wear on the journey, that yesterday, when I was dining with 
an Italian shopkeeper, and Joseph at another table at the bottom of 
the room, the shopkeeper thought he was an officer who was too 
proud to dine with us, and formed a great respect for me when he 
learnt he was my servant.' 

The Capuchins of the St. Gotthard Hospice de Saussure found 
hospitable enough, though men of a far less intelligent type than 


the monks of the St. Bernard. After de Saussure's first visit 
they told his Bernese friend Wyttenbach that he seemed a worthy 
man, but that it was a misfortune he should suffer from a ridiculous 
mania for picking up all the stones he met with, filling his pockets, 
and loading his mules with them. He describes the Hospice : 

' After leaving Airolo I came with much boredom and disgust to 
sleep at the Hospice of the Capuchins. You know how I hate monks ! 
To make matters worse, two more Capuchins on their travels arrived, 
with whom we had to sup. We sat down at the same table, four 
Capuchins, two tailors, a mason, Joseph, and myself. They served 
us, with many polite speeches, a detestable supper. Next morning 
(yesterday) I thought I should hang myself when on getting up I saw 
the mountain covered with snow, and feared I should be forced to 
spend one or two days in this wretched place, where I had come only 
to be near the high summits. But at last, about nine, the clouds 
broke, and I climbed very briskly one of the loftiest peaks on which 
I have ever been and took my observations in the finest possible 
weather ! I returned to the Capuchins to eat soup made of boiled veal 
and the veal that had been boiled in the soup, and started at once to 
descend to Urseren, whence I sent back my mules to Chamonix.' 

The summit lying west of the pass reached by de Saussure on 
this occasion, to which he gives the name of the Fient, was un- 
doubtedly that called in The Alpine Guide, La Fibbia, 8997 feet, 
though de Saussure applies the latter name to a more distant 
and loftier snow-peak he reckoned some 1500 feet higher. Despite 
the description given by his guide Lombardo, ' who represented 
the difficulties and dangers of the ascent with all the emphasis 
of his mother-tongue,' the climb proved easy enough. On his 
return to the Hospice, de Saussure found that an unprecedented 
event had taken place. An English traveller had arrived in his 
cabriolet. The St. Gotthard track at this time was fairly broad 
and paved with large slabs, and de Saussure was informed that 
on an average 1000 laden horses crossed it daily ! But it was 
not held practicable for wheels. The eccentric Englishman 
was Charles Greville, on his way to visit his uncle, Sir William 
Hamilton, at Naples. His 'fantasy,' which we learn cost him 
eighteen louis, was successfully accomplished. Greville in the 
Voyages is politely qualified as a ' celebrated mineralogist,' but in 
his letters home de Saussure describes him more accurately as an 
' amateur of natural history.' He was also an amateur of beauty, 



and his chief title to fame is having been the protector and 
educator of the famous lady who became his aunt. De Saussure 
found him 

1 ready to talk rocks : at first I was afraid he wanted to get the benefit 
of my observations, but I found with a pleasure which was perhaps 
ignoble that he was not a serious student and did not attempt to 
generalise. He was on the look-out for curious specimens for his 
collection, without any consideration for grouping them. I recog- 
nised that he was in no sense a formidable rival.' 

On a second visit to the St. Gotthard, de Saussure climbed 
the Prosa (8983 feet), a peak east of the Hospice. It was fairly 
steep and regarded by the Capuchins as inaccessible. He found 
a dead cow at its foot, and remarks that, though this animal is 
not * a symbol of agility, there are few naturalists of the plain 
who would care to follow wherever an Alpine cow led.' For him- 
self, on this occasion he found no difficulty. 

From Andermatt de Saussure visited the lake on the Oberalp 
Pass, one of the sources of the Vorder Rhein. The fishery of the 
lake was let to the hotel-keeper at Andermatt for 900 francs 
for ten years. 

The descent to Altdorf interested de Saussure deeply as a 
geologist. He found on the St. Gotthard far better opportunities 
of studying the features of granitic rocks than even in the chain 
of Mont Blanc. He satisfied himself that they were stratified, 
and that the strata were in many instances vertical. He came 
to the conclusion that the cause of the dislocation and contortion 
of the rocks was not internal explosions, but compression. He 
records his conviction that his observations would be verified 
even where they were controverted by ' Buffon and other con- 
structors of systems.' In another branch of his work he was 
less satisfied. Writing to his wife, he regrets that he does not yet 
get on well with his attempts at sketching : 

' It is a terrible task,' he says, ' to draw a mountain in its detail, 
to make it all come out clearly, so that the beds and the joints do not 
look flat that it does not resemble a split board. Oh, this is really 
difficult ! Still, I struggle on, and by degrees I shall end by making 
intelligible sketches of the St. Gotthard, which is the most important 
point. For you, my good angel, you always have the same success in 
making your little ladies who fan themselves at the foot of a tree 


with a shepherd on his knees, who offers them a nosegay. Such a 
group would make an agreeable foreground for my mountains, and 
perhaps I shall ask you to make me one, but you must find some- 
thing less civilised than a fan, for the shepherdesses of the Grimsel 
and the Upper Valais are very far from using fans. . . .' 

The drawings here referred to must, I think, be the originals 
of the two illustrations of the gorge of Schollenen in vol. iv. of the 
Voyages, which have no artist's name attached to them. If this 
be so, de Saussure was obviously right in recognising that his 
artistic powers were limited. The rocks represented in these 
woodcuts are such as we associate with the theatre rather than 
with nature. 

At Altdorf de Saussure was welcomed by M. Miiller, a former 
Landamman of Uri, whose large and luxuriously appointed house 
seemed to him out of place in the little mountain town. The 
Genevese traveller's republican sentiment was stirred at finding 
himself in the cradle of freedom, and he grows eloquent on the 
virtue of the heroes of the Forest Cantons. Of the Tell legend 
he expresses no doubt, though it had already been prematurely 
called in question by an audacious Bernese writer, who had 
suffered prosecution for his unpatriotic scepticism. The high 
political morality of the Landesgemeinde, or popular assembly, 
he illustrates by an entertaining anecdote. The wealthier mem- 
bers of the community were compelled by law to lend a part 
of their capital at a fixed rate of interest to their less well-to- 
do neighbours. Some local radicals, quoting Scripture to prove 
that this was wicked usury, and therefore contrary to sound 
religion, proposed that the interest hitherto paid should be 
counted as instalments towards the repayment of the original 
debt. The popular assembly not only rejected the proposal 
with scorn, but permanently disenfranchised those who had 
made themselves responsible for it. 

De Saussure rowed in eight hours from Fliielen to Lucerne, 
but he finds little to say of the scenery of the lake ; the structure 
of the neighbouring mountains, and particularly of the Rigi 
(which he did not climb), was what interested him. At Lucerne 
he was on several occasions the guest of M. Pfyffer, an ex-officer 
of a Swiss regiment serving in France, who spent most of his 
leisure in constructing a model on a large scale of this part of the 


Central Alps. There were no accurate maps to serve as bases, 
and the task therefore was one of great difficulty and labour. 
M. Pfyffer is said, while engaged on it, to have camped out and 
lived on the milk of goats he took with him . He often, de Saussure 
tells us, risked being attacked by peasants, suspicious, like all 
primitive people, that any survey meant interference with their 
property or their rights. His relief, if technically inexact, 
must have had considerable merits, since de Saussure goes so far 
as to say that its inspection gave him pleasure comparable to 
that he had enjoyed from the panoramas of the Crammont and 
Mont Blanc. 

At a later date (1791) de Saussure travelled to Aarau to 
inspect another work of the same kind due to the enterprise of 
M. Meyer, a ribbon manufacturer of that town. It occurred 
to this enterprising tradesman to produce ribbons on which 
should be woven the forms of the mountains of his native land. 
For this purpose he had models made of some parts of the snowy 
range. Their success encouraged him to attempt to represent 
' all the mountains of Switzerland.' He found in M. Weiss 
a geographer capable of undertaking the task, and de Saussure 
in his last volume (published 1796) expresses a hope that a model, 
some 15 feet by 8 feet, of the Alps from the Lake of Constance 
to Mont Blanc would be completed shortly. It was from M. 
Pfyffer and M. Weiss that de Saussure first heard the report 
that the Schreckhorn was possibly higher than Mont Blanc. 

In 1784 de Saussure returned to the scene of his early scrambles, 
the base of the Chamonix Aiguilles, spending three nights in a 
chalet at the Plan de 1' Aiguille in order to explore more fully 
their cliffs and glaciers. In so doing he met with what seems to 
have been his nearest approach to a mountaineering accident. 
His description of it is a good example of direct and simple 
narrative, stripped of emotion, but not of humour. 

De Saussure, accompanied by his favourite, Pierre Balmat, and 
another guide, had been geologising at the base of the Aiguille 
du Midi. It was nearly 2 P.M. when they turned, apparently un- 
roped, to descend the glacier, the surface of which was covered 
with snow, now softened by the midday sunshine. 

' Suddenly the snow gave way under both my feet at once ; the right, 
which was behind, rested on nothing, but the left had still some support, 


and I found myself half seated and half astride on the snow. At the 
same moment Pierre, who was close behind me, fell also in almost the 
same position. He at once cried out to me as loudly and imperatively 
as he could, " Don't stir, Monsieur don't make the least movement." 
I recognised that we were over a crevasse, and that any inopportune 
exertion might break the snow which still supported us. The other 
guide, who was one or two paces in front, and who had not fallen, 
remained planted where he stood. Pierre, without himself moving, cried 
out to him to ascertain the direction of the crevasse and of its least 
breadth ; interrupting himself at every instant to beg me not to move. 
I assured him I would remain motionless, that I was quite calm, and 
that he had nothing to do but to join me in considering with as little 
emotion as possible the best way to get out of our difficulty. I saw it 
was needful to give these assurances, because the two guides were in 
such a state of nervousness that I was afraid they would lose their 
heads. We came to the conclusion that the line we were taking had 
been at right angles to the crevasse, and the fact that my left foot had 
support, while my right found none, confirmed me in this. As for 
Pierre, his two feet were both in the air, the snow had even given way 
between his legs, and through the opening he saw beneath himself and 
me the void and the green depths of the crevasse. Our actual situation 
made clear, he placed in front of me the two crossed sticks and I threw 
myself on them, Pierre in turn did the same, and we thus both happily 
escaped from our ' ' mauvais pas ." As for the second guide, he remained 
where he stood, without holding out a hand to one or other of us ; and 
it is true we had not asked him. But he told us afterwards very quietly 
that he had reflected that if Pierre and I fell into the crevasse, it would be 
as well that he should remain clear of it to get us out.' [Voyages, 675.] 

We have now run through the mountain tours of the period 
with which we are dealing (1774-84) that are recorded or sum- 
marised in the Voyages. The mountaineer of the present day 
may be struck by the frequent returns to old ground, the absence 
of any passion for exploration, or any evidence of the pursuit of 
scenery for its own sake . He will note the lack of any descriptions 
of the beauties of the Bernese Oberland, the splendour of the Jung- 
frau seen from the Wengern Alp, the noble landscape of the Vale 
of Grindelwald, or the woodland glades of Rosenlaui. That in his 
published works de Saussure makes such scanty reference to his 
travels in this district may possibly point to a scruple on his part 
in trespassing on the field of his friends Haller and Wyttenbach. 
But in other parts of the Alps no such reason can be alleged. In 


after years we shall find that the Corner Glacier and the great 
ring of peaks round Zermatt, the scenery of the Vispthal and of 
Val d'Aosta call forth no expressions of enthusiasm. The Matter- 
horn draws but one short descriptive sentence from its literary 
discoverer. Either de Saussure had little eye for landscape, 
except as a key to geological problems, or, as is more probable, he 
deliberately abstained from interrupting his geological notes by 
picturesque word-pictures. That he was capable of appreciating 
the more romantic aspects of nature is shown by his description of 
the sunsets seen on the Col du G6ant, and from the base of the Aiguille 
du Grouter. But such indulgences to his readers were reserved for 
rare occasions and granted only under extreme provocation. 

The Voyages, as I have indicated, record only a portion of de 
Saussure 's Alpine experiences. There were other tours, and of one 
of the most notable, that of 1777, de Saussure 's manuscript 
journal has happily been preserved. It records at some length 
his excursions in the Bernese Oberland, but is unfortunately 
meagre as to the return through the Orisons. De Saussure 's first 
object was apparently to investigate the reputed rival of Mont 
Blanc the Schreckhorn. He accepted the popular derivation 
and meaning of its name the Peak of Terror. 1 

In 1777 de Saussure commenced his tour of the Oberland at 
Lauterbrunnen. In that village he could get no guide but a lad 
too young even to act as porter, so he sent his servant with the 
luggage round by road while he walked over the Wengern Alp. 

1 The occasion tempts me to insert a few lines on the mountain nomenclature 
of the Bernese Oberland. It is obvious that at least in one group the names 
attributed to the peaks show an imagination hardly found elsewhere in the Alps. 
The peasant, as a rule, fixes on some obvious characteristic : colour the Red Horn 
or the White Horn; or shape the Broad Horn, the Upright Needle (the Dru, 
corrupted at an early date into Aiguille du Dru) ; or situation the Aiguille 
d'Envers (the Needle at the Back), corrupted into Aiguille Verte. Bordier (p. 
198) in 1773 wrote of ' le Dru.' This was probably the original local form. The 
first instance of the substitution of Aiguille Verte for Aiguille d'Argentiere 
that I have come across is in 1786, in the manuscript journal of an Englishman 
named Brand. See Mr. Coolidge's paper on the peak names in the Mont Blanc 
district in the Annuaire du Club Alpin Suisse, vol. 38. But in the range above 
the Vale of Lauterbrunnen we find the Jungf rau (the Virgin) supported as in an 
altar-piece by the Black and White Monks, while the Eiger stands in attendance 
on them like a giant St. Christopher. These are the summits visible from Inter- 
laken, and there can be little doubt that their names are due to the poetical 
imagination of the inmates of the two religious houses long established there. 
The remaining peaks of the Oberland bear names of the usual obvious character 
the Wetterhorn (the Peak of Storms), round which the clouds gather, the Finster- 


At Grindelwald at this date travellers, as was so often the 
casein remote parts of the Alps fiftyyears ago, were still entertained 
as ' paying guests ' by the pastor, or priest. De Saussure found 
some difficulty in explaining to the guide provided for him that 
he wanted not 'to visit the glaciers,' as was already the fashion, 
but to get a near view of the Schreckhorn the reputed rival of 
Mont Blanc. The guide led his traveller up the slopes in the 
direction of the Great Scheideck, whence the top of the Schreckhorn 
may be seen behind the mass of the Mettenberg. This was not at 
all what de Saussure wanted, and he insisted on returning. When 
near the village his guide gave him a choice between the easy 
path to the foot of the Lower Glacier, used by tourists, and a 
long and, by his account, perilous one leading to the source of the 
glacier, whence he asserted the Schreckhorn would not be visible. 
De Saussure, however, trusting to his map, and distrusting his 
informant, decided to risk the venture. As usual, he had his 
servant with him. 

I quote extracts from the detailed account of this excursion 
given in de Saussure 's manuscript journal : 

' I began to climb through a pine wood up a very steep but per- 
fectly safe path. After ascending through the wood for three-quarters 
of an hour, we came to the foot of a limestone crag with thick beds 
and began to turn to the west (the right) and take the traverse on the 
edge of the precipices. For ten minutes or so one has a pine wood 
under one's feet, and there is consequently no danger, but beyond 
the forest one begins to see the great drop there is to the glacier 
underfoot, whose broken waves seem designed to mutilate the 

aarhorn, at the source of the Aar, the Fiescherhorner, the peaks behind which liea 
Fiesch. I may surprise most of my readers if I add the Schreckhorn to this list ; 
for its name has hitherto been universally interpreted as the Peak of Terror. It 
had long struck me as curious that a peak which from the basin of Grindelwald is 
far from a conspicuous object should have acquired such a name from an un- 
imaginative peasantry ; so that I was not surprised when in an article describing 
the Bregenzer Wald I lighted on a sentence which appears to furnish a very 
plausible alternative derivation. This is the passage : 

' Schrochen. Oh, the lovely village ; and how poor the etymological jest 
which would derive the name of this charming spot from a word meaning terror ! 
In the Bregenzer Wald district Schrochen signifies a rocky bluff, and this is far 
more likely to be the true derivation.' (Annuaire du Club Alpin Francais, vol. 29.) 

I find that the first author to treat in detail of the mountains of the Bernese 
Oberland, Thomas Schopf (circa 1670), writes of the ' Schreckshorn (sic), quae vox 
sonaret obliquum cornu, vel terribile cornu. Utrumque verb nomen huic monti 
convenientissime quadrat ' : thus supporting my conjecture. See Coolidge's 
Josias Simler, p. 250*. 


unhappy man who should fall on them. Still the path is firm and 
smooth, and the slope towards the cliff is not so steep but that if 
unlucky enough to slip one might hope to stop oneself. But here 
and there the path narrows, passes across rocky slabs, and the abrupt- 
ness of the slope no longer leaves any hope of recovering a false 
step. At each bad place of this sort we asked the guide if it was the 
worst. He answered, " This is nothing ; what is to come is a hundred 
times worse." At this juncture we met an old shepherd who for 
forty years had guarded the sheep and goats, the only animals which 
can penetrate into those recesses, forbidden to all creatures which have 
not good heads and sure feet. I had been told of this shepherd, and 
as our guide seemed quite a novice, I begged the shepherd to turn 
back with us and act as leader. He was on his way down to Grindel- 
wald with a load of goats' milk, and he did not like turning back ; still 
he made up his mind to do so, hid his milk behind a rock, and came 
with us. 

' About the middle of the bad path we found in a hollow a small 
spring which fell from the rocks and had worn itself a basin at their 
feet, in which the water was so clear and beautiful that the spot tempted 
us to rest and recover our force. After some twenty minutes we set 
out and had another three-quarters of an hour on this path, which 
at times became very risky, but there was always foothold, and the 
anticipation I had formed made me find the reality quite tolerable. 
At last we reached the level of the more gently sloping portion of the 
glacier. It was now necessary to scramble on to it and traverse it to the 
end of the ice valley where our shepherd's hut was. In order to get 
on the glacier, we had to climb on to the ridge of an enormous rib of 
ice which had horribly precipitous sides. The old shepherd seized 
an axe which he was in the habit of leaving there for the purpose and 
began cutting steps along the ridge. While waiting I looked to see 
if there was any way of avoiding this awkward passage, but in vain 
everywhere else bottomless crevasses cut us off from the glacier. This 
isthmus was the only bridge there was between us and the Mer de 
Glace. I let, therefore, the shepherd finish his staircase. That accom- 
plished, he gallantly offered me his hand, and I marched with firm 
steps for in places of this kind one must either not go at all or advance 
boldly and so reached the level of the glacier. 

' We had still on the ice several places not so bad as this but not 
quite without risk, then the rest of the way was perfectly easy. The 
glacier, though steep, had no more crevasses. It was covered with 
blocks of primitive rocks, among which I did not see a single bit of 
limestone, but everywhere fragments mixed with sckistes d'amiante, 


quartz, etc., none of which approached what I collected on the Glacier 
de Mi age. 

' What gave me most pleasure was that, as we advanced on the ice, 
I began to see behind the Mettenberg a very lofty peak, and it entered 
my mind that it might be the so -much -sought Schreckhorn. I asked 
my guide its name, but he could not understand. He thought I was 
talking all the time of the Mettenberg. He told long stories of sheep 
lost on the mountains, of shepherds overwhelmed by avalanches ; he 
exhausted my patience, until at last, as the peak gradually revealed 
itself, he saw what I wanted him to see, and said as if I ought to have 
known, " That is the Schreckhorn." 

' I walked on gaily and as quickly as I could in order to have 
plenty of time to examine it before the clouds, which I saw gathering 
behind us on the side of the plains, came up and covered it. Despite 
my efforts, it took us an hour to cross the glacier, and a quarter of an 
hour more to the wretched hut of the shepherd, which was opposite 
the peak and almost as near as it was possible to get. 

' Picture to yourself one of the faces of an immense pyramid, of 
which the top, though more than a league distant, rises 33 degrees 
above the horizon, and of which the edges fall one to the north-west, 
reposing on the top of the Mettenberg, itself from the valley of 
Grindelwald of a prodigious height, another still sharper, on the, 
south-west, falling towards the Bierselberg and Fiescherberg ridges. 
These ridges are broken. . . . The summit is not sharp, but blunt, 
and the face opposite us a precipice of a thousand to fifteen hundred 
feet. Through glasses the stratification appeared to me to be vertical. 

' After having noted what seemed to me most interesting in this 
noble mountain, I turned to study the other heights by which I was 
surrounded. The rock called the Zasenberg, on which I stood, was 
like an island between two great glaciers. Its base is clothed with 
pasture which feeds sheep and goats. Behind it and above it rises the 
Fiescherberg. Its summit is nearly horizontal, a little concave on one 
side, and covered with snow which juts out like the eaves of a roof.' 

De Saussure's return to the valley was hastened by a sign of 
bad weather he was quick to interpret a light cloud that, as it 
passed across the sun, assumed rainbow hues. He got back just 
in time to escape a violent storm. 1 

1 This incident is recorded in his volume, Essais sur V Hygrom&lre, 1783, p. 359. 
De Saussure further notes in the same connection the beautiful effects caused at 
sunset (or sunrise) by a wind from behind a mountain, itself in shadow, blowing 
off it a cloud of frozen snow which crowns the summit ridges with a bright red 
halo. This is most often seen in winter. 


From Grindelwald de Saussure crossed the Great Scheideck and 
took the now familiar route over the Grimsel and the Gries to the 
Italian Lakes. After calling on the celebrated electrical inventor 
Volta at Como, he crossed the Spliigen and travelled by the Via 
Mala, Chur, and Wallenstadt to Zurich and Berne, where he paid 
a visit to Haller, whose health was fast failing. For the latter 
part of the tour the journal is little more than a skeleton and 
contains nothing of interest. 

While the first volume of the Voyages was going through the 
press in 1779, de Saussure received from Berne an offer for its 
translation into German from a man who during most of his life 
had been the pastor of one of the churches in that city. Jakob 
Samuel Wyttenbach had been associated with Haller in his 
publications on the Bernese Oberland, and had already translated 
and commented on portions of Deluc's Travels. After Haller's 
death, Wyttenbach, if he had no claim to the European repu- 
tation of his predecessor, took his place to a great extent as a 
source of information for the many travellers who were now 
turning their minds to the Alps, and as a link between the 
various observers who were working in various parts of Switzer- 
land to promote a better knowledge of the mountains and 
their phenomena. 1 Large extracts from his voluminous cor- 
respondence have been published by Dr. Diibi, who has shown 
that Wyttenbach was the channel through which Baron de Gers- 
dorf, the eye-witness of the first ascent of Mont Blanc, mainly 
carried on his communications with Chamonix and Geneva. 

De Saussure, while protesting that Wyttenbach would employ 
his time to better purpose in composing an original work on the 
mountains, gratefully accepted the offer of so competent a trans- 
lator, and the first two volumes of the Voyages appeared in four 
in German, published at Leipzig in 1781 and 1786. It appears, 
however, that Wyttenbach in the end acted rather as the super- 
visor than the actual translator, 2 who was probably a lady geologist, 
a Mile. Miiller, who is mentioned in the correspondence of the time. 

It is interesting among Wyttenbach's letters to find several 

1 In 1776 he supplied the text accompanying Wagner's views in the Bernese 
Oberland. In 1787 he published a small volume entitled, Instruction pour Us 
Voyageurs qui vont voir les Olaciers et Us Alpes du Canton de Berne. 

2 See de Saussure to Wyttenbach, 9th November 1781. Diibi's Jakob Samuel 
Wyttenbach und seine Freunde (Berne, 1910). 


from the worthy monk of Disentis, Placidus a Spescha, who, as 
has been pointed out, was, next to de Saussure,the most conspicuous 
figure in the mountaineering annals of the eighteenth century, and 
as a climber the first man of his time. Tardy justice has lately 
been done by his fellow-countrymen to one of the most remark- 
able among Alpine pioneers in a full and handsome biography. 1 

In 1792 Spescha was anxious to learn the result of de Saussure's 
first visit to Monte Rosa, whether he had proved it to be higher 
than Mont Blanc, and if he had written anything on the mountains 
of the Orisons ? As far as we know, de Saussure never heard of 
his rival's exploits. No mention of Spescha occurs in his works 
or in any of his papers that have come to my notice. It is a pity 
the two men never met ; for if the good monk had but scanty 
scientific knowledge, he showed a very considerable talent for 
orography, and his maps contrast favourably with those con- 
structed for the Genevese savant. 

In the summer of 1776 Sir George Shuckburgh, then lately 
elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, proposed to de Saussure 
to accompany him in an excursion to the Mole. Shuckburgh 
was anxious to test previous measurements of the height of 
Mont Blanc, and specially those of the Delucs, and had brought 
from England for the purpose a number of the best instruments 
available. He writes : ' Mr. de Saussure, a very ingenious gentle- 
man of this place, and well skilled in various parts of natural 
and experimental philosophy, gave me all the information neces- 
sary, and obligingly promised to accompany me, as did also 
Mr. Trembley.' 

The party set out from St. Jeoire, a town at the foot of the 
Mole, with a large company of porters charged with their instru- 
ments, but presently lost the way in a mist, even de Saussure, 
who had been seven or eight times on the mountain, being at a loss. 
Arrived on the summit, Shuckburgh describes his sensations thus : 

' I perceived myself elevated about 6000 feet in the atmosphere, 
and standing, as it were, on a knife-edge, for such is the figure of the 
ridge or top of this mountain ; length without breadth, or the least 
appearance of a plain, as I had expected to find. Before me an im- 

1 See my article on Spescha (Alpine Journal, vol. x.) and the large volume 
dealing with his life and activities published at Berne in 1913, Pater Placidus a 
Spescha, sein Leben und seine Schriften. 


mediate precipice, d pic, of above 1000 feet, and behind me the very 
steep ascent I had just surmounted. I was imprudently the first of 
the company : the surprise was perfect horror, and two steps further 
had sent me headlong from the rock.' 

In 1777 Shuckburgh published the result of his observations 
in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. The 
figure obtained by his triangulation was 4787 metres (15,705 feet). 
De Saussure, by calculating his barometrical observations by four 
different methods and taking the mean of them as his result, 
succeeded, somewhat ingeniously, in arriving at about the same 
figure, 2450 toises (15,667 feet). 

It may be of interest if I run over here some of the earlier 
endeavours to determine the height of Mont Blanc. The 
first attempt to measure ' the Hill called Cursed ' was made by 
Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, and is thus recorded by Gilbert Burnet : 2 

' The hill not far from Geneva called Maudit or Cursed, of which 
one-third is always covered with snow, is two miles of perpendicular 
height, according to the observation of that incomparable Mathe- 
matician and Philosopher, Nicolas Fatio Duillier, who at twenty-two 
years of age is already one of the greatest men of his age, and seems 
to be born to carry learning some sizes beyond what it has yet attained.' 

Fatio made the height 2000 toises above the Lake of Geneva, or 
15,268 feet above sea-level. Nicolas Fatio was a Fellow of the 
Royal Society. The next reference to hypsometry in its annals 
is interesting as an indication of the rudimentary state of the 
science in the earlier part of the eighteenth century. It is in the 
form of an article by J. D. Scheuchzer, a son of J. J. Scheuchzer, 
the author of the 'Ovpea-t^olrrj^ Helveticus.' 

The writer preludes as follows : 3 ' The height of mountains 
and their elevation above the sea-level has been at all times 
thought worthy of the attention of inquisitive philosophers.' 
He then proceeds to refer to the fact that ' certain Greek philo- 

1 See Phil. Trans, of the Royal Society, vol. Ixvii. p. 592. 

2 Letters containing an account of what seemed most remarkable in Italy, 
Switzerland, etc. (Rotterdam, 1686). Fatio's measurement is also referred to in 
a work, Astro-Theology, by W. Derham (London, 1715), and in Spon's History of 
Geneva, vol. ii. (Geneva, 1730). The later volume contains an article by N. 
Fatio's brother, J. C. Fatio, 'Remarques faites sur 1'Histoire Naturelle des 
Environs du Lac de Geneve.' 

3 Phil. Trans, of the Royal Society, Abridgement, vol. vii. p. 265. 


sophers who lived some time before our Saviour's Nativity fixed 
the perpendicular height of the highest mountains at about 
10,000 feet.' Subsequent writers, he regrets, however, to have 
to point out, have run them up ' to an extravagant and altogether 
unnatural height,' owing to their preference of a trigonometrical 
to a barometrical method. Scheuchzer dilates at some length 
on the disadvantages which he believes to be incident to the 
former method, and firmly asserts that the mountains of 
Switzerland, though the highest hi Europe, do not rise above 
10,000 French feet. 

Scheuchzer does not seem to have put his method into 
practice. The next observer to try his hand on Mont Blanc 
was Loys de Cheseaux, a Vaudois astronomer, who about 
1744 obtained by trigonometry an elevation for the mountain 
of 2246 toises above the lake, or 15,582 feet above sea- 
level. 1 

Martel, the engineer, who visited Chamonix in 1742, got for 
Mont Blanc by a trigonometrical measurement from a base of 
1536 feet in the Chamonix valley a height closely corresponding 
to Fatio de Duillier's. Early in the seventies, Deluc was busy 
with his barometrical experiments and methods for the ascer- 
tainment of heights, and combining these with trigonometrical 
measurements from Geneva and the Buet he obtained for Mont 
Blanc the height of about 15,285 feet, or some five hundred feet 
too low. 

Dr. Paccard stated in the Journal de Lausanne that in 1786 
he consulted his barometer on the top of Mont Blanc, but his 
results were valueless, and Bonnet mentions that his instru- 
ment was damaged. It is probable that some air had got 
into it. 

There have been many slightly varying official determinations 
of the height of the mountain in recent years. The latest, and 
probably the most exact, is that of M. Joseph Vallot, based on 
levelling from the Mediterranean to Geneva and on a most careful 
triangulation. The result is 807 metres (15,771 feet), or only a 
few feet higher than Shuckburgh's. The height of the snow-cap 
probably varies by a few feet in different years and at different 
seasons. It may therefore fairly be claimed for Shuckburgh 
1 Traiti de la Comete, Lausanne, 1744. 


that he was the first to determine the height of Mont Blanc with 
approximate accuracy. He was equally fortunate in several other 
cases in the same neighbourhood. 1 

1 See Whymper's Guide to Chamonix and the Range of Mont Blanc, and the 
Phil. Trans, of the Royal Society, vol. Ixvii. part ii. In the Annuaire Meteoro- 
logique de France, 1851, an interesting paper will be found, Notice sur les Altitudes 
du Mont Blanc et du Mont Rose, parle Commandant Dekroz. The author devotes 
several pages to de Sauasure's observations. Developed according to the 
formula of Laplace and Delcroz's own tables, these give an altitude for the 
mountain of 4817'3 metres. Delcroz, however, prefers a method by which he 
gets a result of 4808*1 metres, practically identical with that of the Vallot 
brothers' triangulation. 


MOUNTAINEERING in Savoy began, modestly enough, with the 
ascent of the Buet. The story of that mountain is, in fact, a 
prelude to that of Mont Blanc, and it brings on the scene two 
characters who were intimately associated, though in different 
ways, with de Saussure's activities, Jean Andre Deluc and 
Marc Theodore Bourrit. 

It was originally proposed that the little ' temple,' the successor 
to our countryman Blair's cabin on the Montenvers, that was 
erected in 1795 by Felix Desportes, 1 while he was the French 
Resident at Geneva, and dedicated by an inscription on its front 
' a la Nature,' should bear on its walls the names of a number of 
men of science of European reputation, and among them of 
six distinguished Genevese, including de Saussure, Deluc, and 
Bourrit. It seems to me appropriate, before dealing with the 
crowning events of de Saussure's life as an Alpine climber, to devote 
a few pages to sketches of the men who were thus connected with 
the great naturalist, to allow them to give some account of their 
exploits, and, in so doing, to throw light on their very diverse 

Jean Andre was the elder son of Jacques Francis Deluc, 
by trade a watchmaker and in private life an active member 
of the popular party in Geneva, and the author of many re- 
ligious and political tracts. Jacques Fra^ois was at one time 
on intimate terms with Rousseau, who has left on record that he 
found him an intolerable bore. He was, however, held in respect 
in his native town, and we find him appointed to head the delega- 
tion of Repre'sentants which in 1774 congratulated de Saussure on 
his proposals for educational reform. His two sons, Jean Andr6 

1 Desportes charged Bourrit with the erection of this edifice, and gave him 
two thousand francs for the purpose. It was furnished with beds, a table, and a 
visitors' book. 



and Guillaume Antoine, inherited their father's political principles, 
while adding to them scientific pursuits and a taste for climbing 
which combined to incite the brothers to attempt in 1770 the first 
ascent of the Buet. Two years later, owing either to his part in 
the political troubles of the time, or more probably to financial 
reverses, Jean Andr6 found it expedient to leave his native city, 
and establish himself in England, where he married. Hia scientific 
reputation as a meteorologist and inventor led to his being elected 
a Fellow of the Royal Society, while scruples as to his radical 
principles did not stand in the way of his accepting an appoint- 
ment as Reader to Queen Charlotte. We catch a glimpse of the 
quaint figure of the old republican in Miss Burney's Memoirs, 
wandering about the Court at Windsor and subject to the gibes, 
or practical jokes, of the dull royal dukes. Deluc's old age 
was spent at or near Windsor. The last mention we have 
of him is a report of his enjoying the descriptions of scenery in 
Byron's ' Prisoner of Chillon,' and being reminded by them of 
his own voyage round the lake with Rousseau more than sixty 
years before. 1 He died in 1817 at the age of ninety, and his 
tombstone may be found in the churchyard at Clewer. 

Jean Andre Deluc was a very voluminous author ; but it was as 
a physical student and a skilful constructor of instruments that he 
chiefly deserves respect. Meteorology was his special field, and 
if he got the worst of his controversy with de Saussure on the 
merits of their rival hygrometers, he was acknowledged by his 
contemporaries to have contributed substantially to the progress 
of the science. But his excursions into geology and cosmology 
were less fortunate. The full title of his principal work may help 
to explain this. It states that the treatise has been designed to 
prove the divine mission of Moses. In short, Deluc may be said 
to have had Genesis on the brain. In his cosmology he postulated 
a convulsion in which the old continents had given place to oceans, 
and the old sea-beds had become dry land. Thus the story of the 
universal deluge was vindicated and the presence of marine fossils 
on the high mountains accounted for. His views were in 1778 
set forth in a work of six volumes, entitled, Lettres Physiques et 
Morales sur les Montagues et sur I'Histoire de la Terre et de VHomme, 
dedicated to the Queen of Great Britain. 

1 See p. 28. 


In 1762 Deluc had submit ted in manuscript to the Paris Academy 
his Recherches sur les Modifications de I' Atmosphere, ou Theorie des 
Barometres et des Thermometres (published ten years later), a work 
which served to establish a method of ascertaining the heights of 
mountains by barometrical observations, and was recognised at 
the time as one of the best treatises on the use of instruments in 
meteorology. Its author claimed more for the Letters ; he 
asserted in the preface that they supplied the outline of a treatise 
on nature and man's place in it. The text depicts the scenery 
of the Lake of Geneva and the Bernese Oberland ; the descriptions 
are interspersed with many reflections on the advantages of a 
pastoral life and the virtue of Swiss peasants, obviously derived 
for the most part from Rousseau. 

If Deluc claims our respect as a scientific worker and an Alpine 
traveller, he does his best in his writings to make us forget it by 
his attitude as a universal philosopher and a courtier. The 
modern reader is amused rather than instructed or edified by 
his books, particularly when the author is led by ' the ecstasies 
in which he often finds himself on the mountains ' into a long 
assault on materialism, and then apologises in a proportionately 
long footnote for introducing ' discussions too far removed from 
the objects of attention of a Queen.' ' Queen ' is in capitals ! l 

To return, however, to the Buet. We may best do the Delucs 
justice as mountaineers by summarising the account of their first 
climbs which appeared in the English edition of Bourrit's work. 2 

It was in August 1765 that the two brothers started to 
attempt the Buet for the first time. From the neighbourhood 
of Geneva, Jean had observed to the north of the ' pikes in 
the form of obelisks ' which rose in a forbidding fence round the 
mighty dome of Mont Blanc, a mountain whose summit, though 
always covered with ice, seemed to him accessible and proper for 
his experiments. 

' He endeavoured then to inform himself of the name of this 
mountain, the place where it was situated, the road necessary to be 
taken to arrive at it, and whether or not it was to be ascended ; but 

1 A full and appreciative account of the character and the scientific and 
religious writings of the brothers Deluc will be found in Sayous' Le dixhuitieme 
Siecle a V Stranger, vol. i. ch. 12. 

8 Bourrit, Description of the Glaciers of Savoy (English edition, Norwich, 1776). 



no person could be found that knew it, nor could he gain the least 
intelligence with respect to any of his questions ; he was obliged, there- 
fore, at all events, to take a journey in search of it and endeavour to 
find it himself.' 

Such a passage and the following narrative give a curious idea 
of the state of ignorance in which Geneva lived of objects within 
its daily horizon, even after ' the discovery ' of Chamonix. With 
many doubts as to the right road, anxiously looking out for any 
glimpse of the snows, and seriously disquieted when they lost 
sight of them, the two Delucs arrived late at night at Sixt, 
where * their guide gave them no hope of finding any accom- 
modation/ Fortunately, despite the lateness of the hour, the 
convent opened its gates and received them most hospitably. 

The peasants of the village could give no information as to 
the snow mountain they were in search of, but offered to lead the 
travellers to some chalets, where a hunter who knew more might 
possibly be met with. 1 This plan was carried out, the chalets 
reached, and the hunter secured. But they followed him with 
uneasy minds, for their frozen summit had [entirely disappeared. 
When, after some rough scrambling, they reached the ridge of 
rocks known as the Grenier des Communes, which had long 
formed their skyline, ' they perceived themselves upon the brink 
of one of the most frightful precipices, which separated them 
from the summit they came in search of.' 

There was nothing for it but to go back, after having gazed 
' with admiration as well as horror ' at Mont Blanc, which appeared 
before them in all its majesty. An accident to the most im- 
portant member of the party, the thermometer, compelled them 
to return to Geneva. 

It was not till 1770 that the Delucs again attempted to carry 
out their design. Led by an ' apprentice to a hunter,' they 
climbed ' from one jutting point to another up the clefts of an 
immense wall of stone which was almost perpendicular,' only to 
find themselves ' upon the very same precipice they had been on 
five years before.' They consoled themselves by scram bh'ng to 
the highest point of the ridge, the Grenairon. In this effort they 
had to take the lead from their poor-spirited guides . The conduct 

1 It appears that the mountain was known as the Mortine in Valorsine, but 
had no name on the Sixt side. Buet was properly the name of a lower point. 


of one of these men was, indeed, most reprehensible. ' Fatigued 
with the labour he had undergone and in a fit of laughter at the 
folly of taking all this trouble to boil a little water, he threw 
himself, unluckily, with all his weight on Jean Deluc's foot and 
badly sprained it.' The ' author of the misfortune ' then aban- 
doned his employers, in order to go down and milk his cows. 
Jean Deluc was equal to the occasion, both as a philosopher and 
as a mountaineer. He candidly imputed the man's behaviour 
to his mistaken sense of duty to his master (the owner of the 
cows) rather than to want of feeling. Further, he contrived to 
slide upon his back 'down 1500 perpendicular feet.' Night 
then came on, and the climbers were compelled to sleep out, 
making a barricade to prevent themselves from rolling down 
the steep. Next morning Deluc's foot was less painful, and he 
was able to descend to Sixt. 

On the following day the village fair was held, and the Delucs 
learnt from some of the assembled peasants that the snowy dome 
they were in search of was known as the Buet, a name derived, 
they were told, from Bo vet, an upper pasturage, near the snow. 

A month later, in company with a hunter, they ascended to 
the hamlet of Les Fonds, now well known from the description 
of the late Sir Alfred Wills, who built himself a house in this 
lovely spot, and wrote of it with an owner's appreciation. 1 No 
raptures, however, can exceed those of the Delucs on this ' most 
superb amphitheatre,' ' delightful plain,' ' romantic solitude,' 
which ' they could not cease admiring.' Rain drove the brothers 
back to Sixt, but at the instance of the monks they waited until 
a fine day enabled them to return with better prospects to Les 
Fonds. Next morning they were off at daybreak, and by 7 A.M. 
had reached the ' Plain de Lechaud,' where they saw three of the 
' native burghers ' of the country that is to say, chamois. ' Pro- 
ceeding, they enjoyed for two hours the sensible succession of new 
objects without any other inconvenience than that of walking up 
an exceeding steep slope, which was nothing to their spirits and 

In plain language, they were drawing near the snow, and 
the upper slopes were still hard from the night's frost. Having 
had experience of the difficulty of using crampons, ' which 
1 See The Eagle's Nut (London, 1868). 


were apt to turn upon the foot and deceive them,' they had 
provided themselves with thick woollen socks to put over 
their shoes, by means of which, and their iron-pointed staves, 
they ' presumed it possible to step with the utmost security. 
Their shoes, however, were absolutely improper for such an 
undertaking.' Happily, the guides had broad soles and 
hobnails with which they crushed footsteps through the 
frozen crust. It was about noon when the party gained the 
summit, ' which commanded in a manner at one view all the 
straights of the Alps, of whose pikes there were but few 
which raised their points above them.' The last statement 
calls for very large qualification. The height of the Buet is 
only 10,200 feet. 

' For long they were absorbed in contemplation of the scene 
before them. When their attention returned upon themselves, 
they found that they were standing only upon a mass of con- 
gealed snow which jutted over a most frightful precipice. Their 
first impulse was to retreat with all speed, but soon reflecting 
that the addition of their weight to this prodigious frozen mass, 
which had been supported thus for ages, could have no effect to 
bring it down, they laid aside their fears and went again upon 
that horrid terrace.' After a halt of three-quarters of an hour, 
and making two boiling-water observations for height, they 
retired to some rocks a couple of hundred feet below the top for 
another hour and a half. During this prolonged stay, ' they were 
forced, by the absence of any disagreeable sensation, to remark 
what a wonderfully adaptive machine is the human body, whose 
equilibrium remains undisturbed within while the atmosphere 
without is changed in density.' 

The descent was easy. The Delucs observed with envy, 
though they did not venture to imitate, the mode of progression 
of their guides, who glissaded, as we now say that is, slid leaning 
on their poles down the slopes. They found out, however, 
another method which they thought very agreeable. It consisted 
in a series of jumps, made ' with regularity and due deliberation,' 
and would seem to have been modelled on the gait of a kangaroo . 
At the foot of the snow they were saluted by the whistles of 
marmots, which suggested to them the signals of banditti. Sixt 
was regained after nightfall. 


A second ascent l of the Buet was made in 1772 by J. A. Deluc, 
his brother, and a young Genevese clergyman named Dentan, 
from the chalets of Anterne by a different route, recommended 
by their guides. Deluc 's object was to make further observa- 
tions. Unluckily, at the chalets he again broke his thermometer. 
His account of the accident is a specimen of the naive enthusiasm 
of the early observers : ' I looked with emotion for my ther- 
mometer ; it was broken. I gave a cry which shook the cabin.' 
Happily, the hygrometer survived to reach the summit, and 
afterwards to be honoured with a place in Queen Charlotte's 
apartments. The climbers took eight hours to reach the top, 
and on their return they were benighted and caught in a thunder- 
storm among the cliffs of the mountain. From this unpleasant 
situation they were rescued by the mistress of the chalet in which 
they had passed the previous night. Her courageous conduct 
and refusal to accept any recompense suggest to Deluc some 
of his usual reflections on the virtues of the mountaineer, and he 
concludes his story with the exclamation, ' Je me reprocherois 
tou jours si Anterne pouvoit devenir un lieu frequente ! ' Else- 
where, however, with an inconsistency not uncommon among 
travellers, he pronounces the Buet to be ' the most engaging to 
a man of taste of all the mountains of the Alps,' and expresses a 
hope that some of his readers may undertake its ascent. 

It is now the turn of Deluc 's follower on the Buet, Marc 
Theodore Bourrit, to be brought on the stage. The faithful 
historian must feel some diffidence in attempting a sketch of this 
many-sided and unequal character. Deluc was an enthusiast in 
his feeling for the mountains, but his enthusiasm was not free 
from the affectation of the age. Bourrit 's love of the Alps was 
absolutely genuine, and for its sake the critic who shares his 
passion is disposed to forgive him much and even to feel a touch 
of compunction when called on to record the too obvious weak- 
nesses which were combined with this sympathetic quality. 

We owe the following vivid contemporary sketch of ' the 
Historiographer of the Alps ' as Bourrit liked to be called to a 
Herr Fischer of Berlin, who, having visited Geneva in 1795 and 

1 Lettres Physiques et Morales sur les Montagues et sur VHistoire de la Terre 
et de PHomme, Deluc, 1778, in which a published account of the expedition by 
M. Dentan is also referred to. The work is in six volumes. 


been admitted to Bourrit's studio, succeeded in anticipating the 
method of the modern interviewer. 
He writes : 

' Bourrit's figure is long and thin, his complexion dark as a negro's, 
his eyes burning and full of genius and life, his mouth marked by a 
touch of mobility and good nature which inspires confidence such is 
a rapid sketch of this singular man. 

' His description of the Alps, written, if you will, in too poetical 
and too exalted a style, is a real masterpiece. Bourrit is less exact 
than Saussure ; he paints with a broad brush, and often neglects details, 
but he makes up for this failing by the colour and vivacity of his 
pictures. Saussure speaks as a philosopher, Bourrit as a poet ; while 
the former instructs you frigidly, and sometimes sends you to sleep, 
the latter may bore you by his too frequently repeated exclamations, 
but his style is fiery, and the perusal of his works excites and draws you 
on. The talent of Bourrit as an artist is not less distinguished. The 
style of his composition is characteristic and individual. Many of his 
pictures, none of which is without merit, have been sold in England 
and Russia ; his house is hung with those that remain. He lives a 
quiet and retired life. Although he no longer serves in the cathedral 
choir, the salary attached to the office has been continued to him, as 
he has lost the pension he had from France. 

' He has, besides, many eccentricities in his way of living : he 
sleeps during eight months in the year under a walnut-tree in his 
garden, with a fur coat in July, and no greatcoat in January. He 
talks of Mont Blanc with the most exalted enthusiasm, and when 
leading travellers to the Montenvers, utters appropriate little prayers 
while climbing the mountain. 

' The companion of his excursions, the faithful Raton, so well 
known to his readers, has passed away : he carefully preserves his 
skin : the successor of this cherished companion in his frequent pil- 
grimages promises to be quite as interesting. 

' For the rest, there is not in the world a character more kind or 
more obliging than Bourrit. It is true he talks too much of the Alps, 
and, above all, of himself. But who will not pardon this little weak- 
ness in a man whose merits are so well known, and who, in the double 
role of painter and author, is an honour to his country ? ' l 

Beside this impression of a passing visitor we may put the 
portrait supplied by Bonnet, whose criticisms were always tem- 
pered by his kindness of heart and desire to be just. 

1 See C. A. Fischer, Ueber Genf und der Genfersee (Berlin, 1796). 


' The Alpine travels of our Bourrit are in reality only descrip- 
tive : this man, Precentor in our cathedral, has talent for music and 
in painting, but he is no physical student or naturalist, and his imagina- 
tion is always effervescent. Still we must give him due credit for his 
enthusiasm and his pluck.' 

Contrasted with the in every respect wider intellect of de 
Saussure, the man of philosophic mind, who wrote with the 
calm and measured precision of a man of science, the aristocrat 
with the finest house in Geneva for his home and ample means at 
his disposal, Bourrit makes no imposing figure. He was a natif 
that is, a plebeian by birth. Gifted by nature with a fine voice 
and some artistic talent, he obtained at an early age an appoint- 
ment as Precentor in the cathedral choir. He added to his 
income by setting up as a painter of miniatures. But when he was 
twenty-two a visit to Les Voirons, one of the lower heights near 
Geneva, revealed to him his true vocation. He fell in love with 
the Alps, and at the same time he made the convenient discovery 
that there was at Geneva a better market for mountain landscapes 
than for portraits. Bourrit obviously had in more senses than one 
the artistic temperament. He is recorded to have been on 
several occasions reproved for unpunctuality and petty irregu- 
larities by the cathedral authorities. We find him often borrowing 
or asking for payments in advance from de Saussure, whose 
Voyages he helped to illustrate. He even got into needless 
trouble over the accounts of the subscription he had helped to 
raise in Germany for Balmat, after the latter 's ascent of Mont 
Blanc. Art, however, soon became with Bourrit only a profitable 
adjunct to authorship. His mission in life was to be the door- 
keeper in the temple of Jupiter Penninus, the showman to introduce 
the ' visitors to the glaciers ' to their ' agreeable horrors.' In the 
summer months he was always to be found either at his house in 
Geneva or at hand in his chalet at Chamonix. In the case of any 
person of distinction he was delighted to furnish an itinerary, or 
even personally to conduct his tour. In 1773 he wrote to a 
friend that Lord Chesterfield, 1 ' a Mylord of fine figure and great 
wealth,' who was studying at Geneva, had offered him fifty louis 
in advance to accompany him to Chamonix. 

1 The fifth Earl of Chesterfield, the godson and successor of the author of the 
famous Letters. A supplementary volume of letters addressed to his godson by 
the fourth Earl was edited by Lord Carnarvon. 


In 1777 he applied earnestly though in vain to de Sauseure 
to get the Emperor Joseph n. to visit his studio and accept his 
services as a courier or guide to the glaciers. But in his literary 
efforts he was more fortunate ; they met with all, and perhaps 
more than all, the success they deserved. He was a ready and 
successful writer, though he is reported to have needed the help 
of his friend Jean Pierre Be"renger, the Genevese historian, in 
putting his manuscript into shape. 

His Description des Glacieres, first published in 1773, was soon 
(1775) translated into English, and went through three English 
editions. In the printed list of subscribers we meet with many 
of the celebrities of the time : Sir Joshua Reynolds, Angelica 
Kaufman, Horace Walpole, Dr. Johnson, Bartolozzi. Goethe 
read it and described its author as a ' passionirter Kletterer.' 
Bourrit's fame spread till it reached even royal ears . In 1775 
the King of Sardinia received him at Chambery and gave him a 
substantial recompense, a compliment he was never tired of 
recalling to his visitors' notice. Thus encouraged, Bourrit in 
1779-80 took courage to face the ordeal of Paris. Here he was 
fortunate in finding an influential friend in Buff on. It is, I think, 
clear that there was little personal sympathy or intellectual 
fellowship between de Saussure and the author of the Epoques de la 
Nature. The reader will find in an earlier chapter de Saussure 's 
personal impressions of the great scientist. Buffon, on his part, 
seems to have been annoyed by de Saussure 's insistence on the 
necessity for exact observation, if he did not feel it as an implicit 
reproach. In his chapter on Glaciers he quotes Bourrit, and 
Bourrit alone. He was at the pains to read the proofs of Bourrit's 
later work, Description des Alpes Pennines et Rhetiennes, and to 
acknowledge them in these surprisingly warm terms : 

' I have read, too, with great satisfaction, the seven sheets of 
your second volume which you have been good enough to send me, 
and which I have the honour to return. It is impossible to praise 
too highly the courage or rather the intrepidity with which you faced 
the dangers of your difficult travels among the glaciers and the 
summits of the High Alps, and the description you give of them is the 
justification of your labours and your exertions. I have been par- 
ticularly struck by the prodigious glacier at the source of the Rhone, 
and in general it is impossible not to praise your observations and 
also your pictures.' 


Buffon concluded by asking for an appointment to visit 
Bourrit's studio. 

At Court, thanks largely to his patron's kind offices, Bourrit 
was presented to Louis Seize, who bought one of his pictures, a 
view of the Oeschinen See near Kandersteg, and on condition 
he sent him two pictures every year, granted him a pension 
of 600 livres, which after the restoration was renewed by 
Louis Dix-huit. It is little wonder if these successes completely 
turned Bourrit's head. Henceforth he always signed himself 
' Pensionnaire du Hoi.' His neighbours might still smile at their 
Precentor. But his fame increased with distance. He wrote to 
de Saussure, asking him for copies of his Voyages, that he might 
present them to Necker, Buffon, Le Roi (Director of the Cabinet de 
Physique ) , and Marat . Bourrit looked on the future demagogue as 
a second Newton who had invented a new Theory of the Universe. 
Frederic the Great wrote to the proud Precentor and dubbed him 
' The Historiographer of the Alps.' Prince Henry of Prussia paid 
a visit to his studio, of which an amusing account is preserved 
in a volume written by the father of Alfred de Musset : l 

' From the retreat where M. Senebier is incessantly at work, I 
went to visit M. Bourrit, the author of the Voyage des Alpes. I shall 
not permit myself any comment, but content myself with giving an 
exact account of what I saw and what he said to me. On entering 
the court I saw a sort of framework on which was a wretched mattress ; 
this was the bed of M. Bourrit. He moves about this portable bed- 
stead according to the weather or his whim, placing it sometimes 
near the wall, sometimes in the middle of his court. He described 
to us a visit he had received from Prince Henry of Prussia. " At his 
request," he told us, " I described a sunrise : I pictured to him the 
orb flinging his rays into the recesses of the Alps till, fired by my 
description, the Prince cried out, ' Our Lekain 2 was ice compared 
to this man.' ' 

' M. Bourrit pointed out to us his little staircase, which, in fact, is 
very narrow. He said that while going down it Prince Henry had said 
to his suite, " How many great staircases there are for little men ! I am 
delighted to have found at last a great man with a little staircase." 
I hope for M. Bourrit's sake that there is a real disproportion between 
his staircase and himself, and that the prince's antithesis is sound. 

1 Voyage en Suisse et en Italiefait avec VArmee de Reserve, par V. A. D. (Paris, 
An ix). 

2 A famous actor of the time. 


1 If Bonaparte had consulted M. Bourrit, he would have pointed 
out to him a route through the Alps shorter, more convenient, and 
easier than any of those by which he transported the different divisions 
of his army ! 

' As we left we saw again the bed on the frame, and my companion 
whispered to me that M. Bourrit had some resemblance to Diogenes. 
On looking at him I saw that his sleeve had a hole in it.' 

The Bishop of Annecy granted, at Bourrit's request, a dis- 
pensation from fasting to the visitors to Chamonix. An extract 
from his eloquent appeal to the Bishop may serve to show his 
special regard for our countrymen : 

' Curiosity brings to them [the Chamoniards] strangers, men of 
distinction, above all, Englishmen, who come to admire the spot 
where Nature reveals her grandeur in its beautiful and its terrible 
aspects : they arrive tired, exhausted ; they are told of the obligation 
to fast they soon feel no obligation but that to leave, to get away. 
The inhabitants appeal in this matter to your indulgence, your kindness ; 
they do not ask to be themselves dispensed from fasting, but they 
beg you to permit them to feed visitors according to their wishes, 
and as the fatigues they have undergone and those they still endure in 
travelling among these mountains demand.' 

It was no doubt a small fly in the ointment that Bourrit's 
fellow-citizens failed to show proper respect for ' notre Bourrit,' 
that the Genevese literary public smiled at the pretensions of the 
worthy Precentor, and that the local men of science refused to take 
his romantic rhapsodies at his own valuation. 

Bourrit himself was at no pains to conceal his character : 
his books and letters are self -revelations. His style is a parody 
of that of the day, alternately familiar, sentimental, and high- 
flown. At one moment he is pouring out lengthy confidences 
about the marvellous intelligence of his dog, Raton ; the next 
he is celebrating the charms of the rustic beauties of the Bernese 
Oberland, or in incoherent ecstasies over the belles horreurs of 
the mountains, or descanting on the fearful dangers he believes 
himself to have escaped. His feats, and the perils they lead 
him into, appear in his eyes prodigiously magnified. His per- 
petual state of emotion deprives him of any power of accurate 
observation. As the English translators of his Journey to the 
Glaciers of Savoy naively remark : ' In all his descriptions he 


discovers that luxuriance and enthusiasm of fancy which 
without instructions have constituted him the painter and the 
musician of nature.' Forbes puts it more crudely: 'He conveys 
the simplest facts through a medium of unmixed bombast.' 

With his disregard for accuracy, Bourrit combined a boundless 
vanity. If he loved the Alps well, he loved Bourrit still more. 
If Mont Blanc was his idol, he looked on himself as its high priest, 
and was jealous of any intrusion on the shrine. De Saussure 
wrote, ' M. Bourrit takes even more interest than I do in the 
conquest of Mont Blanc.' The enthusiastic worshipper would 
have greatly preferred to have had no rival in his devotion. 
But for obvious reasons it was needful to treat de Saussure with 
respect. It was an honour to the Precentor to be associated with 
the wealthy patrician and man of science, while as a needy artist 
he found in him a kindly and munificent patron. Bourrit had to 
be content with doing his best to link himself on to de Saussure 
in the latter 's attacks on the great mountain. But lesser tres- 
passers he could not abide. Had his vanity been harmless, it 
might have been forgotten, or passed over lightly, but unfor- 
tunately it led him into an exhibition of jealousy which, as 
will be shown in the next chapter, helped for nearly a century 
to obscure the story of the conquest of Mont Blanc. We have 
the testimony of one of de Saussure's grandsons that Bourrit 
was the originator of the legend of Balmat, which many years 
later was to be adorned by Alexandre Dunias (the elder) with all 
the romantic detail of which he was a master. Apart from this 
deplorable episode, it would be possible for mountain -lovers to 
look with a lenient eye on Bourrit 's complacency and self-conceit. 
De Saussure himself has set us an example . x His general attitude 
towards Bourrit was one of more or less indulgent toleration. 
In his Voyages he praises warmly the artist and refers kindly to 
the fellow-climber. The letter in which he thanks Bourrit for 
a copy of his first book is a model of its kind ; he gives what 
praise he can ; at the same time he suggests, under cover of a 
gentle irony, qualifications sufficient to satisfy his own conscience, 

1 Bourrit's relations with de Saussure and his family are best illustrated by de 
Saussure's journal during his long stay at Chamonix in 1787, and the boy Charles 
Bourrit's diary during the same period. They remained of a very friendly char- 
acter despite the Aiguille du Gouter incident to be recounted in the next chapter. 


and yet such as Bourrit's vanity might lead him to overlook. 
He writes : 

' The public owes you its thanks for the lively and really picturesque 
descriptions of objects so interesting and so little known. I also pro- 
pose myself to publish something on these same mountains it is with 
this purpose that I have been studying them for so many years. I 
shall owe it to your book to have called the attention of the public 
to these great objects, and to have aroused in it a desire to know more 
of them.' 

In 1780, thanking Bourrit for a later volume, he writes : 

' I have just finished reading your work with singular pleasure. 
One recognises everywhere that picturesque imagination and that 
lively appreciation of the beauties of nature which are the marked 
characteristics of your descriptions. I also greatly enjoy the historical 
details with which you enrich them. There are some points in physics 
in which I do not share your opinion, but that does not necessarily 
prove that you are wrong.' 

The rest of the note consists of a vigorous correction of 
Bourrit's hypsometry. 

Nothing could be more judicious : the letters might serve as 
models for that embarrassing branch of correspondence, the 
acknowledgment of a presentation copy. But when we turn to 
later letters to Bourrit, we find that he candidly calls him to 
account for his excess of imagination, whilst in familiar corre- 
spondence with friends he was wont to refer to the Precentor's 
failings in plain language. 

Such was the knight who advanced in September 1775 to 
the attack of the Buet from the side of Valorsine the first 
inventor of that lately somewhat hardly pressed resource of 
modern climbers, the ' new route.' Bourrit was by no means 
the man to take an easy peak by surprise ; his approaches were 
always made in due form. In the previous year (1775) he had 
inspected with de Saussure the Delucs' route from Les Fonds, 
and been impressed by its formidable aspect. So he now went 
round to the other side and summoned a council of the inhabi- 
tants of Valorsine, which, as they did not know the mountain 
in question by the name of Buet, naturally led to no result. 
Vexed at his failure, he rather hastily set off to make the tour 
by Cluses to Sixt, but meeting at Les Houches the former Cure 



of Valorsine, he was induced to retrace his steps. Accord- 
ingly a second council was held, and a hunter made the brilliant 
suggestion that possibly the peak Bourrit called the Buet might 
be that they knew as the Mortine. Accordingly a start was made 
by the valley of the Eau Noire ; but a cloudy day discouraged the 
climbers and induced them to return. The impulsive Bourrit 
set ofi a second time for Geneva, got as far as Sallanches, and then, 
finding a clear sky irresistible, rushed back to his mountain. 
This time all went well, and eight hours after leaving Valorsine 
the party found themselves on the desired summit. Bourrit 
was not the man to under -estimate the importance of his success : 
' From this moment he conceived the greatest hope for the History 
of the Earth as well as for physical science.' The view he describes 
with rapture ; but the best proof of his enjoyment is the fact 
that he repeated the expedition no less than six times in sub- 
sequent years. His memory still lives in the name of ' La Table 
du Chantre ' the Precentor's Table given to a huge slab 
of rock some distance below the summit on the side of Valorsine 
on which he rested. 

His hopes for physical science were in some measure fulfilled 
by the ascent of de Saussure, led by Pierre Simon and a local 
guide named Pierre Boyon in the following year (1776). From 
the mountaineer's point of view this expedition does not present 
any features worth record, although it furnished opportunity 
for a lengthy review of the structure of the granite peaks of the 
Mont Blanc chain and a dissertation on the rarefaction of the 

Bourrit had the satisfaction of supplying the savant's work 
with a panorama of the view from the summit. It is drawn in 
the old-fashioned circle, but is fairly correct, though the identifica- 
tion of the peaks is faulty. Bourrit drew in the centre of his 
illustration the singular icicle -fringed cornice in which the snow 
dome of the Buet formerly broke away towards the north. De 
Saussure thereon went out of his way to say in a note that Bourrit 
was solely responsible for this feature, of which he had no re- 
collection. Either the cornice had broken away in the interval 
between the two ascents, or the man of science in this instance 
has proved himself less observant than the artist. I was inclined 
to think Bourrit might at any rate have exaggerated, but a 


reference to an old photograph proves that there was in the 
sixties of the last century a cornice of dimensions equal to that he 
represents on the mountain. 

This is the description Bourrit gave in a letter written to de 
Saussure of an attempt to sketch the panorama made on his 
second ascent, a fortnight after the Professor's : 

' Next, in order to make good use of my time, I got out my instru- 
ments or rather yours and set to work to draw : at first the snow 
came up to my calves, but insensibly I sank up to the belt, while the 
foot of the quadrant sank also. I tried to change my position, but 
it was useless, the wind was violent, and so was the cold ; my com- 
panions beat themselves like madmen to get warm while I felt my 
powers abandon me and my blood freeze in my veins. One of my 
companions noticed it and rescued me from my situation. I descended 
to the first rocks, where I fell senseless on my guides ; they placed me 
in the shelter of some rocks and gave me something to drink, while 
Favret held me stretched in his arms ; this rest and the sun's warmth 
restored me.' 

Bourrit's endeavours as an Alpine artist call for sympathy. 
He was one of the first draftsmen of his time to try to draw 
mountains as they are. His predecessors, like the ' aesthetic 
critics ' of the present day, had looked on them as rude masses, 
whose lines required to be reduced to simplicity and symmetry 
by the ' man of taste.' Few of Bourrit's paintings still exist ; l 
they were numerous. The fourteen sketches intended to have 
been etched as illustrations to the English edition of the Journey 
to the Glaciers are said to have passed into the hands of a ' gentle- 
man in England.' All we know about them is from Bourrit 
himself, who, in the preface, tells us how they came to be made. 
He observes 

' that the first time he went into this romantic country the number 
and immensity of the objects which struck his sight at the same time 
presented difficulties it was impossible for him then to surmount, not 
having formed the least idea of them before he set out. His second 
attempt was more successful, when he not only determined his choice 
of the prospects, but was enabled to invent a new method of taking 
them with greater exactness. 

1 There are two in the Art Gallery at Geneva but they are kept in a cup- 
board and one in the rooms of the Club Alpin Suisse. 


' His end thus answered, he brought back fourteen sketches, which 
those who are pleased with these subjects, as well foreigners as natives, 
have judged worthy the attention of the curious. 

' He takes upon him to assure the public that not only the larger 
masses are designed in these views, but that he has made out even 
the smaller, and that nothing is added from imagination only, as in 
almost l all the drawings of these places he has had an opportunity 
of seeing. That he had examined the print from a plate of Mr. Vivare 
in London, representing the icy valley of Montanvert, of which he 
affirms there is hardly as much as one stroke taken from nature ; 
and that another of the valley of Chamonix is equally false (he means 
the thirteenth plate in the account of the glaciers of Switzerland, by 
Mr. Grouner) ; all which will not appear extraordinary, when we are 
informed that those gentlemen who had hitherto gone over the glaciers 
were rather men of taste than draftsmen. He has experienced besides 
that one journey is insufficient to render drawings of this sort perfect. 
That he found it highly necessary to attend to the peculiar state and 
condition of the air and weather, of which we never can be secure, 
and which may prove very unfavourable to the designer upon a single 
visit or in one season only, though the completion of his sketches must 
depend upon their clearness and serenity. We go to the valleys are 
struck with admiration trace out some loose lines in haste add a 
few revising touches by way of memoranda, and at our return imagina- 
tion does the rest.' 

Book illustrations are at the present day the chief material we 
have from which to judge of Bourrit's art. As might be expected 
from a miniaturist, the plates of his own book are laboured, and 
the foreground to the Lac de Chede (beside which he desired to 
be buried) is beautified in the landscape gardener's style with 
' bosquets.' He would seem to have had a failing for painting 
reflections in water, and in several instances could not refrain 
from turning the Arve into a glassy stream. But the mountain 
outlines are, as a rule, firm and fairly correct. For the period 
this is no slight praise, as may be seen by contrasting Bourrit's 
plates with the more ambitious illustrations to Albanis Beau- 
mont's folio The Pennine Alps. When we turn to the plates which 
Bourrit furnished to de Saussure we are often agreeably surprised 

1 The author has excepted from this censure two views of Chamonix drawn 
with great care and exactness by Mr. Jalabert. (Original note.) Jalabert waa 
de Saussure's companion in his first tour of Mont Blanc. 


at the accuracy of topographical detail attained in such difficult 
subjects as the chain of Mont Blanc from the Allee Blanche, and 
still more at the power and vigour shown in many of the blotted- 
in sketches of individual peaks. The rock structure was all- 
important for de Saussure's purposes ; in the preface to the Voyages 
he tells us how he has insisted on its reproduction. Doubtless 
the connection between them was most advantageous to Bourrit 
by necessarily fixing his attention on facts, and forbidding any 
indulgence in the prettinesses of which he was far too fond. 
But with every disposition to estimate Bourrit 's work as kindly as 
de Saussure does in the passage referred to, we are forced to admit 
that, even judged by the standard of his time, it shows little real 
artistic sense or power. It cannot compare with that of Wolf, 
the painter who furnished the plates of the Aar glaciers and other 
scenes in the Bernese Oberland produced at about the same 

The Buet was not long in becoming a recognised excursion for 
adventurous tourists, as well as for the men of science who found 
it a convenient observatory and post for measuring Mont Blanc. 
The Delucs climbed the mountain twice. So did de Saussure, 
in 1776 and 1778. He narrates an incident at the chalets 
above Valorsine which shows that visitors were still a rarity : 

' We were conducted by a bevy of young girls, very lively and in 
high spirits, to whom the object of our journey, our dress, our mode 
of speech, even our least movements, were matters for immoderate 
bursts of laughter. 1 They accompanied us as far as La Courterai 
with unflagging mirth, and even succeeded in communicating to us 
some of their gaiety.' 

Bourrit returned often to a mountain which suited so well 
his climbing powers. Before the end of the century three English 
ladies, the Misses Parminter, who, we are told, had already made a 
long Alpine tour, found their way to the top, escorted by Bourrit 's 

1 An account of a similar incident in the same locality in 1780 may be found 
in the Alpine Journal, vol. xxxii. p. 75. These lively damsels were natives of the 
valley Ruskin selected as an example of 'mountain gloom ' ! Had he met a similar 
troop on his own ascent of the Buet (Alpine Journal, vol. xxxii. p. 335) we might 
have lost one of the most eloquent chapters in Modern Painters \ Bordier also 
expatiates on the bonheur of the inhabitants of the Trient Valley in the eighteenth 
century as an example of Rousseau's ideal rural happiness. 


friend B^ranger and the guide known as Le Grand Jorasse. In 
1800 a young Dane, attempting to make the ascent from Servoz, 
lost his life by falling into a crevasse, and his monument was 
made a tactful use of by the authorities as a means of conveying 
a suitable warning to future travellers not to fail to follow the 
advice of their guides. 1 

There remains yet another incident in Bourrit's literary 
career which calls for a passing reference. Some years before the 
attacks on Mont Blanc he rushed into a literary squabble with 
a rival who remains an obscure but interesting figure in the 
annals of glacier research. In 1773 the Precentor was on the 
point of publishing his first work on the glaciers of Savoy, when, to 
his infinite disgust, he found himself anticipated. To add insult 
to injury, the interloper had on his title-page veiled his identity 
under the initial 'Mr. B.' Some at least of the public naturally 
attributed the little book, consisting for the most part of the notes 
of a lively tourist on the round tour to Martigny, the Col de 
Balme, and, Chamonix to Bourrit . The author was, in fact, Andr6 
Cesar Bordier, a minister at Geneva. The first 'B.'s ' wrath knew 
no bounds, but, far from being inarticulate, it found vent in the 
Cercles or clubs of Geneva. Bourrit alleged that Bordier had 
used as the basis of his work a copy of the manuscript notes he 
Bourrit was accustomed to lend to visitors to Chamonix. That 
one of Bordier's party had had a copy of these notes in his pocket 
was not disputed. A critical eye can find, however, little trace in 
Bordier's book of any substantial use having been made of them. 
Still Bourrit, whose work was already announced, obviously had a 
legitimate grievance in the misleading use of the common initial 
on the title-page. He appears to have made the most of it in the 
social ' Circles ' of the town. The pair rushed into print. Bordier 
was stimulated into issuing a tedious pamphlet full of minute and 
captious criticism of Bourrit's book. Bourrit retorted in another 
written in a similar spirit. It is impossible for a modern reader to 
peruse with any patience either of these deplorable productions. 
The whole controversy might, indeed, well be forgotten but for 
one very remarkable fact. Bordier in his slender and for the most 
part slight record of a holiday trip inserted a chapter in which 

1 See Alpine Journal, vol. xiii. p. 179, for a note as to this accident and 
Eschen's complicated nationality. 



the theory of the structure of glacier ice subsequently propounded 
by Rendu and Forbes was clearly anticipated. I quote the 
crucial passage in the original French : 

' Hypothec, sur les difftrents Phtnom&nes des Glaci&res riduits 
a un seul principe 

' II est terns maintenant de considerer tous ces objets avec les 
yeux de la Raison, et d'abord d'eiudier la marche et la position des 
Glaci&res, et de chercher la solution des principaux Ph6nomenes 
qu'elles pre"sentent. Au premier aspect des Monts de glace une 
observation s'offrit & moi, et elle me parut suffire a tout. C'est que la 
Masse entiere des Glaces est Ii6e ensemble, et pese rune sur 1'autre de 
haut en bas a la maniere des Fluides. Considerons done 1'assemblage 
des glaces non point comme une masse entierement dure et immobile, 
mais comme un amas de matiere coagulee, ou comme de la cire amolh'e, 
flexible et ductile jusqu'a un certain point ; supposons ensuite que 
les sommit^s du Mont Blanc, point le plus eleve des environs, se soyent 
trouvees couvertes de glace et voyons ce qui aura du en resulter.' 

The suggestion here put forward is remarkable in itself. But 
what is perhaps still more remarkable is that it attracted no 
attention at the time, or for ninety years afterwards. The 
little volume had its short day of popularity 1300 copies were 
sold in three months and then it was completely forgotten. 
It was left to a Bernese professor to call attention to the chapter 
on glaciers. Bernard Studer, in his Physiographic der Schweiz 
(1863), introduced the passage already quoted in the following 
words : 

* It is wonderful how, under the influence of de Saussure, the views 
of one of his fellow-citizens, which have of late been recognised as the 
more accurate, have been so completely forgotten that in the disputes 
of recent years over the earliest traces of the theory that treats glaciers 
as viscous masses, his name has never once been mentioned.' 

Professor Studer was an early friend and companion of Forbes, 
who dedicated his travels to him, and must have read his 1863 
book. There is perhaps evidence of this in a mention of Bordier 
in his article published in 1865, two years later, in the North 
British Review, but it is a bare mention, without any reference 
to his glacier theory. 1 Studer's emphatic claim attracted no 
notice in scientific circles in this country until Tyndall his 
See Coolidge's edition of Forbes' Travels through the Alps, p. 530. 



attention having been called to it by the present writer in 1872 
cited it in his Forms of Water. The greater portion of Bordier's 
chapter was subsequently reprinted in the Alpine Journal (vol. ix.). 
A copy of the original volume is in the Alpine Club and Geo- 
graphical Society's Libraries. 

There are two questions which must force themselves on all 
readers who are at the pains to compare carefully this attempt 
at a glacier theory with the lively but slight narrative in which 
it is embedded. Can they possibly both be by the same hand ? 
Can the essay on glaciers be the product of a tourist who spent 
only a few hours at Chamonix, and, as far as we know, had no 
scientific training ? The suggestions contained in it are acute, 
and for the most part sound and in advance of their time. They 
read like the product of a student with a keen eye and an in- 
genious mind who has studied glaciers carefully and fixed his 
attention on the problems connected with their motion. Was 
there anyone among Bordier's acquaintances at Geneva at that 
date who answers to this description ? I am unable to throw 
any light on the question, and I must leave the inquiry to local 
historians . I have quoted the opening sentences in Bordier's glacier 
chapter ; the following ones from a later page (276) strengthen my 
doubts as to the authorship they could hardly have been written 
by anyone who did not know well what he was writing about : 

' II serait a souhaiter qu'il y eut a Chamonix quelqu'un qui put 
observer les Glacieres pendant une suite d'annees et comparer leur 
marche et leurs vicissitudes avec les observations meteorologiques ; la 
position du Bourg seroit extremement commode pour cela ; cependant 
Ton tire peu de lumieres des habitants. II faudroit marquer precise"- 
ment quelles sont les bornes et 1'aspect successif des differents Glaciers, 
en quel temps ils s'avancent ou retrogradent et quelles sont les annees 
les plus remarquables & ces deux egards. II faudroit examiner quand 
les fentes et les chutes des glasons sont plus consid6rables, quelles 
alterations subissent les rivieres qui decoulent des Glaciers, quelles 
sont les differentes hauteurs du Lac de Glace, ce que Ton pourroit 
observer dans les rochers lateraux. II faudroit essayer de placer des 
fardeaux sur les grosses ondes du Glacier des Bossons et voir quand et 
comment ils seroient ren verses. II faudroit examiner si la glace, etant 
idioilectrique, ces vastes monceaux de glace ne donneroient aucuns 
phenomenes dans les tempetes, etc. etc.' 


The only clue I can offer is the fact that about this time, at the 
instigation of M. Hennin, the French Resident at Geneva, steps 
were being taken to ascertain the rate of movement of the Mer de 
Glace opposite the Montenvers. This is a sign that a new interest 
in glacial problems was springing up. Who were the promoters 
who shared in the undertaking ? 

If it is difficult to believe that Bordier, who has no known 
claim to any scientific interests or capacity, should have had 
the insight shown in this instance, it is certainly remarkable that 
de Saussure should not have thought the hypothesis thus put 
forward at some length deserving of his consideration, or even of a 
passing comment. We know he had seen Bordier's book, for 
in a letter written from Contamines in 1774 he refers to having 
felt the reverse of flattered at having the authorship of the 
Voyage Pittoresque attributed to him by the local Vicaire. De 
Saussure's nature was too generous to allow us to attribute his 
silence to any feelings of jealousy. The best suggestion I can 
offer, and I admit it is a poor one, is that he glanced at the com- 
paratively trivial narrative of the early chapters of Bordier's 
volume and then threw it hastily aside. 


right of the picture. 


IN 1760 de Saussure, as has already been pointed out, had had 
posted in every commune of the Chamonix valley a notice promis- 
ing a handsome reward to the first man to climb Mont Blanc, and 
also payment to pioneers for time spent in the endeavour. Fifteen 
years passed without any serious effort being made to take 
advantage of his offer. 

Pierre Simon, de Saussure's first guide, it is true, undertook 
some sort of reconnaissance of the mountain both from the Tacul 
and from the Chamonix flank, but in neither case did he push 
beyond the first difficulties. Yet the Chamoniards were a race 
accustomed to brave the perils of the peaks and glaciers in 
search of crystals or in pursuit of chamois. What was the 
cause of their lack of adventure in this instance ? It may 
probably be attributed in part to the moral effect of a deeply 
rooted belief in the inaccessibility of the ' Great White Mountain,' 
in part to the particular character of the perils to be encountered 
in the attempt. Even practised cragsmen may well have been 
deterred by the vast extent of the slopes of treacherous snow, 
seamed with hidden pitfalls, that had to be traversed in order to 
approach the far-withdrawn summit, and by the knowledge that 
at least one night would probably have to be spent in the frozen 
wastes. The Chamoniards, it must be borne in mind, unlike in 
this respect the natives of Zermatt or Val d'Herens, had no need 
to cross glacier passes in ordinary life ; they could always get to 
Italy by going round Mont Blanc, and consequently they were 
very much behind the Vallaisans in learning the use of the rope. 
It was not till the latter half of the eighteenth century that Alpine 
exploration ki Savoy made any decisive advance. About 1770 
the hitherto rare ' visitors to the glaciers ' became more frequent, 
and the interest taken in Mont Blanc by the troops of tourists 
who penetrated to its foot had a stimulating effect on the villagers. 
They had already found profitable employment as guides, and 



the more enterprising among them were now excited to attempt 
higher ventures that might bring higher rewards. The first 
serious attempt was made in 1775, when four guides attempted 
the obvious approach by the Montagne de la Cote, the ridge 
which separates the lower portions of the Glaciers des Bossons 
and de Taconnaz. The party entered on the ice and advanced 
as far as the level of the Grands Mulcts. There they were 
stopped, not so much by any difficulties of the ground as by 
their own sensations of fatigue and nausea. They imputed 
their failure to the suffocating heat and a total loss of appetite. 
It probably arose as much from moral as from physical causes. 
The result, anyhow, was that the discouraging report the adven- 
turers brought back put a stop to any further attempts for 
another eight years. 

The frequent references in almost all early mountaineering 
records to physical discomforts may largely be accounted for by 
the low level of the climbers' bivouacs and the late hour at which 
they were apt to start in the morning, which resulted in the 
midday sun finding them still toiling uphill in soft snow. They 
themselves were apt to attribute their sufferings to the stagnation 
of the air in the snow valley under the Dome du Gouter. That 
mountain-sickness is felt less on a windy than on a still day has 
been proved by many examples. But as the early climbers 
suffered equally on the topmost ridges and on the summit itself, 
it is obvious that the main source of their indisposition must be 
looked for elsewhere. 

In 1783 a party of Chamoniards made a fresh attack by the 
same route with a similar result. They got nearly two thousand 
feet higher as far as the Petit Plateau, under ' the arch of ice 
which crowns the rocks of the Little Mont Blanc ' (the Dome 
du Gouter). Here one of the party fell ill and his companions 
abandoned the climb. A stalwart guide, Lombard, known as Le 
Grand Jorasse, afterwards told de Saussure that it was no use 
taking provisions, that if called on to try again he should provide 
himself only with a parasol and a smelling-bottle. De Saussure 's 
comment written in 1786 was : 

' When I try to figure to myself this stout and robust mountaineer 
climbing the snows with, in one hand, a little parasol, and in the other 
a flask of Eau Sanspareil, the picture seems so strange and ridiculous 


that nothing could be a more convincing proof of the difficulties of the 
enterprise, and consequently its impossibility to those who have not 
the head or the heels of a good Chamonix guide. For myself, after 
all I heard from the men who attempted the mountain on that side, 
I looked on success as absolutely impossible, and this was the opinion 
of all the wise people of Chamonix.' [Voyages, 1104.] 

It was a case not a rare one in which wisdom was not justi- 
fied of her children. There was one man at Chamonix who by de 
Saussure's admission was more eager about the ascent of Mont 
Blanc than the philosopher himself. The enthusiast Bourrit 
it is his chief claim to our respect would not accept the verdict 
impossible. It is, I think, probable that he had some part in 
instigating the second attempt of the guides. No variety of 
scientific objects and interests distracted Bourrit 's mind. He had 
a single aim before him to make himself the Hero of Mont Blanc. 
In 1780 he had returned from a visit to Paris with a new con- 
sciousness of his own fame and an added eagerness to extend it. 
The pension granted to him by the King had relieved him from 
the money difficulties to which his numerous appeals to de 
Saussure for help or advances in preceding years bear witness, and 
had provided him with funds for securing the service of guides. 
It may, therefore, fairly be put to Louis Seize's credit that he 
materially assisted in the conquest of Mont Blanc ! Bourrit now 
brought to bear on the guides the influence of his own eagerness 
and his belief that success was not unobtainable. Instead of 
acquiescing in this new repulse he persuaded them to join him 
in a fresh attack by the same route before the autumn snows 
made it too late. He even disregarded a friendly warning which 
the event fully justified. De Saussure wrote : 

' August 23, 1783. 

' I wish you, Monsieur, every success in your hazardous under- 
taking, and I wish it more than I anticipate it. ... I thank you 
heartily for your offer to return [to Mont Blanc] with me, but I do not 
expect to take advantage of it. I certainly shall do nothing to dis- 
courage you in this enterprise : since I gather that you have decided 
and made preparations for it, it would be useless trouble. I cannot, 
however, refrain from telling you that I do not think you have the 
necessary health or strength, and I fear lest the attempt, even if it is 
as fortunate as you hope it may be, may leave you with reason for 
long regrets.' 


The party slept at the usual bivouac on the Montagne de la 
Cote, but on the following morning the weather broke ; Bourrit 
did not venture on the ice at all, and the others were soon forced 
to turn back. 

On this occasion a new figure appears for the first time in 
the annals of Mont Blanc. Michel Gabriel Paccard, who joined 
Bourrit in this expedition, was the son of the Public Notary at 
Chamonix, a man of sufficient means and intelligence to give his 
children a good education. 

As in most of the Chamonix families five Devouassouds and 
four Balmats went up Mont Blanc with de Saussure the Paccards 
formed a clan. One of the doctor's brothers was an Abbe, 
another an avocat. 1 

Sent to the University at Turin, Michel Gabriel had obtained 
there a medical degree and had subsequently studied in Paris, 
where he and Bourrit, who was also in his youth in the French 
capital, had frequently spent their evenings together. On his 
return to his native valley he set up as a doctor. He had a taste 
for science and studied botany. He made frequent geological 
notes on his excursions, and applied to de Saussure for help in 
securing instruments for the measurement of heights, and he more 
than once contributed papers to the scientific journals of the day. 2 
He was now in the full vigour of manhood, and in the habit of 
making mountain expeditions. In the year following his attempt 
with Bourrit he made two serious reconnaissances of the approaches 
to Mont Blanc. With Pierre Balmat, he slept on the rocks beside 
the Glacier de Tacul and penetrated its upper basin to a certain 
distance. The climbers, however, soon got into difficulty in the 
icefall and, from what they could see of the range beyond, came 

1 Paccard had also a cousin, a guide, Frat^ois Paccard, whose name appears 
from time to time in Alpine history. He was for some years banished from Savoy 
on the ground that he had acted as guide to the famous bandit and smuggler 
Mandrin, who was executed at Valence in 1755. F. Paccard was allowed to 
return as a reward for procuring some live bouquetins (Rupicapri) for the Count 
de Caylus. Subsequently, in 1786, he got into trouble again with Bourrit, who 
procured his temporary arrest on a charge of libel and abusive language. The 
date suggests that the quarrel must have arisen out of the unfortunate part 
played by Bourrit in the dispute over the first ascent of Mont Blanc. 

* See the Journal de Physique, vol. xviii. 1781, ' Extrait de quelques lettres 
du Docteur Paccard sur les causes de 1' arrangement en arc, en feston, en coin, etc., 
et de la direction oblique, perpendiculaire, horizontale des couches vraies et 
apparentes, etc.' 


to the sound conclusion that Mont Blanc was less accessible from 
this quarter than by its Chamonix face. Early in September 
Paccard was again in the field wandering under the cliffs of the 
Aiguille du Gouter and reconnoitring their ridges and gullies, 
without, however, pushing any further attack. 

It was at the end of August 1784, between these two expedi- 
tions, that the first meeting of Paccard and de Saussure took place. 
It is recorded in de Saussure 's hitherto unpublished diary for that 
year. Madame Couteran's inn being full, de Saussure found 
lodging in the house of a member of the Paccard family, where he 
met the doctor. He describes him as ' a fine fellow (joli gar$on), 
full, as it seemed, of intelligence, fond of botany, creating a garden 
of Alpine plants, wanting to climb Mont Blanc, or at least to 
attempt it.' A week later he met Paccard again, and invited him 
to supper, but ' he had an air of being offended, and appeared to 
take it as a reproach to him for not having asked me first. We 
parted, however, with offers of mutual service which had a strong 
air of sincerity.' Paccard, probably, was somewhat sensitive as 
to his social position, and did not want to be treated on the same 
footing with the Chamoniards who served as guides. 

The persevering Bourrit had let the best of the summer slip 
away, but news having reached him that two hunters had succeeded 
in climbing the Aiguille du Gouter and reaching the upper snows, 
he set out from Geneva on September llth as usual, a month 
too late and on the 16th and 17th made a serious attempt with 
six guides to scale the mountain by this route. His powers 
as de Saussure had predicted proved unequal to the task set 
them, and he broke down on the first rocks at the foot of the 
Aiguille. Two of his guides, however, persevered, climbed the 
Aiguille, crossed the Dome, and reached the rocks below the Bosses, 
where M. Vallot's observatory now stands (14,312 feet). 

This was a very remarkable advance. The outer defences of 
Mont Blanc were overcome, and only the last citadel, the final 
1360 feet, remained to be stormed. De Saussure recognised the 
importance of the ground gained, and determined to return to 
the attack next year on the first opportunity. Unfortunately, 
however, the summer of 1785 was wet (the eighties of the eigh- 
teenth century seem to have been a period of abnormal precipita- 
tion), and again the start was put off to the shortening days of 


mid -September. A further handicap to the expedition was its 
size and the inclusion in it of Bourrit and his elder son, Isaac, 
a youth of twenty -one. De Saussure's judgment yielded on this 
occasion to his kindness. Having regard to the fact that Bourrit 
had made the first serious attempt to open this route, he broke 
his usual practice of taking no companion except his guides, and 
acquiesced in the desire of the two Bourrits to be allowed to join 
the party. 

The first night (13th September) was spent in a rough cabin 
de Saussure had had built on a brow known as the Pierre 
Ronde at the base of the rocks of the Aiguille du Gouter. The 
Aiguille de Bionnassay then called the Rogne attracted the 
climbers' attention by its avalanche-swept sides and great height, 
but the guides asserted and they were right that from ' the 
Dome de 1' Aiguille ' they would look down on it. 1 De Saussure 
busied himself with his experiments. His boiling-point ther- 
mometer proved a failure. 

' But,' he writes, ' the beauty of the evening and the magnificence 
of the spectacle presented by the sunset from my observatory consoled 
me for this disappointment. The evening vapours, like a light gauze, 
tempered the brilliancy of the sun and half hid the vast expanse under 
our feet, forming a belt of the most beautiful purple which embraced 
all the western horizon, while to the east the snows of the base of Mont 
Blanc, illuminated by the rich glow, offered a singularly magnificent 
spectacle. As the vapour fell lower and condensed, this belt grew 
narrower and deeper in colour until it turned blood-red, and at the 
same moment little clouds which rose above it threw out so vivid a 
light that they resembled stars or flaming meteors. I returned to 
the spot after night had completely fallen. The sky was then per- 
fectly pure and cloudless. The mist was confined to the bottom of 
the valleys ; the stars, brilliant but without any trace of sparkle, 
poured an exceedingly faint, pale light over the tops of the mountains, 
which yet was sufficient to distinguish their groups and distances. 
The peace and complete silence which reigned over this vast space, 
magnified further by the imagination, affected me with a kind of 
terror. I fancied myself the only survivor of the universe, and that I 
was gazing on its corpse stretched at my feet. Sad as are ideas of 
this description, they have a fascination which it is difficult to resist. 

1 This is a proof that the guides had, on the previous occasion, really reached 
the Dome du Gouter. 


I turned my eyes more frequently towards these obscure solitudes 
than towards Mont Blanc, whose brilliant and seemingly phosphor 
escent snows still retained the sense of life and movement.' [Voyages, 

Next morning, at the unfortunate suggestion of Bourrit, who 
feared the cold, a start was not made till too late (6.15 A.M.). 
The party was large, twelve in all, and naturally moved slowly. 
Fresh snow, fallen two days previously, lay on the steep rocks 
which form the face of the Aiguille. After five hours' climbing, 
Pierre Balmat, de Saussure's leading guide, called a halt and went 
ahead to reconnoitre . At midday he returned to report that there 
was a great deal more fresh snow on the upper rocks, and a foot 
and a half on the slopes leading to the Dome . It was consequently, 
we are told, unanimously resolved to give up the expedition at a 
point estimated by de Saussure as between 600 and 700 feet below 
the top of the Aiguille. During the descent de Saussure lingered 
to take observations . Arrived at the cabin, he found to his surprise 
the Bourrits, father and son, preparing to descend to the valley. 
De Saussure spent a second night comfortably in the cabin. 
Thus ended an ad venture which, he tells us, made him resolve never 
again to admit companions on a glacier expedition. Some cor- 
respondence that has lately come to light more than explains his 
resolve and supplies a humorous side to the story. 

Shortly after his return to Geneva de Saussure learnt that very 
exaggerated tales as to the perils that had been encountered 
were running about the town. To him, always anxiously con- 
cerned to prevent his wife and family being alarmed by his Alpine 
travels, this was naturally no slight annoyance. But there was 
worse behind. The legend ran that the cause of the party turning 
back had been his own failure as a rock climber. These reports 
were clearly traced to the Bourrits. De Saussure was not the 
man to allow any perversion of fact to pass unnoticed. The 
first letter he wrote to Bourrit has not been preserved, but the 
rest of the correspondence sufficiently indicates its contents. 
Bourrit replied with more daring than discretion : 

' I could not but notice that the way in which you came down 
was not the happiest. You might have fallen backwards, you might 
have been hit by the rocks dislodged by the guides, whom you made 
keep behind you, and we noticed the trouble they had to take to 


avoid this. As to my mode of coming down, I followed the advice 
of Gervais, who saw how impossible it was for me, with ruined boots 
which had lost their heels, to keep myself from falling. I was forced 
to put my feet in his footsteps ; and, if I rested on him, I took care 
to do so as lightly as possible.' 

Bourrit, with his usual fear of cold, had attempted to climb 
the rocks in fur boots ! 

Having thus far tried to make out a case for himself, Bourrit 
enclosed as a peace-offering an account of the expedition warmly 
eulogising de Saussure. To this de Saussure replied as follows : 

' My intention, sir, is not to cause you pain, but I was obliged to 
take steps to put a stop to legends such as your own conversation 
gave cause to apprehend. No one perhaps believes moite than I do 
in the kindness and honesty of your heart, but I know very well also 
that your flighty imagination often makes you see things in a false 
light. If you could put aside this tendency, there is no reason why 
you should not keep an agreeable recollection of our excursion. I had 
every reason to be satisfied both with you and your son. The letter, 
of which you furnished me a copy, seems to be excellent, except that 
I am too much praised, which is not what I want. I can do very well 
without praise, and I do not desire to be put in the foreground, but I 
cannot however, let us say no more. Do not be vexed, and I beg 
you to get to work on a fine drawing of the Aiguille du Gouter which 
may help to explain our expedition and may be engraved in the volume 
I have in the press.' 

Before Bourrit had had time to get this reply, his son Isaac 
had fired off a long and singularly impertinent letter to de Saussure : 
4 Sir,' he wrote, ' do you not envy me my twenty -one years ? 
Who will wonder if a youth of this age, who has nothing to lose, 
is bolder than a father of a family, a man of forty-six ? ' 

De Saussure 's reply is a model of the retort courteous : 

' Monsieur, a moderate amount of boastfulness is no great crime, 
especially at your age. This is all I charge you with, and your letter 
is a fresh proof of it. You say you descended agilely. It is true, you 
descended agilely enough in the easy places, but in the difficult places 
you were, like your father, resting on the shoulder of one guide in front, 
and held up behind by another. I don't blame you for these pre- 
cautions ; they were wise, prudent, even indispensable ; but in no 
language in the world is that style of progress styled agile climbing. 


But enough. I have thought it right to put a stop to stories which 
might have caused me annoyance, and of which I had heard sufficient 
to give me reason to anticipate their spread ; but there is no call 
for heroics on your part. One may proclaim oneself a little stronger, 
a little more active, a little more courageous than one really is, and 
yet be the most honest fellow in the world. The truth is that though 
I recognised in you a slight tendency in this direction, I did not fail 
also to find you very amiable, and I am glad to have made during 
this excursion a closer and more intimate acquaintance with you than 
I could have in my lecture-room. If you will not take too tragically 
the very mild and gentle reproach I have made to you, there is no 
reason why I may not retain an agreeable recollection of your company, 
and that we should not be good friends for life. After what I have 
written to you, sir, I am under no anxiety as to anything that you may 
say or write, and am very far from asking you to show me your narra- 
tive. On the contrary, I desire there may be an end to this discussion.' 

Having delivered this adequate reprimand, de Saussure two 
years later magnanimously referred in his Voyages to his com- 
panions in the most friendly terms : 

' In excursions of this sort I prefer always to be alone with my 
glides, but M. Bourrit, who had been the first to call attention to 
this route, having begged we should attempt it together, I consented 
with pleasure. We even took with us his son, a youth of twenty-one, 
whose talents promise him a highly successful career, and whose love of 
botany and of the great objects that the Alps offer for our contempla- 
tion have often led him in the footsteps of his father.' [Voyages, 1106.] 

Further light is thrown on the parts played by the chief actors 
in this expedition by the account given of it in Dr. Paccard's 
notebook, 1 which must be taken to represent the story told him 
by the guides. De Saussure, we learn, was on a rope with a 
guide in front and two behind ; Bourrit pere leant on the shoulder 
of one guide and was held up behind by the collar of his coat by 
another. In ascending, Bourrit fils hung on to a guide's coat. 
Paccard remarks that de Saussure was tied ' like a prisoner ' by 
a rope under his arms. The comment is suggestive, and illustrates 
the attitude of the Chamoniards to the use of the rope. It was 
practically ignored in the earlier glacier expeditions in the chain 

1 Now in the possession of the Alpine Club. Extracts from it are printed in 
Mr. C. E. Mathew's Annals m of Montjilanc. 


of Mont Blanc, though it had been known and practised for two 
centuries at Zermatt. On this occasion de Saussure was for 
once roped in the proper way ; on several others the rope was 
only uncoiled when one of the party was already in a crevasse. 
On his return to Geneva de Saussure sent a full account of the 
expedition to his sympathetic friend the Prince de Ligne. This 
letter and the Prince's reply may still be read with pleasure : 

' September 26th, 1785. 

' Since your Excellency has shown your interest in attempts on 
Mont Blanc, I promised you hi the last letter I had the honour to 
write to you that I would send you news of that which I had planned. 

' Not to keep you in suspense, I will begin by telling you that its 
success was not complete, but nevertheless I reached a higher level 
than any observer before me had in the Alps, and I satisfied myself 
that in a more favourable season, starting from a higher point, and 
with the aid of a good head and stout limbs, the top of the mountain 
might be gained. 

' You know, Monsieur, that Mont Blanc rises to about 2400 toises 
above sea-level, and that at 1400 toises the region of eternal snow and 
ice is reached. This thousand toises to surmount above the snow- 
level had repulsed all who had attempted to climb to the summit of 
the mountain. The brilliancy of the light, the oppression of the 
air from which they described themselves to have suffered, and pos- 
sibly moral causes, such as the weariness of a long march on steep 
snowslopes and the dread of these immense solitudes, served to dis- 
hearten them even in the absence of any real and actually insur- 
mountable obstacles. 

' M. Bourrit, who has long been eager for the conquest of Mont 
Blanc, learnt last year that two hunters in the pursuit of chamois had 
climbed two-thirds of these thousand toises by rocky ridges, which, 
though above the snow-level, are too steep to remain snow-covered. 
He wanted to attempt this route, but, since he started from the foot 
of the mountain, fatigue and cold stopped him at the base of the rocks, 
while two of his guides climbed to their top, and reported that they 
had encountered great dangers in the ascent, but had found an easier 
route on their return, and that with more time and help they could 
have reached the summit. 

' From the moment when this attempt led me to look on the thing 
as possible I resolved to make another as soon as the season allowed 
it. Unluckily, the snows accumulated during the hard winter of 
1784-85, added to those which fell frequently during the cold and wet 


summer that succeeded it, put off the undertaking till the middle of 
September. At last the Chamonix guides, whom I had instructed 
to keep a watch for the favourable moment, came to tell me that the 
snows were melted. In consequence I gave M. Bourrit a rendezvous 
at the foot of the mountain. For though, as a rule, I infinitely prefer 
to make excursions of the sort alone with my guides, I could not 
refuse to associate M. Bourrit who had been the first to make known 
this route and his son in the enterprise. 

' In order not to have to climb the whole mountain in one day 
we had had built at the spot where the snows begin, at 1400 toises, 
a little hut of flat stones. We carried up there straw, wraps, and 
firewood. The Bourrits were somewhat inconvenienced by the rarity 
of the air, but for myself, whom this air suits, I passed a delicious night. 

' We started next morning in the finest weather possible. It was 
the 14th of the month. We were accompanied by nine strong, brisk 
mountaineers, who were as eager as we were for the success of the 
attempt. Everything seemed to promise well for the result. 

' We had, as I have already said, a thousand toises to climb, six 
hundred of which were up extremely steep rocky ridges, and the rest 
over fairly gentle slopes of snow and ice. We accomplished easily 
the first two hundred toises, but as we mounted, the rocks became 
steeper and less solid. These friable rocks, fractured by weather, 
now broke away under our feet, now came away in our hands when 
we tried to cling to them. ... To add to our trouble, the interstices 
in the crags were filled by snow that had fallen two days previously 
and masked the hard snow and ice that were often our footing. Still, 
after five hours of this arduous march we had gained a height of some 
five hundred toises along these ridges when the quantity of snow and 
the increasing declivity drove us to hold a council as to whether we 
should persevere in our advance. We sent the most active and boldest 
of our guides to examine what remained to be done to gain the top 
of the rocks. He brought back word that, having regard to the 
amount of new snow, we could not reach the crest without danger 
and extreme fatigue, and that there we should be forced to stop 
because the upper part of the mountain was entirely covered with 
a foot and a half of new snow in which it was impossible to advance. 
His gaiters, covered with snow to above the knees, bore witness to 
the truth of his story, which the amount of snow round us was enough 
to prove. In consequence, considering the uselessness of going any 
higher, we resolved unanimously not to push on. 

' I observed the barometer, and the height of 18 inches 1 line f at 
which it stood proved that we were about 1900 toises above sea-level, 


and consequently on the level of the Peak of TenerifEe, a height no 
physical observer had ever obtained on a European mountain. 

' I made several observations of the thermometer, the hygrometer, 
and the electrometer. I collected some interesting specimens, I ob- 
served the structure and nature of these elevated crags, and we enjoyed 
a view of immense extent and beauty, since we looked down on our 
lake over the high ranges which separated us from it. 

' These enjoyments did not, however, give us pure pleasure : our 
satisfaction was marred by the regret at not getting higher and by some 
anxiety as to our return. For, as you know, the descent is much more 
dangerous than the ascent, and we had passed some pretty bad places 
on the climb. Still, by proceeding cautiously and by making use of 
the support of our guides, whose strength and courage were really 
admirable, we returned safe and sound to our cabin, where I passed 
another excellent night. 

' But for the new snow we should certainly have got 100 toises 
higher that is, to the top of the rocks which are called the Aiguille du 
Goiiter ; but we should have got there after midday, and we should 
still have had 400 toises on the hard snows it is true, by no means 
steep, but of great extent. We could not, therefore, have reached the 
summit of Mont Blanc even if we had met with no further obstacles. 
Time would have failed us, because it is impossible to pass the night 
at these heights, or to traverse in the dark any part of the route we 
had done in the day. 

* To reach this summit, then, it is essential to find some shelter 
for the night at a higher point than ours, and to select a year when 
the mountain is entirely stripped of snow [new snow is meant] by the 
month of July, or at latest by the beginning of August, and even then 
the enterprise will be pretty dangerous and always infinitely laborious. 

' While climbing with so much fatigue these steep rocks I envied 
the lot of aeronauts who rise to such great heights comfortably seated 
in their gondolas, and I even speculated on the possibility of using 
these aerial cars for attaining inaccessible peaks like Mont Blanc. 
But I believe it would be very dangerous, since on high mountains 
one is subject to violent and irregular gusts of wind which might break 
the machine by driving it against the cliffs, and it would further be 
needful to have very perfect means of control, in order to reach points 
so precisely determined.' 

The Prince de Ligne replied : 

1 23rd October 1785. 

' I am greatly interested in Mont Blanc, Monsieur, but not so 
much as in you ! Your loss would be serious at any time. But 


remember that at the present time above all you are too precious not 
to be accountable for your life to Europe. We are about to lose 
M. de Buff on ; another reason for taking care of yourself. How 
will all the academic chairs be filled ? I really fear the Academy 
will have to be reduced to twenty, for soon it will consist of nothing 
but Cordons Bleus and Bishops. 

' I believe that by dividing your expedition between three days 
you might succeed, to the great advantage of your pursuits and to the 
honour of your century. But once more take care lest Nature, to 
revenge herself on you, does not catch you in the act. I can see 
M. Bourrit offering to paint the scene ! I had suggested to him previ- 
ously the second resting-place. Would it not be possible to approach 
it by military methods ? If your workmen, your hunters, your 
mountaineers exerted themselves, it seems to me that with spade and 
axe it would be possible by slow degrees to smooth the rough places, 
cut down your Aiguilles, destroy your summits, and construct little 
platforms. If you only advanced ten toises a day, at the end of six 
weeks you would be able to set out in the fine season and to succeed 
without as much danger as you have already encountered, and we 
poor mortals at your feet would pray for you, while you were treating 
us de haut en bas. 

' In return for mine, Monsieur, grant me always the honour of 
your remembrance, which to-day, when I have received your sublime 
letter, is more precious to me than you can imagine, since the letter 
is clear and simple like yourself. If one could only trust what the 
aeronauts tell us (but " a beau mentir qui vient de haut"), you might 
take advantage of what they say as to the hot and cold temperatures 
they constantly encounter. But with them it is an affair of minutes, 
and you would not be able to stop long in these extraordinary altitudes.' 

As has been shown, Chamonix men had on two occasions 
overcome the cliffs of the Aiguille and advanced on the relatively 
gentle snow slopes that lead towards the final cupola of Mont 
Blanc. The prize, they must have felt, was almost within their 
grasp. Accordingly, at the earliest possible moment, June 1786, 
a well-planned attack on the mountain was made. Its first 
object was to test the rival routes by the Montagne de la Cote 
and the Aiguille. The Cote party climbed the Dome by its 
northern slopes, thus avoiding the danger of avalanches on the 
Petit Plateau. This route has never come into common use, 
yet it is the only one on the northern side of the mountain that is 
altogether safe from falling snow or stones. The two parties 


met on some rocks near the top of the Dome, that from the Cote 
arriving the earlier. Their united forces advanced to the foot of 
the arete of the Bosses, which joins the summit of Mont Blanc 
to the Dome du Gouter. But this crest seemed to them so 
narrow and so steep that they believed it impossible to follow it. 
Their decision is a typical instance of the reluctance of the 
Chamoniards of that date to face the unknown. The ridge of the 
Bosses, given calm weather and ordinary conditions, affords a 
comfortable footpath. Mountaineers to-day walk up and run 
down it with their hands in their pockets. We may, perhaps, 
assume, though the excuse is not offered, that signs of a change 
in the weather were already visible and affected the determination 
to retreat. 

It is difficult, no doubt, for the athletic climber of the twentieth 
century to enter into the attitude of the early mountaineers 
towards Mont Blanc. The youth who on a fine day walks up the 
mountain by a trodden track is apt to wonder how the climb can 
ever have been thought perilous. He may even dare to describe 
it as ' a dull grind.' This point of view was not shared by the best 
Chamonix guides I have known in the last generation. Men of 
the widest experience, such as Frangois Devouassoud, have con- 
fessed in such a phrase as ' One is always content to be back 
safely from Mont Blanc ' their respect for the monarch of the Alps. 
It is, of course, true that no climbing is called for on the ordinary 
route ; a lame man, M. Jansen, was once dragged on a sledge to 
the top ! But the great mountain has its moods, and it can be 
terrible, as the list of its victims proves. I shall not forget a 
morning of storm on the Aiguille du Gouter, when, wrapped in 
Scotch plaids, W. F. Donkin and I rushed down the cliffs, through 
mists which, urged by a south-west gale, raced past us in a wild pro- 
cession. In a similar gale an Italian climber and two guides were 
blown off the narrow crest of the Aiguille de Bionnassay. Sudden 
fog and bad weather on Mont Blanc must always be a grave peril ; 
the mountain is so large. In addition to these dangers, the first 
adventurers, it must be remembered, had no sleeping quarters 
above the snow level, they took a route up the final slope which was 
at all times badly exposed to avalanches, and they habitually 
neglected the proper use of the rope. At one spot on the ordi- 
nary route in crossing the Petit Plateau there is still a 


minor but appreciable risk from ice avalanches falling from the 

At this point another leading character in the drama of Mont 
Blanc comes on the stage. Jacques Balmat was a young man 
of twenty-four who owned a cottage near the Glacier des Bossons. 
He was apparently not on very good terms with the men of the 
chief hamlet, Le Prieure, who usually served as guides. He had 
joined the Cote party uninvited, and his companions looked 
somewhat askance on the intruder. On the return he separated 
from them near the Grand Plateau under pretence of looking for 
crystals. Towards evening clouds and darkness overtook him, 
and, no longer able to follow his companions' track, he resolved to 
spend the night as best he could in the snow. Daylight found 
him not seriously the worse, and, the weather having recovered, 
he spent the morning in examining the possible accesses to the 
summit, which rose some 3500 feet immediately above him. 
Having satisfied himself that he had discovered a possible route, 
he returned without accident to the valley. His first idea was to 
keep his discovery secret, probably with the very legitimate 
intention of entering into communication with de Saussure and 
selling it in the best market. But circumstances compelled him 
to a different line of action. De Saussure and Bourrit were not the 
only competitors in the field. There was another and, inasmuch 
as he was actually on the spot and a born mountaineer, a more 
dangerous one. Balmat learned that Dr. Paccard had an early 
attempt on the mountain in view. He grasped the situation ; 
his object was not only to climb Mont Blanc, but to be able to 
produce decisive evidence to his success. He recognised that as 
a companion Paccard would be an excellent witness, while at 
the same time he might be trusted not to make any claim to 
a share in the promised reward. Accordingly, Balmat made 
haste to come to an understanding with the Doctor. Bad weather 
delayed their start for three weeks, but on the 7th August they 
slipped away separately from the valley and climbed to the 
familiar bivouac on the top of the Montagne de la Cote. On 
the following day, at 6.25 in the evening, after a climb of fourteen 
and a half hours, they stood together on the top of Mont Blanc. 
The conquest of the great mountain was achieved. Balmat 
before starting had asked a friend to look out for him on the 


snows, and the progress of the climbers during the final ascent 
was followed and eagerly watched by the whole village. 1 
Amongst the watchers was Baron de Gersdorf, a German 
traveller of scientific reputation, who fortunately happened to 
be at Chamonix at the moment. Mr. Brand, an English 
visitor, whose letters have been preserved, tells us the climbers 
were seen by many people from Chamonix and other parts 
of the valley with ordinary small telescopes. The Baron de 
Gersdorf observed them through a good achromatic glass, so 
as to be able to distinguish the identity of their persons. The 
Baron made notes and drawings on the spot illustrating the 
climbers' route. These notes have only recently been made 
public, and provide very valuable evidence in the case. 2 For, 
strange as it may seem, no full and satisfactory report of the first 
ascent of Mont Blanc from either of the two men who took part in 
it had, until de Saussure's diary came to light, ever appeared. 
Dr. Paccard shortly after his climb visited Lausanne and issued a 
printed prospectus asking for subscribers to a narrative of the 
expedition. A copy of this prospectus has survived and was repro- 
duced in the Alpine Journal (vol. xxvi., 1912), but the promised 
work has of late years been sought for in vain in every library in 
Europe, and it is now generally assumed that it never reached 
the printing-press. 

The news that Mont Blanc had been climbed was promptly 
sent down to de Saussure at Geneva by J. P. Tairraz, the Chamonix 
innkeeper, by a special messenger, while Balmat himself arrived a 
few days later (13th August) to claim his promised reward and to 
offer his services for the future. He would appear on this occa- 
sion to have placed himself at the disposal of Bourrit as well as of 
de Saussure, for in June of the following year we find him writing 
to Bourrit that the mountain is open, and urging him to hasten his 
arrival. Immediately on receiving the great news de Saussure 
instructed Tairraz to send a party of guides to build two huts 
one at the bivouac on the top of the Montagne de la Cote, the 
second on the higher of the two Grands Mulcts crags to make 
smooth the rough places at the entrance to the glacier, and to 

1 On his return Balmat learnt that his infant child had died during his absence. 
This sad incident, which had escaped notice, is attested by the Register of Le 

* See Dr. Diibi's work, Paccard wider Balmat (Berne, 1913). 


arrange with Jacques Balmat to procure a staff of guides for the 
ascent. De Saussure's name was not to be mentioned in con- 
nection with these preparations, which were to be attributed to 
the orders of an Italian nobleman 1 a step, doubtless, due to de 
Saussure's habitual reluctance to arouse the anxiety of his family. 
No time was lost. On 15th August he left Geneva, by his own 
account in a state of high nervous excitement. He writes in his 
diary : ' My head is so full of my project that it is a fatigue, and 
almost an illness, if I leave off thinking of it for a moment. It 
affects my brain so as to cause me an emotion that is very dis- 
tressing. In short, it is a thorn that I must absolutely pluck out 
of my foot.' On the 18th he was at Chamonix and ready to 
start. Next day he called at Paccard's, and was disappointed to 
find that ' ce diable de Docteur ! ' as he calls him in his diary 
whom he had counted on to take observations in the valley 
corresponding with his on the mountain, had gone off again in the 
direction of Mont Blanc . De Saussure at first imagined he might 
be trying to repeat the ascent. Next day, however, as he was 
himself starting for the Cote, he learnt that Chamonix gossip had 
alarmed him needlessly. The Doctor's object had been limited 
to an endeavour to cross the crevasses of the upper Bossons 
Glacier from the Montagne de la Cote to the foot of the Aiguille 
du Midi. It was, in fact, an attempt to open the route now 
always taken in ascents from Chamonix. For the moment the 
attempt failed, but the fact that it was made by the Doctor and 
his brother, a lawyer, with one guide, is perhaps the best comment 
on Bourrit's depreciation of the Doctor's energy and climbing 
powers. Before his own start de Saussure succeeded in finding 
Paccard at home and in arranging with him and his brother for 
the simultaneous observations he wanted being taken at Chamonix 
during his ascent. In the afternoon the party, de Saussure and 
his servant, Tetu de Saussure's unfortunate valet had always 
to share his adventures with sixteen guides, set out for the 
bivouac . At the end of thirty-six hours he was back at Chamonix, 
driven down by the doubtful weather and the guides' advice. 

On the 22nd August, the day after his return, de Saussure again 
visited the Paccards, in order to give them further instructions in 
the method of ascertaining heights by the use of the barometer. 
1 The letter was, in fact, taken to Chamonix by an Italian traveller. 

On this occasion Paccard p&re, the village notary, invited de 
Saussure to dine with the family. This dinner is an incident of 
historical importance in the annals of Mont Blanc, for if we have not 
Dr. Paccard's printed Voyage, we get here a detailed account of 
his expedition taken down from his own lips by de Saussure, a fort- 
night after the events took place. De Saussure showed the value 
he attached to the record by mentioning in his diary that he sat 
up late in order to put it down in writing the same evening. I 
give a literal translation of his notes, now published for the 
first time : 

' We discussed at length the Doctor's ascent of Mont Blanc. He 
says that he found near the top large hailstones embedded in the 
snow ; l that fresh snow is far more fatiguing to the eyes than the 
old, and that this has been the cause of more than one failure. I 
grasped Us route perfectly. After crossing the glacier he left well to 
his left the chain of dark rocks [the Grands Mulcts], on which is my 
second cabin, and swerved towards the foot of the Dome du Gouter, 
called here the Gros Mont. He kept close to its foot, leaving it always 
on the right. After a long ascent he found himself on a great plain, 
or at least a very gently inclined snow-slope, and, turning to the left, 
reached a kind of snowy bank planted between two lofty and per- 
pendicular rocks, bare of snow. He passed over the top of the left- 
hand rock, 2 skirting the base of the summit of Mont Blanc and, having 
thus borne a good deal to the east, turned again southwards to climb 
the last slope, which is very steep and fairly hard. Still on the top 
the snow seemed loose (tendre). It was easy to plant the barometer 
as deeply as was desirable. 

' From the top it is possible to descend the gentle slope on the 
Val d'Aosta side and reach some rocks which rise in a sharp crest 
[the Mont Blanc de Counnayeur]. He looked there for a possible 
sleeping-place, but the wind was everywhere equally strong and cold. 
He found at the foot of the last slope some loose stones on the snow 
and higher up the two little rocks one sees from Chamonix, perhaps 
some hundred paces below the top. 

1 Compare L. da Vinci's note on his ascent of Mon Boso (see p. 7). The 
occurrence is not uncommon. It is produced by the granular structure of the 
ice and the melting produced by recent sunshine. 

1 This passage fe conclusive as to the point hitherto, I believe, unnoticed 
that in the first ascent Balmat and Paccard passed between the two Rochera 
Rouges, while in de Saussure's ascent the route taken lay to the right of, and 
over, both. This was obviously the easier passage Balmat in his letter of June 
1787 reported to de Saussure that he had discovered (see p. 219). 


' Four times the snow covering crevasses failed under their feet, 
and they saw the abyss below them, but they escaped a catastrophe 
by throwing themselves flat on their poles laid horizontally on the 
snow, and then, placing their two poles side by side, slid along them 
until they were across the crevasse. He thinks it would be an excellent 
idea to take a ladder. The place where they met the most crevasses 
was near the rocks on which my second cabin stands. He told me he 
owed his success in part to the observations I made on the Buet on 
the periodicity of fatigue and recovery. When they reached a con- 
siderable height he noticed that he was obliged to take breath and 
allow his strength to recover about every hundred paces, and as they 
advanced more often, down to every fourteen paces ; but after a rest 
his strength immediately came back, as I have also noted. 

* It was midday before they were opposite my second cabin, although 
they had started at 4 A.M. from the first, so if one starts from the 
second one would gain greatly, and might reach the summit early in 
the day. A curious observation on sunburn and snow-blindness is 
that they did not come on till the next morning. They did not 
descend without a halt, as has been alleged. They stopped before 
midnight on the top of the Montagne de la Cote ; and up to that 
point they did not suffer any inconvenience, but next morning, when 
at dawn they set out to return to the Priory, the Doctor could not see 
enough to find his path, and had to be led by the guide. He says it 
may prove one of the inconveniences of sleeping en route that it may 
lead to the eyes being weak on awaking. Anyhow, it is a suggestion 
that one should take precautions against the brilliancy of the sun- 
shine. He confirmed the statement that the ink in his bottle was 
frozen in his pocket, and also some meat the guide had in his sack. He 
thinks his hand was frozen at a relatively moderate temperature 
because his skin glove had been wetted by his leaning on the ice. 
His hand became black and insensible. He got rid of the blackness 
by rubbing it with snow. He adds that his finger-tips are still numb. 
He changed gloves with Balmat, who had a pair of fur gloves, and 
the latter then also had his hand frozen ; it turned pale and was cured 
by the same method of rubbing it with snow. 

' He agrees with Pierre and Jacques Balmat in thinking that the 
best time for ascents would be the beginning of June, because the 
crevasses are choked and the winter snows are firmer than those 
which fall in the summer months. The long days are another advan- 
tage. The distant objects were not clear ; the accumulated vapour 
seemed to form and settle on the horizon. When they reached the 
plain which I have mentioned at the foot of Mont Blanc, they endured 


great fatigue from the fact that the surface was covered with a thin 
crust which alternately bore them and gave way under their steps. 
The guide told him he could not persevere unless he (Paccard) was 
prepared to take the lead from time to time and to break the snow, 
and he did this all the way to the top. There they were exposed to a 
bitterly cold west wind which affected their breathing. They sought 
for temporary shelter below the final crest, but found the temperature 
insupportable. They could only withstand the cold by keeping con- 
tinually in movement. He had a compass, and he believed that on 
the top its variation was different. I passed the rest of the evening 
in writing this.' 

These are the rough notes jotted down, in no very orderly 
sequence, by one of the most accurate of men after listening to 
Paccard's description of the incidents of the ascent, given a 
fortnight after it took place. They now leap to light to con- 
tradict finally the legend that was fabricated by Bourrit and 
endorsed and embroidered by Alexandre Dumas, that Paccard 
was an incompetent climber who was dragged to the top by his 
brave companion. Surely it is time that the Alpine Clubs provided 
for the erection beside the monument at Chamonix to de Saussure 
and Balmat of some memorial to the village doctor. 1 

De Saussure lingered another ten days in the mountains, 
during which time he made an excursion to Martigny and to the 
foot of the Dent de Morcles. On his return to Chamonix the 
weather continued broken, his servant fell ill, and with many 
regrets he gave up the game for the year, venting his feelings, 
when Mont Blanc shone down on his departure, by quoting in his 
diary the lines of Horace (Satires, book ii. 7) : 

' Poscit te mulier, vexat, foribusque repulsum 
Perfundit gelida, rursus vocat.' 
The jade invites you, plagues you, from her door 
Drives with cold douches ; then calls back once more. 2 

In the hotel book at St. Martin he added to his name, ' on 
return from his fourteenth visit to the glaciers.' 

De Saussure's friends Pictet and Bonnet quickly spread the 

1 For a full statement of the documentary evidence in this protracted con- 
troversy and a fair summing up, readers must turn to Dr. Diibi's able and 
exhaustive volume, already referred to, Paccard under Balmat (Berne, 1913). 

2 It will be noted that, to fit the quotation better to his own case, de Saussure 
leaves out the double accusative carried by the words quinque tcdenta in the 
preceding line. 


news of Dr. Paccard's and his companion's success in their 
private correspondence and in communications to the public 
journals. It reached England, and de Saussure's old friend, 
Lord Palmerston, wrote, ' I congratulate you on the conquest of 
Mont Blanc. I wish you had been the first to set foot on the 
summit, a distinction to which you are so well entitled. I am 
convinced, however, that we must wait till you arrive there before 
our curiosity will be satisfactorily gratified.' It was not long 
before the officious Bourrit also appeared on the scene as a mis- 
chief-maker. It was a bitter blow to him that anyone should 
have anticipated him in reaching the mountain he had so often 
attempted ; had the conqueror been de Saussure, he might have 
borne it better, but that an old acquaintance, the village doctor, 
should have won the race drove him to fury. His vanity, always 
the predominant trait in his character, was unfortunately in this 
instance linked with a jealousy which led him to very unworthy 
action. His first instinct on hearing the news was to endeavour 
to discredit it. In writing to de Saussure he insinuated that the 
ascent might not have been complete, that there might well be a 
higher crest invisible from Chamonix beyond that on which the 
climbers had been seen. 1 Finding this argument untenable, he 
set his busy pen to work with a double object to assert his own 
claim to be the real explorer of Mont Blanc, and to disparage as 
far as possible his rival by giving the whole credit for the ascent 
to the guide Balmat. He wrote a pamphlet which he sent to 
many of the leading journals of the time. In this he recounted 
at length his own previous adventures, and went on to represent 
Paccard as having been led, or rather forcibly dragged, to the 
top of Mont Blanc by his companion, who, after having himself 
reached the summit alone, had to return some distance to 
fetch him. This pamphlet (probably while still in manuscript) 
was brought to de Saussure's notice shortly after his return to 
Geneva, and he at once wrote to remonstrate with its author. 
Bourrit's rejoinder has been preserved, and exhibits a deplor- 
able mixture of obsequiousness and self-assertion. He found 
it expedient, however, to add a postscript to his pamphlet in 
which he made a disingenuous apology for the terms in which 

1 Unpublished letter from Bourrit to de Saussure, written from Sallanches on 
llth August 1786. 


Paccard had been mentioned. De Saussure acknowledged this 
very inadequate withdrawal in the following note : 

' Geneva, 19th October 1786. I thank you a thousand times for 
the fresh copies of your letter that you have sent me. The postscript 
you have added will throw some balm on the wound the body of the 
letter cannot fail to inflict on the Doctor, and if it is at my instigation 
that you have written it, I am glad that I wrote to you, and thank you 
for your compliance. The description of the Doctor's journey, what- 
ever form it may take, will be read from one end of Europe to the 
other, and I should have been sorry to have seen in it what must 
have caused you pain. No doubt you would have replied, but you 
would have suffered annoyance, and that is what I wished to avoid.' 

De Saussure, whose object obviously was to prevent an 
unpleasant controversy, had, we learn, written at the same time 
to Paccard. The latter subsequently dealt with the matter by 
supplying material for a controversial note in the Journal de 
Lausanne (obviously edited by some ill-informed hand before 
publication), and subsequently procuring to be published in the 
same journal duly witnessed affidavits signed by Balmat con- 
tradicting the main statements in Bourrit's letter. 1 

With the full facts now disclosed, it is, I fear, beyond doubt that, 
in the words of de Saussure 's grandson, M. Henri de Saussure, 
Bourrit was the prime author of the legend which was to be given 
a world -wide circulation by Alexandre Dumas, the elder, on the 
strength of an interview he had with Balmat over his bottle in a 
Chamonix hotel forty-six years after the events described. 2 Up 
to the present moment this legend has been the only account 
known to exist purporting to be derived from the mouth of one 

1 See Journal de Lausanne, 24th February and 12th May 1787. In the earlier 
note there is a blundering reference to Paccard's explorations under the Aiguille 
du Gouter and a vague complaint that a rival has tried to obscure the Doctor's 
exploit by disparaging as well as attempting to repeat it. Dr. Diibi suggests 
de Saussure was here aimed at. But the relations between de Saussure and 
Paccard at this moment, as related in de Saussure's diary, are inconsistent with 
this explanation. Bourrit, who was at Sallanches on 13th August 1786, trying 
to collect evidence to throw doubt on Paccard's ascent, must be the rival rebuked. 
The suggestion that Paccard induced Balmat to sign a blank piece of paper, 
which he filled up afterwards, is sufficiently refuted by the fact that the two 
witnesses to the document were both men of character and position in the valley, 
who would have been most unlikely to lend themselves to a patent fraud. 

2 A few months after his conversation with Dumas, J. Balmat met with his 
death while searching for gold on the slopes of Mont Ruan, above Sixt. The 
curious circumstances are related by Sir A. Wills in The Eagle's Nest. 


of the two climbers. After the publication of de Gersdorf's evi- 
dence, it became impossible for any competent critic to treat the 
Bourrit-Dumas legend as a credible narrative. Indeed Bourrit 
himself in later years (1803) went more than half-way to withdraw 
his statement. 1 Fortunately, we are now in a position to confront 
with it the report of the story told by Paccard at the time given 
by de Saussure in his private diary. 

It may be noted that it was fresh from listening to this first- 
hand narrative, and after entertaining at Genthod Baron de 
Gersdorf, the eye-witness of the ascent, that de Saussure wrote 
to rebuke Bourrit for the version he was putting forward. 

There was to be another year of impatience for de Saussure 
and of anxiety for his wife. The winter, as will be related, 
was shortened by a tour in Dauphine and Provence. When 
summer came it was resolved to make the famous expedition 
the occasion of a prolonged picnic in the mountains. In this 
way the anxieties of a lengthy absence might be avoided, and 
the adventure accomplished under the eyes of the assembled 
family, who could watch every step in the climbers' progress. De 
Saussure must be allowed to describe the start in the words of 
his diary : 

' On 28th June J. Balmat wrote to me that on the 26th he had 
made a second attempt, and that despite the quantity of snow he had 
almost got to the top, and that he would have reached it but for the 
violence of the wind and an impassable crevasse. He ended by 
saying he would return to the attack shortly by another and an easier 
route, and that he would come immediately to bring me the news. 2 
He complained of having suffered more than the previous year from 
the brilliancy of the snow and the keenness of the air ; his eyes, he 
said, were painful, his face swollen, his skin peeling. It was true 

1 See the edition of 1803 of his Guide-book to Chamonix, in which Bourrit 
writes of the expedition as one in which Dr. Paccard took part, ' if he was not 
himself the author of it.' There had been, in the interval, a coldness between 
Bourrit and Balmat owing to the latter's complaint of delay on Bourrit's part 
in handing over to him the full amount of the subscription raised in Germany 
for Balmat's benefit. 

2 Dr. Paccard's statement to de Saussure (p. 214), that in his ascent he passed 
' between two lofty and perpendicular rocks bare of snow and over the top of 
the left-hand rock,' proves, as I have already shown, that the first climbers 
passed between the Rochers Rouges. The easier route hero referred to, used 
in the second and third ascents (the three guides' and de Saussure's), was to 
the right (west) and over the top of both rocks. 


that he had taken no precautions, and it was natural that the days 
being longer and the sun more powerful at this season he had been 
more affected. 

' I waited, then, his arrival with impatience ; all my instruments 
were ready, and I was afraid that while he came to fetch me and I 
was travelling to Chamonix, the weather might change and that I 
might lose perhaps my only chance. My wife shared my feelings, 
and we consequently fixed our start for Saturday, July 7th. 

' It is with reason I say we, for we are six on this journey : my wife, 
who imagines she will be less anxious at Chamonix, her sisters, who 
will not leave her, and my two sons. 1 We came into Geneva [from 
Genthod] to sleep on Friday, intending to start very early next morning 
and to get through in the day to Chamonix. 

' On Saturday morning it poured ; it was late before we could load 
up, so we did not get off from the town till 6.10 A.M. We took four 
hours to Bonneville, where we found the fresh horses we had sent on 
in advance. The weather was too bad when we got to Sallanches to 
think of going on to Chamonix.' 

On Sunday the weather was uncertain, and the party remained 
at Sallanches, where Jacques Balmat met them, and Bourrit 
appeared, having closely followed the party from Geneva. Madame 
de Saussure sent a letter to her daughter by his return driver 
to reassure her as to their prospects and to explain that their 
delay was the fault of the weather, and ' not of the three sisters, or 
of the black and jonquil hat, the most elegant in the world, which 
is worn by your Aunt Tronchin.' a 

' Monday, 8th. Left Sallanches in charabancs at 7.10. The rain 
began as we started, and got worse continually. We went on, how- 
ever, and it fortunately stopped while we crossed on foot the Nant 
de Joux, where we lost an hour and a half owing to the road being 
destroyed by the torrent, and our ladies were obliged to be carried. 
We lunched at Servoz while our horses baited, and after passing 
with some difficulty the Nants of the valley, arrived at Chamonix 
at 3.30. We had for companion on the road Jacques Balmat, who 
met us on his way to Geneva to bring me the news of his second 
attempt (this year) on Mont Blanc. He had started on the 4th with 

1 His daughter, Madame Necker-de Saussure, who was in delicate health, 
expresses in letters which have been preserved, her passionate regret at not being 
able to be one of the party, and her eagerness for news of her father's success and 
afe return. 

* See portrait of Madame Tronchin, p. 256. 


Cachat and Alexis Tournier. They slept at my first cabin, started 
from there at 1.30 A.M., at 5 o'clock were opposite my second cabin, 
at 10.30 A.M. at the foot of the last and great slope of Mont Blanc, 
and at 3 P.M. on the summit, where the wind and cold did not allow 
them to stop long. They were only seven hours in descending, and 
J. Balmat, to whom I had sent a veil with which he covered his face, 
did not suffer at all from the snow, while the others were inconvenienced. 
' From this account I gathered that my huts were very badly 
arranged, since I had for the first day only four hours, for the second 
three hours and a half, and for the third ten hours of climbing. 1 In 
consequence, after many talks with Jacques and afterwards with 
Pierre Balmat, I made up my mind to camp the first day on the top 
of the Montagne de la Cote close to the glacier, which would take me 
about five hours and a half, from there to the extremity of the last 
cul-de-sac under the top of Mont Blanc, which would take seven hours 
and a half, leaving four hours and a half on to the top. It was true 
this involved sleeping on the snow, but they all think that under the 
tent one will be well protected from the cold and that the snow will 
not melt under the rugs and still less under the planks of the bed.' 

Bourrit, who, as has been noted, had followed close in de 
Saussure's footsteps, this time with his younger son, Charles, a 
boy of fifteen, arrived at Chamonix at the same moment, ready for 
any chance of accompanying, or following, his patron. But this 
year he found there was to be no question of a joint expedition. 
Bourrit might start six hours after de Saussure, twenty-four 
hours after him, or when he saw his party on the top he was 
always changing his plans but there was to be no companion- 
ship above the snow level. In the valley de Saussure and his 
household were friendly enough with ' the historiographer of the 
Alps,' and the ladies were kind to his boy, who picked bouquets 
for them. Bourrit hired a chalet in the meadows behind the 
church at the foot of the Brevent, where he showed his pictures 
and sold them, or hand -coloured prints, to the ' visitors to the 
glaciers.' Of the three weeks of persistently bad or broken 
weather that ensued we have very full details, owing to the survival 
not only of de Saussure's diary, but of that of the younger Bourrit. 
The fine intervals were all too brief for climbing purposes. Mont 

1 Colonel Beaufoy, however, proved the contrary. He climbed Mont Blanc 
from the second hut, and returned to it the same evening. De Saussure was 
handicapped by his scientific baggage. 


Blanc appeared only in fleeting and splendid visions of sunset 
rose, soon to wrap himself up again in his mantle of clouds. At 
night a long mist -banner would float out from the summit, which, 
when the moon rose behind it and shone through, showed white 
and transparent in the centre with an orange ring. De Saussure 
recognised that the particles of this apparently stationary cloud 
were always changing, that it was formed by the condensation 
caused by the chill of the snows rendering visible the moisture 
carried by a warm wind. 

Despite the frequent rainstorms which cut short their ex- 
cursions, the three sisters seem to have behaved bravely. 
' Madame de Saussure,' writes Madame Tronchin, ' had never 
been in such high spirits.' The wet days were lightened by 
the arrival of interesting travellers, or of parcels of books and 
delicacies from friends at Geneva, which, de Saussure notes, 
cheered up ' nos dames.' He could employ his time in testing 
and improving instruments, or in getting himself into training 
and ascertaining his pace by assiduously pacing measured distances 
on the hillside opposite the hotel. He found 1500 feet an hour 
was the most he could hope to keep up. When it was too wet, 
which it generally was, he turned to the classics. Here is the 
entry for one day : 

' Tuesday, IQth. I start with enthusiasm to read the Iliad, which 
I had never read right through. I run over the Latin translation, 
and when I come on a fine passage I look it up in the original, copy 
it out, and even learn it by heart. About 11 I go with my son for 
a walk under the Brevent to test myself and my boots on some steep 
slopes, and return pleased with both. After dinner we drive to the 
source of the Arveyron and find the glacier much advanced and its foot 
very difficult of access.' 

Between the storms de Saussure and his two sisters-in-law 
would ride to the Glacier des Bossons, or walk to the source of 
the Arveyron, at that time and up till 1860 an ice-cave on the level 
floor of the valley . They even , greatly daring , made an expedition 
to the Montenvers and enjoyed a gay picnic at Blair's cabin, 
though the ladies could not be induced to go on the ice. They 
took no less than four and a half hours to descend from the 
Montenvers to Chamonix, and were terribly tired. But it must 
be borne in mind that it was not till later that a mule -path was 


made to the Montenvers. The old track was a very rough one. 
The ladies made the best use of their stay among the mountains, 
for which they were greatly pitied by their friends at Geneva. 
They left, Bourrit records, greatly regretted by the villagers, on 
many of whom they had bestowed friendly sympathy and sub- 
stantial kindnesses. 

In the fourth week of July the rains were still at their worst, 
and Dr. Paccard's father, the notary, who was an elderly man, 
having rashly started alone for Sallanches on official business, 
fell off the plank over the torrent from the Griaz Glacier near 
Les Houches and was drowned. The son, Dr. Paccard, was 
absent at Courmayeur at the time, but hurried back on hearing 
the news. He had started just before de Saussure's arrival 
for the Italian side of Mont Blanc. De Saussure in his diary 
remarks : ' I think he does not want to see me before my ex- 
pedition,' and on his return adds, ' He seems to have taken pains 
everywhere to have gone a little further and higher than I have 
been.' These passing references do not seem to me to have any 
significance beyond showing that de Saussure was human enough 
to be at heart a little jealous of his precursor, as well as of the 
climbing powers of the younger man. 

The entries in the diary for the last days of July are as 
follows : 

' 29th. In the evening the thermometer at 6 P.M. stands at 23 
Centigrade, and stones and dust can be seen blown off the Montagne 
de la Cote by the violence of the south-west wind. 

' BOth. Same weather ! [He measures the speed of the clouds and 
finds they move 12 degrees in 68 seconds that is, about 60 feet a 

' 3lst. The weather at last promises well, and everyone prophesies 
a fine spell. Mont Blanc at sunset is alternately rose and pale white ; 
it returns, however, to rose, and the quiet clouds which rest on Mont 
Blanc are also rose. The barometer mounts quickly. I make, there- 
fore, all arrangements for a start, but keep the secret from my wife. 
I go to see the Intendant and write up this journal.' 

The new month brought at length a break in the clouds, 
and the so much longed-for and dreaded moment arrived. The 
summits cleared under a bright north-west wind, and on the 
morning of the 1st August the great procession of eighteen well- 


laden guides started. No pains had been spared as to equipment, 
practical as well as scientific ; it included what nineteenth-century 
mountaineers would have considered luxuries : a bed was pro- 
vided, with ' mattresses, sheets, coverlet, and a green curtain,' 
amongst the clothes were two green great-coats, two night-shirts, 
and three pairs of shoes. Between a tent and a ladder in 
the list of ' requisites ' appears a parasol and its case. De 
Saussure and the faithful Tetu both rode on mule -back for the 
first two hours. All Chamonix was there to see the party off 
with one exception. Who that was we learn from the happy 
survival of a billet doux written by his wife on a thin sheet of 
rose-coloured paper addressed to ' M. de Saussure at his first 
bivouac,' and sent after him by a guide who had waited behind 
to take up a forgotten parcel : 

' A Monsieur de Saussure a son premier gite en me levant a onze 
heures du matin : 

' I, too, man cher ami, am very glad that Balmat stopped behind, 
not so much for the sake of the pistol as that he may take you this 
fresh mince-meat. I was really vexed about that you have, which has 
been made for two days, though Babet assures me it is excellent. 
But I shall be better satisfied that you have this as a supplement. I 
thought much about it last night. I did not sleep much ; my poor 
knees feel as if they had climbed the Montenvers from having so often 
been up and down from my bed. Ah ! what a beautiful night it was, 
what vows I made for this weather to last, you will believe ! I assure 
you I am very well, very reasonable as well as it is possible to be 
when all one's happiness is on Mont Blanc. Ask my sisters if they are 
not pleased with me. I assure you I should have been very sorry had 
you not profited by this weather, since your heart is set on this expe- 
dition. Anyhow, you are off, and in four days we shall all be happy, 
if you take care of yourself. I count on your promises. I should 
have liked this morning to have watched you start at the head of 
your troop. I wanted to throw you kisses, but it seemed to me useless 
to speak to you of it. I was often behind the green curtain, and yet 
I managed to miss the moment to see you go off. 

' The poor Englishman has a sharp attack of fever. His friend 
came to consult me. I behaved like the doctor's wife ; I told Marian 
to recommend them to make him drink a great deal, and not to take 
James's Powders so often. 1 

1 Dr. Odier was eventually summoned from Geneva to attend to the patient, 
whoso name is not recorded. 

Route Map of 


hY*\/* \ DomeduGouter' J JT ^7* 

^*&Ph * X^ 4X4 /' 

)' ^ 


' I leave this note open so that Th6o may give you the thermometer 
readings : he is careful in his observations. We looked well to see 
you had forgotten nothing. Do not forget what you have left at 
Chamonix, and let the remembrance bind you to take care of yourself. 
My compliments to your companions. My sisters are out walking ; 
they are very kind. 

' I have no mischievous hand near me to fold my note the wrong 
way in order to tease me about it. I have used rose-coloured paper 
so that you may have something else than the white of the snows 
to look at. Will you sleep well under your tent, mon cher ami ? I 
trust so.' 

Here follow Theodore's meteorological notes. 

Madame de Saussure's anxiety during the following days was 
greatly relieved by the ease with which the expedition's progress 
could be followed from Chamonix through the telescope. She was 
able to watch the steady and unbroken advance of the party, 
to count its number, and to enjoy the emotion, almost too thrilling, 
of seeing all gathered on the summit. From his bivouac on the 
descent her husband sent down an express messenger to assure 
her that all had gone well, and that his scientific objects had 
been attained. 

The Short Narrative, published at Geneva immediately after 
the ascent, has been excellently translated in Whymper's Guide to 
Chamonix. In the Voyages de Saussure added many graphic details 
to it. The following story is compiled from his hitherto unpub- 
lished manuscript diary and the Voyages : 

' 1st August. I start at 7.25 on a mule with Tetu and several of the 
guides ; some of them propose to take a short cut by crossing the 

De Saussure was able to ride for two hours, but to a height of 
only some 800 feet above Chamonix. As he climbed the long 
ridge between the Bossons and the Taconnaz Glaciers he amused 
himself by watching the little flocks of visitors, timorously clinging 
to their guides as they crossed the plateau of the Bossons ; thus, as 
he says, qualifying themselves to tell a pompous tale on their 
return of the dangers they had run and the courage with which they 
had surmounted them . Higher up the party came to a cave where 
the guides had left a ladder and a long pole for use on the glacier ; 



the ladder was there, but the pole had been stolen. De Saussure 
consoled himself with the jest it could not be called a highway 
robbery (vol de grande route). The whole climb to the top of 
the Montagne de la Cote took nearly six hours and a half. His 
tent was pitched against one of the big boulders brought down by 
the glacier, Whymper thinks from the Rochers Rouges. Three 
of the guides went off to reconnoitre the entrance on the ice 
and to cut steps. They came back three hours later to report 
that the glacier was not too difficult. Marie Couttet, however, 
had broken though the crust over a hidden crevasse, but as they 
were luckily roped, Marie was held up between the other two. 
They told the story very cheerfully, but the news spread gloom 
over the faces of the other guides, despite some jests which they 
launched at one another, and which the victims sometimes failed 
to appreciate. 

Next morning (the 2nd August) the start was delayed till 
6.30 by disputes among the guides as to the distribution of their 
loads, a cause of delay only too familiar to the explorers of the 
Caucasus and the Himalaya of the present day. 

' The entry on the glacier proved easy, but soon one plunges into a 
labyrinth of siracs divided by great crevasses, some entirely open, some 
choked with snow, others crossed by frail arches which are the only 
safe means of traversing them. In places a narrow ice -ridge serves as 
a bridge ; when the crevasses are absolutely open one is obliged to 
descend into the bottom and climb the opposite wall by means of steps 
cut in the hard ice. There are moments when it seems that it must be 
impossible to find a way out. Yet as long as the ice is bare, however 
narrow the ridges, however steep the slopes, these brave Chamoniards, 
whose heads and feet are equally firm, show no sign of fear, or even 
anxiety they talk, laugh, joke between themselves ; but when the 
track lies across these vaults hung over hidden abysses one sees them 
marching without a word, the three in front tied together by ropes at 
a distance of five or six feet apart, their eyes fixed on their feet, and 
each placing his foot exactly in the steps of his predecessor. It was 
above all at the spot where Marie Couttet had broken through that 
this sort of alarm culminated. The snow had suddenly failed under 
his feet, leaving a hole six or seven feet in diameter and laying open a 
chasm of which neither the sides nor the bottom were visible, and that 
in a place where there was no visible sign to give the slightest warning 
of danger.' [ Voyages, 1973.] 


Nearly three hours were spent in this formidable icefall. 
Then steeper but less treacherous slopes of snow led up to the foot 
of the lowest of the crags since known as the Grands Mulets. After 
a short rest on the rocks the party, profiting by a snow-bridge 
which was likely to fall later in the season, swerved to the right 
and then back again to the higher block of the chain of rocks, 
that on which a second cabin had been built. 

De Saussure's guides now compelled him to a long halt. They 
were very averse to sleeping on the snow, and their object was to 
delay him so that they might not get before nightfall into a region 
where there were no rocks. However, it was only eleven when 
they started again. De Saussure had spent the time in examining 
the nature of the rocks and admiring the broken masses of the ice 
that tumbles from the recess under the Aiguille du Midi. As the 
climbers advanced, portions of the Lake of Geneva, with the town 
of Nyon, came into view, and the ranges of Faucigny gradually 
sank below the horizon, the Aiguille Percee du Reposoir being 
the last to dip beneath the blue line of the distant Jura. * Each 
victory of this sort was a matter of rejoicing to all the caravan, 
for nothing is so cheering and encouraging as a clear proof of 

De Saussure proceeds in his diary : 

' One rests from time to time on one's pole, but a few minutes 
are enough ; the caravan marches slowly because it does not wish to 
go faster ; they rarely make more than thirty steps without halting 
to take breath ; still they only sit down every half-hour.' 

They now came to the edge of a vast crevasse. 

' Although it was more than a hundred feet in breadth one could 
nowhere see the bottom. At the moment when we were all collected 
on its brink admiring its depth and observing the courses of its snowy 
walls, my servant, from I know not what distraction, let slip the pedestal 
of my barometer which he had in his hand. It slid with the swiftness 
of an arrow down the sloping wall of the crevasse and planted itself 
at a great depth in the opposite side, where it remained fixed and 
quivering like the lance of Achilles on the bank of the Scamander. I 
was extremely vexed, for this pedestal served not'only for the barometer, 
but for a compass, a telescope, and several other instruments. But 
without hesitation several of the guides, seeing my vexation, offered 
to recover it, and when the fear of imperilling them made me hesitate, 


protested that there was no risk. In a moment one of them tied the 
rope under his arms and the others let him down to the pedestal, which 
he snatched and brought up in triumph. During this operation I 
was doubly anxious, first for the guide who was roped, next because, 
being in view of Chamonix, whence with a telescope our movements 
could be watched, I feared they would have their eyes fixed on us and 
be sure to imagine it was one of us who was lost in the crevasse whom 
we were trying to rescue. I learnt afterwards that at that moment 
they were fortunately not looking at us.* [Voyages, 1978.] 

Having crossed this obstacle by a perilous bridge, they reached 
by a steep slope the highest but one of the rocks of the Grands 
Mulcts chain, which on his return de Saussure named the Rocher 
de 1'Heureux Retour. Here they arrived at 1.30 and dined in the 
sunshine with good appetite. Water was wanting, but the guides, 
by throwing snowballs against the warm rocks, soon procured an 
adequate supply. 

' This isolated rock surrounded by the snows seemed to the guides 
a Palace of Delight, a Garden of Calypso ; they could not make up 
their minds to leave it, and were determined to pass the night here. 
They had only sought it with that object, for it is off the route. They 
fancied that during the night the cold on these vast snowfields must 
be absolutely insupportable, and they were seriously afraid that they 
would perish. I only persuaded them to go on by promising I would 
dig a large hole in the snow, in which I would set up the tent, and 
we would all sleep inside it.' 

Half an hour later they came to the ' First Plateau ' [now 
known as the Petit Plateau]. On the left de Saussure admired 
' the vertical position of the strata in the cliffs of the Aiguille 
du Midi ; on the right, close at hand, the rounded head of the 
Dome du Gouter, crowned by a tier of icy cliffs, presented a mag- 
nificent spectacle. In front was Mont Blanc. 

' The rocks on its left we call [at Geneva] the Staircase of Mont 
Blanc [the Monts Maudits], supported cliffs of the most brilliant 
snow. We took twenty minutes to cross this plateau, which seemed 
to us very long for since the guides' last ascent it had been swept 
by two enormous ice -avalanches, and we had to cross their debris in 
fear of being overtaken by another. 1 I noticed that the lowest portion 

1 I have, in three ascents of Mont Blanc, crossed the Petit Plateau, and never 
without being obliged to traverse the remains of a fairly recent avalanche. This 
is the chief danger-spot on the ordinary route up Mont Blanc, but accidents 
have been fortunately rare. In 1891, however, five of a party of seven were 


of the ice-cliff next to the rocks is ice, harder and more compact than 
that of glaciers in ordinary, and I recognised all the gradations between 
snow and ice, for the top of each block is snow. Some blocks not less 
than twelve feet in diameter had travelled far without breaking up. 
One cannot but reflect in passing on the danger from these avalanches, 
a danger one would not naturally anticipate, as the foot of the cliff 
is at some distance and the slope below it gentle. The violence and 
mass of the fall must be enormous to carry the blocks so far.' 

An hour's march up a slope of 34, broken by a splendid 
crevasse, brought the party to the lower verge of the second, 
now called the Grand Plateau. It was four o'clock, and with 
many misgivings as to hidden crevasses, they began to look about 
for a site for a camp. They finally fixed on a spot a hundred 
yards from the top of the slope. 

Directly the guides set to work to dig a platform in the snow 
they began to suffer from the rarity of the air, and had to rest 
after every five or six spadefuls had been lifted. De Saussure 
found himself exhausted by making some barometrical observa- 
tions. While waiting for the tent to be pitched they were all very 
wretched : those who worked felt sick, those who rested suffered 
from the cold. All were exceptionally thirsty, but had to wait 
till some snow had been melted on the fire that was successfully lit. 

The plateau on which they found themselves led to a cul-de-sac. 
To the east were the rocks passed in the ascent, to the west a 
gentle slope leading to the Dome du Gouter. The morrow's 
route and the very steep slope to be climbed were full in view. 1 

De Saussure describes the scene, the complete environment 
by dazzling snows, the whiteness of which contrasted with the 
dark blue of the heavens, the cold and the silence. He takes the 
occasion to pay a tribute to his predecessors. 

' When I pictured to myself Dr. Paccard and Jacques Balmat 
arriving in the decline of day in this desert without shelter, without 
hope of succour, without even the assurance that man could live at 
the height they were aiming at, and yet persevering undaunted in 
their adventure, I admired their resolution and their courage.' 

swept by an avalanche into a crevasse, and two of them perished. Whymper's 
assertion that avalanches seldom, if ever, extend right across the plateau must 
therefore, not be trusted. 

1 De Saussure writes of three plateaux. Whymper failed to recognise that 
he divides what is now called the Grand Plateau into a second and a third plateau. 
There is a rise of some 160 feet in the middle of the Grand Plateau. 


After a rest three of the guides went off in the direction of 
the Dome du Gouter to collect rocks, and, on their way back, to 
cut some steps for next day. They found a crevasse which had 
hindered them on the previous ascent was choked, but reported 
the slope to be very hard and steep. 

The tent once pitched, all the guides crowded in, and after an 
early supper, 'eaten with appetite but digested with disgust/ 
de Saussure prepared to endure what proved a ' detestable night 
sickness, colic, close atmosphere produced by twenty heated and 
panting inmates.' 

' I was obliged to go out in the middle of the night for fresh air. 
The magnificent basin, glowing in the light of the moon which shone 
with the greatest brilliancy in an ebon sky, presented a superb spectacle. 
Jupiter rose radiant behind the Aiguille du Midi, and the glow reflected 
from the snows was so brilliant that only stars of the first and second 
magnitude were visible. After midnight, as we were dropping into 
sleep, we were awakened by the roar of a great avalanche which 
covered part of the slope we had to follow on the morrow.' 

Daybreak at last brought the long penance of night to a close. 
The guides as usual were slow in moving, and then water had to be 
melted, so that it was 6 A.M. before the party set off. Pioneers 
were again sent in front to prepare a path. De Saussure writes : 

' After having crossed the second plateau, at the entry to which 
we had slept, we mounted on the third, and in half an hour reached 
the foot of the great slope which runs towards the east over the rock 
which forms the left shoulder of Mont Blanc.' 

De Saussure, whose personal experience of the effect of the 
rarefied air on Mont Blanc contrasts markedly with his subsequent 
immunity on the Col du Geant, was already distressed, and had 
to halt every thirty steps for a few moments to regain breath. 
After forty minutes' climb the party came on the track of the 
avalanche that had fallen in the night, 

' and each of us made to himself his own reflections. Pierre Balmat 
said to me very politely that I must recover my breath and try to cross 
the avalanche track without halting. I, who felt the impossibility of 
complying, answered him with equal politeness " that the safest spot 
was where the unstable snows had just fallen " ; and we took breath 
twice in crossing. The slope now became steeper, and we had to cross 
a crevasse at the corner of a sirac which barred the passage. This was 


one of the worst places ; the slope is 39, the precipice below is frightful, 
and the snow, hard on the surface, was flour beneath. Steps were cut, 
but the legs insecurely placed in this flour rested on a lower crust which 
was often very thin, and then slipped. Here I found the pcle held by 
two guides as a balustrade for me on the side of the precipice was of 
great service.' [Diary.] 

This steep ascent, known henceforth as the ' Ancien Passage,' 
lasted for two hours before the party gained the little depression 
or col between the eastern shoulder and the final cupola of Mont 

' Immense view of Italy, but sickness. I eat some bread 
and frozen beef, raw and nasty, and drink some water which 
had been carried up for me.' There now remained to climb 
only some 900 feet up a moderate slope, free from any difficulty 
or danger. But de Saussure 's sufferings from mountain sickness 
became acute, he felt faint and dizzy, his legs failed under him, 
between every fifteen or sixteen steps he had to rest on his stick. 
The only palliative was to face and inhale the fresh northern 
breeze. 1 The party spent two hours on this last slope, for which 
Whymper's Guide allows fifty minutes. 

' Since,' writes de Saussure, ' I had had for the last two hours 
under my eyes almost all one sees from the summit, the arrival was no 
coup de thldtre it did not even give me all the pleasure one might 
have imagined ; my most lively and agreeable sensation was to feel 
myself at the end of my uncertainties ; for the length of the struggle, 
the recollection and the still vivid impression of the exertion it had 

1 See sec. 559 in Voyages. There de Saussure lays down about 12,000 feet as 
the height at which he and the majority of dwellers in mountain districts begin 
to feel the results of the rarity of the air directly they undertake any exertion, 
mental or physical. It may be worth noting that in the first two ascents of 
Elbruz, 18,500 feet, one on a windy the other on a still day, both made by moun- 
taineers in good training, no one suffered on the windy day, while all more or less 
suffered on the still day. In the Alps Mont Blanc is exceptional with regard to 
mountain sickness. The continuous, monotonous snowy treadmill of the ascent 
may partly account for this. On Monte Rosa very few cases of sickness are 
recorded ; nor, as a rule, do climbers suffer inconvenience elsewhere in the Alps. 
It is noteworthy that since fair quarters have been provided on Mont Blanc 
much less has been heard of serious indisposition on the part of travellers 
and guides. The men who slept at the Vallot hut, while employed to 
build Jansen's hut on the top, climbed the last slope at a great pace : 
experio crede. I once tried to keep up with them in order to conceal 
from too inquisitive telescopes in the Guides' Bureau that in our party of three 
there was only one guide, a breach of the local regulations. 


cost me, caused me a kind of irritation. At the moment that I trod the 
highest point of the snow that crowned the summit I trampled it with 
a feeling of anger rather than of pleasure. Besides, my object was 
not only to reach the highest point, I was bound to make the observa- 
tions and experiments which alone gave value to my venture, and I 
was very doubtful of being able to carry out more than a portion of 
what I had planned. 

' Still the grand spectacle I had under my eyes gave me a lively 
pleasure. A light haze suspended in the lower layers of the atmo- 
sphere hid, it ie true, the more distant and low-lying objects, such as 
the plains of France and Lombardy, 1 but I did not greatly regret this 
loss ; that which I came to see, and now recognised with the greatest 
clearness, was the order of the great ranges of which I had so long 
desired to ascertain the grouping. I could hardly believe my eyes, 
it seemed a dream, when I saw under my feet these majestic peaks, 
these formidable Aiguilles du Midi, d'Argentiere [Aiguille Verte], 
du Geant, of which I had found even the bases so difficult and dan- 
gerous of approach. I seized their connections, their relation, their 
structure, and a single glance cleared away doubts which years of 
work had not sufficed to remove.' [Voyages, 1991.] 

It is noteworthy that de Saussure, bent as he was on a crowd 
of scientific inquiries and hampered by physical discomforts, 
was yet able to appreciate the splendour of the spectacle. For, 
despite its frequent disparagement by more or less exhausted 
tourists, Mont Blanc offers to those who have eyes to see a unique 
panorama. On the east the great group of the Aiguille Verte and 
Grandes Jorasses presents in the foreground a noble and imposing 
sheaf of summits : beyond, the forested slopes and green alps of the 
Valais separate the peaks of the Oberland from the Pennine snows ; 
to the south the depths of Val d'Aosta, seamed with a thinnest 
ribbon of straight white road, divide the Grand Combin and Monte 
Rosa groups from the silver shield of the Ruitor and the sharp 
spears of the Graians. Away to the south-west the golden cornfields 
and green meadows of the Val d'Isere above Grenoble bask in 
the midday sunshine, fenced by the distant crags of Dauphin^. 
Turning towards the north-west the heights of the Jura lie like a 
blue ribbon across the landscape, separating the Swiss lakes and 

1 No part of the plain of Lombardy or Piedmont is visible from Mont Blanc, 
nor is Mont Blanc seen from the Piedmontese plain. The Grand Paradis is often 
taken for it. The mountain is well seen from the railway near Macon. 


lowlands from the plains of Burgundy and Franche-Comte, which 
stretch out in faint amethystine spaces that melt into the far-off 
horizon. There are doubtless many more picturesque summit- 
views in the Alps . But for an equally impressive and suggestive 
panorama the climber must go to the Caucasus or Sikkim. 

De Saussure in his manuscript diary gives a prodigious to use 
his own favourite adjective list of the work he accomplished 
in the four and a half hours he spent on the top of Mont Blanc, 
and concludes it with the following sentence : 

' My work would have been far more complete had I been in any 
ordinary situation, and I venture to boast that it needed no common 
effort to accomplish what I did in the condition I was. Despite the 
delight which this superb spectacle gave me, I felt a painful sense of 
not being able to draw from it all the profit possible, and that my power 
of appreciation was limited by my difficulty in breathing. I was like 
an epicure invited to a splendid festival and prevented from enjoying 
it by violent nausea. 

' At length the clouds which had gathered under my feet about the 
tops of the lower mountains began to collect round Mont Blanc. The 
fear of taking as long to go down as I had to mount forced me, at 
3.30 P.M., to leave this post which I had so long wished to reach. I 
went with a regret in my heart at not having got all the advantage 
I had hoped out of it. For though I had set to work first on what 
seemed to me of the greatest interest, I counted what I had done but 
little compared to what I had hoped to do.' 

To the top of the Rochers Rouges the party took under an 
hour : 

' Here began the trying part of the descent. The view of the 
precipices was rendered more alarming by a burning sun which shone 
in my eyes and softened the surface of the snow which was our sup- 
port. From the top to the camp took us half the time it had in 
mounting, and that without any exhaustion, which proves it is the 
pressure on the chest from lifting the knees which causes the enormous 
fatigue one feels in going uphill. An hour more brought us to a 
rock I call the " Rocher de 1'Heureux Retour." It was 7.15, and I 
determined to sleep there. We pitched our tent against the southern 
end of the rock in a truly singular situation. It was on the snow and 
at the edge of a great crevasse which cut it off from a very steep 
slope falling towards the great hollow under the rocks of the Dome. 
This rock is opposite what we call from Geneva the third staircase 


of Mont Blanc [Mont Blanc de Tacul] ; it is not the highest of the 
isolated chain there is another, reddish in colour, separated from it 
by the snowfield and hah* buried. I search for lichens and find some, 
also some moss, a gramen, and a pretty bunch of Silene acaulis. 

' The clouds assembled, or rather scattered, in the valleys and 
on the mountains below us produce the most singular effect ; they 
resemble towers, castles, giants, the strangest shapes in place of the 
level slabs one sees from the plain. Above these clouds we see the Jura 
bordered by a red ribbon made up of two bands, the lower the darker, 
almost blood-colour, while from the upper springs a flame like an 
aurora, irregular, clear, and mottled. From here the top of the 
Reposoir (the Aiguille Percee) was just level with that of the Jura. 

' Next morning start at 6.15 for the final descent. Pass the cabin 
built the previous year. Very frail bridge one of the guides who 
quits our steps goes through with one leg. Slope of 50 to avoid 
some crevasses that have opened. Then into the thick of the glacier, 
difficulties in path-finding, wanderings to and fro, ladder frequently 
in use. I note on the glacier some traces of red snow, but I saw not 
the least vestige of it above the upper cabin ; the upper snows are of 
the purest white, and though there is dust in places, it is the grey dust 
detached by wind from the neighbouring rocks. 

' We saw no insects or flies or birds, the last living thing I noticed 
was a little grey moth on the first plateau. However, one was seen 
near the top of Mont Blanc. At last, very impatient of the long 
march on the glacier, we touch land at half -past nine. Slip of one of 
the guides, who nearly tumbles into a crevasse and loses one of the 
sticks of my tent. A great icicle falls with a crash into a crevasse, 
shakes the glacier, and frightens all my troop. I find M. Bourrit, 
who hoped to make the ascent, but the guides refuse. Sunday mass 
and weariness call them home. 

' I descend to Les Monts, where I meet the mules and ride in an 
hour and twenty minutes to Le Prieure. Great emotion and tender 
embraces with my wife, my sisters-in-law, and Madame Necker de 
Germagny [his daughter's mother-in-law]. 

' I am not tired, only a little stiff, and the enormous descent of 
to-day accounts for that ; my eyes are quite right, and I am but little 
sunburnt, though the bad condition of the Glacier de la Cote forced me 
to take off my veil in order to see to my footing.' l 

1 De Saussure paid his guides for the ascent, including J. Balraat, five louia 
each. In previous years de Saussure in his journal notes that on ordinary 
tours he paid his guides four livres de Pi&mont a day, withoiit food, which he 
thought dear. 


A day or two later de Saussure 's Bernese friend and corre- 
spondent Wyttenbach met at Servoz the Happy Warrior on his 
return. He describes how de Saussure rushed into his arms 
with the exclamation : ' Congratulate me : I come from the 
conquest of Mont Blanc.' After all, de Saussure had the feelings 
of a climber as well as of a philosopher ! 

It was no doubt on reading the first account of his success 
that Madame Necker was drawn to address to de Saussure (with 
whom she had recently become connected by his daughter's 
marriage to her nephew) her congratulations : 

' We have trembled while following you among precipices and perils;; 
you have made us experience all the feelings of hope and fear which 
render the life of the chamois-hunter at once so delightful and so 
terrible ; we have fancied ourselves enjoying with you the magnificent 
spectacle with which you were greeted when, a modern Enceladus, 
you scaled Mont Blanc. 

' You have lifted my soul, Monsieur, by showing me these store- 
houses of the world, and I continually grieve at the weakness which 
hinders me from following in your footsteps. But my imagination 
supplies my lack of strength. While I read you I hear the dull roar 
of avalanches and the palpitations of the electric current. Full of 
terror and admiration I see at times in the distance the grave of the 
rash hunter, I watch his shade wandering peacefully in these solitudes, 
and feel that I envy him. I imagine that I could wish to end my 
days in these quiet retreats beside M. Necker, so as to render a last 
homage to Nature and to married love, the only things that remain 
to us in the wreck of all the illusions of life. We have shuddered to- 
gether over your dangers while admiring your courage ; and, remember- 
ing the ties that attach us to you, we feel we have a right to urge 
you to take care of a life very dear to us.' 

Bourrit, who, forced by the guides' refusal, had returned to 
Chamonix with de Saussure, very pluckily started again next 
day for the bivouac, but, with his habitual bad luck, met with a 
break in the weather. His equally habitual impatience again 
betrayed him. The break was but a passing storm. His guides, 
he tells us, held a debate about waiting at the bivouac or returning, 
but what decided the question was his having some dust blown 
into his eye. His son states that his father's eyes suffered from 
exposure to the rough weather. This incident is accounted for by 
Mr. Mark Beaufoy, the young Englishman who on the 8th of 


August, only five days after de Saussure's ascent, climbed Mont 
Blanc. He mentions that he picked up on the mountain Bourrit's 
blue spectacles and made use of them. 

Sleeping at de Saussure's second cabin which de Saussure had 
made no use of Beaufoy reached the top at 10.30 A.M. and stayed 
there two hours, thus proving that de Saussure's original project 
for dividing the day's work was a very feasible one. Paccard, 
in the memoranda relating to ascents of Mont Blanc which he 
left behind him, remarks that Beaufoy walked like a guide. 

Poor Bourrit, who is recorded to have wept on witnessing de 
Saussure's arrival on the summit, lingered on at Chamonix only to 
watch and chronicle his rivals' successes, and to prepare ladders 
for another attempt that never came off. He found some dis- 
traction in conversing with Beaufoy's young wife. The help she 
was able to give her husband in writing out his observations filled 
Bourrit with admiration for the education of Englishwomen. 1 
But Beaufoy himself disappointed the sentimental Precentor. 
For when on being asked in his wife's presence if his first thought 
on gaining the summit had been of her, he replied, ' Not at all.' 
In matters of the heart Englishmen are apt to do themselves 
injustice in the eyes of members of less reticent nationalities, who 
do not realise that still waters may run deep. 

Beaufoy was a man of scientific tastes and attainments, and 
a paper on his ascent was read before the Royal Society on 
the 13th December of the same year. 2 He appears to have 
been more successful than Sir William Hamilton in calling 
the attention of the Society to the eminent claims of his pre- 
decessor, for in the following year de Saussure was admitted to a 
seat on its benches. But though Beaufoy himself became a 
Fellow, his paper on Mont Blanc was not considered worth printing 
in the Transactions of that learned body. Nor did the Relation 
Abregee receive that honour. 

Colonel Beaufoy as he afterwards became kept up his 
interest in science and exploration throughout his life. In 1818 

1 Bourrit asserts that Mrs. Beaufoy was only nineteen. She had, however, 
been married three years, and had two children. 

8 The paper was reprinted from the original manuscript, in the possession of 
the Royal Society, in the Alpine Journal, vol. xxix. (1915). It had previously 
appeared in the number for 18th February 1817 of The Annals of Philosophy, a 
scientific magazine. 


he published articles on the North-West Passage and on the pos- 
sibility of reaching the North Pole. He died in 1827, and is buried 
in Stanmore Church, where an inscription records his services to 
astronomy and the science of navigation. 

We shall meet Bourrit again on the Col du G6ant. But 
his last climb on Mont Blanc calls for an honourable mention 
here. In the following year, 1788, he renewed his assault as a 
member of a combined it may almost be called an international 
expedition . His companions were an Englishman named Woodley 
and a Dutchman named Camper. The weather was broken 
and the wind high. The Englishman and his guide alone got to 
the top. Bourrit, whose slow pace soon left him in the rear, 
gave in, after a plucky struggle, at the last rocks, the Petits 
Mulets, only 400 feet below the summit. His failure supplied 
the ' Historiographer ' with material for a spirited narrative, in 
which he almost persuades his readers and quite persuaded 
himself that he had, for all practical purposes, attained the 
long-sought goal. 

De Saussure lost no time on his return in giving to the public 
an account of his ascent. A brief preliminary note in the second 
number of the newly-founded Journal de Geneve was followed 
within a week by the carefully drawn up Relation Abregee, 
subsequently incorporated in the Voyages. Geneva, which 
seems to have paid but little attention to the conquest of the 
mountain by the two Chamoniards in the previous year, was 
thrilled by the success of its illustrious Professor. Now when 
the Geneva of the eighteenth century was thrilled, politically 
or otherwise, it made a practice of bursting into rhymed prose. 

By such an event as the conquest of Mont Blanc the local 
Muse, not, it must be admitted, a frequenter of the heights of 
Parnassus, was naturally roused to make special efforts. Several 
of the poems written for the occasion survive, notably a long 
tribute or Hommage to de Saussure composed by a minor play- 
wright of the period named Marignie. 1 For the benefit of the 
curious I have appended at the end of this chapter extracts from 
this and other compositions of a like character. In these the 
reader will find a harrowing description of the terrors of Madame 

1 ' Hommage & M. de Saussure sur son ascension et ses experiences physiques 
au sommet du'lMont Blanc.' 


de Saussure and the anxiety of her sisters while they watched the 
progress of the climbers, a picture, it must be said, hardly borne 
out by the letters already printed. He will be amused by striking 
specimens of the passion for puerile allusions to the Classics, which 
infects the political pamphlets of Geneva, and would seem to have 
been a principal result of the system of teaching de Saussure tried 
in vain to reform. In the rival suggestions to attach a personal 
name to the great mountain he may recognise an echo both of 
the political controversies of the moment and of the personal 
jealousies of Bourrit. 



I give here a few short extracts from three of the copies of verses 
called forth by the early ascents of Mont Blanc. The first of these, 
Marignie's tribute to de Saussure, extended to 112 lines. The passage 
describing de Saussure's start and the emotions of his family may serve 
as a specimen of its style. I leave out five lines devoted to Madame de 
Saussure's telescope, ' ce tube qu'approche 1'objet qu'eloigne la distance ' : 

' II marche ; vingt chasseurs ardens, pleins de courage, 
Guides des curieux dans ce sejour sauvage, 
Partagent avec lui ses travaux perilleux : 
On dirait des Titans escaladant les cieux. 
Son 6pouse elle est la, melee aux spectateurs, 
Sur son epoux sans cesse elle a fixe sa vue 
Sa presence soutient son ame suspendue 
Et son eloignement la livre a la terreur. . . . 
Elle le voit, s' eerie, et dans sa joie extreme 
Appelle a 1'observer les doux objets qu'elle aime 
Et ses fideles soeurs et ses fils cheris ; 
Sa fille manque seule a ses sens attendris.' 

The conclusion is an appeal to the public of a kind that has been 
more than once made since by indiscreet climbers, or their admirers, 
eager to use mountains as personal monuments. 

' Si, courant a la hate, entraine par le zele, 
Soudain j'ai celebre cette gloire nouvelle 
Je demande pour prix que le nom du vainqueur 
S'attache au mont fameux qu'a franchi son ardeur, 
Que par ma voix il parvienne a la race future 
Par6 d'un nom plus beau, du nom de Mont Saussure.' 


This foolish, if well-meant, suggestion called forth, as was to be 
expected, a counterblast. Here was an opportunity for a bard of the 
popular party, a Representant, to tune his lyre. One was found in 
E. S. Reybaz, an eloquent preacher and something of a rhymer, who, 
concerned in the affair of 1782, had left Geneva for Paris, 1 while we 
can hardly be wrong in recognising in the background Bourrit, eager 
to provide material for such a theme. There can be little doubt that he 
had a finger in the ' Epitre a Messieurs Balmat et Pacard (sic) sur leur 
ascension du Mont Blanc le 8 Aout 1786,' which followed promptly on 
the publication of Marignie's tribute. The internal evidence is strong. 
Not only is Bourrit mentioned in a footnote on the first page, but on the 
last page, a couplet, amplified by another footnote, celebrates his art : 

' Bourrit par ses pinceaux fait briller ces hauteurs 
Ou se verse aujourd'hui Tor des admirateurs.' 

The writer is at pains to show his erudition and reading. Balmat is 
compared to Columbus and other discoverers or inventors who were 
robbed of the fame due to them. He is an athlete ; de Saussure only a 
philosopher : 

' On ne vit jamais chez les Grecs Aristote, ou Platon, 
Le disputer encore au terrible Milon.' 

The Bourrit version of the ascent is faithfully rendered as follows : 

' Toutefois dans son coeur Balmat sent un besoin : 
Aux beautes qu'il contemple il faut plus d'un temoin, 
H faut a ses transports un coeur qui les partage : 
II descend : il revoit non loin du pic sauvage 
Son ami succombant aux peines, a 1'effroi ; 
" Compagnon," lui dit-il, " J'ai vaincu sans toi, 
Un deplaisir secret attriste ma victoire, 
Que tout nous soit commun, le peril est partout, 
Mais Balmat te soutient, et 1'honneur est au bout ! " ' 

Growing more eloquent and classical as he draws to a close, the bard 
apostrophises Balmat : 

' Ah ! qu'un riche lettre, noble en ses jouissances 
Porte jusqu'au Mont Blanc le luxe des sciences, 
Qu'attentrfs a ses pas vingt guides eprouves 
Le sauvent des perils qu'ils ont vingt fois braves, 
J'applaudis ; c'est Jason et sa troupe intrepide 
Qui s'arment pour dompter 1'Hydre de la Colchide ; 
Leur victoire me plait et ne m'etonne pas ; 
Mais qu'Hercule tout seul etouffe dans ses bras 
Ce monstre rugissant, 1'effroi de la Nemee, 
Hercule est plus qu'un homme et vaut seul une armee.' 

1 Reybaz was Minister Resident of the Genevan Republic at Paris from 
1794 to 1797. 


These were not the only verses dedicated to the climbers. Paccard 
had his poetess in a Mile. Chapuis, who in two lines summarised the 
discussion in his favour : 

' De Saussure a la cime est arriv6 trop tard 
Et deja le Mont Blanc etait le Mont Paccard.' 

And she met with a sympathiser in the Gazette de Lausanne (August 

25, 1787) : 

' Mortels, ne courez plus apres un vain renom, 
L'Erreur et 1'In justice maitrisent la Nature: 
Vespuce a 1'Amerique a su dormer son nom 
Et le Mont Paccard est nomine le Mont Saussure.' 

There was no limit to the congratulations and poetical tributes 
showered on the heroes of the hour. One came from a murderer in 
prison enduring a life sentence, a noble Savoyard of the name of de 
Coppenex. It was described as by ' Le petit domicilie de 1'Hotel de 
Patience, le dix-huit du mois d'Auguste et la cent vingt-neuvieme lune 
de sa captivite.' 

These effusions, however small their literary claims, seem worth 
notice, as evidence of the interest created at the time by de Saussure's 
success, and also as specimens of a class of composition topical squibs 
much in favour in the Geneva of the eighteenth century. 

We have an interesting comment on the Epitre in a manuscript note 
on the copy of it preserved in the Library of the Geneva branch of the 
Swiss Alpine Club. Good grounds exist for believing it to be written 
by the late M. Henri de Saussure, the grandson of Horace Benedict. 
In any case, the opinion of the character of Jacques Balmat here 
expressed coincides exactly with that given to me verbally by M. H. de 
Saussure when I visited him at Genthod in 1891. The note runs : 

' The preceding Epitre must be considered as a disguised diatribe 
directed against H. B. de Saussure. It appeared at an epoch when 
the revolutionary agitation in France had begun to spread to Geneva, 
and when certain parties strove to depreciate everything connected 
with the old families. 

' The following Dialogue set things fairly right. Jacques Balmat 
was never anything but a hired journeyman (ouvrier) of H. B. de Saussure. 
It was only the prospect of the large reward offered by the latter 
which ended in drawing Balmat to the top of Mont Blanc. He several 
times abandoned his attempt on finding himself followed by other 
guides. Always greedy of gain, his great fear was that of having to 
share with others, not the glory, but the money. That is, no doubt, 
what Marignie would have put in Balmat's mouth had he known the 

' Balmat presents the most exact specimen of the type of Savoyard 
with a spirit limited to narrow interests. If he ended by associating 


himself with Dr. Paccard, it was because the latter sought nothing for 

' Balmat the explorer, eager for discovery, striving for fame, 
who has been depicted by various writers, is a Balmat of legend and 
pure phantasy.' 

The third document, the Dialogue, also by Marignie, to which M. H. 
de Saussure alludes, survives. It is entitled : ' Scene Dialoguee entre 
Balmat et 1'Auteur de VHommage a 1'occasion de VEpttre d'un anonyme 
a MM. Paccard et Balmat.' 

In this somewhat heavy pleasantry Balmat is represented as calling 
on the author of the Hommage and introducing himself as all the 
characters in turn to whom he has been compared in the Epitre before 
he reveals his own identity : 

' liAvJtewr. N'aurez-vous jamais un veritable nom ? 

' Balmat. que si, mais, Monsieur, quand on a 1'avantage 
De compter pour patrons des gens de haut parage 
On s'en vante un moment. Mais pour ne plus mentir, 
Je suis le Savoyard Balmat a votre service.' 

After several pages of rhymes the author sums up the discussion : 

' Balmat, votre bon sens me ravit et m'enchante. 
Voila ce que dans vous vraiment il faut qu'on chante. . . . 
Ici comme partout on manque a 1'apropos 
Vous etes un brave homme, on vous fait un heros : 
Si vous 1'etiez, voyez que de votre victoire 
On rehaussirait moins le merite et la gloire : 
On dirait : " Apres tout, il a fait son metier ; 
Ainsi qu'a galoper s'exerce le coursier, 
Le montagnard s'exerce a gravir sur les cimes ; 
II est fait au danger, il est fait aux abimes ; 
Et c'est meme une honte pour un chasseur Savoyard 
De ne s'etre la-haut eleve que si tard." ' 




THE concluding sentences of de Saussure's Short Narrative indicate 
that he was already planning a fresh Alpine adventure. As was 
usual with him, his main object in the proposed expedition was 
not exploration or cartography, but scientific and, in this instance, 
more particularly meteorological research. His stay on the top 
of Mont Blanc had been too short to enable him to carry out the 
long list of observations and experiments he had tabulated on 
his agenda, and until the gaps were filled up he could not rest 
satisfied. An opportunity now presented itself. The summer of 
1787 had been marked not only by three ascents of Mont Blanc, 1 
but also by the opening of the legendary pass from Chamonix to 
Courmayeur across the lofty ridge that fronts the traveller's 
eyes from the head of the Val d'Aosta, and forms part of the 
watershed at the head of the snowy recess known as the Tacul, 
the source of the southern feeder of the Mer de Glace. 

The climb from the Italian side, though long and steep, offers 
no serious difficulty, and the crest had doubtless been reached by 
chamois and bouquetin hunters long before the visit of Patience, 2 
the innkeeper and hunter of Courmayeur who had once served de 
Saussure as guide in his excursion on the Miage Glacier. The 
main obstacle to the passage of the chain at this point lay, as it 
still does, in the broken icefall below the upper basin of the Glacier 
du Tacul, known in after years as Les Seracs du Ge"ant. 

The authentic history of the pass begins in 1786. But, like 
the Fiescher Joch in the Bernese Oberland, it has a legend. The 
oldest document quoted in its support is an account written by a 

1 Those of (1) the three guides, (2) de Saussure, (3) Colonel Beaufoy. 

2 ' Patience ' was the nickname of Jean Laurent Jordanay. who died in 1825, 
aged eighty-five. He was often employed by de Saussure, and in the Parish 
Rogister of Courmayeur his death is entered with a note, ' Guide de M. de Saussure, 
naturaliste, sur le Mont Blanc.' 



Piedmontese official of the name of Arnod of an attempt made 
by him with three hunters. There existed at Courmayeur, Arnod 
asserts, a vague tradition handed down from father to son, that a 
passage to Chamonix over the glaciers of Mont Frety had once been 
practicable. He then describes his own attempt in 1689 : 

' Je pris trois bons chasseurs avec des grappins aux pieds, dee 
hachons et des crocs de fer a la main pour se faire pas sur la glace 
II n'y eut pourtant jamais moyen de pouvoir monter n'y avancer & 
cause des grandes crevaces et interruptions qui se sont faits depuis 
bien d'annees.' l 

Both Windham and Martel, in their respective pamphlets, 
record a similar tradition as prevalent at Chamonix, and a possible 
instance of such a passage is referred to in a letter by Gosse 
published in the Journal de Geneve. 2 The experience of the last 
sixty years has shown living mountaineers that the only difficulty 
of the pass lies in traversing the broken glacier on the Savoyard 
side, the labyrinth of the Seracs du Geant, and that this varies 
greatly from year to year, and from month to month. In the 
late summer of 1863 first-rate guides held the icefall impassable, 
and led a party of travellers, of whom I was one, along the steep 
slopes of La Noire on the right of the glacier. On several subse- 
quent occasions I have walked, both up and down, straight 
through the Seracs. It seems therefore reasonable to suppose 
that the story is not without foundation, and that from time to 
time some of the Courmayeur hunters, who, Bourrit tells us in 
his first book (1773), had gained the ridge from the south-east side, 
hardier than their comrades, risked the perils of the crevasses, and 

1 Relation des Passages de tout le circuit du Duche cCAosta (1691 and 1692). 
Edited by Signer Vaccarone, Boll, del Club Alpino Italiano, 1880, and reprinted 
by Mr. Coolidge in his Josias Simler. 

2 Quoted in Alpine Journal, vol. ix. p. 88. The short time alleged to have 
been taken is a very uncertain proof. Sallanches might be reached from Cour- 
mayeur in less time by the Col des Fours than by the Col du Geant. Ribel, the 
courier in question, was a German of disreputable connections, whose wife was 
expelled from Geneva for immorality. On this occasion he was carrying letters 
from Geneva to Turin. The usual route was the Mont Cenis. The growth of 
the tradition seems to me very obvious. Bordier's report of a legend that peasants 
at one time were in the habit of crossing from Chamonix to Courmayeur in six 
hours or less, and his story of the witty Capuchin who asserted he had walked over 
the ice from Aosta to Chamonix in fourteen hours, are clearly exaggerations. 
Nor can the assertion of the Due de la Rochefoucauld's guide (see Ann. du Club 
Alpin Francais, vol. xx. (1893)) be easily fitted to any pass approached by the 
Mer de Glace. It is possibly a misreported reference to the Col du Tour. 


crossed from Chamonix to Courmayeur, or vice versd, by the 
Mer de Glace. 

Whether this putative hunters' pass is referred to by the 
words ' Col Major ' found on old maps is a wholly distinct question. 
On some of these maps we find ' Col Major ou Cormoyeu,' which 
suggests a cartographer's or copyist's error. There is no ground 
whatever for the suggestion that de Saussure had ever heard the 
pass so designated. In writing to his wife he expressly states that 
this point in the watershed had been called the Tacul, though 
nowhere near the spot at the junction of the sources of the 
Mer de Glace properly so named, and that he had consequently 
with the approval of his guides named it the Col du Geant after 
the adjacent Aiguille. 

It was not till September 1786 that the first fully recorded 
attempt to force a pass at the head of the Mer de Glace was made. 
At that date, M. Exchaquet, the director of the mines at Servoz, 
a man who knew as much about the mountains of Savoy as any- 
one then living, and was frequently consulted by de Saussure, 
resolved to put into execution the project he had long had in his 
mind of rediscovering the lost pass. 

Exchaquet 's share in Alpine exploration deserves more notice 
than it has generally received. His correspondence with de 
Saussure and Wyttenbach shows him to have been an observer 
of considerable intelligence, specially in matters connected with 
meteorology. He had also a talent for topography, which he put 
to practical and profitable use by constructing and selling relief 
models of the chain of Mont Blanc, of part of the Valais, and of 
the St. Gotthard group. The models of Mont Blanc were sold for 
the high price of thirty louis. They were made of wood, the 
snows and pastures shown in their natural colours, and the 
glaciers represented by fragments of spar tinted sky-blue. Their 
size was about 3 feet 6 inches by 15 inches. 1 

1 There was at the time a certain demand for reliefs of this kind, resulting 
from the newly awakened interest in the Alps. The only copy of Exchaquet's 
relief of Mont Blanc believed to exist is that presented by Baron de Gersdorf 
to the Museum at Gorlitz. In London, thirty years later, J. B. Troye, of Frith 
Street, Soho, who advertised himself as a pupil of Exchaquet, and had probably 
been his workman, offered for sale small models of Mont Blanc. One, perhaps 
of his construction, is in the possession of the Alpine Club. General Pfyffer'p 
and Meyer's models of the Swiss Alps have been noticed elsewhere (see p. 163). 

It is recorded that on Napoleon's visit to Chamb6ry in 1805, a model of 


Exchaquet's prolonged residence at Servoz, where he was 
engaged as ' Directeur-General of the Mines of Faucigny,' gave 
him opportunities for mountain excursions by which he fully 
profited. He went up the Buet five or six times, and at all hours 
of the day, in order to study the variations in the temperature. 
He climbed the Pointe de Tanneverge and several summits over 
the Val d'Hliez. He got very near to the top of one of the Aiguilles 
des Courtes above the Talefre Glacier. He explored among the 
lesser summits of the western wing of the Bernese Oberland 
round the Sanetsch Pass, and as far east as the Gemmi and the 
Lotschen Thai. Though he never reached any peak rivalling 
Mont Blanc or Mont Velan, his climbs above the snow-level and 
the extent of his wanderings entitle him to rank high among the 
early pioneers. By his success in overcoming the famous seracs 
he gave proof of his Alpine qualifications, and by his modesty 
in describing his adventure he afforded Bourrit an additional 
reason for ignoring a predecessor who diminished to some extent 
the exploits of the Precentor. 

Exchaquet found a companion for his first attempt in a Mr. 
Hill, a member of one of several English families then resident 
at Geneva. They took with them three guides, and slept on the 
rocks at the Couvercle, the meeting -place of the glaciers that 
form the Mer de Glace. Next morning, when they assailed the 
formidable icefall, they found the crevasses numerous and large. 
'Mr. Hill,' writes Exchaquet, 'not being accustomed to glaciers, 
greatly delayed our progress, so, seeing how little advance we had 
made in two hours, and reckoning that it would take many 
more to get through the bad part of the glacier, we resolved to 
return rather than risk having to pass the night among the snows 
of the Tacul.' 

Mr. Hill subsequently went round Mont Blanc by the Col 
de Bonhomme and Col de la Seigne to Courmayeur. Thence 
with a friend, the guide Marie Couttet of Chamonix, and a local 
hunter, he climbed to the top of the pass and returned the same 

Mont Blanc, 12 feet long, was placed in his apartment with these lines attached : 
' Sur sea bases eternelles 
Le Mont Blanc est moins assure 
Que dans nos coaurs fideles, 
De tes lois 1'Empire sacre.' 

Nothing is reported of what Napoleon thought of this somewhat cumbrous 
piece of furniture and flattery. 


evening to Courmayeur. His object was not to cross the chain, 
but to ascertain the chances of approach to Mont Blanc from 
this side. De Saussure, we shall see, refers to this excursion 
in one of his letters written from the Col. It has been through 
a confusion, or combination, of these two explorations from 
opposite sides of the pass that several writers have been led to 
give our countryman the credit of having been the first traveller 
to cross it. 

Early in the following summer (1787), M. Exchaquet resolved 
to make a fresh attempt to carry out his project. He told Marie 
Couttet and Jean Michel Cachat of his plans, and they promised to 
accompany him . But three days later, on 27th June , he found that 
Cachat and a comrade, Alexis Tournier, had slipped off nominally 
to look for crystals. He lost no time in filling the former's place, 
and, starting next morning at 2.15 A.M. from Chamonix itself with 
Marie Couttet and Jean Michel Tournier, reached Courmayeur at 
8 P.M. the same day, a very creditable performance for that date. 
The party had fine weather, and Exchaquet, who was obviously 
not, like Bourrit, a writer for the press, frankly stated that ' they 
met with no difficulties ' in the passage. On the snowfields 
above the seracs they noticed footsteps, and on their arrival at 
Courmayeur they found that Cachat and his companion had 
anticipated them by twenty-four hours, and had been at pains 
to secure a certificate of their exploit from the local authorities. 
In the account the two guides gave of the passage they reported 
that the first shepherds they met on the Italian side fled from them 
in dismay, and that the villagers of Entreves were equally 
astonished at their appearance by a route held from all times 
inconmie et impraticable. 

The facts relating to the two earliest crossings of the Col 
du Geant given above are derived from an anonymous letter 
from Chamonix in the Journal de Lausanne (8th July 1787), and 
a narrative sent by M. Exchaquet to his friend Henri A. Gosse. 1 
They have been frequently distorted. Bourrit appears once 
more as the principal author of the mischief. In the opening 

1 It was used by Gosse as foundation for a Precis historique sur le passage 
de la Vattee de Chamonix a Cormayeur (sic) nouvellement retrouvee par les Glaciers 
des Bais et du Tacul. It will be printed for the first time by Mr. Montagnier 
(Alpine Journal, vol. xxxiv.), who has also supplied me with the report of 
the guides. 


of the pass he saw an opportunity to cover his repulse on 
Mont Blanc. If he could manage to cross the Grand Col, as 
the Chamoniards for the next hundred years called the pass, and 
write the first account of it, he might proclaim the adventure 
a mountaineering feat at least comparable to de Saussure's ; in 
his own phrase, ' a discovery equivalent to the ascent of Mont 
Blanc.' This unworthy idea he proceeded to put into execution. 
In order to claim for himself the credit of the first passage by a 
traveller, he boldly omitted all notice of Exchaquet's previous 
success. We cannot but feel sorry for the vainglorious Precentor 
when we find him thus doing his best to diminish with posterity 
the credit his pluck in this instance fairly entitles him to. 

Accordingly, on 27th August 1787, two months after 
Exchaquet's expedition, Bourrit set out with his second son, 
Charles, a boy of fifteen, and four of the best Chamonix guides, 
including the two men who had so unscrupulously anticipated 
Exchaquet. The party spent the night at the Montenvers. 
For the rest Bourrit must be left to narrate his own exploits. 
The following account is that which he sent to the Hon. Maria 
Craven, a daughter of the well-known Lady Craven, who, after 
being divorced from her English husband, married the Margrave 
of Anspach. 1 Miss Craven, a girl of seventeen, had, while staying 
at Vevey, heard of de Saussure's ascent and boldly applied to 
the ' Historiographer of the Alps ' for details. Bourrit, enchanted 
at an opportunity to pose in that character, readily complied 
with the request, and characteristically could not resist the 
opportunity for adding an account of his own recent adventure. 
It was written, as given here, in the third person. 

' On the morning of the 28th the party passed, by moonlight, Les 
Pontets, rocks many find so difficult that they look on them as an 
impassable barrier. At daybreak they entered on the ice. At a 
quarter to seven they reached the base of the Jorasse, and at eight 
began to climb the slopes of the Glacier du Tacul. They had a ladder 
twelve and a half feet long for crossing the crevasses, and they soon 
had occasion to use it. The water in the cracks was frozen, and the 
glacier covered with new snow. By nine the work of climbing and 
crossing the crevasses had doubled in difficulty ; their position was 
horrible. They found themselves in cavities so narrow, so deep, and 

1 See Dictionary of National Biography, 


so over-arched that they did not know how to get out of them. They 
had to climb ridges hollow underneath and encompassed by enormous 
precipices. The ledges on which they risked themselves were often 
only three inches wide. The axe for cutting staircases was as useful 
as the ladder and the rope, to which they had all tied themselves. 
Between ten and one o'clock the ladder was used thirty-eight times. 

* They next reached steep plateaux (sic) cut by bottomless crevasses 
extending the whole breadth of the glacier, which might be a league, 
and so wide that the ladder scarcely stretched across them. About 
one clouds began to cover the summits, wind beat on them from every 
direction, and the cold increased. At two no clear sky was visible, 
the sea of ice they were traversing seemed boundless, they were like 
polar travellers, and the mists completed the parallel. The effect 
was as sublime as it was alarming. Their anxiety was further in- 
creased by the vast crevasses concealed under extremely thin snow- 
arches. They must have perished but for the rope by which they 
were attached. The guide Charlet broke through one of these fragile 
bridges, and had he not been carrying the ladder, he would never 
have been able to emerge from the abyss at his feet. His head, caught 
between the rungs, gave him the look of a man taken in a snare or a 
trap. At three their distress grew still greater because they found 
they had gone past the strait which they ought to take in order to 
get to Courmayeur, and they thought of returning in their footsteps, 
already hah* effaced by the wind and the falling snow. The cold 
began, too, to be insupportable, and the thermometer was at 6 below 
zero (Reaumur). Their hair, as well as their veils, were fringed with 
icicles. Young Bourrit had some half an inch in length. This youth, 
who had lost sensation in his feet and fingers, bore his sufferings with a 
courage which drew the admiration of the guides. The cold increased 
still more. At three their clothes froze, as well as the laces of their 
boots. The guides, firmly convinced that they had passed the point 
they had to make for, ran backwards and forwards like men who, after 
a shipwreck, avoid the waves by scrambling from rock to rock. They 
sought for some crag or passage by which they might escape from 
their perilous situation. M. Bourrit and his son, who kept close to 
him, were already planning to pass the night where they were rather 
than wander further. They proposed to break up the ladder to 
provide fuel, put their legs in their sacks, and huddle together. But 
the guides, who did not believe it possible to resist the cold of the 
night and the bad weather, were resolved to rescue them at all costs 
from this dreadful desert. The thermometer marked 7 below 
zero. At this moment a gust of wind drove off the mist and 


revealed some of the peaks. They saw clearly that the field of snow 
on which they were sloped downwards before them. This raised 
their hopes, and a second gust, while obscuring the crag they had just 
noticed, revealed another to their right but a short way off. Cries of 
joy gave the news to the more distant guides, all ran together, and 
this rock, which formed the crest of the mountain, was named the 
Roc Sauveur. It proved so in effect, for from it they had, under their 
eyes, all the valley of Aosta, and at their feet the village of Courmayeur. 
The sun shone brightly, throwing shafts of light in every direction, 
and principally on the summits of the Great and Little St. Bernard. 
Thus from a situation of the greatest anxiety they passed suddenly to 
the top of their hopes. They exchanged congratulations, and the 
youth whose courage had not failed him, who had shared the sufferings 
of the guides without adding to them by useless complaints, became 
the object of the tenderest caresses. They had been on the ice for 
twelve hours. 

* By the avowal of the guides, who had all four been on Mont Blanc 
with M. de Saussure or Mr. Beaufoy, 1 the difficulties of that mountain 
do not approach those of this expedition. The most dangerous part 
of Mont Blanc is the Glacier de la Cote, which can be crossed in less 
than an hour and a half, while the obstacles and difficulties met with 
by our travellers on the Tacul lasted six hours. The crevasses ex- 
ceeded those of Mont Blanc in horror as well as in size, and if snow 
avalanches were to be feared on Mont Blanc, there was no less danger 
of the fall of the seracs of the Tacul, which were like towers, thin 
and hollow at the base. These towers, these broken walls, often rose 
to a height of three or four hundred feet. The guides admitted, it is 
true, that a month earlier the glacier did not present such great 

' The guides further declared that, except for the pleasure of find- 
ing oneself on the actual summit of Mont Blanc, the Tacul offered 
beauties quite as remarkable. The rocks of the Geant, of the Charmoz, 
of Mont Blanc itself, the glaciers which flowed from it, the icefall of 
the Tacul, its gigantic towers, its needles, the bridges thrown, as it 
were, into the air, the frozen vaults, the corridors and labyrinths of 
the glacier, the boldness of their formation, their superb outline, the 
play of light across these transparent masses of naked ice, form objects 
beyond description and surpass all the richest imagination can conceive 

' The descent to Courmayeur proved long and difficult. It took 
them five and a half hours. They followed ridges resembling those 
of the Aiguille du Gouter. The descent is in part dangerous either 

1 Cachat le Geant, Tournier 1'Oiseau, Charlet, and one other. 


from its steepness or from the looseness of the rocks, which break in 
the hand or slip from under the feet. They arrived at Courmayeur 
at half-past nine by clear moonlight. Their day's journey was of 
seventeen and a half leagues (hours). M. Bourrit praises his guides, 
but gives the greatest credit to Cachat le Geant, whom he has named 
Sans Peur. He returned to Geneva bringing back from his memorable 
expedition the most extraordinary pictures and the honour of having 
crossed in one day to Piedmont through a thousand dangers dangers 
which added to his satisfaction by the proof they afford of what men 
can do when animated by the love of glory ! ' 

Not a word, it will be noted, as to Exchaquet's previous passage 
of the Col. Called to account at the time for this omission, 
Bourrit protested that, having mentioned that two guides had 
made the first passage, he was not called on to notice any other 
predecessor. The motive that had led him astray in the case of 
Paccard and Mont Blanc, his intense jealousy of any climber 
other than a professional guide, again drew him from the path of 
truth. In this case he has succeeded in obscuring the facts 
and misleading the most accurate Alpine chroniclers up to the 
present day. In Bourrit 's account of the perils he went through, 
we must always make a large allowance for his temperament. We 
may also admit in his favour that the Ge"ant seracs vary greatly 
in difficulty, and that his passage was made two months later in 
the year than that of Exchaquet. Nor will any mountaineer 
rate lightly the terrors of a storm on the high snowfields. But I 
fear no similar excuses are available for Bourrit's account of the 
descent to Courmayeur, which urged even de Saussure to critical 
comment. 1 

We may now turn to de Saussure 's admirable narrative of 
what I am disposed to think was by far his most daring adventure. 
It was not till nearly forty years afterwards that any camp was 
pitched in the Alpine snows at so lofty an elevation and then only 
for a single night. De Saussure points out in his opening sentences 
the aim he had in view in his long stay on the top of the Col du 
Geant at a height of nearly 11,000 feet. 

' Physical observers who propose to visit the top of some high 
mountain arrange, as a rule, to reach it about noon, and, having 

1 Besides Bourrit's narrative, we have a letter written by his son to a friend 
describing the great adventure. The lad may be excused if he outdoes his father. 
His crevasses are a league long, his seracs four hundred feet high. 


arrived, they hasten to make their observations so as to descend before 
nightfall. Thus they always reach great heights at about the same 
time of day, and for a very short stay, and in consequence are unable 
to form any true notion of the state of the air at other hours, still 
less during the night. It seemed to me it would be interesting to 
endeavour to fill up this gap in our meteorological records by making 
a stay on an elevated spot sufficiently long to enable me to ascertain 
the daily variations of the various meteorological instruments, and 
to take advantage of the opportunity of observing the origin of meteor- 
ological phenomena such as winds, rain, and storms.' [Voyages, 2005.] 

De Saussure's remarks on the advantage of prolonged visits 
to the heights at other than the mid-day hours in which most 
climbers attain them are, it may be pointed out, as true from the 
picturesque as from the scientific point of view. Afternoon 
shadows and evening lights add enormously to the effect of 
mountain panoramas by lending a variety in colour and detail 
lost under the equal glow of noon. The summit views that linger 
most in my memory are those gained from heights reached early 
or late in the day, either in the dawn or gloaming, or when every 
lofty ridge and spur throws a long shadow. Prominent among such 
recollections a*e the rising of the morning star above the crests 
of the Caucasus seen from a height of 16,000 feet on the slopes 
of Elbruz, and the after-glow reflected from the snowy ranges 
of Tibet viewed from 19,000 feet on one of the spurs of 
Kangchen janga . 

Before setting out, de Saussure obtained from Exchaquet 
details as to his excursion which satisfied him that the top of the 
pass (of which Exchaquet had somewhat over-estimated the 
height *) would afford him the space and solid ground he required 
for a camp and for setting up his instruments. In order to lose 
no chances, he set out with his son Theodore early in June for 
Chamonix, and remained there till the end of the month, perfecting 
his preparations and waiting for the promise of a spell of fine 

It was on the 2nd July that the caravan set out. On the first 
night they pitched their tents beside the little Lac du Tacul, 
at the junction of the ice-streams that form the Mer de Glace. 

1 Exchaquet made it 1800 toisea= 11,511 feet. The accepted height is, 
according to Vallot, 10,959 feet. 


The seracs, which had presented no difficulty to Exchaquet a 
twelvemonth before, were held by the guides to be impassable 
even thus early in the season, and they preferred to turn them 
on their south-eastern flank, formed by a crag known as La 
Noire. These rocks are not difficult, but the route involves 
some scrambling and the traverse of several steep snow-slopes. 1 
De Saussure comments as follows on his experiences : 

' Our guides warned us that this route is much more dangerous 
than that which had been taken the year before, but I do not lay 
much stress on their statements, for one reason that present danger 
always seems greater than that which is past ; for another that they 
think to flatter their employers by telling them they have escaped 
grave perils. Still, it is true that this passage of La Noire is really 
dangerous ; and, as it had frozen in the night, it would have been 
impossible for us to cross these steep and hard slopes, had not the 
guides trampled steps in the snow the evening before, when it was 
softened by the sun. 

' Next, as on Mont Blanc ' continues de Saussure ' we had to 
meet the danger of crevasses concealed under a thin coating of snow. 
These crevasses grew fewer and less large as we got higher, and we 
thought we were almost free of them when we heard a sudden cry of 
" The ropes, the ropes ! " One of our porters, Alexis Balmat, who was 
about a hundred paces ahead, had disappeared of a sudden from among 
his comrades, swallowed by a large crevasse, 60 feet deep. Happily, 
half-way down that is, at 30 feet he lighted on a block of snow wedged 
in the crevasse. He fell on this with no further injury than a few 
scratches on the face. His greatest friend, P. J. Favret, at once had 
himself tied to the rope and let down. The porter's burden was first 
hauled up, then the two men separately. Balmat came out looking 
a little pale, but showed no emotion ; he took on his shoulder our 
mattresses which formed his load, and continued his march with 
imperturbable coolness.' [Voyages, 2028.] 

The incident thus recorded is another example of the care- 
lessness or ignorance of the proper use of the rope shown by the 
Chamonix guides in most of the early expeditions. Even in the 
seventies of the nineteenth century, some of the best Engadine 
guides were equally reckless. The rope is irksome, and a smooth 
snowfield does not suggest danger to a dull mind. 

1 The only danger, even for a novice, is from falling stones. But this is a 
real risk, if a slight one. 


The story of the arrival on the Col may best be given in the 
words of the letter de Saussure hurriedly sent off on the spot to 
Genthod. De Saussure 's care to say nothing to his family about 
the perils of La Noire or the incident of the crevasse is charac- 
teristic. The contrast between his reticence and Bourrit's ex- 
aggerations may remind an English reader of Clough's lines in 
the Bothie of Tober na Vuolich : 

' Colouring, he, dilating, magniloquent, glowing in picture, 
He to a matter-of-fact, still softening, paring, abating, 
He to the great might have been upsoaring, sublime and ideal ; 
He to the merest it was, restricting, diminishing, dwarfing.' 

Here is the account de Saussure wrote to his wife : 

' 3rd July. 

' I am sending Jacques * to carry you the news of our happy arrival 
on the Col du Giant, where our hut is in the finest situation in the 
world. We left Chamonix yesterday morning, passed the Montenvers, 
and came on to sleep at the end of the glacier. Your sisters saw the 
place where we slept. 2 We started this morning at 5.30 A.M. and 
got to the hut at 12.30 P.M. We met with some mauvais pas, some 
steep slopes, but we had no misadventures, and there need be no 
alarm about our return, as we have decided to come back by Cour- 
mayeur ; it is a little longer, but not fatiguing, and free from any sort 
of danger ; there are neither snows nor crags nothing but loose stones. 
Mr. Hill, the most clumsy of climbers, made this descent by night, 
tumbling five hundred times, without even giving himself a scratch. 
So have no fear about our return. I did not deceive you in telling you 
there was no danger in coming here, but the very light snowfall of last 
winter forced us to take a different route, 3 which, without being really 
dangerous, presented some obstacles. These will increase in a week's 
time, hence my high caution has decided me to come back by Cour- 
mayeur. The slight difficulties we met with afforded me a great 
satisfaction from the way Theodore met them without being in the 
least affected by the rarity of the air. I am, therefore, as pleased as 
possible as to these first difficulties we have had to encounter. ... I 
ought to tell you also that Etienne [a new servant] walks like a stag, 
and at least as well as Tetu, and that I am in almost every respect very 
pleased with him. . . . 

1 This ' Jacques ' was probably Jacques Balmat, the climber of Mont Blanc 
(see p. 259). 

* This refers to their visit to the Montenvers in the previous year. 

* The implication, of course, is that it had not sufficed to choke the crevasses. 


' I have rebaptized this mountain [the Col du Geant]. It has 
been called the Tacul, which is seven leagues [hours] off, while it is 
quite close to the splendid Aiguille du Geant, which is visible from 
Genthod. All the guides approve this change ; you must correct Coco 
[his grandchild] and not let him say any more " Grandpapa is at 
Tacul." ' 

The next letter we have was written four days later : 

* July 1th. 

' Neighbour of heaven though I am, I am very far from being 
detached from earthly objects that is, if the objects that attach me 
to life can be reckoned as earthly ! When some one said, " Here are 
our letters," I felt so much emotion that I did not know what I was 
doing, and ran to meet the " Grand Menton " and the " Chevrier " 
[nicknames of the guides who brought the post]. Long before they 
could hear me I began shouting, " Have you good news ? " and their 
silence filled me with fear. At last they came up, and I quickly seized 
the letter addressed " au Col du Geant," my hands trembled, my eyes 
filled with tears, to the point of hindering me in reading, and my 
delight in finding all your good and delightful news affected me almost 
as painfully as the anxiety in which I had been before reading it. I 
believe it is this rare atmosphere that increases one's sensibility, or 
else this absolute separation makes one realise more fully the value 
of what one loves. The atmosphere, however, causes us absolutely 
no discomfort, we have the best possible appetites, no feeling of 
oppression, not the slightest indisposition. But the bad weather 
pursues us ; yesterday was the first fine day. So we are making the 
best use of it possible, and you must not be surprised if Theo does 
not write at all and I write you a short letter. Besides, our messengers 
want to start. [He sent down some of his guides to Courmayeur 
from time to time to get provisions. The letters were probably for- 
warded thence by the Col Ferret and Martigny. This, at any rate, 
was the route used on a previous occasion.] Be content, then, to 
know we are very well in health and in every way. We have suffered 
a little from cold, the water froze in our glasses in the hut, while we 
were supping round our little stove. Still, the thermometer only 
marked less than four degrees of frost (Reaumur), but then the hut 
does not shut up like your salons, and the fire has the greatest trouble 
to burn in this rare air ; it goes out as soon as you leave off using the 
bellows. I wanted to see a fine storm, and I have had that satisfaction 
thunder, hail, snow, and sleet all at once, and plenty of them ; it was 
on Saturday night and Sunday morning. But it all did us no harm, 
and as we cannot have anything worse, you must not have any 


anxiety as to our future, the more so since we have learnt how to 
procure, if not all the conveniences of life, at any rate preservatives 
against the worse inconveniences. This bad weather has relieved us 
of M. Exchaquet, who had the indiscretion to bring with him four 
guides, or sightseers, and we were at a loss where to put them. He 
only stayed with us twenty-four hours, and took advantage of an 
interval of fine weather to go down to Courmayeur.' 

Their only other visitors on the heights were three chamois. 
But there were lesser forms of life in the number of butterflies 
which were carried up by the wind and took refuge on the sheltered 
side of the mountain, where they afforded an easy prey to the 
choughs, whose gambols enlivened the snowy wilderness. 

In his Voyages, published eight years later, de Saussure gives 
a more detailed account of the storm than he had thought prudent 
to send home at the time : 

' On the following night [4th-5th July] we were assailed by the most 
terrible storm I have ever witnessed. It arose an hour after mid- 
night with a south-west wind of such violence that I expected at 
every instant it would carry away the stone hut in which my son and 
I were sleeping. The gale had this peculiarity, that it was periodically 
interrupted by intervals of the most perfect calm. In these intervals 
we heard the wind howling below us in the depth of the Allee Blanche, 
while the most absolute tranquillity reigned round our cabin. But 
these calm moments were succeeded by blasts of an indescribable 
violence ; double blows like discharges of artillery. We felt even the 
mountain shake under our mattresses ; the wind penetrated through 
the cracks in the walls of the hut, it once lifted my sheets and rugs 
and froze me from head to foot. At daybreak the gale fell a little, 
but it soon rose again and came back accompanied by snow, which 
penetrated on all sides into the hut. We then took refuge in one of 
the tents, which gave better protection. We found the guides obliged 
continually to hold up the poles for fear the violence of the gale should 
upset them and carry them away with the tent. 

' About seven continuous hail and thunder were added to the 
storm ; one flash struck so near us that we heard distinctly a spark 
slide hissing down the wet canvas of the tent just behind the place 
occupied by my son. The air was so full of electricity that directly I 
put only the point of my electrometer outside the tent the bubbles 
separated as far as the threads would allow them, and at almost every 
explosion of the thunder the electricity changed from positive to 
negative or vice versd.' [Voyages, 2030.] 


The following charming letter was addressed to his sisters-in- 
law : 

1 llth July. 

' While Theo writes to his mother I will write a line to his two aunts, 
and perhaps there is good reason I should, lest they forget me ; for 
they are giving such a double share of affection to their sister that 
there may be none left for her vagabond of a husband ! My wife in 
her letters never ceases to extol to me the kindness of her sisters, their 
indulgence, their attentions, and the charming fete which made her 
cry with emotion, and made me, too, weep in sympathy amidst the 
frost that surrounds me. She described to me this fete and the 
outflow of tenderness that accompanied it in colours so vivid that I 
vow I fancied myself there, and it was one of the greatest pleasures 
I have enjoyed since I left Geneva. 

' But in truth this tender companionship of the three sisters makes 
the chief charm of my life ; it is my greatest pleasure when I am with 
them and my dearest recollection when I am absent. And the best 
proof of my eagerness to return to you is that I am giving up the 
excursion I meant to make in the Valais. I should have liked to 
make it ; had this part of the journej 7 only taken three weeks, as I 
hoped, my whole absence would only have been about five weeks, 
but on no account would I lose eight or nine weeks' of our stay at 
Genthod, as I must if I carried out my first plan. For I must stay 
four or five days more here to finish my experiments, which do not 
advance any too quickly, as the weather is often against us. We have 
not had any more of those terrible storms like the one you had also 
at Genthod, but in revenge we have two or three showers every day, 
with an accompaniment of hail or snow. Ail the same, we are as well 
as possible, and Etienne has great difficulty to cook enough to satisfy 
our appetites. One would think we lived in a forge ; as the coke will 
only burn when blown, our bellows are extremely exhausted and 
husky. Our guides, who are also ravenous, seize the stove as soon 
as we have done with it, so that one constantly hears the bellows 
mixed with the noise of the snow and rock avalanches all round us. 
We are perfectly sheltered from them ; it is one of the chief amuse- 
ments of Etienne and the guides to set rolling great boulders which, 
falling on the frozen slopes, produce really magnificent torrents of 
stones and snow. 

' But I am afraid of chilling you by telling of nothing but frost 
and snow and icy crags, and I would far rather warm your hearts and 
inspire them with feelings as lively and as tender as those I have for 

. ^T,lbc<rtuie de. G) 

. \J-rc rLcJi^n. 

e . ^it rrettini 

Gmay 'TjJaJJ-.v ph. 


you. A thousand greetings to my wife and children. I hope that 
in a fortnight we shall all be reunited. I look forward with joy to that 

The next letter was to his wife : 

' nth July. 

' I never felt in better health. I slept last night in my tent, which 
had frozen after the rain so that the canvas crackled like a bracelet, 
yet I have not had the least indisposition or cold. Theodore, too, 
is very well. We have furious appetites, our days are very pleasant, 
but the evenings, even when it is fine, are always very trying, and 
when the weather is bad, naturally still more so. The messenger my 
daughter sends me wants me to let him go, so I have no time to write 
you a learned letter for Uncle Bonnet ; that must be for next time. 
Still, you may tell him that the constellations near the zenith at this 
moment Lyra and Aquila do not scintillate at all ... that the 
shooting stars appear overhead, and never under my feet, and that 
they look very small. . . .' * 

' 18th July. 

'Do not be alarmed at receiving this little letter dated from a 
spot so full of terror for your sensitive heart. I am leaving it to- 
morrow, and certainly for ever. I shall close this letter to-morrow at 
Courmayeur and send it off at once to announce my happy return to 
the regions destined for mortals. Yet these heights have tried their 
best to make us regret them, we have had the most magnificent even- 
ing ; all these high peaks that surround us and the snows that separate 
them were coloured with the most beautiful shades of rose and carmine. 
The Italian horizon was girdled with a broad belt from which the full 
moon, of a rich vermilion tint, rose with the majesty of a queen. The 
air was calm and of an admirable purity ; the vapours condensed below 
us in the valleys made them seem an obscure and gloomy dwelling- 
place compared to the empyrean which we inhabit. ... I have 
made a number of fresh important observations on meteorology, 
electricity, and the winds, but principally on the origin of rain. I 
have been able to watch its development from the smallest cloud to 
the most terrible of storms, because Mont Blanc, which we are so near, 
is the centre round which all the atmospheric changes take place. 
I always keep watch till midnight, while Theodore goes to bed early, 
but, on the other hand, he gets up at four and I remain in bed till seven, 
and though we are both conscious of the rarity of the air, mental effort 
costs me far less than in the plain. I find much more easily solutions 

1 See p. 435. 


for the problems that perplex me ; my body is susceptible to fatigue, 
but my head, which so soon grows weary in the plain, is here absolutely 
indefatigable. 1 

* Here is the little sketch of my labours you asked for. If you see 
Uncle Bonnet, express to him my affection and respects, and read him 
as much of this letter as you think may interest him. If you wrote 
to me in the silence of the morning, I am writing to you in the silence 
of the night ; all my companions are asleep, while I, shut up in my 
tent, buried in my furs, my feet on a hot stone, and seated beside my 
compass, anticipate with delight the moment which will bring me 
back to all that is dearest to me. 

' I have just been out to take my observations. What a glorious 
night ! These snows and rocks, of which the brilliancy is unsupport- 
able by sunlight, present a wonderful and delightful spectacle by the 
soft radiance of the moon. How magnificent is the contrast between 
these granite crags, shadowed or thrown out with such sharpness and 
boldness, and the brilliant snows ! What a moment for meditation ! 
For how many trials and privations are not such moments a com- 
pensation ! The soul is uplifted, the powers of the intelligence seem 
to widen, and in the midst of this majestic silence one seems to hear the 
voice of Nature and to become the confidant of her most secret work- 
ings. 2 Ah ! how I should like to let you share this pleasure you 
who are so sensitive to all the beauties of nature ! For my uncle 
I should be afraid lest his weak eyes would find even the moon too 
dazzling and for my aunt ! I cannot even conceive the idea of her 
exposed to this cold and exciting air : so that when Bourrit wrote to 
ask me to lend him my tante for his ascent of Mont Blanc, I reflected 
I could easily lend him my tent, but for my tante, I very much doubted 
if she would care to be his companion. But the hour of my watch is 
over ; I must go and lie down in my tent beside Theodore. 

' The hut is so small that though our beds are only 3 feet wide 
they fill it entirely one cannot put a foot between them so that I 
have to get on to my bed and sit up to undress myself. But we sleep 
excellently, and that is the essential.' 

' 20th July. 

* At last, my dear, here we are, safe and sound, at Courmayeur 
without the least accident, but a bit tired, as our scamps of guides, 

1 This account of the stimulating effect on the brain of a rarefied atmosphere, 
repeated emphatically in the Voyages, contrasts markedly with what de Saussure 
had previously recorded of his experience on the top of Mont Blanc. But the 
difference in height is over 4700 feet. 

8 Compare Conrad Gesner's outburst in his De Montium Admiratione. 
(See p. 10.) 


in order to make it impossible for us to remain any longer, had destroyed 
all our provisions, so that we have been forced to make the descent in 
great haste and some suffering, with nothing to eat from seven in the 
morning to seven in the evening. And you know I cannot walk 
unless I have some food. But for this, we should have come down 
very gallantly. Jacques Balmat du Mont Blanc will bring you this 
letter ; he has taken no part in this proceeding. 1 I am well pleased 
with him. Good-bye. I am delighted to feel myself once more nearly 
at your level and out of all the trials of the last enterprise of the kinc] 
I shall ever undertake.' 

And yet he set off next year to Macugnaga, Val Tournanche, 
and the St. The'odule ! Well might Madame de Saussure distrust 
her husband's promises and protestations ! 

In the account in the Voyages de Saussure refers to the absence 
of any difficulties in the descent to Courmayeur, which, he says, 
' has been wrongly compared to the rocks of the Aiguille du Gouter.' 
This is the only reference he makes to Bourrit's bombastic narrative. 
The rebuke thus given, while complete, is in form characteristic of 
de Saussure 's consideration for his former companion. The party 
returned by the Col Ferret, Martigny, and the Col de Balme. 
Charles Bourrit, who was at Chamonix on their return, noticed that 
they had all grown beards while on the mountain. 

A letter to his wife, written from Chamonix on the way home, 
completes the story : 

* 24th July. 

4 At last here I am at Chamonix. M. de la Rive, the artist, whom 
I have had the luck to meet, will bring you my news. 

' Arrived here yesterday, I remain two days, sleep Sunday at 
Sallanches and rejoin you Monday evening. ... I have completed 
my journey back with the finest weather in the world. I started so 
exactly at the right moment that Couttet, who returned to the cabin 
[on the Col du Geant] to get the planks of my bed, which had been 
left behind, found it full of snow which had come in through the gaps 
in the walls and roof. You see I have a happy star, first because you 
are my wife, next because everything succeeds with me, and I always 
extricate myself happily. . . . Poor de la Rive is not so fortunate. 
He came with his wife and the dowager Mme. de Prangins. They 
were wetted to the skin in coming. As soon as they were dry they 

1 The word in the copy of de Saussure's letter which I translate is * expedi- 
tion.' But the sentence seems to require the sense given above. See also 
p. 253. 


must start for the Arveyron. Madame de la Rive put her foot on 
a loose stone and fell into the water without hurting herself, but the 
alarm caused Mme. de Prangins an attack of nerves. She had to be 
put to bed, and the only thing to be done was to send her back to her 
chateau. Luckily your pretty chateau is on the road to hers, so this 
letter is sure to be conveyed to you. 

' I expected yesterday evening that rogue (manant) Jacques 
Balmat ; he ought to have come back and brought your news, but he 
has stopped at Sallanches to get painted ! . . .' 

It was doubtless on this occasion that the portrait of Jacques 
Balmat, which was reproduced as a companion to one of Dr.Paccard, 
was painted. Both were by Louis Albert Guislain Bacler d'Albe 
(1761-1824), a man who had a singularly varied and distinguished 
career. He lived at Sallanches from 1786 to 1793, when he 
enlisted in the French army, made the acquaintance of Napoleon 
at Toulon, became first Chef du Service Topographique de la 
Republique Cisalpine, and later Chef des Ingenieurs Geographes at 
Paris, Directeur du Cabinet Topographique de 1'Empereur, Baron 
de 1' Empire, and General de Brigade. He accompanied Napoleon 
on all his campaigns except the Egyptian one. 

Before closing the story of the encampment on the Col du 
G6ant, I must mention the still popular coloured prints illustrative 
of this great adventure. Their printed titles, it is true, in most 
instances make them refer to the ascent of Mont Blanc. But this 
appears to have been an afterthought of an enterprising publisher 
who held it might be profitable to associate the plates with the 
more spectacular enterprise. There seems no room for doubt that 
they were all derived from a common source, drawings illustrative 
of the passage of the Col du Ge'ant, made by Henri 1'Eveque, a 
young Genevese artist who accompanied de Saussure to Chamonix 
in 1788. The drawings were reproduced at Basle by a well-known 
engraver of the day, Chretien de Mechel, who had frequent 
relations with de Saussure. A conclusive proof that they refer to 
the passage of the Col is the presence in them of a second and 
younger traveller de Saussure 's son Theodore. 

De Saussure would seem to have supervised their publication 
with a critical eye from the climber's pfoint of view. In a variant 
of one of the plates (which is extremely rare) he is represented as 
being let down with a rope in a sitting posture to the brink of a 


crevasse. But in the ordinary copies we see him in a less un- 
dignified posture, standing upright and leaning on his alpenstock 
in the ordinary attitude of a glissade. 1 

As we have seen from his correspondence with young Isaac 
Bourrit about the Gouter expedition, the philosopher did not 
suffer gladly reflections on the mountaineer. 

1 The drawings were ateo issued, with slight modifications, as hand-coloured 
lithographs by Kellner at Geneva, and it is from these that the plates here 
given have been taken. Copies of the lithographs are at the Royal Geographical 
Society. For further details the reader may consult Mr. Baillie Grohman's fine 
work, Sport in Art (London, 1913). 


THE bold and, from the scientific point of view, wonderfully success- 
ful adventure on the Col du Geant might well have seemed to de 
Saussure a fitting conclusion to his Alpine career ; and, close on 
the age of fifty, he might have been content to spend his summers 
in the society of his family and the modest luxury of Genthod. 
There were other and more serious reasons which would have 
sufficiently justified him had he done so. He had public as well 
as private anxieties. Politics at Geneva had, for the third time 
in his life, reached a violent crisis one in which he was to find 
himself forced to play an active part. Moreover, his fortune was 
invested in French securities, and France was now on the brink of 
the Great Revolution. 

But the call of the mountains was too strong. Many years 
before de Saussure had admired and tried to sketch the noble 
outline of Monte Rosa seen from the Piedmontese plain. It had 
now been ascertained that it was the only close rival of Mont 
Blanc among Alpine summits, or, as was then believed, among 
the mountains of the old world. His correspondent, Count 
Morozzo of Turin, had brought to his notice the beauty of Val 
Anzasca and the convenient situation of Macugnaga at the very 
base of the snows. De Saussure could not desist from his travels 
until he had endeavoured to accurately measure and make the 
tour of the mountain. His plan was a comprehensive one to 
cross the Simplon, go up to the head of Val Anzasca, and then 
find a way round to the St. Theodule and Zermatt. 

The only criticism we might make nowadays on this pro- 
gramme, which was repeated in the reverse direction by Forbes 
in 1843, is that de Saussure might better have begun with a visit 

to Saas and the passage of the Monte Moro, a track known and 


frequented in early times. 1 Unfortunately, the old paved track 
over it had for many years been impracticable for beasts of 
burden, and de Saussure's heavy equipment confined him to 
mule passes. 

The party was thoroughly organised. De Saussure took his 
eon Theodore with him, and through the innkeeper Tairraz, hired 
Chamonix guides and mules for the whole tour. The price fixed 
was a louis a day for a driver and five mules. The troop met him 
at Martigny. The party then rode up the Valais and across the 
Simplon. This, and not ' Saint Plomb,' de Saussure dryly remarks, 
is the proper French form of the word, ' as there is no saint named 
St. Plomb.' At the village of the same name he found even at 
that date an excellent inn. His notes on the pass deal more 
with the geology than the scenery. In the gorge of Gondo the 
old track, before Napoleon made his road, was only four feet 
wide and paved with smooth and slippery blocks of granite. Yet 
de Saussure writes, ' The path on the Italian side is as alarming as 
the torrents, but it is throughout safe and well maintained, partly 
because it is the way taken by the post to Milan, and partly because, 
as the road to Lago Maggiore, there is a large traffic in corn, wine, 
and cheeses carried on the back of mules.' The travellers broke 
the journey from Domo d'Ossola to Macugnaga at the village of 
Vanzone, a little above Ponte Grande, where they found reason- 
able accommodation. 

Successive generations of Alpine travellers have expatiated 
on the beauty of Val Anzasca ; it has been left to Ruskin to pro- 
claim in one of the most perverse pages of his Prceterita its 
'supreme dullness.' He complains of the absence of any level 
space, or valley-bottom, beside the stream, and of the want of 
cliffs and defiles such as may be found in the Vispthal or the 
Hash' thai. Monte Rosa is described as ' a white heap with no 
more form in it than a haycock after a thunder-shower ! ' For a 
parallel to this inept comparison I may quote a description of the 

1 On the legend of the Saracens at Saas see Alpine Journal, vol. ix. 208, 
254, and x. 269. An origin of the name Monte Moro which seems fairly obvious 
remains to be suggested. Was it the dark pass as compared with the white 
pass the Weiss Thor which led over the snowfields of the Corner Glacier ? 
The Schwarzberg Weiss Thor perhaps owes its self -contradictory name to 
being the White Gate nearest the Dark Mountain. Schwarzberg may be 
intended as the equivalent for Monte Moro. 


Matterhorn I heard given to his companion by a tourist probably 
an upholsterer newly arrived at the Riffel : ' just like a roll of 
stair carpet, set on end.' The passage, as a whole, is interesting 
from its complete reversal of the earlier attitude of mind which 
thought the bolder features of mountain landscapes horrid. It 
is quite inconsistent with its author's normal point of view with 
regard to Alpine scenery. But then, consistency is the last thing 
one looks for or desires in the stimulating paradoxes of Ruskin's 
thirty-eight volumes. 1 

The lovers of Val Anzasca can well afford to smile at such 
characteristic petulance. The supreme beauty of the middle 
portion of the valley lies, it is true, not in the more abrupt in- 
cidents of scenery, the crags and the defiles that are the delight 
of the child and the tourist, but in the association of an Italian 
foreground with a relatively near view of one of the noblest of 
Alpine summits. Framed between yet high above the folds of 
forested hillside, the sloping lawns shaded by gigantic chestnut 
groves, the terraced vineyards that half bury the white hamlets, 
and the tall campanili that break through the foliage, shines the 
silver wall of Monte Rosa. Severed from the spectator by no 
visible base of rocky desolation, such as is too frequent in views 
of great mountains, it hangs faint as a celestial city in the golden 
haze of noon, or flushes rose-red in the full light of dawn above the 
deep shadows of the valley. In contrast to the great critic's 
disparagement, I may record a fact not to be found in any of the 
commentaries on the works of a late Poet Laureate. Tennyson's 
lines entitled * The Voice and the Peak ' were written in the 
inn at Ponte Grande. He went there at my suggestion after 
failing to find any inspiration in the scenery of the Upper 

De Saussure, if apt to be topographical and little given to 
fine writing, was not blind to the charm of Val Anzasca. He 
writes : 

' One need not cross the bridge (the Ponte Grande), but it is neces- 
sary to walk out on to the bold arch in order to enjoy the view of 
this beautiful mountain, which presents itself as majestically as Mont 
Blanc does from Sallanches.' [Voyages, 2130.] 

1 See vol. 35 of the collected edition of Ruskin's works. 


This comparison, coming from de Saussure, is in itself the highest 
praise, but he goes on : 

' Monte Rosa has even the advantage of appearing framed in the 
verdant slopes of the deep and narrow Val Anzasca, which enhance 
marvellously the effect of its ice and snow. The valley is remarkable 
for the beauty and, I venture the phrase, the magnificence of its 
vegetation ; everywhere except in its highest and coldest portion the 
paths are shaded by vine -trellises that cover them entirely like the 
pergolas which sheltered the walks of our fathers' gardens. Other 
trellises in steps, supported by walls, climb the mountain slopes, for 
in all this district the vines are only grown in this manner. But 
wherever the hillsides, seamed by torrents, afford retreating angles 
capable of irrigation, one meets with meadows shaded by chestnut 
trees of a size and beauty that are really admirable, while the torrent 
often forms a cascade which adds to the charm of these magnificent 
groves. Another remarkable feature of this valley is that it has no 
level bottom: the two opposite slopes join at their base and form 
an acute angle in which the Anza flows, so that the numerous villages 
are almost all perched on the steep slopes, or on narrow shelves that 
interrupt them.' [Voyages, 2130.] 

The travellers reached Macugnaga that is, the cluster of houses 
known as Staffa on the edge of the meadows below the old church 
at noon. 1 Their first impression was one of enchantment with 
the situation of the village. Different in character as the land- 
scape here is to those of the lower valley, it retains gentle 
features which are relatively rare at a similar altitude (4350 

' The houses, built of mixed wood and stone, but well and solidly 
constructed, are scattered about in meadows diversified by clumps of 
larch and ash. These meadows rise in a gentle slope towards the 
base of the towering crags of Monte Rosa, which form the boundary 
of this pleasant platform.' [Voyages, 2131.] 

The travellers' first difficulty was to get housed. De Saussure 
writes to his wife : 

' We were more than five hours trying to find a lodging. Strangers 
being so rare, there is no proper inn, and quite recently a well-dressed 
individual, who had been hospitably entertained, had made off without 
paying his bill and after robbing his host. Consequently, on our 
arrival, the villagers locked their doors and fled to the mountains. 

1 ' Macugnaga ' comprehends several hamlets some distance apart. 


It occurred to me to have recourse to the Cur6, who, luckily, proved a 
very kindly man, and at once gave us something to eat ; then, on 
seeing the letters I had for the notables of the village, which I had 
been unable to present on account of their being either really abroad 
or in hiding, ho wrote a note to a sort of Monsieur with whom we had 
reckoned on lodging, but who had bolted to an hour's distance on the 
mountains, and sent it off by a messenger. The " Monsieur," reassured, 
came back at once and has lodged us very comfortably ; we have 
each our room ; but we have very poor fare, depending on the powers 
of Etienne [his servant], whose recipes are very limited. We are 
greatly bored by the Italian boastfulness and volubility of our host, 
whom we dare not offend lest he should show us the door.' 

At Macugnaga de Saussure spent eleven days, much of the 
time in broken weather. The wet day following his arrival was 
devoted to a visit to the gold-mines near Pestarena, a few miles 
lower down the valley. They had at one time employed a 
thousand labourers, but there were now not more than half that 
number. The principal proprietor was a Signer Testoni, whose 
mines produced the equivalent of 66,560 French livres (3300) 
annually, leaving, after paying all expenses and the royalty of a 
tenth due to Count Borromeo, a net profit of 650 to the proprietor. 
The product at the date of de Saussure 's visit was falling off, and 
the peasant owners of the smaller mines showed much eagerness 
to part with their property to the strangers. It is a common 
experience of early explorers in an out-of-the-way mountain 
district to be taken for mining prospectors. The first Chamonix 
ice-axes were picks, and even in 1865 Tyrolese peasants found it 
difficult to imagine they could have any other use. Twenty- 
five years later, in the wilds of the Caucasus, the writer was 
pressed by a Suanetian prince, educated at Odessa, to induce our 
countrymen to search for the hidden gold in the mountains 
which feed the sources of the Ingur, the fabled stream of the 
Golden Fleece. The mines in Val Anzasca were for many 
years, and possibly still are, worked, though on a very small scale, 
by an English company. 

De Saussure during his stay in this remote spot was not 
altogether dependent for distraction during wet days on the 
exciting news of the fall of the Bastille contained in his home 
letters. The Cure" proved to be a man of intelligence ; he had a 


plausible explanation of the presence on the pastures at the head 
of the Italian valleys of Monte Rosa of a German-speaking 
population. He attributed it to their aptitude for pastoral 
pursuits being greater than that of the neighbouring Piedmontese 
peasantry. Mr. Coolidge, however, has pointed out that in the 
thirteenth century the same family, the Counts of Biandrate, be- 
came Lords both of Visp and of the southern vales, and took steps 
to shift the population from one side of the chain to the other in 
either direction . This may account for the Germans in Val Anzasca, 
but it is a little difficult to believe that Gressoney and Alagna 
(Allemagna) as well as Macugnaga could have been colonised by 
any arbitrary act of authority. The Cure's explanation is plausible, 
and may be supported by similar instances elsewhere. 1 

In the character of the inhabitants the de Saussures noted 
many points of interest. Their native tongue being German, the 
peasantry of Macugnaga found themselves of necessity bilingual, 
a circumstance which aided them greatly in the wanderings 
to which the very limited resources of their own district com- 
pelled a considerable proportion of the population. On the women 
left behind was thrown all the labour of cultivation, and even of 
transport. De Saussure mentions that when, anxious to send 
down to Vanzone a box of geological specimens, he inquired for a 
porter, he learnt that there was no man ready to carry it, and that 
it was at once given to a woman. Most recent travellers have 
had the same experience. Yet he found the sex more than equal 
to their tasks. He tells how he met a party of six girls crossing a 
high pass on their way home from a religious festival : 

' Accustomed to cross the mountains loaded with their enormous 
burdens, it was play for them, unladen, to make the journey twice on 
the same day. They ran, chased one another, scrambled gaily on the 
heights beside our path, got every now and then two or three hundred 
paces in front of us, and amused themselves by picking flowers, or 
singing under the shadow of a rock, to fly off again like a flock of 
birds the moment our slow and uniform pace brought us up to them.' 
[Voyages, 2224.] 

Plain living was a virtue these simple people carried perhaps to 
excess. Fresh meat was unknown ; this is still the case in winter 

1 See Murray's Handbook for Swtzerland, 1904, for reference to authorities 
on this question. 


in many Alpine villages. The bread was eaten when it was six 
months old, first cut with a hatchet, then sopped in skimmed milk. 
Cheese and ' a bit of cold cow or salt goat ' were dainties reserved 
for feast-days and haytime ; as a rule, even the wealthier peasants 
were content to flavour their bread with a bunch of garlic. Yet 
those who had been abroad were eager to return to their native 
valley and diet and loath to leave them again. 

' Their greatest fault,' concludes de Saussure, ' is their lack of hos- 
pitality : not only are they reluctant to receive strangers, but if they 
meet them on the road they seek to avoid them, and look on them 
with an air of dislike and fear. Still the people at Macugnaga, where 
we stayed ten or twelve days, after they had got accustomed to us, 
came to greet us with friendliness ; we were even told they were 
pleased at our taking an interest in their mountains. The mercenary 
hospitality found in countries frequented by foreigners is, no doubt, 
more convenient to travellers, but is it any proof of a better disposition 
than the primitive rudeness of the dwellers round Monte Rosa ? ' 
[Voyages, 2224.] 

As soon as fine weather returned, de Saussure put in hand the 
expedition which was the prime aim of his journey. He had 
promised his family he would make no attempt on any of the 
peaks of Monte Rosa itself. His object, he assured his wife 
no doubt he had got his information from Count Morozzo was a 
safe and commodious mountain about the height of the Buet, the 
Pizzo Bianco (10,552 feet), which rises in front of the great screen 
formed by the peaks of Monte Rosa and opposite its south-eastern 
angle. To make sure of having plenty of time for observations on 
the top, he took his tents and slept for two nights at the Pedriolo 
Alp (6733 feet), which occupies a superb position at the very base 
of the great precipices of the Macugnaga face of Monte Rosa. 

' These meadows were bounded by the rocks and glaciers of Monte 
Rosa, whose lofty peaks stood out magnificently against the deep blue 
vault of heaven. Close to our tent ran a rivulet of the freshest and 
clearest water ; on the other side was an overhanging boulder in whose 
shelter we lit a fire of rhododendrons, the only fuel that grows at this 
height.' [Voyages, 2136.] 

Up to a few years ago the site of de Saussure's camp was still 
pointed out to travellers. 

De Saussure found the ascent from the alp fatiguing. It 
presented the ordinary features of rough boulders followed by 


steep snow-slopes, and ended in a ridge of rocks which gave neither 
firm foot nor hand hold. At the close of five hours the party 
found themselves on a point, but not the highest point, of the 
mountain. This still rose some 250 feet above them, and was cut 
off by a snowy gap. De Saussure confesses to having been some- 
what poor-spirited in resisting his son's desire to complete the 
ascent. His comments on the view in the Voyages are those of an 
orographer ; he confines himself to remarks on the mountain 
structure, but a letter to his wife shows that he appreciated the 
wonderful extent and grandeur of the panorama. On his return 
to camp he wrote home : 

' From the Pedriolo Alp July 30, 1789. We are just back, Th6o 
and I, very well, but a bit tired from an excursion we have been making 
on one of the lower summits of Monte Rosa. I said nothing to you 
about this mountain, although the wish to visit it was the chief motive 
of my journey, because I was afraid that you would imagine that I 
wanted to reach the highest peak, which is still virgin, and will, I 
expect, remain so eternally, like your friend Mile. M. I never thought 
of it ; I did not even attempt another of the accessible summits, higher 
than that on which I was, because the climb was said to be somewhat 
risky. I chose a charming peak, not higher than the Buet ; we ascended 
it to-day ; we had on one side Italy, Lago Maggiore, Ticino, the 
Naviglio Grande (a canal), all the kingdoms of the world and the 
glory of them, but the cities of Milan and Pavia were not visible, on 
account of the vapour. On the other side we had the circle of Monte 
Rosa, and by looking at it I have learnt its etymology. It is formed 
exactly like a single rose ; lofty summits ranged round a great space 
occupied by beautiful pastures. 1 I will not inflict on you more details 
as to its structure ; they interested me deeply, and confirmed entirely 
the theory I have put forward of the formation of granite. In this 
sense it is, perhaps, the most instructive excursion I have made. 

' We are in our tents, where we slept last night, not, as on the Col 
du Geant, in a distressful cold-harbour, but among the most delightful 
meadows, the grass finer and shorter than in the best-kept English 
garden ; but enamelled literally enamelled with the most brilliant 
flowers. Yesterday, when our tents were put up, and before the grass 
had been trampled, it resembled one of those English carpets with 
a green ground enlivened with flowers.' 

1 De Saussure missed the connection of ' Monte Rosa ' with the Monts 
Roeses of Piedmont and the Ruize de Miage of Courmayeur. Roesa or Ruize 
is the term for glaciers in the patois of Val d'Aosta. 


Before leaving Macugnaga, de Saussure took compass bearings 
to the Monte Moro and the Weissthor, the positions of which were 
pointed out to him. These show that the pass correctly indicated 
to him as the Weissthor was the Schwarzberg Weissthor. 1 On 
the other hand, the position assigned to the Monte Moro Pass 
(that of a variation of the Old Weissthor, the gap between 
Monte Rosa, and the Cima di Jazzi) on Theodore de Saussure 's 
very inaccurate drawing of the view from Macugnaga can only be 
a blunder. There are not a few in the last volumes of the Voyages, 
which were brought out during de Saussure 's illness and carelessly 
seen through the press by his son, whose sufficient excuse may be 
found in the disorders and anxieties of the times. 

After a stay of eleven days at Macugnaga, the de Saussures 
pursued their tour of Monte Rosa. They had been able to get 
information as to the complicated network of passes over the 
southern spurs of the mountain from two of the travelled in- 
habitants of Val Anzasca. They did not attempt the Turlo, which 
was probably thought too difficult for mules. Their first step 
was to return to Ponte Grande. On a high brow above the bridge 
south of the Anza, the large village of Banio hides among the 
chestnut groves. The party arrived on the eve of the annual 
local festa, that of Notre Dame de la Neige, held on 5th August. 
It is worth noting that a sketch of Leonardo da Vinci's exists 
bearing the legend ' Madonna della Neve 5 Agosto.' It may well 
be of some other spot : for ' Our Lady of the Snows ' is a frequent 
dedication in North Italy. But at any rate the great Milanese 
painter is more likely to have been in Val Anzasca than, as an 
eminent French critic has suggested, at the Maria zum Schnee of 
the Rigi ! 2 

The village was so crowded with visitors that the de Saussures 
were forced to sleep in their tent. Next day they crossed the 
steep, grassy Col d'Egua (7336 feet), where the baggage mules were 
in difficulties, and descended Val Sermenza, one of the most 
romantic of the tributary glens of Val Sesia, to its junction with 
the main valley. At the village of Buccioletto the Cur6 was so 

1 It should bo noted that the word ' Macugnaga ' is printed on the ' Siegfried 
Karte ' far below the village of Staffa, where travellers halt. This, of course, 
must be borne in mind in all dealings with compass bearings. 

1 M. Ravaison. See Alpine Journal, vol. x. p. 280. 


pertinacious in his questioning of the wonderful invaders of his 
remote bye -corner that de Saussure lost all patience and sought 
hospitality farther on. 

Of the head of Val Sesia we are told little ; the travellers' 
attention was concentrated on the local copper-mines . They seem 
to have gone as far as Alagna and the base of the Tagliaferro, but 
de Saussure fails to notice the splendid aspect of Monte Rosa. 
On the top of the Col de Val Dobbia (8134 feet) they were surprised 
to find a substantial shelter in which they could make their 

Their next halting-place, where they found good lodging, was 
one of the hamlets of Gressoney, at the head of Val de Lys, the 
stream of which flows into the lower Val d'Aosta. The upper 
portion of the valley contrasts with Val Sesia and Val Anzasca in 
its more open, pastoral in a word, Swiss character. Emigrants 
from the northern slopes of the Alps found here a landscape that 
might remind them of the region they had left. The Lyskamm, 
which, as its name denotes, closes the view, shows as a snowy 
hummock, with none of the imposing grandeur of the precipices of 
Monte Rosa. Thence they proceeded to the chalets of Betta 
in order to climb a summit one of the many Rothhorns (9834 
feet) on the spur of Monte Rosa west of the Val de Lys, which 
promised a good view of what de Saussure calls the outside of the 
cirque of Monte Rosa. He was struck by the contrast between the 
easy snow-slopes above the Lys Glacier and the cliffs of the eastern 
face opposite the Pedriolo Alp. But his climbing ambition does 
not seem to have been excited. He listened with critical interest 
to the legend of the discovery of a lost valley which had reached 
as far as Turin. A party of peasants had eleven years before (in 
1778) claimed to have climbed to a point which is identified as the 
Lysjoch, and seen beneath them an oasis of green pastures without 
trees, houses, or cattle. They thus held for some years the record 
of the highest ascent in the Alps (14,033 feet). On a second 
occasion they failed hi an attempt to descend the glacier on the 
north side. Had they done so they would undoubtedly have 
reached the Riffel Alp. The lost valley was obviously the head 
of the Vispthal. De Saussure, however, supposed it might be the 
Pedriolo Alp ; a conjecture which a better knowledge of the details 
of the crest of Monte Rosa would have shown him was improbable. 


He seems to fall into further confusion in describing the highest 
peaks of Monte Rosa as ' lying to the left or west of the gap from 
which the valley is visible.' The Lyskamm is the principal object 
from Val de Lys, but it is almost incredible that de Saussure should 
have confused it with the Zumstein Spitze, which an erroneous 
calculation had led him to take for the culminating summit. Is 
it possible that he took the Col delle Loccie to have been the point 
reached by the explorers ? 

From St. Jacques d'Ayas, their next stage, the travellers hoped 
to cross the dimes Blanches to Zermatt in a day. But being caught 
in mists on the pass they followed the local guide's advice and 
descended to Breuil, where they were detained twenty -four hours 
by bad weather. The only lodging, the house of a peasant named 
J. B. Herin (de Saussure calls him Erin), left much to be desired 
* a little wretched room without bed or window, a kitchen with- 
out a chimney, and all the shortcomings and inconveniences 
which combined become vexatious.' The son of de Saussure 's 
host, a boy of twelve at the time of his first visit, was alive till 
after 1855, and remembered well de Saussure's party, and, as 
a boy would, the great store of provisions they brought with 
them. 1 

After two nights at Breuil they started for the St. Theodule. 
Up to the middle of the eighteenth century mules not infrequently 
crossed the pass, and the de Saussures tried to ride over the 
glacier. It is not surprising to learn that the animals sank deeply 
into the snow and had all, including the baggage animals, to be 
relieved of their burdens. Still they showed signs of exhaustion 
and suffering, uttering ' plaintive cries ' such as de Saussure had 
never heard before from mules even on the worst paths. ' It 
was,' he writes, ' the rarity of the air that affected them as it had 
us on Mont Blanc.' 

On the pass the first object to be noticed was naturally the Mont 
Cervin or Matterhorn, a 'triangular obelisk of enormous height 
which looks as if it had been cut out with a chisel. I propose,' 
says de Saussure, ' to return another year and measure this 
magnificent rock ! ' For the rest, he refers to the Saasgrat as 
part of the external cirque of Monte Rosa. On the south, he writes, 

1 See Les Alpes Pennines dans un Jour, par le Chanoine Carrel (Aosta, 1855). 
The inn at Breuil was not opened till 1856. I first visited it in 1858. 


' is a magnificent chain of high peaks of mingled snow and rock.' 1 
In his diary (but not in the Voyages) de Saussure mentions, for the 
only time, the Graian Alps as ' some fine snow-peaks he is told 
are near Cogne.' It is remarkable that though so often in Val 
d'Aosta he never noticed the beautiful pyramid of the Grivola, nor, 
on the descent to Zermatt, the great crests of the Dent Blanche 
and the Weisshorn. To the early travellers snow-peaks would 
seem to have been as much alike and indistinguishable as sheep 
are to everyone but their shepherd. 

The descent to Zermatt was without incident. There the Cur6, 
who, as a rule, entertained travellers, refused to receive or to 
have any dealings with them, ' il disait, qu'il ne voulait rien nous 
vendre.' This very unusual incident would seem to have been a 
case of bigotry towards Protestants. The party had to have 
recourse to the good offices of their Breuil guide to find them 
lodging at a blacksmith's. No wonder that de Saussure did not 
linger in the future centre of mountaineering, but rode straight off 
next morning to St. Niklaus and the Rhone valley. He must 
have been in a great hurry to get home, for he finds nothing to 
mention in the remarkable scenery or the geology of the Visp- 
thal. At Loeche, in the Valais, his guides met with another 
example of churlishness. They were stopped and fined six francs 
for travelling with mules on Sunday ! De Saussure lost little 
time on the road, but after lodging his complaint at Sion against 
the local authorities, and calling on Gibbon as he passed through 
Lausanne, returned to Genthod on 20th August, after a five weeks' 
absence . 

The years following that of his tour of Monte Rosa were for 
de Saussure a period of much public and private anxiety, and it 
was not until 1792 that he could find an opportunity to carry out 
his intention of revisiting the St. Theodule and measuring the 

In August of that year he started with his son Theodore. His 
experience of Zermatt seems to have discouraged him from taking 

1 It is obvious that by the transposition of a short sentence the following 
words, ' This chain joins Monte Rosa near the Weissgrat, which leads from Zermatt 
to Macugnaga,' which should refer to the Saasgrat, have become attached to the 
chain south of the St. Theodule that is, the Breithorn and Lyskamm. As I havo 
already had occasion to note, the last two volumes of the Voyages show traces 
of the circumstances under which they were put together and sent to the press. 



the obvious route by the Valais, and the party set out once more 
for the familiar Col de Bonhomme and Val d'Aosta. Instead, 
however, of taking the Col de la Seigne, they turned off at Chapieu 
and crossed the Little St. Bernard, which was new to de Saussure, 
to Pr6 St. Didier. 

The account of this journey, the eighth and last of those recorded 
in the Voyages, contains relatively little of general interest apart 
from the visit to the St. Thodule and the ascents of the Little 
Mont Cervin and the Th6odulehorn. It is mainly a transcript of 
a geologist's notebook. There is not much description of scenery, 
beyond a mention of a ' truly romantic site ' in Val Tournanche, 
and of the view of the Matterhorn from above Breuil. The 
Corner Glacier again fails to attract the travellers' attention. 
Here and there, however, a touch of human interest is thrown in : 
de Saussure had a taste for homely scenes, such as reminded him 
of Hogarth's drawings or Dutch pictures. We are introduced 
to a farmer's family at Chapieu, the mother, a woman ' with a 
classical figure,' teaching her child to repeat hymns, the grand- 
father giving its supper to another infant, and both children 
falling equally fast to sleep. In Val Tournanche he encounters a 
wealthy peasant, 'a man of very good conversation who seemed 
to take an interest in my researches and desired to possess a copy 
of my Voyages' This rare character was claimed as his uncle by the 
late Chanoine Carrel of Aosta, who was himself a singular instance 
of what may be done with limited means by a man of intelligence 
to develop his own district. He corresponded with Forbes on 
scientific matters, and the early visitors to Cogne owed much to 
his friendly advice and publications, which included complete 
panoramas of the Pennine and Graian Alps taken from the Becca 
di Nona. I possess copies he presented me with in 1860. 

One of de Saussure's companions gave him a curious experience. 
He had brought with him from Geneva a neighbouring peasant 
who had heard a great deal about glaciers and wanted to see some 

' Knowing him,' writes de Saussure, ' to be handy, robust, and very 
much in the habit of climbing the mountains near Geneva to collect 
plants and shrubs for amateurs, we consented without difficulty to 
his request. He bore the fatigues of the road very well, though bur- 
dened with our hammers and the instruments we wanted to have 


always at hand, and he showed no fear and no regret at having joined 
our adventure. But when he found himself surrounded by the glaciers 
of Mont Cervin, and saw the mules wallow to their girths in the snow, 
in which he himself sank to his knees, and that on the brink of crevasses 
which he believed ready to engulf him, he was seized with intense 
terror ; he wept, he made vows to all the saints in Paradise, and 
although he did us the justice to admit that it was he who had begged 
to be allowed to accompany us, and that he had only his own folly to 
blame, he poured out the most bitter regrets at having ever embarked 
on such an enterprise. As the crossing of the glacier took us hours, 
the time seemed long to him, but he got over safely, and when he 
reached the tongue of rock on which we were going to camp, he became 
so wild with joy that it took him some time before he recovered him- 
self enough to be able to assist the guides to finish their hut and level 
the ground for our tent.' [Voyages, 2239.] 1 

The first day on the St. Theodule (10,900 feet) was spent in 
measuring a base on the snowfield on the Zermatt side with a chain 
on the model of that brought by Sir George Shuckburgh from 
England to measure Mont Blanc in 1775. De Saussure obtained 
for the Matterhorn a height 2309-75 toises, or 14,766 feet . 2 This, 
he believed, entitled it to rank third among Alpine summits. He 
took no count of its neighbours, the Lyskamm, the Dom, and the 
Weisshorn. He probably considered them all as part of Monte 
Rosa. He observed from a distance the structure of the gigantic 
pyramid and recognised the main features of its geological 

This task accomplished, the prospect of an easy climb led the 
travellers to start for the Breithorn, but on the way their courage 
or their powers failed them, and they turned aside from the long 
and somewhat crevassed snow-slopes and contented themselves 
with the Little Mont Cervin (the Cime Brune du Breithorn, de 
Saussure calls it), an easy two and a half hours from the pass. 
On the ascent they remarked the number of dead insects and 
butterflies on the snow, and ingeniously calculated that in a 
square of 2000 toises there would be 72 millions ! This summit 
(12,750 feet) was, next to Mont Blanc, by far the highest in the 
Alps reached by de Saussure. 

On the third day of their sojourn on the pass the crags of the 

1 This section is wrongly numbered. I give the correct one. 
8 Federal Survey, 14,705 feet. 


Th^odulehorn (11,391 feet) were examined in detail. They sug- 
gested to de Saussure by their strange juxtapositions of crystalline 
rocks and micaceous sands and clays reflections on the limitations 
of scientific inquiry. ' Who,' he asks, ' can by any probable 
conjectures penetrate the night of Time ? Placed on this planet 
since yesterday, and that only for a day, we can only aspire to 
knowledge which in all probability we shall never attain to.' 

The same evening they descended to Breuil, and spent a day 
in further exploring the immediate neighbourhood. De Saussure 
calls attention to its botanical wealth, and gives a catalogue of 
Alpine plants found there and in the Vispthal. He adds, ' What 
makes it delightful to botanise on these mountains is that since 
they are built of thin horizontal layers, of which the lower protrude 
farthest, the plants grow as in a stepped rock-garden, within easy 
reach of the eyes and hand of the collector, and the specimens 
obtained are of an exceptional growth due to the nature of the soil.' 
The geologist had not, we note, altogether abandoned his first love. 

The caravan next set out one wonders why to repeat their 
passage of the Cimes Blanches (9777 feet) of the previous year. 
As they mounted the broad pastures they came on several tarns 
hidden in sheltered hollows, the clear waters of which reflected 
the crags of the Matterhorn. A crowd of swallows had here found 
a nesting -place at a very unusual height. A little higher they 
encountered one of the great flocks of sheep, which, coming up from 
their winter quarters in Lombardy or Provence, spend the summer 
on the High Alps, blocking the road for miles in their spring and 
autumn pilgrimages. Near the top of the pass de Saussure noticed 
a glacier ending on the summit of a cliff over which the ice fell 
constantly, forming at its base what has been termed by later 
glacialists a glacier remanie. 

This seemed to de Saussure a favourable occasion to deal with 
a German traveller named Plouquet, who had made a journey into 
the Alps and written a book with the object of disproving the 
onward movement of glaciers. Any reply, de Saussure says, 
he had thought superfluous until one of the most esteemed 
journals in Germany, the Literary Gazette of Jena, had endorsed 
Plouquet by declaring that he had proved to its critic's satisfac- 
tion that the movement of glacier ice was an absolute physical 


De Saussure had no difficulty in bringing forward facts to 
prove the contrary. It is interesting to note how nearly he came 
on this occasion to realising the power of the glacier as an agency 
of transport. He appeals to the blocks brought down on the ice 
from its source to the lower ground, and to the moraines which 
let loose their missiles on the traveller's path, ' not, indeed, at 
Tubingen, but beneath the Glaciers de Miage and des Pelerins. 
There is not a single inhabitant of the Alps who disputes the 
movement of glacier ice, and the ephemeral doubt raised by this 
author will pass away as the ice melts when its advance brings 
it to a temperate climate.' Here we see de Saussure on the 
brink of a discovery which would have radically affected his 
Theory. Wise after the event, we wonder how it came to pass that 
his reason did not carry him on to inquire whether the erratic 
blocks of the Jura and the moraines of Ivrea, features on a larger 
scale, but bearing the same general aspect, might not be the result 
of similar causes, and to recognise that there had been periods of 
glacial extension in the history of our globe of which they were 
the authentic and obvious monuments. In patience and accuracy 
of observation, in honesty and deliberateness in drawing conclu- 
sions, de Saussure was supreme. But in readiness to discard the 
theories of his predecessors, in quickness in drawing novel but 
legitimate inferences from the facts before his eyes, his intellect, it 
must be admitted, lacked the illuminating flash we term genius. 

The travellers spent two hours in geologising on the rocks near 
the top of the pass before they pursued the descent in the direction 
of Val d'Ayas until they came to a spot where their mules could 
find sufficient pasture. Here they made what de Saussure calls 
a ' jolie halte.' The phrase may recall to readers of that delightful 
work, Topffer's Voyages en Zigzag, a passage hi which the Genevese 
schoolmaster dilates on the pleasures of roadside halts in pedestrian 
tours ; of the interludes in which the traveller enjoys momentary 
release from toil and mingles memories of past pleasures with anti- 
cipation of those still to come. 

Val d'Ayas did not offer much of interest . At St . Jacques , where 
they found lodging, they were entertained with tales of recent 
robberies. The proprietor of a gold-mine which de Saussure had 
hoped to examine declined to admit visitors. The prevalence of 
goitres and cretinism among the inhabitants of the lower portion 


of the valley was very marked. The frequency of these distressing 
maladies in Val d'Aosta, while they are rare or unknown in most 
of the valleys of the Italian Alps, has not yet been satisfactorily 
accounted for. De Saussure devoted a chapter to its discussion. 
May one of the causes be that the population belong to an old 
and worn-out stock, in which the tumidum guttur of Juvenal 
has become hereditary ? 

From Aosta the travellers were taken by their friend M. de St. 
R^al, 1 whose acquaintance they had made in 1787 in theMaurienne, 
and who was now the Intendant of the Province, to visit the 
copper and manganese mines of St. Marcel, situated on the right 
bank of the Dora Baltea half-way to Chatillon. These mines are 
reputed to have been worked in Roman times, and traces of the 
ancient galleries were pointed out. It may be remembered that 
Strabo asserts that the subjugation of the Salassi was hastened 
owing to their inconveniencing the inhabitants of the lower valleys 
by diverting streams for the use of the mines. Even more 
interesting than the mines was a source of which de Saussure 
gives a full description : 

* A spring large enough to turn a mill, of which the waters, them- 
selves blue, covered all their channel, rocks, stones, wood, and earth, 
with a substance of every shade between green and blue ; what was 
under the water was deep sky-blue, what was half-wet green, what 
was dry pale sky-blue. The stream itself, of which the water is per- 
fectly transparent, runs over this painted bed, breaks into spray, 
and presents by its reflection the most singular effect ; it resembles 
the coloured flames produced by throwing verdigris on burning logs.' 
[Voyages, 2295.] 

An analysis showed that the sediment left by the water contained 
19 per cent, of copper. 

De Saussure lingered so late over this fascinating stream that 
the party was benighted on the rough mountain path ; and de 
Saussure 's mule, which he had luckily got off, put one of its legs 
through a rotten bridge, and was only saved by breaking up the 
planks and letting it fall into the torrent. It was midnight when 
the party got back to St. Marcel, and found the Cur6, who was to 
lodge them, in bed and asleep. 

This was to be de Saussure's filial adventure in the mountains. 

1 See p. 360. 


He returned home from Aosta by the Great St. Bernard, where he 
was welcomed for the last time by his cordial hosts of the Hospice, 
with whom he had for so many years been on the best of terms, 
and whose interests he had at one time promoted by defending 
them against unfounded aspersions. 

Thus ends the record of de Saussure's last journey among 
his beloved mountains. We belong to a generation which can 
readily sympathise with him in the summary close to his Alpine 
travels caused by a political upheaval which convulsed Europe. 
It was to the civic and domestic anxieties brought on him by the 
French Revolution, and to its reaction on the ancient Republic of 
Geneva, that the final breakdown of his always delicate constitution 
must be mainly attributed. When his concluding volumes were 
sent to the press in 1796, their author's frame and intellect had been 
impaired by more than one paralytic stroke. The pages bear signs 
of careless revision ; there is a pathetic incompleteness in the 
brief ' General View of the Alps,' which follows on the narrative. 
The writer's failing strength, it is obvious, has not been equal to 
his intention. We feel pained, as in listening to an orator who is 
unable to complete his speech. De Saussure lays down his pen, 
then takes it up again to introduce the Agenda, which he had for 
years been elaborating, by a quotation from the Preface to the 
first volume, written seventeen years earlier. 

In the present and four preceding chapters I have attempted to 
tell, or rather to summarise, the story of de Saussure's travels and 
climbing experiences. This seems to me, therefore, an appropriate 
place to devote a few pages to a critical estimate of his position 
as an Alpine explorer and mountaineer. It is a matter on which 
divergent opinions have been expressed. If his claims have been 
exaggerated in some quarters, they have been unjustly depreciated 
in others. 

In any fair estimate of de Saussure's Alpine career local con- 
ditions and the mental atmosphere of the time must be taken fully 
into account. The standard of Geneva a hundred and fifty years 
ago was very different from that of the modern mountaineer. 
Among its sheltered aristocracy the taste for roughing it was 
rare, if not altogether absent. It was only natural that a society 
which habitually wore fine clothes and powdered hair should 
prefer tea and talk in a lakeside garden to the ' beautiful horrors ' 


of the High Alps, and should look on the Professor's excursions 
into the mountains as hardy and venturesome, and Madame de 
Saussure as a wife much to be pitied for her husband's eccentric 
taste. Alpine travel at the end of the eighteenth century was no 
doubt rough in a sense, but in the same sense that Dr. Johnson's 
tour to the Hebrides was rough. When we come to consider the 
facts in detail, we come to the conclusion that with the resources 
at de Saussure 's disposal, it involved no great privations or real 
risks. What hardships he encountered in the course of his travels 
have often been taken too seriously by his early biographers. 
Apart from his ascent of Mont Blanc and his sojourn on the Col 
du G6ant, which come properly under a different heading 
mountaineering they were in no sense severe tests of endurance, 
at any rate according to the standard of the latter half of the 
nineteenth century. 

The highlands of Switzerland and Savoy during de Saussure's 
life were not the unknown, or uncivilised, regions they are some- 
times represented. There were frequented mule-tracks over all 
the great and many of the side passes. The valleys of the Pennine 
Alps were not untrodden by travellers, or even wholly without 
accommodation. At most of the places de Saussure visited, 
Haller's botanical collectors had been before him. One of them had 
explored the Vispthaler, Saas, and Zermatt, and crossed the St. 
Theodule into Val Tournanche. Others had been up to the 
head of the Val d'Herens and Arolla, recesses which de Saussure 
himself never penetrated. Laborde's great folio volumes, Tableaux 
de la Suisse, published in 1780, bear witness to the growing know- 
ledge of the Alps. We find plates not only of the Grindelwald and 
Rosenlaui Glaciers, but also of the Rhone and Aar and Fiesch 
Glaciers. No one seems to have explored the Aletsch, though it 
is mentioned in Griiner's second edition. The Linththal and 
Pantenbruck in Canton Glarus, Lago di Lucendro on the St. 
Gotthard, Engelberg, and the Gemmi are all pictured. About the 
same time (1776-86) our worthy countryman, Archdeacon Coxe, 
was wandering about the Oberland, the Grisons, and the Val 
Tellina, making the tour of the Bernina by the Muretto Pass, 
and compiling his three substantial volumes. At many still 
out-of-the-way places de Saussure met with reasonable accom- 
modation ; for instance, in Val d'Ayas, in Val Formazza, at 


Cerentino in a side -glen of Val Maggia, at Minister in the Upper 
Rhone Valley, at St. Remy on the St. Bernard, at Goschenen on 
the St. Gotthard, he found fair inns. At Courmayeur there was a 
hotel, and, as now, Italian bathing company. At Chamonix 
after 1765 there were ' three large good inns.' Even at Zermatt 
and Macugnaga there were rough cabarets with, it is true, land- 
lords disposed to be churlish and shut the door on unexpected 
guests. At Chapieu the lodging seems to have been much the 
same as it was in the fifties of the last century. In short, wherever 
the valley led to a pass there were wayfarers, though as a rule 
not of a class to demand much from their hosts. In more remote 
bye-corners the choice lay between the priest's house and a rough 
drinking shop. It is all to de Saussure's credit that he took 
cheerfully what he found in the way of accommodation, that he 
made little of sleeping in a chalet, or even in his tent, when occasion 
arose. But the hardships of such rough lodgings must have been 
sensibly mitigated by the presence of the train of baggage mules 
and domestics he was in the habit of taking about with him. 
Moreover his tours were not protracted ; his longest journeys were 
only of a few weeks. In short, he endured cheerfully a con- 
siderable amount of discomfort, but little real hardship. The 
investigation of the Swiss Alps in the eighteenth century was an 
easy undertaking compared to the task that has faced later 
explorers in the Himalaya, the Andes, or the Rocky Mountains. 

Yet, taking all things into account and his own uncertain 
health and frequent indispositions are not to be overlooked the 
amount accomplished was considerable. De Saussure probably 
covered more ground than any other Alpine traveller of his time, 
except, possibly, Placidus a Spescha. Besides the seven journeys 
recorded in his book, he went to the Oberland in 1770 and over the 
Spliigen and back by Chur and the Lake of Wallenstadt in 1777. 
He visited many unfrequented localities in the Jura, Southern and 
Central France, the Riviera and the Brisgau. If we are tempted 
to wonder that he did not explore more thoroughly the valleys 
of the Pennine Alps, we have to remember his family conditions 
and his unwillingness to put too great a strain on the solicitude of 
a circle of which he was the adored centre. Bonnet, who himself 
played at times the part of an anxious uncle, summarises the 
situation in one of his letters to Haller : ' My nephew has two 


wives, or rather two mistresses, the mountains and his wife, and I 
cannot venture to say to which he is the more devoted.' We 
have also to remember that de Saussure had relatively little of the 
spirit of an explorer. He was mainly bent on extending his 
geological observations. Again, the troop with which he travelled 
confined him to mule -passes, and did not allow of a steeplechase 
' over hill, over dale,' such as has been the delight of many simple 
pedestrians in our times. 

Thus far we have confined ourselves to de Saussure's expeditions 
below the snow-level. We have still to consider his record as a 
mountaineer. His climbing qualifications would not count for 
much, perhaps, in the Alpine Clubs of the twentieth century. But 
it would be a gross injustice to appraise them by the standard of 
modern peak-hunters. His only serious contemporary rival was 
Placidus a Spescha, the worthy monk of Disentis, an enthusiast 
who, with far less means at his disposal, made many first ascents in 
the Orisons, climbed the Rheinwaldhorn, and almost conquered 
the Todi. 

De Saussure in his youth was a stout walker according to the 
standard of the day. When he was twenty, on his first visit to 
the glaciers, he walked all the way from Geneva to Chamonix. 
He took considerable pains to keep himself in training for his 
expeditions. But in his later years he was always ready to avail 
himself of mules to shorten the day's journey or the proposed 
climb ; he took them even over the St. Th6odule, and though he 
started from his bivouac on the top of the pass, he found the 
Klein Matterhorn enough and gave up the Breithorn. It is only 
fair to add, this was when he was fifty-two. 

De Saussure was obviously a fair rock-climber, as climbers 
went in the days before Alpine climbing had become a branch 
of gymnastics. He makes no great matter of the Aiguille du 
Gouter cliffs, though in the condition that he found them, covered 
with fresh snow, they can be unpleasant. Unlike Bourrit, he 
thought nothing of the steep descent from the Col du Geant to 
Mont Frety. In ice work he had to begin at the beginning, but 
he began early. Of his first glacier expedition, the now hackneyed 
crossing of the Mer de Glace, he gives a somewhat naive description: 

* I cannot recommend it to be attempted from the side of the 
Montenvers, unless the guides know the actual state of the ice and 


that it can be crossed without too much difficulty. In my first 
journey in 1760, I ran some risk, and had difficulty in extricating 
myself. The glacier at this time was almost impracticable on the 
side opposite the Montenvers. I jumped the crevices which were not 
too large, but one met with deep hollows in the ice into which one 
had to let oneself slide to climb up the other side with extreme fatigue. 
At other times, in order to cross the large and deep crevices, I had to 
pass like a rope-dancer along very narrow ice-ridges which reached 
from one side to the other. Good Pierre Simon, my first guide in the 
High Alps, regretted much having allowed me to undertake this en- 
terprise ; he ran backwards and forwards, searched for the least dan- 
gerous places, cut steps in the ice, gave me a hand whenever possible, 
and, at the same time, taught me the first elements of the art for 
it is one of placing one's feet properly, balancing the body, and using 
one's stick in difficult places. I escaped, however, without any injury 
beyond some bruises which I suffered in letting myself slide volun- 
tarily on the very rapid banks of ice we had to descend. Pierre Simon 
descended sliding upright on his feet, his body bent backwards and 
resting on his spiked stick. He thus reached the bottom without 
hurting himself.' [Voyages, 616.] 

De Saussure goes on to describe the skill with which the guides 
can glissade on steep slopes, adding, ' This exercise is far more 
difficult than one would think, and one must have many tumbles 
before attaining to real proficiency.' 

There is, I think, no doubt that the crossing of the Mer de 
Glace was more formidable at this period than in recent times, and 
that tourists, in order to avoid the Mauvais Pas, were often taken 
a longer course over the ice. 

It should also be noted that this narrative refers to a date before 
de Saussure had had any practice on a glacier, and nearly thirty 
years before his two great expeditions to the Col du Geant and 
Mont Blanc, and should be taken for what it is, an honest account 
of a youth's initiation to the mountains. One of de Saussure's 
most attractive qualities is his absolute honesty and absence of 
striving after effect. He is always ready to tell a story against 
himself as when he records how exhausted he was by being 
hustled by his guide at a great pace down to Ghamonix from the 
Plan de 1' Aiguille. 

' I came down too quickly ; my guide, fearing we should be be- 
nighted in these deserts, made me descend at such a pace that, not 


being as yet [he was twenty-one] trained for mountaineering, I 
stumbled at almost every step. I did not get back to Chamonix till 
late at night, and in a state of fever and fatigue from which it took 
me some time to recover.' [ Voyages, 654.] 

In later years some of de Saussure's best climbing was done at 
the base of the Chamonix Aiguilles, where he had at least one 
narrow escape from falling stones. 

In his visit to the Jardin and expeditions on Mont Blanc and 
the Col du G6ant, de Saussure had to deal with formidable icefalls 
at a date when icecraft at Chamonix was in a very rudimentary 
condition. Simler two hundred years before had described the 
proper use of the rope and snow spectacles as practised by travellers 
on the St. Th6odule. But the crystal-hunters employed by de 
Saussure seem to have neglected the rope, or employed it, if at all, 
not as a precaution, but as a means of rescue after a comrade had 
dropped into a crevasse. They carried very long alpenstocks, and 
stuck short axes, such as they used to extract crystals, in their 
belts. De Saussure describes how two of his guides held one of 
these poles, more than 8 feet long, between them horizontally 
while he or his son leant on the middle. This was the attitude in 
which he chose to be represented in the plates that served to 
illustrate his feats. A tourist of the period (Bordier) declared that 
Alpine peasants were in the habit of holding these long staves in 
this manner while crossing a glacier, so that in case of a fall the 
two ends might catch on the side of the crevasse, and the moun- 
taineer seize the moment to spring out. The feat is more easily 
described than performed ! 

It has always to be borne in mind that with de Saussure 
climbing except perhaps in the case of Mont Blanc, and even with 
Mont Blanc only in private moments was considered not as an 
end in itself, but as a means to scientific research. The Japanese 
climb with a religious aim, the eighteenth century climbed with 
scientific objects, the nineteenth and twentieth have done so 
occasionally, but more often for health or exercise. De Saussure's 
aim was always serious. He appreciated in his leisure moments 
no one more thoroughly the beauty of the storehouses of snow 
and the splendours to be seen on the summits. His descriptions 
of the view from the Crammpnt and his last sunset on the Col du 
Geant remain as evidence of his feeling for mountain effects. But 


scenery was not in his case, as it is with us, a first object. He did 
not find in it an adequate inducement to face obstacles far more 
serious in imagination, but also more serious in reality, than those 
that we encounter to-day. No doubt something must be allowed 
also both for his deliberate temperament and for the pressure of 
home influence. We read in his letters how his family his wife 
and sons and two devoted sisters-in-law the whole Genthod 
household waited and watched eagerly at Chamonix while the 
long -contemplated attack on the great mountain was ventured. 

What was wanting in de Saussure was the element of rashness 
that makes a pioneer. It was Bourrit's example that urged him 
to his first serious attempt and failure on Mont Blanc. It was 
the success of Paccard and Balmat that spurred him to follow 
them. It was Exchaquet who induced him to camp on the Col 
du Geant. He preferred the comparative certainty of reaching a 
goal already proved attainable to the zest of a new and doubtful 
adventure. It was in this respect that he differed most from 
the average modern mountaineer, to whom the climb itself is the 
main object, and the exertion its own reward. 

Before with de Saussure we leave the mountains and turn to 
trace his share in the troubles and disasters of the revolutionary 
epoch at Geneva, many of my readers will, I believe, be glad to 
peruse in his own words the statement of the main aim of his life 
and travels given at the beginning and end of the Voyages by their 
author. I shall therefore append here a translation of a great part 
of the Preface, as well as of the Epilogue and Note he supplied at 
the close of his great work. Their pages set out better than any 
comment of mine can the spirit in which de Saussure travelled, 
his genuine love of the Alps, his passion for science, and the 
strong human sympathies which led him to appreciate so warmly 
yet with so much discrimination the qualities of the mountain 
peasantry. The ' Discours Preliminaire ' supplies the best portrait, 
or outline, of the man and the philosopher, while the ' Coup d'CEil 
General ' and the final Note by their incompleteness bear witness 
to the physical failure which forced him to leave to others the 
completion of his life's work. 



ALL those who have studied attentively the materials of the earth 
which we inhabit have been forced to recognise that our globe has 
suffered great revolutions which must have required for their accom- 
plishment a long series of centuries. Memories of some of these revolu- 
tions have even been traced in the traditions of early peoples. The 
philosophers of antiquity exercised their wits in endeavours to ascertain 
the order and the causes of these vicissitudes ; but, more eager to 
interpret nature than patient in her study, they relied on inadequate 
observations and on traditions distorted by poetry and superstition, 
and thus were led to invent Cosmogonies, or Systems of the Origin 
of the World, better suited to please the imagination than to satisfy 
the intellect by a faithful interpretation of nature. 

It was long before it was recognised that this branch of Natural 
Science, like all others, ought to be pursued with the help of observa- 
tion, and that systems ought never to be put forward except as the 
results and the consequences of facts. 

The science which collects the facts that can alone serve as a 
basis for the Theory of the Earth, or Geology, is Physical Geography, the 
description of our globe, of its natural divisions, the character, the 
structure, and the situation of its different parts, of the substances 
visible on its surface, and of those which it contains in such depths 
as our feeble resources enable us to penetrate. 

But it is above all through the study of mountains that the progress 
of a Theory of the Earth can be accelerated. Plains are uniform ; 
it is impossible in them to inspect a section of the soil and its different 
beds except by excavations effected either by water or by the hands 
of men ; and such means are very inadequate, because these excava- 
tions are of relatively rare occurrence and extent, and the deepest 
scarcely descend to 1200 or 1800 feet. High mountains, on the other 
hand, infinitely various in their material and their form, present to 
the light of day natural sections of a great extent, in which one can 
observe with the utmost precision, and embrace in a moment, the 
order, the situation, the direction, the thickness, and even the nature 

1 Voyages dans les Alpes, vols. i. and iv. 



of the beds of which they are composed and the fractures which traverse 

It is in vain, however, that mountains offer opportunities for such 
observations if the student does not know how to look on these great 
objects as a whole and in their more general relations. The one 
object of the greater number of the travellers who style themselves 
Naturalists is to collect curiosities ; they walk, or rather they crawl, 
their eyes fixed on the ground, picking up little fragments, without 
making any attempt at generalisation. They resemble the antiquary 
who, at Rome, would scratch the ground in the middle of the Pantheon 
or the Coliseum to search for bits of coloured glass without throwing 
a glance at the architecture of these superb buildings. It is not that 
I advise neglect of detailed observations ; on the contrary, I regard 
them as the only base of solid knowledge ; what I ask is that, in 
observing details, one should never lose sight of the masses as a 
whole, and that a knowledge of the great objects and their relations 
should be constantly kept in view in the study of their parts. But 
in order to obtain these general ideas it is not enough to follow the 
high-roads, which, as a rule, wind in the bottom of the valleys and 
cross the mountain chains in their deepest defiles ; one must leave the 
beaten track and climb the lofty peaks, whence the eyes can embrace 
at once a multitude of objects. These excursions are, I admit, labo- 
rious ; one must do without carriages, or even horses, endure great 
fatigue, and even at times expose oneself to somewhat serious risks. 
Often the Naturalist on the point of reaching a peak which he eagerly 
desires to gain is seized with doubt whether his strength will carry 
him to the top, or whether he can succeed in conquering the cliffs 
that bar his way ; but the brisk and fresh air he breathes sends through 
his veins a tonic which restores him, and the hope of the great spectacle 
he is about to enjoy, and of the new discoveries which he may gain, 
reanimate his vigour and his courage. He arrives : his eyes, at once 
dazzled and drawn in every direction, know not at first where to fix 
themselves ; little by little he accustoms himself to this great light ; 
he selects the objects which ought principally to occupy him, and 
he decides on the order in which he should study them. But what 
language can reproduce the sensations and paint the ideas with which 
these great spectacles fill the soul of the Philosopher ? He seems to 
dominate our globe, to discover the sources of its motion, and to 
recognise at least the principal agents that effect its revolutions. 
[A description of the view from Etna is here omitted.] 
Thus the view of these grand objects engages the Philosopher to 
meditate on the past and future revolutions of our globe. But if, in 


the middle of these meditations, the idea of the little creatures that 
crawl on its surface crosses his mind ; if he compares their duration 
to the great epochs of nature, how much must he wonder that, occupy- 
ing so little space both in place and time, they should have been able 
to imagine that they were the sole end of the creation of the universe, 
and when, from the summit of Etna, he sees under his feet two 
Empires that in other times nourished millions of warriors, how puerile 
must ambition appear to him ! It is there that the Temple of Wisdom 
should be built ; in which, to repeat after the bard of nature, ' Suave 
mari magno.' 

The accessible peaks of the Alps present views perhaps not so vast 
or so brilliant, but even more instructive to the Geologist. It is from 
them that he sees before him the lofty and ancient mountains, the 
original and most solid skeleton of our globe, which deserve the name 
of primitives because, disdaining all alien support or extraneous mixture, 
they invariably repose on homogeneous bases and include in their 
substance nothing of another nature. He studies their structure, he 
distinguishes beneath the ravages of time the traces of their original 
form ; he observes the connection of these ancient mountains with 
those of more recent formation ; he notices the more recent resting 
on the older ; he distinguishes the strata, very much disturbed at their 
contact with the primitives, but more and more horizontal as they 
are farther from them ; he observes the gradations which nature has 
followed in passing from one formation to another ; and an acquaint- 
ance with these gradations helps him to raise a corner of the veil 
which covers the mystery of their origin. 

The physical student, like the Geologist, finds on the high moun- 
tains worthy objects of admiration and study. These great chains, 
the tops of which pierce into the upper regions of the atmosphere, 
seem to be the workshop of nature and the reservoirs whence she 
draws the benefits and the disasters she spreads over our earth, the 
streams which water it, and the torrents which ravage it, the rains 
which fertilise it, and the storms which spread desolation. All the 
phenomena of general physics present themselves with a grandeur and 
majesty of which the inhabitants of the plains have no idea, the action 
of the winds and atmospheric electricity assume an astonishing force, 
the clouds form under the eyes of the observer, and often he watches 
the tempests which devastate the plains born under his feet, while 
the sun shines brightly on him, and above his head the sky remains 
clear and calm. Striking incidents of every kind vary at each moment 
the scene ; here a torrent flings itself from the rocks, forming jets 
and cascades which melt into spray and present to the spectator 


double or triple rainbows which follow him as he shifts his view-point. 
Then snow avalanches leap down with a rapidity comparable to that 
of lightning, traverse and cut paths through the forests, breaking 
short the tallest trees with a noise like that of thunder. Farther 
distant, great expanses bristling with eternal ice give the idea of a sea 
suddenly frozen at the moment when the north wind had raised its 
waves. And beside this ice, in the midst of these terrifying objects, 
are delicious retreats ; smiling meadows, fragrant with the scent of 
a thousand flowers as rare as they are beautiful and medicinal, present 
a sweet image of spring in a fortunate clime and offer the botanist 
the richest harvest. 

The human interest in the Alps is no less than the physical. For 
if mankind are in the main everywhere the same, everywhere the 
plaything of the same passions produced by the same needs, yet if 
there is anywhere in Europe where one may hope to find men who 
have exchanged the savage for the civilised state without losing their 
natural simplicity, it is in the Alps that one must look for them, in 
these high valleys where there are no landlords or men of wealth, nor 
any frequent incursion of strangers. Those who have seen the peasant 
only in the environs of cities have no idea of the child of nature. Near 
towns, subject to masters, bound to a humiliating deference, crushed 
by vain show, corrupted and despised even by those of his fellows 
who are themselves debased by service, he becomes as abject as his 

But the peasant of the Alps, seeing none but his equals, forgets 
the existence of any more powerful class, his soul is ennobled and 
elevated ; the services which he renders, the hospitality which he 
shows, have in them nothing servile or mercenary, one sees in him 
sparks of that honourable pride which is the companion and guardian 
of all the virtues. How often, arriving at nightfall in some remote 
hamlet where there was no kind of inn, have I knocked at a cottage 
door, and then, after some inquiry as to the object of my journey, 
been received with a courtesy, a cordiality, and a disinterestedness of 
which it would be difficult to find examples elsewhere. And who 
would believe that in those savage retreats I have come across thinkers, 
men who, by the unaided strength of their native intelligence, have 
raised themselves far above the superstitions on which the lower 
classes in towns feed with avidity ? 

Such are the pleasures tasted by those who devote themselves to 
the study of mountains. For myself, I have from childhood felt for 
them the most positive passion ; I still recollect the thrill that I 
experienced the first time that my hands clasped the rocks of the 



Saleve and my eyes enjoyed its panorama. At the age of eighteen (in 
1758) I had already made several excursions among the mountains 
nearest Geneva. In the next year I passed a fortnight in one of the 
highest chalets of the Jura, in order to explore in detail the Dole and the 
mountains near it, and in the same year I went up the Mole for the 
first time. But these relatively low mountains could only imperfectly 
satisfy my curiosity. I was burning with the desire to see close at 
hand the High Alps, which from the crest of the lower ranges looked 
so magnificent. At length, in 1760, I started alone and on foot 
for the glaciers of Chamonix, then little frequented, and said to be 
difficult and dangerous of access. I revisited them in the following year, 
and since that date I have not let a single year pass without making 
some serious excursions, and even journeys, with the object of study- 
ing mountains. In this period (1760-1779) I have crossed the main 
chain of the Alps fourteen times by eight different passes, and made 
sixteen other excursions to the centre of the chain. I have explored 
the Jura, the Vosges, the mountains of Switzerland, those of a part 
of Germany, of England, of Italy, and Sicily and the adjacent islands. 
I have visited the extinct volcanoes of Auvergne, part of those of the 
Vivarais, and several mountains of Forez, Dauphine, and Burgundy. 1 
I made all these journeys, a miner's hammer in my hand, with no aim 
except that of physical research, climbing all the accessible peaks 
which promised me interesting observations and always collecting 
specimens from the mines and the mountains above all, those which 
promised to afford some fact useful for the Theory, so that I might 
examine them at leisure. I also imposed on myself the severe rule of 
first setting down on the spot the notes of my observations and then 
writing them out in a fair copy within twenty-four hours, as far as 
was possible. 

One precaution in my opinion, a very useful one which I employed, 
was to prepare in advance for each journey a systematic and detailed 
agenda of the inquiries to which the journey was dedicated. As a 
geologist observes and studies, as a rule, on the road, the least dis- 
traction may make him miss, perhaps for ever, an interesting observa- 
tion. Even without distractions, the objects of his study are so 
varied and so numerous that it is easy to pass over something ; often 
an observation that appears important absorbs all his attention and 
makes him let slip others. Again, bad weather discourages him, 
fatigue lessens his power of observation, and the neglected oppor- 

1 The eight passes crossed previous to 1779 were the Mont Cenis, the 
Col Ferret, the Col de la Seigne, the Great St. Bernard, the Simplon, the Gries, 
the St. Gotthard, and the Splugen. In later years de Saussure added to his 
list the Col du Geant, St. Th6odule, and Little St. Bernard. 


tunities that result from all these causes leave behind them bitter 
regrets, and may even compel him to retrace his steps. But if from 
time to time he throws a glance at his agenda, he brings back to his 
recollection all the inquiries which he ought to be occupied with. My 
list of agenda, limited at first, became enlarged and improved in pro- 
portion to the ideas that I had acquired. I propose to publish it in 
my third volume ; it may be of use even to travellers who, without 
being experts in research, desire to bring back from their travels some 
notes useful for science. I shall add to these agenda directions for 
those who propose to undertake a journey among high mountains, 
and some hints as to the mistakes into which unskilled observers may 
most easily fall. 1 

Despite all the precautions I take to forget nothing when, in the 
quiet of my study, I meditate afresh on the objects I have observed 
during my travels, doubts often arise in my mind which I feel I can 
only remove by new observations and fresh journeys. It is these 
doubts, always recurring, which have delayed till now the publica- 
tion of this work, and which compel me to limit myself to the observa- 
tions I have made in the last four or five years ; those anterior to this 
date not seeming to me sufficiently complete to be submitted to the 
eyes of the public. Even these I offer only with extreme diffidence, 
persuaded that men of science who see after me objects I have described 
will discover many things which have escaped my examination. . . . 

As to my style, I shall make no apology I know its faults ; but 
more accustomed to climb rocks than to turn and polish phrases, my 
only object has been to describe clearly what I have seen and felt. 
If my descriptions give my readers some part of the pleasure I have 
had myself in my travels above all, if they serve to incite in some 
of them a desire to study and to advance a science in the progress 
of which I take an eager interest, I shall be well pleased and well 
rewarded for my exertions. 28th November 1779. 

[The conclusion of the Preface consists mainly of an epitome of 
the Voyages and references to its maps and illustrations.] 


I HAVE given in these Travels at the end of each crossing of the 
Alps a general sketch of the character of the mountains and of the 
structure they present in each of the passes traversed. I must now 
furnish a general sketch of the whole range. 

1 The agenda here promised were issued in the fourth volume of the Voyages, 
prefaced by the note that follows here. 
^J Voyages, vol. iv. 2300, 2303. 


In my youth, when I had as yet crossed only a few of the Alpine 
passes, I imagined myself to have mastered the facts and their general 
relations. I even delivered, in 1764, 1 a lecture on mountain structure 
in which I set forth these conclusions. But since repeated journeys 
in different portions of the chain have furnished me with additional 
facts, I have recognised that one might almost maintain that the 
most constant feature of the Alps is their variety. 

In fact, if in place of considering my whole Travels, those described 
in these volumes are alone taken into account, it will be at once noted 
that the order in which the different rocks are placed is infinitely 
varied. In one place the outer ranges are limestone, in another 
magnesian. Here the central and loftiest peaks are solid granite ; 
there they are micaceous limestone schists ; in one place we find 
magnesian rocks, in another gneiss. If one notes the disposition of 
the strata, they prove to be in one place horizontal, in another vertical, 
in one place inclined in the same direction as the slope of the mountain, 
in another in the contrary direction. 

Still it will be noted that in general the dip of the strata follows 
the direction of the longitudinal valleys and of the mountain ridges, 
and that these valleys, as well as the mountain ranges, have a general 
direction of east to west or north-east to south-west. It will also be noted 
that the strata of the more recent formations are, as a rule, inclined 
towards and resting against the more ancient massifs, except where 
they are reversed, or inclined in the opposite direction to the mountain 

But a feature which is universal is the mass of debris in the form 
of blocks, fragments, pudding stone, sandstone, and sand, either piled 
together and forming mountains or hills, or else scattered on the 
exterior of the range, or even on the plains lying at the base of the 
Alps, which bears witness to the violent and sudden retreat of the 

We recognise, then, in the Alps the certain proof of the catastrophe, 
or last scene, in the great drama of the revolutions of the globe. But 
we see only uncertain and doubtful signs of the preceding events, apart 
from the proofs of quiet crystallisations in the most remote epochs 
which preceded the creation of animals, of deposits or sediments in 
the periods which followed this epoch, and some evidence of violent 
movements such as the formation of fissures, of pudding stone, the 
fracture of shells, and the displacement of strata. But I do not 
propose to enter here into any details of the Theory. I only wish to 

1 The date given is 1774. This is obviously one of the many errata in the 
concluding volumes. D. W. F. 


ascertain if there are any general conclusions which may be put forward 
by one who has passed his life in visiting the Alps and in studying 
the character and structure of the ranges which compose them. 

The following note, or postscript, occupies a page at the end 
of the Agenda, and conveys de Saussure's last message to his 
successors : 

The particulars here given may serve to show that Geology is 
not a study for the idle or the self-indulgent, since a geologist's days 
are divided between fatiguing and perilous journeys, in which he is 
cut off from most of the conveniences of life, and complicated and 
deep studies in his cabinet. But what is rarer and perhaps even 
more essential than the zeal required to surmount these obstacles is 
a spirit free from preconceived ideas and intent on truth alone rather 
than on any desire to create or demolish systems, and capable both of 
plunging into the details indispensable in exact and reliable observa- 
tions and of the power to rise to broad views and general conceptions. 
I would not, however, urge these difficulties as a discouragement. 
Every traveller can make some useful observations, and bring at least 
a stone worthy to serve in the construction of the great edifice. Im- 
perfect work may still be of use, for I do not doubt that were one to 
compare with these Agenda the results of the journeys of mineralogists l 
even those of the highest reputation (and a fortiori, those of the 
author of the Agenda !) one would find many gaps, many observations 
either imperfect or wanting. The reason for this I have given in my 
Preface. Moreover, many of these ideas have only occurred to me 
since my travels. This is the reason why I have worked with interest 
on the Agenda, in the hope of placing young students at the com- 
mencement of their career, at the point I have reached after thirty- 
six years of study and travel. 

1 Mineralogy is up to the end of the eighteenth century found in the Index of the 
Transactions of the Royal Society, where Geology would now be the term used. 
D. W. F. 


IN the preceding chapters we have been mainly occupied in follow- 
ing de Saussure's scientific career as a physical student and an 
Alpine explorer. But no portrait of the author of Voyages dans 
les Alpes can pretend to be complete which omits his home life 
and his services to the Republic. 

Whatever criticism the patrician families of Geneva may 
be liable to as practical politicians, it must be admitted 
that they were active in fulfilling their public duties. They 
furnished the State its magistrates, the Academy its professors, 
and the Church many of its presbyters. They enriched the city 
by their business enterprise, whether as merchants or bankers. 
There were few drones in the busy hive planted on the hill above 
the Rhone. De Saussure was no exception to the general rule. 
Throughout his life he was engaged in many and very varied 
occupations, social, civil, and political ; he was not only a hard- 
worked professor and a versatile man of science, he was also an 
ardent educationalist and, when compelled by occasion, an active 
legislator. As a young man, during the troubles of 1766-68, he 
was called on to serve as a political correspondent to his friend 
Haller, who was at the time engaged officially as an adviser to 
one of the Mediating Powers, the Canton of Berne. At a 
later date he was drawn reluctantly into the narrow but 
turbid stream of Genevese politics in an earnest attempt to 
save his city from being overrun by the flood of the French 

Of the difficulties that face a biographer addressing English 
readers in any attempt to do justice to this hitherto neglected 
side of de Saussure's character and career I am very conscious. 
What Sainte-Beuve has written in noticing Sayous' well-known 



work on French literature outside France, 1 seems to me to apply 
so exactly to my own case that I am tempted to quote the passage 
here : 

4 Why not have put in the front of these volumes a brief account 
of the constitution and political history of Geneva ? We should have 
been glad of a summary sketch of the quarrels and the civil wars 
between the different classes, of the strife between the citizens and the 
bourgeois, between the members and rulers of the State on the one 
hand, and on the other the unenfranchised crowd constantly demand- 
ing civil rights. These disputes between the High and the Low Town, 
between patricians and plebeians, reproduced in many of their features 
those of the Greek and Roman republics. A few pages in which were 
presented clearly and accurately the vicissitudes of the city-state up to 
the moment when it was swallowed by the French Revolution, would 
have informed and relieved our minds.' 

Even at the risk of becoming tedious, I feel bound to act on 
the great critic's suggestion, and to offer such a brief summary 
of the Genevese Constitution, its origin and growth, as may 
assist my readers to realise in outline the part played by de 
Saussure during the revolutionary period. It is not my object 
to follow closely the kaleidoscopic movements of constantly 
shifting party combinations, to record in any detail the alternate 
victories and defeats of the patrician oligarchy in their protracted 
struggle to keep hold of the reins of government. That task may 
be left to local historians. My intention is to refer to these events 
only in so far as they affected the life and fortune of a single actor 
in them. 

In order to understand the successive political episodes in which 
de Saussure was called on to play a part, it is essential, in the first 
place, to distinguish the classes into which, about 1760, the in- 
habitants of Geneva were divided, and to enumerate the various 
bodies which constituted and controlled the State. 

In 1781, according to an official census, the population of the 
Republic amounted to 24,700, of whom 8000 were adult males. 
Of these only 3000 were entitled to vote in the General Assembly ; 
in practice the number voting seems seldom to have exceeded 
1600. This enfranchised class was divided into citizens and 

1 Le Dix-huitieme Siecle a F Stranger : Histoire de la Litterature Fran^aise 
dans les divers pays de F Europe depuis la mort de Louis XIV. jusqu'a la Revolution 
Franyaise, par A. Sayous (Paris, 1861). See vol. i. pp. 400-457. 


burghers ; the latter section suffered from certain disabilities 
set out below. 

In theory the Geneva of the eighteenth century was a demo- 
cracy governed by the General Assembly, through four executive 
officers appointed by it, and known as Syndics. But, as time went 
on, the power of this body had been gradually limited, or usurped, 
by two committees distinguished as the Council of Twenty-five, 
or Small Council, or more generally as the Senate, and the Council 
of Two Hundred, or Great Council. The Senate was selected from 
members of the Great Council, for which citizens, amongst whom 
were included burghers' sons born in the city, were alone eligible. 
Burghers, though they voted in the General Assembly, could not 
sit in either of the Councils, or hold any of the higher administra- 
tive offices of the State. Families, a member of which had sat 
in the Senate, or served in one of its chief offices, bore the title of 
' Noble,' while doctors, lawyers and ministers were entitled to be 
addressed as ' Spectable.' 

The origin of the Senate, which dates back to the fourteenth 
century, is somewhat obscure. It would seem to have been at 
first a committee, with certain special functions, which were 
enlarged, so that in the course of years it developed into something 
like a Cabinet. As the affairs of State grew in importance, it 
delegated a part of its functions to the larger committee known 
as the Great Council. These bodies were, it appears, originally 
nominated by the Syndics, and confirmed by the General Assembly. 
But about the time of the Reformation the Assembly lost its con- 
trol, and the Councils assumed the right to elect one another. The 
Senate secured another most important advantage ; hitherto the 
four Syndics had been elected by the free vote of the Assembly, 
from which they directly derived their authority. Its choice was 
now limited to four out of eight nominees of the Senate, and the 
Senate nominated only members of its own body. The combined 
effect of these changes was to destroy the democratic character 
of the State : the General Assembly might still be acclaimed as 
the Souverain, but the reins had passed into other hands. 

Henceforth all political and judicial power was concentrated 
in the Senate and Great Council, and these were recruited out of 
a limited number of closely allied patrician families. As the years 
went on the powers of the popular body were still further reduced. 


No measure could be proposed except in the Senate, and no 
measure could be brought before the General Assembly until it had 
been passed both by the Senate and Great Council. The General 
Assembly might send up remonstrances or petitions to the Councils, 
but the Councils were not bound to take them into consideration. 
In the terms in use, the citizens might ' represent,' but the Councils 
could ' negative.' By the middle of the eighteenth century Geneva 
had become an oligarchy, controlled by clerics and a group of 
Noble Families. The General Assembly, however, still met from 
time to time, if only to give a formal sanction to the enactments of 
the Councils ; and its power of vetoing the Senate's nominations 
for the chief offices of the State offered an obvious instrument for 
the expression of the growing discontents. 

Outside the enfranchised minority here described lay the bulk 
of the male population, who were liable to special taxation, and 
up to 1768 were excluded from public offices, from the liberal 
professions, and from certain trades. If born in the city they 
were known as ' Natifs,' if newcomers, as ' Inhabitants.' It was, 
it is true, possible for individuals of this class to acquire civic 
rights either by service rendered to the State or by money pay- 
ment, but after the sixteenth century the process became some- 
what costly. In the first seventy years of the eighteenth century 
some five hundred outsiders were thus admitted as burghers. 

Such, in outline, was the Constitution of Geneva in the latter 
half of the eighteenth century. I have now to indicate the 
main epochs in its historical development. 

For many centuries after Caesar Geneva had remained an 
obscure provincial town, which won no place in the annals of the 
later Empire. First Roman and then Burgundian, it shared in 
the vicissitudes of those dark and troublous times until in the 
eleventh century it was handed over by the Emperor Conrad n., 
acting as King of Burgundy, to its Bishop, who was created a 
Prince of the Holy Roman Empire. The rule of the Prince- 
Bishops lasted for some five hundred years until 1535 but it 
was a perpetual struggle against first the local Counts of the 
Genevois, and afterwards the House of Savoy. The little city- 
state found itself surrounded by the dominions of hungry poten- 
tates, who, but for the timely aid received from the neighbouring 
Swiss cantons of Berne and Fribourg, would probably have 


swallowed it up. The Prince-Bishops' troubles were not only 
external ; they had also to contend with their own subjects 
within the walls. The Constitution of Geneva was based on the 
liberties won from one of its sovereigns, embodied and confirmed 
in 1387 in a document described as the Magna Carta of Genevese 
history. 1 This definitely recognised the existence and powers of 
a General Assembly, and provided for the appointment of four 
Syndics as its executive officers. The Senate, or Council of 
Twenty-five, is not mentioned in the charter, but independent 
evidence has been brought to light that it already existed at that 
date in the form of a committee, with certain well-defined adminis- 
trative powers. 

A hundred and fifty years later, about 1535, the Genevese 
finally got rid of their Prince-Bishops, and proceeded to develop 
a constitution by creating in imitation of the neighbouring Swiss 
cantons the Great Council, and also a Council of Sixty, which 
dealt with Foreign Affairs, and met only at intervals. 

The same date was further marked by the arrival of the 
reformer Farel and the introduction of the Protestant religion. 
The Reformation affected the political and social life of the city 
for evil as well as for good . The old framework of liberty remained , 
but in place of being adapted to the needs of the time, it was 
stiffened by Calvin with the spirit of ecclesiastical tyranny. 

Recent historians have shown a tendency to exaggerate the 
services rendered to the cause of popular government by the 
example and influence of Geneva under its clerical rulers. If 
the first aim of Calvinism was to be free of the control of princes, 
it was equally keen to set up a tyranny of its own in some respects 
even more absolute. Its ideal of liberty was strictly limited 
by its demand for conformity. It took no account of the claims 
of the individual conscience ; it had no tolerance for those who 
objected to its creed and doctrine, or its harsh restrictions. When 
we are invited to regard the little city on Lake Leman as the 
source from which Hampden and Cromwell drew their energy, 
and the Pilgrim Fathers their principles, we are tempted to 
inquire more closely what the extent and nature of the influence 

1 Coutumes, Ordonnances, Franchises et Libertks de la Ville de Geneve. 
Recueillies et publiees en 1' annee 1387, par Adhemar Fabry, Prince et Eveque 
de 1'Eglise et de la dite ville de Geneve. 


exerted in this country by the Calvinist oligarchy of Geneva 
really amounted to. Englishmen have at no time needed to go 
abroad to learn the love of liberty. If the religious refugees who 
returned to their country from Geneva in the days of Elizabeth 
brought back with them some fresh experience of a Republic, 
they brought back also a narrow and ungenial view of life, a bitter 
sectarianism which infected English Puritanism and hastened the 
downfall of the Cromwellian government. If the Pilgrim Fathers 
owed in part their virtues to the teaching of Calvin, their failings 
the cruelties and bigotry that marked their early attempts at 
organising a community must be laid to the same account. 

In 1543 the franchises won by the citizens in 1387 were under 
Calvin's rule moulded to the purposes of a self-righteous and 
largely clerical oligarchy, resolute in refusing to suit itself to new 
conditions and meddlesome to the point of absurdity in matters 
of dogma and morals. As has already been shown, a committee, 
under the control of the Venerable Company of Pastors, exercised 
up to 1770 an intolerably minute supervision over the private 
lives of the inhabitants. The Genevese citizen could not call 
his house, his table, or even his clothes, much less his soul, his own. 
But for the rest the administration under the old aristocracy 
seems to have been honest, capable, and economical, and every 
traveller noted the striking contrast between the condition of 
the inhabitants of the town and its territory and that of the 
peasantry of Savoy immediately outside the frontier. Education 
was not altogether neglected, and there were schools limited to 
boys for all classes. Further, to ensure the perpetuation of 
the order he created, Calvin founded an ' Academy ' the studies 
of which were carefully framed so as to provide a succession of 
presbyters and pious magistrates imbued with sound doctrines 
and a proper contempt for free thought and worldly indulgences. 
The Academy was placed under the control of the Venerable 
Company of Pastors, the members of which, should occasion 
arise, were always at hand and ready to advise and admonish 
their colleagues of the lay Councils. 

Meantime, the existence of the Republic, surrounded, as we have 
seen, by powerful neighbours, was apt to be precarious. In 1602 
it was attacked in force by the Duke of Savoy. His assault was 
repulsed, and the Genevese, proud of the one feat of arms in their 


city's history, cherished its memory, which is still kept alive in 
the annual festival of the Escalade. Security was subsequently 
sought in an alliance with the King of France and the cantons of 
Berne and Zurich, the latter on the ground of religion taking 
the place originally held by Fribourg. These States, known 
in local history as the Mediating Powers, played an important, 
and in the result a disastrous, part in the history of Geneva. 
There is no more dangerous defect in a government than a 
tendency to rely on foreign arms against its own subjects. This 
blunder the Genevese aristocracy habitually made. In place 
of strengthening their position by gradually associating the 
prosperous and growing middle class in the responsibilities of 
administration and legislation, they persevered in attempts to 
retain a monopoly of power in their own hands by the aid of 
alien forces. When France became a Republic the Genevese 
oligarchy fell pierced by the weapon it had too long relied on. 

During the seventeenth century the democratic elements in the 
ancient constitution were in a state of decay, while the popula- 
tion of the town was increasing in number and prosperity. The 
General Assembly was reduced to practical impotence and its 
meetings to empty ceremonies. Public opinion, deprived of any 
practical mode of expression, took the form of incessant criticism, 
ever ready to ripen on occasion into serious discontent. In 1707 
new duties levied by the Councils on the import of wine and more 
restrictive game laws were the sparks that served to set a light to 
the smouldering ashes. A largely signed petition was presented 
to the Great Council, claiming that votes in the General Assembly 
should be taken by ballot, that a limit should be put to the number 
of members of the same family allowed to sit in the Great Council, 
and that the fundamental laws of the State, the text of which had 
been untouched for a hundred and fifty years , and was in some points 
vague , should be revised and reprinted . This was a demand that was 
repeated over and over again for many years, and met by a series 
of postponements and evasions on the part of the oligarchy, which 
largely contributed to its final discomfiture. The petition was 
contumeliously rejected and ordered to be burnt by the First 
Syndic. An extraordinary meeting of the Assembly followed/* 
stormy debates were succeeded by riots in the streets, and troops 
were summoned from Berne. An informer alleged that the demo- 


cratic party had planned a massacre of the Syndics and the Swiss 
troops. Several of its leaders, including Pierre Fatio, a lawyer of 
patrician family and great eloquence, were arrested, condemned, 
and executed. Thus ended the first of the series of revolutions 
and counter-revolutions which were to mark the century. 

The years 1730-40 may serve as the next point in our summary 
retrospect. Since the attempted revolution in 1707 had been 
put down, the patrician oligarchy had further consolidated its 
power. The Senate and Great Council by a series of ingenious 
devices had secured to themselves in practice perpetuity of office, 
the concentration in their own hands of all legislative, executive, 
and judicial power, the appointment of the four Syndics, and the 
control of the elections of their own members . The meetings of the 
General Assembly had become merely formal and fallen largely into 
disuse. It had to content itself with acting as a Court of Registra- 
tion for the decrees and nominations of the Councils. 

In 1734 the growing discontent was again brought to a head by 
increased taxation imposed to meet the cost of new fortifications. 
Either side suspected the other of an intention to resort to violence. 
Some blood was shed in street riots, but in the end a compromise 
was arrived at. The British Resident in Switzerland, it is inter- 
esting to find, addressed a very sensible and plain-spoken letter to 
the Syndics and Councils, blaming their conduct and justifying 
the bourgeoisie in calling in question their claim to the power of 
imposing taxation. In the result the Assembly was convoked 
and voted the taxes in question, while the officials who had been 
concerned in preparing arms for use against the people were dis- 
missed. But the truce proved a hollow one. The Senate con- 
demned Micheli du Crest, an engineer, who on the ground of 
expense had ventured to criticise and oppose their project of new 
fortifications ; Micheli's adherents were prosecuted without any 
regard for legal forms ; the populace rose in their defence ; street- 
fighting ensued . The Councils by feasts and flattery sought to win 
over the artisan population to take up arms on their side against 
the middle-class burghers. In this dilemma recourse was again 
had to the so-called Garantie, the old custom arising out of the need 
Geneva had experienced in earlier times of protection from the 
Dukes of Savoy. The King of France and the cantons of Berne 
and Zurich were invited to exercise their right to intervene in 


unison as mediators. Delegates were duly appointed by the 
Powers. After much delay and some bickering between them- 
selves, they drew up a solemn document known as the ' Reglement 
de I'Ulustre Mediation,' designed to put an end to the civic troubles. 
The Councils were pronounced to be bound to govern according 
to the established laws of the city, as set out in the Code of 1387, 
which they were instructed to revise and reissue ; on the other hand, 
they were recognised to possess full executive and judicial powers 
and the sole right of initiative that is, of proposing new laws. 
They were confirmed in the right of nominating the four Syndics 
and other town officers in the General Assembly, which could, how- 
ever, reject their nominees. To that body was reserved the power 
of declaring peace and war, of imposing any fresh taxation, and 
of enacting such new laws as might be proposed by the Councils, 
while any of its members that is, any burgher was authorised to 
make from time to time representations to the Councils on matters 
relating to the interests of the State. It was on the revision and 
reissue of the laws of the Republic that future trouble was mainly 
to centre. The burghers continued to 'represent,' but the Councils 
could not be compelled to act or even to consider. Hence the one 
party got the name of ' Repr6sentants ' Reformers would in 
English nearly express their position the other that of ' Nega- 
tifs * or ' Constitutionalists.' 

Thus two years before the birth of de Saussure ended the 
second important act in the long struggle between the patriciate 
and the democracy. The middle of the eighteenth century was for 
Geneva a time of material prosperity. Its Academy attracted 
students from all parts of Europe, its bankers and merchants 
grew wealthy, its watch-trade flourished. The Senate, it is true, 
closely allied to the Church by tradition and family ties, continued, 
though with diminishing zeal and energy, to support the Venerable 
Company in enforcing sumptuary laws and restrictions on private 
life, dress, and amusements of a character generally meticulous 
and often vexatious. On the other hand, it was evasive and 
dilatory in carrying out one of the most important articles of the 
Act of Mediation that which enjoined the publication of a correct 
text of the ancient laws of the Republic. It preferred to keep 
their interpretation in its own hands, and this neglect on its part 
left a legitimate and fruitful ground for future dissensions. Mean- 


time the fatal flaw in the Genevese constitution the Garantie 
the power of the Government to appeal for foreign armed aid 
against its own townspeople was left untouched. 

These political conditions produced frequent contests of a 
shifting and confused character. At one moment the strife was 
between the citizens and burghers the members of the General 
Assembly on one side, and their aristocratic rulers the Senate 
and the Great Council on the other, each party constantly striving 
either to enlarge or to maintain its own powers and privileges. 
Here the Councils had the advantages that they elected one 
another, and that the initiative in bringing forward any new 
proposal rested solely with the Senate. These governing bodies 
thus formed together an exclusive oligarchy ; they were, in fact, 
a large family party, the composition of which is illustrated by 
the constant recurrence of the same names in their lists. At 
another moment the struggle lay between the General Assembly 
and the unenfranchised classes, who were yearly growing in 
numbers and prosperity. The latter kept up a perpetual agitation 
for the removal of their disabilities and for admission to the full 
rights of citizenship. 1 From time to time the two Councils or 
the General Assembly made alternate advances towards these 
outsiders in the hope of strengthening their own hands in the 
retention or pursuit of power. 

The political history of Geneva during de Saussure's lifetime 
consists therefore in a struggle for supremacy between these 
warring elements, the aristocracy the old families of the Upper 
Town, clinging tenaciously to privileges, thanks to which, they 
were convinced, the town had enjoyed at their hands for over two 
hundred years an, on the whole, economical and competent rule ; 
the members of the Assembly, impatient of a control which left 
them with only a shadow of political power ; and a growing class 
of small tradesmen and artisans, men with specific and very 
practical grievances of their own. 

This political and social unrest was going on and spreading up 
to the time when, stimulated by the French Revolution, it broke 
out in the last decade of the eighteenth century in riot and blood- 

1 According to the popular leader, Cornuaud, out of 7000 adult males 5000 
were without votes. See Esaie Gasc, Citoyen de Geneve, sa Politique et to. Theologie 
(Paris, 1876). 


shed, and an end came in the complete sweeping away of the 
historic constitution of Geneva and its temporary annexation to 
the French Republic. 

From time to time in these recurring contentions the opposing 
forces came to blows, and even bloodshed. But the Genevese were 
more handy with the pen than with the sword, and their party 
spirit found a ready and enjoyable vent in the flights of pamphlets, 
both in prose and rhyme, which were hurled from side to side with 
but little intermission. An industrious bibliographer has compiled 
a catalogue of no fewer than 5885, published between 1735 and 1795 ! 

At intervals variety and relief were sought in formal recon- 
ciliations. Church services were held to celebrate the restoration 
of peace, and Geneva gave itself up to processions, garlands, 
banquets, and fine sentiments. It would almost seem as if the 
enforced absence of reasonable amusements had driven the 
Genevese into a habit of holding these frequent political gambols 
and junketings, harmless enough in themselves, but sadly incon- 
gruous, and even dangerous, when they occurred as interludes in 
the midst of strife and civil broils. In short, all parties in the 
State amused themselves by playing with fire until they became 
finally involved and scorched in the great European conflagration. 

The reader may now, I trust, be able to follow the course of 
events in Geneva from the date when de Saussure first took any 
active interest in its political struggles. 

For over twenty years, however, during the whole of de Saus- 
sure's youth, there had been relative peace within the city walls. 
The Government was economical, free from corruption, and, on 
the whole, benevolent. The territory of Geneva offered in the 
condition of its inhabitants a pleasing contrast to the adjacent 
kingdoms. Trade flourished, work was plentiful, and large 
fortunes were accumulated by the Genevese merchants and 
bankers. The growing prosperity led to a gradual relaxation of 
the more austere features of Calvinism its control became less 
arbitrary both in matters of dress and dogma. In 1770 there was 
a two days' debate in the Senate on the sumptuary regulations, 
which ended in their substantial modification. The humours 
and discontents of democracy found a safety-valve in a profusion 
of pamphlets and squibs of a relatively harmless character. It 
was not until the dangerous eloquence of Rousseau sounded in 


their ears that the Councils had resort to an active policy of 
suppression. In 1763 the long -gathering storm broke out with 
the condemnation of the Contrat Social and Emile and the ban- 
ishment of their author. A band of burghers ' represented ' 
that is, protested to the Senate against this 'condemnation' in 
very strong terms. Their action seems to have been both 
politically expedient and legally sound ; the main point they 
urged was that, under an article of the Ecclesiastical Ordinances 
of 1576, the author of any alleged attack on the Established 
Religion could not be condemned unheard or without previous 
admonishment. 1 The Senate firmly ' negatived ' that is, refused 
to receive their protest . Public interest was aroused ; the contest 
grew wordy, pamphlets flew about on all sides the Genevese were 
always ready to rush to the printing-press. The Procureur 
General Jean Robert Tronchin in an able tract, entitled 
Lettres ecrites de la Campagne, stated in moderate terms and 
with much use of historical parallels the case for the Government ; 
Rousseau fulminated on the other side in the far more famous 
Lettres ecrites de la Montague. The popular party, greatly 
encouraged and incited by their eloquent supporter, became 
turbulent. The Senate grew alarmed ; it first threatened to 
resign, and then gave signs of a readiness to compromise. Voltaire, 
who preferred to live among quiet neighbours, seems on this 
occasion to have done his best, but in vain, to convert the tem- 
porary truce into a more permanent arrangement. 

In the following year the quarrel was renewed. The Assembly 
was obstinate in exercising the one power left it that of rejecting 
the candidates for the magistracy nominated by the Councils. 
The latter replied by throwing themselves into the hands of the 
Mediating Powers. There were now three main matters in dispute 
between them and the Assembly. The Councils claimed (1) 
judicial powers, (2) the right to interpret the ancient laws, and 
(3) to refuse to entertain any proposal or remonstrance of the 
citizens. In the absence of any published code the effect of this 
claim was to make the Councils practically supreme and omni- 

1 ' Art. 88. S'il y a quelqu'un qui dogmatise centre la doctrine res9ue qu'il 
soit appele pour conferer avec luy : s'il se range, qu'on le supporte sans scandaie 
ni difame : s'il est opiniatre qu'on 1'admoneste par quelques fois pour essayer 
a le reduire : si on voit enfin qu'il soit metier de plus grande seventh qu'on lui 
interdise la Sainte Gene et qu'on en avertisse le magistrat afin d'y pourvoir.' 


potent. On the other hand, the Assembly could assert its privi- 
lege of rejecting all or any of the candidates for the post of Syndic 
or other office nominated by the two Councils. It did so on more 
than one occasion, and with effect. By the use of this weapon 
the whole administration could be brought to a standstill. The 
power in some measure took the place held in our own consti- 
tution by the financial control of the Lower House. 

The result of the appeal to the Mediating Powers was the 
presentation by them to the Genevese of a projected constitution, 
known as The Pronouncement, which conformed in almost every 
respect to the views of the aristocracy. No efforts were spared to 
ensure its acceptance, yet it was rejected (1st December 1766) by a 
majority of two to one in the General Assembly. 

The French Agent on the spot France kept a Resident in 
permanence at Geneva stormed, but the Swiss cantons, and 
Zurich in particular, were half-hearted, and the Protecting Powers 
hesitated to enforce their edict. Meantime, the rest of Europe 
woke up to what was going on. England, mindful of its many 
links with the citizens of Geneva, expressed an interest in the 
liberties of a small Protestant State. Some of the wiser heads 
among the aristocrats realised the perils of the situation, which 
were urged on them by a large body of citizens in an eloquent 
Remonstrance (16th October 1767). It was clear that the ' Pro- 
nouncement,' put forth by the Mediators, was unacceptable. 
At last the Councils gave way so far as to accept a working com- 
promise, and the Representants smoothed their path by various 
concessions. The following were the principal changes made in 
the constitution by the so-called Edict of Pacification (llth March 
1768). It was agreed that the Assembly's right of rejecting 
candidates for the chief offices should be limited to a single ballot, 
but that in return it should elect every five years half the new 
members necessary to fill vacancies in the Great Council and four 
members of the Senate. It was further enacted that a code 
should be drawn up and printed, including all existing edicts and 
ordinances. A truce having been concluded on these terms, the 
Assembly ordered a Day of Prayer and Humiliation. The citizens 
abounded in virtuous resolves. ' Our prayers,' they proclaimed, 
' are at last granted ; firmly determined to keep our promises, 
let us go into the temple of the Most High to offer Him the 


sacrifice of our hates, our animosities, and our passions.' It was 
a good resolve, and one they often repeated in the following thirty 
years, but, unhappily, never proved capable of carrying into effect. 

But for the survival of Haller's correspondence we should 
know nothing of de Saussure's attitude in the struggle here 
indicated. For local politics he had at this time obviously little 
bent ; all his interests lay in a different direction, and his leisure 
was fully occupied. Born a patrician, his sympathy was naturally 
on the side of the established order, and, with his uncle Bonnet, 
he looked on Rousseau's influence in politics as that of a dangerous 
agitator. But he shows a more or less open mind and a good deal 
of sympathy with some of the ideas of the author of Emile, on 
whose famous letter resigning his citizenship after the condem- 
nation of that work he writes (18th May 1763) : ' You will find 
in it all his sentiments, good and bad, and, above all, his self- 
conceit, developed with much skill, force, and clearness.' 

If in the protracted controversy and disorders of 1766-68, de 
Saussure, happy in his home circle and full of his own affairs, had 
no inch' nation to take any prominent part, he could not refuse 
to act as Haller's correspondent in supplying him with information 
as to the progress of events in Geneva. Haller was in a position 
to exercise at this period considerable influence on the Bernese 
Government, which, of the three Mediating Powers whose inter- 
vention had been called for to settle the domestic troubles of 
Geneva, was the most sympathetic and disinterested. Of the 
others, Zurich was distant and indifferent, while France under the 
' ancien regime ' had small sympathy with a republic, and was 
entirely opposed to any measures likely to extend its franchise 
and render it more democratic. Berne, itself a paternal oligarchy, 
was anxious that Geneva should retain the same form of govern- 
ment, even at the cost of moderate concessions. At this moment 
Albrecht von Haller held a very high position in his own canton, 
and though not a member of the Great Council (or inner cabinet) 
had the ear of its leading politicians . l He was recognised through- 
out Switzerland as the acknowledged champion of religion and 
order against the subversive doctrines of Voltaire and Rousseau. 
He had formed a strong affection for the young botanist who was 
so eager in the pursuit of science, the nephew of his great friend 

1 See chap. xvi. 


Bonnet. He now called on him to act as a confidential corre- 
spondent by keeping him fully informed as to the position of parties 
in Geneva, so that he might be able to bring a more effective 
influence to bear on the Bernese Government, and encourage it in 
its efforts at mediation. 

Many more of Haller's than of de Saussure's letters have come 
down to us . Haller was very persistent in his demand for informa- 
tion. In 1766 he addressed thirty-one letters, the bulk of them 
on politics, to Geneva, and the stream ran on well into the next 
year. However excellent as a companion, he must have been 
somewhat exacting as a correspondent ! Indeed de Saussure 
on one occasion entreats his illustrious friend not to agitate himself 
so much. And Haller himself confesses, ' I rush, perhaps with 
excessive vivacity, into everything I undertake. I am too keen 
on my job. . . . Any disorder infuriates me, every resistance to 
law, every individual who prefers the evil and the false raises 
my wrath.' We learn, moreover, that his letters were not easy 
to decipher ; in 1775 Bonnet complains : ' Your handwriting gets 
worse and worse, the letters are often unfinished ; there are even 
some which your pen skips. I have gone back five or six times 
to the same word without being able to make it out. What makes 
it more annoying for me is that I value highly the least thing that 
comes from your pen.' Bonnet's letters have a frank spontaneous- 
ness and reveal the amiable qualities of a man no one ever 
quarrelled with, and everybody, even Voltaire, who laughed at his 
psycho -physical theories, liked. 

The position of the writers in the correspondence, much of 
which is preserved at Berne, is made fairly clear. De Saussure, 
a member of the patriciate, the grandson of a Syndic, and the 
son of a member of the Two Hundred, belonged by birth and 
association to the ruling caste, and to a large extent accepted its 
point of view. By temper a practical man and a cautious philo- 
sopher, he was naturally averse to rash generalisations and sudden 
changes. The constitution which had given Geneva two hundred 
years of prosperity was in his judgment not a thing lightly to be 
thrown aside or tampered with. To transfer the reins of govern- 
ment from a body composed of men of experience and high 
character to a popular assembly liable to be swayed by sudden 
and ignorant impulses, seemed to him a dangerous experiment. 


The existing Government, whatever its faults, was honest, cheap, 
and fairly efficient, and had brought prosperity to its subjects. 
He did not believe that the mere fact of being born in a State gave 
a man any title to a share in ruling it. Education was, he held, 
an indispensable condition to the exercise of civic rights. He 
had a deep distrust of the vague and subversive doctrines preached 
by Rousseau and embodied in the Lettres ecrites de la Montague 
which had just come out. He dreaded their effect on an excitable 
populace. He believed that behind the proposals of the more 
moderate Representants lurked projects for the overthrow of the 
constitution, that the ultimate aim of the popular leaders was to 
do away altogether with the Councils, and to put all power in the 
hands of the Assembly, acting through the Syndics. He dreaded 
a raw and flighty democracy suddenly taking the place of an honest 
and capable, if obstinate, oligarchy. If I appreciate his position 
rightly, he stood for Reform, not Revolution ; he was the equi- 
valent of an English Whig. 

From Haller's letters we may glean a sufficient idea of what 
was the solution present in his mind. It was to meet the demands 
of the Representants by such moderate concessions as were con- 
sistent with leaving the reins of government in the hands of the 
Councils. Haller, who was a sound Tory, prophesied that bad 
times might be trusted to tranquillise the popular party, and that 
Geneva might hope for twenty years of relative quiet. But he 
shrewdly enough added, in a moment of exceptional frankness 
and foresight, the following warning : 

' It will not last ; your constitution is vicious, your Council [the 
Senate] has too much power given it by the law, together with the 
weakness of not being self-electing. There will always be restless 
spirits ready from time to time to make use of the control of elections 
in order to impair the authority of the Council. There has never been 
an orderly democracy. This is an inevitable misfortune for which 
there is no cure.' 

Haller acknowledged that it was to the interest of the rulers that 
the people should be granted a legal status for putting forward 
their complaints. It would, he thought, serve to prove that the 
magistrates did not aim at tyranny. At one moment he was 
indignant at the evasions of the Senate, and their failure to show 
any sort of readiness for concessions. But he was apparently 


inconsistent when, on the acceptance of the Edict of Pacification 
in March 1768, he accused the patricians of selling the constitution 
in a cheap pursuit of popularity. He appears to have thought that 
in place of repealing minor class restrictions they had given away 
too many constitutional safeguards. He recommends his friend 
to ' Despair with patience ' ; it was a quality he often failed to 
exhibit in his own case. 

De Saussure seems not to have been content to take the advice 
thus given him without some further independent effort. From a 
letter written to him at this time by the Duchesse d'Enville from 
Paris we gather that the young Professor had prepared and sub- 
mitted to the French mediator, M. de Beauteville, a sketch of a 
project of reform. The Duchesse refers rather despondently to 
the difficulty of finding a solution that will satisfy both the 
Government and the people, ' whose interests are so different,' but 
assures him of the goodwill of the Resident. Of the details of de 
Saussure 's proposals no record seems to exist. It is, I think, 
clear that they failed to bear fruit. It may fairly be inferred 
from his subsequent action that they lay in the direction of a 
gradual development in a democratic sense of the constitution as 
opposed to any violent changes which might put control of the 
administration of the State into the hands of the populace. He 
foresaw the trend of events and the trouble that was to come, and 
his remedy for it was an attempt if the crowd was to rule to 
educate it first. Throughout his life popular education was his 
political watchword. 


IN the last chapter we have seen how de Saussure, through his 
correspondence with Haller, was called on to follow and take an 
interest in the political troubles of Geneva in 1767-8. 

On his return from the Grand Tour in January 1769 he found 
the internal situation relatively tranquil. Geneva was about to 
enjoy some thirteen years of material prosperity and social 
brilliance. The young Professor's time was amply occupied. 
He held the double Chair of Physics and Metaphysics, which en- 
tailed lecturing frequently either in French or Latin during many 
months of the year. He was actively engaged in research in 
several branches of physical science. Besides these more serious 
occupations, he was, as the master of the finest house in Geneva, 
and of a country place on the lake shore, called on to play a leading 
part in the society of the Upper Town. When it is added that 
after 1770 he became subject to attacks of a violent form of 
indigestion, and that his health gave cause for serious anxiety, it 
will be clear that no apology is needed for his resolve to keep clear 
of politics, and his consequent refusal of a seat on the Great 
Council ; he had other work in hand. 

The part played by de Saussure as a pioneer of educational 
reform, though his efforts failed to produce any good effect at 
the time, was a remarkable one, and deserves far more attention 
than it has hitherto received. The shape in which his suggestions 
were put forward has been in part accountable for their neglect. 
Had he, in place of drawing up a scheme for the public school of 
his own city, embodied them in a treatise or volume addressed to 
the European public, they would not have been overlooked in the 
subsequent literature of the subject. Popular education held a 
place, beside the mountains and geology, as one of the chief and 
most constant interests in de Saussure's life. The warmth, both 



of feeling and of expression, shown in his response to the criticisms 
showered on his ' Project ' by his colleagues of the Academy 
sufficiently indicates how deeply he was in earnest. Conscious 
of the social ferment which preceded the French Revolution, this 
Genevese patrician was firmly convinced that the first necessity 
for the orderly development of a democratic State was the civilisa- 
tion through education of the demos. In the principles laid down 
and the practical details set out in his proposals we shall find that 
he often struck a surprisingly modern note. Many of them 
have had to wait more than a hundred years for their practical 
application. Some are still waiting at any rate, in this country. 
If in his own lifetime his arguments fell on deaf ears, they were 
destined, repeated by his talented daughter, to attract and impress 
the critics, both French and Swiss, of succeeding generations. 

De Saussure on his return from Italy in August 1773, with 
repaired health and renewed energies, resolved to make use 
of them, not only in the fulfilment of his professorial duties and 
the prosecution of his scientific studies, but in such action for the 
advancement of the public welfare as lay to his hand. His 
appointment as Rector of the Academy (1774-76) gave him an 
opportunity to bring forward proposals on a matter he had long 
had at heart, the reform of the system of education in the College. 

Eleven years previously he had taken education as the subject 
of his inaugural lecture as a Professor, and had denounced the 
undue predominance given to the dead languages . He now devoted 
his energies to a vigorous effort to reconstruct the whole scheme 
of instruction in the College. This was, in fact, a public school for 
the children between the ages of six and fourteen of the upper 
classes, and de Saussure 's own experience of it had been such that 
he refused to send his sons to be educated there. They were brought 
up at home, and had for a time for their tutor an uncle of the 
historian, Merle d'Aubign6. He now proposed to use the influence 
and position he had acquired in an endeavour to remodel the school 
system. He was ready to fight the battle for which his inaugural 
lecture had been only the preliminary skirmish. His attack was 
direct and vigorous. 

' There is,' he wrote, ' a father of a family who, in common with 
many others, feels it his duty to refuse to send his children to the 
College so long as it remains in the state in which ours now is, but who 


would feel he was giving them the best education possible in sending 
them were the College reformed on the principles which form the 
base of the present proposal.' 1 

De Saussure had small sympathy with the view that looks 
on education not as a method for forming a mind, but as a means 
of making a livelihood. In a State where the majority rule, ought, 
he asked, that majority to be ignorant ? Rousseau's theory of 
the rights of man had little charm for his ears. He held that men 
should be taught how to use a vote before they were trusted with 
one . To hand over political control to an uneducated crowd went, he 
urged , against common sense . He and his circle of the Upper Town 
the governing classes looked on the author of the Lettres ecrites 
de la Montagne as in local politics a disturber of his city's peace. 
Yet on educational topics de Saussure was affected by the eloquence 
and adopted not a few of the suggestions of Emile. In elementary 
education he advocated a system of object-lessons such as he had 
found serve with his own children ; he proposed to teach natural 
science with the aid of specimens suited to the age of the learner, 
to link and give life to history and geography by the aid of 
maps and pictures, to supply models to illustrate lessons in the 
industrial arts. For older pupils he recommended a mixture 
of scientific teaching and classical literature. He claimed 
for an association in secondary instruction between letters and 
science. The children destined to manufactures and com- 
merce the greater proportion of the townspeople got, he 
held, under the existing system little advantage from their school 

Early in 1774 he brought out his Projet de Reforme pour le 
College de Geneve. In a short preface he tells us that it was the 
result of a series of discussions in a Literary Society to which 
he belonged, and that it embodied the view of many of its members. 
He adds, surely superfluously, to the avowal of the public purpose 
he has at heart a vigorous assertion that he has no personal end to 
serve, since it would give him far less trouble to bring up his own 
children privately than to undertake the thorny task of an educa- 
tional reformer. 

The first sentences of the pamphlet sufficiently indicate the 

1 Avcrtissement to the Projet de Reforme pour le College de Geneve. 


social unrest of Geneva at that date, and the political purpose 
that was underlying de Saussure's action. He writes : 

' If there is a State that more than others needs to attend to educa- 
tion, it is that in which the opinions and the way of living of a con- 
siderable portion of its members are opposed to the spirit of its Govern- 
ment. Such an opposition must always produce discontents, public 
and private quarrels, general distrust, difficulties and shocks dangerous 
to the State ; and it is to education alone that we can look for the removal 
of these abuses. In a Republic such as ours, therefore, an education 
is called for which will inspire in the young of all classes the love of 
country, the sense of common interests, and that spirit of equality 
which the character of our Government implies and demands.' 

He goes on to insist on the advantages a public school has in 
this and other respects over home education. The College, he 
admits, was originally founded as a seminary for ecclesiastics and 
civil servants ; but the time has come, he urges, when it should be 
converted to more general uses. He points out unsparingly the 
defects of a system that had driven from the College all the 
children whose parents could afford to give them a better education. 
The middle -class pupils, he declares, 

' get nothing but some notions, and those imperfect, of religion ; the 
etymology of a few words derived from Greek or Latin, and some 
scattered scraps of history and mythology ; those of the upper class, for 
whom the curriculum was planned, bring nothing away but some bad 
Latin and the rudiments of Greek. For all other branches of knowledge 
they have, on leaving the College, to take them up at their A B C as 
if they had never heard them mentioned.' 

De Saussure proceeds to set out in detail his scheme of in- 
struction. It is interesting to note that he cites as a model for 
imitation Zurich, celebrated at the present day for having some 
of the best-provided primary schools, attended by all classes, in 
Europe. The daily school-hours were not to exceed six ; of 
these two were to be given to the dead languages, and two to 
Science and History, two to Moral Instruction (under which 
were included Christian doctrine and French poetry !). De 
Saussure subsequently cut down Morals to one hour. To suit 
parents who did not want classics, the hours for Latin and Greek 
were to be so arranged that the pupils could easily absent them- 
selves. For the rest, we find many sensible and essentially modern 


recommendations. Classes on the same subject are not to be 
too long, the lessons are as far as possible to be illustrated, the 
relations of history and geography are to be insisted on, in classical 
studies composition is in the upper forms to be limited in Latin 
and altogether suppressed in Greek, while more attention is to be 
given to translations. De Saussure ends with an earnest appeal 
which indicates a mind alive to the dangers looming in the near 
future. ' Our State is but a little island situated between broad, 
deep, and rapid currents, and our internal divisions, if radical and 
frequent, may open . . . but I turn my eyes from this terrifying 
prospect.' Therefore, he urges, let all recognise that a public and 
common education is the most effectual means to ensure the 
safety of the Republic. 

De Saussure 's forcible utterance for the moment caught the 
public ear, and was eagerly discussed by partisans on both sides ; 
Condorcet wrote to him from Paris, sending him several pages 
of sympathetic comment. But at Geneva the novelty of the 
ideas seems to have created some misunderstanding and much 
criticism. In patrician circles they excited warm hostility. As 
has often been the case elsewhere, educational progress was 
hindered by political prejudices. The clerics and the class they 
influenced the Negatives of the Upper Town were violent in 
their opposition. De Saussure 's colleague, Bertrand, who as a 
mathematician might have been expected to take a more liberal 
view, proved a leading opponent. He quoted an Ordinance 
according to which ' the College was founded to educate young 
men for the Ministry and Magistracy,' and urged that for 
' lawyers and theologians, to whom he would add doctors,' any 
course of instruction not exclusively classical was ill-suited ! 
If any teaching for artists and artisans was needed, it must, he 
contended, be given in a wholly separate institution. The public 
became interested and began to take sides. Tracts and squibs, 
after the Genevese fashion, filled the air, while a mock protest 
from the women of Geneva, complaining that they would no 
longer be fit companions for their over-educated husbands, amused 
the^town. 1 On the other hand, the Representants, the heads 
of the popular party, warmly supported the Projet. Jacques 

1 There were no primary public schools for girls at Geneva before 1804, and 
no secondary schools before 1836. 


Frai^ois Deluc (the father of Jean Antoine, the meteorologist, and 
one of the climbers of the Buet) took the lead at the head of a 
deputation of fifty in presenting an address of thanks to its author. 
Another deputation, also from the Natifs, was led by the Alpine 
enthusiast Bourrit. The dispute had become political. De 
Saussure was regarded by his own party as more or less of a renegade . 
But in the Radical camp he was hailed with enthusiasm. He 
delighted his unenfranchised visitors by greeting them as fellow- 
citizens. D'lvernois, a Genevese democrat, who spent ten years 
in exile in England, where he was knighted, writes in the warmest 
terms of de Saussure 's efforts to break down social prejudices and 
barriers and to promote close and friendly relations between all 
classes in the State. In these efforts he was, d'lvernois tells us, 
ably seconded by young Lord Mahon, who did his best to encourage 
games and manly exercises among the youth of the aristocracy, 
who appear to have fallen into sadly effeminate habits. 1 

Meantime, de Saussure was surprised, and not a little indignant, 
at the hostile attitude of many of his friends and colleagues. He 
sent out an answer to objectors, Eclaircissements sur le Projet de 
Reforme pour le College de Geneve. He had, it is clear, been accused 
of scheming, on the one hand, for his own, the leisured class ; on the 
other, of attempting to substitute for solid learning a culture exten- 
sive but superficial ; to abolish asound liberal and classical education 
in favour of an inadequate technical one. He retaliated warmly : 

' Even in this century, called " The Century of Facts," it is phrases 
that govern. Society is divided into little cabals, each of which has 
its catchword. That which rallies the greatest number is any attack 
on " the upper class " les Gens du Monde. At its sound all who 
count as their chief quality misanthropy, all the envious, gather and 
are ready to tear in pieces those thus presented to them.' 

He set aside brusquely an alternative proposal for separate 
technical schools for the working-man. He refuted vehemently 
the contention of those who looked on the education of the people 
as dangerous to society. He treated with scorn the economical 
objectors who were frightened at the probable cost of carrying 
out his scheme. The world is divided into two sections those 
whose minds instinctively turn first to the objections to any change 

1 See Tableau historique et politique des Revolutions de Geneve dans le dix- 
huitieme Siede (Geneva, 1782), and p. 318. 


and those who are ready to appreciate fairly the arguments on 
both sides. De Saussure was born and bred a Negative, but in 
intellect he showed himself very much the contrary. 

De Saussure was obviously before his time, while the Vener- 
able Company was as hopelessly conservative as most clerical 
Convocations. Moreover, the tincture in de Saussure's eloquence 
of the doctrines of the recently condemned Emile was not likely 
to recommend his proposals to its friendly consideration. The 
principles de Saussure propounded, that a nation gets the Govern- 
ment it deserves, that there is no tyranny so vicious as that of an 
ignorant democracy, that liberty without law spells licence, might 
be sound, but his application of them was well outside the scope 
of the Genevese patricians' vision. Since their oligarchy was 
a Republic in name, they were satisfied to drive on in the old track 
till the events of the last decade of the eighteenth century threw 
them into the ditch. 

What would appear to be the habitual result of educational 
discussions followed. De Saussure's proposals were referred to a 
committee. In due course the committee made some practical 
suggestions towards carrying them out ; it framed a scheme 
for a system of secondary education. This would have involved 
the postponement of classical and literary instruction to advanced 
classes consisting of youths whose abilities gave promise that 
they would be able to profit by it. The proposals were formally 
referred back for further consideration and practically shelved. 

Some changes for the better were made in 1790, but it 
was not till sixty-two years later that the education of the 
College was, after continual contests, reformed on modern lines. 
Latin and Greek were then made optional subjects. Grammar 
was to be taught through the French language. Geography 
and history were given an important place. Modern languages, 
arithmetic, practical geometry, and drawing were dealt with in 
special classes. ' Thus,' writes the historian of the College, 
' the adoption of the law of 1836 realised in part the proposals 
made by de Saussure in 1774, which the Councils of the revolu- 
tionary epoch had attempted to carry out in an exaggerated 
shape, and which the Society of Arts had in 1821 tried without 
success to revive in their original form.' The variations from de 
Saussure's scheme lay chiefly in the absence of any recognition of 


natural science and in the relegation of moral or religious teaching 
to a comparatively secondary place. 

We have been led on in order to complete the story of de 
Saussure's educational activity. I return to 1774 to record the 
fact that he was in that year proposed by Lord Mahon and elected 
a member of a newly founded English Club, which met every 
Saturday for discussions carried on in our language. 

Next year (1775), undeterred by his repulse, de Saussure again 
attacked the education in vogue. In his capacity of Rector he 
gave at the Annual ' Promotions,' or prize-day of the College, a 
lecture ' On the Neglect of Athletics and the pampered Bringing -up 
of the Young.' 1 He wrote to Haller that he had also furnished a 
programme of the proceedings in verse ! This has not survived. 
The only other occasion on which there is any record of his having 
yielded to the Genevese habit of rhyming is in some playful lines 
written in the previous year (1774) for his elder son's seventh 
birthday. They prove him a wise father, if but an indifferent poet. 

At this date de Saussure was acting as Curator of the Town 
Library, and we find him thanking Lord Stanhope for a hand- 
some present of books. Throughout his career he was con- 
tinually being called on to take up posts demanding a certain 
amount of practical ability and sacrifice of time, and he seems 
readily to have responded to the claims made on him. 

Thwarted in his effort to improve and enlarge at its source the 
public education of Geneva, de Saussure turned his mind and 
energy to a more indirect method which might serve the double 
object of bringing the different classes and avocations, men of 
science and artists, employers and workmen, into closer relation, 
and at the same time of raising the general intellectual and artistic 
level. He conceived the plan of a popular Society of Arts, that 
should combine the efforts of the more enlightened members of 
every class in the community in a general endeavour to set before 
their fellows a high standard in all things, and more particularly to 
promote the application of science to industry, and of art to 
manufactures and daily lif e . He was fortunate in securing at the 

1 Rousseau, in his Lettre ct d'Alembert, insists on this defect in the training 
of the youth of Geneva. ' Boys are brought up like women : they are guarded 
from the sun, the wind, the rain, and dust, so that they lose all power of endur- 
ance. They are forbidden any exercise, etc.' (See also d'lvernois, Revolutions 
de Qen&ve.) 


start the support and sympathy of an intelligent watchmaker, 
Louis Faizan, who has been held by some to share with him the 
credit of the Society's foundation. The project was, no doubt, 
fully discussed in the hall or on the terrace of de Saussure's town- 
house overlooking the Corraterie, before, in April 1776, a solemn 
assembly of three hundred persons was held in the ' Salle du 
Magnifique Conseil des Deux Cents,' by the permission of Messieurs 
les Syndics, in order to found the new ' Societe des Arts.' The next 
step was to form committees. One was charged with the crafts 
of the watchmakers and jewellers and silversmiths and the like, 
another with rural and domestic economy and their branches, 
including machinery. Three lecturers were appointed, with the 
title of demonstrators. A number of prizes, medals of the sub- 
stantial value of twenty louis, were offered for essays on subjects, 
all practical but very diverse for instance, ' How to Improve the 
Fertility of the Genevese Territory ' ; ' How best to Employ 
Paupers, should a Workhouse be established ' ; ' How to Improve 
the Manufacture of Steel ' ; ' For an Elementary Work on Watch- 
making.' ' Virtue,' in the Roman sense of the word, bravery 
resulting in the saving of human life, was also rewarded in the 
case of rescues from fire or drowning. 

De Saussure, who from the start threw himself with all his 
energy into the undertaking, was the first President of the Society. 
He looked forward to the practical results to be obtained in many 
directions by applying scientific knowledge to industry and the 
daily affairs of life. But it was also his particular desire to pro- 
mote an artistic and imaginative sense among his neighbours in 
Geneva. The fine arts had too long, he thought, lain under the ban 
of Calvinism ; the town record was rich in theologians and men 
of science, but poor in painters and poets. 

The Society had some years of moderately successful existence 
before it fell under the blight of the political reaction of 1781-2. 
Under the restrictions enforced by the victorious patricians, its 
meetings were for a time forbidden, but after an interval, and 
when political passions had to some extent subsided, de Saussure, 
naturally unwilling to see his efforts brought to nothing, approached 
the Government, and in 1786 the Society was reconstituted under 
its protection on a new basis, and granted an official home, where 
it could extend its schools of design. De Saussure did not content 


himself with securing official support. His social and practical 
spirit was shown not only in inviting ladies to become patronesses 
and attend the meetings, but also in arranging for more friendly 
and informal gatherings, which were cheered by tea and coffee and 
enlightened by the first appearance of the once famous Argand lamp. 

In the next year (1787) the original Journal de Geneve made 
its appearance as the organ of the Society. It announced as its 
object the publication of whatever local news might be useful to its 
readers. Births, deaths, and marriages, elections, new laws and 
regulations, prices in the market, fill its columns. There is a 
whole front page (here we note the hand of de Saussure) of meteoro- 
logical observations. The first number appeared on the day of his 
return to Chamonix from Mont Blanc ; the second contained a 
short account of his ascent. In the following issues we find it 
acting as the Journal of the ' Societe des Arts ' in the stricter sense 
of the word, reporting its proceedings and the papers read before 
it. It died after five years, in the troublous days of the Revolution, 
to be definitely born again as a newspaper in the modern sense in 
1830. It has flourished ever since, and is now one of the best 
daily papers on the Continent. 

The 'Societe des Arts' survived and still prospers. The 
story of its achievements and the list of its possessions, its 
benefactors, and its officers have been recently issued in a 
handsome volume. 1 Its rooms contain considerable collections, 
among which is the official portrait of de Saussure, painted a few 
years before his death by Saint-Ours. 

We have transgressed chronological order in order to complete 
the story of de Saussure's connection with the ' Societ6 des Arts ' 
and the Journal de Geneve. 

In 1775 health was again a matter of anxiety with de 
Saussure, and he was prescribed for by Dr. Tronchin. 

' One word more,' the genial doctor writes, ' to you whose health 
is so precious to us. Use moderation in drugs. Moderate also your 
activity and your zeal in all you undertake. Add to your virtues that 
of bearing contradiction, even where you have least reason to expect 
it. This virtue is far more necessary in republics than in monarchies ; 
it is the safeguard of peace of soul and tranquillity of mind conditions 
which perhaps are not held at their proper value in republics.' 

1 La Sociiti des Arts et see Collections, par J. Crosnier (Geneva, 1910). 


This sound advice did not lead to any restriction in the excursions 
that de Saussure undertook in the following year in the interest 
of his scientific studies. In 1776, in the early summer, he accom- 
panied his friend Sir William Hamilton to Chamonix. In 
August he made another dash to Chamonix and climbed the Buet, 
and later took his wife, children, and servants with him for an 
extensive family tour through southern France in a berlin with 
four horses. He went up the Puy de Dome on 13th October ; 
drove on through the hills of Auvergne to Nimes, Avignon, Vaucluse, 
Orange, and Grenoble. On the 12th November he was at Lyons, 
whence the party made another round by Dijon, Semur, Besan9on, 
and Pontarlier. In the Jura they suffered from the weather, 
which was not surprising, since they did not return to Genthod till 
30th November. 

Sir William Hamilton in the same year writes to de Saussure 
from Paris to report a death in his family. His comments indicate 
the philosophic mind he was later in life to have occasion to 
exhibit : 

' As for me, I take events for which there is no remedy as best 
I can, and I confess that since I have learnt to look on nature as a 
whole, and discovered that what we call ancient is comparatively 
very modern, and that the longest life of man is little more than that 
of the insect which is born in the morning and dies in the evening, the 
saddest events no longer produce the same effect on me. I shall 
fight vigorously to ward off misfortune ; but when there is no 
remedy one must console oneself. I enjoy as well as I can the present 

At the end of the year we find him proposing de Saussure 
for the Fellowship of the Royal Society. He writes that he has 
no doubt de Saussure will be elected without any opposition. 
For some technical reason different ones are alleged in the cor- 
respondence either lack of a seconder with personal knowledge, 
or that de Saussure had not contributed a paper to the Transactions 
of the Society nothing came of the proposal at the time. It was 
not till 1788, after de Saussure had established a popular reputation 
by his ascent of Mont Blanc, that his scientific claims were re- 
cognised. The delay contrasts oddly with the Society's relative 
eagerness to receive de Saussure 's far less distinguished townsman, 



Jean Antoine Deluc. But Deluc was on the spot and ' Reader 
to the Queen ' ! 

In July 1777 de Saussure was called on by the Emperor 
Joseph n. of Austria, who passed through Geneva on his way 
home from Paris. The prospect of receiving an imperial guest had 
greatly fluttered the local authorities. They appointed a Com- 
mittee of Reception ; they arranged for his lodging in the house of 
a wealthy citizen, and resolved to send a distinguished and discreet 
deputation to welcome him. On the 15th July the Register of the 
Senate records that the Count de Falkenstein (the Emperor's 
incognito) had arrived on the previous day at the hotel at 
S6cheron, that two of the Syndics had gone there and, through 
one of the Emperor's bankers, had conveyed a message that they 
desired to pay their respects to him, but that the Emperor had 
replied that while thanking them he must decline all formal and 
complimentary visits. The Syndics further reported that the 
Emperor had that morning driven into Geneva in a hired carriage, 
visited the Public Library and M. de Saussure's cabinet, and 
returned by boat, and that he proposed to leave next day. 

The dry official record can be supplemented by letters of the 
date . They tell us that the Emperor had ordered rooms at the Hotel 
des Balances in the town, but changed his intention on finding the 
crowd that had collected, and drove on to the inn at Secheron, 1 which 
had the advantage of being outside the gates. Even at Secheron 
the road and adjoining terraces that commanded any view of his 
apartment were thronged with a crowd in carriages and on foot. 

De Saussure's friend, Trembley, describes the Emperor's 
appearance : 

' I saw the Emperor ; he has, in my opinion, a mediocre figure 
which indicates a mediocre man. He seemed somewhat cold and un- 
appreciative. He would not see our Syndics. We must find out 
what M. de Saussure, who had a talk with him, thinks of him.' 

Unfortunately, de Saussure's impression is not on record, but we 
find an account a remarkable one for a child of eleven in his 
daughter Albertine's diary : 

' At last he has come ! He is a little man, well made, with a some- 
what lofty air, a small face, a large aquiline nose, and extraordinarily 

1 This was the inn where Byron and Shelley afterwards stayed. Turner 
made a drawing of Geneva and the lake from a spot near it. 


lively, clear blue eyes. He was dressed extremely simply in a short 
brown coat of Silesian cloth and a white waistcoat and trousers. He 
looked for a long time at M. Bourrit's pictures of the glaciers. . . . 
Papa showed him his museum and electrical machine, to which he 
did not give much attention. On leaving he paid fine compliments to 
several ladies who had gathered on the great staircase to see him pass.' 

De Saussure had been warned that the Emperor might ask 
to be taken to the glaciers, and Bourrit had written him a letter 
imploring that the job of acting as local cicerone might, if not 
wanted by de Saussure, be passed on to the ' Historiographer of 
the Alps.' But the Emperor was in a hurry, and there was no 
question of a trip to Chamonix. 

Next day he set out on the road to Lausanne and Berne. 
We owe to Bonnet, who lived not far from Ferney, an amusing, 
and, for his kindly bent, somewhat malicious, account of what 
happened : 

* The Emperor,' he writes, ' left Secheron between four and five 
in the afternoon ; he passed through Ferney like an arrow. The old 
gentleman [Voltaire], with all his household in full dress, was waiting 
for him [at the cross-roads where the road to Ferney branches off from 
the Route de Suisse]. He had got up early and worn his best wig 
since eight o'clock in the morning, made great preparations for a 
dinner, and pushed his attention to the sovereign so far as to have all 
the stones cleared off the road to his house that is for more than 
half a league. Nevertheless, the traveller gave him the mortification 
of not halting for a single instant, and even when the postilion indi- 
cated Ferney, the Emperor only shouted twice over, "Fouette, cocher ! " 
It is clear from all his behaviour that he intended to mortify the old 
pamphleteer, who, I assure you, felt it deeply.' 

Bonnet's version of the story was not universally accepted. 
Voltaire, at any rate, had another tale to tell. He asserted that 
two men leapt on the steps of the Emperor's carriage and asked 
him if he was not going to see Voltaire, and that Joseph n., irritated 
at the impertinence, gave the order to drive on ; that his conduct, 
therefore, was the result not of any deliberate resolve, but of a 
sudden pique. Another version is that the Emperor's mother, 
the Empress Maria Theresa, had instructed her son to avoid 
Voltaire and visit Haller. 

So the Emperor went on his way to call on Haller, then almost 
on his death-bed at Berne. On his return to Vienna he sent to 


the invalid ' hampers of the finest wine and quinine,' but they 
arrived too late, for Haller died in December. Joseph n. bought 
his library, with many of his manuscripts, and presented them to 
the University of Pavia. They are now stored in the Biblioteca 
Ambrosiana at Milan. 

A few days later de Saussure found himself at the Baths of 
Loeche, at the foot of the Gemmi, whence he wrote to his wife a 
lively description of the bathers. He was fortunate in being wel- 
comed by the talented Dutchwoman married to a Neuchatelois, 
Madame de Charriere, to whom Saintc-Beuve has dedicated 
many pages. 1 She had already been a guest at the house in the 
Rue de la Cit6, where her presence at a dinner party is recorded in 
Albertine's diary. 

De Saussure anticipates and confirms the verdict of the great 
critic on the author of Caliste and the Lettres Neuchateloises. 
He speaks warmly of her ' gaiety and real wit,' and takes 
credit to himself with his wife for resisting her invitation 
to prolong his stay. In the woman who wrote, ' Sitting at 
my window and looking out on the lake, I thank you, moun- 
tains, snow, and sun, for all the pleasure you give me,' he 
must have found a congenial spirit. She introduced him to 
the Assembly, where the beauties of Lausanne outshone the 
Valaisannes, who wore their local costume. De Saussure 
writes : 

' If not very elegant, it was all very singular ; the most singular 
thing is to see them all en chemise, men and women, in the same bath. 
It is most entertaining, when this circle of people has been formed, to 
witness new arrivals make their entry and their bows in this comical 

The custom survived till the middle of the last century, when on 
the entry of English visitors the bathers were wont to strike up 
' God Save the Queen ! ' De Saussure dined and supped with 
Madame de Charriere, who held him in conversation, much to the 
disappointment of the ladies from Lausanne, who were eager for a 
card party. 

The year 1779 was marked by the death of de Saussure 's 
second brother-in-law, Turrettini, a loss by which the whole family 

1 See Sainte-Beuve, Portraits Litiiraires, vol. Hi., and Portraits de Femmes, and 
Sayoua, Le dix-huilitme Sietle a VEtranger, vol. ii. 


was very much affected. De Saussure was now left the only man 
in the villa at Genthod. At the end of October an interesting 
visitor presented himself there. Goethe, who was travelling with a 
German prince on his way to Italy, arrived at Geneva, and at once 
called on de Saussure to ask for advice on the possibility so late hi 
the year of an Alpine tour. Encouraged to risk a visit to the 
glaciers, he set out for Chamonix and the Mer de Glace, crossed 
the Col de Balme to Martigny, and then, favoured by an excep- 
tional season, ventured up the Rhone valley to the Furka and 
St. Gotthard, arriving at the hospice on the latter on 15th 

Goethe's letters on his Alpine tour are among the signs of the 
arrival of a new phase in the attitude of travellers towards 
mountain scenery. During the previous century their records 
had been mostly topographical, matter-of-fact observations of 
natural features, or accounts of the difficulties and incidents of 
the road. It had been the fashion to look on nature with curious 
rather than with artistic eyes. In de Saussure 's Voyages the 
former point of view still predominates, though from time to 
time he yields to more personal and romantic impressions. But 
these are rather the exception than the rule. Too often he 
neglects to make any attempt to bring before his readers' eyes 
the distinctive features of the scenery he passes through. For 
instance, we find in his pages no mention of two of the finest 
landscapes in the Alps the glorious view of Mont Blanc from 
the head of Val d'Aosta or that of the Jungfrau from the 
Wengern Alp. The beauty of the Lake of Lucerne gets no 
tribute from his pen. He seems to take pains to justify his 
own confession that he has no natural talent or taste for fine 
writing. It requires some very exceptional occasion to draw 
from him the eloquence of his descriptions of the view from 
the Crammont, or of his last sunset on the Col du Geant. 

In Goethe's case the poet's mind and pen dwell not only on 
the permanent outline of the landscape before him, but on its 
shifting aspects under the changes of cloud and sunshine, of dawn 
and twilight. He sets himself down to compose a picture of 
passing effects. Such are the descriptions of the first glimpse 
of Mont Blanc seen in the gloaming on issuing from the defile 
of Les Montets, and of the peaks and glaciers appearing 


between two cloud -belts from the Col de Balme. I quote the 
former : 

* It grew darker as we drew near and at last entered the Vale of 
Chamonix. Only the great masses were visible. The stars shone out 
one by one, and we noticed over the summits of the range immediately 
in front of us a light that we could not account for. Clear without 
sparkle, like the Milky Way, but denser, almost like the Pleiades only 
larger, it held us long in wonderment, until at last, as we changed our 
position, like a pyramid illumined by an internal mysterious light 
that may best be compared to that of a glow-worm, it rose supreme 
over all the other mountains and we recognised Mont Blanc. 

' The scene was of extraordinary beauty ; since the mountain 
shone not with the same vivid light as the stars that surrounded it, 
but as a broad, single mass which appeared to the eyes to belong to 
a higher sphere ; it was difficult for the mind to realise that it had 
its roots in the earth.' 

Goethe was doubtless the most famous of the early visitors to 
Chamonix, but he was only one of a number, many of whom shared 
his appreciation of mountain scenery. Our countryman, Mr. 
Brand, who was tutor to Sir James Graham, the father of the 
statesman, may be taken as a typical specimen of the average 
traveller of his day. Writing in 1786, he tells his sister : 

' During the whole summer one is sure to find Englishmen here 
[that is, on the road to Chamonix] at every stage, some with their 
wives and daughters, others with their mistresses, but the most 
part like ourselves, raw youth and sedater manhood.' 

In the previous year there had been fifteen hundred ' visitors 
to the glaciers.' Mr. Brand's enthusiasm for Alpine scenery is not 
less than the poet's, if it is less eloquently expressed. Here is his 
description of the view from Sallanches : 

' We returned to our inn just as the moon was rising behind the 
chain of Mont Blanc. Sometimes it was entirely eclipsed by one of 
those pyramidal summits which they call Aiguilles or Needles, at 
other times the sharp point of an aiguille passed across its surface, 
and the outline was marked with all the exactness of one of Mr. 
Harrington's profiles. Once we saw only two small points of the 
moon's disk at about two inches asunder, and they shone with a 
brilliant light like two new splendid planets, till at length she rose 


above the peaks and tinged the summits of Mont Blanc (which was now 
uncovered) with a beautiful silver tint reflected by some thin, vapoury 
clouds that hovered in the atmosphere above. Among the rich 
pictures which moonlight affords, I never saw any to equal this. We 
hardly knew how to leave it.' 

I might quote further from Mr. Brand's manuscript journal. 
His taste for scenery is not confined to romantic incidents, such as 
moonlight on Mont Blanc. He fully appreciates and describes 
the noble gorges of the lower Val d'Aosta and the beauties of 
the descent into Italy. 

Next year de Saussure's first family excursion to Chamonix 
was undertaken with his wife, his three children, and an English 
lady, a Miss Craft. 1 It was quite an expedition. The party drove 
in three carriages to Sallanches, where twenty -four mules were 
ordered to be in readiness. Theodore and his mother went to 
the Montenvers, and de Saussure took the boy (aged thirteen) for 
a walk on the Mer de Glace, and records that ' he is pleased with 
the quickness and force he shows in his first lesson in mountain- 

De Saussure left the party at Sallanches on the way back, and, 
despite feeling out of sorts, went up to sleep at some chalets on the 
west side of the Col de Voza above Bionnassay. On the following 
morning he got as far as the Mont Lachat (6937 feet), the grassy 
spur below the Aiguille du Gouter. There he was taken ill with a 
serious feverish attack which cut short his mountaineering for 
the season. For the moment he turned to an endeavour to com- 
plete his book on hygrometry, but by September found himself 
well enough to set out with his friend M. A. Pictet for a tour in 
North Italy and along the Riviera, the principal object of which 
was to embark on a new series of investigations. 

De Saussure was a precursor in an inquiry which has since been 
pursued with great assiduity, that into the temperature of the sea at 
various depths . For this purpose he devised a form of thermometer, 
capable of resisting subaqueous pressure, which is still in use. 2 Of 

1 Miss Craft went on to Montpellier with an introduction from de Saussure 
to his sister, and is mentioned in Judith de Saussure's letters as preferring a 
livelier circle to that in which she lived. 

8 The scientific value of the work accomplished is dealt with separately by 
Dr. H. R. Mill on pp. 462-5. 


the details of the tour we have some account in the Voyages. 
This can be supplemented by extracts from de Saussure's letters 
home and the unpublished diary of his companion. In his first 
note, written to his wife from his house in the Rue de la Cit6 (he 
had left her at Genthod), he takes his leave for a five weeks' tour 
with as much emotion as if he were starting for the North Pole. 
His reference to the tears of the parting scene help us to under- 
stand why on other occasions he was apt to slip away at dawn, or 
even earlier. Three years later, he records that he left home for a 
visit to the Gries and the St. Gotthard at 4.22 A.M., 'concealing 
from my wife and children my start, which always causes them 
acute distress and by its anticipation poisons our last moments.' 
He seldom set out on any considerable expedition without resort- 
ing to some similar subterfuge. Madame de Saussure's ' sensi- 
bility ' was obviously, even for that date, above the average. 
Good as well as bad news was a trial to her nerves. It is recorded 
that on one occasion her sister, Madame Tronchin, thought it well 
to break to her the fact of her wanderer's return rather than to 
let it be announced by a servant. 

The chief interest of de Saussure's companion's diary lies in the 
picture it gives of the difficulties of post -travel in a wet autumn. 
Again and again, first in the Maurienne and then on the plain of 
Piedmont, the travellers had to take their carriage to pieces and 
pack it on mules, or to cross flooded rivers in ferry-boats. An 
enforced halt at Vercelli gave de Saussure opportunity to attempt 
a sketch. The object which interested him was the beautiful out- 
line of Monte Rosa. But it was not till nine years later that he 
first made a closer acquaintance with the rival of Mont Blanc. At 
Milan de Saussure went to the opera, and reports that the ladies 
were beautiful, but seemed dull. At Genoa he and Pictet hired a 
boat and, sailing eastward, took soundings and temperatures of 
the sea-bottom off Porto Fino, despite their sufferings from sea- 
sickness. These seem to have affected de Saussure's temper. On 
his return he wrote home : 

4 1 am worn out with boredom and visits, first a certain Dr. Prato- 
lungo, longer in his calls than the meadow from which he takes his 
name, and next some dear fellow-countrymen, very good people, but 
thinking one can have nothing better to do than entertain them. 
Then Pictet has a cold, so I have to go alone to pay return calls, and I 


find Madame de la Rue at home, and she insists on showing me her 
apartment, her pictures, her cat, and her dogs, and all with a flow of 
words and a shrill voice which made me feel sea-sick over again. Im- 
patient to get back and write to you I find the house full of people : 
but at last I am left free.' 

De Saussure had a fall on the marble staircase of his hotel 
and hurt his leg. Bad weather came to add to his vexations . The 
long-suffering of his companion, who would have preferred to wait 
for sunshine, was a further trial. ' Pictet puts up with anything, 
nothing makes him impatient ; his patience makes me impatient.' 
However, de Saussure had his way, and the travellers rode off in 
rain and waterproofs and were at once rewarded by the return of 
sunshine . 

At this date, before the road was made, a trip along the Riviera 
di Ponente was no light matter even in fine weather. This is how 
de Saussure prefaces his account of the journey : r 

' Few travellers make the transit by land ; it is only practicable 
on foot or on horseback, and even on horseback it is dangerous in many 
places, where the only track is a narrow and slippery ledge cut in 
terraces overhanging the sea.' [Voyages, 1355.] 

Dante's reference to the villainous character of the old horse - 
track has often been quoted. But it is perhaps not generally 
realised that the poet's description held good till the beginning of 
the nineteenth century, when the great road Napoleon had begun 
was at last finished. Li 1780 the carriage road ceased a few miles 
beyond Genoa. The travellers accordingly started on horseback, 
leaving their luggage to follow them by sea in a felucca. They 
were often forced to dismount and lead their horses, the party 
got separated, one of the horses was for a time lost, the inns were 
abominable, and they often preferred a mattress on the floor to 
venturing in the beds. De Saussure gives a lifelike sketch of the 
inn at Spiotorno : 

' I went down by chance into the kitchen, where I saw a picture in 
the style of Teniers : our old and hideous hostess, who, by the light 
of a small lamp with untidy hair and black and wrinkled hands, was 
pounding on a block the scraps of meat which were to form our supper.' 

At last the party reached Nice, found their felucca arrived, and 
embarked to make a fresh set of deep-sea temperature observations. 


Safely landed, de Saiissure congratulates himself on having accom- 
plished his task ; he was obviously no sailor. Perils by water, 
however, were not over. The Var at that date was still unbridged, 
and the travellers' carriage was conducted through the stream by 
bare-legged men called egayeurs, who held it up on either side. 
The next adventure was the passage of the Esterels, the minia- 
ture mountain range the outline at least of which is familiar 
to visitors to Cannes. Its dangers are depicted hi a para- 
graph of the Voyages that agreeably interrupts much geological 

* It is on the bit of road immediately below the highest point 
on the Antibes side that travellers are most frequently held up by 

' A long stretch of road is visible in its entirety, shut in between 
two projecting heights ; it is on these that the robbers place their 
sentinels. They let the travellers advance to about half-way between 
the two points, and then the robbers ambuscaded in the wood fall on 
them and strip them, while the sentinels keep watch that they are 
not surprised by the coastguards. In this case, warned by a whistle 
or some such signal, they escape into the forest. It is impossible to 
catch them, for not only is the bush very thick, but the ground beneath 
it consists of broken blocks, there is neither road nor path, and unless 
a man knows the locality as well as the robbers do, he can only pene- 
trate with great difficulty and extreme slowness. When M. Pictet 
and I passed this way the courier from Rome, who travelled with us, 
pointed out the remains of the carriage of the preceding courier, who 
had been robbed a few days previously. This forest, which the fre- 
quency of accidents of this sort has made so dreaded, is composed of 
pines and evergreen oaks, under which grow arbutus, cistuses, heaths, 
etc. It extends to the sea, and has an area of three to four leagues in 
length by two in breadth. All this region, entirely savage, is the 
refuge of the prisoners who escape from the galleys of Toulon, the 
nursery of all the brigands of the country.' [Voyages, 1440.] 

Seven years later de Saussure explored on foot the recesses of 
this fascinating range of porphyry and climbed its seaward summit, 
the Cap Roux. Now he and his companion hastened on to Frejus, 
where Pictet tells us the population appeared fever-stricken owing 
to the marshes in the neighbourhood. In Roman times the town 
was a health resort. Pliny the younger mentions sending one 
of his freedmen who had delicate lungs there for the benefit of the 


climate. Its suburb of St. Raphael is now again frequented by 

Passing through Toulon, Marseilles, and Aix, the travellers 
found the roads still bad as far as Nimes, and met with further 
misadventures from lack of post-horses and broken wheels. In 
consequence of one of these accidents, they were forced to lodge 
with a village cure, who had a collection of prints valued at 
20,000 francs. He had been a captain of dragoons, 'but an un- 
fortunate affair had forced him to leave the army and take 
orders ! ' 

At Nimes the interior of the amphitheatre was at that date 
filled with mean houses. The charming temple of Diana struck 
Pictet as * assez peu de chose .' Architecture was not our travellers ' 
strong point the Maison Carree they do not mention. Thence an 
afternoon's drive brought them to Montpellier, with the object of 
paying a visit to de Saussure's sister Judith, by whom, as already 
related, they were entertained and introduced to her circle of dis- 
tinguished friends. Well satisfied with his sister's situation and 
surroundings, de Saussure, as usual in a hurry to return to his 
home, after two days' stay started at midnight for Pont Saint 
Esprit. Halting at Lyons only long enough to make propitiatory 
purchases for their female relations, birds for de Saussure's mother 
and a gown for his wife, the two travellers reached Geneva on the 
3rd November. 


THE famous Act of Mediation of 1768 gave a respite to the 
patrician Government that, wisely taken advantage of, might have 
saved the constitution. But the Councils were blind to the signs 
of the times. They had before them a double task, to meet the 
growth of the city by setting up a system of gradual enfranchise- 
ment for the class without civic rights, and to satisfy the General 
Assembly by keeping their promise to codify the laws of the State. 
They did nothing to extend the franchise on the one hand ; on the 
other they put off the publication of a code by a series of equivoca- 
tions. Recognising that there was no hope of forcing the Councils 
to act, the General Assembly in 1777 proposed that a joint Commis- 
sion should be appointed and charged to report within two years. 
This limit was taken advantage of by the Negatives, or Con- 
stitutionals, as they called themselves, and the Councils on its 
expiration refused to extend the time, although the Commission 
had not been able to conclude its task. The two parties were 
now actively opposed, and during 1779 and 1780 the situation 
grew from month to month more embittered. 

In the following year (1781) the political storm which had been 
slowly gathering broke out. The situation was complicated by 
the triangular nature of the contest. It was no longer a duel. On 
one side were the Negatives, a patrician oligarchy striving to 
maintain itself by an alliance with the populace, and relying in the 
last resort on foreign support ; on the other the Representants, 
citizens torn between their anxiety to preserve the powers of a 
popular assembly and jealousy of their still unenfranchised fellow- 
townsmen. But distinct from the two chief combatants were 
the so-called Natifs, composed of a large proportion of the 
growing middle class and the artisans, who were ready to join 
whichever side held out the best offer. After a time their leaders, 
finding the Representants but a broken reed, turned for aid to the 



patricians. Cornuaud, an able demagogue, offered the latter the 
support of his party in return for the abolition of the restrictions 
which forbade the Natifs free access to various crafts and pro- 
fessions. Political rights he for the present made no claim to. 
The French Resident supported the demands of this strange 
alliance, but the two Swiss cantons the co -Mediators declined 
to follow him. 

In February 1781 de Saussure wrote to tell his sister at Mont- 
pellier the local news. There had been an unfortunate affair in 
which some Natifs had fired on their allies the Negatives by 
mistake, and his friend Trembley had had his left hand badly 
damaged. Disorder had broken out in the city, the Repre- 
sentants had seized the occasion to assert that the State was in 
danger. Cannon had been brought into the streets and the town 
gates closed. De Saussure had had great difficulty in obtaining 
permission for his father to return to his country home at Frontenex. 

For the moment the popular party held the upper hand. 
They hastened to outbid their opponents by promising to the 
Natifs all they asked. The Negatives, surprised and alarmed, 
gave way, and a few days later the so-called Edit Bienfaisant 
(10th February 1781) was passed, which granted the Natifs 
freedom from civil disabilities and a prospect of gradual enfran- 
chisement. This might have been the first step towards a real 
democracy. But in May the Councils, recovered from their panic 
and relying as before on the support of the Mediators, disavowed 
their recent action on the plea that they had acted under duress. 
They declined to carry out the Edit Bienfaisant and formally 
declared that the General Assembly was only one of the several 
estates of the Commonwealth, and had no claim to the title 
generally accorded it of ' Le Souverain.' They adjured the 
citizens of every degree to recognise that the only way to restore 
peace to the Republic was to await such measures as the Mediators 
might recommend. The patricians, preferring foreign support to 
any concession to the bourgeoisie, marched to their doom. 

Party feeling ran high, but de Saussure went on undisturbed 
with his professorial and scientific work, and felt able to leave his 
wife in order to make a short trip to Chamonix and Chanrion, at 
the head of the Val de Bagnes, and view the glaciers Bourrit had 
been enlarging on in his books. Even in the mountains he found 


traces of the quarrels he had left behind. At 'Blair's Hospital/ 
the hut erected on the Montenvers two years previously, some 
Representants had been at the pains to efface the names of a party 
of their political opponents. 

In Desportes' Temple de la Nature, which was erected in 1795, a 
Visitors' Book, a ' Livre des Amis,' received the effusions of visitors, 
but it is unlikely that the earlier hut was similarly provided. 
A passage in one of the unpublished letters of Mr. Brand (1786) 
serves, however, to explain the allusion. Our countryman refers 
to the infinite number of names that were cut or written in the stone 
walls or on the wooden roof of the building. Mr. Brand adds some 
details as to Blair. He was a bon vivant who had been compelled 
to leave his home in Dorsetshire and live abroad ' by the costs 
of his cellar and hunting,' and wanted some place to lunch com- 
fortably in when he visited the Montenvers. His ' Chateau ' or 
' Hospital,' as the guides mockingly called it, was but a rude 
affair. A few years later, in 1795, Desportes entrusted Bourrit 
with two thousand francs to erect its successor, the Temple de la 
Nature, which was decorated with the names of Genevese and 
foreign savants, and had some furniture and a looking-glass 
besides its ' Livre des Amis.' The furniture was a few years 
later wrecked and the Visitors' Book disappeared, but a new one 
was provided in 1810, which contained an entry made in 1812 
by the Empress Josephine. 

For a year the Councils persisted in their uncompromising 
attitude. The result was the popular revolution of April 1782. 
There was some street fighting and bloodshed. The Repre- 
sentants and the populace, once more reunited and masters of 
the situation, demanded the total abolition of the Senate and 
Great Council. They took steps for the defence of the city from 
external attack. They appointed a small executive committee, 
named the Constitutional, to deal with the political crisis. De 
Saussure, who had so far succeeded in keeping out of any active 
share in politics, was one of the members of the patrician party 
who hurried to the Town Hall on the news that it had been 
seized by the mob, and he acted as the spokesman of his colleagues 
in refusing to sit as Magistrates at its bidding. He consequently 
became one of a small group of patricians who were held as host- 
ages and confined for forty -eight hours at the Hotel des Balances. 


De Saussure's attitude on this occasion may seem to call for 
some explanation . This may best be found in a letter of Jean Marc 
Roget, a Genevese pastor, at one time in charge of the Huguenot 
church in Soho, to Sir Samuel Romilly, whose sister he had married, 
in which he gives a general view of the political catastrophe of 
1782 in Geneva. 1 

Roget, who describes himself as an ardent Representant, 
condemns strongly the obstinacy of the more violent Negatives, 
who had succeeded in controlling the Councils and inducing them 
to reject the popular demand. But at the same time he expresses 
his disapproval of the action of the Natifs. He writes ' the kind 
of fury they exhibit towards some of our opponents disquiets 
and disgusts me.' The picture he draws is of a revolt of the 
rabble, with which Representants like himself were forced to 
show sympathy in the hope of retaining some control over 
events. He adds that in the Councils there were many moderate 
men, whom he terms Constitutionals, who asked for nothing 
better than a reformed government, but were thwarted and even 
insulted by their colleagues. It is, I think, clear that de 
Saussure and Roget were both actuated by a similar motive, to 
save the State by the formation of a middle party of Moderates. 

A few days after his own release de Saussure thought it well 
to place his children in safety. His daughter Albertine's journal 
furnishes details of their escape. In the first attempt they were 
arrested at the gates, though disguised as peasants, Albertine 
with a basket and Theodore with a hotte. 

' Papa was very sorry to see us come back. Next Tuesday we were 
again disguised, I as a lady's maid of Mile, de Lalgas, who had leave to 
drive out with two maids, Theodore as a workman, and Alphonse as a 
ragamuffin. I got to Chambesy to Madame Fabri's in a plight which 
would have been laughable had one been able to laugh.' 

A few weeks later de Saussure's anticipations were justified, 
and he had an opportunity to show that his courage and energy 
were not confined to mountain-climbing. On the 23rd June, 
French troops, acting in their function as agents of one of the 
Mediating Powers, invaded Genevese territory ; the alarm of an 
attack spread through the town, and five thousand citizens rushed 

1 Lettres de Jean Roget (Geneva and Paris, 1911), p. 185-90. 


to arms. A rumour spread that the leaders of the Negatives were 
prepared to open the gates . Orders were given by the revolutionary 
authorities to search their houses and seize their arms. All 
patricians were suspected, and one of the houses ordered to be 
visited was de Saussure's. It was alleged that suspicious groups, 
amongst them an officer in French uniform, had been seen on his 
terrace, and that the cellars had been converted into an arsenal. 
The supposed officer turned out to be a pure Genevese, a man of 
science and philosopher, de Saussure's friend, Jean Trembley. 

De Saussure, forewarned, was also forearmed. He assembled 
his family, including his two sisters-in-law, laid in provisions, 
procured some helpers in the defence, and barricaded the doors 
and windows. A very full account of the affair exists in some 
letters written by one of his near neighbours, living on the opposite 
side of the Rue de la Cite, who was an anxious eye-witness, and 
had her own house twice ransacked by the amateur grenadiers of 
the town. I must abridge the good lady's graphic report, but its 
details are many of them too picturesque to be lost. 1 

Two summonses to surrender were disregarded by de Saussure 
and his little garrison. These were followed by a close investment. 
Guards were posted on neighbouring points of vantage with orders 
to prevent all egress or ingress. A whole day was spent in fruitless 
parleying. Our eye-witness writes : 

' I do not know if you have noticed a little iron grille in the door 
[it is still there] used by people who want to communicate with any of 
the household. Yesterday all the afternoon his friends kept coming 
to the grille to try to persuade M. de Saussure to open. It was amusing 
to watch all the great people of the town ringing the bell and then 
putting their eyes or their ears to the grille while the master of the 
house came to speak to them and the sergeant of the guard listened 
with all his ears and at the same time kept back the crowd. At last 
the Premier Syndic with his attendant came like the others to the 
grille and asked for admission. He was let in, and the door closed 
again, to the great disappointment of the crowd, firmly persuaded that 
the house was crowded with men and arms.' 

Among these would-be peacemakers were Pictet, Tingry, a 
distinguished chemist belonging to the popular party, Bonnet, 
who, too infirm to come himself, wrote twice to implore his 

1 The manuscript is in the Public Library at Geneva. 


nephew to capitulate, and the Venerable Company of Pastors, who 
sent their Moderator to do his best. The Syndics used what 
influence they had with the bourgeois Committee at the Hotel de 
Ville to induce them to put off the threatened recourse to violent 
measures. But the defence showed no signs of yielding. On the 
contrary, according to family tradition, the few servants in the 
house were ordered to tramp up and down the stairs and show 
themselves armed at different windows, while the master shouted 
martial orders in a loud voice. On their side the bourgeois 
Committee ordered six companies of grenadiers to advance with 
their muskets primed. Bombs, and even mines and saps, were 
also threatened, but still no action followed. There was at all 
times some prudence, if not timidity, among Genevese revolu- 
tionaries, who were more fond of posing as Romans and talking of 
imitating the example of Saguntum than of facing fire-arms. 
Moreover, they might well reflect, even if they did not receive 
specific warning, that any attack on a citizen of the European 
reputation of de Saussure was not an adventure likely to be with- 
out serious consequences. There were 12,000 French and Swiss 
and Sardinian troops outside the walls, and any crime was likely 
to meet with speedy punishment. Terms were offered ; the 
besiegers undertook, if allowed to search the house, to leave the 
inhabitants unmolested and to give any strangers found a safe 
conduct out of the city. Still the little garrison held out against 
both menaces and entreaties. They threatened to fire on anyone 
who approached the walls, they were deaf to the appeals of 
neighbours who feared their own houses might suffer, and of the 
twelve members of their own party who were hostages in the 
hands of the revolutionaries. Duroveray, the Procureur General, 
one of the leaders of the Representants, did his best to calm the 
mob, who with axes and planks in their hands clamoured for an 
assault. Fresh parleyings began with the Committee at the Town 
Hall. Through a hot June afternoon the crowd waited im- 
patiently, not, however, without occasional incidents that helped 
to pass the hours. They are thus related for us by the eye-witness 
who lived opposite. Her simple story, written at the moment, 
brings the scene vividly before us in all its serio-comic aspects : 

' The third floor [of the Maison de Saussure], as you know, is occupied 
by a widow, Madame Rilliet, the mother of M. Rilliet-Fatio, one of 



the hostages, and mother-in-law of M. PreVost-Lullin, the Syndic. 
M. Lullin presented himself at the wicket, and as a magistrate sum- 
moned the master of the house to open to him. He was refused. He 
insisted that, as a son-in-law, and a Syndic, it was essential that he 
should be allowed to talk to his mother-in-law. He had no better 
success. Loath to give up his attempt, he sat down near the house 
to write a note, and then presenting himself once more, demanded the 
delivery of his mother-in-law, with her servants and property. The 
venerable lady was brought downstairs, and we heard her sobs and her 
feeble, cracked voice telling her son-in-law she would not leave the 
house in which she had lived for so many years. M. Lullin insisted, 
" Madame, in God's name, do this for me, for your son-in-law ; it is 
your duty do not refuse me. If the house were on fire would you not 
leave it ? Well, it is worse. How can I leave you exposed to all these 
dangers ? Madame, you refuse me ! In God's name, you will be as 
much at home with me as here ! " All the reply we could hear was 
the sobs and broken voice of this courageous and resolute woman. 
At last M. de Saussure was appealed to. " Monsieur, force her to come 
out ! Drag her out ! " The answer was, " She is in her own house 
and free : we cannot compel her." M. Lullin got nothing except the 
squeeze of one of the old lady's fingers through the wicket. " I leave 
you, then, Madame, with tears in my eyes and distressed by your 
refusal. But you have still till four o'clock to decide." 

' Then there came to our house a poor mother whose daughter was 
a housemaid at M. de Saussure's. She called out from the fourth 
floor: "My daughter, come out if you can come out, I pray you. 
In God's name, don't stop." When the officials cruelly silenced her, 
she came down in despair, crying, " my daughter, my poor daughter, 
I shall see her no more. I want to get away. Who knows what may 
happen to her. They say they have so many engines for blowing up 
the house ! " [There had, in fact, been talk of a mine.] "My God, 
take me away." And despite all we could do or say to her, she had 
to be taken home.' 

At last, after a siege of six days, terms were agreed on, and a 
formal capitulation, in no less than seven articles, duly signed, 
under which the house was allowed to be visited, but no arrests 
were to be made or arms confiscated. The result of the visit was 
to prove that the garrison of the fortress that had given cause to 
BO much emotion consisted of eighteen men and twenty guns. 
De Saussure clearly secured all the honours of war. His wife 
wrote to their daughter, ' All is ended in the happiest way possible ; 


our liveliest hopes could not have foreseen so favourable a surrender. 
I can still hardly believe it. I am overwhelmed with visits and 
congratulations on the success of our particular siege. We passed 
some odd moments.' All this time, we are told, de Saussure's 
guides were waiting for him at Chamonix ; but there was to be no 
Alpine travel that summer. 

A few days later the allied troops entered the town, and the 
revolution was thus brought to a violent end by the action of 
two of the Protecting Powers, France and Berne, supported on 
this occasion by the King of Sardinia. Zurich, already radical, 
had refused to join in this forcible intervention. The Genevese, 
very brave in their preparations and professions, prudently 
succumbed at the sight of hostile batteries planted before their 
gates and the threat of bombardment. Their leaders made haste 
to capitulate. The aristocratic Councils, reinstated and strong 
in the support of the allied troops, remained complete masters of 
the situation. Geneva fell again under the rule of the patrician 
oligarchy, which was now not only released from the restrictions 
imposed on it fourteen years previously, but had gained additional 

Some six hundred of the popular party left the city. 
On d'lvernois' and Lord Mahon's representations, the English 
Government was induced to assist in founding for the exiles a 
' New Geneva ' near Waterford in Ireland, and to obtain a grant 
from Parliament of 50,000 in furtherance of the scheme. The 
site selected had already, since the close of the seventeenth century, 
harboured a colony of French exiles. But difficulties soon arose, 
and after two years the settlement was definitely abandoned by its 
promoters, and the exiles took refuge elsewhere, many at Constance 
and in other parts of Germany. 

The next seven years were a period of commercial and general 
prosperity in Geneva ; but to a populace growing in numbers and in- 
telligence, the reactionary Government forced on the city by foreign 
intervention became constantly more and more irksome. The 
recent home of Voltaire and the birthplace of Rousseau was little 
likely to escape the influence of the new ideas that were in the air, 
while the passing of the old order in France could not fail to affect 
a Republic on its immediate frontier. Bonnet anticipated justly 
what was to come when he wrote to a Swedish correspondent : 


' Our little Republic is but a boat attached to a vessel of the first 
class. You realise all that is implied in the comparison.' 

From this moment, according to Senebier, 'de Saussure put aside 
science for politics .' The phrase does not fit closely with the facts . 
Bonnet expresses the situation far more accurately when he tells 
us that his nephew ' was very much distracted between politics and 
Alpine travel.' But it is true that henceforth de Saussure was never 
free to give himself entirely to science. His sense of duty com- 
pelled him to conquer his inclination to decline public office. 
He was already a member of the Council of Two Hundred. As 
soon as the old order had been re-established by the Mediating 
Powers, he was appointed to serve on Committees for the revision 
of the Code and for framing modifications in the form of govern- 
ment. He was also elected a member of the Military Council, 
which controlled the garrison of the city, a force of under a thou- 
sand men. 

In the following year (1783) de Saussure was called on to aid 
in entertaining the Archduke Ferdinand, the Austrian Governor 
of Lombardy. 

The Professor was at this time troubled by a weak throat, 
which hampered him in lecturing, and busy with bringing out a 
volume embodying the results of his researches in hygrometry. 
In its preface he explains that he was led to resume his studies on 
the subject by the indisposition on Mont Lachat, that had inter- 
rupted his mountain excursions in 1780. Five years later he pub- 
lished a reply to his critics, of whom the principal was J. A. Deluc. 

Montgolfier was about this time (January 1784) exhibiting 
his balloon inflated with heated air, and de Saussure went to Lyons 
to witness the ascent, had long talks with Montgolfier, and subse- 
quently made experiments on his own account to prove what had 
not previously been recognised, that the ascending power was due 
solely to the lightness of heated air compared to that of air at a 
lower temperature. 1 Among his papers is preserved a draft of a 
letter to an unknown correspondent probably Faujas de Saint- 
Fond in which he describes in detail the Montgolfier machine, 
and compares the relative powers and uses of fire and gas balloons. 2 

1 See Encyclopaedia Britannica, 13th edition, ' Aerostatics.' 

2 In Faujas de Saint-Fond's Description des Experiences de la Machine 
Aerostatique de M. M. de Montgolfier (2 vols, Paris, 1783-84), there is a letter 
of sixteen pages from de Saussure to the author. It is dated March 20, 1784. 


The former, he believes, will be found most suited for carrying 
weights and for such purposes as re victualling besieged cities, while 
the latter will serve better for meteorological and electrical investi- 
gations. His correspondent had suggested to de Saussure that he 
should undertake a treatise on aerostatics . He replied that it would 
be too great an interruption to his geological pursuits, and that, far 
from wishing to sacrifice mountains to balloons, he hoped to make 
balloons help him in his mountain researches, not, ' at any rate, for 
the present,' in gaining inaccessible heights, but in ascertaining the 
constitution of the upper layers of the atmosphere. 

After his return to Geneva, de Saussure entertained his uncle 
and aunt, the Bonnets, by sending up a balloon from their terrace 
at Genthod. His experiments were not always successful. We 
hear from some visitors at Conches of an attempt which, ' with all 
the science possible,' ended in failure. ' The illustrious Professor 
was in a terrible temper ; he scolded his sons and several savants 
who, with folded arms, were looking on in silence, or asking ques- 
tions which did not make him any happier. The rest of us laughed 
at the whole scene.' l 

In a letter (13th February 1784) to the Journal de Paris, de 
Saussure replies to some statements as to the effects on the 
human frame of the rarity of the air at great heights made by M. 
de Lamanon on the strength of the ascent of a ridge of about 
10,500 feet near the Mont Cenis. He begins thus : 

' The works of M. de Lamanon would not contribute much to the 
progress of physical inquiry did he not observe nature with greater 
accuracy than he reads and quotes the writings of those who have 
observed it before him. Permit me, sirs, to use the channel of your 
Journal to protest against the absurdities which this naturalist attri- 
butes to me despite the fact that my statements are of a diametrically 
opposite character.' 

The points chiefly insisted on by de Saussure are that he had 
never asserted that there is any difficulty in the act of respiration 
at great heights, or that the languor and discomfort experienced 
by some individuals in such situations are universal and unavoid- 
able. The former statement seems at first sight a paradox, and 
inconsistent with his own view and personal experience as recorded 
in the Voyages. His point, I take it, was that altitude does not 

1 Rosalie de Constant, sa Famille et ses Amis, par Mile. L. Achard (1902). 


in itself produce the form of exhaustion known as mountain- 
sickness, but that this is the result of altitude coupled with the 
muscular exertion of walking uphill, and that its sjinptoms cease 
in repose or during a descent. Rest, he insists, even for a few 
minutes, removes every trace of discomfort. 

The whole question has of late years been most carefully and 
lengthily discussed by eminent physiologists and mountaineers, 
and de Saussure's limited observations have been largely super- 
seded. Experience has shown that the susceptibility to the effect 
of rarefied air varies in individuals as much as the susceptibility to 
sea-sickness does. It also varies at different periods in the same 
individual on the same mountain e.g. Mont Blanc ; while the 
relatively small proportion of the climbers of that mountain 
seriously affected in recent years may suggest that coarse food and 
rough lodging, and perhaps also strained nerves, had something 
to do with the frequent sufferings of mountaineers, guides as 
well as tourists, in the days before the Grands Mulets boasted a 
' hotel ' and the refuge near the Bosses served as a coffee -stall. 
A further observation I have not yet seen recorded may perhaps 
be added. Inconvenience is far more commonly experienced on 
snow-slopes than on rocks. It would seem that the monotonous 
exertion of tramping uphill in snow causes a greater muscular 
strain than the more varied gymnastics of a rock climb. That any 
prolonged stay at high altitudes or any sudden transference to 
them sensibly affects the human frame is beyond question. But 
so far as Alpine heights are concerned, de Saussure's statement is 
sustainable. It is possible to spend several hours on the top of 
Mont Blanc or Monte Rosa without experiencing any of the 
symptoms of mountain-sickness, experto crede. I have slept not 
uncomfortably 5000 feet higher. 

In the early summer of 1784 de Saussure started on a family 
tour through the Swiss lowlands with his wife, sister, daughter, 
his sister-in-law Madame Tronchin, and his friend Trembley. 
From Lucerne he made an excursion to Engelberg and the Joch 
Pass, with which he combined an ascent of the Ochsenstock 
(9883 feet). The party drove on to Zurich, St. Gall, Constance, 
and Basle ; it must have been on this occasion that he took 
measurements of depths in the Lake of Constance. At Zurich he 
called on ' Monsieur Gesner, the poet.' This was Solomon Gesner, 


the author of a series of conventional idylls which had an amazing 
success in their day. Archdeacon Coxe, who visited him, rashly 
prophesied, ' His writings will be admired by future ages as long as 
there remains a relish for true pictorial simplicity or taste for 
original composition.' It is almost impossible to us to believe that 
our ancestors can have found pleasure in these sham eclogues 
insipid tales of ideal peasants with classical names. Yet they 
were translated into most European languages, and the translator 
and publisher of an English edition (1775) congratulated himself 
on presenting readers with a work ' he thinks equal in the beauty 
of composition (allowance made for the difference of language) to 
the idylls of Theocritus or Virgil, and far superior in benevolent 
and pathetic sentiments.' He adds, ' The historical plates and 
vignettes with which this work is embellished were all designed 
and drawn by Gesner himself.' De Saussure thus describes the 
bookseller-poet-painter : 

* He is small and ugly, but his face has a great deal of character. 
He speaks French with difficulty ; is very modest about his work. He 
showed us his pictures with much politeness, and seemed to value them 
more than his verses. He told us that he had entirely given up paint- 
ing ; that all his thoughts, all his aims, were centred on poetry.' 

His pictures, judging from the illustrations, were worthy of his 
poetry. Each age throws off a quantity of such stuff for the 
rubbish-heap, and the contemporaries of Cubism and Vorticism 
are not perhaps in a position to cast the first stone . 

Later in the same summer de Saussure made a twelve days' 
trip to Chamonix, meeting at Servoz Exchaquet, at that date em- 
ployed as Inspector of the mines of Faucigny, and at Le Prieure 
making the acquaintance of Dr. Paccard. It is further recorded 
that he took tea with the Blairs. Mr. Blair, then a resident at 
Geneva, has been already mentioned as the Englishman who built 
and gave his name to the first cabin at the Montenvers. 

About this date de Saussure found matter for passing irritation 
in a reference made to him by a German professor from Gottingen, 
named Meiners, in a description of a tour in Switzerland in 1782. 
The passage ran as follows : 

' Among the busiest of the Negatives one must give the first place 
to M. de Saussure, who had recently on several occasions declined 


the visit of one of my friends, and who, therefore, did not make me 
desirous to form his acquaintance. The work of this savant has not 
had in Switzerland as much success as in Germany ; not only is it 
thought too diffuse, but also the accuracy of many of the observations 
is questioned. In general, people are surprised that a disciple of 
Bonnet, one who formerly supported the Repr6sentants, should not 
only suddenly fight on the other side, but should have become one of 
the most ardent Negatives.' 1 

De Saussure tells Bonnet that the German's bad temper was 
produced by his not having been sufficiently lionised when he 
visited Geneva. Consequently he had vented his vanity in abuse. 
Bonnet writes : 

* He pushes it to the point of finding our landscapes insipid. The 
Lake near Geneva has, he says, the air of an artificial pool, our country 
estates are all on the same plan, two avenues which, in crossing, divide 
the whole property, our manners hopeless from every point of view, our 
wealthy class misers and pitiless to the poor. Our faces are all formed 
on the same model forehead, prominent and narrow ; nose, sharp and 
thin ; something pinched in all our figures, and a yellow complexion.' 

The amiable Bonnet, greatly hurt at this libel on his city and 
his friends, suggested to our countryman, Archdeacon Coxe, that 
he might insert a reply to it in the next edition of his very success- 
ful Letters on Switzerland. Coxe, however, prudently answered 
that as the object of his work was to give the result of his own 
travels rather than to correct the misrepresentations of others, he 
did not see his way to comply, at the same time assuring his corre- 
spondent that his and de Saussure 's reputations stood in no need 
of any foreign support. 

De Saussure was contented to bide his time ; but when, some 
years later in 1788 Meiners, again at Geneva, asked to see his 
geological collection, the German Professor was sharply informed 
that for a libeller of Geneva there could be no admittance. 

Meiners seems to have made himself equally unpleasant on his 
later visit to Berne, for Wyttenbach in a letter to de Gersdorf of 
February 1791 refers to him in strong terms : 'Professor Meiners 
by his clumsy arrogance has made himself generally obnoxious.' 2 

Count Gregoire de Razumouski is another of the small band of 

1 Brief e iiber die Schweiz, Christophe Meiners (Berlin, 1784). 

8 ' Stinkend ' is the word used (see Diibi's Wyttenbach und seine Freunde), 


victims who fell under de Saussure's cudgel. He had remarked 
veins of quartz traversed by threads of green amianthe. De 
Saussure's comment is, ' He calls it a transition between amianthe 
and quartz ; he might as well say that a goose on the spit was a 
transition between the goose and the spit.' On a further occasion 
the Count is told that ' he obviously considers the limit of his own 
understanding to be that of the possible, and that what he cannot 
comprehend nature cannot perform.' 

Later in the year (1785) de Saussure's only daughter, Albertine, 
married Jacques Necker, a nephew of the financier. Madame 
Necker, whose acquaintance the de Saussures had made in Paris, 
thus became a near connection of the family. 1 

In January 1786 de Saussure found himself obliged to resign 
on the ground of ill-health the professorship which he had held for 
twenty-four years. Some of his biographers, confronted with the 
fact that in the preceding summer he had attacked Mont Blanc, 
and that the next four years are the period of his greatest moun- 
taineering activity, have not unnaturally suggested that health 
was more or less of a pretext. The records before us, however, 
show that the plea was a true one. 

In the previous December he had been forced by throat 
trouble, following on a severe attack of whooping-cough, to apply 
for temporary leave to break off his lectures. He now represented 

1 She wrote to de Saussure in June 1786 to describe a visit from Archdeacon 
Coxe, who had consulted her about getting a fresh translator for his book in the 
place of M. Ramond, of Pyrenean fame. Coxe thought Ramond too prone to 
enthusiasm and exaggeration. Madame Necker's comment was very much to the 
point : 

' It is to these faults in his translator that M. Coxe owes in part his success 
at Paris, for we are still far from that love of nature which recognises perfec- 
tion in just proportions, in the correspondence of its effects with our taste 
rather than in the astonishment that they cause us.' 

Madame Necker's opinion was fully endorsed by the editor of EbeVs Guide, 
who wrote : ' This work has gained much in the translation, and the notes and 
additions with which M. Ramond has enriched it amount to 223 pages, and 
are in many respects more interesting than the original work.' 

Madame Necker added : 

' I only got the letter of introduction you gave Mr. Coxe after he had left ; 
he never spoke of it the trait is quaintly English. I received him on his 
reputation as a person of distinction ; on your letter I should have welcomed 
him as an old friend. I reproach myself for all the marks of attention I did 
not pay to him, and I cannot forgive him.' 

The solid, self-satisfied Archdeacon evidently considered that he stood in no 
need of any introduction. 


that he was forbidden on medical advice to resume them, since his 
continual throat delicacy did not allow him to give them without 
risk. 1 He added, it is true, that he was also anxious to make 
progress with his book, of which only one volume had yet been 
published. His resignation was doubtless made easier to him by 
the promise that his friend and disciple, M. A. Pictet, should, with- 
out any competition, succeed him in the professorship. Of the 
character of his teaching and the appreciation of it by his con- 
temporaries, the reader will find an account later on. 

In the winter of 1786 an interesting discovery was made by 
peasants in the bed of the Rhone near Geneva of two ele- 
phant's tusks, some five feet in length. One of the discoverers 
stated they had found many large bones in the same place. 
De Saussure acquired the tusks for his cabinet, and they are now 
in the Museum at Geneva. I understand that experts are not 
disposed to consider them of prehistoric date, and it may there- 
fore be still open as Ebel long ago suggested for one of 
the many intrepid scholars who have plunged into the inter- 
minable controversy as to Hannibal's passage of the Alps to 
cite them as evidence that the Carthaginian general came this way. 

We have now reached the years in which de Saussure 's moun- 
taineering career culminated : the attempt on the Aiguille du 
Gouter in 1785, the ascent of Mont Blanc in 1787, the sojourn on 
the Col du Geant in 1788, and the visits to Monte Rosa in 1789 and 
1792. The story of these adventures has been told already. 2 
In December of 1786 Bonnet reports that his nephew is keeping 
himself in training for Mont Blanc by climbing the stairs of his tall 
city house eight or nine times a day. His newly married daughter 
wrote from Paris to urge him to come and enjoy the social success 
ensured by his scientific reputation, from the reflection of which 
she was profiting. But he was much too occupied and too intent 
on accomplishing his lifelong ambition to set his feet on the snows 
that he had always before his eyes when he looked across the lake 
from the garden at Genthod. 

In the spring of 1787 partly, perhaps, to distract his wife's 
thoughts from the preparations for his great adventure, but also 

1 See de Saussure's letter of January 12, 1786, to the Rector of the Academy 
(de Saussure MSS.). 

1 See chapters viii., ix., x., xi. 


in order to take barometrical observations at sea-level for the 
purpose of comparison with those he hoped to obtain on the 
summit of Mont Blanc he started early in April for a journey in 
the south of France in company with his wife. On the way 
de Saussure indulged her desire to make a pilgrimage to the home 
of Madame de Sevigne's daughter. They accordingly drove from 
Montelimar, with the aid of two mules to draw their carriage over 
atrocious roads, to Grignan. Madame de Saussure describes the 
excursion to her daughter : 

' It is not easy to get to Grignan. We took a guide, not that he 
was much use, as the leader of the two mules we added to our team 
knew the road much better than the guide, who had only passed it on 
horseback. At last we set off, but slowly ; the roads were often 
broken, the ruts deep. We had frequently to get down in the bad 
places, and to be content with two fresh eggs we swallowed in our 
carriage, as no room not full of noisy drinkers was to be found in the 
village of Vallaurie. We laughed a great deal. At last we came 
in sight of Grignan. It is a vast building ; all its balustraded terraces, 
beaten by the winds of which Madame de Sevigne speaks, produce 
a noble effect. Grignan is set on a rock in the middle of a lofty, arid 
slope ; a little town of about a thousand inhabitants, fairly well 
built, lies in an amphitheatre below.' 

The agent of the owner received the visitors, and Madame de 
Saussure was lodged in Madame de Sevigne's room, which had 
her portrait over the chimney-piece, but none of the old furniture. 
The agent could only talk of the present occupiers. Next morning 
the de Saussures visited and admired the Rochers de La Roche - 
courbiere, where Madame de Sevigne used to picnic . She describes 
it as a piece of Switzerland in Provence. 

Having now no motive, as in 1780, to hurry home, de Saussure 
made a detailed examination of the coast of Provence, visiting 
Toulon, Hyeres, and Frejus. Undeterred by the memory of past 
sufferings, he even ventured out to sea, in order to explore the 
lies d' Hyeres. 

He climbed several of the coast hills. An excursion he 
describes at some length is the ascent of the seaward crest of the 
Esterels, on which he bestowed the name it still bears, the Montagne 
du Cap Roux. He had some difficulty in finding and then in 
climbing the highest point of the rocky ridge so familiar as an 


object on the horizon to visitors to Cannes. He sought the 
services of the hermit of the Sainte Baume as a guide. Of his 
home he gives a pleasant description : 

' I was agreeably surprised to find two beautiful fountains which 
throw out full jets of a clear and cool water under the shade of a group 
of fine trees chestnuts, nuts, cherries, and figs. The gardens gave 
me no less pleasure, and though modern taste despises all that is formal, 
yet a little art and symmetry make an agreeable contrast with the 
wild and melancholy aspect of these mountains, and the straight 
alleys of the gardens laid out in terraces covered with trellises of vines 
and ended by niches cut in the rock created in me a most agreeable 
impression. The last hermit but one had by his labour brought his 
little property into the most flourishing condition. The grapes and 
fruit which he gathered served not only for his own needs, but also by 
exchange to procure him all he wanted.' [Voyages, 1456.] 

The garden, when I visited the spot in 1877, had disappeared, 
and I experienced the same difficulty as de Saussure in finding 
and forcing a way through the thick scrub of southern growths 
to the highest crest of the porphyry crags, whence the view extends 
over the coast lands to the snowy peaks of the Maritime Alps. 

From Toulon de Saussure made another excursion to the 
Montagne de Caume (2856 feet) to ascertain if M. de Lamanon, 
the geologist, whose manifold mistakes he was often called on to 
correct, had any grounds for thinking the rocks volcanic. They 
proved to be limestone. Apart from its technical interest, de 
Saussure 's account of his day's walk may serve as a specimen of 
the human side of his character. 

He drove out from Toulon as far as the village of Revest. 

* I had need of a guide. The open door of a cottage showed me 
a family of peasants at their breakfast. I entered and told them what 
I wanted. My air of a foreigner and my plan of going over the moun- 
tains instead of along the high road, my curiosity about worthless 
stones, all seemed to them suspicious. All the same, the master of 
the house, an honest labourer, said, " Sit down, eat a bit of haddock 
with us, after that we will see what we can do." I accepted his offer, 
we had a friendly conversation, and he ended by saying he knew the 
country very well, and even something about stones, and though he 
had at first thought of finding me another giude, he would come with 
me himself. This was a most lucky meeting, for I found him an ex- 
cellent guide.' [Voyages, I486.] 


De Saussuro comments on the bareness of the surrounding 
region, caused by the destruction of the forests, and he is at pains 
to argue that this has produced, on the one hand, a failure in the 
average rainfall, and, on the other, from time to time violent floods. 
It is only of recent years that any practical steps have been taken 
in this region in the direction he pointed out. He was delighted 
with the view of the coast, its capes, bays, and shores, and the 
town of Toulon at his feet. He must have been wrong, however, 
in fancying he identified Mont Blanc. The peaks of Dauphine 
stand in the way, and one of these may have caught his eyes. 

On the descent he came, hungry and thirsty, to a farm. Hia 
guide assured him that their only chance of finding food or 
drink was to appeal for it either for payment or in charity. 

' We knocked, a young and good-looking woman came to the 
window, and, in answer to our humble petition, said she would willingly 
give us what she had, eggs, bread, and wine, if we would give our word 
of honour not to set foot in the house, but to eat in the shade of a 
mulberry close by what she sent out by the servant. We gave our 
word and she kept hers, and came to her doorstep and entertained us 
with lively conversation while we drank her health in the wine she 
provided. We separated with an air of mutual satisfaction, but with- 
out any question of breaking the restraint imposed.' [ Voyages, 1494.] 

On the return journey the future home of Tartarin did not fail 
to attract the de Saussures by its southern gaiety. Their visit 
was on a Sunday : 

' The little town of Tarascon, or at least the faubourg, was charm- 
ingly gay ; despite the violent mistral, a crowd was dancing in the 
middle of a square to the sound of the fife and the tambourine. All 
the women in red corsets, short petticoats, with red stockings and 
polished shoes, and kerchiefs of coloured muslin on their heads and 
necks, with blue eyes and very lively countenances, formed a charm- 
ing spectacle. We stayed a long time to watch them, and the pleasure 
we had in doing so seemed to add to theirs.' [Voyages, 1603.] 

At Chateaubourg, on the Rhone, de Saussure had a curious 
encounter. 1 He went down to the river bank to test the tempera- 
ture at which water would boil for the purpose of comparison with 

1 The date is given in the Voyages as 1781, but de Saussure was not in the 
south of France in that year, and the reference to what might have been the 
issue two years later shows that 1787 must be the true date. 


the experiments be proposed to make on Mont Blanc. The 
villagers gathered round him with many expressions of curiosity, 
which he satisfied, until a somewhat better -dressed man appeared 
and told de Saussure in a threatening tone that he the speaker 
was not such a fool as he was taken for, and that he knew per- 
fectly well that de Saussure was making a survey. At the same 
time he seized the stick de Saussure had laid on the ground. De 
Saussure snatched it back and used vigorous language, and while 
the villagers were hesitating which side to take, finished his 
experiment and got back to the inn. ' This quarrel,' he adds, 
' had no further result ; two years later, it might have been fatal.' 
This was a year of frequent absences from home. In July, as 
has already been told, the whole party, de Saussure and his family, 
went to Chamonix to lay siege to Mont Blanc . After his victorious 
return he and his son Theodore, now twenty, started for Turin, 
apparently on an invitation from the Court. At St. Jean de 
Maurienne they encountered the Intendant of the Province, M. 
de Saint-Real, who had undertaken a study of the Mont Cenis 
district, had spent six weeks in the past summer in a tent on the 
mountains and climbed several summits, including the Rochemelon, 
on which he had slept in the little chapel half full of snow. He 
could not conceal that he was far from pleased at the prospect of his 
particular field being attacked and his observations anticipated by 
so famous a rival, but de Saussure was able to convince him that 
their work need not clash, and that they might even be of some 
mutual service. 

' We ended by becoming very good friends. He gave me his own 
room, which was a Noah's Ark. A huge eagle with open wings, badly 
stuffed, hung from the ceiling by a slender cord any movement made 
it turn and gave it a ghostly air, the tables were littered with books, 
papers, stones, instruments, all dirty and in the most horrible confusion.' 

On the Mont Cenis they lodged at the inn in preference to 
the hospice. They found guides of a sort. They are summarily 
sketched as follows : ' Horot, bon enfant, bon muletier, mais pas 
bien fort. Tours, grand causeur, mais vigoureux et hardi dans 
la montagne.' Their services were not, however, seriously called 
upon, for the ' Fraise ' of M. de Lamanon proved a very simple 
matter. ' There was no snow, no ice, not a single " mauvais 


pas " ; pastures and easy rocks, child's play. Mistouflet [his 
grandchild] would have got up if I had been on the top 
with my box of sweetmeats.' De Saussure went on to a loftier 
summit, the Roche Michel (11,437 feet), whence he enjoyed 
a fine panorama and took observations. Several of the guides 
are reported to have suffered from the rarity of the air 
but there seems good reason for suspecting that the cold blast 
on the summit which forced de Saussure to seek a more shel- 
tered spot for his experiments had much to do with their alleged 

Arrived at Turin, de Saussure found himself the lion of the day, 
and seems to have enjoyed the position. He writes home : 

' My Voyage [on Mont Blanc] has made a great impression here ; 
an amiable Marquis [the Marquis de Breze] has translated it very well 
into Italian, and everyone, down to the hotel waiters, is reading and 
talking about it. We went yesterday to the Casino of the Nobility, 
where we met two nieces of my protector, the Marquis de Breze, 
pretty, but loud.' 

He was presented to the King at Moncalieri, and sends his wife a 
long account of the King's clothes and his own and Theodore's. 
This new experience of a Court and its etiquette seems to have 
given him a great deal of amusement. The King was gracious, 
and promised to have the roads to Chamonix seen to. After the 
fatigues of the royal reception the father and son sought for 
refreshment at the Opera Bouffe : 

' We went two or three times for our 25 soldi. Theodore was 
immensely entertained by the ballets, which are charming. The 
theatre, which is extremely pretty, was quite full of ladies, very much 
dressed with unbelievable feathers on the back of their heads ; when 
they turned them they entirely blocked the front of the box. Theo 
and I were in the box of the Corps Diplomatique and in the two best 
places highly honourable, but one sees much better in the pit.' 

Some more royal visits and an excursion to the Superga, where 
de Saussure admired greatly the new tombs of the Kings of 
Sardinia, filled up the rest of the stay. Then they ' put off 
their beautiful lace, packed up their beautiful swords and their 
beautiful buttons, and put on their mountain clothes.' During 
this visit to the Court Madame de Saussure, we may fancy, got 


more entertainment from her husband's lively letters than on 
any of his mountain tours. She in return was able to send him 
an account of a dinner at La Boissiere, where the ' charmante 
Minette' was staying with her father-in-law, Jean Robert 
Tronchin. She had sat next Sir Samuel Romilly and found him 
very agreeable : ' un melange du ton de Paris avec d'anciennes 
phrases Genevoises, ce qui fait une conversation assez piquante. 
Comme il a beaucoup vecu avec Diderot, avec Rousseau, il a des 
anecdotes inteiessantes a raconter.' 

It was in the following winter that de Saussure issued his 
strenuous reply to Deluc's attack on his hygrometer. There 
appears to be no doubt that he was in the right, though some of his 
contemporaries thought his tone too severe. He certainly did 
not spare his opponent's feelings. He told Deluc that ' in his 
Recherches sur les Modifications de V Atmosphere,' he had given ' none 
but false or confused ideas of all that has to do with the theory of 
evaporation.' He continued : ' What he calls his theory is nothing 
but my own. I shall proceed to show on similar evidence that the 
theories that are really M. Deluc's are worth no more than his 
hygrometer. Let me not, however, be thought to be an enemy of 
contradiction ; on the contrary, I welcome objections to my opinions 
when they are proposed with the object of proving or discovering 
the truth. But when one recognises an obvious intention to 
disparage a work, when one finds a writer hunting for mistakes 
for the sole pleasure of exposing them, playing on words in an 
attempt to involve the author in a contradiction, attributing to 
himself or others the author's merits, attacking him on generally 
accepted opinions as if they were peculiar to him, presenting his 
views in the most unfavourable light, and finally assuming the 
tone of a schoolmaster who is correcting his pupil's theme and 
distributing impartial blame and praise, one is equally disgusted 
at the criticism and the commendation.' 1 

Three months later (April 1788) de Saussure 's claims to 
membership of the Royal Society were at last admitted. That 
body, which, despite the recommendation of Sir William Hamilton 
twelve years before, had failed to accept de Saussure 's candidature, 
now opened to the conqueror of Mont Blanc a gate not so narrow 

1 See for a further consideration of de Saussure's meteorological work, Dr. 
Mill's comments in the Appendix. 


as it has since become. This feat, however, was not mentioned 
in his diploma, which somewhat quaintly specified the grounds 
of election as ' his services to literature and solid philosophy.' 
One would like to think that Sir Joseph Banks, while signing it, 
was led to remember not without remorse his last supper 
with de Saussure and Miss Harriet Blosset before sailing for 
Otahiti, twenty years earlier ! 

At the end of June de Saussure started with his son for the 
Col du Geant. They arrived at Chamonix on the same day as the 
Duke of Kent, the future father of Queen Victoria, who had been 
staying in Geneva since the previous year, and remained till 
January 1790, when, says the official register, he left ' sans avoir 
pris cong6 de personne.' The Duke had some excuse. He was 
a youth at the time, and fled home without leave in order to escape 
from the control of a severe tutor. 

The winter of 1788 was marked by the renewal, after seven 
years of commercial prosperity but political discontent, of the 
constitutional struggle within the walls of Geneva. There were 
adequate causes for an outbreak in the continued reluctance of 
the Negatives to make any concessions to their opponents by 
widening the franchise or removing the disabilities that still 
pressed on the bulk of the growing industrial population. To these 
specific grievances must be added the unrest that prevailed across 
the French border and the influence of Rousseau on the Genevese 
populace. A frivolous dispute about the expulsion of an actress 
caused the first commotion. But the immediate spark that set 
light to the highly combustible material ready at hand was an 
injudicious act on the part of the Government. Owing to a 
severe frost, ice interfered with the action of the watermills on the 
Rhone, and the authorities raised the price of bread. Their 
action produced street rioting ; barricades were erected ; there 
was some loss of life. The Government was not in a position to 
take prompt and vigorous action. Conscious of its weakness and 
unpopularity, it was reluctant to use against its own citizens 
the small mercenary force at its disposal. In January 1789 the 
Councils capitulated without a struggle ; they yielded to the 
demand for a general revision of the constitution and a reversal 
of the reactionary settlement of 1782. The mercenaries were 
dismissed, the Clubs re-established, the exiles recalled. Amongst 



the changes enacted was the abolition of the Military Committee 
which controlled the garrison of the town, of which de Saussure 
had ceased to be a member two years previously. In this year he 
was put on the Council of Sixty, which met occasionally for the 
management of foreign affairs. No doubt his position and 
family connection with Necker were thought likely to be of service 
in the negotiations on hand for obtaining the approval by the 
guaranteeing Powers of the constitutional reforms. 

The Edit de Reconciliation, carried in the General Assembly by 
an immense majority, was celebrated in the traditional Genevese 
fashion. There were processions with bands, rows of youths 
dressed in scarlet scarves, embraces and salutations, and the 
inevitable poetical effusions, of which the following couplets may 
serve as a favourable specimen : 

' Tout change ; un subit orage 

Au lieu de foudre a jet6 

Sur les fers de Pesclavage, 

Les fleurs de la liberteV 

All passes ; sudden showers 

In place of lightning stroke 
With piles of Freedom's flowers 

Have buried Slavery's yoke. 

Geneva, singularly poor in poets, has always been rich in 
rhymers. Unhappily, in 1789, men's minds were not in a state 
to be permanently soothed by feeble rhymes and sham sentiment. 
The disquiet instigated by emissaries from Paris spread from the 
streets to the villages of the little State, and the peasants, keen to 
be relieved, like those of France, from the feudal burdens of their 
tenures, eagerly joined the agitators of the town. Liberal reforms 
were enacted, but it was too late. Equality was in the air and 
anarchy at the gates. The revolutionaries of Paris regarded 
Geneva as * a nest of aristocrats ' ; the proletariat of Geneva 
looked on Paris as Utopia. 

De Saussure, we are at first surprised to learn, was one of the 
relatively small group by whom the Edict was opposed in the 
Assembly. The reason for his action is, I think, not hard of dis- 
covery, although it has hitherto been generally overlooked. The 
celebrated Edict has been described by a Genevese historian, 
M. Fazy, as a mediocre piece of patchwork, in many respects 


imperfect and calculated to be a starting-point for fresh disputes ! l 
On this ground, we learn from the same authority, a group, belong- 
ing to the party of the Repr6sentants, voted against it in the 
Assembly. 2 Now the best a contemporary apologist could find to 
say for the Edict was, ' Nous avons fait un arrangement aussi pas- 
sable en soi que 1'urgence des temps et la disposition des esprits 
nous le permettaient.' 3 It is surely reasonable to assume that 
de Saussure's vote in the Great Council was influenced by reasons 
similar to those ascribed by M. Fazy to the group of Represen- 
tants in the Assembly ; and his action a year later in proposing 
a revision of the Edict appears to afford convincing proof of the 
truth of this assumption. 

M. Fazy's violent outburst on a previous page of his work 
with respect to de Saussure's attitude on this occasion would 
seem therefore to be not only inconsistent but unjustifiable. I 
quote it below with regret, but it is impossible for a biographer 
of de Saussure to leave unnoticed language which obviously calls 
for explanation. 4 

For the present the political crisis did not interfere with de 
Saussure's usual summer visit to the mountains. On this 
occasion he broke new ground, and at last approached Monte 
Rosa, the great mountain he had nine years previously tried 
to sketch the outline of from Vercelli. His diary of the tour 
and some of his letters to his wife bearing directly on it have 
already been quoted. Others have an interest, however, apart 
from mountain exploration, which makes me return to them here. 
It was at Macugnaga that de Saussure heard of the fall of the 
Bastille, and his comment on it proves his liberal sympathies and 
how far he was from being the obstinate oligarch he has been 
sometimes represented. The entry in his diary shows that he 

1 Gen&ve de 1788 a 1792 : La Fin d'un Regime, par M. Henri Fazy, Geneve, 
1917, p. 71. 

2 ' Dans le nombre des 52 rejetants, il y eut, dit-on, autant de Repr6sen- 
tants que de Negatifs,' p. 61 of same work. 

3 D'lvernois, Revolutions de Geneve, vol. iii. p. 301. 

* ' n y eutfcependant de 1'opposition. Le croirait-on ? le celebre naturalisto 
de Saussure fut au nombre de ceux qui se prononcerent centre le pro jet. II 
arrive frequemment que des savants du plus grand merite temoignent d'une com- 
plete incompetence, lorsqu'ils sont appeles a se prononcer sur des questions 
d'ordre politique. En cette occasion de Saussure manqua de la clairvoyance la 
plus elementaire.' Geneve de 1788 a 1792, p. 58. 


fully shared the enthusiasm with which Fox is recorded to have 
greeted the great news : 

' July 27. My letters bring very good news from home, and of the 
happy revolution at Paris and Versailles. This brings balm to my soul.' 

In his reply to his wife's letters he comments more fully 

' on all these strange events, which you describe to me better and 
more clearly than [Franyois] Tronchin does in the long bulletin Dejean 
sends me. Ah ! how fine and good it all is ; but this wicked Queen 
and all the authors of this odious plot, will they escape unpunished ? 
What unheard-of horrors ! And this King, said to be good, to have 
taken part in the assassinations ! l If they had accomplished their 
crime they would not have been more advanced, for I am convinced 
they would have had their throats cut by the people. I hope the 
Queen will be so mortified, will find herself fallen under such opprobrium, 
that she will be obliged to go back to her own country. Adieu ; had 
you received my two letters you would have seen that I have never 
had the least doubt as to the happy issue of this business. Still, I am 
glad to know it is over and how it ended. So I shall not be reduced 
to become a miner at Macugnaga ; in that case I should have brought 
you here and built you a nice warm house ! The place is charming, 
there are no such fine glaciers anywhere but at Chamonix, and here 
there is more plain, the most beautiful meadows, delicious woods, 
the houses all standing separate and surrounded by grass, to the 
point that one cannot go out without getting one's feet wet. This is 
a bit too like England ! ' 

A few days before he had written cheerfully to his wife on the 
effect that the troubles in Paris were likely to have on the French 
rentes, in which, as was general in Geneva, his father's fortune was, 
in great part , invested. He mentions that there were at Macugnaga 
several ' merchants ' who had connections with France and shared 
his optimism as to the results of the Revolution. 

' The news,' he writes, ' anxious as it is, does not alarm me greatly 
for our fortunes, since, after all, if neither the King nor the nation 
desire to be bankrupt, the victor will pay us. Besides, it is possible 
that in the end these events will produce a more stable situation and 
give a wholesome warning to the disturbers of the public peace. 

' What appears to me doubtful is whether M. Necker will return, 

1 The rumours which reached Geneva from Paris as to the action of the 
Court at this moment would seem to have been very exaggerated. 


even if the King begs him, but if the Etats G4neraux win, as they 
certainly will, they are sure to prevent a financial disaster, and force 
the minister, whoever he may be, to pay the creditors of the State.' 

Necker had just retired to Basle on his dismissal from office, and 
was, it seems, expected at Geneva, and de Saussure, after sending 
messages to him, goes on : 

' You are very kind to assure me you would not complain of being 
reduced to eat the Conches potatoes, if we shared them. For my part, 
I protest I should mind reduced circumstances much more for you than 
myself ; but then I should make no more long journeys, we should 
cultivate our cabbages together, and our affection would supply the 
dressing. But once more, I am really not at all anxious about our 

Towards the end of the year domestic trouble was added to de 
Saussure 's political embarrassments. His wife suffered from a 
serious attack of fever, and recovered only after a long convales- 
cence, during which he is reported to have watched over her with 
ceaseless anxiety. 

The political situation in Geneva in the winter 1789-90 was 
still anxious but hopeful. The Powers had more or less reluct- 
antly given their sanction to the proposed reforms. There was 
an opportunity for a wise and moderate statesman to bring in and 
carry measures that might have made Geneva a democratic 
Republic, and have united all the sound elements in the city in 
resistance to the extreme demagogues, the so-called ' Egaliseurs,' 
whose object was to make a clean sweep of the old institutions and 
to start afresh from a dead level of perfect equality. If the little 
State was to escape foundering in the stormy seas of the French 
Revolution, strong statesmanship was essential. 

On the 1st February 1790, de Saussure brought forward in the 
Great Council a motion to the following effect : 

' That a Committee be constituted of Members of the Senate and 
Great Council which should carefully take into consideration the 
changes called for in the Edict of 1789, with the help of the advice of 
all citizens willing to offer it, so that the result may be brought before 
the General Assembly on May 1st, since, in view of the new ideas set 
afloat by the French Revolution, and the political ferment resulting 
from them, it is impossible not to realise that we have need of a Con- 
stitution carefully framed and acceptable to the commonalty.' 


This statesmanlike proposal, according to a contemporary 
chronicler, ' gave pain to many of the patricians, coming as it did 
from one of their own body.' De Saussure's action on this occa- 
sion is correctly appreciated by M. Fazy , the historian quoted above . 
He writes : ' The Professor showed a wise and far-seeing mind : he 
heard the storm grumbling in France, and he recognised that the 
repercussion would soon be felt. His aim was to forestall by 
opportune measures the revolution of which he recognised the 
premonitory symptoms. But the Great Council was incapable of 
any energetic action in the sense of reform.' De Saussure's pro- 
posal was two months later politely shelved, though a majority of 
the members was in favour of it. The Syndics Were charged not 
to suggest improvements on the Edict of the previous year, but 
to prepare a new code. The result of their labours proved so un- 
popular, that in November 1790 a committee of twelve, of which 
de Saussure was a member, was, after all, appointed. 

I must interrupt here the political story for a moment to note 
that in January 1791 de Saussure, after delays caused by the 
strained relations between the King and the academical authorities, 
was elected one of the eight Foreign Members of the French 
Academy of Sciences. His friend and enthusiastic admirer, 
Madame de Montesson, the widow of the scientific Due d' Orleans, 
the father of Philippe Egalite, interested herself deeply in his can- 
didature, and wrote agitated letters telling him of the various 
obstacles that had to be surmounted. 

In the course of the summer de Saussure paid a short visit to 
the Brisgau, which furnished material for a geological pamphlet. 

The next four years were to be a period of continual broils. 
An improvised administration with no force at its disposal capable 
of enforcing law and order was confronted by irresponsible bodies, 
the so-called Clubs, which had sprung into renewed life, while the 
' Egaliseurs,' or anarchists, of Geneva were bent on imitating on a 
small scale the excesses of the rabble of Paris apes imitating 
tigers, Madame de Stael called them. Madame Necker expressed, 
less epigrammatically, the same opinion : ' We have left Geneva ; 
this little city follows in everything in the footsteps of France, 
and pygmies excite only contempt when they imitate the terrible 
gestures of Briarean giants. This criminal parody is destroying, 
perhaps for ever, a city once so flourishing ; fortunes are being 


brought to an equality by perpetual levies, as they are in France by 

The report of the Committee on Reform was not presented to 
the General Assembly until the 15th February 1791. On the same 
day the town was in uproar and the peasantry of the surrounding 
villages threatened to break through the gates. Finally, on 
22nd March, the report, greatly revised, passed the Assembly in the 
form of an Edict, and the Committee which had prepared it was 
called on to codify the laws of the Republic. At this point de 
Saussure and two other members retired. On the 14th November 
1791, the new code was accepted by the General Assembly. In 
the opinion of competent chroniclers of the time it removed all the 
more substantial grievances and was a compromise which, loyally 
carried out, might have made Geneva a prosperous self-governing 
democracy. But it was exposed to the danger fatal to so many 
compromises, that it satisfied the partisans on neither side. The 
extreme party, the ' Egaliseurs,' true to their name, were eager to 
level to the ground the ancient institutions of the Republic. 
Meantime, the state of affairs in France gave warning of the 
troubles to come, and might well have urged the Genevese to set 
their own house in order. 

As the present generation has learnt, ordinary life goes on even 
in the darkest days. In March 1792 de Saussure found time to 
lecture at the Society of Arts ' On the Lack of any Expression of 
the Sentiment of Gratitude in Greek Literature .' Gibbon, who was 
at the time staying with the Neckers, attended the lecture, and sent 
through M. Necker de Germagny, the brother of the financier and 
the father-in-law of de Saussure's daughter, a criticism to be read 
before the Society. Its point, apparently, was a reproach to de 
Saussure for having questioned, not the expression, but the 
existence of any sense of gratitude among the Greeks. De Saus- 
sure's reply to Gibbon is characteristic of his impatience of any 
criticism he thought misplaced, and of his vigour in controversy. 
I quote a portion of it : 

' Monsieur I listened yesterday with much interest to your letter 
to M. de Germagny which was read to our Society. But I was grieved 
to find that you seemed to attribute to me a desire to establish that 
the sentiment of gratitude was unknown to the ancient Greeks. I 
spoke of the word, of the act of giving thanks, the form which ex- 


presses them, but I was very far from questioning the feeling. I said 
this expressly. I added that this feeling being shown even by animals, 
it was impossible to suppose that man had ever been without it. I 
employed further to prove the existence of the feeling and the duty 
of gratitude the argument which you employ yourself, Monsieur ; I 
said that anyone who asks a service of another would always begin 
by reminding him of the services previously rendered to him. 

' Doubtless, Monsieur, you were distracted during part of this 
lecture, and when, like you, one has a brain full of great and beautiful 
thoughts, it is permissible to follow them and neglect those of others. 
But since the idea you attribute to me is at once infinitely absurd 
and immoral, it is impossible for me to leave you to believe I ever 
entertained it. ... 

' I will not further insist on the literary side of this question, and if 
you persist in maintaining that the Greeks gave thanks and expressed 
gratitude as the modern Greeks and the Latins and we have since 
done, I shall not be ashamed if I have been mistaken in opposing you. 
But what would make me blush perpetually is to have thought that 
the feeling of gratitude is a modern invention and almost a matter of 
fashion. This would really be worthy of a tiger or a Jacobin, to use, 
Monsieur, the ingenious combination you employ in your letter. . . . 
I seize with eagerness, Monsieur, this opportunity to prove to you 
how much I value your good opinion, and how charmed I and my 
family have been to make our acquaintance more intimate, and how 
much we all hope to be in a better position to cultivate it.' l 

During the summer of 1792 there was a period of temporary 
tranquillity at Geneva, a calm before the storm, and de Saussure, 
freed from his committees, seized the occasion to renew his 
acquaintance with the Monte Rosa group by a second visit to the 
St. Theodule Pass. It would seem, however, that he left home 
with even more than his usual fear of a parting scene, for his 
diary particularly notes that he slipped off unnoticed at early dawn, 
and in a letter to his wife from Breuil he expresses his remorse 
for his conduct : 

' I curse,' he writes, ' this passion for the mountains which causes 
such torments to a soul so sweet, so tender, whose happiness is my 
most ardent desire. I have bitterly regretted the farewell kiss which 
I might have given you before starting, but then, how could I disturb 
your tranquil slumber by causing a flood of tears ? ' 

1 Gibbon's Miscellaneous Works, vol. ii. p. 436. Edition of 1814. 


His wife's letters to him during his absence show that if she 
was apt to break down at partings, her courage and high spirits 
soon returned. If, as she tells him, ' I wept as only I can weep,' 
she soon dried her tears and turned to household cares. At the 
farm at Conches, to which she had retired, these were more varied 
than in town or at the villa at Genthod. She is at pains to re- 
assure him as to her welfare : 

' I find I live too little at Conches ; to tell the truth, it is the place 
where I am happiest. ... I shall be very happy when I get you back, 
and meantime I assure you I am not sad ; yesterday at La Boissiere 
they said I laughed as in old days.' 

Madame de Saussure gives details of all the terrible things 
that are passing in France, the massacre of the Swiss Guard, the 
King's removal to the Temple. She tells how Paris is the only 
topic of conversation ; how one of their friends in the Swiss Guard 
has escaped to England after leaving his sword and uniform in a 
cellar. All amusements had ceased at Lausanne. At Geneva, 
however, there was still society ; at Evian there were even dances. 
Necker had gone to refresh himself by a trip to Chamonix ; an 
Englishman had failed to get up Mont Blanc, 1 and there had been 
an accident to his guides. Lord and Lady Palmerston, with a 
number of English ladies, had called on her. She had refused an 
afternoon party at the du Pans preferring to remain at home 
' with her book, her bull, and her donkey I don't mean Alphonse, 
but the bull's doctor, for the poor beast languishes and makes 
no progress.' She completes elsewhere the portrait of the in- 
competent veterinary : 

' What an imposing figure the doctor of Carouge makes, with his 
glass in his hand ! He arrives mounted on his donkey. He has fought 
at Fontenoy and studied in the veterinary schools ; he went into the 
garden to pick herbs, of which he made a potion, promising me a 
second much more carefully prepared. In fact, I am so much persuaded 

1 EbeTs Guide adds further and more exact details of this accident. The party 
consisted of four Englishmen with guides. Their attempt came to a premature 
and unfortunate end. One of the travellers slipped in traversing some loose 
rocks at the top of the Montagne de la Cote, and they all fell. Two of the 
travellers were seriously injured, the guides were more or less bruised. No names 
are supplied. 


of his skill by the stories he tells of the number of beasts he has cured 
that should I fall ill which, please God, may not happen I should 
send for him sooner than for Dr. Odier ! ' 

On another day, after saying they get no Paris newspapers, she 
sends her Gazette de Conches : 

' The Court has gone into deep crape mourning for the noble Bull. 
The Queen of Conches has been the more affected since the Grand 
Medecin of Carouge had promised his recovery. There is a gala dinner 
to-day. Mme. Hubert and Mme. Necker and all the princes of the 
blood. Mme. de Saussure is very pleased to offer this fete before the 
return of her dear Seigneur, for it would have bored him. The dogs 
Loup and Le Bleu send their greeting.' 

Loup was de Saussure's companion on at least one of his tours. 

And so on, through pages of local gossip and affectionate out- 
pourings, with several pleasant allusions to de Saussure having 
in some remote Alpine village been taken for Rousseau (who had 
been dead fourteen years). There is no reference in the letters of 
this date to the loss of fortune caused by the troubles in France, 
which was, no doubt, the reason why Madame de Saussure had 
gone to Conches instead of Gtenthod for the summer. But we 
learn that at this time de Saussure borrowed from Necker thirty 
thousand li vres . The debt was after his death released by Madame 
de Stael, as Necker 's heir, transferring the security to her cousin, 
Madame Necker-de Saussure. 

Shortly after de Saussure's return, we find the Marquis de 
Grouchy (a name Waterloo makeg familiar to English readers) 
writing to thank de Saussure for a copy of his Voyages, and for 
the pleasure he has had from a visit to Chamonix. Grouchy was 
a brother-in-law of de Saussure's friend, Condorcet, and his wife 
had literary tastes. On his return he offered de Saussure in 
exchange some geological specimens. 

In the autumn of 1792 the popular party was again turbulent 
and little disposed to accept the settlement of the previous year, 
while the Government, alarmed of enemies both without and 
within the gates, could think of nothing better than to invite a 
Bernese garrison to protect it. With the chief of the Mediating 
Powers, France, no longer on their side, this was an act of suicidal 
folly. The Convention naturally replied by threatening, unless 


the Swiss troops were dismissed, an occupation of the city. The 
Government yielded. Bereft of its only support and left face to 
face with an angry populace, it hastily proposed to offer still 
larger concessions. Before these could be discussed it was no 
longer in power ; the time for reform had passed and revolution 
was within the gates. The old constitution of Geneva, its Syndics 
with their wigs and silk coats and staves of office, its ' Spectables ' 
and ' Nobles ' and ' Venerable Compagnie,' had all passed away, 
or were to linger only as ineffectual shades. The revolutionary 
Clubs now became masters of the situation. 

In the last days of December 1792, a Committee of forty mem- 
bers was charged to devise a new form of government. A month 
later the task was transferred to a Constituent Assembly of 
one hundred and twenty members. Meantime, two Provisional 
Committees, one of Public Order, one of Administration, were 
created to carry on affairs. At this crisis de Saussure acted with 
noteworthy public spirit and courage. Many of the patrician 
families had already left Geneva ; he remained in order to make 
a gallant effort to act as a check upon the anarchist group who, 
excited by the events in France, had lost whatever heads they once 
possessed, and, aided by the French Resident, Soulavie, were now 
threatening by their excesses to bring the ancient Republic to ruin. 

On the Civil Committee de Saussure and his fellow-professor, 
Bertrand, were at once nominated, and ' through excess of 
patriotism and at the request of the true friends of liberty,' 
consented to act as members, while the Military Committee 
begged the two professors to serve as captains of companies 
of the Citizen Militia. Yet this patriotic effort did not escape 
malicious criticism. De Saussure thought it right to bring 
before the Civil Committee an anonymous letter in which he 
was informed that his presence and that of other aristocrats 
impeded the work of their colleagues, and that steps, possibly 
involving bloodshed, might shortly be taken ' to sweep them 
out of the Council Chamber.' He added that he was firm in 
his wish to serve his country in any way practicable, but that 
he thought it right to consult his colleagues as to what course it 
seemed to them best for him to take in the public interest. The 
Committee unanimously assured the members impugned of their 
appreciation of ' the wisdom, moderation, and true patriotism ' 


which they had displayed, and of their desire to retain their 
service. In conjunction with his friend Trembley, who was 
also a member of the Civil Committee, de Saussure lost no time in 
presenting to his colleagues an address urging the Government to 
take measures ' for the maintenance of order and of brotherly 
feeling under the rule of Liberty and Equality.' 

Meantime, the victorious ' Egaliseurs ' did their best on a 
small scale to imitate Paris. They planted Trees of Liberty; 
they organised, in honour of Jean Jacques Rousseau, a theatrical 
out-of-doors fete of the kind dear to the local mind ; they 
wreathed his bust with flowers and danced and embraced round 
it ; they feasted in the streets, singing : 

' Oui, desormais libre et tranquille, 
Le Genevois en paix vivra, 
Tons ne feront qu'un dans la ville, 
Le bonheur y residera.' 

These pleasant anticipations were not to be realised. 


IN January 1793 de Saussure, as a member of the Civil or 
Administrative Committee, was busy in preparing a scheme 
for establishing the Constituent Assembly. In combination with 
Etienne Dumont, a moderate Radical, who was a friend of 
Mirabeau and had spent some time in England, he sent to 
one of the Genevese Clubs an argumentative letter, urging 
that in the proposals to be laid before the citizens for the 
election of the Constituent Assembly the number of members 
should be fixed, or at any rate only a limited choice between two 
or three alternative figures offered. He was at pains to point 
out that unless this course was followed, the result was likely to 
be a prolonged series of meetings and debates and a consequent 
delay which might prove a serious danger to the State. The 
suggestion was obviously a practical one, and it was acted on. 
De Saussure's action in this instance fully bears out Dumont's 
expressions in a letter written probably a year earlier to Reybaz, 
the Genevese Agent at Paris. ' Messieurs de Saussure and Bertrand 
rally to the democracy and to all it involves for the sake of the 
independence [of Geneva], and out of weariness of a system which 
has harassed them.' 

Early in the same month we find de Saussure, acting as a 
member of the Provisional Committee, adding his signature to 
a despatch to Lord Granville, the British Minister for Foreign 
Affairs, in which, after an allusion to the close ties that united 
England and the Genevese Republic, the writers declare that the 
recent troubles in the State have resulted in the formation of a 
Committee charged to draw up and promulgate a constitution, 
which it is hoped may satisfy all parties and lead to a permanent 
settlement. A month later the Committee nominated a list of 
240 names for a Constituent Assembly, from which, according to 



the old Genevese custom, the General Assembly was invited to 
select half. 

At the end of January the esteem in which de Saussure was 
held by his fellow-citizens was shown by his selection as one of 
the delegates to receive General Kellermann, who came on behalf 
of the French Republic to admonish the Genevese not to look 
too much towards Switzerland for aid in their troubles. A 
banquet in honour of the General was held on the day on which 
the news of the execution of Louis the Sixteenth reached Geneva. 

In March de Saussure was put on a small Committee of eleven 
charged to frame the articles of a new constitution, and in April 
was further nominated one of three members of a Diplomatic 

In the Constituent Assembly, which was now sitting, we find 
de Saussure taking the Presidency, which was a frequently 
shifting office, for a short term. His family, his wife writes, 
liked him better in his professor's robes than in his presi- 
dential garment. In the Assembly he had as a colleague his old 
acquaintance and companion, Bourrit, the cathedral Precentor. 
Born a Natif , and never admitted into the society of the Upper 
Town, 'notre Bourrit,' as his townsfolk called him, now found 
himself exalted to a share in public life. His two sons, whose 
Alpine performances we have recorded, had both become pastors 
and popular preachers. It is to Bourrit's credit that in the 
present crisis his lifelong connection with the Church proved 
stronger than his political associations. He stood up manfully 
for the clergy when it was proposed to exclude them from any 
part in the control of popular education. Nor was this the only 
occasion on which he showed the courage of his convictions. Of 
another debate in the Assembly we have a satirical report from 
Desonnaz, one of the more violent of the demagogues : 

' Nothing could be more entertaining than the sitting of the 
National Assembly to-day. The subject was the renaming of the 
churches. A citizen proposed, reasonably enough, names connected 
with some event, or some particular connection, for each of these 
houses of God. What greatly amused me was to hear a philosopher 
(de Saussure) praising the Saints, while a simple artisan (Fol) de- 
nounced them. The former maintained that to dedicate a church to 
Reason was to personify an ideal metaphysical abstraction. Fol 


replied, " That is true ; I agree, one cannot dedicate a church to 
Reason." Bourrit, Vhomme des Alpes, judiciously argued that what 
Calvin had not reformed ought to be let alone. And you will tell 
me that man has not wit for four ! No doubt it was on Mont Blanc 
that he acquired it. The Assembly decided nothing, but referred the 
matter to a Committee to report.' l 

This is Bourrit's last appearance in connection with de 
Saussure. The Precentor was to live on to the age of eighty ; 
he died in 1819. His French pension was renewed after the 
Restoration, and when he could no longer conduct his patrons to 
the glaciers, he continued to issue his Guide-books to Chamonix. 
It is pleasant to leave him engaged in proving his loyalty to his 
old church associations and showing the courage of his opinions. 
For, despite his too many and obvious foibles and failings, the old 
Precentor keeps a certain hold on our affections. His enthusiasm 
for the mountains, the pluck and pertinacity with which he tried 
to be a climber, even his naive exaggerations, which were to some 
extent illusions, recommend him to our kindly recollection and 
go far to make us forget the mischief he wrought. It was not 
malice so much as vanity that constantly led him astray. 
Bourrit was not only an honest lover of the Alps, but the author 
of the first volume in our language of Alpine literature in the 
modern sense of the words, and we wave a friendly farewell to his 
fading figure. 

Cornuaud, the busy pamphleteer and political agitator already 
mentioned, bore in a Journal that has only recently been published, 
the following emphatic testimony to de Saussure's wise counsels 
during this period : 

' Professor PreVost was the most brilliant and subtle of the orators 
on the side of the ancient constitution, but Professor de Saussure was 
the most adroit. The latter had a great influence over the debates of 
the Assembly, and was the last of the men of importance of his party 
to remain in it. The Republic owed him much ; he diminished the 
harm that would have been done in his absence. A happy mixture of 
flexibility and firmness which formed the base of his character 
though he could be reserved and haughty in ordinary life procured 
for him in the Assembly an influence which was valuable to the 

1 Correspondance de Orenus et Desonnaz, ou Etat Politique et Moral de la 
Republique de Geneve, Gen&ve, 1794, vol. i. p. 65. 


Commonwealth. He recognised from the first that the situation was 
one in which it was not possible to resist the destructive torrent, but 
rather expedient to appear to follow it, so as to obtain means to check 
its speed and, when possible, to divert it. He enjoyed, moreover, in 
the esteem of his fellow-citizens, a well -deserved respect independent 
of the reputation given him by his position in the scientific world. As 
a citizen they had seen him show himself a brave and honest aristocrat 
in the sort of blockade to which his house had been subjected in 1782, 
a serious and resolute character in 1789, an excellent and serviceable 
Genevese when the French threatened a siege of the city, and he was 
gladly recognised as a reasonable and moderate citizen in the National 
Assembly. To sum up, Professor de Saussure was the citizen of his 
class who knew best in each change of the political situation to adapt 
himself with straightforwardness and dignity to the spirit of the time.' l 

Higher praise could hardly be given. 

In May 1793 de Saussure lost his beloved neighbour, friend, and 
master, Bonnet. Despite his many infirmities, Bonnet had lived 
to be seventy-three. Even the disturbed state of local politics 
did not prevent his fellow-citizens from desiring to do honour to 
his memory. It was resolved to place on his house the tablet 
which may still be seen opposite the Place du Molard in the Rues 
Basses. After delay caused by one of the many political riots 
of the period, de Saussure delivered in the church of St. Germain 
a funeral oration, which is of interest not only for its eloquent 
appreciation of his uncle's qualities of head and heart, but also 
as an indication of his own standpoint in religious matters. The 
service was attended by all the authorities of the city, who 
marched in procession from the Town Hall through the crowded 
streets. The band, it is recorded, played the Marseillaise 'even 
in church.' 

We have an account from the pen of Madame de Saussure of 
Geneva as it appeared on the day on which it had been first 
intended de Saussure should deliver his eulogy of his uncle : 

' Yesterday I passed one of those days of emotion of which the 
habit we have acquired does not diminish the impression. There was 
a call to arms at the orders of the Committees, or the Clubs. The 
gates were shut, cannon rumbled, women, weeping and screaming, hung 
out of the windows, in the evening the town had the martial appear- 

1 Mimoires Isaac Cornuaud sur Geneve ft la Revolution de 1770 a 1795, 
publtees par Mile. E. Cherbuliez (Geneve, 1912). 


ance you know the streets full of armed citizens, lit torches, and 
challenges. All this hubbub went on till two or three o'clock this 
morning, and then to-day everyone is back in his shop, his caf6, or 
his office. . . . This stormy day had been destined for the celebration 
of a very quiet citizen, your uncle Charles Bonnet. We were thinking 
only of securing places for the ceremony. The country folk, even 
the timid ones, had all come into Geneva attracted by the show : they 
have firmly vowed not to put their feet in town again. . . . Your 
sister called for a moment to find if I was dying of fear. We have 
shown the world, we old ladies of Geneva, that we are not to be killed 
in that way.' 

In the following June the ' Egaliseurs ' proposed that the citizens 
should be invited to take a voluntary oath of allegiance to Liberty, 
Equality, and Fraternity. The object was transparent to pro- 
vide a black list of abstainers. De Saussure, anxious in every 
way in his power to promote unity, took the oath, but both his 
sons refused. 

His multiplied political functions did not deter de Saussure 
from making yet another effort in the cause which from his youth 
he had had deeply at heart. In August, returning to the field of 
his first endeavours, he put forward a scheme for free national 
education. It is interesting to note that his collaborator was 
Isaac Bourrit. The pert youth of the Aiguille du Gouter had now 
developed into a sober minister and administrator. 

The primary schools were to serve for boys and girls up 
to the age of ten. The subjects taught were to be reading, 
writing, arithmetic, the principles of religion and morals, the 
rights and duties of citizens, and a summary of the laws. Country 
children were to be instructed in rural economy and domestic 
and veterinary medicine, which were to be put in the hands of 
the local pastors ! Girls were to learn needlework. 

De Saussure would have wished to add geography, general 
history, and elementary science to his scheme. ' But,' he 
writes, 'my colleagues, less ambitious, and perhaps knowing 
better than I do what is practicable in existing conditions, have 
persuaded me that it is better to class these subjects as voluntary 
studies.' There were to be three divisions : primary, secondary, 
and final classes. The secondary classes were not to be com- 
pulsory. Advanced students were to have the opportunity of 



learning Latin, Greek, and music. Popular concerts were to be 
provided. The final classes, destined for pupils over fifteen, were 
to be given in French, instead of Latin as hitherto. Swimming, 
gymnastics, and riding were to be encouraged. The pupils were 
all to wear a simple black uniform. Three annual fetes were pro- 
vided for, with, of course, a procession, and a good-conduct prize, 
to be determined by the pupils' votes. There was to be in 
addition an Administrative Council, which would exercise paternal 
discipline, and also look after orphans and illegitimate children. 
Calvin would seem not to have altogether expelled Cupid 1 
Indeed, the police records provide a good deal of evidence that, 
despite sumptuary laws and the vigilance of the Consistory, the 
morals of the town had never been beyond reproach. 

Like other political schemes of the date, de Saussure's was 
swept aside by the French annexation in 1798. 

Meantime, de Saussure's elder son, Theodore, unconscious of 
the disasters impending on his family and country, was absent in 
England, investigating the manufacturing districts, and greatly 
enjoying himself in visits to the Isle of Wight, Stow, and Derby- 
shire in company with Sir John Swinburne and his wife. Lady 
Swinburne, the daughter of Mr. Bennet, his mother's cousin, 
who lived at Beckenham, was a distant relation, and Theodore 
in his letters home expresses the warmest admiration of her wit, 
talent, and charm. Passing through Oxford, he records that he 
dined, probably in one of the College Halls, with ' twenty doctors 
in square caps.' In London he attended the meetings of the 
Royal Society, of which he was at a later date to become a 
Foreign Member, and his name is found in the list of guests at the 
Society's Dining Club. 

Madame de Saussure's letters written to her son whilst he was in 
England throw much light on the situation, political and personal. 
In the summer of 1793 she describes the terrible heat, ' which 
drove everyone into the lake,' while her husband and Alphonse, 
her younger son, as members of the local militia, had to per- 
form their military duties. The city had been scandalised by 
a masquerade a mock procession of figures burlesquing the 
Syndics, dressed in their time-honoured costume, crowned by 
immense wigs, holding their staves of office, and preceded by 
ushers in the traditional blue and purple mantles, which went 


round the town and levied contributions from the butchers and 

In September 1793 Madame de Saussure throws out a first hint 
that her son's stay in England may have to be cut short on the 
ground of expense. In December she has to tell him that all the 
Genevese, her husband among them, have lost their fortunes : 

' The only reproach,' she writes, ' that can be brought against your 
father is that he was too hasty in coming to the help of a friend he 
believed to be prudent and trustworthy. I am only too glad that 
my fortune has so far prevented a crash we all dread, but it can no 
longer, my children, provide you a brilliant existence or even the 
ease to which we have all been accustomed. If nothing fortunate 
happens for him, you must look out for a travelling tutorship, or a 
wealthy bride ; if these fail we shall have to live in our old stuffs and 
our old green tapestries, with a little maid in a black cap. 

' But we must be contented, and think it is our own choice, and 
not be making comparisons with what we have seen and been accus- 
tomed to. You have the opportunity, my friend see if you can 
accustom yourself to the simple life, at least for a long time. Perhaps 
we shall not be less happy.' 

The practical position was that the de Saussure fortune was 
lost, at any rate as far as any present income was concerned, and 
Madame de Saussure 's very seriously impaired. Investments paid 
no interest, rents could not be collected, very heavy taxation was 
supplemented by levies on capital. As a last blow, a certain 
Dejean, an ' agent de change,' or stockbroker, who had acted for 
de Saussure, had become bankrupt. The Neckers had, as has 
been already mentioned, come to his help with a substantial loan. 

The letter ends with a description of yet another of the in- 
evitable processions in which the Genevese were wont to express 
their feelings and forget, for a time, their quarrels. This time, 
however, it was the annual and time-honoured one in celebration 
of the ' Escalade,' the famous repulse of the Duke of Savoy from 
the walls in 1602. 

Theodore, who was very happy in England, failed at first to 
realise the gravity of the situation. He evidently thought his 
mother was needlessly alarmed, and it was not until he received 
confirmation from his father of the state of affairs that he took 
matters at all seriously. Then he at once expressed his anxiety 


to find some occupation which would give him an independent 
income. To his father's suggestion that he might take a tutorship, 
he replied that owing to the war the English were not travelling, 
and that the bent of his studies scientific rather than classical 
was little likely to recommend him to an English patron. 

About this time Madame de Saussure mentions a startling 
visit : 

' At supper your father was asked for. The caller was brought 
into the salon, and Tetu [the domestic who climbed Mont Blanc with 
de Saussure] lit one of the candles on the mantelpiece, which gave 
but a dim light. Your father left the joint, and saw before him a dark 
man, who exclaimed, " I am Marat." At the first moment he was 
tempted to think it was a ghost ! It was Marat's brother, of whom 
we had never heard.' J 

It was towards the end of 1793, we learn from the report of 
Dr. Odier already mentioned, that de Saussure's health, always 
uncertain, for his digestive troubles had never been wholly over- 
come, gave cause for serious anxiety. Dr. Odier's account 
(greatly abbreviated) is as follows : 

' To de Saussure's long and painful efforts to arrest or direct the 
torrent of our political revolutions were now added the anxieties caused 
by the grievous inroads on a fortune already seriously reduced. Similar 
losses befell most of our capitalists, but in his case the noble use he 
had always made of his wealth gave him a better right than others 
to view its loss with bitterness. These mental troubles reacted on his 
health, and he was attacked by frequent fits of giddiness, followed by 
a feeling of stiffness in the left arm and the left side of his face, which 
no remedy could overcome.' 

In the following February (1794) de Saussure was invited to 
stand for election as one of the four Syndics. 

' We might,' writes Madame de Saussure, ' have had the honour 
of being wife and daughter of a Syndic. Your father yesterday declined 
the prospect of this elevation, to the great content of the Syndic 
Dentand, who assured him he did well, because his health would have 
suffered. Your father retorted that it was because he thought he 
would have obtained a large number of votes that he did not care 
to take the risk. This conversation between the two candidates made 
the hearers, who were far from agreeing with Dentand, laugh.' 

1 The Marata came from Neuchatel; but Marat's father, a doctor, had at 
one time lived in Geneva. 


In a letter of 18th March 1794 we get the first definite warning 
of the greater misfortune of which Dr. Odier described the first 
symptoms. Madame de Saussure writes to her son : 

' Your poor father I say your poor father, for he has given me a 
great fright at the Assembly ten days ago had a seizure which de- 
prived him of any sense of touch in his arms and fingers, but not of 
the power of movement. A plaster has lessened, but not yet cured, 
his stiffness. He calls himself, in joke, the Paralytic ! But I cannot 
play with this suggestion ; it makes me tremble, though I have long 
foreseen it. Our paralyses do not attack the heart ; you will see.' 

From this time forward de Saussure was not only a ruined 
man constantly engaged in anxious inquiries for some honourable 
post which would supply an adequate income, but also an invalid 
driven from time to time to have recourse to Baths in the hope of 
restoring his health. His position in these respects may recall 
the last days of Sir Walter Scott. He showed an at least equal 
courage and energy in the protracted struggle of the following five 

We next hear of him congratulating it must have been 
satirically the renegade priest Soulavie, who was the French 
Resident at Geneva, on the recognition by Robespierre of the 
existence of a Deity shown in the Fete de 1'Etre Supreme held at 
Paris, and receiving the reply : ' Robespierre mocks at le bon Dieu 
as much as I do.' 

The troubles of all sorts in which he was now involved pro- 
duced in de Saussure, never too patient towards scientific dabblers 
and impostors, a marked increase of irritability. An unfortunate 
' Citoyen Boissel ' had floated down the part of the Rhone between 
the Jura and Lyons and published a Voyage Pittoresque, to which 
the French National Convention was pleased to accord an honour- 
able mention. In the course of his narrative he attributed to de 
Saussure a statement which drew forth this crushing reprimand : 

' I thank you, sir, a thousand times for sending me your Voyage 

' But I cannot thank you for the compliments contained in your 
letter. I should have preferred that, in place of flattering me in 
private, you had refrained from attributing to me in public an opinion 
which I never held. You suggest that I believe that the Rhone 
swallows light bodies thrown into it where it emerges [from the Perte 


du Rhone]. Now, I have never spoken of what is thrown in at its 
emergence that is too obviously stupid and absurd; the question 
was as to bodies thrown in where it disappears which are not seen to 
emerge again where it comes out. It is very strange that it should 
be possible to attribute a blunder of this sort to a creature that walks 
on two feet. I should have thought that all the details proved that 
I had never spoken of bits of wood thrown in at the emergence, but of 
those thrown in at the engulf ment. Allow me to tell you. sir, that 
the very fact that an opinion appears to one absurd ought to make 
one more careful, before attributing it to an author, to assure oneself 
he has really held it. Now the word reappear which I used in itself 
proves that I was not talking of a body which one launches at the 
point of emergence, as one might a boat.' 

As a rule, de Saussure's letters follow scrupulously the 
elaborately polite forms of the period. But when the occasion 
seemed to him one in which to dispense with them as in this case, 
and several previously cited he could be more than blunt. 

The close of the year 1793 had been marked by frequent dis- 
orders fomented by the French Resident. On 5th February 1794 
a radical constitution, formulated by the Constituent Assembly, 
was accepted by a popular vote. 

On receipt of this news the British Minister at Berne, Lord 
Robert Fitzgerald, promptly appealed to the Governments of 
Berne and Zurich to refuse to recognise the new democratic 
regime of Geneva, which he denounced as ' founded on the same 
system as that which had already in France produced so many 
crimes and calamities,' and as ' the fruit of intrigues and acts of 
violence instigated by the agents of enemies of His Majesty,' 
adding that * it had allowed the partisans of anarchy to insult the 
Allied Powers by permitting public rejoicings over defeats suffered 
by the armies which were fighting for the preservation and the 
civilisation of all the States of Europe.' 1 

Little effect seems to have been produced by this forcible 
remonstrance. At Geneva there was a relative calm for a few 
months ; the annual ' Promotions,' or School Speech-day, was 
celebrated as usual. But the city was still divided against itself, 
and the midsummer heat was to prove deadly to the new-born 

1 Archives Cantonalea de Berne, Aden Geheimen Raths : Genfer Unruhen, 
vol. xix. No. 23. 


For the three years following (1794-6) a private diary written 
by de Saussure, mostly in Greek, with occasional lapses into Latin, 
has been preserved and kindly put in my hands byM. Henri Necker. 
The handwriting is that of a scholar, small and fairly clear, but 
varies greatly with the state of the writer's health, and towards 
the close (November 1796) becomes hi places almost illegible. 

Unfortunately the contents are in the main medical. De 
Saussure recorded his daily actions and his own symptoms with 
singular and curt preciseness. Each day's entry begins with an 
account of the past night, of the baths, the exercise, and medicine 
taken. From time to time there are pathetic notes, such as 
' weaker and thinner,' ' legs giving way,' * writing difficult.' 
He was obviously ordered gentle exercise, and records his daily 
' walks in the house ' or out of doors, always with his devoted 
wife or daughter. In the earlier portion he records the public 
committees he was still attending. But the political entries are 
very few and brief ; for example, ' Murder of the Seven,' ' Murder 
of Baudit and Pradier ' are the only record of the two most tragic 
moments in Genevese history. For the rest we find notes of 
incidents of daily life, his visitors' calls, and his correspondence. 
His literary occupation is carefully set out, and the reader can 
follow week by week the composition of the two latter volumes of 
the Voyages, through the chapters on Mont Blanc, the Col du 
Geant, Monte Rosa, and Mont Cervin, to the Agenda and Index. 
A trip to Neuchatel, probably to see his publisher, in the spring 
of 1795 is mentioned. At the same time he was writing to a de 
Saussure at Charleston, South Carolina, and seeing a good deal 
of his brother geologist Dolomieu. 

The diary gives details as to his daily strolls from Conches, 
such as ' under the oaks to the weir,' * through the island to the 
river,' and ' to the bridge.' Since he was too much of an invalid 
to go more than a few hundred yards, these entries may serve to 
identify the exact site of the old farmhouse where his earliest and 
last days were passed. 

One entry runs : ' The Neckers [his daughter and son-in-law] 
leave, tears of my wife.' It is not the only occasion on which 
Madame de Saussure's famous tears figure in the diary. Every 
page of it bears witness to the devotion of a wife who idolised 
him, and of a daughter who understood and entered into his 


interests and lightened his last days by her affectionate and 
untiring care. 

In May 1794 Madame Necker, the wife of the financier, died, 
and in her the de Saussures lost a true and valuable friend. 

In the summer of that year Theodore returned to Geneva. 
His parents, in order to reduce their expenses, had retired to their 
farm at Conches, while Frontenex, the home of de Saussure's 
childhood, was sold. We also hear of the sale, through a Frankfort 
bookseller, of part of his library. 

The first waters de Saussure visited in search of health were 
those of Aix in Savoy, where we find him in May 1794. His wife 
did not accompany him. The explanation is contained in a 
letter from which we learn that the de Saussures hesitated both to 
leave Geneva at the same time on account of the risk of their 
properties being confiscated as those of emigrants. Empty houses 
were the first to be seized by the Revolutionary Government. 

On the 28th June Madame de Saussure wrote from Conches 
to her husband at Aix. As usual there had been a festival, the 
second in twelve months, in honour of Rousseau. 

' A great deal of powder was burnt to-day. I am told it was very 
successful ; a procession of girls, some crowned, others half veiled, 
all carrying garlands they piled on the monument ; another of old 
men leaning on sticks and supported by boys ; then the crowd and 
bands. As there was no rain and no feasting, the festival went ofi 
better than that of last year ! ' 

A week later Madame de Saussure was recording the departure 
for America of several of their friends. The coming storm was 
throwing its shadow in advance. Before it broke de Saussure had 
returned to his family at Conches. 

A city distracted by civil broils, in the course of which all its 
ancient institutions had been thrown into the melting-pot, was in 
no condition to resist the contagion on its borders. The Revolu- 
tion in France had excited class hostility and suggested the 
spoliation of the well-to-do ; the fumes of the Terror had infected 
the brains of the Genevese rabble, and made it eager to emulate 
the crimes of Paris on the peaceful shore of Lake Leman. 
There was no leader and no force at hand capable of controlling 
the situation. On the evening of July 19th the town was in the 


hands of the mob. The Government temporised, the Clubs 
always to the front in times of disorder were invited to send 
delegates to the Hotel de Ville. To this irregular meeting was 
left the appointment of a Revolutionary Committee. A number 
of prominent citizens were hastily arrested and brought before an 
improvised tribunal. 

The 24th July 1794 remains marked with a black stone in the 
annals of Geneva as the date of the Massacre on the Bastions. 
I give Theodore de Saussure's account, written to his sister three 
days later, of the events that led up to it, and of his own and his 
brother's escape from the distracted city : 

* ROLLE, 21th July 1794. 

' The presentiment which led us to pass the summer outside Geneva 
was not ill-founded. The political situation in the city offered no 
stable base for any long continuance of tranquillity. It seems as if 
France had not lost sight of us, and that the misfortunes which afflict 
us are brought about by her, so that we may be driven to seek 
happiness by throwing ourselves into her arms. For some time the 
Egaliseurs have affected to be dissatisfied with the Government. The 
French Resident instigated them. He gave at Monty a splendid 
party to the more violent of them who took the name of Montagnards : 
there were about eighty. He advised them to work for their own ends 
and to start a second revolution. For that it was necessary to have 
a riot, and a pretext was soon found. It was reported at the Great 
Club on Friday evening, 17th July, that a plot in which several 
Genevese were implicated had been started in Switzerland, to raise 
the neighbouring French Departments. At the word " Plot " several 
individuals proposed to take up arms and seize the conspirators, whose 
names were not even mentioned. The minority persisted, announced 
that it would take up arms, and rushed tumultuously out of the 
Club with shouts of "To Arms." All the Genevese then in Geneva 
flew to arms. But the honnetes gens were at once disarmed. The 
Montagnards proceeded, without order or distinction, to seize by 
night the greater number of the so-called Aristocrats and shut up 
more than six hundred in the Granges and the Granary. At the same 
time they broke open bureaux, seized papers, money, and in some 
cases plate. My father's house was respected, as well as those of a very 
small number of others, without any known reason. Neither he nor 
Alphonse nor I were arrested. Probably our father covered us with 
his wings, for, as you know, we had not taken the famous oath, which 
was quite a good enough reason at the moment for imprisonment. 


' The Montagnards asked for a revolutionary tribunal of twenty- 
one judges to try the prisoners. All Genevese citizens were summoned 
to attend in arms on the bastions in order to proceed to their election. 
All came, but the Egaliseurs arrived first, and disarmed, or sent home, 
those whom they recognised as anti -revolutionaries. Despite this 
exclusion the voting, according to some, was less bad than might 
have been expected, and among the judges whose names excited no 
fear, were Deonna, Flournois, de 1'Isle, Lissignol, Bourdillon, Dieday, 
Romilly, Argand, Bousquet, and others who were held good Genevese, 
if violent democrats. Events proved the contrary. The judgments 
had to be confirmed by the people. De Rochemont, the son, was 
examined. He replied with so much eloquence, firmness, grace, and 
wit that his speech was drowned in applause. The judges and the 
audience were touched and satisfied, so that they refused to examine 
his papers. One heard nothing but voices which exclaimed that the 
people were being deceived, that it was unworthy to make arrests on 
such pretexts. M. le Syndic also satisfied his judges. Still the 
Montagnards declared that victims were necessary to establish the 
revolution ; as, if the revolutionary tribunal did not satisfy the people, 
it would act for itself. Others suggested that the accused in obtain- 
ing their pardon from the people would be more secure than if acquitted 
by the tribunal. Others that a victim was needed to save the lives of 
the six hundred prisoners who without this would be in danger. On 
these considerations the tribunal out of the fourteen it had examined 
during the day condemned seven to death. 

' The people were called together next day, 24th July, on the 
bastions to confirm the sentence. No one doubted of a pardon ; the 
Montagnards, however, again excluded all the moderate revolutionaries. 
Despite this, the majority was still for a pardon. Counting the votes 
began at five in the afternoon. At nine it was still incomplete. Then 
the scrutineers announced that the counting was sufficiently advanced 
to show that five were pardoned and that only two remained in doubt. 
At the word Pardon, Le Clair, a locksmith, a member of the revolu- 
tionary tribunal, drew liis sword and cried out, " No pardon, they 
must die ! " The Montagnards at once started for the prisons : the 
partisans of pardon got before them and guarded the doors. The 
prisoners might have been saved, but the Montagnards came up and 
threatened attack, the others yielded like cowards, the doors were 
opened and the seven prisoners were led behind the Montagne des 
Bastions. The garrison was ordered to fire on them ; it refused. The 
Montagnards themselves did so and the seven unfortunate men lost 
their lives at ten o'clock with the greatest courage. Nothing was 


seen in Geneva but tears and consternation. The Montagnards said 
they had only made a beginning of purging Geneva of its enemies. 
This unhappy city is a desert, all the honest people have fled or are 
in prison. Arrests continue. Alphonse and I were warned that we 
were being looked for and that we might expect to be arrested. Our 
father urged us to fly immediately. 1 You will realise how difficult it 
was for us to seek safety while leaving our friends in prison and our 
parents in danger ; that if we could have seen any probability of a 
rally or resistance we should never have consented. But the case was 
hopeless, we were useless and a burden to our parents who desired 
to remain to protect their property, which is almost their only source 
of income. 

' We gained at night by bye-paths the shores of the lake. The 
Montagnards had already seized all the boats. We crossed the French 
frontier, found a boat, and landed at Rolle at my aunt Tronchin's, 
where we are lodging. The two Calandrini are in prison as well as 
Pasteur and the Pictets, Marcet also. My other friends have escaped. 
Diodati, the Major, escaped by swimming from " Behind the Rhone," 
to S6cheron, whence he got into Switzerland. Yesterday and to-day 
they have released one hundred and fifty prisoners. Some have been 
completely acquitted, others have been condemned to confiscations, 
fines, and banishment. Six Montagnards, who called themselves 
French, have been arrested. Anxiety is now felt only for Duroveray 
and Bellamy among those under arrest.' 

Theodore concludes : 

* The moment may come when my parents will be obliged to 
abandon their property. The confiscation of that of emigrants is 
already proposed. The wish to be some help to them is the only link 
that attaches me to life. This idea puts aside all my tastes and all 
personal considerations. I eagerly desire a post as a tutor or travelling 
companion. It is the only thing I can do. Geneva is marked with 
a stain that can never be effaced, it is for me an accursed spot, which 
I shall never see without horror ; I am ashamed of it. I should like 
to deliver my friends and then burn the town. Let it be no more 

Several of the letters written by Madame de Saussure during 
this brief Reign of Terror have been preserved. They show very 
remarkable calmness and courage in the terrible circumstances of 
the moment. The husbands of her friends Mesdames Cayla and 

a Ttav vlStv is the concise entry in de Saussure's Greek diary for the 
day before the murders. It follows on the words ' very bad news of the seven.' 


Naville had been murdered by the Revolutionaries. M. Necker 
de Germagny, her daughter's father-in-law, was held a prisoner 
for a few days, but ' his charity, his kindness, and his patriotism ' 
led to his speedy release. She adds : ' Your father's courage, 
his fine spirit have supported mine, and the tendency to resignation 
which I am supposed to inherit from my grandfather Lullin has 
been, he says, of use to him.' 

On the last day of July, a week after the massacre on the 
bastion, de Saussure writes to his daughter : 

' I am remaining quietly at Conches. I went, however, once into 
town, the day before this terrible trial ; it seemed to me that to remain 
inactive at such a moment would have shown blameworthy indiffer- 
ence or cowardice. I was well received by those I called on, and 
returned full of hope and without having suffered any personal annoy- 
ance, but I was strongly recommended not to come back before either 
order was completely restored or I was summoned which has not 
happened ! ' 

His wife, he adds, is wonderfully calm, and he is providing 
her with occupation in copying his Voyages. The third volume 
was already finished and the fourth in hand. Fauche of Neu- 
chatel was to be the publisher. He has sent a memoir on the 
Extinct Volcanoes of the Brisgau to the Journal de Physique at 

' Thus between my work and the dear society of your mother 1 
find some relief from the troubles and the anxieties which desolate 
at this moment almost the whole world.' 

De Saussure's sons thought it better for the time to follow 
their parents' earnest wish and not to return to Geneva. The 
mob, now masters of the city and impatient of their leaders' 
delays in confiscating and distributing the property of the well- 
to-do, seized control and appointed fresh committees and tribunals. 
Four hundred prisoners were held at their mercy. The aspect of 
these tribunals is thus described in a popular history for school 
use published in Geneva : 

' The tribunal presented a hideous aspect. The judges, for the 
most part workmen, affected a sullen air and coarse manners, they 
were in turned-up shirt-sleeves, bare -breasted, wearing red bonnets, 


from which escaped dishevelled locks, bearded, with pipes in their 
mouths, and often pistols in their belts, bottles and glasses between 
their legs, swords and pistols on the table.' * 

Other executions, or rather murders, quickly followed on 
the crime of the bastions. The gang who were responsible for 
them sat for eighteen days, during which they pronounced 500 
sentences, 37 of death (of which, fortunately, 26 were on absentees) 
and 98 of exile. Meantime a second tribunal occupied itself in 
organising pillage by confiscating the property of the rich and 
distributing daily allowances to the insurgents and their families, 
a welcome boon to those who having ceased to be workers learnt 
that idleness has its drawbacks. The activity of this body pro- 
duced a fund of five millions of francs the undistributed residue 
of which was subsequently declared to be national property. 
Idleness was encouraged and trade lost, the watchmakers and 
shawl producers ceased to work, the upper class left the town, or 
if forced to stay did their best to avoid attracting attention. 

It must be put to the credit of the Genevese, always emotional, 
that their brief Reign of Terror left behind it some feelings of 
remorse in the hearts of the mass of citizens. But these did not 
result in any practical effort to put an end to disorder or a curb on 

Up to this moment de Saussure had grudged no expense of 
energy or time in the attempt to save his country from the 
destruction to which it was being brought by the folly of its own 
children and the intrigues of French anarchists. But the murders 
of 1794 drove him finally out of politics. He refused to be 
associated with an administration stained by the blood of its 
fellow-citizens. Called on to give his reasons for his retirement, 
he explained that the events of the last summer had made on him 
an impression which time only deepened. He would, he added, 
have left his unhappy country had he not the hope that the day 
would come when the punishment of the guilty would be demanded 
by those who had had no share in their crimes. Until that day 
came he could take no part in public affairs. 

1 Histoire de Geneve racontee aux jeunes Genevois, Jullien, 1863. I quote 
from a school-book which attempts to be impartial. The picture of the tribunal 
drawn by Cornuaud, the leader of the ' Natifs,' who successfully defended himself 
before it, is even more revolting. 


In July 1795 the state of his health again gave alarm to his 
friends, and he visited with his wife the baths of Bourbon 
FArchambault, near Moulins, whence he went on to those of 
Royat, close to Clermont-Ferrand. His son, writing from Rolle, 
sent him an account of a relatively insignificant riot between 
Terrorists and Stalwarts (' Englues ' is the term Theodore 
employs), which was followed by a more than usually effusive 
reconciliation with banquets in the streets, where passers-by were 
stopped and made to drink to Oblivion and to stick a patch, called 
an ' oubli,' on their faces. A pastor even preached a sermon 
with one of these red patches on his forehead. This ' paix 
platree ' Theodore expected to last two months ! He mentions 
that he is busy correcting the proofs of the third volume of the 

From Bourbon 1'Archambault de Saussure writes to con- 
dole with Pictet on the proposal of the Revolutionary Govern- 
ment to do away with the philosophy professorship at the 
Academy and to encourage him to protest against so illiberal 
a proceeding. He also writes to Madame de Stae'l to clear 
up a misunderstanding with respect to a suggestion she had 
made to his daughter of being able to procure for him a chair 
in the French Academic des Sciences, together with an official 
post at a handsome salary under the French Republic as an 
Inspector of Mines. 1 In a second letter Madame de Stae'l had 
expressed her surprise that he had not accepted her proposal that 
he should be ' Directeur en Chef ' of the Academy. He replied 
that as to the Presidency of the Academy (which she had not, 
he tells her, previously mentioned) it seemed to him obvious that 
a post that had always been elective was not likely to be conferred 
on a foreigner. For the rest, having his Voyages to finish he would 
not for some months have the time to take up an Inspectorship of 
Mines. Madame de StaeTs energy, however, was not to be put 
off ! She applied to Gottingen and Berlin, to Sweden and St. 
Petersburg. In November we find de Saussure writing to his 
daughter about his plans. 

' I see,' he says, ' that your adorable cousin has really done the 
impossible, that she has knocked at every door. Assure her of my 

1 A similar post was held at this time by another geologist, Dolomieu. 


lively and deep gratitude. Your mother and I agree with you, and 
we prefer beyond comparison the post at Gottingen to Berlin or 
St. Petersburg. My only fear is lest the work should be too fatiguing 
for my state of health. I must find out for how many lectures a week 
I should be called on, and how long they would be ; if one would have 
to talk loud and in what language. I believe and hope Latin, because 
though I read German easily enough I don't talk it easily, and I know 
enough of the difficulties of the language to be sure that I should 
never master them. 

' I have passed, my dear child, the age of ambition ; you are 
assured if not of being rich, of having enough to live on. So I shall 
take quite contentedly the part of ending my days with your mother 
in the strict economy to which we are reduced. But the idea of a 
bankruptcy is one to which I cannot accustom myself, and unless the 
French funds recover their value, or I succeed in finding some means 
of adding to my income, it is almost impossible for me to escape this 
misfortune. But if I could find a post which would allow me to put 
aside some five or six hundred louis a year, I should be almost certain 
to avoid it. This is the object of my ambition. As to personal 
security I trust we shall enjoy it at Geneva, and I should be tranquil 
and without anxiety if I had no other cares. The horrible intoxica- 
tion which caused the crimes which disgraced the last revolution has 
entirely passed and given place to repentance and remorse. A revolu- 
tionary club has proposed that a monument should be erected to the 
innocent victims of this insurrection It is an idea which I have 
planted in some warm and honest hearts, and I see with great pleasure 
that it is spreading and makes progress, but its origin must not be 
suspected. I cited the sorrow and tears of Alexander on the death of 
Clitus. Such a monument might give occasion for the finest efforts of 
oratory and is the only way to wash out the shame of these crimes 
and prevent their repetition.' 

In another letter of about the same date de Saussure goes in 
fuller detail into the Gottingen project, and points out that he 
would prefer a post which gave him greater leisure for independent 

Meantime the news of his difficult circumstances had been 
widely spread. A Paris newspaper in February 1795 had put in a 
paragraph : * Poor Professor Saussure is reduced to such poverty 
that he is soliciting a post in Germany. 5 This crude announce- 
ment was copied in Italian journals and drew forth the following 
letter from Lord Bristol, the eccentric and picturesque Bishop of 


Deny, 1 then travelling in Italy, to the Genevese bankers Delarue 
at Genoa : 

' SIRS, Having read this morning in a foreign newspaper that 
the famous M. de Saussure, the intimate friend of my brother, General 
Harvey, era redotto alia, poverta, I beg you to write to him on my 
behalf and offer him an annuity of fifty louis d'or. And should he 
find it agreeable to pass the rest of his life as my guest he would receive 
the same sum paid half-yearly, his board, etc. etc., and might travel 
at my cost in a country the most rich in the world in natural history, 
a virgin country, untouched by naturalists, Ireland.' 

De Saussure 's answer was as follows : 

' MY LORD, I have been moved to tears by the proof of interest 
and esteem with which you have honoured me, when, on reading in 
a newspaper that I was reduced to poverty, you at once ordered 
your bankers to assure me an annual income of fifty louis. 

' Certainly, were I in actual want I should not blush to accept the 
help of a man, my lord, who from love of those who devote their lives 
to the study of science, and from attachment to an old friend of his 
brother, desired to protect me from the pangs of extreme misery ; 
but my situation is not yet of this kind. It is true, I have nothing 
left, but my wife is able to supply the wants if not lavishly at least 
adequately of myself and my family. So, my lord, I shall not take 
advantage, at any rate for the present, of the generous offer you make 
me of an annuity, an offer for which I shall none the less retain the 
most lively and profound gratitude. As to the further proposal which 
is equally the result of your kind consideration for me and your love 
of science, that I should come and study at your home and with means 
furnished by you the Natural History of Ireland, I should be ex- 
tremely tempted were I not absolutely inseparable from my wife, 
not because I live upon her fortune, but because I have for her an 
attachment of thirty years founded on all the links which can be 
formed by mind, virtue, and character. . . . Whatever lot Providence 
has in store for me, your kindness, my lord, will remain engraved in 
my heart to my last breath.' 

The Revolutionary Authorities were now taking steps to put 
in force an elaborate scheme of taxation on the wealthier class of 
citizens. On his return to Geneva de Saussure wrote a sharp 
note to the tax-collector, pointing out that the arrangement he had 

1 See Dictionary of National Biography. 


been recommended to offer with regard to his liability having 
been rejected, he should find himself compelled to suspend 
payments that is, to acknowledge bankruptcy. 1 

Throughout that year (1795) de Saussure was still looking 
anxiously for some scientific employment either abroad or in 
France. He consulted with his daughter as to Gottingen, suggest- 
ing that she and her husband should accompany him there, as he 
could ill endure the parting with his beloved family. He also 
wrote a letter of remonstrance to St. Petersburg complaining that 
the proposal put before him through his friend Tingry had not 
been followed by the definite offer promised. Meantime an 
invitation came from across the Atlantic. Jefferson was at the 
time looking for a Faculty to occupy the quaintly Georgian halls 
and colonnades of his new University at Charlotte ville, Virginia . 
He wrote to Washington from his home at Montecello suggesting 
that some of the professors of the Genevese Academy might be 
glad to find a refuge and employment in the States, and among 
the names he put forward were those of de Saussure and of his 
friends Pictet and Senebier. The offer was made and repeated in 
a definite form through d'lvernois in the same autumn, but 
nothing came of it. 2 

In his negotiation with Paris, the new French Resident 
Desportes, the builder of the Temple at the Montenvers, a man 
of some cultivation, whose frequent and friendly relations with 
an aristocrat became matter of suspicion to the Genevese 
Terrorists, was very helpful. De Saussure 's Journal shows that 
frequent visits were exchanged between Desportes and de 
Saussure. A letter from the latter to Desportes thanking him 

1 For the purposes of this tax or rather levy on capital the citizens were 
divided into three classes Aristocrats, Engines, and Patriots. Aristocrats had 
to pay most, 5 per cent, on the first 12,000 livres and 5' 12 extra on every thousand 
livres in excess of 12,000. The total tax was not to exceed 90 per cent. De 
Saussure's liability amounted to 25,652 florins. 

2 Sparks' Correspondence of Washington, vol. ii. (Boston, 1839) : ' The colleges 
of Geneva and Edinburgh were considered as the two eyes of Europe in 
matters of science insomuch that no other pretended to any rivalry with either. 
Edinburgh has been the most famous in medicine since the time of Cullen, but 
Geneva most so for other branches of science, and much the most resorted to 
from the Continent of Europe because the French language is that used. 
M. d'lvernois of Geneva, and a man of science known as the author of a history 
of the Republic, has proposed the transplanting of that college as a body to 



for a passport is written in very cordial and complimentary terms. 
In April 1796 he forwarded to Paris de Saussure's acceptance of 
the position of teacher of Chemistry and Physics in the Ecole 
Centrale. De Saussure, while pointing out that he had to finish 
the proofs of his fourth volume, which was already in the press, 
asked for adequate notice of the date at which he would have to be 
in Paris, and also for his travelling expenses. He wrote : 

' I am in despair at having to make this request, but my father, 
having the most complete trust in France, placed there all his and 
my mother's fortunes, so that I have found myself fallen from a hand- 
some income, such as the expenses incident to my travels and researches 
called for, to a state of penury which makes it impossible for me to 
provide the cost of the journey.' 

A correspondence ensued, in which the Department concerned 
exhibited a dilatoriness and pettiness combined with a self- 
complacent pomposity frequently met with in the dealings of 
similar bodies, whatever the form of government. A year later 
we find it regretting that it cannot afford the money for de 
Saussure's travelling expenses. A letter from Dolomieu, the 
geologist, whose name lives in one of the most romantic dis- 
tricts of the Alps, lets us into the bare facts of the situation. 
It is dated 1st November 1796 : 

' I had cherished the hope, Monsieur, of having you this winter 
hi Paris up to the moment when I saw M. Ginguene, but I had to 
abandon it entirely when the Director of Public Instruction told me 
that he had never, despite his most earnest entreaties, been able to 
obtain from the Government the small sum needed for your travelling 
expenses, and that he could not even offer you lodging as the house 
he had meant for you was no longer at his disposal. He is even glad 
that you did not yield to the first proposals made to you and come 
at once to Paris ; the salary promised you would not have been paid 
and your embarrassments hi a new household might have been ex- 
treme. The Government does not pay even the most urgent claims, 
and those relating to Public Education are far from being held of any 

Simultaneously with this negotiation the educational autho- 
rities of the Department of the Puy de Dome were pressing 
in their invitation to de Saussure to accept a Chair of Natural 


Front a Portrait by Saint Ours 


History at Clermont-Ferrand, an offer which he naturally post- 
poned to his prospects at Paris. 

After another twelve months ' Fra^ois de Neufchateau de 
1' Academic Francaise,' then Minister of the Interior, in a pompous 
letter offered to put de Saussure on a Pension List for the paltry 
sum of 200 livres (about 8) a month ! It would appear that a 
nominal Professorship at Lausanne, the duties of which he was 
incapable of fulfilling, was attached to this tardy gift, which never 
took effect. 

At this date the only oil portrait of de Saussure in existence 
was one painted by the Danish painter Juel some eighteen years 
earlier. In 1796 the Society of Arts expressed a desire to possess 
before it was too late a portrait of its founder, and after some 
persuasion de Saussure was persuaded to sit to Saint-Ours, the 
celebrated portrait painter of the day. 

Madame de Saussure describes the many discussions that 
took place as to the accessories. De Saussure insisted on Mont 
Blanc being brought in. He wanted to be painted in the act of 
climbing the mountain, or at any rate gazing at it. The painter 
objected it would be difficult to manage, and suggested the snows 
might be shown through the window of de Saussure's study. Every 
one, Madame de Saussure complains, brought forward a different 
idea. The result was a compromise. De Saussure is represented 
sitting under a pine tree with his geologist's hammer in his hand 
and a theodolite beside him, while a very conventional Mont Blanc 
towers in the background. In the finished picture, which has been 
frequently reproduced, the painter's skill has tried in vain to 
conceal the ravages of illness, the eyes, always described as 
prominent, have become painfully bulging, while the expression 
lacks animation. The sketch on the other hand has an air of 
absolute fidelity, and is a lifelike if pathetic memorial of the great 
naturalist in his latter days. 1 

The official correspondence relative to the commission has 
been preserved in the annals of the Society of Arts. A deputation 
of its members visited! Saint -Ours' studio and expressed their 
satisfaction with the likeness and the composition, and the 
Society subsequently ordered its secretary to convey to the painter 

1 Now in the collection of Dr. Maillart-Gosse of Geneva, who kindly allows 
me to reproduce it as the frontispiece to this volume. 


its regret that owing to the hard times it could not afford to pay 
him more than twenty louis for the work. 

At the close of 1796 the third and fourth volumes of the 
Voyages were published. The proofs were mainly corrected by 
Theodore, who must be held responsible for the frequent lapses 
found in them. 

In the previous year de Saussure in order to test his mental 
powers had compiled a paper on ' The Use of the Blowpipe in 
geological research.' He was again to return to his first pursuit, 
botany, in one of his last publications, 1 a little tract, ' Conjectures 
on the cause of the constant direction of the stalk and the root 
at the moment of Germination ' (1798). But his working days 
were over. The concluding volume which was to have summed up 
his conclusions on the problems of geology was never written. 
Senebier tells us he had examined two schemes for a system of 
geology or Theory of the Earth set down by de Saussure in 1794 
and 1796, and that they ' indicated generalisations on various 
branches of the science without putting forward any trace of a 
general conception which might bind together all the others by 
submitting them as part of a theory, which might have added one 
more to the theories invented and abandoned on this vast subject.' 
But Professor Favre cites a fragmentary MS. dated 7th August 
1796, which appears to have been a sketch for the theory that was 
never written. 2 Some imperfect Memoranda and the Agenda at the 
end of the Voyages are all that we have to indicate what might 
have been its contents. Even de Saussure's private diary ends at 
the close of 1796. A second seizure left him from that time for- 
ward physically and mentally a wreck. He was unable to attend 
to his own affairs, and his wife in writing for him constantly speaks 
of her husband's feebleness. But he was still to live on for a 
little over two years, which were spent mostly at Conches. In a 
letter of the time we get a pathetic picture of him while staying 
with the young Neckers, his daughter and son-in-law, during 
the winter of 1796 : 

' Madame Necker [-de Saussure] has her father and mother with her 
for the winter. It is a sad sight to see this poor M. de Saussure, his 

1 A paper on the fluctuations and temperature of the Arve was also pub- 
lished in 1796. 

2 See Chapter xvn. on De Saussure in Science and Literature, p. 425. 


eyes starting, his walk tottering, and hardly able to speak intelligibly. 
His mind has not suffered. He is conscious of his condition and yet 
feels the need of society and distraction. Madame Necker is very 
interesting between her father and her children.' 

Another intimate sketch, from Mile, de Constant, helps us to 
realise the domestic situation, and the bravery of the wife and 
daughter in attempting to furnish some interest to pass the hours 
of the sorely stricken invalid : 

' We often see my neighbours ; Madame de Saussure, the mother, 
has written a romance and we meet to hear it read, which provides 
pleasant evenings. The good lady is quite ashamed of her effort, 
she apologises for it as a folly, assuring us that it was the result of a 
convalescence [Madame de Saussure had been seriously ill in 1790] 
that had reduced her to writing it, and that she wondered how she 
could have the courage to read it in company. " It passes my under- 
standing," she says, " how in this country people set up without 
scruple as beaux esprits" In effect to write romances is to be in the 
local fashion. There is no one who cannot draw from his or her pocket 
a manuscript sufficient to meet the occasion. M. de Saussure takes so 
much interest in his wife's production that directly the story becomes 
at all moving it is interrupted by his sobs.' 1 

Madame Necker-de Saussure herself has completed the picture : 

' What a sad return for his noble and useful labours. If old age 
in itself commands respect, what sentiment ought to be excited by 
this premature decay, this voluntary sacrifice. How much more 
ought we to reverence the victim of science than the victim of years. 
His mind has preserved all its energy as his works prove, but if he 
still lives for his own reputation and the progress of science he no 
longer lives for happiness. These are the limits on every side set 
round the destiny of man ; the devouring activity which raises him 
is fated to consume him, for thought as for the summits of the Alps 
there is an elevation where it is no longer possible to breathe.' 

The great botanist de Candolle records visits about the same 
date, and the singular advice de Saussure gave him ; advice 
interesting, as it shows how completely geology had absorbed his 
attention, and leads us to believe that if his last publication was a 

1 MSS. letters from Rosalie de Constant to her brother. One of these letters 
is quoted in a volume, Rosalie, de, Constant, sa famille et ses amis, par Mile. L. 
Achard (Geneve, 1902). 

botanical tract this was a concession to his physical weakness 
rather than a willing return to his first pursuit. 

' It was about this time (1796) that I was introduced to the cele- 
brated de Saussure ; he had already been attacked by the singular 
sort of partial paralysis which brought him to his grave, but his 
expression was still that of a man of intellect, and so long as he was 
allowed time, his conversation was full of interest. He seemed to 
attach some kind of importance to enlisting us in the sciences he 
loved and in deterring me from botanical studies. Each time I saw 
him he repeatedly assured me that this study promised no success 
and was not worth pursuing except as a recreation.' 

In July 1797 a final resort was had to the waters of Plombieres 
of which no details are at hand. This was the last time the 
traveller was to leave his home. 

Before we come to the final scene, the political events of the 
last years of de Saussure 's life, after the destruction of the 
Genevese constitution, must be briefly summarised. 

In September 1796 the anarchists again broke loose ; two 
more victims were seized, and after some delay and a futile trial 
allowed to be massacred by the mob. The incident did not lead 
to an immediate crisis. For another eighteen months the feeble 
Revolutionary Government continued to exist. But by this time 
the French Directoire was getting tired of the disorderly travesty 
of a republic on its borders and alive to the advantage of annexing 
Geneva as the natural capital of its newly acquired Departement 
du Leman. Napoleon, it is true, passing through on Ms way to 
Rastadt in November 1797, felt able to repeat the assurances 
given four years before by Kellermann and to promise his hosts 
that their independence should always be respected. He even 
added that France would like to be surrounded by fifty Genevas ! 
He spent a morning in visiting the College and the Society of 
Arts and held conversations with the leading men of science. His 
visit was not without result. When he founded an Imperial 
University of France, the Academy of Calvin alone of provincial 
institutions preserved its ancient constitution. But his promise 
was soon broken. Four months later the adroit Desportes, the 
French Resident, was instructed to inform the Genevese Govern- 
ment that they would do well to prepare to accept quietly and 
gratefully the honour of becoming the chef-lieu of a French 


Department. 1 The people of Geneva, whatever their faults, clung 
to the independence their petulance had endangered and showed 
no disposition to abandon it voluntarily. Appropriate pressure 
was accordingly brought to bear on them. The old fable of the 
Wolf and the Lamb was repeated. The French Resident remon- 
strated again and again with regard to the smuggling that went 
on across the frontier ; he complained of petty, or invented, dis- 
courtesies, he imposed a sort of blockade on the town. A Com- 
mission was appointed, at his instigation, to consider the situation. 
While, torn by divided counsels, it hesitated and delayed, French 
troops entered the city. On the 15th April 1798 the independence 
of Geneva came to an end. When it was too late the Genevese 
realised the result of their civil brawls and dissensions. Not only 
their independence but their commerce was lost. Distress was 
prevalent, the Society of Arts was reduced to founding a soup 
kitchen ! 

The political story extending over nearly a hundred years I 
have here tried to summarise is surely a lamentable one. The 
whole of the eighteenth century at Geneva was marked by a 
series of popular outbreaks and fictitious and short-lived recon- 
ciliations brought about mainly by foreign interference. The 
patrician oligarchy, honest but slow and obstinate, proved to the 
end lacking in the political intelligence that might have led it to 
adapt itself to changing conditions, while the populace recognised 
only when it was too late that by indulging the passions they 
had imbibed from France they had wrecked their country's inde- 
pendence. A constitution no longer adapted to the times could 
not resist the external pressure of the French Revolution. 

The charming Genevese writer, Amiel, has pictured his native 
city as she appeared in his patriotic eyes : 

' Geneva is a caldron always boiling over, a furnace of which the 
fires are never extinguished. Vulcan had more than one forge. 
Geneva is certainly one of the anvils on which most projects have 
been hammered out. When one reflects that the prescripts of every 
kind of cause have harboured here, the mystery is partially explained ; 

1 See Felix Desportes et Fannexion de Geneve (F. Barbey, Paris, 1916). It 
appears that Napoleon was not wilfully deceitful in promising the Genevese that 
their independence should be respected. The annexation was the work of the 
Directory in his absence, and contrary to his wish. But he subsequently 
endorsed it in 1800. 


but the better explanation is that republican, protestant, democratic, 
learned and enterprising, Geneva has through the centuries shown 
an aptitude to work out her own salvation. Since the days of the 
Reformation she has been on the alert and marches on, a lantern in 
her right hand and a sword in her left.' 

A caldron and a forge we may agree but the heroic attitude 
of the figure in which Amiel personifies his city must to the foreign 
observer seem scarcely the most appropriate ! In the annals of 
Geneva the sword has in truth played no conspicuous part. Setting 
aside domestic brawls, her weapon has been habitually a pen. 

The Geneva of the eighteenth century, the historian must 
admit, earned her fate or rather her lesson, for sixteen years was 
the moderate term of her punishment. Her ' salvation ' was won, 
less by her own exertions than by the victories of the Allies in 
1813. It consisted in being permanently attached as a self-govern- 
ing canton to that remarkable association of peoples of different 
races and languages, the Swiss Confederation. Politically, this 
decision was probably the best possible ; and it may be held to 
have proved, on the whole, successful. But from the intellectual 
and literary point of view, the sympathies of Geneva turn naturally 
to the great nation whose language and civilisation she shares. 
It is from contact with French, not with Teutonic, influences that 
her literature has been at all times most benefited. Quickness 
and lightness of imagination and touch are the ingredients of 
which it has had most need, and these are nowhere to be found of 
such quality as on the banks of the Seine. 

To summarise : the three main dates to remember in Genevese 
politics as they affect the life of de Saussure are 1763-6, the period 
of the protracted struggle of the democratic Assembly against the 
aristocratic Councils, ending in some advantages for the former ; 
1782, the oligarchic reaction, when the Councils, by the aid of the 
Mediating Powers, recovered more than they had lost ; and 
1789-94, the years of revolution, culminating in the abolition of 
the old constitution of the State, and finally in 1798 in the annexa- 
tion of Geneva by the French Directory. 

De Saussure did not long survive the fall of the Republic he 
had done his best to save. In the first days of January 1799 he 
was known to be dying in his townhouse. The Society of Arts 
charged his lifelong friend Pictet to express its sympathy to his 


relatives. On the morning of the 22nd January the end came ; 
after a restless night de Saussure passed away peacefully in his son 
Theodore's arms before his wife and daughter could be summoned 
to his bedside. A letter from Madame Necker-de Saussure to her 
husband gives touching details of the scene, and of her own 
despair at not having been able to be present at her father's last 
moments, ' a privilege,' she wrote, ' I had surely earned.' l Both 
his sisters-in-law joined the mourners on the next day. Five 
deputation* from public bodies paid visits of condolence. On 
the 24th he was buried in the cemetery of Plainpalais outside 
the walls. The funeral was public. The Professors of the 
Academy and the College walked on either side of the coffin ; 
it was followed by officers of the municipality in their robes, 
by the French general in command and his staff, by the mem- 
bers of the Societies of Arts and of Natural History, by a crowd 
of the students whose interests de Saussure had always had at heart . 
The drums beat as it passed the Hotel de Ville and the city gates. 
No ceremonial honour was lacking. Geneva realised, if only for 
a few hours, that she had lost the most distinguished of her sons 
and the most loyal of her citizens . 

Three months later Tingry, an eminent man of science who has 
already been mentioned in these pages, suggested that a suitable 
slab should be placed over de Saussure 's grave to mark its position. 
This proposal, strange to say, was never carried out, and the 
exact spot is now unknown, though it is believed to be close to the 
grave of Sir Humphry Davy, who died at Geneva in 1829. It 
must surely be a matter of lasting regret to the inhabitants of 
Geneva that the resting-place of one of their most famous fellow- 
citizens should thus remain uncertain and without record. It 
may perhaps be urged in extenuation of a contemporary neglect 
which seems strangely inconsistent with the honours of a public 
funeral that tombstones were among the ' articles of luxury ' 
long denied to the inhabitants of Geneva by their Calvinistic 

In the year before his death de Saussure had come to an 
arrangement with the fiscal authorities with regard to the tax on 

1 Madame Necker-de Saussure's account of the death-bed scene obviously 
supersedes that derived by Professor Naville from a journal of the time. See 
Bibl. Universette, tome xvii., No. 61, mars 1883. 


capital levied by the Terrorist Government. But he died practi- 
cally insolvent, and his sons were advised to refuse to take up the 
succession. His wife's income, however, would seem to have 
recovered to some extent after the annexation of Geneva by 
France, and we find her property at her death eighteen years later, 
when it had no doubt further regained in value, estimated at a 
very considerable sum. She was apparently able next year to 
reside in the townhouse, for we hear of her receiving a visit from 
Napoleon on his way to the war in Italy in May 1800. From a 
letter written by her sister-in-law, Mile, de Saussure, we gather 
that the First Consul had been cordial and sympathetic, and had 
expressed his readiness to grant any personal requests she might 
wish to put forward. 1 

Madame de Saussure gives the following account of herself at a 
later date : 

' I, my good sister, go out where I shall meet my sisters and my 
husband's old friends, but I prefer solitude. My sorrow is always 
there as lively and as deep as last year, every day that passes and 
adds to the length of this terrible loss makes me feel the weight of 
it more. In the evening I can sometimes pass a few hours in society : 
but as I recall having blamed those who bring their own sorrows 
into the hours devoted to the distractions of which every one has 
need at the present moment, I remain by my chimney corner when 
I cannot conceal mine.' 

Madame de Saussure died hi 1817, at the age of seventy-two. 
Her younger sisters both survived her. The last glimpse we have 
of them is as two old ladies with kindly, smiling faces starting 
in their landau from the portal of the great house in the Rue de 

1 On this occasion Napoleon stayed three days at Geneva with his staff. In 
order to conceal his intention of passing the Alps by the Great St. Bernard, he 
had hired a villa, and expressed his intention of taking a cure of asses' milk. 
He was at pains to explain to the Genevese the advantages they would gain by 
annexation to France. He gave a dinner and held a reception at the Prefet's 
house, at which he entertained the local savants and asked to be^shown the 
Genevese ladies, fifty of whom were presented to him. This is the description 
of the scene given by an eye-witness : ' II se fait un grand silence a son entree ; 
il fixe les femmes sans leur parler et recoit ensuite la cour que les homines 
s'empressent de lui faire . . . il est petit, habille en general de division, cheveux 
noirs sans poudre et ne frisanb point, teint jaune, maladif, figure expressive, 
regard terrible ; il reste deux heures debout au milieu de la salle causant chimie, 
mathematiques et autres sciences avec les hommes qui 1'abordent.' Papiers de 
Picot, quoted in Borgeaud's UAcadimie de Calvin. 




la Cite 1 for their afternoon drive. Madame Tronchin died in 
1824, aged seventy -six, and Madame Turrettini in 1838, when 
ninety-two. She is described as 'the prettiest and most attractive 
old lady it is possible to see, a specimen of the best and most elegant 
type of the old Genevese society. She had visited Voltaire and 
assisted at his theatrical performances, of which she had many 
entertaining recollections/ * 

It only remains to add some brief notice of de Saussure's imme- 
diate descendants. His resolve to bring up his children at home 
in place of sending them to the College met with considerable 
success . He took himself a constant interest and a principal part 
in their education. His elder son, Nicolas Theodore, after passing 
with credit through the Academy, adopted his father's pursuits. 
He was, as we have seen, his companion in his later Alpine journeys 
and his competent assistant in his scientific work. When forced 
to leave Geneva by the revolution he went to England with Dr. 
Marcet, who became physician to Guy's Hospital. In 1796 Theo- 
dore was again at Geneva, and married Mile. Ren6e Fabri. At a 
later date he spent several years in Great Britain, where he earned 
for himself an independent reputation as a man of science and an 
agriculturist. On his return to Geneva in 1802 he was appointed 
and held for many years Honorary Professorships of Geology and 
Mineralogy in the Academy. His chief efforts, however, were 
devoted to the study of the physiology of plants, and their results 
were embodied in an important work, Eecherches chimiques sur la 
Vegetation, which led to his becoming a Correspondent of the Paris 
Institute. It was frequently referred to by Sir Humphry Davy, 
who endorsed many of his conclusions, and his name is still quoted 
with respect in current text -books on Farming. In 1820 he was 
elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society. He died in 1845 
at the age of seventy-eight. 

Of his younger brother Alphonse but little is recorded. The 
brief references to him in his mother's letters suggest that he was 
socially inclined, and did not share to any considerable extent in 
the scientific interests and pursuits of his family. His son, 
M. Henri de Saussure, to whom I owed some valuable help when 

1 See Madame Rigaud-Picot's Souvenirs, La Maison Picot el la Rue des Granges 
(Geneva, 1913, privately printed). 


first contemplating his grandfather's biography, was a distinguished 
traveller and biologist. He died in 1902. 

De Saussure's only daughter and eldest child, Albertine 
Andrienne, demands fuller mention. Born in 1766, she inherited 
a large share of her father's intellectual energy as well as of his 
enthusiasm for educational reform. She record