Item of the Day: Williams’ Tour in Switzerland (1798)

Full Title: A Tour in Switzerland; or A View of the Present State of the Governments and Manners of those Cantons: With Comparative Sketches of the Present State of Paris. By Helen Maria Williams. Vol. I. London: Printed For G. G. and J. Robinson, Paternoster-Row. MDCCXCVIII.


In presenting to the Public a View of Switzerland, a country of which so much has been already written, it may perhaps become me to clear myself of the charge of presumption. The descriptive parts of this journal were rapidly traced with the ardor of a fond imagination, eager to seize the vivid colouring of the moment ere it fled, and give permanence to the emotions of admiration, while the solemn enthusiasm beat high in my bosom; but when the sensations excited by those views of majestic grandeur had subsided, I recollected, with regret, that the paths which I had delighted to tread had been trodden before; and that the objects on which I had gazed with astonishment had been already described. It is true, that the sketch I have penciled of that sublime scenery, however rude, will be found to be an original drawing, copied from nature, and not from books; yet I should scarcely have presumed to obtrude that unfinished outline on the public eye, if the other parts of my journal offered nothing new to its observation. It is the present moral situation of Switzerland that justifies the appearance of these volumes, in which an attempt is made to trace the important effects which the French Revolution has produced in that country, and which are about to unfold a new aera in its history. The governmetns of Switzerland, placed within reach of the electrical fire of that Revolution, flashing around all their borders, behold the subtle spark, which finds a conductor in the human heart, escaping beyond its prescribed limits, and feel its strong concussion in every agitated nerve.

I have endeavoured to give an additional interest to my journal, by connecting the view of the manners and customs of the Swiss towns, with a comparative picture of the present state of Paris; and I offer this Work to the Public with far less hope from the experience of its past indulgence, than solicitude to obtain its future favor […]


During the period of that new species of tyranny which assumed the name of revolutionary government, I was not merely involved in the common danger which threatened every individual in France, but had claims to particular proscription. It was not only remembered by many of the satellites of Robespierre, that I had been a friend of the Gironde, of Madame Roland, matyred names which it was death to pronounce, but that I had written a work, published in England, in which I had traced, without reserve, the characters of our oppressors; whose ferocious purposes I had often heard developed with the glowing eloquence of Vergniaud, and the indignant energy of La Source. No danger could be more imminent than that of living under the very tyranny which I had the perilous honour of having been one of the first to deprecate, and to proclaim.

In this situation an opportunity presented itself of obtaining a passport for Switzerland–A passport!–they who can judge of all the blessedness that word unfolds, are not those who, at a safe distance from the government of Robespierre, have heard of its terrific influence, but those who were placed within its savage grasp. Alas! at the moment of my escape, how many, immured in the dungeons of the tyrant, vainly wished to purchase, at the price of all they possessed, the privilege of forsaking a country, composed only of executioners and of victims!

The road from Paris to Basil leads for the most part along a level country, which displays a picture of fertility, but few scenes of beauty or grandeur, except a branch of the Vosges, which we traversed near Belfort, and whose swelling mountains, presenting faint traces of those we were going to contemplate, we saw bounding our horizon, and stretching along the plains of Alsace.

I found Basil crouded with strangers of all ranks, and all nations, being, at that period, when general hostility had barred the passes from one country to another, almost the only spot left open for the transactions of commerce, the asylum of the fugitives, and the dawning negociations of peace.

The first view of Switzerland awakened my enthusiasm most powerfully–“At length,” though I, “am I going to contemplate that interesting country, of which I have never heard without emotion!–I am going to gaze upon images of nature; images of which the idea has so often swelled my imagination, but which my eyes have never yet beheld.–I am going to repose my wearied spirit on those sublime objects–to sooth my desponding heart with the hope that the moral disorder I have witnessed shall be rectified, while I gaze on nature in all her admirable perfections; and how delightful a transition shall I find in the picture of social happiness which Switzerland presents! I shall no longer see liberty profaned and violated; here she smiles upon the hills, and decorates the vallies, and finds, in the uncorrupted simplicity of this people, a firmer barrier than in the cragginess of their rocks, or the snows of their Glaciers!”

Such were my meditations when I first set my foot on the soil of Switzerland […]


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Filed under 1790's, Europe, France, French Revolution, Posted by Matthew Williams, Travel Literature

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