By Trix Wilkins
There’s nothing like a literary trail of your favorite book to focus the wanders – Switzerland has been on my bucket list for almost two decades now, and a chance encounter with a second book from the 1860s has prompted me to look into Vevey more closely…
The first encounter
When I first read Little Women twenty years ago, I assumed Vevey was in France because of this exchange between Jo and Laurie at the new year’s ball:
“Can you talk French?”
“We were not allowed to speak anything else at Vevey.”
Later that evening, Laurie told Jo about the walking trails in Switzerland he’d had the privilege of traversing during his time abroad, “where the boys never wore hats, and had a fleet of boats on the lake, and for holiday fun went on walking trips about Switzerland with their teachers.”
I’d thought, “Brilliant, school excursions from France to Switzerland!” Such was my ignorance of European geography and history.
If I’d discussed this delightful finding with a certain friend at the time, he would have promptly informed me, “Vevey is in Switzerland.” I would have rewarded his kindly meant correction with a look that said, I don’t believe you know what you’re talking about. To which I’m certain he would have replied, with a smirk, “My mother was born there.”
Then I would have been so embarrassed that a copious amount of research on this subject would have followed. But no such conversation ever took place – hence the procrastination.
I wish I’d looked into this beautiful area of the world sooner – the vista of Vevey is a thing of beauty one can imagine looking at indefinitely.
The passing encounter
I tried to find a school in Vevey dating back to the 1850s-60s, the sort of school I could imagine Laurie might have attended – a grand, sandstone, centuries-old private institution still standing today as a sort of tourist attraction or perhaps the private residence of a foreign diplomat…rien.
The closest thing I could find was the Musée Historique de Vevey within the Chateau de l’Aile. Home to old weapons, manuscripts, engravings, paintings and collections of old medals, keys, locks and caskets, the museum is located in an otherwise private estate, a castle dating back to the sixteenth century.
The chance encounter
Then I came across a remarkable hardcover book with crumbling pages – a fifth edition published in 1900 of a book titled Scrambles amongst the Alps: in the years 1860s-69 by Edward Whymper, the first man to reach the peak of the Matterhorn, in 1865.
I’m sorry to say that this was not the result of some tenacious search in a rare book library, but rather a chance find at our local café whilst eating the coffee and cake special.
Nevertheless, a find is a find. Scrambles amongst the Alps is an eyewitness account replete with lyrical language describing the Alps, vibrantly visible from Vevey, in the 1860s. Whymper not only saw the beautiful peaks from a distance, but their minute detail during his own torturous ascents.
“…Rolling away to the east, one unknown range after another succeed in unveiled splendour; fainter and fainter in tone, though still perfectly defined, till at last the eye was unable to distinguish sky from mountain, and they died away in the far-off horizon.”
The encounters that were not to be
As stunning as the Alps are, such strenuous feats amongst rocky crags and glaciers are not trails students in the 1860s would have taken – though I suspect these slopes might have been precisely the sort of thing Jo and Laurie would have explored armed with little more than sheer will, had they travelled to Europe together “urged…by those mysterious impulses which cause men to peer into the unknown…looking at the sky spangled with its ten thousand brilliant lights.” (Whymper, 1900)
Nevertheless, Laurie might have been speaking to Jo of equally picturesque walks: along the terraced slopes of the Lavaux vineyards between Vevey and Lausanne, a stroll between Rivaz, St Saphorin and Chexbres with views across Lac Léman and those famed peaks – perhaps even the tree-lined jaunt by the lakeshore to the Château de Chillon, a castle located on an islet built by the Dukes of Savoy in the 11th century.
A place of tranquillity rather than activity, Vevey is, as Louisa May Alcott hinted in Little Women, a place to study. Not the sort of study that involves rapidly digesting information so as not to look like a dolt in front of a new friend, but the kind that involves simply walking, observing, thinking – and finding quiet scenic places for sitting, reading, and writing.
Louisa’s one small reference to Vevey is one of the things I’ve come to love about Little Women. This seemingly passing comment was a hint, an in-joke for a friend. It was not a literary device foreshadowing a return to Vevey for Laurie and Jo (unless Alcott had initially intended for her sequel to end differently…). The reference is simply an allusion to the fact that Louisa May Alcott (alter-ego Jo March) and Ladislas Wisniewski (alter-ego Theodore Laurence) met in Vevey – and thus a friendship was forged amidst lakes, mountains and old world charm.
“Don’t I wish I’d been there!” Jo had exclaimed to Laurie. I share her sentiments exactly.