Recently, a group of girlfriends were taking the train from Martigny to Geneva. They ran into some other girlfriends and the inevitable sing-song ensued. One hundred and fifty years earlier (in 1863 to be exact), Jemima Morrell and her friends were in the train from Martigny to Sion: ‘we sang to the moon… snatches of English songs and glees till our mute phlegmatic fellow travelers exhibited just a fraction of animation.’ Isn’t it heartening to know that the British have such a long-standing ‘track’ record of providing free entertainment on the Swiss railways?
This historical observation sprang to mind because I had just been reading Miss Jemima’s Swiss Journal: an account of a group of young friends on Thomas Cook’s groundbreaking ‘first conducted tour of Switzerland’. Particularly poignant as, at that moment, news reports were confirming the demise of that once-great tour operator.
Here in Switzerland, I know so many enterprising women who have set up businesses, established careers and families because they have fallen in love with the mountains and the lifestyle. We tend to think of ourselves as very different from our Victorian sisters – more independent, more assertive, but – putting aside the attitudes of the day which may now come across as snobby, silly or prejudiced – I was more struck by the similarities between Jemima and her modern-day sisters. I got to know a young woman with a spirit for adventure, who could hike for hours, loved the scenery and the natural world.
‘Crossing the threshold of Switzerland, we entered on a line of scenery that bewildered us by its beauty… frowning mountains reflected in shimmering lakes’ (and at this point, she’s only made it as far as Geneva!).
This intrepid young woman somehow managed to wriggle free of the constraints of Victorian England to go travelling in Europe with her mates, just like you and me. In fact, no, not like you and me: she had to work much harder for it – no cable cars.
Jemima’s arduous trip involves early rises, a different lodging every night, foul weather and intense heat, yet she drinks in every second with relish – and all this in Victorian corsets! (or did I detect an oblique reference to trousers?). Like many other outdoor types, Jemima doesn’t seem too worried about clothes, hair or make-up: after a day walking on the Mer de Glace at Chamonix and crawling along the slippery ledge of the Mauvais Pas in a rainstorm, she laughs at the frightful effect on her appearance: ‘mighty amusement had we in trying to make a presentable appearance at table d’hôte, out of the remnants of wet clothing that had weathered the drench,’ I can’t help but love this girl.
Jemima clambers up the vertiginous Gemmi Pass and understates how scary it is: her narrative jumping straight into the snowball fight at the top. Surely, Miss Jemima could have been any of the dynamic women I know living here in the Swiss Alps: if she’d been alive today, she’d be out on the slopes at daybreak and partying with the rest of us at the après in the evening.
The only difference that saddened me as I read doesn’t concern people but the landscape: when I walked the same routes this summer, her description of the glaciers did not match my view.
A century and a half may separate us but we aren’t so different in spirit. When Miss Jemima arrives in Paris, faced with all the temptations of that splendid city, all she can think about is the mountains of Switzerland: ‘The beauties of Paris appear widely different, when compared with our English capital which it excels so much, rather than with the wonders of mountain scenery by the side of which any scene of man’s device is paltry’… ‘It is to the Swiss rambles that we look back on with the greatest pleasure.’ Soulmate!
Jemima’s Journal was published 100 years after it was written, in 1963 (like me) and it’s actually quite hard to get hold of a copy, it’s easier to find in French and German. Amazingly, the Swiss National Library in Bern let me just stroll in and photocopy theirs.