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  • Class Pollution in the Alps
  • Ann C. Colley (bio)

In the mid-nineteenth century, the mountain peaks that had once been thought of as remote or inaccessible, if not terrifying, had become familiar, crowded, and even a bit ordinary. The mountains of Italy, France, and Switzerland were now in full public view and the subject of well-thumbed guidebooks. With the coming of steamships, improved roads, railways, and more luxurious hotel accommodations, the Alps, in particular, attracted crowds of visitors, who flocked to the tourist centres of Chamonix, Zermatt, and Grindelwald. These popular locations were within increasingly easy travelling distance.

No longer were the Alps the exclusive territory of the gentleman's Grand Tour. Now people ranging from the lower-middle to the upper-middle and professional classes came for holidays. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the majority of these tourists were British. These holiday-makers scrambled up to the more-accessible heights, walked across glaciers, ascended the Rigi for a view of the sunrise, straddled mules over Alpine passes, and, most of all, socialized with their fellow tourists at the tables d'hôte. [End Page 36]

An ever-increasing number of climbers from Britain also gathered in these Alpine regions. Their successes and failures caught the attention of the press; their climbs became the subject of many a conversation at the hotels. Moreover, in Britain, their mountaineering narratives won a wide audience. Repeatedly attaining peaks that were once thought to be out of reach, these mountaineers mapped areas that, a century earlier, had been thought to be beyond the boundary of human footsteps.

One wonders: did being among a crowd of people interfere with these tourists' appreciation of the Alpine landscape and with their expectation of finding themselves in awe-inspiring surroundings? And did they worry that they were disturbing the ecology of such splendid settings? These Victorians seemed not as concerned as we now would be with the effect of sewage from the hotels on the surrounding rivers, the threat of human intrusion to the chamois population, and the opening up of routes that would eventually encourage more commerce and pollution. It seems that mid-nineteenth-century visitors focused far more on fleeing the smoke and filth of home than on their own impact on the mountains. They did, however, worry about the effect crowds and railways had upon an appreciation of the landscape.

Reading through the numerous travel narratives, one learns that these tourists, although thrilled to have come to the Alps for a holiday, were often distressed with the crowding that compromised their aesthetic experience. Many were disdainful of the flocks of ridiculous tourists despoiling the scenery. As "the playground of Europe" (Stephen, title), the Alps were losing the very qualities that had provoked the imagination of the Romantics, whose writings had motivated the recent tourists to come.

The sheer number of people crowding these centres and their surroundings could not help but violate the natural landscape. Tourists spread like a contagion, sullying the original solitude and savagery of the mountains. Some visitors thought the number of guides and hangers-on "infected" these places (A Peep at the Pyrenees 49), and others noted with displeasure the numbers milling around the hotels. Registering their annoyance, many tourists repeatedly remarked on the irritating noise of their fellow travellers, who "chirped and twittered" their way through the Alpine scenery (Dent 129). From their perspective, the "buzz of small talk" jarred with "the grandeur" of the scene (Plunket 47).

In addition to the crowds, the socializing at the tables d'hôte also intruded upon any thought of mountain majesty. If the societal pressures imported from home were not enough, the cacophony of voices at the table succeeded in despoiling the landscape and drew attention away from the view outside the window. One tourist protested that at supper, she had been surrounded by "a perfect Babel of sounds" (Milne 45), which desecrated the sunset over the mountain panorama.

With so many going up, down, and across in these regions, there was also naturally a problem with refuse. Surprisingly, there are not as many references in the diaries and narratives to this consequence as one might expect...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 36-40
Launched on MUSE
2012-06-08
Open Access
No
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