Dickens: the frozen dead and a macabre Swiss mortuary

Dickens is the master of London writing but a grisly and compelling scene in Little Dorrit was inspired by his travels in the Swiss Alps.

Great St Bernard Hospice

Great St Bernard Hospice (Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_St_Bernard_Hospice)

Halfway through Little Dorrit the location of the story shifts to Switzerland where a group of travellers are making their way up the ancient Great St. Bernard Pass to shelter for the night at the convent of the Great St Bernard Hospice. The hospice is historically famous for its use of St. Bernard dogs in rescue operations.

The arrival at the convent as darkness falls across the mountains is written in pure Dickensian drama and desolate atmosphere. Then there follows a macabre description of a mortuary of the frozen dead as the living travellers gather for warmth and shelter merely a stone’s throw away. It’s worth quoting the passage in full.

“While all this noise and hurry were rife among the living travellers, there, too, silently assembled in a grated house half-a-dozen paces removed, with the same cloud enfolding them and the same snow flakes drifting in upon them, were the dead travellers found upon the mountain. The mother, storm-belated many winters ago, still standing in the corner with her baby at her breast; the man who had frozen with his arm raised to his mouth in fear or hunger, still pressing it with his dry lips after years and years. An awful company, mysteriously come together! A wild destiny for that mother to have foreseen! ‘Surrounded by so many and such companions upon whom I never looked, and never shall look, I and my child will dwell together inseparable, on the Great Saint Bernard, outlasting generations who will come to see us, and will never know our name, or one word of our story but the end.”

It is a scene of quiet horror and powerful poignancy. Intrigued by the short description of I looked further into it and read that Dickens had come across the mortuary while travelling in Switzerland in 1846, a country he loved and visited several times during his life.

A letter to his friend and biographer, John Forster, provides an interesting background insight into the scene in Little Dorrit. Dickens appeared to be impressed and terrified by the landscape, describing its desolation with a certain relish.

“I wish to God you could see that place. A great hollow on the top of a range of dreadful mountains, fenced in by riven rocks of every shape and colour: and in the midst, a black lake, with phantom clouds perpetually stalking over it. Peaks, and points, and plains of eternal ice and snow, bounding the view, and shutting out the world on every side: the lake reflecting nothing: and no human figure in the scene.”

Nothing of life or living interest in the picture, but the grey dull walls of the convent. No vegetation of any sort or kind. Nothing growing, nothing stirring. Everything iron-bound, and frozen up.

The mortuary was an outhouse beside the convent full of those who crossing the pass, the unclaimed presented as they were found in the snow. They were “not laid down, or stretched out, but standing up, in corners and against walls; some erect and horribly human, with distinct expressions on the faces; some sunk down on their knees; some dropping over on one side; some tumbled down altogether, and presenting a heap of skulls and fibrous dust. There is no other decay in that atmosphere; and there they remain during the short days and the long nights, the only human company out of doors, withering away by grains, and holding ghastly possession of the mountain where they died.”

The letter then moves on to pouring scorn and humbug on the monks and the St. Bernard dogs.

The mortuary appears to have been built in 1476 and held up to 150 bodies but there is little current detail or information about what seems to be a well-known if macabre sight for travellers in Switzerland at the time. A quick internet search only revealed this photo of the mortuary.

The Great St Bernard Hospice was founded in 1049 to protect and shelter travellers on a journey of danger from the weather and brigands. It continues to be a hospice for travellers and monastery but the mortuary appears to be sealed, presumably its former occupants have long gone.

It is important to note that this was not some faraway horror on foreign lands affronting the civilised senses of a travelling British gentleman. Dickens was all too aware of the far greater horrors found in London’s burial grounds, hospitals and church yards.

An interesting footnote is that while he was writing Little Dorrit Dickens campaigned with the philanthropist Angela Burdett Coutts to force a London hospital to improve its treatment of the dead.  Following the campaign a new room was built to store the dead and allow for nursing to “dress and decently dispose” the bodies and to look after the relatives.

It was a small part in the emerging improvement and awareness around the care, storage and disposal of the dead in the middle of the 19th century.

Waymark’s blog: Fascinating look at Napoleon and Turner marching / painting in the Great St Bernard Pass

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10 thoughts on “Dickens: the frozen dead and a macabre Swiss mortuary

    • I spotted that article but it sort of ran away from me before I could read it. Will read now but it’s funny how you get these different angles from people on the same subject. The pass sounds like it has a fascinating history and another reason to return to Switzerland one day!

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  1. The photo and description made me shudder. A macabre vortex, that valley is. I haven’t read Little Dorrit. I’ll keep it in mind the next time I feel the need to luxuriate in grim beauty.

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    • It does look grim in the photo! Much of Little Dorrit is less grim beauty and more scuzzy, greasy Victorian streets and austere debt prisons. Love that and as much as I love Dickens it does drift a bit at times.

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