The concise facts about the Lake of Geneva are these: It is the Lac Leman of the French. It is the largest of the lakes. It stands at the height of 1,220 feet above the level of the sea, and its waters are blue. It is bounded by France on the one side and by Switzerland on the other. The Rhone runs through it from end to end. It is subject to a strange undulatory wave called a seiche, which passes across it like a shudder, or as if the side of the cup in which the Lake is lodged had been lightly struck.
The vast dimensions of the Lake can best be realized by imagining it empty of its water. It would then appear as a barren valley of rock 45 miles long and 8 ½ miles broad at its widest point. It would take the form of a vast, terrific canyon, with sides of the clammy and cadaverous stone and with a depth so profound that its bottom would be almost in a twilight since at its deepest it sinks no less than 1,095 feet.
At one end of the valley, the Rhone would pour in like an icy waterfall; while at the other end—like a cardboard toy on the top of a bank—would be the city of Geneva. The bottom of the valley would be covered with the clay-coloured mud brought down by the river, and here, one may imagine, would be writhing and plunging of those fearsome reptiles that belong to the Legends of the Lake. There would be strange heaps of wreckage amid the silvery acres of dead fish, and, perhaps, on a ledge of rock in the valley’s side, a lonely skeleton with a rope and stone still dangling from its neck; for executions by drowning were once common in these waters.
Far more important than its topographical features are the conflicts of thought and of national ideals of which the Lake has been the scene. On the south shores of Leman, the feudal form of government prevailed. Here the castle and the baron dominated the land; the peasants were serfs, and those in higher place obsequious servants. In early days Savoy was broken up into little seigneuries, which held their own with such strength as they could command. Then came Humbert of the White Hands, who banded the independent, feudal lords into one united body and so established the State of Savoy, of which he—as Count —became the autocratic ruler. Savoy rose to be a power, not through the merit of its princes, but by the circumstance that France never ceased in her attempts to gain possession of it. It was the greed and aggression of France that made Savoy whole, that kept it united and kept it strong. But whether under one lord or under many, it remained the land where men had few rights but those of obedience.
On the other side of the Lake, the contrary condition held sway. The people were bent upon acquiring liberty and the control of their own destinies. So long as they were subject to rule, they never ceased to clamour for more freedom. Little by little their demands were granted until, with increasing confidence, they grew bold, threw off the yoke of their overlords and established the first republics in modern Europe. Thus on one side of the water was an enlightened democracy, while on the other was dull feudalism.
The waters of the Lake that divided the Royalist from the Republican were destined, in time, to separate two antagonistic phases of religious thought. When the Reformation blazed forth, the north shores of Lac Leman became the advanced line of Protestantism and the bulwark behind which its forces gathered. Across the water were the entrenchments of Rome. These upholders of adverse faiths glared at one another across the blue until, in a memorable year, the army of the Reformation crossed the barrier, invaded the Roman lines, swept over Chablais and converted it to Protestantism. The victory was only for a while, since under the leadership of St. Francis of Sales the Catholic Church succeeded in regaining the ground that it had lost and that it has never since surrendered.
But this is not all, for the Lake was to witness another profound movement which served further to divide the minds of men—Voltairism came into being. Voltairism, Lord Morley claims to stand out as “one of the great decisive movements in the European advance, like the Revival of Learning, or the Reformation.” We may think of Voltairism in France somewhat as we think of Catholicism or the Renaissance or Calvinism. It was one of the cardinal liberations of the growing race, one of the emphatic manifestations of some portion of the minds of men, which an immediately preceding system and creed had either ignored or outraged. Voltaire lived at Ferney—a few miles from Geneva—for some twenty years, during which time he never failed to spread abroad the views with which his name is associated.
In the present aspect, the two shores of Lac Leman differ very much when seen from the water. On the Savoy side, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region in modern France, is a luxuriant land, wayward and unsophisticated, a land without walls or hedges where things seem to grow as they will with little method or restraint. The north shore, on the other hand, is meticulously tilled. Its slope, from Vevey almost to Nyon, is covered with vineyards patterned out by formal lines and made to look stiff and artificial. In the spring the northern bank of the Lake Geneva for many miles is a cinnamon-brown and as monotonous in hue as a ploughed field. When the vine leaves appear the slope becomes a hesitating green and then a bolder green which, as the autumn wanes, fades into tints of yellow or ruddy brown. Thus it is that the more pleasing view of the Lake is gained from the northern side, for it affords a view across the water of a coast that is always green and that has, moreover, as a glorious background, a range of mountains capped with snow.
It is unquestionable that the Lake Geneva is often blue; but it is always a delicate and timid blue, very unlike the bold, assertive blue of the Mediterranean. It is, moreover, a tint that ever varies, that changes with each hour of the day, for the surface of the Lake is sensitive, sympathetic and full of moods. It may fade into grey, the grey of the pearl if the sun is on it, the grey of the smoke of burning wood if it is in the shadow of a cloud. There are days when it is almost jade-green. There are evenings when it is streaked with lilac, with coral-pink or with rose-red. There are, moreover, occasions, it must be said, when ” the river-of-paradise-blue ” is replaced by colour so commonplace as that of an old pewter plate. The surface of the Lake has been compared to a mirror, but it is seldom so hard or so artificial as to justify that comparison.