27 Aug /14


An avalanche is a huge flow of snow which falls with increasing speed into the valley below.

Naturally enough the first English experience of the avalanche was when travelling in Europe at the end of the 1700s – with early sightings being in Italy, France and Switzerland. It took a while for the spelling of avalanche to become standard – with the Italian word “valance” and the French word “valanche” being used first.

The first reference to an avalanche in English is in a report in The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1765 of a most extraordinary event of how three women were saved after they had been buried for 36 hours by an avalanche in the Italian Alps. There is a graphic description of the priest getting ready to go to church who hear a “noise toward the top of the mountain” and saw “two valancas driving headlong towards the village”. The women who were trapped were given money to rebuild their house and lived the same life as before their misfortunes.

Smollett was a major English novelist who also wrote a travel book and used his fame to get a huge advance as a translator (he translated Don Quixote from Spanish to English for which he was paid five years before publication and edited a 35-volume translation of Voltaire’s works from French into English).

He also took a 2-year trip to Europe which he wrote up in Travels though France and Italy which came out in 1766, the year after he finished the journey. He travelled though the Col de Tende from Nice and writes about the key danger on the narrow mountain path – “valanches”. He describes this as “balls of snow which … roll down with such rapidity that the traveller is crushed to death before he can make three steps on the road”. He reports that the avalanche destroys trees, houses and kills people.

But by the time Byron wrote Manfred in 1817, the word avalanche had become standard. His hero asks the avalanche to “come and crush me”, but unfortunately all that happens is that it falls on things what would still live.