Mary Shelley wrote this letter to her half-sister, Fanny Imlay. The letter was printed within the book History of a six week’s tour, the main text of which describes a journey undertaken in 1814.
What does she write about?
A large proportion of the letter is about the weather. The year 1816 was known as the year without a summer, due to the excessive sulphur dust cloud covering much of the northern hemisphere, caused by the eruption of the volcano Mount Tamboro in Indonesia. This caused lowered temperatures, famine and spectacular sunsets. Mary refers to this climatic change in the last paragraph: ‘our pleasures here, which would be greatly increased if the season had been more favourable’. The first paragraph mentions strongly coloured sunsets and ‘almost perpetual rain’. She also makes numerous references to ‘dark’ and ‘darkness’. Shelley describes a conversation with a peasant girl who claims not to know what month it is. Although Shelley suggests this is because the girl is ignorant, it’s possible the girl was actually confused by the lack of seasonal change.
The paragraph about the ‘equality of [social] classes’ in Switzerland producing ‘a greater freedom and refinement of manners among the lower orders’ is echoed in chapter 6 of Frankenstein, where Elizabeth writes ‘the lower orders, being neither so poor nor so despised, their manners are more refined and moral’.