Greg Buzwell describes the bizarre circumstances that gave rise to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the other works that emerged from the ‘ghost story challenge’ at the Villa Diodati in the summer of 1816.
The circumstances that gave birth to Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818) read like something from a Gothic story in themselves. Mary’s unconventional life up to the summer of 1816 (when she was still only 18), along with the company in which she found herself in June of that year – and even the unusual weather conditions at the time – all contributed to the book’s genesis. The vital spark that gave the novel life however was Lord Byron’s suggestion one evening at the Villa Diodati, as candlelight flickered within the house and lightning flashed across the surface of the lake outside, that those present should turn their hands to the writing of ghost stories. It was a casual ploy to while away a few hours in an atmosphere of delicious fear, but it resulted in two iconic tales: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a story of scientific transgression and a cautionary warning about the need to take responsibility for one’s actions; and John Polidori’s The Vampyre, a tale which influenced Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula.
Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, 1831
The frontispiece illustrating the monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1831.
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‘The Year without a Summer’
The weather in the summer of 1816 was memorable for all the wrong reasons. The eruption of Mount Tamboro in Indonesia in April 1815 sent clouds of volcanic ash billowing into the upper atmosphere. The sun was obscured; levels of rainfall increased and temperatures fell. The summer of the following year was thus dismal and damp, with low temperatures and torrential rain causing disastrous crop failures throughout North America, Europe and Asia. For many living on the other side of the world to the eruption, the reason for the disturbances in the weather would have been a mystery, but one that lent a sinister and perhaps even a supernatural quality to the need to light candles at midday as darkness descended, and the sight of birds settling down to roost at noon. The discovery by scientists of large dark spots on the sun in the same year added to the growing sense of unease and impending doom, as reflected in Lord Byron’s apocalyptic poem Darkness, written in Geneva in July 1816.
‘The year without a summer’, as 1816 became known, provided the perfect backdrop to the telling of bleak, macabre and doom-laden Gothic tales.
'Dreadful Weather on the Continent' from the Morning Post
This newspaper article refers to the weather in the ‘year without a summer’, 1816.
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Usage terms Sourced from the British Newspaper Archive
In May 1816 the poet Percy Shelley, together with Mary Godwin (she didn’t become Mary Shelley until her marriage to Percy Shelley in December 1816, although she always referred to herself as ‘Mrs Shelley’ during the months immediately prior to the marriage) and their son William (nicknamed 'Willmouse’) travelled to Geneva. Travelling with them was Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont – a former lover of Lord Byron. The journey across the French border and into Switzerland involved travelling through bleak, wintry landscapes. As Mary recorded afterwards in her travel volume History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland (1817) ‘Never was a scene more awefully desolate. The trees in these regions are incredibly large, and stand in scattered clumps over the white wilderness; the vast expanse of snow was chequered only by these gigantic pines, and the poles that marked our road: no river or rock-encircled lawn relieved the eye, by adding the picturesque to the sublime’. The landscape, with its frightening, lonely and bleak aspect, clearly haunted Mary, and she would describe similarly desolate locations in her novel Frankenstein, a book that both begins and ends amidst bleak snowy wastes.
The Villa Diodati
Within 10 days of the arrival of Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin in Geneva, Lord Byron himself arrived in a suitably dramatic fashion, drawing up at his hotel around midnight in a Napoleonic carriage fresh from a sightseeing trip to the battlefield of Waterloo with his physician, Dr Polidori. Byron and Percy Shelley met for the first time the following day, and within a short space of time both men had abandoned their hotel and took leases on two nearby properties: Shelley and his travelling companions at a small chalet called Montalègre and Byron and Polidori at the nearby Villa Diodati, a large porticoed house once occupied by the poet John Milton. Because the weather in June was particularly bad and denied the possibility of sailing journeys on the lake, the group spent their evenings discussing literary projects, talking late into the night as the rain fell outside. With thunder and lightning rolling down from the mountains and across the lake, the candlelit interior of the Villa Diodati became the home to discussions about galvanism and the principles of animation, with Polidori’s medical knowledge acting as a balance for Byron and Percy Shelley’s more speculative imaginings. As Mary recalled in the Preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein: ‘Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered communicated’. The contemporary interest in galvanism, anatomy and the spark of life, together with the thunder storms outside and the candlelight within, all took root in Mary’s imagination and found their way into her novel.
When Byron suggested the idea of writing ghost stories, inspiration was taken from a collection of German horror stories, translated under the title Fantasmagoriana. Sexual tensions and frustrations were also on the increase in the Villa, with Polidori becoming amorously interested in Mary who did not reciprocate, while Claire’s fixation with Byron showed no signs of abating. Shelley himself, as the atmosphere of tension and unease wound ever tighter, found himself slipping into a mood of morbidity and oppression. One evening Byron read some verses from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘Christabel’ in which the character of Geraldine, (who appears as a woman, but is actually a Lamia, or disguised serpent), seeks both the spiritual and physical possession of the beautiful and innocent Christabel. Percy Shelly, clearly affected by the claustrophobic environment and the hypnotic power of Byron’s reading of the poem fled the room screaming, apparently horrified, as he recounted later, by the sudden mental vision of a woman who had eyes instead of nipples on her breasts. Polidori made use of this ‘fit of fantasy’, as Byron later described it in a letter to his publisher John Murray, in his story The Vampyre.
The late night talks at the Villa Diodati continued as the weather outside remained stormy, and it was following one of these conversations that Mary had the nightmare that gave rise to the central idea of Frankenstein. Mary recounted the nightmare in her 1831 preface to the book, giving a startling example of how the heightened consciousness of terror could be transformed into brilliant and inspirational creativity:
Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of the unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion …
Frankenstein’s monster and Frankenstein the book had both been born.