The Summer of 1816

Mary Shelley spent the greater part of the summer of 1816, when she was nineteen, at the Chapuis in Geneva, Switzerland. The entourage included her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori, Byron’s physician. Lord Byron rented the Villa Diodoti on the shores of Lake Geneva, which John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost,had visited in the 1600’s . Rousseau and Voltaire had also resided on these shores. Mary considered the area to be sacred to enlightenment.

The weather went from being beautiful and radiant to melodramatically tempestuous. Torrential rains and incredible lightning storms plagued the area, similar to the summer that Mary was born . This incredible meteorological change was due to the eruption of the volcano, Tambora, in Indonesia. The weather, as well as the company and the Genevan district, contributed to the genesis of Frankenstein.

All contributing events that summer intensified on the night of June 16th. Mary and Percy could not return to Chapuis, due to an incredible storm, and spent the night at the Villa Diodati with Byron and Polidori. The group read aloud a collection of German ghost stories, The Fantasmagoriana. In one of the stories, a group of travelers relate to one another supernatural experiences that they had experienced. This inspired Byron to challenge the group to write a ghost story.

Shelley wrote an forgettable story, Byron wrote a story fragment, and Polidori began the “The Vampyre”, the first modern vampire tale. Many consider the main character, Lord Ruthven, to be based on Byron. For some time it was thought that Byron had actually written the story but over time it was realized that Dr. Polidori was the author. Unfortunately, Mary was uninspired and did not start writing anything.

The following evening the group continued their late night activities and at midnight Byron recited the poem, Christabel by Samuel T. Coleridge. Percy became overwrought during the reading and perceived Mary as the villainess of the poem. He ran out of the room and apparently created quite a scene. This incident undoubtedly
affected Mary, leading to feelings of guilt that contributed to the story ideas she later developed.

For the next couple of days Mary was unable to begin her story. The poets dropped theirs but Mary persisted in her creative endeavor. She felt that her ambitions and her value were at stake and attempted to turn the pressure and frustration into creative energy.

On June 22nd, Byron and Shelley were scheduled to take a boat trip around the lake. The night before their departure the group discussed a subject from de Stael’s De l’Allemagne: “whether the principle of life could be discovered and whether scientists could galvanize a corpse of manufactured humanoid”. When Mary went to bed, she had a “waking” nightmare:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life…His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away…hope that…this thing…would subside into dead matter…he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains…

The next morning Mary realized she had found her story and began writing the lines that open Chapter IV of Frankenstein – “It was on a dreary night in November”- She completed the novel in May of 1817 and is was published January 1, 1818.

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