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The Villa Diodati - Robert Grassi<br />
Public Domain

Making Monsters - Mary Shelley and The Year Without A Summer

Posted on 10 June 2019

With a new adaptation of Frankenstein coming to the Belgrade Theatre 2-12 October, we took a look back at the strange summer that gave birth to Mary Shelley’s famous monster…

One cold and stormy summer, five young radicals gathered in a huge, porticoed mansion near the banks of Lake Geneva in Switzerland and began to tell each other stories.

It was 203 years ago today that the poet and notorious philanderer Lord Byron – infamously described as “mad, bad and dangerous to know” – began his five-month sojourn at the Villa Diodati, accompanied by his personal physician John William Polidori.

Thanks to his hedonistic lifestyle, Byron’s debts had swelled as quickly and spectacularly as his scandalous reputation at home in England. Anticipating bailiffs any day, he packed his bags and fled to one of the most desolate corners of the continent.

It was only in the month before that Byron had met and befriended the promising young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had recently eloped with his wife-to-be Mary Godwin, with Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont also in tow. Claire was the only one of them with history with Byron – the two had been romantically involved in London before he left, after she approached him ostensibly to ask him for ‘career advice’ in his capacity as a director at the Drury Lane Theatre. It was on her suggestion that they followed him to Switzerland, and he and Percy quickly proved inseparable. Arriving in the village of Cologny together, Percy, Mary and Claire took up residence in a nearby waterfront chalet, but were frequent visitors to the villa throughout the summer.

Plummeting temperatures, fog and persistent heavy rains saw 1816 christened the “Year Without a Summer”, or even more grimly, “The Poverty Year” and “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death”. In the spring of 1815, the eruption of Mount Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa released a massive column of volcanic ash which was subsequently carried around the world, triggering devastating climate change. Crop failure, flooding and famine were widespread throughout Asia, North America and a Europe still recovering from the Napoleonic wars, leading to outbreaks of typhus, rioting and thousands of deaths. In Switzerland, the summer of 1816 was so cold that an ice dam formed below the Giétro glacier in the Val de Bagnes, while famine-induced violent unrest caused the Swiss government to declare a national emergency. It was the worst famine to occur in 19th-century Europe, described by the historian John D. Post as “the last great subsistence crisis in the Western world”.

It was as a result of the cataclysmic weather conditions that, shortly after their arrival in Cologny, the whole party found themselves trapped indoors for several days in June. During this time, they turned to reading ghost stories from the Fantasmagoriana – an anthology of German ghost stories translated into French and published in 1812.

The union of freak weather and a bleak, mountainous landscape, supernatural stories and storm-disrupted sleep, plus the growing frustration of being trapped inside together while tensions grew between the members of the group, provided a fertile ground for feeding feverish imaginations, and at some point, Byron issued a challenge to them all to create their own ghost stories, as a kind of competition to see who could spook the others most.

While all but Claire Clairmont took up the challenge in some form, only two of the monstrous creations born out of that pregnant summer were destined to outlive their creators – and neither of them were authored by the more experienced writers, Byron and Shelley. A fragment penned by Byron never matured to take on a real life of its own, although it was published in 1819 as a postscript to his narrative poem Mazzeppa. Similarly, Percy Shelley’s abortive fragment of a ghost story never quite developed into anything fully formed, and was published only posthumously as part of the Journal at Geneva.

Inspired by Byron’s fragment, meanwhile, Polidori’s The Vampyre is generally regarded as the first modern vampire story, fusing elements of Eastern folklore with modern gothic and romantic sensibilities in the character of Lord Ruthven – a charming but dangerous aristocratic fiend who preys on people within his high society circle, and a rather transparent satire of Byron himself. Despite that specificity, the blood of Polidori’s Ruthven clearly flows through the veins of every Western vampire tale since, from Dracula to Twilight to What We Do in the Shadows.

Meanwhile, Mary’s monster was something even more extraordinary, a strange hybrid of styles and ideas that would come to be viewed as the very first science-fiction story. In her diary, Mary reported that the idea for Frankenstein came to her in a “waking dream”, which seems to have occurred one night between 16 and 18 June.

“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, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world,” she writes.

With thunder and lightning disturbing the already restless household, it’s perfectly possible that a nightmare was the spark that gave her creature life. But there were certainly other factors at play too.

On the one hand, discussions around recent medical advances (Polidori’s area of expertise) had led them onto the subject of “Galvanism” – using electrical currents to excite motion in lifeless corpses. The practice had been causing a stir in London at the time, with some questioning whether electricity might hold the key to permanently restoring life to the dead.

Meanwhile, the villa itself had previously been inhabited for a short time by John Milton, whose Paradise Lost is one of many key literary references woven through the story, alongside the Classical myths of Prometheus and Pygmalion.

On a more personal level, Mary was still haunted by the loss of her baby girl, who had died shortly after her premature birth in February 1815. As she found herself excluded from conversations between Shelley and Byron, she was also surprised and dismayed by her lover’s increasing distance from her, an observation reflected in the chilly single-mindedness of Frankenstein’s titular protagonist – not the monster, but the scientist determined to give him life.

Out of these patchwork pieces she stitched a story that would go on to claim a place as one of our most enduring myths, its DNA encoded in countless later tales of reanimation and artificially created life, whether corporeal or digital (look to Humans or Ex Machina for contemporary parallels).

While software made to mimic human conversation or sift job applications has been shown to adopt our biases, prejudice and cruelty; and as the invention of independent artificial consciousness begins to look like an increasingly plausible part of our future, Mary Shelley’s terrifying warning about the perils of creating life without love has never seemed more prescient.

Co-produced by the Belgrade Theatre, Selladoor Productions, Matthew Townshend Productions and Perth Theatre at Horsecross Arts, Frankenstein runs in Coventry from Wednesday 2 until Saturday 12 October. Tickets are available to book now.