In the summer of 1816 a cold spell swept across Europe and North America. The unusual chill caused snowfall in July and unparalleled thunderstorms. Pamphlets were passed around predicting the end of the world.
During June of that year, five of the most famous persons in the world gathered together in a summerhouse in Villa Diodati, on the southern shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know”*- Lord Byron, Dr. John Polidori, ethereal Percy Shelley, Claire Clairmont (eighteen years-old and pregnant with Byron’s child), and her stepsister, Mary Godwin (mistress to the married Shelley).
Mary Godwin (later Shelley) was born on August 30, 1797 to the radical political philosopher William Godwin, and founding feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (authoress of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”). Mr. Godwin never got over the death of his wife who died due to complications during childbirth. He taught young Mary to spell her name by tracing the letters on her mother’s tombstone.
Although both Godwin and Wollstonecraft had been disciples of the free love movement, he was outraged when his own daughter began a love affair with the married poet and refused to speak with her.
Mary had spent her childhood haunted by the idea that she’d murdered her mother and was determined to prove her consequent life worthy. It had not been easy growing up the child of famed revolutionaries. Now, practically disowned by the father she adored, and in the company of the poetic geniuses, Byron and Percy, Mary felt an even greater need to prove herself.
On June 16, 1816, as candles flickered and lightning illuminated the room, Byron read from Fantasmagoriana, a volume of German shudder stories translated into French. Upon finishing, he challenged everyone in the room to write a ghost story. This was just the incitement Mary needed.
Mary wrote, “I busied myself to think of a story,- a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror.”
However, Mary was unable to think of an idea until June 22nd. On that evening, the conversation turned to, “the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated.” They discussed the experiments of Erasmus Darwin who had, “preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion.”
Mary began imagining a corpse re-animated. Past midnight, she found herself unable to sleep. “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.” Her eyes closed, she saw, “a 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.”
Mary opened her eyes, but she was not able to dismiss the “hideous phantom”. She later recalled thinking, “O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night.” A few moments later she realized, “I have found it!”
The next morning, Mary announced she had thought of a story. Along with the dream, she brought with her a lifetime spent devouring the works of Goethe, Dante, Schiller, Shakespeare, Milton, and Matthew “Monk” Lewis.
In writing, Frankenstein ; or, The Modern Prometheus, she would further utilize the theory of vitalism which held that a life force separated living things from non-living things. Some believed in a connection between vitalism (or elan vital) and electricity. In 1803, Giovanni Aldini had claimed to make dead bodies sit up and raise their arms by applying electricity.
Mary’s first words were, “It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.” ( This opening spoken by Dr. Victor Frankenstein would later become the opening of chapter 4 in the 1818 edition and chapter 5 in the revised 1831 version).
Dr. Frankenstein discovers the secrets of creating life. After gathering human parts from charnel houses, he infuses the spark of life into the being. However, Frankenstein is immediately horrified at the ugliness of his own creation. He casts the Monster out into the unfeeling world. This Monster- sensitive and tender- seeks understanding from Man but is constantly spurned until he chooses suicide.
The Monster cries out,”I shall die. I shall no longer feel the agonies which now consume me, or be the prey of feelings unsatisfied, yet unquenched.”
As Mary began penning what at first was only intended to be a short story, she could have no idea that she was creating one of the most enduring characters ever invented. The unnamed Monster, rejected by his own father, (as Mary had been rejected by hers) would outlive all of the five men and women gathered together in that villa on the shores of lake Geneva.
*quote by Lady Caroline Lamb- lover to Lord Byron