“I had a dream, which was not all a dream. The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars Did wander darkling in the eternal space, Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air; Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day, And men forgot their passions in the dread…”Darkness, Lord Byron
The April 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora located on the island of Sumbawa was the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. The deafening roar of the explosive eruption was heard up to 1,200 miles away, as plumes of ash raced miles into the air, blocking out the sun causing temperatures around the world to drop by an average of 5.4 F degrees. The drastic drop in temperature made it impossible to grow crops or feed livestock, even birds and fish were unable to survive, which in turn led to famine, riots and disease in Europe and elsewhere. The eruption’s effects were felt as far as North America where regions of New England saw snow in June, July, and August. The ash, thick and heavy, brought about a profound darkness that turned day into night. This overwhelming darkness stretched into the following year and became the source of another eruption, this time from the mind of an eighteen-year-old girl.
In 1816, Mary, and future husband, Percy Shelley, accompanied by Mary’s half sister, Claire Clairmont, (who would eventually give birth to one of Byron’s daughters) spent what became known as “the year without a summer” in a rented cottage near the shore of Lake Geneva. A short distance away, Lord Byron rented Villa Diodati, a large house with green shutters and sculpted iron railings, that overlooked the lake. Byron occupied the house along with various
animals including a peacock, several servants, and his personal physician and punching bag, John Polidori. The ash from the eruption of Tambora still hung heavy in the sky making them captives of the weather. Mary Shelley described it as “a wet ungenial summer and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house.” The almost constant rain and violent lightening restricted their activities to indoors. Inside Byron’s grand villa, the group partook of sex, wine, and laudanum. Under the hazy glow of candlelight, they amused themselves by reading from a collection of German horror stories, titled, Fantasmagoriana. Byron also read Coleridge’s poem ‘Christabel’ which triggered a fit of horror (undoubtedly fueled by laudanum) that overtook poor Percy causing him to flee from the room. In addition to the macabre stories, passionate debates broke out between Byron, Shelley, and Polidori about galvanism and the reanimation of the dead. Mary often remaining “a devout but nearly silent listener,” sat nearby absorbing both the discussions and the sounds from the fierce, angry storms howling around the lake.
Byron, inspired by this dark and gothic atmosphere, challenged the others to a ghost story
competition. Byron, while not based on the supernatural, wrote a somber, ominous poem full of dramatic and melancholy imagery titled, ‘Darkness.‘ John Polidori with literary aspirations of his own, wrote a short story entitled The Vampyre, Fueled by his tense and volatile relationship with Byron, Polidori created the fiendish Lord Ruthven, describing him as “a nobleman, more remarkable for his singularities, than his rank”, and his great beauty which “female hunters after notoriety attempted to win his attentions…” left little doubt the character was a thinly veiled description of Byron himself. The rift between Polidori and Byron grew even deeper when Polidori’s story was mistakenly credited to Byron. Byron disclaimed authorship. Byron had begun a fragment of a story titled “The Vampire” which he quickly abandoned. No doubt Polidori was inspired by Byron’s fragment, however, the young physician’s version differed enough for him to be given credit for its authorship.*
But, it was the eighteen-year-old, Mary, inspired by a nightmare, who created one of the most timeless classics in literature, Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus.
‘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 …’ Mary Shelley.
The novel’s first publication in 1818 was released in three volumes, dedicated to Mary’s father, William Godwin. Later publications were released in one volume. There was speculation over the authorship of the novel. Some claimed the book was written by Percy, and while he certainly contributed largely to the editing, the story, was Mary’s creation. Mary, like her creature was “fearless and therefore powerful”.
It’s hardly surprising the novel is entering its 200th anniversary this year (2018). It’s a powerful work of reflection on humanity, the overwhelming desire for acceptance and companionship, and the instinct of survival. Mary’s creature appears more human than his creator making one contemplate the true villain of the story; the creator or the creation.