A piece I wrote last year summarising the timeline for the conception and composition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
I shall thus give a general answer to the question, so frequently asked me—”How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?”
– Mary Shelley, 1831 Introduction to Frankenstein
Switzerland, 1816: an eighteen-year-old girl has a nightmare, and the ‘grim terrors’ in her ‘waking dream’ deliver a flash of inspiration. The teenager is a would-be writer in search of a story, and this night terror coupled with her literary prowess will produce two of the most enduring figures in English literature: Victor Frankenstein and his monstrous creation.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley, is spending the summer by the shores of Lake Geneva. She is accompanied by the poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley – the latter being her lover and eventual husband, who during 1816 is still married to another woman. Percy and Mary eloped in 1814. He is the young radical poet sent down from Oxford for his writings on Atheism, and she is the daughter of two political philosophers (William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft). Also present in Geneva in 1816 are Claire Clairmont (Mary’s stepsister, currently having an affair with Byron) and Byron’s personal physician, John Polidori.
Why did Mary’s terrifying night vision motivate her to write? Because of a literary challenge. The weather is perpetually unsettled – thundery and cold. Years later 1816 would be known as ‘the year without a summer’, because in 1815, Indonesia’s Mount Tambora had exploded, devastating the climate around the globe. Mary recollected in 1831: ‘it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house’ (although, it is important to note that people in Europe did not know the cause of this phenomenon then). Amidst the stormy days and nights, Byron suggests: ‘we will each write a ghost story’.
What we know of this build-up to the conception and composition of Shelley’s enduring novel is taken from letters, journals, and anecdotal recollections. What follows is a short timeline indicating something of the period of the ‘birth of a monster’ in 1816-17 when the novel was devised and constructed…
Mary, Percy, Claire and the Shelleys’ son William arrive in Geneva.
Mary writes a letter to London:
The thunder storms that visit us are grander and more terrific than I have ever seen before. We watch them as they approach from the opposite side of the lake, observing the lightning play among the clouds in various parts of the heavens, and dart in jagged figures upon the piny heights of Jura, dark with the shadow of the overhanging cloud, while perhaps the sun is shining cheerily upon us. One night we enjoyeda finer storm than I had ever beheld. The lake was lit up—the pines on Jura made visible, and all the scene illuminated for an instant, when a pitchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads amid the darkness.
Byron moves into the Villa Diodati, minutes away from the Shelleys in Maison Chappuis. The party often meet at Diodati.
Polidori is keeping a Geneva diary, and notes on this day that ‘[Percy] Shelley and I had a conversation about principles, — whether man was to be thought merely an instrument’. The group are reading a collection of German horror stories, translated into French, and entitled Fantasmagoriana.
Charles E. Robinson, editor of the Frankenstein manuscript notebooks, has considered whether we can ascertain on what day Byron made his proposal – before, on, or after this date of Percy and Polidori’s conversation on ‘principles’? We cannot be sure. But what happened when the competition began? Mary Shelley’s 1831 recollection explains:
The noble author [Byron] began a tale […] [Percy] Shelley, more apt to embody ideas and sentiments in the radiance of brilliant imagery, commenced one founded on the experiences of his early life. Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady […] I busied myself to think of a story[…] One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror […] Have you thought of a story?I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.
Mary is saved from her writer’s block by the chilling dream-vision of a ‘pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together’… she announces ‘I have found it!’, and her writing begins. She starts with the words, ‘It was on a dreary night of November…’ This opening will become the first line of Vol I, Chapter 4 in the published novel of 1818.
Polidori records how, as the group are reading S T Coleridge’sChristabellate at night, Percy has a terrifying hallucination which makes him shriek and run out of the room: ‘He was looking at Mrs. S[helley], and suddenly thought of a woman he had heard of who had eyes instead of nipples, which, taking hold of his mind, horrified him’ (!). Throughout the summer, Mary observes all that surrounds her, including the discussions of her companions: ‘We often […] sat up in conversation till the morning light. There was never any lack of subjects, and, grave or gay, we were always interested’.
The Shelleys will eventually edit the growing draft of Mary’s ghost-story together, collaborating on a literary masterpiece in the making: Frankenstein. During their time in Europe, both Percy and Mary scribble descriptions of the environs of Geneva, and their meditations on Mont Blanc following a visit to Chamonix together in July correspond to the language in Mary’s novel-in-progress and Percy’s poetry. Their writings at this time show a striking correlation, for example, Mary describes the Alps by noting: ‘The summits of the highest were hid in Clouds but they sometimes peeped out into the blue sky higher one would think than the safety of God would permit’. Percy writes: ‘They pierce the clouds like things not belonging to this earth’.
Mary enters ‘write my story’ into her journal. This is the first reference to the composition of Frankensteinin the extant journal-books. Percy was also writing his great poem ‘Mont Blanc’ on this day.Throughout the rest of Mary’s journal in 1816 and into 1817, ‘write’ appears often.
Mary continues to note the typical activities of this group of young intellectuals in her journal. A snapshot, on 26 August: ‘Shelley & I talk about my story – finish Herma d’Unna and write – Shelley reads Milton – After dinner Lord Byron comes down and Clare & Shelley go up to Diodati – Read Rienzi’… In late August, the Shelleys return to England, and reside in Bath, where Mary continues to write.
Mary writes to Percy: ‘I have also finished the 4 Chap. of Frankenstein which is a very long one & I think you would like it’. The work of corrections, transcription, and seeking a publisher will occur in 1817.
14 May 1817
Mary, still not yet 20 years of age, enters in her journal: ‘[Percy] S.[helley] […] corrects F[rankenstein]. write Preface—Finis’.
1 January 1818
The first edition of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is published anonymously in three volumes. Readers mistake Percy to be the author, but, as Mary would later explain, although his encouragement and support helped create it, she is the mind behind the monster.