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The Birth of Frankenstein on Lake Geneva

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 1 0

One Stormy Summer Long Ago

A few hundred years ago, in May of the year 1816, a group of young and talented Bohemians arrived at Lake Geneva to spend the summer on her pristine shores.

Villa Diodati

On The Shores of Lake Geneva

The group included the freethinking poet, Percy Shelley and Mary Goodwin, the daughter of philosopher William Godwin and deceased feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.

The young couple had run away together, leaving England and Shelley's wife, who he had married when he was 19 and she 16. Other members of the group were poet, Lord Byron, John Polidori and Clare Clairemont, Byron's lover and Mary's stepsister.

  Ideas and Romance 

Mary Shelley

Richard Rothwell's portrait of Mary Shelley
The group settled into the Villa Diodati, overlooking the picturesque lake. The summer however had turned wet and windy, forcing the party indoors for much of the time. Mary's diary recorded this with the words: "But it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house". The bitter "easterly winds" and "clouds hard and high" soon turned to thunder. As the group sat around the crackling fireplace and listened to the shifting winds buffeting the building, they also discussed far-ranging ideas. Electricity was a popular subject, particularly the discoveries by American founding father, Benjamin Franklin, dubbed "the modern Prometheus", by philosopher  Immanuel Kant. Galvanism and the experiments by Erasmus Darwin (the grandfather of Charles Darwin) concerning the contraction of muscles and uses of electricity, were other favoured topics. Percy and Mary, also loved to read aloud from  Rousseau and Shakespeare, as they looked out at the lake "Blue as the heavens it reflects". There were however seething sexual tensions fermenting in the villa, as Byron resumed an affair with the 18-year-old, dark-eyed Claire, who he "never pretended to love"  but who came "prancing" to him "at all hours". And Dr. Polidori, Byron's private physician, who would later pen "The Vampyre", also began to have feelings for Mary.


Wet and Windy and Tempestuous


Lord Byron

As the weather seethed outside and emotions brewed inside, a book fell into Shelley's hand called Fantasmagoriana, a book of German ghost stories. One night in June, as the party sat by candle light reading Tales of the Dead, Byron suggested, that each person write a ghost story. Shelley was an admirer of dark romances and weird Gothic tales and it was during his stay at the villa that he wrote the poem "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" communicating his fascination with ghosts and spectres:

"While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
Through many a listening chamber, cave, and ruin,
And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead."

Poet, dramatist, essayist, novelist
A Tale To Tell

Percy Bysshe Shelley

The stories conflict, but Mary began to work on what would later become her famous novel Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus. Byron began a tale but soon abandoned it. This fragment however, was later developed by John Polidori and became "The Vampyre". This book would  inspire Bram Stoker's creation of Dracula.

Shelley and Mary returned to England and not long after, Shelley's wife was found heavily pregnant and dead, floating in the Serpentine in Hyde Park . It is believed that she was despondent and had formed the idea, that her lover had abandoned her. John Pilodori also, later became depressed, developed a gambling addiction and probably committed suicide. Claire Clairemont, who had shared "visions of Gothic horror" with Shelley, (and probably much more) gave birth to a daughter Allegra. Byron however, placed the child in a convent and she died at age 5. Two months after this, Shelley died in a drowning accident. Beforehand he had claimed to have met his Doppelgänger and received a foreboding of his own death.

The book Frankenstein, was a great success and so Mary Shelley shall have the last words:

"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 – one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart,"


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Gustav Mahler - Piano Quartet in A Minor (part 1 of 2)



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