Lake Geneva, 1816
As previously mentioned, Byron and Shelley were great chums, and in 1816 decided to take a holiday together with their entourages. Shelley brought his lover, Mary Godwin, and their son, William, and Byron brought his physician, John Polidori. Also in the retinue was Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister, a former lover of both Byron and Shelley (which Mary knew). They chose the Villa Diodati (above) on the shore of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, but the weather that summer was not as expected. In fact, 1816 was known as âthe year without a summer’, due to the heavy rain and low temperatures.
This was caused by the eruption of Mount Tamboro in Indonesia, the volcanic ash from which was so thick that it obscured the sun, meaning that candles had to be lit even at midday. Reaching Diodati in May, the Shelleys had travelled across the precarious wintry landscape of the Alps, which Mary vividly described in her travelogue, History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland (1817): ânever was a scene more awfully desolate. The trees in these regions are incredibly large, and stand in scattered clumps over the white wilderness’.
Thus a dreary atmosphere awaited the Romantic Poets and their retinue at Lake Geneva. The weather was so bad that sightseeing was all but impossible, and so the party instead passed the time with intense philosophical and literary discussions. Simultaneously, Polidori made unreciprocated advances to Mary, and Claire continued to pursue an impervious Byron. Shelley, apparently, was so affected by the atmosphere that he fled the room screaming when Byron read verses from Coleridge’s Christabel by candlelight. One fateful night, Byron suggested that each write a ghost story in the spirit of competition. Literature was never the same again.
The atmosphere was conducive to the creation of fine Gothic horror. Byron gave up on his own tale, but allowed Polidori to adapt it into the novella that was published as The Vampyre, whose protagonist, Lord Ruthven, was a thinly-veiled portrayal of Byron himself. The novel influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and is seen as the very first romantic vampire tale. Meanwhile, Mary Shelley had a nightmare in which she âsaw 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’.
That nightmare was the inspiration for Mary’s most famous work, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. As well as the experience of losing her virginity on her mother’s grave, Mary was also influenced by the dreadful misfortunes of miscarriage and still-birth she had borne since meeting her husband. It is no surprise that the Villa Diodati produced such a harrowing tale, given the general atmosphere and the philosophical discussions undertaken. As Mary remembered, âvarious philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered communicated’.