I recently read a New York Times article which said that Frankenstein resulted from a cold summer of debauchery on Lake Geneva, fuelled by ghost stories, wine and laudanum. Well it was certainly cold, and there were ghost stories galore, but Mary Godwin and Shelley didn’t drink and nor did Byron at the time. Laudanum was commonly used on those days as a medicine and sleeping draft. The debauchery was that eighteen year old Mary was not yet married to Shelley, though they had a four month old baby, and Mary’s step sister, Claire, was having an affair with Byron.
Unconventional for the time but not riotous.
The inspiration for Frankenstein doesn’t need to be salacious to be fascinating.
It was the result of the apocalyptic weather, the dark sky and the storms from the volcanic explosion of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. This meant longs days around a fire, with candle lit at noon, in mid July, reading ghost stories and then a challenge from Byron for them each to write one themselves. In her second edition, Mary said the idea came to her in a dream, but as we know, dreams have their source in real life.
First of all there was their obsession with the gothic, and the recent release of Coleridge’s poem, Christabel. Then there was Percy Shelley’s personal love affair with science, and his experiments set up on dining tables. In London there was an atmosphere of science as theatre, with ‘shows’ demonstrating phenomena such as galvanism, the supposedly life giving powers of electricity. They also loved the philosophy of Rousseau, who wrote that man’s ideal state is that of an uncorrupted ‘noble savage’ and Percy Shelley was an atheist whose criticism of religion made it easy for Mary to consider the idea of man playing God.
When Mary and Shelley had first eloped to Switzerland, they returned on a boat along the Rhine through Germany, and passed Castle Frankenstein, once occupied by Jonathan Dippel, an alchemist reputed to have experimented on dead bodies. Polidari, Byron’s doctor who was also living in Byron’s Villa Diodati, also told stories of his the cadavers used in his medical training.
Finally there was Mary’s own need to produce something to justify the heritage of her literary superstar parents. She also had a good commercial sense, always trying to get Shelley to write something with wide appeal – not least to pay the bills!