In Part 3 of our Spooky Isles weekly series, SARAH PARKIN focuses on events surrounding the famous visit to Lake Geneva, where Mary Shelley conceived the gothic classic Frankenstein
Of the coterie that spent the summer of 1816 at Lake Geneva, Claire Clairmont must be by far the least renowned. Among the few who know her name, she is Mary Shelley’s step-sister, a friend of Percy Shelley and one of many lovers of George Gordon, Lord Byron. It was thanks to her, however, that the group came together at all. Her brief affair with Byron that spring had clearly exacerbated her infatuation – introducing her step-sister to the poet enabled her to arrange for Mary, Percy and herself to stay in a house near the grand villa the poet had leased.
For Mary, who was increasingly known as Mary Shelley although the couple were not yet married, this was one of many complications in her life. Travelling for the sake of Percy’s poor health with an infant child would have been stressful enough without the controversy that followed them at home and abroad. Although we don’t know exactly when that summer Claire learned she was pregnant with Byron’s child, nor indeed when Byron tired of her and the affair ended, it’s almost too tempting to suggest that this was another trauma of procreation on the list that inspired Mary’s unique representation of a monstrous birth.
The group found themselves together on the dark, stormy night of June 16th, the atmosphere perfect for a ghost story, when a plot was hatched: instead of telling other people’s stories, they would write their own. Percy struggled to find inspiration and quickly gave up. Even Byron, who was incredibly prolific all summer, began a vampire novel and abandoned it. The successful writers were, ironically, the ones who were not yet known. Byron’s physician Dr. Polidori took up the poet’s ideas and developed them into The Vampyre, the short story that catalysed the subgenre eighty years before Bram Stoker put pen to paper for Dracula. Mary, meanwhile, struggled with her assignment, but refused to give up so lightly.
According to her introduction to the 1831 edition of her novel, several days passed until, after a long night talking of contemporary experiments in galvanism (reanimating dead flesh using electrical currents), she had a peculiar waking dream:
“I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, —I saw the pale student of 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. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken.”
She thought she had the beginnings of a short story. Over the next year, with Percy’s encouragement and collaboration, including his frequent alterations and suggestions on the manuscript, it became a full length novel, drawing on the traumas that marked their early relationship.
The first four chapters were written after Mary’s half-sister Fanny Imlay committed suicide, depressed after Mary and Claire’s departure and having learned of her illegitimacy. In November, Percy’s heavily pregnant wife Harriet also killed herself, breeding lasting guilt for both himself and Mary; when the lovers finally married just a few weeks later, it was in part to help Percy’s suit for custody of his two children by Harriet. By the time Frankenstein was finished in May 1817, it was built on over a year of painful childbirths and childrearing that shine through in the relationship between creator and creation.
When eventually published in January 1818, with a preface by Percy and dedication to her father William Godwin, Frankenstein didn’t even bear Mary’s name – it was anonymous until the second edition was released in 1822 – but her masterpiece was given to a world that had no idea just how important it would be.
Here are links to the complete five-part weekly series “Mary Shelley and The Birth of Frankenstein” with SARAH PARKIN, examining how England’s greatest gothic horror novel came to be.
PART ONE: Examines Mary Goodwin’s childhood and how her relationship with her parents, William Goodwin and Mary Wollenscraft, influenced the novel, Frankenstein.
PART TWO: Looks at the teenaged Mary Godwin’s budding relationship with Percy Shelley and the surrounding scandal that led to the birth of Frankenstein.
PART THREE: Focuses on events surrounding the famous visit to Lake Geneva, where Mary Shelley conceived the gothic classic Frankenstein.
PART FOUR: Looks at the mixed reaction the gothic novel Frankenstein received when it was released in 1818.
PART FIVE: Describes the legacy the novel Frankenstein has had on the world.
SARAH PARKIN in West Yorkshire and Durham, where she is currently studying for a Masters degree in English Literature at Durham University. You can follow her on Twitter here.