Thursday, June 2, 2011

Lake Geneva, Mary Shelley, and Frankenstein

Lake Geneva, Switzerland
Photo from New York Times

I have always been fascinated by the story of how the beautiful and brilliant Mary Shelley at the age of 19, wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, came to write the gothic tale of Frankenstein.  I knew the bare details: in the summer of 1816  Mary, Percy, Mary's stepsister Claire Claremont, the poet Lord Byron and friends travelled to Lake Geneva, Switzerland to stay for the summer. One night during a ghost story competition  Mary Shelley came up with the concept of Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley

In fact, I had gone to an interesting lecture at UCLA several years ago called "Mothering Monsters -- Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein.'"  The speaker had compared the creation of the monster by Victor Frankenstein to Mary Shelley's own feelings about childbirth.  After eloping with Shelley, Mary had given birth to a baby in 1815 that had died two weeks later.  The speaker argued that Victor Frankenstein's horrified rejection of his creation expressed the general depression Mary experienced with this tragedy as well as her later pregnancy anxieties and postnatal depression.  She went on to have several more children.

But there is so much more to it than that.  Mary's own mother Mary Wollstencraft, author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" had died giving birth to her.  As she grew up, Mary felt neglected and ignored by her famous father William Godwin, the political philosopher and novelist.  Unable to get along with her stepmother, she was sent away to Scotland for two years.  Just like the monster in "Frankenstein," who is abandoned, rejected and isolated, Mary's perception is that an unloved child can become a monster and can be driven beyond the pale of humanity.  In the novel, Mary Shelley leaves open the question, what would have happened to the creature if he had been mothered?


This lecture on the meaning of the book was thought provoking and I remember leaving the lecture feeling that I wanted to know more about the night in 1816 when Mary and the group of poets congregated in Lake Geneva and this gothic horror tale was born.

The Grand Rue in Montreux, on the eastern side of Lake Geneva
Photo from New York Times

And so on Sunday I was thrilled to read an article by Tony Perrottet in the Travel section of the New York Times called "Shores of Romance and Scandal" about the summer of 1816 when Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley stayed at Lake Geneva and she came up with the tale of "Frankenstein."  I wanted to know about this story and of course see the gorgeous places in Switzerland that attracted this group of writers.  After all, this is the travel section of the NewYork Times and it feeds the wanderlust in many of us.  I loved the subtitle of the piece:

"When Lord Byron and Percy Shelley arrived at Lake Geneva in 1816, the plan was poetry and pleasure.  The result?  Frankenstein, vampires and a love child."

Here is a brief synopsis of the story that Perrottet tells.  Please take the time to read the whole article for yourself.  It is so well-written and fascinating.

In May 1816 this notorious group that arrived in Lake Geneva included the celebrity poet Lord Byron, who was known as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know."  A married man, he was fleeing England in the wake of a scandals involving well publicized romances with many women, including his half-sister.  He was traveling with his personal physician, a troubled young doctor with  literary aspirations named John Polidori and a group of footmen.  He was met in Geneva by the struggling poet Shelley, who was also tinged by scandal because of his advocacy of atheism and free love.  He was accompanied by his brilliant and beautiful 18-year-old mistress Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (she married Shelley later that year), and her attracitive stepsister Claire Claremont who was also 18.

Byron and Shelley rented adjacent houses near Lake Geneva.  That summer produced literary masterpieces from several members of their group:  Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," Lord Byron's "The Prisoner of Chillon" and other poems, and John Polidori's sinister short story called "The Vampyres" which would years later influence Bram Stoker's "Dracula."  Percy Shelley was working on his "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty."  But as Perrottet tells us, that summer was not just historic for those literary masterpieces.  In 1815 a huge volcano had erupted in Indonesia and sent a pall of volcanic ash across Europe and brought much cold weather and torrential rains.  That summer in Switzerland saw almost constant rain, with thunderstorms on the lake as a constant backdrop to the writers' nights.

During these stormy nights the group drank large amounts of wine and used laudanum, a form of liquid opium.  One night when Byron read aloud a haunting poem, Shelley ran screaming from the room having had frightening hallucinations about Mary.  It was in this heated, wild atmosphere that she had the famous nightmare that became the macabre plot of Frankenstein, about a scientist who creates a creature out of stolen body parts and infuses it with life. The next night she told the frightening tale to a spellbound audience.

The group broke up at the end of the summer  when Claire revealed that she was pregnant.  Byron was most likely the father.  The Shelleys departed for England on August 29 with Byron promising to support the child.  Instead he went to Italy to throw himself deeper into debauchery.  Though the summer was one of excess and abandon, much creativity came out of it.

Perrottet writes,
"In retrospect, the 'Frankenstein' summer' seems a fantastical interlude of happiness in lives marked by tragedy.  In 1822, Percy Shelley drowned in Italy, at age 29; Dr. Polidori had committed suicide the year before, at age 25. Claire's daughter with Byron died at age 5, and only one of Mary Shelley's four children with Percy survived.  Byron died in Greece in 1824, at the ripe old age of 36."


For his article in the New York Times, Perrottet explored Lake Geneva in the hopes of discovering what inspired all the creativity.  As I read about Lake Geneva, "the largest, deepest, and bluest of Swiss lakes, and its beauty only heightened by its surroundings -- thriving vineyards, historic architecture, and in the distance, peaks dipped in snow all year round," I wanted to go there and retrace the footsteps of Mary and Percy Shelley and Byron.  After all, Mary Shelley used many scenes from Lake Geneva in Frankenstein.  And Byron's poem  "The Prisoner of Chillon" was inspired by the Chateau de Chillon, a haunting medieval fortress right on the lake.  The castle became notorious in the 16th century as a political prison and Byron and Shelley were moved when they visited it and saw the dungeon, where an outspoken cleric had been chained to a pillar for six years.

Chateau de Chillon

The poets did not stay in Geneva, but instead in the nearby village of Cologny  -- Byron in the spectacular Villa Diodati and the Shelleys  in the more modest Maison Chapuis.   The Villa Diodati was where the group congregated at night and where Mary Shelley told the story of Frankenstein.  Hearing about this notorious group staying at the villa, tourists would go by in boats on the Lake to try to get a glimpse of the infamous Byron and his friends.   The Villa Diodati can be visited today.

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to visit the haunts of my favorite writers.  I have done that in England with Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, Jane Austen,  the Brontes, Charles Dickens and Shakespeare.  I have visited the homes of Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, and Herman Melville in New England.  I did this in Rome when I visited the house where Keats died.  Now I may have to go to Switzerland and do the same for Mary Shelley and the Romantic poets who flocked to beautiful Lake Geneva and try to imagine what it must have been like during that summer of 1816 when one of the most famous horror stories, "Frankenstein" was born.


By the way, Tom Perrottet's latest book, "The Sinner's Grand Tour: The Historical Underbelly of Europe," was published this month.  After reading Perrottet's fabulous article I will definitely be buying this book!


  1. Fascinating!! And what a wonderful excuse to take a trip to lovely Lake Geneva!!

  2. What an intriguing lure to Geneva, as if there needs to be one. I loved this post, read it last night, then came back to read it again this morning. Well done!

  3. Absolutely fascinating post. I'll read the whole article as well. What a world so many artists/writers/poets inhabited in past times. As an painter, I can't help but wonder (on occasion) what would happen to my art, if I had a swig of laudanum!
    I had no idea of the origins of Frankenstein, or of this Lake Geneva group.
    Would love to visit it as well. Visits to art studios such as Cezanne's in Aix en Provence, have always been highlights of my travels.

  4. Kathy, you really made me laugh. It is interesting to think about what these writers were up to during that summer in Geneva! And you reminded me of another wonderful source of inspiration while traveling and that is visiting artists studios and homes. I loved Monet's Giverny and would love to visit Cezanne's studio in Aix-en-Provence.

  5. What a wonderful, cool story. I wish I had known 38 odd years ago when I visited Lake Geneva.I totally missed that NYT article. I can hear the thunder
    and see the lightening. Real, actual life is so often the crucible of such great artistic transformation.

  6. Oh Oh, memories. We were just on the shores of Lake Geneva and also the town of Montreaux last year. It still feels so dreamy!

  7. Had to read this again - I'm hooked on this post. Brings up so many thoughts on all the debauchery that went on among so many groups of artist types, not just in Europe, but in Mexico, British East Africa, etc.
    I've always been attracted/fascinated by it all. Will definitely be getting that book by Perrottet. Whenever I sit down to paint, I have a large bottle of water next to me - not quite the same as Frida Kahlo's bottle of tequila!

  8. Oh, I like to make literary pilgrimages, too. I've visited Austen's home in Chawton and the Bronte parsonage in Yorkshire. I'd love to see Concord House, where Lousia M Alcott grew up.

  9. This article had a similar impact on me as well. I'm so inspired by this story of passion. And of course I want to travel to these places. xo