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.
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.
"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!