Contents Index

The Tempest-toss'd Summer of 1816: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

John Clubbe

The Byron Journal, 19 (1991), 26-40

{26} Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage, blow,
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks.
You sulph'rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head. And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o' th' world. . . .
King Lear III.2.1-7
Of the works of the 1816 summer, the most ink has been spilled on a novel begun by a woman of eighteen. In conception, if not always in execution, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus ranks among the most enduring works of imaginative fantasy ever written. The nearly silent participant in the nightly vigils at Diodati delved into the terrifying unknown as she probed the psyche's hidden potential for good and evil. Whatever its defects as a work of art, Frankenstein has exerted a hold on the popular imagination that it refuses to relinquish. Over the years critics have examined the novel from almost every perspective imaginable but, as one of them admits, it remains 'a book that almost escapes the conditions that govern sound literary discourse and scholarship'.1

Of the many ironies of the Swiss summer, perhaps the greatest is that two of the chief myths that have since haunted the Western imagination -- the myth of the creature made by man who returns to torment him, and the myth of the vampire who preys on mankind -- took their decisive form in a villa outside Geneva, religiously and morally the most conservative of Swiss cities. We may imagine no more startling contrast than that between the rational sons of the Geneva Enlightenment and the nightmarish beings that came into existence in their midst. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, along with John William Polidori's contemporaneous The Vampyre, are tales of the human psyche in agonized conflict with the supernatural. In their subsequent careers both works have affected the course of Western culture and stamped indelible images of terror on the unconscious of {27} subsequent generations.

In significant ways, the nearly four months Mary Shelley spent in Switzerland determined Frankenstein's subject, the ideas that went into it, and, to a degree difficult to define precisely, the novel's underlying power. In Switzerland Mary Shelley conceived the idea of a human being giving life to inanimate matter and there made a good start on her novel. Its main characters are Swiss, specifically Genevan, and they feel themselves deeply attached to the Genevan landscape, where much of the novel's action takes place, and to the valley of Chamonix, which Mary Shelley visited in July with Percy Bysshe Shelley. Like the contemporaneous poems of Byron and Shelley, Frankenstein arose within a context of people, of works read, and of places seen and felt and experienced. Within this context, one factor -- hardly noticed in most discussions of the novel -- was the extraordinary weather during the summer of 1816. Lear on the heath witnessed the 'thought-executing fires' that preceded 'oak-cleaving thunderbolts'; Mary Shelley outside Geneva appears to have undergone a similar experience, one that assisted in bringing Frankenstein to birth. The weather in 1816 may even be the single most determining influence upon the novel's creation.

'There is nothing in the world that can be compared to our lake in fine weather', wrote Jacques Augustin Galiffe, describing one of the rare summer days in 1816 when the horizon before Geneva revealed 'not the least particle of a cloud'.2 Such days and the hopes of others to come no doubt influenced Byron and Shelley to remain in Switzerland. But after 10 June came weeks of violent thunderstorms, mist, and extreme cold. June's dismal weather lasted through July -- and long afterward.

In general, the climate in centuries before the twentieth was somewhat wetter and colder. The Little Ice Age lasted roughly from 1560 to 1850, after which a warming period began. Surviving weather reports indicate that the five years on either side of Waterloo were particularly severe.3 Among them, 1816 stands out as having the coldest summer ever recorded in Europe. In 1816 everyone talked about the weather. And with justification. The summer never came. The spring was unexceptional, and until mid-June the agricultural cycle proceeded normally. Then came the rains which, a few clear days excepted, lasted the summer. The sun on its few appearances was a pale disk.4 'The earth is so prodigiously soaked', observed a contemporary diarist, the Hospitalier Dufour, on 8 July, 'that fountains emerge from every hole. {28} Streams came into being where none had been before.'5 'The season has been calamitous', observed Frances, Lady Shelley, touring Switzerland in late July. 'All the crops were destroyed, and much of the beauty has been spoiled by the wintry aspect of the meadows.' Even the 'nearer mountain-tops' around Lake Leman were still snow-covered, 'which is unusual at this time of the year.'6

In the spring, astronomers had sighted mysterious sunspots in their telescopes. During May and June these blemishes became large enough to be visible with the naked eye. People squinted at them through smoked glasses.7 Superstitious folk, even some less so, concluded that the sun was dying; others thought a chunk of the sun would break off and destroy the world. Newspapers periodically tried to calm the public. On 5 July, for example, the Gazette de Lausanne assured its readers that the sunspots did not pose a danger.8 On the 17th, hawkers in Paris sold a pamphlet entitled Détails sur la fin du monde. The end was to occur the next day. 'The 18th of July has passed', the Gazette de Lausanne reported laconically on the 23rd, 'and that day, which was supposed to be marked by the most frightening cataclysm, offered no other miracle than the return of good weather.'9 Unfortunately, the return was short lived. The sun lasted four days before again disappearing.

Such extraordinary weather led Byron, unable to resist a jab at his favourite target, to make a political analogy. 'We have had lately such stupid mists -- fogs -- rains -- and perpetual density--', he wrote to Rogers on 29 July, 'that one would think Castlereagh had the foreign affairs of the kingdom of Heaven also -- upon his hands.'10 Two days later, Elisabeth Hervey in Geneva informed Mary Millicent Montgomery in England that 'the weather has been, & is still most intolerable; if the Sun cheers us up by his presence for a couple of successive days, deluges of rain are sure to follow, & more or less to fall three or four days together.'11 As the months wore on, the Lake of Geneva and the Rhone swelled monstrously, not from melting snow but from the perpetual rain. Low-lying areas of Geneva were flooded. In certain quarters people could only circulate by boat; before the Hôtel de la Couronne someone hauled in a fifteen-pound trout.12 'Bridges were washed away, roads became impassable. . . . Dead animals were seen floating on the river and the lake had risen by almost seven feet. It was chilly in the homes and fires were lit to keep warm.13 The summer remains the coldest and dampest in Geneva's history since weather records began in 1753, colder even than the bitterly cold summer of 1628.14

England fared no better. The Lancashire plain experienced its coldest July in history. 'Have you been apprehensive of a second {29} Flood?' Lady Noel wrote to Lady Byron on 21 July. 'Hay spoilt, Corn laid, and all the cc & cs of farming distresses. But they are trivial to the distress of the North.'15 There the distresses remained so vivid for Thomas Carlyle that, fifty years afterwards, he wrote his farmer brother Alex in Canada that the 1866 harvest was 'the worst I can remember, for weather, since 1816'.16 'The situation in France was equally grave', the Stommels have pointed out. 'Torn by military campaigns and the defeat of Waterloo in 1815 and stripped of the feudal protection that had been one of the positive aspects of the vanished aristocracy, the French peasantry had no reserves with which to buffer the bad season of 1816.'17 The price of wheat the following winter was the highest in any year from 1801 to 1912. The war also ravaged Switzerland. An innkeeper at Martigny, in the Rhone valley, lamented to Lady Shelley that, 'after having been nearly ruined by the war, they are now threatened by famine.'18

Nor did New England fare better. New Haven in Connecticut, for example, recorded its coldest June ever, 'with a mean temperature that would ordinarily be expected for a point some 200 miles north of the city of Quebec.' New England, in fact, suffered a series of cold waves. Along with them came what appeared to be a freakish series of summer blizzards. The first hit on 6 June and lasted until the 11th, leaving three to six inches of snow on the ground in the northernmost states. Frost occurred every night from Canada to Virginia. 'A second killing frost struck the same areas on 9 July and a third and fourth on 21 and 30 August, just as the harvest of twice-ravaged crops was about to begin.'19 Overall, the frost killed almost all the corn, the main food staple, as well as most garden vegetables. 'Thousands feared or felt that New England was destined, henceforth, to become a part of the frigid zone', wrote Samuel Goodrich ('Peter Parley') in his Recollections.20 Many farmers failed. Thousands fled west. So severe was the hardship on farms that the year became enshrined in New England folklore as 'Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death'.

In Switzerland, after August 1816, bread became increasingly scarce.21 The price doubled, then rose again. Dinner guests were asked to bring their own.22 On 30 August government officials in Geneva considered purchasing grain abroad in order to assure an adequate supply at home and to maintain prices at an affordable level.23 Although the first two weeks of September witnessed an upturn in the weather, it was too late for the crops, which were small and of poor quality.24 The disastrous harvest caused grave shortages of food. Conditions in some areas of Switzerland approached famine. On 26 September the Geneva Grand Conseil, meeting in extraordinary session, voted a credit of 800,000 francs to assure provisioning for the canton, then doubled the {30} sum.25 Bad weather returned in October. A brief final attempt at harvest early in November was interrupted by renewed rain. Fortunately cargoes of grain from Russia, which had had an abundant harvest, began to arrive by sea by 20 November in time to prevent actual famine.26 Nevertheless, the winter of 1816-1817 and the spring following were hard for many. Only with the harvest of 1817, happily abundant, did the situation improve and the price of bread finally come down.27 'The year 1816', concluded the Hospitalier Dufour, 'was certainly one of the most miserable ever seen in the annals of mankind.'28 In folklore it became known as 'the year of misery', 'l'année de la misère.'29

Contemporary observers -- including Byron, Shelley, and Mary Shelley -- recorded the unusual climate of the 1816 summer. Subsequent historians have put it into perspective. But what brought about these extraordinary conditions? Until 1913 no one had convincingly explained why. That year William J. Humphreys, a United States Weather Bureau scientist, documented a relationship between volcanic eruptions and periodic low temperatures around the world30 According to Humphreys, volcanic dust in the atmosphere partially shielded the earth from the sun's rays, but permitted heat to escape, thus lowering the temperature. 'The chain of events', Henry and Elizabeth Stommel point out, 'began in [April] 1815 with an immense volcanic eruption in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) when Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa threw an immense amount of fine dust into the atmosphere . . . Climatologists rank the eruption as the greatest producer of atmospheric dust between 1600 and the present.' In addition to Tambora, two other major volcanic eruptions had recently taken place: Soufriere on St Vincent Island in 1812, and Mayon in the Philippines in 1814. The dust from these explosions 'circled the earth in the high stratosphere for several years, reflecting sunlight back into space and thereby reducing the amount of it reaching the ground.'31 By 1816, this globe-girdling veil of volcanic dust hovered over New England and Europe.32

'The empire of the climate is the first, the most powerful, of all the empires.'33 Thus Montesquieu in De l'esprit des lois (1748). He was among the first -- after Aristotle -- to regard climate as a determining factor in human history, in fact, the determining factor.34 His ideas about climate had by the early nineteenth century gained wide credence. L'homme du Midi et l'homme du Nord, ou l'influence du climat (1824), by Madame de Staël's friend, Charles-Victor de Bonstetten, states its thesis in its title. The best-known of his works, it draws upon Bonstetten's extensive experience as a cosmopolitan traveller in discussing the influence of climate on society. The book is representative. The historian J. C. Simonde de Sismondi, another Coppet intimate, argued in {31} his epochal History of the Italian Republics (1807-1818) that climate profoundly influenced human beings. Madame de Staël herself believed that climate shaped human dispositions and behaviour; it induced melancholy in northern peoples; and climate, though for her a factor of lesser significance than religion or political institutions, affected the literature a people wrote.35

Such determinist ideas about climate remained current through Victorian times. For example, of the four physical agents that the historian Henry Thomas Buckle claimed influenced the human race, climate stood first.36 In France his contemporary, Hippolyte Taine, insisted that literature was the product of race, environment, and time: 'la race, le milieu, et le moment': Milieu, or environment, Taine defined in terms of climate as well as political and social institutions.37 Today, many frown upon such determinist sociology. Climate is now more usually seen as one element in the total environment of man.

We need not become a determinist like Taine to claim that environment influenced behavioural patterns, or a climatologist like Buckle to claim that weather -- sunshine or rain, cold or warmth -- affects the way people feel. Still, we cannot read far in Mary Shelley's letters without becoming aware that she was extremely susceptible to environment and to weather. No less so were Shelley and Byron.38 Byron in Don Juan reveals himself cognizant not only of current ideas about North and South but also of climate as it influenced human behaviour and history.39 Arden Reed, in a recent book, has pointed out 'the simple fact that Romantic literature is full of the weather' and cites, among many instances, the 'twin peaks' of The Prelude, Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind' and Keats's 'To Autumn'.40 If the 'thought-executing fires' and 'oak-cleaving thunderbolts' of this summer of storms and black skies stimulated Mary Shelley, Byron, and Shelley to creativity, they also made them extraordinarfly aware of the precarious nature of the earth and of life itself. If things had gone amok in nature, could they not go amok among humans?

Fifteen years after she completed Frankenstein Mary Shelley recalled the 'incessant rain' that day after day beat against the windows of the Villa Diodati, rain so heavy and so prolonged that it confined the group indoors.41 With the onset of the rain and the cold the thoughts of those closeted within turned inward. Out of these gloomy days in June 1816 emerged the idea for Frankenstein. Its prevailing landscape of ice and rain and mist mirrors the time of its birth and composition. No less did the thunderstorms and the atrocious {32} weather, understood as they were within the context of prevailing theories regarding climate, affect Canto III of Byron's Childe Harold. There Byron, seeking 'one' all-containing, all-dissolving word that would capture the experience of transcendence, finds it in 'Lightning' (stanza 97). In such a climatological hell as he and the Shelleys experienced during the 1816 summer took shape the eerie landscape of his apocalyptic vision 'Darkness', the most ominous of the 1816 poems. The summer's weather left as well indelible marks upon Shelley's 'Mont Blanc'. It is against this background of rain, snow, flooding, and privation that the writings of the Swiss summer unfold.

Once the Shelleys had moved across the lake to the Maison Chappuis, they viewed thunderstorms 'grander and more terrific' than they had ever seen before. These bises or 'north-easters' were (and are) a common feature of Geneva weather. During the summer of 1816 they were especially frequent. From east to west, following the course of the lake, the blackening squalls (grains) increase in violence before spending themselves on Geneva.42 'An almost perpetual rain confines us principally to the house', wrote Mary Shelley.

We watch them [the thunderstorms] as they approach from the opposite side of the lake, observing the lightning play among the clouds in various parts of the heavens, and dart in jagged figures upon the piny heights of Jura, dark with the shadow of the overhanging cloud, while perhaps the sun is shining cheerily upon us. One night we enjoyed a finer storm than I had ever before beheld. The lake was lit up -- the pines on Jura made visible, and all the scene illuminated for an instant, when a pitchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads amid the darkness.43
Like Shelley, who inserts thunderstorms at dramatic moments in his Gothic thrillers, St Irvyne and Zastrozzi, Mary Shelley 'enjoyed' the spectacle of Nature putting forth its power. Thunderstorms were appreciated as aesthetic phenomena, as an aspect of the sublime. Lightning bolts pierced the black sky; thunderclaps boomed delayed accompaniment. Sound no less than sight formed part of the experience of the sublime. 'Excessive loudness alone', wrote Edmund Burke, 'is sufficient to overpower the soul, to suspend its action, and to fill it with terror.' 'Raging storms' and 'thunder' awake 'a great and awful sensation in the mind'.44 Violence in Nature, whether visual or aural, was savoured by the Shelleys. 'I long for a thunderstorm', wrote Shelley in an 1811 letter.45 The sublime moved Mary Shelley intensely. Percy Shelley said of her in 1814 that 'the irresi[s]tible wildness & sublimity of her feelings shewed itself in her gestures and looks'.46

The 'pitchy blackness' Mary Shelley observed reminds us that, according to Burke, a major 'cause' of the sublime was 'obscurity'. 'In {33} utter darkness', he wrote, 'it is impossible to know in what degree of safety we stand.'47 Complete darkness is total obscurity. It suggests danger, and thrills us by allowing the imagination free play in terror.48 Within such a context of 'pitchy blackness' Frankenstein came to being. When the idea for the novel entered Mary Shelley's imagination, it merged inevitably with the chiaroscuro images of the wild thunderstorms and lightning bolts she had observed over Leman. These thunderstorms were a culminating experience for her, one that remained vivid in memory, to be recalled whenever surges of creativity forced her to express a deep emotional response. As an enduring image of psychic tension, thunderstorms appear at crucial moments in her later works, blatantly symbolic in her novella Mathilda (1819), muted in her culminating fiction, The Last Man (1826). Every storm Mary Shelley recreated in Frankenstein she endowed with inner significance. For her, a storm embodied the unknowable, elemental power of Nature against which man's being, his rational intellect especially, appeared puny and helpless. Aptly, Shelley compares Frankenstein to 'the magnificent energy and swiftness of a tempest.'49

The thunderstorms over Leman, appearing in the novel at crucial moments, determine the action. While Victor Frankenstein, aged fifteen, watches awe-struck,

The thunder burst at once with frightful loudness from various quarters of the heavens. I remained, while the storm lasted, watching its progress with curiosity and delight . . . On a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, . . . and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. When we visited it the next morning, we found the tree shattered in a singular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribbands of wood (F 35).
As in Childe Harold, lightning in Frankenstein leads to destruction: it shatters the oak, leaving only a pulverized stump. An amazed Victor Frankenstein 'never beheld any thing so utterly destroyed.' But lightning can also lead to creation. Victor eagerly inquires of his father ('a man of great research in natural philosophy' in the 1831 edition) regarding 'the nature and origin of thunder and lightning' (F 238, 35). Learning that it is electricity, he builds a machine and conducts experiments. His scientific career has begun. The blasted oak consumed by lightning that he witnesses at fifteen serves as a paradigm of his future. As Prometheus had created mankind from fire coming to earth from heaven, so 'the modern Prometheus' took inspiration from the same source. Only in the revised edition does Mary Shelley close this chapter by allowing Victor Frankenstein a glimmer of self-awareness: he tries 'to avert the {34} storm that was even then hanging in the stars, and ready to envelop me' (F 239).

In neither the 1818 nor the 1831 version of Frankenstein, however, does Victor grasp the lesson of the storm. Consequently, he makes no effort to avoid the fate it presages for him. What began as fascination before the phenomenon of lightning terminates when he endows his own creation with the 'spark of being'. Or rather this termination prepares a new beginning. Victor Frankenstein abandons his creation, which soon passes beyond his effective control.

Years of study at Ingolstadt climax in the creation of a new being. At the moment of birth 'rain pattered dismally against the panes'; the next morning Frankenstein is 'wetted by the rain, which poured from a blank and comfortless sky' (F 52, 54). Soon he hears that his youngest brother William has been mysteriously murdered. As he approaches Geneva upon his return journey, another storm breaks forth.

The thunder burst with a terrific clash over my head. It was echoed from Salêve, the Juras, and the Alps of Savoy; vivid flashes of lightning dazzled my eyes, illuminating the lake, making it appear like a vast sheet of fire; then for an instant every thing seemed of a pitchy darkness, until the eye recovered itself from the preceding flash. The storm, as is often the case in Switzerland, appeared at once in various parts of the heavens (F 71).
Frankenstein traverses the lake to watch the storm from precisely the spot in which on 10 June 1816 Mary Shelley had originally seen it surging across the waters and had described it in much these same words. The 'noble war in the sky' elevates Frankenstein's spirits. Mesmerized by Nature's power, he has a sudden premonition that the storm is related to William's death. He exclaims aloud, '"William, dear angel! this is thy funeral, this thy dirge!"' (F 71). As he speaks, 'a flash of lightning' illuminates the Creature lurking in the darkness. Instantly, Frankenstein intuits that his creation has killed William. The Creature quickly disappears into the night. In this war in heaven, unlike that of Paradise Lost, the forces of destruction triumph. The death of the angelic William foreordains Frankenstein's departure from the paradise that is his city and its idyllic setting, the lake and the circumambient mountains. Now, like Adam in Paradise Lost, he must wander forth into a world without familiar bearings. Unlike Adam, he does not have within, to sustain him, a vision of a paradise 'happier far' (XII. 587).

Exposed like Lear to the storm's rage, 'cold and wet, in the open air', Frankenstein realizes that the being he has abandoned is 'endowed with the will and power to effect purposes of horror' (F 72). The 'thought-executing fires' Lear speaks of, whether understood as lightning flashes that move as swiftly as thought or, connotatively, as fires that {35} numb and dazzle the mind, also become Frankenstein's, as they had become Mary Shelley's. Like Lear, Frankenstein experiences 'a tempest in my mind' (III.4.12). The being he has created is also a part of himself, 'my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me' (F 72). It is 'the fiend that lurked in my heart', a fiend he cannot exorcize (F 89). As one can never seize one's self, so the Creature will elude him always.50 Earlier the lightning both destroyed and created. Now, finally, it illuminates as well. 'I am a blasted tree', Victor Frankenstein realizes in England: 'the bolt has entered my soul'. 'Blasted and miserable', he returns to Geneva after Clerval's death. As a final irony, the monster escapes from Elizabeth's bedchamber, after having murdered its occupant, 'with the swiftness of lightning' (F 158, 187, 194). Frankenstein now beholds his family, as he had the oak, 'utterly destroyed'. Alone like Lear, he recognizes the truth voiced by Edgar: 'Who alone suffers most i' the mind' (III.6.102). He has become, in effect, the lightning that destroys his family and, like that lightning, will himself be consumed in the process.

The thunderstorms Mary Shelley witnessed at Diodati, and which she remembered as a shared experience, may also have provided her with the key that allowed her to bring to life a creature from disparate parts. When she has Frankenstein infuse his creation with a 'spark of being', that spark may well have been electrical as well as Promethean. Around the fire at Diodati Byron and Shelley had discussed experiments by Erasmus Darwin that seemed to move toward the origin of life. In one 'a piece of vermicelli in a glass case . . . began to move with a voluntary motion' (F 227). But life, they concluded, could not arise in this way. 'Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated' through galvanism, Mary Shelley conjectured in her 1831 Introduction, raising an issue that had aroused much contemporary interest; 'perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth' (F 227). 'Perhaps', twice-used, in effect denies Frankenstein a convincing scientific basis. Darwin's experiments and galvanism both intrigued Mary Shelley sufficiently for her to remember them fifteen years later, but in themselves they did not have the same immediacy for her imagination that the thunderstoms did. Like Shelley, she was fascinated by scientific speculation; unlike him, she knew little about science. Sir Humphry Davy's Discourse . . . on Chemistry, which she read in October 1816, would have elucidated electrical processes to her.51 But she hardly needed to read about what she had already intensely experienced. The lightning bolts that brilliantly illuminated the Lake of Geneva gave her all the graphic demonstration she needed of the power of electricity.

{36} How seriously, we may ask at this point, did Mary Shelley believe in her creation? 'I shall not be supposed as according the remotest degree of serious faith to such an imagination', wrote Shelley in his Preface to the 1818 Frankenstein (F 6). He defends the creation of such a being because it affords the imagination greater potential in delineating 'human passions'. Shelley hedged. No doubt Mary Shelley hedged too. Several early reviewers of Frankenstein, however, Walter Scott among them, assumed that such a creation, though improbable, lay within the realm of possibility.52 That of course is part of the novel's uncanny hold upon readers then as now. Shelley, in seeming to deny that such a creation was possible, actually reminded Frankenstein's first readers that it was possible. Had not Cuvier, Europe's most eminent anatomist, 'startled the scientific world [in 1812] by announcing that a pair of jaws over four feet long, that had been dug up . . . in 1770, had belonged to an extinct monster of truly gigantic proportions'?53 'Where, then, was the human race at this period?' Cuvier asked in his Essay on the Theory of the Earth. 'Did the last and most perfect of the works of the Creator nowhere exist? . . . These are questions which the study of fossil remains does not enable us to solve . . .' Geologists, he observed, have proposed dozens of systems to explain the present state of the earth. Six of them he discusses, twenty others he mentions in passing.54 As the century progressed, other huge creatures were unearthed. If such monsters had once walked the earth, did they still exist somewhere? Contemporaries found the possibility intriguing. Even more so the question: where did they come from? The Book of Genesis, still almost universally credited as a literal account of Creation, spoke of 'giants in the earth' (Gen. 6.4); classical and Norse mythology had described the struggles of Titans and giants. If larger-than-life creatures still inhabited outlying areas of the earth, could one now be stalking Europe?

We easily forget that Frankenstein appeared in a world still very imperfectly charted. In 1816 almost none of the earth's high peaks had been scaled; less than fifty years before, Captain Cook had claimed for England the hardly-known continent of Australia. The arctic regions remained terra incognita and, as Captain Walton's letters remind us, the subject of intense speculation. We smile when we read of Walton's conjectures regarding the North Pole -- 'What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?' (F 10) -- but no less an authority than Herder had written 'we are still in the dark with respect to the basis of all climates from the polar regions.'55 No one knew what to expect because no one had been there. Not until 1909 did Peary attain the Pole that Walton sought. Europeans knew most countries outside the European land mass only vaguely; even within it they had little acquain- {37} tance with fringe areas. Mary Wollstonecraft described primitive customs in Norway, and Byron was among the first Englishmen of the day to have set foot in what is now Albania. Huge tracts of Africa, the American continents, and Asia were unknown to Europeans. Numerous islands remained undiscovered. Contemporary maps indicate the known world surrounded by large uncharted areas where angels blew trumpets and sea-serpents rose out of the waves.

The world of Frankenstein, we remember, lies closer in time to that of Gulliver's Travels than to our own. Even in our own time, the willingness with which many gave credence to the Abominable Snowman stalking the Himalayas, or to Bigfoot prowling the mountains of America's Pacific Northwest, to say nothing of the perennial speculations regarding the Loch Ness monster, indicates the public's need to believe in larger-than-life creatures. Outer space provides new realms for the imagination to people with whatever beings it fancies, as Star Wars and its numerous offspring indicate. 'Artificial life' may sound like a contradiction, but in the 1990s the notion that lifelike behaviour can be coaxed out of non-living material is gaining acceptance among scientists. Biologists, chemists, physicists, mathematicians, and computer scientists envision a not-so-distant future inhabited by evolving software, sentient robots, and life forms based on chemicals other than carbon. In 1816 the eerie creations imagined by Mary Shelley, both creature and novel, seemed all too possible. It needed only the thunder and 'pitchy blackness' of a 'tempest-toss'd' summer to launch them into life.


1. George Levine, review of Christopher Small, Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein :' Tracing the Myth, and of James Rieger, ed., Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. The Wordsworth Circle, 6 (1975), 212.

2. MS: Duke. Galiffe-John Backhouse, ca. 18-21 July 1816. These were the only clear days in July.
   My account of the weather in Switzerland during the summer of 1816 is drawn from Marc Henrioud, '"L'Année de la misère en Suisse" et plus particulièrement dans le Canton de Vaud 1816-1817', Revue vaudoise historique, 25 (1917), 114-124, 133-142, 171-192, and Paul Henchoz, 'L'Année de la misère (1816-1817) dans la région de Montreux', Revue vaudoise historique, 42 (1934), 66-89, and the more recent study by Christian Pfister, Klimageschichte der Schweiz 1525-1860, 2 vols (Berne and Stuttgart: Paul Haupt, 1984). Patrick Hughes ('Eighteen Hundred and Froze-to-Death', ESSA, 15 (July 1970), 33-35) and Henry and Elizabeth Stommel ('The Year Without a Summer', Scientific American, 240 (June 1979), 176-186) have sketched the larger picture in Europe and America. The latter is the fullest study to date. Unless otherwise indicated, information regarding the weather in 1816 is from these sources. Quotations in French and German have been translated. My overall approach to the interaction of man and climate has benefited from the work of Fernand Braudel, particularly The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1971), vol. 1.
   To my knowledge, the connections between the extraordinary weather of 1816 and the {38} equally extraordinary literary creativity manifested by Byron, Shelley, and Mary Shelley have not previously been explored in detail.

3. Pfister notes five 'Ice Age summers' (Eiszeitsommer) between 1812 and 1816 (p. 132).

4. Henrioud, p. 115.

5. Henchoz, p. 74.

6. Diary of Frances Lady Shelley, 1787-1817, ed. Richard Edgecumbe (London: John Murray, 1912), pp. 222, 226.

7. Hughes, p. 35.

8. Henrioud, pp. 172, 119; Henchoz, p. 74.

9. Henrioud, p. 173.

10. BLJ, 5, p. 86.

11. Bodleian: Lovelace 93, fols 246-247.

12. Henrioud, p. 116.

13. Radu Florescu, In Search of Frankenstein (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975), p. 111.

14. Stommel and Stommel, p. 176; Pfister, p. 141.

15. Malcolm Elwin, Lord Byron's Family: Annabella, Ada and Augusta (London: John Murray, 1975), p. 46.

16. The Letters of Thomas Carlyle to His Brother Alexander, with Related Family Letters, edited by Edwin W. Marrs, Jr (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968), p. 758.

17. Stommel and Stommel, p. 184.

18. Lady Shelley, p. 249.

19. Stommel and Stommel, p. 176.

20. Cited from Walter Havighurst, Wilderness for Sale: The Story of the First Western Land Rush (New York: Hastings House, 1956), p. 166.

21. Henrioud, p. 120.

22. Edouard Chapuisat, L'Auberge de Sécheron au temps des princesses et des berlines (Geneva: Editions du 'Journal de Genève', 1934), p. 144.

23. Henrioud, p. 123.

24. Henchoz, p. 78.

25. Henrioud, p. 123.

26. Henrioud, pp. 124, 134.

27. Henrioud, pp. 137, 142.

28. Henchoz, p. 88.

29. Henrioud, p. 118.

30. 'Volcanic Dust and other factors in the production of climatic changes, and their possible relation to ice ages', Journal of the Franklin Institute, 176 (August 1913), 131-172.

31. Stommel and Stommel, p. 176.

32. On 26-27 August 1883 Krakatoa, in the Straits of Java, 'erupted in what has often been called the most stupendous natural explosion in recorded history' (Richard D. Altick, 'Four Victorian Poets and an Exploding Island', in Victorian Readers and Occasions: Selected Essays on Victorian Literature and Life (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989), p. 233). Altick's model study analyses the responses, particularly to the 'prolonged and spectacularly colored twilights' enjoyed in Britain, of Tennyson, Brydges, Hopkins, and Swinburne. See also Thomas Zaniello, 'The Spectacular Sunsets of the 1880s', in Victorian Science and Victorian Values: Literary Perspectives, edited by James Paradis and Thomas Postlewait (1981; New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1985), pp. 247-261.

Like the more recent eruption of Mount St Helens in the United States, Krakatoa in 1883 received wider and far more rapid media coverage than was possible for Tambora in 1815. Tambora's explosion was 'larger by most measures . . . but global communications at the time could not bring it the widespread attention it deserved. . . . For North America, at least, it seems likely that the much smaller eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 may soon replace Krakatau as history's most famous eruption' (Tom Simkin and Richard S. Fiske, Krakatau 1883: The Volcanic Eruption and Its Effects (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983), p. 18).

33. Cited from E. Estwyn Evans, The Personality of Ireland (1973: Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1981), p. 7.

34. Montesquieu adumbrates his theories regarding climate in Book I of De l'Esprit des lois before delving into the subject in Book 14. Preceding Montesquieu were Aristotle (Meteorologica), Jean Bodin (1566), Fontenelle (Digression, 1688), Chardin (1711), and Abbé Dubos (Réflexions critiques, 1719). A number of Enlightenment thinkers took up Montesquieu's ideas regarding climate and society, of whom the best known are Buffon in Histoire Naturelie (1749-1783) -- Mary Shelley mentions him in Frankenstein -- and Herder in Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1784-1791).

35. See especially De la littérature (1800), chapter 11 ('Literature of the North') and De l'Allemagne (1813), passim. One can point out, as does Morroe Berger (Madame de Staël on Politics, Literature, and National Character, translated . . . by Morroe Berger (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), p. 39), that Mme de Staël and Herder were writing as much about environment, as about weather or even climate, without negating my claim for the effects of the weather in 1816 upon the creativity of the Diodati coterie.

36. History of Civilization in England, 2 vols, 2nd edition (London: John W. Parker, 1868), 1, p. 36.

37. History of English Literature, introduction.

38. For Byron, see BLJ, 3, p. 91.

39. Caroline Franklin, 'Byron's Heroines of the South', Byron Journal, 18 (1990), p. 39; Gerald Wood, 'The Metaphor of the Climates and Don Juan', Byron Journal, 6 (1978), pp. 16-25.

40. Romantic Weather: The Climates of Coleridge and Baudelaire (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1983), pp. 3, 5.

41. Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, edited by James Rieger (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Mernll, 1974), p. 6. Rieger offers an edited version of the 1818 text. He also includes Mary Shelley's subsequent revisions. Citations from Frankenstein, from Shelley's Preface to the 1818 edition, and from Mary Shelley's Introduction to the 1831 edition are given parenthetically from this edition.

42. Thomas Medwin, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, with an introduction and commentary by H. Buxton Forman (London: Humphrey Milford/Oxford University Press, 1913), p. 146.

43. The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, edited by Betty T. Bennett, 3 vols (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980-1989), 1, p. 20.

44. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, new edition (1756; London: G. & E. Whittaker, 1821), p. 144.

45. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), 1, p. 128.

46. Ibid., p. 402.

47. Inquiry, pp. 254, 255.

48. Ibid., pp. 97-103, 254-261.

49. Shelley's Prose or the Trumpet of a Prophecy, edited by David Lee Clark (1954; Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1966), p. 308.

50. Martin Tropp, Mary Shelley's Monster: The Story of Frankenstein (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976), pp. 24-31.

51. Laura E. Crouch has argued for the influence on Frankenstein of Davy's A Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry (1802): 'The Gothic tone which surrounds Frankenstein's discovery of the "cause of generation and life" often obscures the fact that he was working within an established field, chemical physiology. . . . Though Mary Shelley's description of the life-giving process is vague, Frankenstein's experiments do seem closely related to the work in galvanic chemistry that Davy mentions in the Discourse ('Davy's A Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry: A Possible Source of Frankenstein', Keats-Shelley Journal, 27 (1978), 36, 37). This argument strikes me as unfounded speculation. "A.P. Harvey makes a solid case for Frankenstein's lack of scientific base ('Frankenstein and Caleb Williams', Keats-Shelley Journal, 29 (1980), 21-27). Galvanism was certainly in the air. See e.g., BLJ, 5, p. 257, and Don Juan 1, stanza 130, and 8, stanza 41.

52. Sir Walter Scott on Novelists and Fiction, edited by Joan Williams (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968), p. 271. The review of Frankenstein first appeared in Blackwood's, March 1818. Tropp notes that in 1816 'the idea of creating life seemed a quite reasonable possibility for the near future. . . . It was widely felt', he adds, 'that "inorganic matter could easily generate living things as it was already alive"' (pp. 52, 53).

53. Cited from Stephen Prickett, Victorian Fantasy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979), p. 79.

54. Baron G. Cuvier, Essay on the Theory of the Earth . . . with Geological Illustrations by Professor Jameson, 5th edition (Edinburgh: William Blackwood; London: T. Cadell, 1827), pp. 295, 21, 44-46.

55. Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, abridged and with an introduction by Frank E. Manuel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), p. 14.