To explain the next chapter in this story I need to digress for a second on the topic of The Grand Tour. If you were a young aristocratic man in England– this was almost exclusively a boy’s thing – growing up in the 17th or 18th Centuries; your final stage of preparation for manhood was the grand tour. You would usually spend six months wandering the continent – seeing the sites in France, Italy, possibly Spain, some Germanic duchies, maybe even the Balkans, Mediterranean, or Baltic states. This was usually followed by a stay of three years in some aristocratic enclave over on the continent – where you would sharpen up your language skills and cultural knowledge.
Aristocrats mixed with other aristocrats, sowed their wild oats, and eventually returned to their estates more worldly wise. The Napoleonic wars put an end to grand tours, and when they came back into vogue decades later – the spread of railways across the continent and the development of companies like Thomas Cook and Sons, offering cheap package tours meant it was never again going to be the preserve of just the wealthy, aristocratic few.
During the Napoleonic wars, people really started feeling like they were missing out on an important cultural milestone – especially those who traditionally were not the class who got to travel – and no travelling to be cannon fodder in a war is not the same.
In 1809 a young aristocrat named George Gordon – titled upon his uncle’s death the 6th Baron Byron (an inheritance of title and status but no wealth) got the travel bug and sets off his own Grand Tour, war or no war. He skipped war torn Europe, opting for the Mediterranean, via Portugal, Spain, Malta – on to the Ottoman Empire in the East.
When he returned to Britain in 1811 he wrote long poems on his adventures, and one particularly- Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage – was a massive hit.
In Childe Harold (a childe is a medieval word for a young knight) Byron captures the zeitgeist of a generation sick and tired of endless wars, many in a culture war with their parents’ generation. He established the ‘Byronic hero’; a brooding, mysterious, almost superhero type – for more modern examples think James Bond and Batman. Most importantly his poems allowed the travel hungry to live vicariously through him, in a way an HGTV doer-upper show allows cash strapped millennials to ponder on what they would do with some run down old house. Lord Byron became very rich, super famous, and influential very quickly. He wrote of his success “I awoke one morning to find myself famous”. Of the party in question Byron particularly was a rock star of his era. Percy Bysshe Shelley not so much in his own lifetime, but he would be seen posthumously as one of the greats. Mary Shelley would write several novels- I’ve only read her most famous one myself, and what a novel it is.
So, our rock star authors set off for Geneva, Switzerland, early in the summer of 1816. They left behind a bitingly cold, wet, miserable, hazy England – If you look at Joseph Turners paintings from 1816-18 you get a sense of the atmosphere – I’ll post some pictures below if you’re interested. Lord Byron set out first, followed a week later by Mary Shelley (then still Mary Godwin), Percy Shelley, and Mary’s half sister Claire Clairmont. While they hoped for warmer weather, they arrived to weather like none of them had seen before. Mary would write back to her other sister Fanny, back in London
“One night we enjoyed a finer storm than I had ever before beheld. The lake (Geneva) was lit up- the pines on (Mount) Jura made visible, and all the scene illuminated for an instant, when a patchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads in the darkness”.
The unseasonable weather, which would roll on, not having fully cleared from the atmosphere for several years – was caused by the build up of greenhouse gases from the volcano. In Geneva spring, then summer were unrelentingly wet and miserable. The Shelley circle were greeted by the coldest summer in their records (which date back to 1753). By a howling, incessant Northeast wind. By almost never ending rain – Geneva saw 130 days of torrential downpours between April and September 1816. It rained so much that year that, despite the snow never thawing and running down the mountains – Geneva flooded.
Violent thunderstorms became the norm, which, while not reportedly dislodging the summer snow caps, left trees strewn around the edges of the lake.
On June 13th 1816, Lord Byron – I always think of his later hero Manfred – or Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ clung on to the balcony staring nature in the eye. He composed for a later canto of Childe Harold
“The sky is changed – and such a change! Oh night,
And storm, and darkness. Ye are wondrous strong…
And now again ‘tis black, – and now, the glee
of the loud hills shakes with its mountain mirth,
As if they did rejoice o’er a young earthquake’s birth.”
Finding themselves at risk in venturing out- one day Shelley took a boat out on the lake and was lucky not to drown – a portent of future things for him just six years later, they spent a lot of time indoors. June 16th the suggestion was made the party should have a competition to write the best Gothic tale.
On June 18th, another tempest tossed night, the party settled around the fireplace while Lord Byron recited from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s latest book – a collection of older unpublished pieces which included the gothic tale Christabel, and the orientalist fragment Kubla Khan. The party took in the vibe – and truthfully a little opium. A high Percy Shelley ran terrified from the room at one point where he was sure Mary had taken off her top and had eyes where one normally has nipples. Mary Shelley however let her imagination run away on a whole other level. In the midst of an electrical storm she imagined a young scientist born in Geneva. As he reaches maturity his mother passes and he throws himself into his studies. Obsessed with the thought of being able to bring loved ones back to life he creates life from the dead, through a secret method which includes a massive jolt of electricity. He is immediately horrified at the monster he has created. To go beyond that, the Romantic writers of this era – Romanticism is the name given to the Shelley’s and Byron, they were a second wave following the likes of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Robert Southey – had a great love of the concept of the sublime. The sublime is the overwhelming feeling a human gets when facing up against the unstoppable force of nature. Frankenstein has the sublime in spades. Stormy nights, majestic mountains, gale force winds feeding into the tension of a scene. If you haven’t read it I won’t drop any spoilers… well ok, just one, from the book – Victor sees a storm, note the similarities between this and her letter to Fanny…
“we witnessed a most violent and terrible thunderstorm. It advanced from behind the mountains of Jura; and 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. As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump