Frankenstein: Before the Beginning

Map of the Sanggar peninsula, 1847


Every thing must have a beginning… and that beginning must be linked to something that went before.

– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.


It was precisely two hundred years ago tonight that a very particular nightmare first appeared.

In the early hours of 16 June 1816 – around 2:30am if a recent headline-grabbing astronomical study is to believed – Mary Shelley, in the midst of a bout of insomnia whilst staying at Villa Diodati, Lord Byron’s home in Switzerland, was struck by a singular vision. What appeared to her in that moment has lasted, retaining its potency in the way few other nightmares have been able to match. Even now, at two centuries’ distance, and all the mayhem and bloodshed they stand for, its shadow looms heavy and dark across both our culture and our consciousness. Here was a boogeyman for the scientific era whose singular name in itself, for all its rampant and frequently camp overuse, remains disquietingly evocative: Frankenstein. By 1818 Shelley’s nightmare would become a novel.

A revised edition of Frankenstein was published in 1831, containing a new preface by Shelley in which she described what she claimed to have witnessed. “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts,” she wrote, “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.”

As I lie here in my own bed in the dead of night, wide awake, writing this on my phone, it occurs to me that it’s no surprise that I and other night-time souls like myself have always been drawn to Frankenstein. It’s easy to forget that the novel is effectively set entirely in the dark, with Victor Frankenstein relaying all he has to tell to the story’s narrator from a schooner stranded in the wastelands of the Canadian Arctic under a polar night sky. But there’s also an elemental simplicity to the story – essentially that of an artist, as Shelley refers to Frankenstein, fearful of what it is he creates – which feels murkily profound, particularly when it’s night and the rest of the world is safely asleep. At times such as these it often seems as though dreaming is mandatory, a nocturnal prerequisite regardless of whether one is sleeping or awake: something in the imaginations of those left behind comes to life and begins to roam, shading in the blankness of the surrounding night, picking out horrors. Just ask Mary Shelley.

And so I find myself thinking, as I often do: where did it come from? It’s uncannily apt that the story of Frankenstein itself took on such a wayward life of its own: a nightmare which spilled from wherever it is such things originate and out into the real world, into a book, a successful one at that, a lasting, culturally dominating one. But where on earth does one begin when setting out to tell for the first time a story like Frankenstein?

In a sense one could say that the nightmare which emerged there and then, on Lake Geneva in 1816, begins in the previous year, in 1815, and nine thousand miles away.

Early in April of that year – whilst Mary Godwin, as she was still then known, was in London, grieving over the recent death of her and Percy Shelley’s premature daughter and worrying about their dire financial situation – a violent and prolonged eruption occurred somewhere else entirely. Mount Tambora, a long dormant volcano set amid the south-easterly islands of Indonesia, had exploded.

Dead fish floated in ponds, felled birds littered the ground, and the streets were lined with the dead.

The immediate effects were annihilation: molten rock, over a billion tons of it in total, ploughed down all sides of the volcano, obliterating the nearby villages and their 12,000 inhabitants, and then flowed steadily into the bubbling sea; a number of tsunamis struck neighbouring islands; over two billion litres of ash and rock were pumped out into the atmosphere, forming a cloud of debris which infested the air, one so dense and extensive that 24 hours after the final eruption had subsided it had expanded to the size of Australia. Within a three-mile radius all visibility was eclipsed for days by absolute pitch darkness.

Arriving to investigate the scene, a British reconnaissance ship found the coastline unrecognisable, the once-bustling marina now a barren mess of smouldering pumice, blackened trees and wrecked vessels. The surrounding villages were likewise in ruins, most abandoned, some entirely razed, one submerged beneath a new strait of water. Dead fish floated in ponds, felled birds littered the ground, and the streets were lined with the dead – some buried, some not. Starvation and disease was already widespread among those who had survived, all vegetation which had been spared by the lava having been choked with ash and all drinking water now lethally infected. In the coming weeks and months many of those within range of Tambora who had managed to avoid these initial stages of its devastation would go on to develop fatal lung infections. Tens of thousands died from sulphur poisoning.

But the consequences of the volcano were far from over. Although the ash which clogged the air in the vicinity had cleared within a matter of weeks, the magnitude of the eruption had been so extreme that much had also been expelled upwards, out into the stratosphere. And there it remained, drifting not down to earth but across in all directions, carried by currents, until it spread to cover the globe.

The weather duly convulsed. Across Europe nightfall took on a luminescent, fluorescent hue, at times yellow – one thinks of JMW Turner’s sunset paintings – at others red. In September red cloud were also spotted: storm clouds which, if eyewitness accounts are to be believed, glowed ominously in the gathering darkness. In December Italy was hit by the heaviest blizzard in living memory, with some towns reporting the snow to have a yellow-red colouring. Anxiety among local religious communities set in, prompting a series of processions where they publicly repented amid the snowstorms which betokened, surely, the end of days. A few weeks later even heavier snow seethed over north Hungary. It obliterated farmlands and massacred livestock in unprecedented numbers, but what garnered most attention were reports that the blizzard was of a pale brown colour, much like human flesh. Within days red snow – now a lurid brick red – was once again sweeping through Italy. In Britain there were reports of a storm with “the appearance of the waves of the sea” which rolled over a number of towns in Lancashire, raining down giant hailstones which “shattered the windows of the houses, tore up the turf and beat down the vegetable products of the earth.” A portion of the west coast of Scotland was plunged unaccountably into total darkness during the day. In the United States, a fog crept in across the north east of the country, a dry, red miasma which hung in the air regardless of the heavy rain it brought with it. As the summer months pressed on this rain turned first into frost and then sporadic snowfall. With each of these incidents came religious panic: people dropped to their knees where the storms caught them and prayed.

All this might sound rather magical, but these were troubling signs, not curious wonders. The climate system had been severely deformed, and still more brutal consequences of this deformity were on their way, this time falling as they so often do, on the world’s poor.

Food shortages rapidly became rife in much of the colonised world. Governing infrastructures in India, Ecuador, Brazil and others found themselves rudely shunted from administering largely benign and resources-rich territories to struggling to contain a burgeoning appetite among their indigenous wards for piracy, disorder and political rebellion. In the coming years crops successively failed too throughout China, resulting in a widespread famine and social unrest – many farmers found a way to muddle through by turning their attention to a more reliable crop, birthing what would in little more than a decade become the global opium industry. Harsh weather along the east coast of the United States forced New England settlers to relocate en masse westwards (including the family of Joseph Smith who would go on to found the Church of Latter Day Saints), spreading with them a firebrand philosophy of liberalism, abolitionism and independence, redrawing the country’s physical and political geography.

The darkness which surrounds me is in some sense the same as that which surrounds Mary Shelley.

Most seriously of all, the Indian monsoon, perhaps the world’s most important weather phenomenon, was knocked out of kilter. Its cycle slowed and became unpredictable: harvests were blighted, homes were flooded and people began to starve. The calamity grew more profound still as this combination of wonky climate and enfeebled population now set the stage for a lethal strain of cholera to take hold. And take hold it did, rampaging first through Bengal, then Asia, then the rest of the world. Cholera would go on to become the disease which would define the nineteenth century: it would lead to the Victorian zeal for sanitation and the emergence of the idea that a state, rather than simply acting as a custodian for an economy, should also guard its citizens from the world’s privations, gradually leading to the implementation of what we now think of as a public health service. Landmark social advancements, but ones only reached at the expense of millions upon tens of millions of lives.

Seismic events borne on a sea of natural carnage, and yet somewhere amid this tumult we find Mary Shelley, a young woman unable to sleep.

I often find myself thinking about Mary Shelley when I’m unable to sleep myself. As I lie here, for example, in an obscure suburb in South Manchester, I imagine, with that curious logic that thrives during the dead hours, that the darkness which surrounds me is in some sense the same as that polluted, biblical darkness which surrounds Mary Shelley as she lies awake also, as though the two hundred years which divide us are much the same as the nine hundred miles which separate me from the small portion of space she occupies in Villa Dodogna.

As even the most casual reader probably knows, the life into which Mary was born was one of high intellectualism – her parents were William Godwin, a novelist and influential political philosopher, and Mary Wollstonecraft, activist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – but it was equally a life of tragedy and scandal. Wollstonecraft had already had a child from a brief relationship with an American business mogul – something which, although the Victorian age of moral prurience was yet to come, was still deeply shocking. And, although both she and Godwin had renounced the institution of marriage in their writings, it was an institution in which they nonetheless enlisted themselves after discovering – an outrage too far – that Wollstonecraft was once again expecting. Mary was born healthy but her mother developed complications during labour. Wollstonecraft’s subsequent death, a days-long torture at the hands of septicaemia, is relayed at length in an unflinching autobiographical account Godwin published a few months later.

It was left to her father to raise her, or at least to oversee her raising (lengthy stints in boarding schools and faraway parishes featured heavily) and he ensured Mary’s education was both intellectual and radical. Scandal, however, soon played its hand. In early 1814 Mary met Percy Shelley for the first time. A young liberal idealist and an admirer of her father’s work, Shelley had made something of a name for himself both as a poet and as a high-minded controversialist, having been expelled from Oxford for promoting atheism. Nonetheless, he was by all accounts a thoughtful soul, quiet and decent, with a young daughter and a pregnant wife. A little over two months later the two of them slipped out of the country. They had fallen wildly in love, pledged themselves to one another (in a graveyard no less) and eloped, much to the horror of Shelley’s respectable father. Much to the horror of Mary’s, they loosely based the route they took on Fleetwood, one of Godwin’s novels, travelling by carriage, by donkey and eventually on foot from Calais to Paris and then on to Switzerland and the Netherlands. Whilst away Mary turned 17.

On returning to London, she gave birth to Clara, their premature daughter who died a few weeks later. The grief seen in her journals – ordinarily threadbare descriptions of her daily goings-on and reading habits – is palpable.

Sunday, March 19. – Dreamt that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived. Awake and find no baby. I think about the little thing all day. Not in good spirits.

As well as dimly prefiguring the basic story of Frankenstein here, the death of baby Clara set something of a trend. Before 1816 was out, Harriet, Percy’s first wife, committed suicide, as did Mary’s sister Fanny. In the coming years she would give birth to two more children who would also die before reaching adolescence, lose a much-loved niece, and see both her brother and her father pass away. Most indelibly of all of course would be the disastrous tour of northern Italy in 1822 in which Percy Shelley, during one of his beloved boating trips, was hit by a sudden storm and drowned. At 24 Mary Shelley was a widow.

Shortly after they arrived, Percy met Byron for the first time. Despite their contrasting temperaments they got on well.

In June 1816, however, there was a brief period of unqualified happiness. Percy had come into an inheritance and, unexpectedly, he and Mary found themselves rather well-off. Persuaded by Mary’s sister Clara they set sail once again for another grandiose trip to Europe. Clara, who accompanied them, was a gregarious teenager with an intrepid taste for adventure. Earlier in the year she had sought out Lord Byron, on the pretext of gaining some experience as an actress (he was briefly a director at the Drury Lane Theatre) and had ended up having a short-lived affair with him before being discarded like so many other women. Accompanied by his young personal physician, Dr Polidori, Byron had now left Britain for good, in large part due to his own extreme fondness for scandal, and was headed for Switzerland. Clara nursed passionate hopes for a romantic reunion having discovered she was pregnant with his child.

Shortly after they arrived, Percy met Byron for the first time at the hotel where they both were staying. Despite their contrasting temperaments and outlooks they found they got on well. So well in fact that a few days later they moved out of the hotel and rented a pair of neighbouring villas on Lake Geneva: Shelley a cottage called Montalègre, Byron the nearby Diodati.

Both men were keen sailors but they found rowing all but impossible. “We watch them as they approach from the opposite side of the lake,” wrote Mary of the colossal storms which would descend over the mountains, “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 and the overhanging clouds.” Walking trips too were infrequent and touched with something of the faintly apocalyptic mindset then growing common across the continent. “What a thing it would be,” Percy told Byron as they surveyed the Alps, “if all were involved in darkness at this moment, the sun and stars to go out. What a terrible idea.”

And so the group instead holed up in Byron’s lavish lodgings. To pass the time they talked, flirted (Clara with Byron, Polidori with Mary, neither with much success) and read aloud to one another. The conversation, as one might expect, covered poetry, art and philosophy but also science (Polidori, a man of science who fancied himself a writer, was ubiquitously in attendance), in particular the then modish theory of galvanism, wherein electricity, it was said, could be used to animate the dead.

Their literary distractions were filled with similarly morbid fantasy with readings from Arabian Nights, Goethe’s Faustus and the lake poets. For a few days they were joined by Matthew Lewis, author of The Monk (at the time Switzerland was incredibly popular with British travellers) who regaled his audience with a number of supposedly true life ghost stories and details of the horrors he’d witnessed meted out to slaves on a West Indian plantation he’d recently come into ownership of. One evening Byron read from Christabel, Coleridge’s poem of sexual and religious possession. He was interrupted when Percy suddenly stood up and bolted shrieking from the room. Polidori later wrote: “He was looking at Mrs. S, and suddenly thought of a woman he had heard of who had eyes instead of nipples, which taking hold of his mind, horrified him.”

They also took turns to read from Fantasmagoriana, an anthology of German supernatural folk tales translated into French. It was this, presumably, which gave Byron a now famous idea for how to pass the time: “We will each write a ghost story,” he told them.

Frankenstein and its beguiling origin story continue to exert a totemic appeal.

Each of the writers quickly got to work. Percy wrote a short autobiographical piece, later to become a brief poem; Polidori a story of a woman with a skull for a head which left his audience slightly puzzled; Byron a tale based on a creature he’d heard of in Greek and Turkish folklore called a vampire (Polidori would later borrow Byron’s story, much to his irritation, for his novel The Vampyre – Byron would have his vengeance when the book became a success in a pirated edition citing him as its author).

But it was a task Mary struggled with. “I busied myself to think of a story,” she wrote, “one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered – vainly… “Have you thought of a story?” I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.” And so, on the night of 15 June – 200 years ago precisely – she retired to her bed without having come up with a satisfactory story.

Then the nightmare appeared.

“On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story. I began that day with the words, “It was on a dreary night of November,” making only a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream.”

Frankenstein, story and monster both, were alive.

I suppose Frankenstein and its beguiling origin story continue to exert a rather totemic appeal not only because of their shared gothic credentials but also because they give an impression that the period in which these events took place was not wholly dissimilar to our own: men and women mix freely, often sexually, without necessarily being married; they take regular holidays together, share their thoughts, write and publish their books as though social equals; even the language they use feels more akin to our own than the Victorian taste for stiffness and verbosity that was to come after.

The surrounding environmental circumstances of 1816 – Tambora and its destructive domino effects – carry with them similar echoes. As I write this, in mid-June, a spell of torrential rain is now in its fourth day in northern England where extensive floodings of towns have grown so commonplace as to barely register in the news.

But, similarly, this is no local novelty. Globally, last year was the warmest there’s ever been: heatwaves, floods, droughts, storms. Some predictions indicate that the Arctic, that wild and indomitably vast wasteland where Victor Frankenstein confronts his creation, could effectively cease to exist within a decade, with the area becoming entirely ice-free during the summer months.

Elsewhere, an unprecedented drought has laid waste to the once fertile agricultural regions in northern Syria. Since 2006 thousands of families have moved to cities in south, compounding the country’s economic crisis. The civil war which came to devour the country in the wake of the failed Arab Spring has so far claimed almost half a million lives. Six and a half million have found themselves internally displaced within Syria and over three million have fled the country. As I write, hundreds are doubtless planning or quite possibly even embarking on the perilous sea crossing, this time quite literally beneath the same night sky which surrounds me. Perhaps in the morning their bodies will be found scattered in the blue Mediterranean, yet more souls lost in the grand ebb and flow of history.

Well might we wonder what monsters the world leads us to dream up.


Image credit: Map of the Sanggar peninsula, on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia, and the crater of Tambora. From Heinrich Zollinger’s 1847 expedition to the crater, published in 1855. From University of Oxford, Bodleian Library Collection.


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