Two hundred years ago, in the Cologny manor known as the Villa Diodati, five young Romantics gathered for a summer so rare and beautiful that it has transcended the ages from literary anecdote into pop culture lore. Full of sex, drugs, and the nineteenth century equivalent of rock and roll, the discussions and adventures experienced by Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Dr. John Polidori, and Claire Clairmont during the summer of 1816 lead to the creation of two literary legends, Polidori’s The Vampyre and of course, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
This happened at the height of the groups’ idyllic summer. Byron and Claire were not completely at odds; the Shelleys' son, William, was healthy and crawled among the Alpine wildflowers; Byron and Shelley were in the throes of their budding Bromance; and Mary grew drunk on the subtle sublimity of the Swiss landscape. By August, their relationships would become contentious, but for now, they were all one giant friend crush. They sailed and hiked around Lake Geneva and its environs, reciting poetry or waxing philosophic, but then, thanks to the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815, Geneva became subjected to incessant and violent thunderstorms that kept the group housebound for three nights. To pass the time, they imbibed and read each other ghost stories. It was under these conditions, then, that on June 16, 1816, Lord Byron gave the famous challenge to his guests: to see who could write the best phantasmagoric tale.
While we often pinpoint this one evening as when Frankenstein was conceived, other factors from the three nights played into her inspiration, including a conversation regarding galvanism between Byron and Shelley, and a weird opiate-induced panic attack from Shelley. These scenes steeped in her subconscious until it boiled over into a dream where she: “…saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.” In her 1831 preface, Mary writes that the dream continued, showing that the “thing” became reanimated with life and, horrified, the student abandoned him in his lab. Cowering in his chambers, the student awakes to find peaking from the curtains “the yellow watery eye” of the creature. Her story born, Mary won the contest and continued its encouraged composition until it was completed in Italy, nine months later. In 1818, it would be published anonymously to rave reviews and immediate success.
Here is usually where the story stops. Aside from Shelley's drowning in Italy on July 8, 1822, mainstream culture doesn’t discuss much more regarding Mary. However, she neither gave up on life nor writing at 25. She lived to be 54, wrote nine novels, myriad short stories, and essays for such works as Lives of the Most Eminent Literary Literary and Scientific Men (1835-39) and Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopaedia. Other than The Last Man, one hears very little about these other works outside of academic circles. But Mary never meant to write to an elite. With these works, not only did Shelley support herself and her only surviving son, and therefore wrote to a general populace, but in doing so explored innovative issues in regards to gender-bending, mysticism, and historical fiction. She would also make an effort to carry out her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft’s, feminist creeds, and assisted other women writers in need.
As we celebrate Shelley and the bicentennial of her most famous novel, I propose exploring the rest of her canon, not only to show that she was more than a one-hit wonder, but to also look at what it was like to be a full-time female writer during the nineteenth century. While the most evoked image of her is as a young Romantic doyenne who produced one of the most topical and chilling works of Western literature, we will see that her tastes changed with maturity and for perseverance.
Starting next month with her first published effort, A History of a Six Weeks Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland: With Letters Descriptive of a Sail Around the Lake of Geneva and of the Glaciers of Chamonui, I invite you to join me as I venture and discuss all of Mary Shelley’s life experiences and major works (besides Frankenstein) over the next year.
I would love for you to join me, and have included the reading schedule, as well as links to public domain editions, where available.
The Beyond Prometheus Reading List
History of a Six Weeks' Tour (1817)
Proserpine and Midas (1820)
Maurice (1820) (nb. not available in the public domain, but available for purchase here)
The Last Man (1826)
Selena Chambers' fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a variety of venues including MungBeing magazine, Clarkesworld, The Non-Binary Review, Tor.com, Bookslut, Cassilda's Song, and The Last Session. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart, Best of the Net, and the Hugo and World Fantasy awards.
In love with Mary Shelley since 1995, she followed the writer’s footsteps through Europe in 2010, and wrote about the experience in Wandering Spirits: Traveling Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.