It was to be the most extraordinary writer’s weekend in all history, leading to the creation of not one, but two, of the most popular and enduring genres in fiction.
During the rainy summer of 1816, the eighteen year old Mary Shelley visited Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva with her lover and soon-to-be husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
The other guest was John Polidori, Byron’s physician. Sitting around a log fire, staring at the grey skies and wishing they could go water ski-ing, they entertained themselves by reading ghost stories. Then Byron suggested they have a competition to see who could write the scariest story.
Common sense would have been wrong.
Shelley scribbled some paranormal short stories; Byron wrote ‘Fragment of a Novel’ which Polidori used later as the basis for ‘The Vampyre’, the first vampire story ever to be published in English and the forerunner of the entire romantic vampire literary genre. (See WHY VAMPIRES WILL NEVER DIE.)
Meanwhile, Mary wrote Frankenstein, which Brian Aldiss called the very first science fiction story. So Byron’s diversion led to the creation of two of the most popular genres in contemporary fiction. Not bad for a weekend’s work.
If it had rained that summer we may never have had Buffy, Twilight, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the Monster Mash or the Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein.
Mary claimed the story came to her in a dream, though it’s more likely it was inspired by the visit she and Shelley made to the Castle Frankenstein in Germany on their way to Switzerland. It was here that a notorious alchemist named Konrad Dippel had performed gruesome experiments with cadavers, in which he attempted to transfer the soul of one corpse into another.
It is thought that Shelley himself was the model for Victor Frankenstein, for at Eton he had experimented with electricity and gunpowder and his rooms at Oxford were said to have been filled with scientific equipment.
Shelley encouraged his new bride to develop her short story into a novel, which she did, and it was published anonymously in 1818 (after first being rejected by both Shelley’s and Byron’s publishers – the same genius ‘gatekeepers’ existed back then too.)
It was not immediately embraced by the critics. It left The Quarterly Review in ‘a struggle between laughter and loathing, in doubt whether the head or the heart of the author be the most diseased.’ The British Critic exposed a deeper prejudice: ‘when we did not hurry over the pages in disgust, we sometimes paused to laugh outright … The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment”.’
But ‘Frankenstein’ achieved an almost immediate popular success despite the critics. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of English literature.
The obvious one is not to be too disturbed by what critics say; another is to appreciate how time pressure and competition can help and not hinder the creative process. There’s nothing like a deadline.
Finally and most importantly, we should appreciate how the subconscious can help create our opus if we go inside instead of outside for inspiration. Shelley said the story came to her in a dream; as if she were embarrassed that a visit to a castle and a character loosely based on someone she knew intimately was not inspiration enough for any writer.
Next week I’ll talk about how Frankenstein tells us more about Mary Shelley than if you were reading her personal diary.
For now, think about the Percy Shelleys and the Castle Frankensteins in your life – is there a monster in those fragments just waiting to be born during on your next rainy weekend?