Birth of a Genre

by Hilary Rappaport & Jacob Malin

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin – 18-year-old daughter of radical writers
Percy Bysshe Shelley – 24-year-old poet and lover of Mary Godwin
Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron) – 28-year-old poet and nobleman
Claire Clairmont – Mary’s 18-year-old stepsister and Byron’s lover
John Polidori – Byron’s doctor and traveling companion

Time: June 16, 1816

A stormy night at Villa Diodati, a mansion rented by Lord Byron near Lake Geneva, Switzerland. Lord Byron is hosting a dinner party. A massive volcanic eruption in Indonesia has caused global starvation and disease, with Switzerland being one of the worst affected countries in Europe. On this particular evening, the storms were so strong that Mary and Percy needed to stay at the mansion for the night, though they were living close by.

This description certainly sounds as if it has dramatic possibilities, doesn’t it? The actual result of this party was far more monumental than any of the participants could have anticipated. Over the years, there have been several reimaginings of what is one of the most famous literary gatherings in history.

No one knows the exact sequence of events of the evening, but we have Polidori’s diary and Mary Shelley’s (she later married Percy Shelley) recollections published in 1831 to guide us. And though the accounts differ, they agree on one central point: after the group read a collection of German ghost stories, Lord Byron put forth an idea. He proposed, “We will each write a ghost story”. This activity led to the birth of two of the world’s most famous literary monsters.

The writers set to work, but Mary does not recall that the others produced anything especially memorable. She was not entirely correct. Byron wrote a fragment that Polidori reworked into a story called “The Vampyre,” which was reportedly an inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

For Mary herself, Byron’s “challenge” must have felt like a personal challenge indeed. The daughter of two of the most noteworthy writers of her day, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, the lover of Percy Shelley and friend of Lord Byron—Mary must have felt intense pressure to prove herself the equal of her illustrious family and peers.

But no idea came to her at first. Though she searched for a story that would “speak to the mysterious fears of our nature” and “make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beating of the heart”, she thought of nothing. She suffered from, as she put it, “that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship” – writer’s block. Mary recalls this difficulty as a point of some embarrassment: “Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortified negative.”

Finally, though, inspiration came to her from an unconventional source. Because all present followed intellectual developments, the party’s conversation at some point turned to scientific questions, a fashionable topic of the day.

By the beginning of the 19th century, chemistry had become a prominent branch of science and many discoveries emerged from an understanding of electricity. The number of medical students was growing, as was a fascination with the human body. These interests combined and brought about experimentation in Galvanism, the use of electricity to stimulate muscles. Luigi Galvini tested the effects of electrical currents on dead animals in the 1790’s and in the early 1800’s his nephew, Luigi Aldini continued his work with a public demonstration of Galvanism, using the body of a recently executed murderer. People debated whether electricity was a possible life force and could perhaps reanimate the dead.

Do we know Mary Shelley had scientific development in her mind when later writing her novel Frankenstein? In the preface to the 1817 edition, Shelley credits the influence of Erasmus Darwin, physician, inventor, and grandfather to Charles Darwin who had put forward early ideas on evolution. In her introduction to the 1831 edition she refers to being a “devout, but nearly silent listener” to a conversation between Byron and Shelley during their visit in Switzerland about the possibility of the nature of life itself ever being discovered.

With philosophical questions and the spectacle of Galvanism in her thoughts, and still struggling to find an idea for her ghost story, she went to bed one evening, and before falling asleep, “her imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided…” her with vivid images:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts 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. … His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious hand-work, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade… He sleeps, but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.

This image filled her with “…a thrill of fear.” She wished to rid herself of the “ghastly images” but they “haunted” her. As she tried to put these visions aside, she attempted to focus on her “tiresome” ghost story. She suddenly realized that she had found the horror story she had been so arduously trying to create. When she shared her short story – a transcript of her waking dream – with the others, Percy Shelley encouraged her to work it into a longer story. And so, over the next year, she wrote with her dream image becoming the core of Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley also had this to say about her struggles to write: “Invention…does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos…” Perhaps chaos is also a key to the originality of her work. Shelley lived at a time of political, social, and scientific revolution. Though we might think of her as a “girl” of eighteen, by this age she had already lost her mother, defied her father, run off with her married lover, lost a prematurely born daughter, and given birth to another child. Her world was in upheaval on every level. Even so, she recalled the time of the creation of her Frankenstein as among her “happiest days.”

Challenged to write a “ghost story”, Mary Shelley instead did something entirely new – she used her imagination to create an astonishing story that drew on the scientific knowledge of her time. Though certainly scary, her story does not depend on supernatural powers, but on plausible ideas. For this she is known not only as the creator of Frankenstein, but as the mother of science fiction itself. Readers were excited by this new genre because she used her emotional life experiences to write events outside the realm of the ordinary, but with complex characters that were and still are deeply moving. The impact of her work on literature, the arts, and popular culture, over a 200-year span, cannot be overstated and our world is richer because of her extraordinary talents.

Hilary Rappaport is the dramaturg for the production and Jacob Malin is a recent Swarthmore graduate and avid reader of science fiction.

J. Paul Hunter, (ed.) Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, A Norton Critical Edition, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1996.
Kathryn Harkup, Making the Monster, The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bloomsbury Sigma, London, 2018.
Susan Tyler Hitchcock, Frankenstein, A Cultural History, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2007.
Esther Schor (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004