Frankenstein and the “Year Without a Summer”

Frankenstein and the “Year Without a Summer”

I still have many more photos and details from my travels to share, but for this post I wanted to return to my occasional series on books of Jane Austen’s time, this time with Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. For although it was published half a year after Austen’s death, its origin occurred during a time Austen would have known: the “Year Without a Summer,” or 1816.

A Season Lost, the upcoming third installment of my Constant Love series, is set during this time, when the weather was wet and stormy across not only Britain, but also Europe and the United States. The cause was something no one at the time could fathom: on the other side of the world in 1815, Mount Tambora, in Indonesia, had erupted in the most powerful explosion recorded by humans (at a 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, it was more powerful than Krakatoa and Mount Pinatubo, both at VEI 6). This caused a global climate disruption which could first be seen in England in some very spectacular sunsets — you can still see them today in JMW Turner’s paintings from that time — and ultimately threatened English estates with what was ultimately three years worth of terrible weather, that first year being the worst.

Chichester Canal, JMW Turner

Frankenstein was born out of this terrible weather, as well. Author Mary Shelley, nee Wollstonecraft Godwin (yes, Mary Wollstonecraft was her mother), was traveling with the man who was at the time her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley (they would eventually marry, after the suicide of his first wife), and their young son. Impressively, they managed to travel with someone even more notorious than they were for this relationship: Lord Byron.

It was while they were staying at Lake Geneva that Byron proposed a competition amongst them and other travelers in their group, to see who could come up with the best ghost story. The storms and wet weather of that year meant they were required to stay indoors much of the time, and they had been passing the time in Byron’s villa, telling each other German ghost stories. The story did not come immediately to Mary; she passed some days trying to think of one, when conversation turned to life and Mary theorized that a corpse could be reanimated. They all retired, and Mary found herself possessed by a “waking dream,” this horror story that ultimately became Frankenstein.

I think we owe, then, this novel to both Mary’s impressive imagination, and the Year Without a Summer, for without those evenings around Byron’s fire, and without his challenge, things would likely not have fallen in to place for the idea to come to her. How inspiring, to be in such a place at such a time, watching the lightning across the lake, the darkness of what seemed a perpetual winter.

The novel that was ultimately borne out of this was published anonymously on January 1, 1818. Mary was the only one of the three to publish her story, and it has held fast as a milestone in literature. While it certainly owes something to the old gothic novels Jane Austen made a satire of in Northanger Abbey, some have called it the first science fiction novel. What stood out to me when I reread it (for the first time since high school), though, was the horror. There is suspense, but there is never a sense that things might work out for the better. Instead, I read knowing that awful things were going to happen, and they did.

This year the novel celebrated its 200th anniversary, and it also felt much fresher to read than the lurching monster of numerous Frankenstein films. And the novel has had quite a banner year, from its own JAFF mash-up in John Kessel’s Pride and Prometheus, to a mini-controversy that seems to indicate some folks saw the movies but never read the book, to a film about its creation:

Watching the trailer, I’m struck by how very different Shelley’s life was from Jane Austen’s. They could not have been more different, this young woman of famous parentage and even more infamous companions, and the daughter of a country clergyman who lived a quiet, unremarkable life. Yet between them, they made tremendous strides in the development of literature, over a span of less than ten years. I wonder, too, how the Year Without a Summer influenced Austen’s work. Persuasion was published at the end of 1817 (together with Northanger Abbey), so it came out at almost exactly the same time as Frankenstein. The novels could not be more different, but was that autumnal tone of Persuasion influenced by the poor weather during the time in which it was written? Was it part of her plans for Sanditon; and perhaps the seaside resort doomed to failure because of ill-timed bad weather? Worse still to think about, did the terrible weather worsen her illness, and therefore play a part in her decline?

15 Responses to Frankenstein and the “Year Without a Summer”

  1. Great post. I had never considered the authors in relation to one another. I would love to know what Jane Austen and Mary Shelley thought about each others’ works.

    • Thank you for your comment, darcybennet! I don’t believe Jane Austen knew of Shelley’s works as Frankenstein was published just after Austen’s death. She might have known of her due to the notoriety, she might have already had an opinion about Shelley. Frankenstein was published anonymously but I can’t tell if it was “real” anonymously or one of those like Scott where at least Austen knew the identity of the author.

  2. I read Frankenstein many, many years ago when, as a teenager, I went through the horror section of my local library. I read this along with Dracula and the Denis Wheatley books such as The Devil Rides Out.
    I certainly couldn’t read them now and don’t watch horror films.
    It’s amazing to think that a volcano on the other side of the world could have such an effect!
    Thank you for sharing this information.

    • Thank you for your comment, Glynis! Yeah I’m not a big one for reading horror these days, but I actually found I liked Frankenstein better on this second reading. And yes it is amazing to think of how a volcano could affect years worth of agriculture in so many places.

  3. Fabulous post and great tie-in with Mary Shelley and her ‘Frankenstein’! I remember seeing the movie with Helena Bonhom-Carter years ago and it just creeped me out! This new one on her life looks very interesting. Don Jacobson also wrote of this in his novella ‘Lizzy Bennet Meets the Countess’ incorporating the year without summer and Byron, Shelley and Mary and the challenge to write a horror story…’Frankenstein’ was born! I love these historical tie-ins and looking forward to ‘A Lost Season’ being released…as I’m sure you are too! I just love that painting by ‘Turner’ that you show here.

    • Aww, thanks, Carole! I didn’t get to show the “birth” of Frankenstein in the novel, so wanted to talk about it here. Strangely although the third book is the most geographically distributed so far, it doesn’t really hit the continent outside of Gibraltar. So alas not encounters with Byron and Co. Glad to hear you’re looking forward to ‘A Season Lost,’ and thank for your comment, Carole!

  4. Great post, Sophie. I’ve seen bits and pieces of these stories but not everything pulled together. Nicely done. Re: the year without summer, Edward Austen Knight, Jane’s wealthy brother, forgave his tenant farmers in Hampshire a total of 600 pounds in rent due in the year 1816-17, evidently to ease their burden because of their poor harvests.

    • Thanks, Collins! I’d wondered about how Edward Austen Knight’s estates did during that time but hadn’t been able to find anything on it. That 600 pounds definitely sounds like it was his farmers not being able to make their rents because of the poor harvest. There was a definite factor of luck for farmers in that year and the two following — wheat was so scarce that anyone with any sort of harvest could still do okay in that year, and the price of wheat actually rose above the threshold set by the Corn Laws, which nobody had thought would ever happen. But there were certainly others without enough of a harvest to make their rents.

  5. This is a wonderful post, Sophie. I’ve read about Shelley and I’ve read Frankenstein, but I never thought to consider her and Jane Austen together, and how they might be different or the same, or to put The Year Without Summer together with them. I tend to forget dates, so different pieces of knowledge can’t come together under the same heading in my mind.

    I’d also never actually researched why they had The Year Without Summer. That’s amazing, that it was a volcano on the other side of the world. It makes you wonder what would happen if something like that occurred now, which it could.

    As for the movie, it looks amazing, but after reading about Shelley’s life, I’ve never had an inclination to watch it play out. I feel similarly about Jane Austen’s. I’ve never watched a movie about her life. Actually, I guess I’m not a fan of historical drama because the people in the movie are all dead and that makes me sad. I know they’ve been dead a long time, but somehow that doesn’t help. Silly, I know 🙂

    • I hadn’t really started to piece together the chronology until I was working on my series and researching the year without the summer and putting it all into my timeline. I just think its so cool that two women provided the most substantial contributions to literature in the 1810s. Sir Walter Scott is about the only male author that would have come close — he was more popular then but I think the novels of the two ladies have undoubtedly had the most staying power.

      And yeah at some point we’ll probably get another big volcano that will disrupt global climate. They could tell there was another major eruption not too long before Tambora just because of evidence in soil and what not, but they still don’t know exactly where it was as there’s no written record of it by humans. It wasn’t that many years ago that that impossible to spell volcano in Iceland wrecked flights for more than a week (I keep hoping this will happen again while I am over there and I will get stuck, but alas no).

      I haven’t watched the movie but I will one of these days. I’m a sucker for any costume drama, so even one that’s not very good (this one got mixed reviews) I’ll watch for the dresses and to get all crotchety about historical inaccuracies. But I can see not wanting to watch because it makes you sad that their lives are over.

      Thanks for your comment, Summer!

  6. That video clip [trailer] was amazing and rather shocking as I knew nothing of her or her lifestyle. Well, that year with no summer seems rather significant in the lives of our authors. Thanks for this post. I have read both books in the Constant Love series and look forward to your new book.

    • I didn’t know much about her lifestyle either until I started researching the year without a summer and read about all of this. The year without a summer ended up being somewhat inconveniently timed for me (there is some stuff going in the fourth book that would otherwise have been in the third), but it’s so key to that time I wanted to include it. Glad to hear you’re looking forward to the third book, J. W.!

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