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.
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?