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The Animation of Ideas

Photo: Villa Diodati (Wikipedia)

Photo: Villa Diodati (Wikipedia)


Two hundred years ago on the weekend of June sixteenth, a spark of an idea galvanized an entire literary genre. 

Mary Shelley, often considered the mother of science fiction for her novel Frankenstein, began writing her masterpiece while spending the summer on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. How did it happen? Much like animating the monster itself – it resulted from the right combination of influences and maybe a bit of magic.

It’s a question aspiring writers often ask (and experience writers still wonder): Where do ideas come from? Or maybe more accurately, how are our stories shaped by the multiple factors around us? How aware are we of these influences, and are there factors influencing us that we don’t understand?

In the case of Frankenstein, here are a few thoughts.

The company. Mary Shelley (then Mary Godwin) traveled to the cottage at Lake Geneva with her future husband, the accomplished poet Percy Shelley, and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, who was seeking the attention of Lord Byron. Byron was a famous poet and notorious bad boy who, as some hip scholars note, was essentially the first rock star. Byron traveled there with his personal physician, John Polidori, who wrote one of the first vampire novels that was originally and erroneously attributed to Byron. The idea for that novel also was born from the same creative weekend.

Stuck inside during the rainy weekend, the group took to reading Fantasmagoriana, a book of German ghost stories, until Byron suggested they write their own.

The 18-year-old Mary, perhaps somewhat intimidated by the pressure to produce something that would impress both Byron and her more successful husband, suffered writer’s block. The idea didn’t come right away and she lamented each morning that she didn’t yet have an idea. But it came.

Personal events. Mary Shelley’s life was interlinked with tragedy and death. She grew up with out a mother, who had died of infection a few days after giving birth. Mary ran off with the already-married Percy Shelley at age 17, causing scandal and a rift with her father, and resulting in the suicide of Percy’s wife. Percy died at sea six years after the weekend in Switzerland. While not uncommon for children to die in that era, of Mary’s five pregnancies, only one child lived to adulthood. She lost a baby daughter born prematurely a year before that weekend in Switzerland. She had recurring dreams in which her dead daughter came back to life. Mary Shelley was undoubtedly preoccupied by thoughts of life, death and what ifs.

Current events. Science fiction stories are often born out of fears of technology out of control – at that time, a fear of science itself – how science might be used to override God. Percy Shelley, Byron and Polidori had an discussion about galvanism and a supposed scientific experiment that led to a piece of pasta moving on its own. Mary fell into one of those intense kind of daydreams writers wish for, witnessing a “student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together,” according to her introduction to the novel.

The climate: This is one of the more overlooked and interesting aspects of that powerful weekend. The year before in 1815, the Indonesian volcano Tambora erupted – in volcanic terms, a VEI7 super-colossal event (a VEI8 is considered apocalyptic). The explosion could be heard at least 1,200 miles away. The ash plume reached the stratosphere, 27 miles in the air. The eruption was so great it caused global cooling, killed crops, resulted in a typhus epidemic, and forced migration. Volcanic aftershocks continued for four years. 

Because of that eruption, 1816 is known as the Year Without a Summer. 

The normally serene Lake Geneva was cold, stormy and miserable. Lightning burst over the jagged peaks of the Alps (think of Dr. Frankenstein harnessing the power of lightning to animate his monster). 

What if, instead of being forced indoors by the rain, the literary group took to reading love stories while drifting in boats on the bucolic lake? If it had been a usual summer at Villa Diodati, would Lord Byron have more characteristically suggested that the group write the perfect romance? 

If that were the case, might Dr. Frankenstein and his bride been able to enjoy their honeymoon and live a happy life? Except maybe for the intrusion of a charismatic romantic rival sporting a few ugly battle scars? 

Instead we have this creation that emerged out of a convergence of minds, incalculable losses, catastrophic eruption, a specific time and space and experience. It makes me consider our own personal catastrophes, influences, convergences. When things happen that we don’t understand. There’s a reason or not a reason, but sometimes stories emerge from our stories, disguised or not, and maybe the ones we write are the ones that can’t avoid being created.


More reading: Anne K. Mellor’s Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters and Dorothy & Thomas Hoobler’s The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein.