A Ghost Story for the Ages

The summer of 1816 was a gloomy one. The devastating eruption of Mt. Tambora the year before had sent thirty-five cubic miles of debris into the air, which, by the following year, had made its way around the globe, casting a pall of darkness over the rest of the world. On the continent of Europe, storms were plentiful, skies were dark, and the rain fell for days on end.

Toward lake Geneva a group of poets and writers and fan-girls travelled, all for different purposes, but eventually converging at a villa rented by Lord Byron on Lake Geneva. Byron, travelling in an enormous Napoleanic carriage pulled by six horses made his way at a snail’s pace, was last to arrive, though he had been the first to leave. Traveling in the carriage with him was his personal physician John Polidori.

It was Claire Clairmont who led her party toward the spot where Byron might be found. Claire and Byron had been lovers for a period of some two months before Byron, bored of her as he inevitably grew of every amorous pursuit, had quit her with the same relish he had quit England and its crowd of debt collectors who had, the moment Byron departed, stripped his apartment bare of anything worth selling. Claire, it may be supposed, felt Byron owed her as he owed his debtors. She was pregnant, after all, and though she knew he would not receive her in Geneva, she knew he would not refuse an introduction to the celebrated poet with whom her Mary Godwin had recently eloped. Percy Bysshe Shelley was a rising star in the literary world, having achieved international acclaim for his poem Queen Mab. Claire managed to corner Byron as he was returning from a boating trip with Polidori and forced the introduction of the two poets. Byron happily received the introduction to Shelley alone and then and there invited him to dine that night, excluding Mary and Claire entirely. A jealous Polidori joined the men, though apparently reluctantly and was left to record the event, describing Shelley as bashful, shy, and consumptive, none of which was actually true, though Shelley was certainly intimidated by Byron’s talent and productivity.

Byron and Shelley immediately became close friends. Visits were paid between them while Percy and Mary stayed at a hotel on the other side of the lake from Byron’s villa. Byron rowed to visit them nearly every evening, despite howling winds and driving storms. After the weather threatened to sink his boat, he decided to take a villa closer–with in a ten minutes’ walk–from Percy and Marry.

As the poor weather persisted, their evenings were spent together reading, until, on one occasion, Byron turned the subject to ghost stories, acting them out as he read them and inflecting them with all the emotion and power inherent in his commanding presence and theatrical delivery, all the while his audience; Percy, Mary, Claire, and Polidori, did their duty by feigning fear and excitement (though one account describes Shelley in a fit after imagining himself to have seen two ghostly breasts appear from the darkness to stare at him condemningly). Byron, so pleased by the response to his reading, set his guests to a challenge: they would each write a ghost story for the delight and fright of each other. It was a sort of contest, to which each of the participants agreed enthusiastically and each immediately set upon the task of thinking up a story.

Byron had no trouble finding a place to start and wrote a full eight pages before growing bored and giving it up. Shelley, too, made an early start and began writing about his early life, but he, too, gave up the effort not long after he had begun it. Polidori, too, had an idea, one that Mary did not think much of, about a skull-headed woman who was cursed for having seen something she oughtn’t have. Finding such little encouragement from his companions, all of whom (save for Claire, of course) had some significant literary background, even if Mary’s own was that of her famous parents and not–not as yet–as a result of her own fame.

Mary, for herself, struggled to come up with an idea. Among the topics discussed between the party on those gloomy summer evenings were vampires, grave-robbing, and reanimation by means of electricity, including the scientific work of Luigi Galvani who had conducted some research on animal corpses in which he had demonstrated how, by applying electricity (via electrical storms), one could produce muscular contractions. The first spark of an idea came to Mary in consequence of a conversation between Shelley and Byron in which they were discussing “the nature and principle of life”, which recalled her once more to those ideas of Galvanism. She next began to wonder if a whole corpse might be re-animated and if, following that, a “a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.” She carried the idea to bed with her and there laid awake, allowing her ideas to form and develop until, at last, they conspired to produce a vision so vivid it was like a waking nightmare that she could not shut out. She saw the figure of a man “kneeling beside the thing he had put together … 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.” The creator of this monster, terrified by what he has done, then flees, hoping that the spark of life will extinguish itself. But doesn’t.

The idea so terrified Mary that she tried to escape it, forcing herself to think of other, more pleasant things. There was no sleeping now, late as it was, and though she was frightened still by the ghastly ideas she herself had invented, she had a sudden realization. She had thought of her idea for the ghost story Byron had challenged her to write.

Perhaps it was to her good fortune that Shelley and Byron went on a boating expedition for the next several days, leaving Mary, then only 18, to write alone and undisturbed, and so it was that she had made a good start before Shelley returned, at which time he read what she had written so far and gave it a favorable review, encouraging her to continue her work on it.

In December of 1817, the book was ready for publication. Its reception was mixed, but when Sir Walter Scott gave it a favorable review, the world began to sit up and take notice. Byron, of whom it has been said thought little of all women and if he loved any at all it was only his sister, Agnes, grew to admire Mary very much, and, long after Shelley died, she and Byron continued to have a friendship of mutual respect.

Polidori, eventually used and abandoned by Byron, would go on to write the Vampyre, one of the very first and seminal fictional accounts of such monsters, inspired by Byron himself.

It’s hard to believe that, after a fraught elopement (Percy was still married when he took Mary away), the death of his wife, their marriage, her husband’s fame, her literary accomplishment, the birth of four children and death of three of them, that the couple were only together a total of eight years (almost exactly) before Percy drowned in a boating accident in 1822.

Percy’s body was burnt on the beach of the Ligurian Sea where his body washed up 10 days after his drowning. It is said his heart did not burn and was carried back to Mary, who kept it in her desk until her death 30 years later.

In May of 1824, Mary began a new novel entitled The Last Man. The following day, she learned of the death of Lord Byron. She was alone, save for her only surviving child, and she felt it.

The years that followed ushered in a societal and moral revolution. The death of King George IV and the succession of William IV marked a moment in time where people, feeling themselves exhausted by the debauchery of the long and bloody Regency Era, and in preparation for Victoria’s tight-laced reign (she was only eleven at the time, but those responsible for her training knew precisely what to prepare her to represent), made a conscious decision to turn common mores in the direction of moral retrenchment. Mary, wishing to give her son the security and respectability denied both her and Percy, set out to rewrite Percy’s story. Brought up by sexual revolutionaries and feminists herself, she had, and quite ironically, found herself tossed about on the whims of the stronger personalities around her. Now it was her turn to set the tone, and she could only do that by rewriting the narrative of the past. She did the same for Byron, editing his letters and journals and excising the bits that would not stand up to modern scrutiny. Of course we know today what Byron and Shelley were about. Even in their day they took things to extremes. It’s nevertheless interesting to consider the lessons that might be gleaned from these lives that burned far, far too brightly, and at the expense of the lesser lights–if one could consider Mary as such. The men around her certainly did. At 18, her creation of Frankenstein’s monster ought to have set her up as a genius of her day. But her book was, in many ways, a lamentation, a cry out to the world that the battle her parents had fought for the freedom they supposed was preserved to them only by shunning tradition and societal norms had been fought at the expense of the children they bore together. Mary was not only a casualty of her time, but of the people, men and women alike, who rowed the oars in the boat she had been set in, ultimately to sail in alone.

I’m not sure if her story, after all, is not more haunting than the tales she wrote.

***For further reading on this subject, I highly recommend the book The Monsters: Mary Shelley & the Curse of Frankensten by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler

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