It’s the most famous summer retreat in literary history. In May 1816 four Brits were holidaying together in Lake Geneva, Switzerland. The acclaimed poet Lord Byron was there with his personal physician, the 19 year-old John Polidori. They met up with another famed poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his 18 year-old mistress Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Mary’s step-sister Claire Claremont, whom was having an affair with Lord Byron, was also there). They weren’t so much holidaying but laying low from scandal in their homeland. Byron, considered one of Britain’s greatest ever poets, had fled England, never to return, amid rumours of incest and debt. Shelley had ran away with Mary and her sister, leaving his pregnant wife behind.
The weather in Lake Geneva was lousy, so the group spent most of their time cooped up inside talking politics, literature and reading old ghost stories together. Byron had the idea to have a contest to each write their own ghost story. Funnily enough, the two acclaimed professionals, Byron and Shelley, ended up writing stories that have been forgotten by history. It was the two amatuers, Mary and Polidori, who wrote tales that have left a lasting legacy in literature and pop culture. After Mary’s vivid nightmare, the first paragraph she wrote was:
“It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld my man completed and with an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected instruments of life about me, and endeavoured to infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.” (Here’s the original manuscript)
Mary intended it to only be a short story, but at the encouragement of Shelley, she extended it into a novel, and in 1818, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published. The first edition left off Mary’s name and some believed that her husband Percy had written it. Although he did edit the book, it has been confirmed that Mary was the true author. The words in the comic are taken from Mary’s introduction to the 1831 edition. The full introduction and the novel itself can be read online for free.
Although Polidori initially had “some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady”, he would eventually write the first modern vampire story. The Vampyre took the bloodsucker of folklore and instead turned him into a high society aristocrat who would lure his prey through his charm and personality. Polidori’s vampire character was actually based on Lord Byron and upon publication, the bestseller was mistakingly attributed as being written by Byron. Polidori always felt overshadowed and envious of his old employer and his wish for literary fame was never fulfilled after the misattribution.
For all the youthful talent gathered during that summer of 1816 in Lake Geneva, it proved to be a cursed group. Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Polidori would all be dead within a decade. Byron died from illness while fighting for Greek independence aged 36, Shelley drowned in a boating accident aged 29 and Polidori, who never got over his failed literary career, killed himself aged 25. Mary Shelley, despite living until she was 53 and having a successful career as a writer and editor, suffered not only the death of her husband but also the deaths of three of her four infant children. However, her name is remembered in history as the writer of the first science fiction story and creator of one of literature’s most frightening monsters.
– Percy Bysshe Shelley is of course, the author of the poem Ozymandias, which I’ve also adapted.
– Further reading: The Haunted Summer of 1816 (Prospect Magazine). The Poet, the Physician and the Birth of the Modern Vampire (Public Domain Review).