Thursday, 16 June 2016

The Birth of Frankenstein and the ancestor of Dracula in a fateful night at the Villa Diodati


16 June 1816,  in eighteen hundred and froze to death (1816), both Frankenstein and the ancestor of Dracula were conceived during a writing contest at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva by some of the most famous authors of the Romantic Age and Gothic fiction.

“I had a dream, which was not all a dream. / The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars / Did wander darkling in the eternal space, / Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth / Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air; / Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day, / And men forgot their passions in the dread / Of this their desolation; and all hearts / Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light: / And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones, / The palaces of crowned kings—the huts, / The habitations of all things which dwell, / Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum'd, / And men were gather'd round their blazing homes / To look once more into each other's face; / Happy were those who dwelt within the eye / Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch: / A fearful hope was all the world contain'd; / Forests were set on fire—but hour by hour / They fell and faded—and the crackling trunks / Extinguish'd with a crash—and all was black.“ (Lord Byron “Darkness”)




An atmospheric print of Villa Diodati with Byron in the foreground, stretched out decoratively á la Goethe in the Campana by an unknown artist, probably from mid-19th century*


By and large, 1816 was not a really good year. Although the conflicts that shook Europe and many other places all over the world for almost a generation had ended a couple of months before, the country was often still marked by war, unemployment of soldiers, sailors and marines retuning home skyrocketed, civil unrest did not take long to wait for and to top it all, the volcano Mount Tambora had erupted between April 5 – 15, 1815 on the island of Sumbawa in the Dutch East Indies, present-day Indonesia. What sounds like a rather remote affair unfortunately had global consequences. The eruption of Mount Tambora was later rated as “mega-colossal” on the open-scaled Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI), one of the 4 eruptions that were indexed as “7” in historical times, with Vesuvius in 79 CE getting a “5” and Krakatoa in 1883 a “6”. After four somewhat weaker eruptions across the globe between 1812 – 1814, all rated at least at index “4”, Mount Tambora made the catastrophe complete. In 1816, land temperatures dropped about 1° C on the average, harvests failed all over the world, causing massive famines, riots, migrations and a generally apocalyptic mood.



J.M.W. Turner: "Chichester Canal" from 1828. Turner's spectacular sunsets and the light with its characteristic yellow tinge might have been caused by the high level of tephra in the atmosphere after the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Tambora, still making its presence felt 12 years later  


A general mood of “tenebrae factae sunt” came to the fore in Lord Byron’s ill-fated marriage as well during the spring of 1816. Public scandal that accompanied his separation from Annabella left him almost no choice but to leave England for good and in May, Lord Byron rented a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, because, as the shrewd landlord claimed, Milton had once lodged there – even though Villa Diodati was built 40 years after Milton’s death in 1674. However, Byron was probably in the right Gothic mood during the Year Without a Summer and when the Shelleys, along with Byron’s ex-lover, Mary Shelley’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, paid him a visit there, the course was set for one of the most consequential events for popular fiction. Byron, Mary and Percy Shelley, Claire and Byron’s private physician John Polidori, something of a writer himself and paid by Byron’s publisher John Murray to keep a diary about the events, often couldn’t leave the house because of the awful weather but would meet every night, discuss, besides politics and philosophy, especially spiritism and occult phenomena, read German ghost stories and drink laudanum, an opium tincture dissolved in brandy and wine – and one fine evening, his lordship proposed that everyone present should write a Gothic story.



Frontispiece of Polidori's "The Vampyre" in a penny dreadful look & feel,
attributing the novelette to his master Lord Byron
 





Shelley and Byron more or less weaselled out of the agreement, Shelley’s ghost stories remained fragmentary at best, Byron drafted a “Fragment of a Novel”, a vampire story that, in return, inspired Polidori to borrow the name of Lord Ruthven, Byron’s alter ego from his ex-lover Lady Caroline Lamb’s rather malicious exposé novel “Glenarvon”, published a few weeks before, and write a vampire novel of his own. “The Vampyre” became a bestseller soon after its publication, Goethe himself thought it was the best of Byron’s works so far, Byron himself, as well as Polidori, denied the authorship, rather half-heartedly on Polidori’s side as soon as he saw that he was simply unable to step out of the shadow of his former master before he committed suicide two years later. However, it was Polidori’s undeniable achievement to have condensed the vampire myths of the 18th century into a coherent novel for the first time and to have created the progenitor of all subsequent literary vampires after the model of Lord Byron, most notably “Dracula” and all the 20th and 21th century’s successors of Stoker’s undead count. Mary Shelley, in the meanwhile, wrote her own novel from that night onwards that would stand out through the ages of Gothic fiction, popular novels and movies: “Frankenstein”, published for the first time in 1818.

A 1922 illustration showing Frankenstein at work in his lab

* The image was found on: http://staff.washington.edu/cgiacomi/courses/english497/finals/websitem/Sceneoverviewsetting.html

And more about Villa Diodati on:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villa_Diodati

and the Year Without a Summer on