1816: the Year Without a Summer that Yielded Two Gothic Classics
We’ve been hearing a lot about this year’s abnormal weather, partly because of the latest El Niño event but mostly because of the alarming global warming issue. While what we hear and what we experience on our skin (heat waves, freak storms, etc.) is certainly scary, the world has always been characterised by irregular climatic phenomena.
Did you know, for example, that 1816 was known as the Year Without a Summer? This happened primarily because of the eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies, which occurred the previous year. The eruption’s effects spread widely and affected the global climate. Cold and heavy rainfall caused, for instance, a massive agricultural failure, famine, an increase in poverty, riots and death in Europe.
In June 1816, in a villa overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland, a group of intellectuals hailing from England were trapped inside, owing to the inclement weather. It looked like a ruined summer holiday for these Romantic souls. However, this unfortunate circumstance actually gave birth to two influential Gothic stories that would impact the genre and the history of British literature.
18-year-old Mary Godwin, her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and her stepsister Claire Clairmont travelled to Switzerland in May 1816. They were to meet Lord Byron in Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva. The controversial poet was living there with his young physician, John William Polidori, after exiling himself from England. Clairmont had had an affair with Byron before he left England and, pregnant with his child, she travelled with the Shelleys and took them to Byron.
They were supposed to enjoy boating on the lake, among other outdoor activities, but it was not always possible because of the weather. As Mary would later write, “it proved a wet, ungenial summer”. They remained indoors and entertained themselves with late-night talks and reading books such as Fantasmagoriana, an anthology of German ghost stories translated into French. Inspired by this, Byron challenged his companions to write their own ghost story.
Byron himself wrote one, however, he did not finish it. Called Fragment of a Novel, this epistolary piece of writing tells the story of the mysterious and wealthy Augustus Darvell, whose strange death shocks the narrator, who had travelled with him to Greece. According to Polidori, Byron intended to make Darvell reappear as a vampire in England, but the story was never completed.
John William Polidori wrote a story which totally bears the influence of Byron. He took inspiration from his mentor’s fragmentary story and developed it into a complete tale. Its protagonist, Lord Ruthven, is based on Lord Ruthven of Glenarvon, a Gothic novel written by Lady Caroline Lamb, the scorned lover of Byron who got her revenge by basing her evil character on the hated poet. Polidori’s story, called The Vampyre, unravels in the same manner as Byron’s story was intended to. Lord Ruthven is clearly a vampire, a mythological figure often mentioned in folk tales and superstitions of the East, particularly of the Balkan area (from where Byron got his inspiration). A figure which appeared for the very first time in literature.
Interestingly, The Vampyre opens in an epistolary style, with a section named as “Extract of a Letter from Geneva”. In this part, Polidori writes from an external point of view of someone who has heard of Byron and his friends staying in Villa Diodati and taking part in a ghost story competition. He also mentions Byron’s Third Canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (which was composed in the same period as the ghost story competition), referring particularly to the part recounting a storm — an allusion to the weather conditions on that occasion. After this extract, there is also an introduction describing the origins of the vampiric figure.
Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus
Percy Shelley had already written a couple of Gothic tales (as well as some important poems such as Queen Mab and Alastor), but on that occasion in Villa Diodati, he wrote five short stories which were published posthumously. Matthew G. Lewis, himself a notable Gothic novelist, visited the Shelleys in Geneva and recounted these five short stories.
Mary, however, found it difficult to think of a story. It was only after a discussion with her friends about the nature of life and after a frightening “waking dream” experience that the woman came to conceive the idea of a man creating life through the electrical reanimation of a corpse. To that, add the influence of Greek mythology (Prometheus) and of German topography, and Frankenstein was born.
Like Polidori’s story, Frankenstein opens in an epistolary style (typical of Gothic novels). The external narrator tells his sister through letters how he met Victor Frankenstein and in the form of a manuscript, Victor tells his own terrible story. Then, even within Frankenstein’s account, we read yet another narration from a different point of view, that of Frankenstein’s unnamed monster. It’s like unwrapping various layers of paper from around a gift.
It’s fascinating because this style seems to be mimicking the storytelling by which Byron, Polidori and the Shelleys entertained themselves in Villa Diodati during those stormy nights.
While reading The Vampyre and Frankenstein, I also noticed that many parts of both stories describe instances of bad weather, similar to the ones experienced by the writers in Switzerland.
In Polidori’s story, apart from the storm reference of Byron’s Childe Harold, a storm is also mentioned during one of the climactic moments, when the character of Aubrey encounters a horrifying death scene while on an excursion in Greece.
In Frankenstein, stormy conditions characterise various important parts of the novel. The most significant one is when Victor completes his abominable creation during a rainy November night:
It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
And, when Victor travels back to Switzerland after learning of his young brother’s murder, he’s welcomed by a violent storm and a ghastly vision of what he wanted to forget:
While I watched the tempest, so beautiful yet terrific, I wandered on with a hasty step. This noble war in the sky elevated my spirits; I clasped my hands, and exclaimed aloud, “William, dear angel! this is thy funeral, this thy dirge!” As I said these words, I perceived in the gloom a figure which stole from behind a clump of trees near me; I stood fixed, gazing intently: I could not be mistaken. A flash of lightning illuminated the object, and discovered its shape plainly to me; its gigantic stature, and the deformity of its aspect more hideous than belongs to humanity, instantly informed me that it was the wretch, the filthy daemon, to whom I had given life.
It shows how the weather foreshadows critical moments in the story and how it is also synchronised with the tumultuous states of mind of the main characters.
Impact on literature
The Vampyre was published in 1819 and for a long time, it was attributed to Lord Byron, to the dismay of both Byron and Polidori. The instant success of the story could have been precisely because of the false attribution. However, it was Polidori who sealed the classic image of the vampiric figure. An image which is still imprinted in our minds to this day.
His story, the first one to feature a vampire, influenced a series of writers that stretches to Dracula‘s Bram Stoker and beyond. Unfortunately, in the mainstream, John William Polidori’s name pales and fades in comparison to the famous Stoker. Polidori, who committed suicide at the age of 25, lived in the shadow of Byron, to whom he looked up to as a writer, yet for Gothic aficionados, he will still be remembered as the forefather of vampire fiction.
Mary Godwin — later Shelley — was encouraged by her fiancé Percy to develop her short story. Frankenstein was finally published anonymously in 1818; five years later, the second edition was published with Shelley’s name. Apart from being Gothic and horror, some also consider it as the first science fiction work.
Frankenstein and The Vampyre can also be considered as the last works of the Gothic genre in the early 19th century. During the Victorian era, this genre decreased in popularity, yet it paved the way to the French fantastique genre and to ghost stories. Today, Gothic literature still exists in evolved forms and we still see the impact of these two influential Romantic works in books and films.
And so, being trapped in a villa due to stormy weather isn’t such a bad thing after all, if it can give birth to such literary gems. Today, groups of people still reunite around fires, especially in these days of Halloween, to spook each other with ghost stories.
Exactly like what this group of English friends did 200 years ago, in the Year Without a Summer.
Have you read The Vampyre or Frankenstein? Did you know the story of their origin? Leave a comment on this post or drop me a mail!
Originally published at scrabbledrambles.com on October 31, 2016.