A report on the bicentenary events to celebrate 200 years since the composition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, July 2016
by Anna Mercer (University of York)
In May 1816, the Shelleys moved to the beautiful setting of Lake Geneva. They were accompanied by Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, who in London had begun an affair with Lord Byron. Percy Shelley had originally thought of leaving England for Italy, but Claire’s involvement with Byron led them to Switzerland instead. On 13 May 1816 the Shelleys and Claire arrived in Geneva, followed on 25 May by Byron and his companion Dr. John Polidori. By June, both parties had taken residences close to each other on the shores of the lake; Byron stayed at the Villa Diodati. Incessant rain often prevented them from going out on the water in the evenings, and even stopped Percy, Mary and Claire from returning to their own lodgings. Mary would later recall the evenings at the villa:
We often […] sat up in conversation till the morning light. There was never any lack of subjects, and, grave or gay, we were always interested.
What followed – the proposal made by Lord Byron that each of the party at Diodati write a ghost story, and the subsequent composition of Frankenstein – is now infamous. But what of Mary Shelley’s toil and dedication to writing that novel, in the days and months after experiencing ‘the grim terrors’ of her ‘waking dream’?
On 24 July 1816, Mary Shelley notes in her journal, ‘write my story’: this is her first reference to the composition of Frankenstein. Mary’s soon-to-be husband, Percy Shelley, was also writing his great poem ‘Mont Blanc’ on this day. Percy Shelley also contributed 4,000 to 5,000 words to Mary’s 72,000-word novel (this number was identified by the scholar Charles E. Robinson). The Shelleys’ productivity, and their creative collaboration, was thriving in 1816.
Mary worked on the book throughout the summer, and began redrafting after the Shelleys returned to England in the winter. It was Percy Shelley who encouraged Mary to expand her narrative; as she later recalled in 1831, ‘He was for ever inciting me to obtain literary reputation […] but for his incitement, [Frankenstein] would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world’.
2016 provides the opportunity to celebrate many Romantic bicentenaries, engaging with the work of both the first and second generations of Romantic authors. Presentations of Romantic scholarship can utilise an engaging tagline – ‘On This Day’ – when considering the remarkable events that occurred exactly 200 years ago. Combining my personal interest in reading the Shelleys’ works side-by-side, and my experiences of the success of other public events that include recitals from Romantic texts, or poetry in general, I set out to organise an event series that marked this momentous occasion in Romantic history: the composition of the period’s most iconic novel, Frankenstein, in 1816.
The events took place in two locations. On the evening of the 23 July (the date before that note ‘write my story’ in Mary Shelley’s journal), we presented an evening of readings and two academic talks (by David Higgins and myself) at the Keats-Shelley House, Rome. The house, which overlooks the Spanish Steps, was the final dwelling place of John Keats, who died there aged just 25 in 1821. It is now a beautifully curated and intimate museum of manuscripts, books, paintings and relics, dedicated to remembering the English Romantic poets in the Eternal City. Although the Shelleys did not live there, their Roman residence is only a short walk away, above the Spanish Steps, on the Via Sestina.
The event began with a reading of the first paragraphs of Vol I, Chapter IV of the 1818 Frankenstein, beginning with that haunting sentence, ‘It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils’. This opening (Mary Shelley’s words never failing to provide atmosphere!) then led on to short talks about the Shelleys’ collaboration and also the impact of environmental catastrophe on the works composed in and near Geneva in 1816. Extracts from the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley were also read to the audience: sections from ‘Mont Blanc’ and his preface to Frankenstein (written in the guise of Mary Shelley), as well as another section from Mary Shelley’s introduction to Frankenstein written many years after the Diodati summer in 1831. We finished with prosecco on the terrace, which gave us the opportunity to talk to our friendly audience.
A week earlier, on 14 July, we had presented the same event in York in the Huntingdon Room at King’s Manor. The University of York and the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies assisted us in promoting this free event (including a press release). We were very grateful to have a positive turnout, selling out all our tickets a few days beforehand and then extending the ticket numbers to 70.
I am greatly indebted to our funders; without their support we could not have made the event in York free to attend, and their contribution also supported costs incurred when the event team travelled to Rome. We received funding from the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies and the F R Leavis Fund at the University of York, and also from BARS and BSECS. The event was affiliated with the ‘Romantic Bicentennials’ network, and supported by the KSMA at the Keats-Shelley House, as well as the Keats-Shelley Review.
I’d also like to thank Giuseppe Albano (curator at the Keats-Shelley House), Clare Bond (the CECS administrator at York), the other members of the event team (David Higgins, Lucy Hodgetts and Duncan Robertson), and Alys Mostyn for stepping in to help in Rome.
Overall, I would argue that it is worth taking advantage of the 200th anniversary of the Shelleys’ creative activities to now rethink our understanding of their works, and draw further attention to the poignancy and longevity of their achievements as progressive authors. It is important to use the bicentenary celebrations of the composition of Frankenstein to remind us of the egalitarian intellectual community that existed in 1816. This supportive environment allowed the story to not only be conceived, but also developed, and refined. Perhaps now, 200 years later, we can really harness the usefulness of understanding the Shelleys as a literary couple to appreciate how intellectual collaborations – even with regards to such a typically solitary creative pursuit as literature – can produce such marvellous creative outcomes.
The event will be reprised at Chawton House Library in November. See the website here.
In November 1816 Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein, and therefore this event also commemorates the novel’s composition exactly 200 years ago. On the 24th November 1816 Mary records in her journal: ‘Write’. During the period from September 1816 – April 1817 Percy Shelley was also acting as editor, making corrections or additions to the draft. As Charles E. Robinson observes, the manuscript evidence suggests ‘that he made his comments not on one reading near the end of the process but on separate readings of individual chapters as [Mary] continued to draft the novel’. The event at Chawton House Library acts as a celebration of the bicentenary of this creative and collaborative period in 1816 that brought Frankenstein to completion.
Charles E. Robinson, ‘Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Text(s) in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein’ in The Neglected Shelley ed. Alan M. Weinberg and Timothy Webb (London: Ashgate, 2015).
Mary Shelley (with Percy Bysshe Shelley), The Original Frankenstein ed. Charles E. Robinson (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2008).