by ZJ Czupor

The Year Without Summer

On March 10, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 coronavirus a pandemic. But did you know that one of the greatest novels of all time was written during a pandemic?

In 1815, Mount Tamora in Indonesia, erupted choking the air with ash and dust. The eruption killed roughly 100,000 people and caused world-wide crop failures, famine, cholera and typhus outbreaks.

The next year, 1816, was known as the “Year Without a Summer.Instead of sunshine, most of Europe was covered in fog and frost. Global temps dropped and major food shortages were felt, especially in Europe which still suffered from the Napoleonic Wars. The volcano’s eruptions greatest effects were felt across New England, Atlantic Canada, and parts of Western Europe.

Historians estimate that at least a million people starved in the aftermath of Tamora’s eruption, while tens of millions died from a global cholera pandemic.

In May 1816, incessant rainfall encouraged Mary Godwin to find a sunnier vacation spot. But when she arrived in Switzerland, she was forced to stay inside most of the time. She traveled with her lover, the radical poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley, (1792-1822), their four-month-old baby and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, who was pregnant with a child by Lord Byron (1788-1824). Bryon, who is today considered one of the greatest English Romantic poets, had then recently divorced his wife, and according to rumors of the time, was having an affair with his half-sister.

When they arrived, they rented properties along Lake Geneva and during frigid evenings gathered at the Villa Diodati, a stately three-story mansion on a hillside overlooking the lake. Lord Byron had rented the mansion with his doctorJohn Polidori (1795-1821). While the skies boomed with thunder and lightning, they sat around a log fire, reading morbid poetry and German ghost stories to each other, and talked late into the night. They also argued about the occult and the major debate of the day: whether human corpses could be galvanized, or re-animated after death.

Mary had to fight off sexual advances by the doctor Polidori, while her stepsister tried to seduce Lord Byron. Percy, meanwhile, became depressed. After three days of being trapped inside, conflicts began to erupt like Mount Tamora.

One night, Lord Byron gave them a challenge: write a ghost story that was better than the ones they had just read.

Polidori immediately wrote his first work of fiction, a novella, called The Vampyre, (1819). It became the first piece of fiction to include a blood-sucking hero. Historians believe the story was modeled on his friend, Lord Byron.

After a sleepless night, punctuated by thunder and lightning, Mary had a vision. She said, “I saw 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.”

Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus, incorporated the Villa Diodati as a setting and the morbid conversations of her friends. She was eighteen. The book was published, anonymously, in 1818 in London (Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones) when she was twenty. Five hundred copies were published in three volumes. Her name first appeared in the second edition published in Paris in 1823 in two volumes (G. and W.B. Whittaker) following the success of the stage play, Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peake.

Mary’s story, which is considered a Gothic novel that employs mystery, secrecy and unsettling psychology, revolutionized literature and over the years has inspired more than one-hundred-thirty films, plus numerous television programs, plays, radio dramas, video games, comics, parodies, satires, and music.

But all did not end happily for the group who gathered at Lake Geneva:

  • Polidori committed suicide in 1821. He was twenty-six;
  • Percy drowned, with two others, in his sailing boat during a freak storm in 1822. He was twenty-nine;
  • Lord Byron took the daughter he had with Claire away from her mother and sent her to a convent. She died there at the age of five.
  • Byron died in 1824 after contracting a fever. He was thirty-six.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley (1797-1851) wrote several other novels, twenty-one short stories, a travelogue and several biographies. During her lifetime, she was a professional writer, but history remembers her as the author of one novel, written during the “Year Without Summer.” She died of a brain tumor at fifty-three.

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

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Author’s note: The Gothic novel emerged as a literary genre in the 1750s and characterizes supernatural elements, mysterious and secretive events. The mystery of Mary Shelley’s novel is not where the monster came from, but what he wants. In addition, the novel is considered to be one of the first examples of science fiction.

According to Greek legend, Prometheus was a deity who could create a human from clay, hence Shelley’s subtitle to her novel.