Do the coronavirus stay-at-home orders have you feeling bored and cooped up? Mary Shelley must have been in a similar mindset when she began writing the story that would become the world's first science fiction novel, Frankenstein.
It wasn't a pandemic that kept Mary Shelley indoors, but it was a sudden and rather unprecedented global phenomenon. You see, the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded human history occurred in April 1815 on an island in present-day Indonesia. Mount Tambora burst open, releasing an enormous cloud of ash into the atmosphere that spread around the world. This ash blocked out solar radiation, causing lowered global temperatures and unusual weather over the next year. In fact, 1816 was known as the "Year without a Summer," and all of Europe experienced low temperatures and heavy rains. Unfortunately, that was also year that Mary Shelley embarked on what should have been an exciting summer vacation in Switzerland.
At this point, 18-year-old Mary was unmarried and still known as Mary Godwin, but she'd already spent two years gallivanting around Continental Europe with her lover Percy Shelley (who was currently married to another woman). She had also already had two children by Percy, though one of them did not survive beyond a few weeks. With their young infant, and also with Mary's pregnant step-sister Claire Clairmont in tow, Mary and Percy arrived at the scenic Lake Geneva in May 1816. There, they met up with the poet Lord Byron, who was staying with his physician, John Polidori, at an estate called Villa Diodati.
No doubt, the group had expected to spend most of the summer boating on the lake and picnicking outside, but thanks to Mount Tambora it was constantly wet and rainy, and they found themselves stuck in the house for days at a time. They initially amused themselves by reading out loud from a collection of German ghost stories, which gave Lord Byron an idea. He proposed a contest to see who could write the best ghost story. Being a celebrated writer himself, Byron probably expected to win this little contest handily. Or perhaps it would be Percy Shelley, another fairly established poet. But neither of those two turned out much of value. Byron wrote a fragment of what would have been a vampire story, but never got around to actually writing any of the scary vampire bits, and Percy doesn't seem to have written anything for the contest at all.
Surprisingly, it was the teenage Mary who wrote the horror story that would put them all to shame. After several days of coming up with nothing to write, Mary had a nightmare about a young scientist kneeling beside the creature he had just fashioned and brought to life. This nightmare formed the basis of the tale of terror that she wove for her friends during that dreary summer. And within a few years, she had expanded it into her first novel, Frankenstein.
Perhaps we should take a page from the book of the Villa Diodati crew and spend this time reading spooky horror stories. If you've never read Frankenstein before (or not since high school), traipsing around the gloomy scenery with a misunderstood monster may be just what you need to alleviate your boredom. If you decide to explore Mary Shelley's other works though, maybe skip The Last Man. Its post-apocalyptic setting where the entire population is being wiped out by a pandemic might hit a little too close to home right now.…