Ghost stories, opium and rain: the doomed holiday that inspired Shelley’s Frankenstein

Mary Shelley's nightmare in the Alps is the stuff of literary legend. But the truth about her trip to Geneva with Percy and Lord Byron – which includes volcanic eruptions, a monkey and a peacock – is even stranger. This is the real story of the birth of Shelley's classic novel.

Over the past couple of centuries, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has spawned a creation myth as confused as the author’s own monster: academic debate has raged over the book’s authorship, spurred on by a mixture of ingrained sexism (surely an 18-year-old girl could never have written such a book!) and the company Shelley kept while writing it – that of poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron.

What’s sometimes overlooked, though, is the bizarre combination of circumstances that led Mary to put pen to paper. Volcanic eruptions, latent desire, over-ambitious excursions and unscrupulous publishers all collided in what became the most productive – and most unfortunate – holiday in literary history.  Two grand-standing poets packed their beach towels for a trip that resulted in two of literature's most enduring characters, neither of which were created by them. 

Like many bad holidays, the June 1816 jaunt to Lake Geneva was flawed from the start. Take the combination of the group participating: Lord Byron, who was not so much on holiday than in exile, banishing himself from England because of incest allegations with his half-sister. His primary companion was John Polidori, a precocious doctor barely out of his teens whom – unbeknownst to Byron – had accepted £500 from the poet’s publisher to keep a diary of his adventures with the hope of securing the contents of a racy best-seller. The pair’s travelling party was completed by a peacock, a monkey and a dog.

'Claire Clairemont, Mary’s step-sister, was keen to reignite the short-lived romance with Byron that had left her pregnant'

This lot were joined by Percy Bysshe Shelley, on the run from his own wife (whose body was found in the Serpentine, in Hyde Park, six months later) with 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, his mistress of two years. Neither Shelley had met Byron or Polidori before. Instead, both pairs were set up by Claire Clairemont, Mary’s step-sister, who was keen to reignite the short-lived romance with Byron that had left her pregnant. As Muriel Spark put it in her 1951 biography of Mary Shelley, Claire was “the type of young woman who today would be known as ‘arty’”. Byron was less fussed about the rendezvous, but nevertheless conceded to what he later described as Claire’s “prancing to [me] at all hours.”

Plus, the poets were curious enough about one another to embark on a holiday to Lake Geneva with two complete strangers. Shelley was something of a teen prodigy, having published his first collection of poems at 17, and by 1816 was riding high off Alastor, his most successful collection to date. As a radical thinker and proponent of free love, Shelley would have been known to Byron, who was four years older and had spent as long glittering in London's celebrity circles. 

In the early 19th century the Swiss city was a rather down-at-heel version of the slick international banking haven it would become, but the landscape was no less inspiring; towering, snow-capped peaks around the still waters of the sprawling lake drew dozens of English tourists, much to the disgust of Byron, who called them “staring boobies” in some correspondence.  

Claire, Percy and Mary (who would take Percy’s surname once the pair married, mere weeks after his first wife’s death) had been to Switzerland before: two years earlier they’d sailed to France and walked to Switzerland, reading aloud along the way. They returned home six weeks later, skint, sore and utterly miserable. 

The journey was better the second time around. Just the 10 days of travel from London, albeit ones pockmarked by travel sickness (Mary) and illness-inducing stress (Shelley, understandably taxed about abandoning his wife and inheritence). Upon arrival, Shelley and Byron overcame initial awkwardness to swiftly form a poetic bromance, leaving poor Mary roundly ignored. 

Still, there was scenery to enjoy. In an attempt to shrug off his ogling countrymen, Byron suggested accommodation in the nearby hamlet of Cologny, where he had found the suitably grandiose Villa Diodati, nestled among vineyards, to occupy. The Shelleys took a rather more modest house near the lakeside. In letters, Mary recalled the lake as “blue as the heavens which it reflects”. 

The weather, however, was not to last. The previous year, a volcano named Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted in gargantuan style, creating an ash cloud that would dwarf that holiday-ruining detritus from Eyjafjallajokull two centuries later. Tambora’s ash cloud effectively stole Northern Europe’s summer – a weather report for Geneva in July 1816 reported that “the oak trees don’t have a single leaf yet” – and it was in mid-June that the truly awful forecasts began. Mary recalled “an almost perpetual rain”, which was interrupted by tremendous thunderstorms. The gloom was relentless.

Our merry fivesome were forced inside, swapping crystalline mountainscapes for increasingly claustrophobic gatherings inside Byron’s villa. In an attempt to pass the time, they consumed plenty of wine and laudanum – liquid opium -– and, to add to the general feeling of delirium, started to read creepy poems aloud to one another. “Some volumes of ghost stories translated from the German into French, fell into our hands,” Mary recorded 15 years later. It proved an intoxicating combination: Shelley ended up shrieking out of the room after hallucinating that Mary’s nipples had turned into demonic eyes. 

Nevertheless, the japes continued. Byron set his friends a challenge: to write a ghost story of their own. 

The results were unexpected. Byron, arguably the most accomplished and lauded writer of the bunch, rattled out a rather underwhelming vampire story. Shelley, another poet of merit, swiftly abandoned the task after embarking on a story based on his childhood. After a slow start (“Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady”, according to Mary), the doctor managed to flex his creative writing skills in conjuring up ‘The Vampyre’, a story that would later inspire Bram Stoker to create Dracula. Polidori’s central character, the blood-sucking, philandering Lord Ruthven, bears a remarkable resemblance to Byron.

But it was Mary’s creation for which the trip is most famous. Roundly considered the birth of science fiction, Frankenstein emerged in fittingly gothic style. After listening to Shelley and Byron dissect the possibility of whether corpses could be animated, Mary – perhaps unsurprisingly – had a fitful night. Some interpret her diaries as her suffering from insomnia, others nightmares, in which she “saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life”. In either case, by the next storm-laden night she had a story to read to the group:

'It was on a dreary night of November [that I] endeavoured to infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet…'

Five days later and the two poets had seemingly abandoned the ghost story writing competition, preferring instead to indulge in an eight-day lads-on-tour getaway to Montreaux, complete with a near-death sinking of their boat during a stormy return journey. Mary, meanwhile, beetled along with Frankenstein, attracting the untoward attentions of Polidori, who, having fallen out with both Shelley and Byron, developed The Vampyre along with his unrequited love while nursing a sprained ankle. 

The trip produced a lot of work: aside from the two horror stories, Shelley wrote two of his best poems, "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" and "Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni". The latter made its way into History of a Six Weeks' Tour, a travelogue released by Mary, and prefaced by Shelley, the following year. Byron wrote the third canto of Childe Harold, the narrative poem that had made him a star. Claire gestated, and gave birth to their daughter, Allegra, in January (Byron was a reluctant father, famously asking: 'Is the brat mine?').  

Frankenstein (published title, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus), was birthed a year later, with a preface by Shelley. Mary's name was taken off, and those critics who didn't know she wrote it were considerably kinder than those who did. The book proved divisive in reviews but readers devoured it, and Frankenstein found its way onto the stage, a precursor to the film and television adaptations that have maintained Mary's legacy ever since.

Eventually, the Geneva gang went their separate ways. While there were future trips to Switzerland, the ostentatious dramas and tragedies that surrounded its members continued to swirl in the years that followed. Within the first half of the 1820s, the men all died: Polidori of self-inflicted cyanide poisoning in 1821, Shelley a year later while sailing in an Italian storm and Byron in 1824, of sepsis caused by bodged bloodletting in Greece. 

Mary suffered the debilitating loss of her children, in two consecutive summers from 1818. It left her profoundly depressed, and increasingly removed from her husband. As a result, the Frankenstein holiday remained one of the highlights in a life marred by suffering. Writing about it later, Mary reflected on the whole affair with fondness, stating her “affection” for Frankenstein, “the offspring of happy days, when I was not alone.”

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Image: Mica Murphy/Penguin

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