Waking Dreams and Cadavers | Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (originally titled Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus) is often considered to be the first science fiction novel and is a landmark of gothic fiction. First published anonymously in 1818 when Mary Shelley was only twenty years old the story of the novels conception is as fascinating as the hold the Doctor Frankenstein and his monster have held on popular culture ever since its publication. One evening in Villa Diodati, Lake Geneva, in 1816 saw the accumulation of an unusual set of circumstances that triggered a creative spark that has captured popular imagination ever since.

The themes and ideas that went on to form the novel were present before that fateful night in 1816. In 1814 Mary¹, her half-sister Claire Clairmont (born Jane) and her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley travelled to Europe. Mary and Shelley, having fallen desperately in love, fled to Europe when her father William Godwin objected to their affair. Travelling through France, which had been ravaged by the Napoleonic wars, onto Germany at one point they stopped in Gernsheim, 17km from Frankenstein Castle. Unlike most places named after the now legendary Doctor, Frankenstein Castle significantly predates the novel. It is questionable whether Mary would have been aware of or visited the castle but the legend behind it is worth investigating. The thirteenth century castle is best known because of the actions of alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel.

Born in 1673 Dippel became an alchemist; creating an elixir called Dippel’s Oil. Made from pulverised animal bones the elixir demonstrates his use of animal bodies in scientific creation. It had long been rumoured that this interest morphed into anatomy studies. He was said to conduct medical experiments on exhumed corpses, trying to reanimate the dead bodies. One myth that circulated was that Dippel was successful and created a monster that was brought to life by a bolt of lightning. In all likelihood this myth was applied to the castle after the release of Frankenstein, however it is interesting to note that the name previously existed, and has long been associated with the relationship between life and death.

The trio returned to Europe in 1816. This time they were heading to Geneva, to stay with Claire’s former lover Lord Byron. Mary and Shelley published their joint journal which covered this period in 1817. The travelogue was titled History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland.  Here is an excerpt that discusses the landscape they observed:

“Never was a scene more awefully desolate. The trees in these regions are incredibly large, and stand in scattered clumps over the white wilderness; the vast expanse of snow was chequered only by these gigantic pines, and the poles that marked our road: no river or rock-encircled lawn relieved the eye, by adding the picturesque to the sublime.”

1816 was also remarkable for being the Year Without a Summer. 1815 had seen a large volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. It left almost 100,000 dead. Clouds of volcanic ash were propelled into the upper atmosphere, obscuring the sun. The Northern hemisphere saw crop failures, food shortages and sudden climatic change. This included a decline in temperature and an increase in rainfall. At the time many were unaware of the causes of this strange phenomenon. It was common to have to light candles in the middle of the day due to the darkness. There are accounts of snow falling in the middle of June. Holidaying at Lord Byron’s villa Mary and her companions found themselves unable to enjoy the outdoors and instead spent their time inside discussing science, politics and literature. At this time Byron composed the poem Darkness, which reflects the uneasy feeling of the time.

“I had a dream, which was not all a dream. / The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars / Did wander darkling in the eternal space, / Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth / Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air; / Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day, / And men forgot their passions in the dread / Of this their desolation”.

Themes of the supernatural and mystery run throughout the work created at Villa Diodati.

Interestingly the atmospheric changes resulted in unusual sunsets. It is thought that the yellow tinge that marks William Turner’s paintings during this period is a result of this. One work which demonstrates this is Chichester Canal (1828). Byron and Mary were not the only writers to find success in that strange atmosphere. The same few days saw the origin of the book The Vampyre. Written by Byron’s physician John Polidori it became the progenitor of Romantic vampire literature and was used as a key inspiration for Bram Stoker’s vampire novel Dracula.

Added to this was the stifling interpersonal atmosphere between the group. When Mary and Percy Shelly first fell in love she was only sixteen years old and he already had a wife a child. His young wife Harriet was pregnant again at this time. This, plus her father’s disapproval, didn’t stop them. Shelley declared his love for Mary, often meeting at night at her mother’s grave. Claire went with them on their travels partly because she could speak French and they could not. Also, she was able to introduce them to Lord Byron. The two had been lovers. Although still besotted with Byron, who had largely lost interest in her, after Mary lost her first child in early 1815 Claire and Shelley embarked on an affair. It has also been reported that Polidori had designs on the young Mary, but she did not reciprocate his feelings. Notably, although Byron was interested in the young poet Shelley he was supposed to have had little respect for Mary. Shelley believed in free love and practised it, having affairs and illegitimate children throughout his life. At one point the Shelley’s were labelled a part of the League of Incest that Byron was at the heart of². Added to this Shelley was reported to have fallen into a morbid mood as a result of the oppressive environment.

It was in this atmosphere that the group; consisting of Mary, Shelley, Claire, Lord Byron and his physician John Polidori, spent their evenings talking and reading each other ghost stories. Eventually Byron suggested a ghost story writing competition. In the preface to the 1818 edition of Frankenstein Mary wrote that, feeling anxious, she would wake up each morning no closer to a story. At only 18 years old Mary was one of the more junior writers of the group. However she was highly educated for a young woman at the time and had been exposed to liberal, intellectual ideas all her life. This came primarily through her parents: radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and political theorist William Godwin, both successful writers.

In September 2011 astronomer David Olson managed to pinpoint the exact time of Shelley’s “waking dream”

Several days after the competition was suggested Mary dreamed of a scientist who created life but was then horrified by its creation. She had found her story. The evening before her “waking dream” the group had been discussing the principle of life; what it means to be alive and whether a corpse could be reanimated. Mary commented on this in the novels preface:

“many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. … Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth”.

Although this sounds a little morbid corpse reanimation was a hot topic of the day. Galvanism is the contraction of a muscle that has been stimulated by electric current. Studies and investigations into the line between life and death occupied many of the great scientific minds of the early nineteenth century. Professor Sharon Ruston has investigated this area of scientific interest in depth. Her findings are detailed in the essayThe Science of Life and Death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. One point of particular interest is the work of the Royal Humane Society, originally named the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned. Established in 1774 the Society’s main aim was to publicise information to help people resuscitate others. Mary’s mother once attempted suicide by jumping from Putney Bridge into the Thames River. She was one of those “brought back to life”: resuscitated. This was one of the ways in which the line between life and death were being blurred and questioned. Each year there was a procession of those “raised from the dead” by the Society.

Further to this Shelley had a long history with scientific experiments. At Eton he used a frictional electric machine to charge the door handle of his room. He once blew up a tree on the schools South Meadow with gunpowder. His rooms at Oxford were fully equipped with science equipment and he continued to experiment with electricity, magnetism and chemicals. This interest continued into his adult life where he had trouble with multiple landlords and hosts. His frequent experiments would often burn cushions, leave marks on the walls and floors, and disturb other residents. In their leisure time the couple were also known to attend lectures and demonstrations that looked into the space between the known and unknown.

Burg Frankenstein - HeadStuff.org

Frankenstein Castle

On that infamous night they had been reading German ghost stories from a French translation of the book Fantasmagoriana. These stories combined with the unusual dark and mysterious climate had an effect on the young writer. Shelley wrote,

“The season was cold and rainy, and in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands. These tales excited in us a playful desire of imitation. Two other friends…and myself agreed to write each a story founded on some supernatural occurrence.”

In the preface Mary talked about a “waking dream” in which she conceived the idea of Frankenstein.

“When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, —I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. 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. …”.

In September 2011 astronomer David Olson managed to pinpoint the exact time of Shelley’s “waking dream” concluding that it occurred between 2 am and 3am on the 16th June 1816. This was several days after the competition began and fits in with Shelley’s remembrances of her difficulty in coming up with a story. Olsen explains,

“Mary Shelley wrote about moonlight shining through her window, and for 15 years I wondered if we could recreate that night. We did recreate it. We see no reason to doubt her account, based on what we see in the primary sources and using the astronomical clue.”

In order to capture the gothic horror found in the novel’s pages Shelley taped into her own fears. “What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow. On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story”. She began to create “a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream”. In the cauldron of the strange mix of events came the creation of one of the corner stones of gothic horror and science fiction.


¹Although at this point her name was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin she referred to herself as Mrs Shelley prior to their December 1816 marriage

² Byron went into self-induced exile from Britain largely as a result of the constant rumours that he fathered a child with his sister. Like Shelley he had multiple children with multiple women; including a daughter called Allegra with Claire (1817).


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