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The context of Frankenstein » Social / political context » How Frankenstein came to be written

Conception: 1816

The Villa Deodati

In the Introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley describes the circumstances in which the novel was conceived. She and Shelley, together with Mary's step-sister, Claire Clairmont, travelled to Switzerland in May 1816, where Lord Byron joined them two weeks later. Claire and Byron had become lovers in England and she was anxious to resume their relationship. Byron soon moved on to the Villa Deodati on the shore of Lake Geneva, where the Shelleys and Claire were frequent visitors. Also at the Villa was Byron's doctor, a young man called John Polidori.

Defying convention

The stage was set for some highly dramatic events. The emotional temperature among the group of young people was quite high: all were in one way or another defying social convention by being together. Issues were:

Weather

The summer of 1816, cold and rainy, was one of the worst on record – it became known as ‘the year without a summer': as Mary writes in the 1831 Introduction, ‘it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house.' During these long spells of enforced confinement, the party entertained themselves with conversations, poetry reading and ghost stories. Shelley seems to have suffered some kind of hysterical attack when Byron read aloud part of Coleridge's supernatural poem ‘Christabel' and had to be treated by a local doctor.

Byron's challenge

It was after they had read a volume of German ghost stories that Lord Byron issued a challenge: that the three men and Mary should each write a ghost story of their own. Byron, Shelley and Polidori quickly thought of ideas for their stories, and both Byron and Shelley soon began to write. Mary Shelley, however, struggled for inspiration. One evening, however, Byron and Shelley talked at length about ‘the nature of the principle of life' (1831 Introduction) and how Dr Erasmus Darwin (See Religious/philosophical context: Erasmus Darwin) had experimented with giving movement to dead matter and with the potential of electrical stimulation.

Mary Shelley's dream

What happened next is best told in Mary Shelley's own words from the 1831 Introduction:

Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. 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 phantom 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. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.

Mary Shelley's first reaction to this dream was to wish that she could think of something as frightening for her own ghost story, but she quickly realised, as she puts it, that ‘What terrified me will terrify others', and soon began to write a tale based upon her own dream.

Composition and publication: 1816 – 1818

Mary Shelley began work on Frankenstein on 16 June 1816 and continued to work on it through the rest of the summer and into the autumn, by which time she and Shelley had returned to England. Events then intervened to interrupt her writing for some time:

It is unlikely that Mary was able to write very much during this time.

Completion and publication

Mary completed the story by 10 April 1817 and by 13 May had finished a fair copy to be submitted to a publisher. After two unsuccessful submissions, to Byron and Shelley's own publishers, the novel was accepted for publication by Lackington, Allen and Co.

Percy Shelley had conducted the negotiations with publishers and, as the title page of the first edition shows, the novel was published anonymously (see Frankenstein Synopses: Title page to the first edition). Proofs were therefore sent to Shelley and, with Mary's agreement, he undertook most of the revisions. This is important, because some scholars believe that the revisions made by Shelley to the proofs were so extensive as to make him almost co-author of Frankenstein. The novel was finally published on 11 March 1818 and was dedicated to Mary's father, William Godwin.

Byron, George Gordon (1788-1824) was one of the leading Romantic poets whose scandalous personal life brought him as much notoriety as his poetry brought him fame.
(1772-1834) Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a poet, critic and philosopher and as a close friend of William Wordsworth was associated with the earliest phase of poetic Romanticism.