Sunday, February 11, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part VII: Are You Afraid of the Dark?

It was a dark and stormy night.

Most nights in the summer of 1816 were dark and stormy. It was a dark and stormy year. The eruption of Mount Tambora in the East Indes was wreaking havoc on weather around the world, leading people to call 1816 The Year Without a Summer. While there wasn't a Westeros-style winter-that-never-ends, there were occasional summer snowfalls, and overall temperatures were low enough that crop yields were down for the year, leading to widespread food shortages.

Whatever hopes the Shelley and Byron parties had of a pleasant summer on the lake gave way to long days indoors, trying to find ways to amuse themselves. And so it was that on 16 June 1816, Percy, Mary and Claire visited Byron and Polidori at their rented villa, just as they had most days since the pair moved in.

Polidori was laid up with a sprained ankle. The day before, he and Byron had been on the balcony when they'd spotted Mary traipsing up the muddy lane to the house. Byron remarked that a true gentleman would jump from the balcony, run to Mary and offer her his arm. Polidori took the bait, but when he landed on the muddy ground, he slipped and twisted his ankle. Byron had to carry him back inside, where he'd been lounging around ever since.

On the 16th, the party did what they often did on bleak evenings, and picked a book from the library to read aloud. That night Byron chose the Fantasmagoriana, a French collection of German ghost stories. By the time they finished reading for the evening, it was late and the storm outside showed no sign of letting up. Mary, Percy and Claire decided to spend the night, and Byron made the suggestion that everyone should take a hand at writing a ghost story to pass the time.

According to Mary, in her preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, she couldn't think of anything at first.
I busied myself to think of a story, —a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered—vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.
However, Polidori's diary for the next day claims, "The ghost-stories are begun by all but me." Either Mary didn't want to come across as assertive (which would be in keeping with the spirit of the preface)  and so portrayed herself as a meek woman who was no match for those great men of letters who had more ideas than they could use; or she was so mortified about not having an idea that she misled Polidori into thinking she'd already begun.

In the preface, Mary describes what finally inspired her to start writing:
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. They talked of the experiments of Dr. [Erasmus] Darwin, (I speak not of what the Doctor really did, or said that he did, but, as more to my purpose, of what was then spoken of as having been done by him,) who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. 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.
After that, she went to bed and had a nightmare:

 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. 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 handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, 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.
By Mary's account, while she lay in bed trying to shake off the nightmare, her mind turned back to the story contest and she realized, "Wait a minute, if that dream was enough to scare me, then surely it'll frighten readers." And so the next morning she announced that she finally had a story idea.

However, Polidori's diary records the same conversation, but he places it on the night before the ghost story contest, and he presents himself as Percy's interlocutor, not Byron.
Shelley etc. came in the evening; talked of my play etc., which all agreed was worth nothing. Afterwards Shelley and I had a conversation about principles,—whether man was to be thought merely an instrument.
Since Polidori's account is contemporaneous, and he had no way of knowing that some random late night bull session would prove to be of utmost importance to literary history, we should take his account as more accurate than Mary's recollection fifteen years after the fact. It is quite possible that Mary was misremembering when she wrote the preface, though given the other, obviously intentional inaccuracies in the preface, it's more likely she was trying to aggrandize her work by making it appear inspired by two of the greatest poets of the 19th Century, rather than one poet and an obscure physician.

So then, the most likely course of events is that on 15 June, Mary listened to a conversation between Percy (a science nerd) and Polidori (a doctor) on what medicine had to say about the nature of life, and they both gravitated to the idea that it's utterly mechanistic, and with enough study it could be measured and recreated. The details of the discussion gave Mary a horrible nightmare.

The next night, Mary and her companions stayed up late listening to ghost stories, and then Byron proposed they should all try their hands at writing their own. Mary's mind flashed to her nightmare and fastened on it as a suitable subject for a horror story. She started fleshing out the dream and committing it to paper. The next day, when everyone was discussing the contest, she announced that she'd had an idea just like everyone except Polidori, leaving the doctor feeling left out. After Percy encouraged her to continue, she began expanding her initial sketch, going both backwards to create Victor's childhood, education and initial experiments, and forward to describe the creature's eventual vendetta against him.

However, the story contest proved faddish. In the preface to the original 1818 edition of Frankenstein, Percy (writing in Mary's voice) notes that the bad weather cleared up the next week, and he and Byron left on their trip to Vevey, forgetting all about their stories, and leaving Frankenstein as the only one to be written to completion. Percy doesn't even mention Claire and Polidori, either because he didn't think they merited inclusion with such illustrious personages as himself and Byron, or to avoid even a vague allusion to the scandals of that summer. But while Claire doesn't seem to have produced anything of note, the same cannot be said for Polidori. In point of fact, the doctor produced two stories that summer, though he didn't publish them until after the success of Frankenstein.

NEXT TIME: The Revenge of Doctor Polidori

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