The 17-Year-Old Who Invented Science Fiction
It’s June 1816 on the shores of Lake Geneva. A few months earlier, a giant volcano eruption in the Pacific had blown an enormous cloud of dirt into the air that affected weather around the globe. In Europe, 1816 would become known as the Year Without Summer.
It made what should have been a mild and pleasant stay for five visiting English folk a blustery and unseasonably foul June.
A particularly bad stretch led them to come up with some alternative entertainment, one now familiar to modern campers: telling ghost stories. But these weren’t the ghost stories we know now of hitchhikers and chainsaw-wielding loners: these were German ghost stories collected and published for the sole purpose of scaring the pants off educated capital-R Romantics.
After a few nights of reading stories, one of the five suggests a new pastime: “let’s all try our hand at writing one.” And over the next few days, that’s what they did.
One of the stories would later be published as The Vampyre, spelled with a y, by one Dr. Polidori. It would be the most famous and influential vampire story until Bram Stoker picked up his pen.
Amazingly, though, The Vampyre was only the second-most famous story to come out of this rainy day exercise. The champion would be the story of a fringe medical doctor who got the terrifying idea to put together parts of human corpses and see what happens if you zapped them with electricity.
Frankenstein (Or Modern Prometheus), by Mary Shelley, appeared to its author in a flash by the stormy shores of Lake Geneva. At the time, though, her name was Mary Godwin, a 17-year-old woman who’d never before written a novel, who had joined the party for an illicit rendezvous with one of the most famous poets of the day, Percy Shelley. And, in imagining the story of a scientist bent on creating life, she herself gave birth to a brand-new genre of literature we now call science fiction.
The five participants in this, the most famous story-telling game of all time, each had a role to play in the genesis of Frankenstein. The most famous was Lord Byron, a poet of such fame AND infamy, for both his artistic and amorous exploits, that people would crowd outside in the hopes of getting a glimpse of him. Number two of five was Byron’s personal doctor, John Polidori, recently the valedictorian of his medical school class at the University of Edinburgh.
The rest of the entourage included Percy Shelley, the up-and-coming poet in his own right who Byron wanted to meet. And of course, his mistress, Mary Godwin, who would soon become Mary Shelley once Percy’s first wife was out of the picture.
And last but not least, Mary Godwin’s half-sister Jane Clairmont. Though Jane was the least prominent of the five, the group found themselves together at Lake Geneva because of her. Jane was a renowned beauty with no particularly attractive prospects. Perhaps as a last sally against an unappealing future, she wrote what can only be described as a series of saucy fan letters to Lord Byron in the hopes of starting up some sort of an affair. This one laid it out as plain as could be ventured:
“If a woman whose reputation had yet remained unstained, if without either guardian or husband to control she should throw herself upon your mercy, if with a beating heart she should confess the love she has borne you these many years, if she should secure you secrecy and safety…could you betray her or would you be silent as the grave?”
Translation: Dad’s not watching and I don’t have a boyfriend. If I came around, could you keep it on the down-low?
And Bryon, being Byron, was game to get up to a little something something, though on distinctly Byronian terms as he would say later:
“I never loved her nor pretended to love her, but a man is a man, and if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours, there is but one way…”
So while Jane was beautiful and more than willing, her beauty alone couldn’t seal the deal: he had his pick of women from every rank and country in Europe. But what Jane had, that Bryon’s other pursuers didn’t, was a connection to Percy Shelley.
Shelley had made a name for himself as the English poet to watch in just a few short years, and Byron wanted to know him. And Shelley had been eyeing Jane’s half-sister Mary, who herself was looking to get out of her father’s house and out from under her stepmother’s foot.
So Jane, God love her, concocts a three-way rendezvous: If Mary comes with her, she will get to be with Percy. And if Percy comes, then Byron will join them. And then she will get some…shall we say “quality time” with the most infamous lover on the continent.
Both Byron and Mary were willing to travel across Europe to get to know Percy better. And why was he, himself interested in Mary? Partly because of who her parents were. Percy idolized both Mary’s father William Godwin, a renowned political philosopher sometimes called “the father of anarchism,” AND her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women and sometimes called the first feminist.
This all leads us back to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein’s soon-to-be Teen Mom. Before this fateful party game, Mary was not an author in her own right, but she did have serious reverence for one, namely her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft died from complications giving birth to Mary, and her shadow loomed large, especially early in Mary’s life.
One scene sums it up pretty nicely. The young Mary, around 10 or 11, would go to the cemetery and sit by her mother’s grave and read her works. She was so intimately knowledgeable of her mother’s writing and life, that to be compared favorably with her was the highest compliment.
“Mrs K says that I am grown very much like my mother…this is the most flattering thing anyone could say to me.”
Wollstonecraft was already a legend, one that Percy Shelley revered almost as much as Mary did. Both Mary and Percy were deeply influenced by Wollstonecraft’s call to live lives unfettered by society’s demands. So when Percy had a chance to meet the daughter of the most influential woman of her age, he took it. And the young woman he discovered blew him away.
“I do not think there is an excellence at which human nature can arrive that she does not indisputably possess…How deeply did I feel my inferiority, how willingly do I confess myself far surpassed in originality, in genuine elevation and magnificence of the intellectual nature.”
Their relationship happened fast and it was passionate. They schemed to run away together and read poetry and make love and in general live the life that the Romantics dreamed of.
When Mary openly professed her love to Percy, it was, of course, at a visit to her mother’s gravesite.
Shortly thereafter, Mary, Percy, and Jane travel to Lake Geneva to meet Byron. It was on this trip that Percy began to influence Mary’s sense of her own literary potential and also a possible topic: scientific experimentation.
As a student at Oxford, Percy’s rooms looked like a chemistry lab crossed with a gentleman’s library. He was a nut for science, particularly the then-fringe topics of human anatomy, biochemistry, and the just-being-figured-out force of electricity.
“What a mighty instrument would electricity be in the hands who knew how to wield it, in what manner to direct its omnipotent energies, and command an indefinite quality of the fluid.”
Percy’s characterization of electricity as a “fluid” captures the best understanding of his day. Forty years after Benjamin Franklin showed that lightning itself was electricity, an anatomist and physicist named Luigi Galvini showed that, somehow, electricity was involved in the nervous systems of animals by stringing up frogs on kites and watching them twitch after being struck by lightning.
Conjecture and theories about electricity’s connection to life excited Shelley, and Mary got an earful of anything Shelley was excited about. It’s easy to see then how the strange weather they experienced that summer in the Alps got Mary’s narrative juices flowing:
“The thunders that visit us are grander and more terrific that I have ever seen before. We watch them as they approach from the opposite side of the lake, observing the lightning play among the clouds in various parts of the heavens.”
Basically, her time that summer was spent listening to Byron and Shelley blab about stuff they were interested in while it rained. A few days of that and you’d dream about creating a monster that would kill everybody, too.
“Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of those, 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.”
This “discovery and communication of the principle of life” probably refers to not only Galvini’s experiment with frogs, but also the even more audacious and frankly bizarre attempts by Giovanni Aldini to revive human corpses by hooking them up to a primitive battery and just seeing what happened.
Not much did happen, but a slight flap of the eyelids and the twitch of an arm got the scientifically minded of Europe yapping, even a couple of poets on vacation with their mistresses. Both Byron and Shelley were excited by these new possibilities and saw them as further evidence that man was ready to finally master himself and nature.
Mary, though, wasn’t so sure that everything was just going to work out. Her mother had died in childbirth and she herself had already lost a young child. But she definitely saw the allure of reanimation, as it was called, and even dreamed about it:
“Dream that my little baby came to life again. That it had only been cold and that we rubbed it by the fire and it lived. I awake and find no baby. I think about that little thing all day.”
If Mary was a little darker than her fellow story-tellers that June, well, spending your time reading your mom’s books on her grave and being unable to shake the memory of a dead baby will do that to a person.
Luckily, darkness would be the order of the day for their story competition, so she had an edge over her sunnier counterparts. Apparently even two notorious windbags like Byron and Shelley got tired of hearing themselves talk. So the group turned to a collection of German ghost stories that Byron had brought along in his specially designed carriage built to function as a traveling library.
The book was called Fantasmagoria and in it were eight stories with titles like “Death’s Head,” “Death’s Bride,” “The Fated Hour,” and “The Black Chamber.” Basically these were stories about spirits and ghosts and possessions and dark secrets meant to evoke that strange combination of fright and pleasure that can be so thrilling. The closest modern equivalent would be a horror movie that has some sort of vaguely supernatural element, like The Ring or Final Destination. Anyway, after they had burned through those stories, Byron turned to the group with an idea:
“We will each write our own ghost story.”
It must have been an exciting moment for Mary. Here she was, the daughter of a great writer, being asked by the most famous writer of his day to enter into a friendly little writing competition that oh-by-the-way includes this dreamboat you are trying to steal away from his wife.
“I busied myself to think of a story, one which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awake thrilling horror — one to make readers dread to look around, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beating of the heart.”
Here she is with this great chance to show what she can do and of course she ends up with…a pretty good case of writer’s block:
“‘Have you thought of a story?’ I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.”
And so, in frantically casting about for ideas, she decides to build off all the talk about electricity and how it seemed to be tangled up with how humans operate:
“Perhaps a corpse could be reanimated: Galvinism had given token to such things; perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and imbued with vital warmth.”
With this spark of an idea, she would later write that her unconscious did the rest:
“I placed my head on the pillow, I did not sleep…My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that around in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. 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, at the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir…”
Mary almost immediately told her idea to Shelley, who, along with Byron, had already given up on his own entry in the contest. He encouraged her to expand it from a short story into a book. Percy’s support of her was unflagging during the long process that brought Frankenstein to print in 1818, including being intimately involved in her drafting and editing process.
“I sent you my dearest another proof — which arrived tonight in looking it over there appeared to me some abruptness which I have endeavored to supply but I am tired and not very clear-headed so I give you carte blanche to make what alterations you will.”
Frankenstein was published anonymously at first, and Percy’s known interest in the subject matter and the prominence of his name caused some to speculate that he in fact wrote the novel. But while his fingerprints are there, the book is Mary’s.
Considering all the pieces that came together to get Mary to lay her head down and dream of Victor Frankenstein, it’s not that surprising that she had the idea — but without Percy guiding her through the process of editing and using his connections to secure a publisher and, frankly, BELIEVING in her abilities it’s quite likely that the world would never have Frankenstein. It was a creative mentorship/romance that would last until his untimely death, and in Mary’s later description, could be the stuff of romantic poetry:
“For eight years, I communicated with unlimited freedom with one whose genius awakened and guided my thoughts. I conversed with him; obtained new lights from him and my mind was satisfied.”
It’s odd to think that all the boldfaced names associated with the Lake Geneva group — Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft — would ultimately be eclipsed by the name “Frankenstein.” So, why has it endured?
Some of it is the elegant simplicity of the set-up: mad scientist brings dead to life: WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? But what’s been more influential than this particular story is the entire genre that Mary Shelley created when she wrote Frankenstein. With one foot in horror and one in modern science, Shelley, for all intents and purposes, invented science fiction, a way to tell new stories that didn’t rely on ghosts and magic, instead speculating on what science might actually make possible — and what that might mean for humanity.
The scientific revolution that had been chugging along in Europe was finally descending from the heavens and astronomy to the more human scales of chemistry and biology. Medicine as a scientific discipline was in its infancy. I mean, it was only in 1772 — barely 20 years before Mary was born — that science figured out oxygen was even a thing.
And so, 17-year-old Mary Shelley is the right woman at the right time, a half-romantic/half-realist who created a half-man/half monster during a dark and stormy summer in Lake Geneva. She was the first to capture the evolving world in literature, changing the fantastical “What If?” question of gothic horror novels into a more scientifically grounded “What now?”
Today, stories of science-run-amok surround us — The Terminator, Minority Report, Margaret Atwood’s Mad Adam trilogy — and they can all be traced to Mary Shelley’s questions: What will we do if something we’ve made turns against us? What happens when what we create escapes our control? And she realized that the biggest question isn’t what if our efforts fail, but what if they succeed?
“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.”
The above piece comes from our former Annotated podcast series, originally aired in August 2017. For further reading on Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, dig into the show notes for the episode.