‘On This Day in 1816’: The Bicentenary of Frankenstein’s Composition
A public reading of Romantic poetry and prose to be held at the Keats-Shelley House, Rome, on Saturday 23rd July 2016.
The same event will also be held at King’s Manor, University of York on Thursday 14th July 2016.
In May 1816, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Godwin and Claire Clairmont moved to Geneva where they would live near Lord Byron and his physician-companion, Dr John William Polidori. Over the next few weeks, this group of young intellectuals spent almost all their time together, sailing on Lake Geneva by day and reading and conversing in the evenings. One night in late May or early June, a ghost-story writing competition began. Inspired by this, the 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley) conceived what is now one of the most iconic tales in English literature. Frankenstein was published anonymously nineteen months later.
On the wet afternoon of 24 July 1816, Mary notes in her journal, ‘write my story’: this is her first reference to the composition of Frankenstein. Percy Shelley was also writing his poem ‘Mont Blanc’ on this day. Both authors were inspired by their visits to Chamonix and the Mer De Glace, subjects of awe for many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travellers. These shared experiences and subsequent discussions resulted in descriptions of the landscape in individual journal entries and letters that are strikingly similar. For example, the immensity of the mountains produce a similar image of alienation: ‘The summits of the highest were hid in Clouds but they sometimes peeped out into the blue sky higher one would think than the safety of God would permit’ (Mary); ‘They pierce the clouds like things not belonging to this earth’ (Percy). Even scenes that lack grandeur still induce feelings of admiration: ‘there is som[e]thing so divine in all this scenery that you love & admire it even where its features are less magnificent than usual’ (Mary); ‘there is a grandeur in the very shapes and colours which could not fail to impress, even on a smaller scale’ (Percy). These shared impressions would become the basis for ‘Mont Blanc’ and also the pivotal scene in Frankenstein in which Victor encounters his creation for the first time since his ‘birth’.
This event at the Keats-Shelley House in 2016 celebrates the bicentenary of the composition of the Romantic period’s most famous novel, and this fruitful period of creativity for both Shelleys in 1816. The event will take place almost exactly 200 years later to the day that Mary Shelley began writing. The evening will include a reading of the preface and the introduction to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the most famous scene in the novel when the creature awakens (‘It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils’), and excerpts from Percy Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc’. Two scholars (Anna Mercer and David Higgins) will give short talks on the Shelleys’ collaborative literary relationship, and 1816 as ‘the Year Without a Summer’.
The event will also take place on 14 July 2016 at the King’s Manor, University of York, in collaboration with the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies (CECS) at York, and the University of Leeds. The York event will provide an alternative venue for those who want to attend the event but who cannot travel to Rome. Both events are public ticketed events and refreshments will be provided. We hope to produce an invigorating atmosphere that will allow attendees to consider the history of Frankenstein during this exciting bicentenary month. The events are supported by the British Association for Romantic Studies (BARS), the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (BSECS), CECS at York, the FR Leavis Fund at York, and the Keats-Shelley House. We also hope to include a student’s report from the Rome event in an edition of the Keats-Shelley Review.
The talk by Anna Mercer will focus on her research as an AHRC-funded PhD candidate at the University of York. Her thesis considers the Shelleys’ collaborative literary relationship and seeks to provide an unprejudiced study of both authors and their influence on each other. Frankenstein is now understood as a crucial example of collaborative writing from the Romantic period, as Percy Shelley edited Mary’s manuscript draft. Percy’s alterations and corrections were not an imposing corruption of his wife’s writing; instead, the way the Shelleys worked together in 1816 can be understood and analysed as an example of reciprocal creativity. As Neil Fraistat observed at the launch of the Shelley-Godwin archive in 2013, Frankenstein was part of ‘a two-way collaboration […] this wasn’t just about him supervising her’. The Frankenstein scholar Charles E. Robinson has identified the possibility of the Shelleys ‘at work on the [Frankenstein] Notebooks at the same time, possibly sitting side by side and using the same pen and ink to draft the novel and at the same time to enter corrections’. This event will present to the public a reading of the work of both authors, including the preface and the introduction to the novel: the former written by Percy and published in 1818, and the latter written retrospectively in 1831 by Mary. These extracts provide the notorious details of the Shelleys’ experiences in Geneva in 1816 that stirred Mary Shelley to give life to her ‘hideous progeny’. The event therefore looks to celebrate such a moment of literary inspiration and invites readers to learn more about the history of the novel’s author(s).
David Higgins’s talk will draw on his research on Romantic writing and environmental catastrophe. Cultural historians have recently explored how the eruption of the Indonesian volcano Mount Tambora in 1815 caused severe disruption to the global climate and, in particular, the ‘Year Without A Summer’ of 1816 (e.g. Wood 2014). However, what has not been properly investigated is the extent to which Byron, Mary Shelley, and Percy Shelley were responding as a creative community to the unusual environmental conditions. The grim summer of 1816 heightened their apprehension of the sublimity of the Alpine landscape and led them to contemplate the frightening power of the natural world. This talk will bring together ‘Mont Blanc’, Frankenstein, History of a Six Weeks’ Tour, and ‘Darkness’ to examine the shared ways in which they address the problem of dwelling with environmental catastrophe.