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The Creepy Vacation That Gave Birth to ‘Frankenstein’

March 9, 2018 in History

By Erin Blakemore

Mary Shelley, 1831. (Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Thunder, lightning and flickering candles. It sounds like the stuff of a horror story—and for Mary Shelley, it was. She wrote her masterpiece Frankenstein when she was just 19 years old, and the dark, stormy summer nights that helped bring her monstrous creation to life were nearly as dramatic as the novel itself.

Strangely enough, the saga of Frankenstein started not with a vision but with a volcano. In 1815, a gigantic volcanic eruption at Mount Tambora in Indonesia choked the air with ash and dust. The eruption killed roughly 100,000 people in its immediate aftermath, but the overall toll ended up being much higher—it is now considered to be the deadliest volcano eruption in history.

The next summer, the warm growing season never came. Instead of sunshine, most of Europe was covered in fog and even frost. Crop failures stretched across Europe, Asia and even North America for three years afterward. Famines, epidemics and political revolts followed. Historians estimate that at least a million people starved in the aftermath of Tambora’s eruption, while tens of millions died from a global cholera pandemic that it unleashed.

Mary Shelley, 1831. (Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

During those three years of darkness and famine, some of Europe’s greatest artists created their darkest and most enduring works. Mary Shelley was among them—but when she arrived at Lake Geneva in May 1816, she was looking for a vacation, not literary inspiration. Unfortunately the weather was so ghastly in Switzerland that she was trapped inside nearly the entire time.

Mary traveled with her lover, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, their four-month-old baby and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont. At the time, Claire was pregnant with a child by Lord Byron, the groundbreaking poet whose personal affairs had made him one of England’s most divisive celebrities. Most recently he had divorced his wife and, rumor had it, continued an affair with his half-sister. Plagued by gossip and debt, he decided to leave Europe.

After Byron’s departure, the obsessed Claire convinced Mary and Percy to travel to Geneva with her. A few days later, Byron—clearly unaware that Claire would be there—arrived in town. Mary, who had eloped with her married husband<span style="font-weight: …read more


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