|Villa Diodati; Geneva, Switzerland|
1816--summer home of Lord Byron--
where Mary Godwin (later, Mary Shelley)
first told the story of Frankenstein
III: The Plot of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Readers who know the story of the original novel and its composition should skip this chapter and advance to the next section. For others, this quick summary will add both information and context to all that follows.
Mary Shelley began the original story in 1816 when she was nineteen years old, still named Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, though she was estranged from her father and had not spoken to him since her elopement with Bysshe Shelley two years earlier. Unmarried, she was living openly with Shelley and had delivered two of his children—an unnamed daughter died two months after her birth on 22 February 1815; son William was born 24 January 1816. Mary had gone to Switzerland in the summer of 1816 with Bysshe and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, and little William, only five months old, in pursuit of Lord Byron, who had impregnated Claire (he was as yet unaware of this) and was living in Villa Diodati, a villa that still stands on Lake Geneva, a bit northeast, up the lakeshore from the city of Geneva.
The Shelley party rented a house near Byron’s and quickly became friends with their celebrity neighbor. The weather was stormy that summer, principally due to the eruption in April 1815 of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia, among the most powerful eruptions in history. Thousands died. The vast cloud of ash and gas circling the earth affected weather and crops around the world. American farmers saw spring crops ruined by ice and frost and snow—into June.
In Geneva, spectacular thunderstorms over the lake and mountains dazzled residents and visitors. But the weather forced folks inside, much more than they would have preferred on this, a supposed summer’s holiday. And it was on one of these dreary days that Byron proposed that each of them write a ghost story. And Mary—after a few frustrating and unproductive days—came up with the idea for Frankenstein, about a man creating life. Originally, she’d intended it to be only a short story, but Bysshe encouraged her to transform it into a novel, which she did, with his light editorial help and buoyant enthusiasm, publishing it anonymously near New Year’s 1818.
There were two subsequent revisions. In 1823, Mary’s father (they’d been reconciled for a while) arranged for a new edition of the novel to appear because of the excitement about a new dramatization of the story; he—an experienced novelist—made some changes in the story, changes that Mary recognized as improvements. And in 1831, revising the novel for a new edition, Mary kept her father’s alterations and added a number of her own, as well. Many critics believe her 1831 version is inferior to the earlier ones. The summary below is based on the 1818 edition, which was published in three volumes, standard practice for full-length novels in her day.