The compositional circumstances that gave birth to Mary Shelley‘s novel Frankenstein are peculiar. Far from cold and grey England, on a stormy evening in June 1816, the year “without a summer”, Lord Byron had decided to host at Villa Diodati in Geneva his personal doctor John Polidori, his close friend Percy Shelley and two women, Claire Clairmont, recently pregnant by Byron, and Mary, Claire’s half-sister, soon to be Shelley’s wife, for the time being known as the daughter of the first feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and the philosopher William Godwin.
With the bad weather raging outside, probably gathered around the fireplace, the group of friends are mesmerised by the atmosphere of a German anthology of gothic tales, Fantasmagoriana, until Lord Byron proposes an unusual contest: each of them will have to write a terrifying tale to be read in the following evenings.
The guests take up the challenge that’s how fantastic and terrifying creatures are conjured up. The monstrous creature devised by Mary Wollstonecraft – later to become known by her husband’s surname, Shelley – gives rise to the myth of the ‘modern Prometheus’, the scientist Victor Frankenstein who, yearning for the divine power to give life, generates a monster by stimulating with electricity the limbs of the corpses of which the creature is composed. That haunted summer has been decisive for the birth of Gothic literature, which was to have enormous success in the years to come.