In a home by a lake during a dreary summer in Geneva, Switzerland, the idea for the character of Frankenstein was created.
The summer of 1816 was not filled with warm, sunny days and long strolls through gardens for the people in Geneva.
More than a year before, Mount Tambora, an Indonesian volcano, had exploded, sending enough volcanic ash into the atmosphere to change northern weather months later and lead to 1816 earning the nickname “the year without a summer,” according to the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
So, instead of days in the sun, Mary Shelley and several of her writer friends, including her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, gathered around a fire, bored of the seemingly never-ending fog and cold rain.
For entertainment and distraction, the friends decided to begin a ghost story-writing competition among themselves. The idea for Frankenstein came to Shelley shortly thereafter.
Now, 200 years later, Ohio University Libraries highlights Shelley’s accomplishment as a young female author.
An exhibit, titled “Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: Art, Literature, Science and Technology Across Two Centuries,” illustrates the ongoing cultural reach of the novel, said Miriam Intrator, special collections librarian. The display, on the fourth floor of Alden Library, runs through the end of the semester.
The first edition of “Frankenstein” was published in January of 1818 by Lackington & Co., an English company. According to the University of Pennsylvania, Percy Shelley initially handled the negotiations to preserve Mary Shelley’s anonymity.
“Even if someone hasn’t read the book or seen any of the movies—pretty much everybody has heard of Frankenstein,” said Intrator. “It is just part of popular culture at this point.”
“Frankenstein” tells the story of Victor Frankenstein and his creation of a monster from dead bodies. After Victor brings the creation to life, the creature turns on his creator.
Intrator said that although the Mahn Center does not have the earliest editions of the novel, the display of a couple dozen books includes various 19th and early 20th century editions, illustrated artist editions and modern-day interpretations, as well as examples of the 17th and 18th century scientific texts that helped set the stage for Shelley’s writing of Frankenstein.
“It’s a fascinating history…both the story of how “Frankenstein” came to be written and the science,
technology and experimentation behind the story,” said Intrator.
At the time of Frankenstein’s publication, new developments in science, such as blood transfusions, and theories, such as Galvanism, which dealt with electric currents, were topics of interest and discussion with both popular and learned audiences, said Intrator.
“Mary Shelley grew up in a cultured, educated and intellectual home,” Intrator said.
Her upbringing, along with her circle of well-educated friends, contributed to the writing and the success of the book, Intrator said. Shelley was only 18 during the summer of 1816 when she first drafted the story.
Two centuries later, Ohio University Libraries hopes that the success of Shelley and the enduring appeal of her work will interest and inspire students, Intrator said.
Photos by Lexi Browning/Ohio University Libraries