Wandering Spirits: Traveling Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

The First Installment of a New Feature

Note: This essay was originally published on this site almost a year ago to this day as the first installment in a new column. We are re-launching it now as a monthly limited run four-part essay series, with each installment representing a new letter much like this one. Now is a great time to read this installment, for those who missed it the first time around; those who have already read it can look forward to new installments in the coming months. – The Editors


Wandering spirits, if indeed ye wander, and do not rest in your narrow beds, allow me this faint happiness, or take me, as your companion away from the joys of life.” 

–Victor Frankenstein


Letter 1

Villa Diodati, Cologny, Lake Geneva, Switzerland

June 1, 20–

Dear R – ,

I have only been in Geneva for one day, and am beginning to suspect that my simple notion of traveling in Mary Shelley’s footsteps, and through them her novel Frankenstein, is leading me to an entirely different creature than I originally sought.

Not three hours off the train, I jumped on a bus to Cologny and made a pilgrimage to 9 Rue de Chemin, the Villa Diodati and Le Parc Byron.  Frankly, it is not as dynamic or inspiring as I had imagined.  I wanted to see whether Shelley’s geography still existed, or if it was now pure fantasy.  Of course, two hundred years of progress was going to drastically change the landscape, but surely some essence of her environs remains?

Cologny, where Le Parc Byron resides, is on the eastern shore of Lake Geneva.  It’s a small green space punctuated with a giant boulder commemorating the “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” George Gordon, Lord Byron, poet of Don Juan and Childe Harold.  The memorial rock flanks a historical marker informing tourists:  “On this very spot, the story ‘Frankenstein’ was born.  During the summer of 1816, the weather was atrocious, cold, and rainy spells alternating with violent thunder storms.  At that time Byron, a 28 year old poet, was renting the villa Diodati situated to the left of this meadow.”

Natural monument commemorating Lord Byron’s summer residency in 1816.

While Frankenstein is mentioned, what the Parc Byron historical marker could have elaborated upon is that during the summer of 1816, its author, 18-year old Mary Shelley, arrived in Geneva for a second time with her poet-dreamer lover Percy Byshee Shelley, their illegitimate son, William,[1]  her step-sister Claire Claremont, and a lot of emotional baggage.  She had already been in a relationship with Percy for two years, had traveled Post-Napoleonic Europe, birthed and mourned her first child, dabbled in a somewhat irksome experimentation in free love, and upon her homecoming to London, felt the shame of a tarnished reputation.

The ménage a trois were propelled back to Geneva, mostly by Shelley’s desire for a poetic commune promised by a rendezvous between Claire and Byron, who had begun an affair upon the Shelleys’ return in London.  While Byron’s enthusiasm for Claire had begun to taper off, he was impressed with Shelley’s talent, and respectful of Mary’s intelligence and philosophical legacy.[2] Soon the clan became inseparable, and the Shelleys moved from the Hotel d’Angleterrer in Sécheron, to a small chalet named Montalegre, just a ten minute walk from Villa Diodati.[3]

The Shelleys lived in a house in Montalegre, only ten minutes away from Diodati. This map gives an accurate idea of how close the poetic neighbors really were.

There the party sailed Lake Geneva, read and discussed literature and philosophy, and explored the Genevan perimeter.  It would be the happiest period in young Mary’s life: “…every evening at about six o’clock,” she wrote back to London, “we sail on the lake, which is delightful, ….the tossing of the boat raises my spirits and inspires me with unusual hilarity….[We] seldom return until ten o’clock, when as we approach the shore, we are saluted by the delightful scent of flowers and new mown grass, and the chirp of grasshoppers,…

I feel as happy as a new-fledged bird, and hardly care what twig I fly to, so that I may try my new-found wings….”[4]

Viewfinder image of Diodati across the Lake from Geneva. Hotel guests in Sécheron had the option of renting telescopes for spying on Byron and his guests. Dying to be scandalized, the voyeurs often mistook hanging linen as the petticoats of the sultry Godwin sisters.

The opportunity to test those wings came when the summer turned stormy:  “The thunder storms that visit us are grander and more terrific than I have ever seen before.  We watch them as they approach from the opposite side of the lake, observing the lightening play among the clouds…, and dart in jagged figures upon the piney heights of Jura, while…the sun is shining cheerily upon us….”[5]

When the storms actually arrived on the Lake, the group retreated to the Villa to read German ghost stories out loud, leading Byron to challenge all his guests to a phantasmagorical write-off.  It is perhaps the most famous challenge in literary lore, resulting in the creation of two of supernatural fiction’s greatest icons:  the vampire[6] and the misunderstood Creature.

The party was stumped by the gothic challenge, according to Mary in her revisionist telling of the legend in her 1831 preface[7]:  “I busied myself to think of a story…to rival those which had excited us to this task….I thought and pondered — vainly….‘Have you thought of a story?’ I was asked each morning, and…I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.”[8]

But subconsciously, Mary had been steeping all of her experiences until one night a conversation brought her subconscious to a boil:

Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener.  During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, …[the] probability of its ever being discovered and communicated…. Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.[9]

That night she had a nightmare where she “…saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.”[10]  The “thing” became reanimated with life and, horrified, the student abandoned him in his lab, hoping the experiment’s success would inevitably fail.  In his chambers, the student awakes to find peaking from the curtains “the yellow watery eye” of the creature.  Her story born, Mary won the contest and continued its encouraged composition until it was completed in England, nine months later.

As you well know, R – , I love this account. It is my favorite anecdote in literary history, and was for me a gateway to Romanticism and to wanderlust.  Ever since I first fell in love with the Satanic School[11] as a teen, my daydreams consisted of travel, and I grew up believing that Art was improved by gained experience.  I guess you could say Romanticism was to me what travel was to Captain Walton, who “read with ardor the accounts of various voyages,” and whose expedition that opens Frankenstein was to him “the favorite dream of his early years.”  The Romantics, Mary Shelley especially, drew directly upon their influences and surroundings to teach the reader awareness of the world they are in, which is lush with riches that cannot be quantified, sold, or traded.  It can only be experienced.

I can hear you scoff at my cliché, but this is a point of view I find often eclipsed by modern life’s sensorial substitutions. Remember when we saw the hunting dolphins at Bald Point, R – ? All the HD deep sea documentaries on Netflix couldn’t convey how ferocious and cunning their hunting behaviors really are. David Attenborough can narrate all he wants, but nothing can replace the a posteriori sensation of breaking and splashing water revealing a breaching and fishing dolphin five feet away. Despite nature shows’ diligence to authenticity, something about the television screen’s fourth wall keeps these animals cutesy. In real life, however, you realize you don’t want an arm to wade into their fishing territory. No. These aren’t dolphins you want to pet and hitch a fin-ride.  They are hunters driven by urges and laws beyond your grasp; mess with them – well, you might find yourself with an albatross hanging around your neck, or absent a hand like our poor friend, Buster.

I digress.  This accumulation and appreciation of the sublime was at Romanticism’s core, and has carved glaciers and valleys into my outlook on life and art. But the hitch: although Mary and these poets experienced a lifetime before they were thirty, here I was at 28, having never left my homeland.  I needed to go flee — go forth and find sublimity.  And what better guide than Frankenstein.

Because the heart of the story is so stirring, it is easy to forget that the novel contains more than the barebones of the mad scientist plot.  The flesh and blood of Shelley’s tale are travelogues set in and around Geneva, Ingolstadt, Rhine Valley, the Arctic Circle, and the United Kingdom.  While the novel begins with an Arctic expedition off of St. Petersburg, the genesis of the story begins here where I sit.

The Villa remains privately owned, making the Parc a compromise between this perimeter and literary tourists.  While its windows are open to the Lake’s breeze, its doors are closed to admirers, and discreetly hides behind stone gates and landscaping.    All one sees is an exterior view of the subtle baroque manor, painted a pale yellow with green shutters, with its impressive Corinthian columns and balcony overlooking the Lake.

The Villa Diodati as it was in 1835. With the exception of the topiary border, it appears unchanged. Image from Finden’s Landscape & Portrait Illustrations to the Life and Works of Lord Byron, vol. 2 (London: John Murray, 1832).

Privately owned and occupied, literary pilgrims are left to guess of what may (or may not) remain inside.

Compared to an 1835 print,  it seems unchanged.  The two adolescent trees that flank the left side of the house now tower above it and lean toward the lake.  The house’s much celebrated English garden, one of the characteristics that enticed Byron to rent it, is still there and blooms lavender and aloe.  What has most changed is the topiary border blocking romantic pilgrims from the residency, roping it off from other homes, and distancing it from the verdant rolling grounds that once lead the young coterie to the Lake for rowing and aimless wandering.

Even so, beyond the grounds, the manor’s elegance is constantly marred by modernism.  While the park itself is a verdant hill glittering with purple, yellow, and white wildflowers, its unique location seems to attract cell-talking, pot-smoking teenagers who loaf about on concrete benches.  The panoramic view of the lake is interrupted by sleek, futuristic yachts, and clunky mechanical cranes.

Le Parc Byron is a beautiful green space that captures the Romantic essence from 1816, despite the changing shoreline and loitering stoners.

At first, I was disappointed to not see inside the villa.  It makes me feel like one of the sensation-seeking tourists that would spy on Byron across the Lake with telescopes.   But as I sit in this hazy field, I realize the interior would tell me nothing.  It is the exterior that bares the tale. Here, before the Juras, Mary’s experiences over her teenage years steeped, boiled, and finally exploded from her mind and onto the page.  This realization has driven home many things I subconsciously noted (a priori) of in my youth, but knew nothing of as an adult.  Frankenstein isn’t just a tale about man going too far, but a journal of a young woman’s experience.

Seriously?  R – , you won’t believe me, but a storm is rolling in over the Jura Mountains.  I can’t help but pray for lightning to follow and strike down any of these surrounding trees; just so I can say I experienced it in the same setting as young Frankenstein’s electric epiphany:

When I was about fifteen years old we had retired to our house near Belrive, when we witnessed a most violent and terrible thunderstorm…. I remained, while the storm lasted, watching its progress with curiosity and delight. As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. When we visited it the next morning, we found the tree shattered in a singular manner.  It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribbons of wood….Before this I was not unacquainted with the more obvious laws of electricity.  On this occasion a man of great research in natural philosophy was with us, and excited by this catastrophe, he entered on the explanation of a theory …on the subject of electricity and galvanism, which was at once new and astonishing to me.[12]

If you look closely, you may see Mary Shelley on the balcony, watching the storm blow in from the Juras across the lake.

While the bruit thunder that crackles through the Jura crags is strangely mellifluent, there are no oak splinters or jabbering natural philosophers here, just docile cows tinkling under the reverberations of their grass-grazing jaws.   A few moments ago, a landscaper (lucky man) began to manicure the Villa’s lawn. Despite the mower’s mechanical cacophony, I tried to conjure with the wafting cut grass, the chirping birds, and the crescendoing storm a synesthetic trance where I saw Mary’s ghost through time and space gazing at the lake on the balcony.  No luck.

Will this be all I uncover as I visit all the “x’s” on Mary Shelley’s map?

When you are ready,” the Creature told his maker on the mer de glace, “I shall appear.” Perhaps I am not ready yet, and haven’t quite deciphered the cartography to be fully explored.  I fear the further I explore Frankenstein’s geography — physically and intellectually — that this novel’s map will become an atlas.  Before and after Frankenstein, a compass spins around Mary Shelley’s journey through life — a journey that ends with a bloated but enigmatic X in 1851.

What lies buried there waiting to be uncovered and rewarded is what these letters seek to reap.  At some point, the experience, the gleaning, will appear.  When I am ready – . [Ed: Blurred ink, rest of paragraph made indecipherable].

The storm has rolled from the mountains and over to the Lake.  I must go.  It is misting, and is ruining the ink. Before I sign off and put this in post, let me urge you to join me, and  bring with you shovels and lanterns, and of course your passport.

Your Wandering Spirit,


[1] Already married, Percy could not legalize his relationship with Mary until his first wife committed suicide in December of 1816.

[2] Mary Godwin was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft (the feminist authoress of A Vindication of the Rights of Women and of William Godwin, philosopher, anarchist, and author of the gothic novel William Godwin.  Both highly influential to Mary’s generation.

[3] Unfortunately, these establishments no longer stand.

Hay, Daisy. Young Romantics:  The Tangled Lives of English Poetry’s Greatest Generation. New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  2010.  Amazon Kindle edition. Location 1628 – 36, Paragraph 2.

[4] Shelley, Percy and Mary.  History of a Six Weeks Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland:  With Letters Descriptive of a Sail Around the Lake of Geneva and of the Glaciers of Chamonix.  London:  T. Hookham, Jun and C. and J. Olliver.  1817. Pp. 96 – 97

[5] Ibid., Pp. 98 – 100

[6] Lord Byron’s physician, Dr. John Polidori, was inspired by this bet to write Le Vampyre, which would go on to inspire other vampire works like Bram Stoker’s Dracula. For a unique meditation on Polidori’s role at Lake Geneva that fateful summer, please read Carrie Frye’s recent  post:  How To Be A Monster: Life Lessons From Lord Byron, The Awl, March 15, 2013.  [http://www.theawl.com/2013/03/how-to-be-a-monster-life-lessons-from-lord-byron]

[7] From its publication in 1818, Frankenstein went through two more revised editions.  The first was heavily edited by Percy Byshee Shelley, who as a result was thought to be the book’s anonymous author for several years.  Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin revised it for re-publication in 1821, and finally, in 1831, Mary got the last word, revising the book to her mature beliefs and giving the book its final intellectual resonance, as well as perpetuating the romantic legend around the novel’s birth.  Seymour, Miranda. Mary Shelley.  New York: Grove Press.  2000.

Pp. 335;406 – 407

[8] Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:  With an Introduction by Stephen King. Pp. ix‑x.

[9] Ibid. Pp. x

[10] Ibid. Pp. xi

[11] This nice little moniker came courtesy of British poet Robert Southey, who saw the works of Lord Byron, Keats, and the Shelleys as highly rebellious and blasphemous, and termed them Satanic in his 1821 poem A Vision of Judgment. The term fit.  “Satanic School.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 11 Dec 2011. Web. 8 Mar 2012.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satanic_School

[12] Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:  With an Introduction by Stephen King. P. 40.

S. J. Chambers is co-author of The Steampunk Bible. You can find her online at her Tumblr page, Bas Bleu Zombies (http://basbleuzombies.tumblr.com/).

11 replies to “Wandering Spirits: Traveling Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

  1. Good stuff.
    Byron is the author of Don Juan, however. It was Baudelaire who sent the don to the nether regions, as did G.B. Shaw, though here hell was Sierra Nevada, if I recall correctly.

  2. Oh, dear. You are right, Elvis. It was GB Shaw who wrote Don Juan in Hell. I suppose I was summoning demons from another era and subconciously merged the two in a meta haze. Thank you for the correction.

    I also would like to make one other correction. I write above that FRANKENSTEIN was finished in Italy. In fact, it was finished in England, which I will write more about when I visit in a future letter.

  3. To my great shame I have not yet read the original Frankenstein. I have just Gutenberged a copy onto my Kindle, and intend to rectify this deficiency. Thanks for giving me the kick to do this!

  4. It is never too late to get lost in a good book. I hope you enjoy, Doug!

  5. Dear SJ — Read your letter with interest, it having arrived here a year late. The terrors of the post. I hope the storm rolled in and over you, and brought many fevered and productive dreams, though only if your hotel room was without leaks. I was particularly taken by your inclusion of the image through the viewfinder to Diodati, and felt myself quite the peeping tom, peering through in the hope of spotting fluttering petticoats. Looking forward to receiving your next epistle — write soon!

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  7. Dear Nike,

    Thank you so much for your letter and your kind words. It seems the post is more speedy this round, and I hope you enjoy the next missive!

    Much obliged,

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