Friday, September 01, 2006

When would you go?

The Summer of 1816

Bryan Adams may sentimentally croon about the first real six string he bought in the summer of ’69 and Jay Gatsby can spend all the time he wants reaching desperately towards a green light on the other side of the shore, but if I could go back in time, I would visit Geneva, Switzerland in 1816. Granted, 1969 would probably come in a close second if I could visit Height-Ashbury, but 1816 still gets the number one slot, hands down.

The weather in Switzerland in the summer of 1816 was very weird. At first everyone was enjoying nice sunny summer weather, but then a volcano in Indonesia erupted and they were suddenly subject to stormy, depressing, eerie, and England-in-the-winter-esque storms. The change in weather was only appropriate, considering the gothic events that were about to transpire.

Mary Shelley, her stepsister Claire Clairmont, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Byron’s physician John Polidori were staying in the Geneva District, an area that many people considered to be a sacred area of enlightenment. On the evening of the 16th the weather proved too awful to safely travel home, so the crew stayed at the Villa Diodoti, the home Byron had rented for the summer. They spent the evening reading German ghost stories aloud, and at the end of the evening Byron challenged everyone in the room to a scary story writing contest. The next evening they gathered again. Percy Shelley shared a story that no one seemed to care enough about to remember and Byron wrote a short bit that he never expanded on, but Polidori wrote the beginnings of The Vampyre, the first modern day vampire story. Mary Shelley did not write anything just then. Several emotions were stewing inside her, feelings of guilt were haunting her and she was depressed about her inability to have a baby, but she could not articulate those feelings into a story just then.

The next night, Lord Byron gave a reading of Coleridge’s haunting poem, Christobel. Percy Shelley became so frightened that he began seeing the villaness’s face transposed on his wife’s face, and he ran screaming from the room. I think this event alone deserves time travel, by the way. I’d love to sniff around and see if there were any other reasons, other than sheer terror, that made Shelley hallucinate so dramatically.
Finally, a week or so later, Shelley had a dream in which a student had created a creature. She wrote in her diary, “I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life…” The next morning she woke up and wrote the first few lines of Frankenstein.

I am a huge fan of Gothic Literature and Romantic Literature, and the events that transpired during that week and a half period in the summer of 1816 had an influence on both of these literary genres. I also love the dynamic of this group of legendary writers. I think the best way to observe these events would to be from a sort of Romantic/Gothic writer Band Aid: a lucky girl who was somehow invited to hang out with her stars for the summer.


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