Mary Shelley’s first draft of Frankenstein, penned in the summer of 1816 at Lake Geneva and later donated to the Bodleian, is just one jewel in a brilliant exhibition being held in the village where it was written. 

FrankensteinThis 1831 edition of Frankenstein featured the first visual interpretation of Mary Shelley's creation  

By Richard Lofthouse 

A stunning exhibition that can be visited until October 9, has just opened at the Martin Bodmer Foundation in Geneva. It thrillingly recreates the particular circumstances giving rise to the novel’s first drafting in the summer of 1816.

The location of the exhibition is perfect. Martin Bodmer (1899 –1971), a Swiss bibliophilescholar and collector, bequeathed one of the finest private collections of rare books in the world and a chateau underpinned by a wonderful archival space built into a mountain. It is also a few minutes walk from the Villa Diodati, which was fatefully rented by Lord Byron from May for the summer, two hundred years ago.

VillaLord Byron rented the Villa Diodati for the summer of 1816, along with his personal physician, John Polidori, where he entertained the Shelleys

Having by then left England in the shadow of various disgraces, Byron was never to return. Mary Shelley’s stepsister Claire Clairmont was Byron’s lover, and it was she who convinced Mary and Percy Shelley (University College, 1810) to rent a smaller lakeside house just down the hill, Maison Chappuis. The Shelleys, no strangers to Geneva and the environs of Mont Blanc, arrived a few days ahead of Byron and his doctor, John Polidori, in May. It was the first occasion that Byron met Percy Shelley.

AbingerMary Shelley drafted Frankenstein in two tall notebooks. The first notebook was probably purchased in Geneva, the second several months later in England

All was not well with the world that summer, however. A Javan volcano, Mount Tambora, had thrown up hundreds of square kilometres of ash into the atmosphere, meaning that trees that year did not properly come into leaf until July and the average maximum daytime temperature in Geneva that June was less than 14 degrees Celsius. People thought the world was ending and agriculture went into crisis.

It was on account of the dreadfully gloomy and wet evenings that Byron invited Mary and Percy over to Diodati, where with Polidori and Clairmont, they amused themselves with a French translation of German ghost stories. Byron then suggested that they individually compose their own ghost stories. Mary Shelley ‘busied myself to think of a story [Mary’s italics]’ that would ‘make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart’. After one particular evening spent discussing the principle of life, electricity and the possibility of reanimation, she had a vivid night of imagining the coming to life of ‘a hideous phantasm of a man.’ Unlike the others in the party, she then worked diligently on a draft that by the time of their return on August 29 was complete, at least in a novella form.Novelist Mary Wollstonecraft ShelleyNovelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who was only eighteen when she drafted Frankenstein 

Thanks to Professor Charles E. Robinson of the University of Delaware, and Dr Bruce C. Barker-Benfield at the Bodleian Library, we have that original draft not only published (by Bodleian Library Publishing in 2008, as The Original Frankenstein – well worth seeking out) but in a second version in the same volume shorn of Percy’s edits, so that Mary’s original hand is rendered unedited.

In the current exhibition in Geneva, this first draft takes pride of place and you can see immediately the slightly softer, loopier hand of Mary, compared to the harder, more upright italic of Percy. Robinson is the first to point out that most of Percy’s edits were thoughtful and generally improving. But Percy also rendered Mary’s prose more formal. While it might be considered a scholarly nicety to interrogate Mary’s unedited hand, it brings her 18-year-old vigour right into play. It’s an insight worth the effort.

Take the following line, which begins chapter two:

‘Those events which materially influence our future destinies are often caused by slight or trivial occurrences.’ 

Percy changes it to

‘Those events which materially influence our future destinies often derive their origin from a trivial occurrence.’

Make your own mind up. To our own frame of mind in 2016, Mary’s phrase is more direct; it might even be judged better, given the often breathless, emotional rollercoaster quality of the gothic horror genre that she helped to create.PolidoriJohn Polidori, Lord Byron's doctor, who accompanied the writers on their trip to Lake Geneva

As Professor David Spurr of the University of Geneva suggests, the obvious ‘slight or trivial’ occurrence influencing Mary Shelley’s ‘future destiny’ is the eruption of the Javan volcano, and consequently freakish, cool, wet evenings more akin to autumn than to summer. But for those meteorological circumstances, we might not have Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (the full title), and certainly not in the atmospheric condition that it is conveyed, which is often cold or snowy or wet or misty. Take, as just one example, the memorable, even defining, moment when Victor Frankenstein sees his monstrous creation for the first time ‘out in the world at large’, just after he has murdered the scientist’s younger brother. It occurs in a great thunderstorm on the Plain Palais, today a park in central Geneva.

Victor recounts, 

‘I thought of pursuing the devil, but it would have been in vain, for another flash [of lightning] discovered him to me climbing up the steep and nearly perpendicular ascent of Mont-Salêve; he soon reached the summit and disappeared.’

This is another phrase changed by Percy to an arguably inferior rendering, in which the monster ‘hangs’ rather than ‘climbs’, removing the sense of it moving rapidly up and away into the mists of the summit.

There is a brand new sculpture of Frankenstein’s monster now on the Plain Palais in Geneva, striding rapidly towards Mont-Salêve, and along with the exhibition is worth a visit. It allows you to retrace the Geneva that the Shelleys would have known and still recognised today.

The first edition of Frankenstein was published in three volumes on New Year’s Day 1818, anonymously and dedicated to William GodwinThe first edition of Frankenstein was published in three volumes on New Year’s Day 1818, anonymously and dedicated to William Godwin 

Frankenstein: Creation of Darkness, runs at the Fondation Martin Bodmer in the village of Cologny, walking distance from Geneva city centre, until October 9th, 2016. A sister foundation, Chillon Castle, also on Lake Geneva but at the eastern end in Veytaux, hosts the exhibition 1816-2016 Byron is Back! It runs until August 23 and marks the creation of Byron’s poem ‘The Prisoner of Chillon.’

Oxford Today visited Cologny as a guest of the Swiss Tourist Board and with assistance from Fondation Martin Bodmer. Thanks also to Professor David Spurr of the University of Geneva for his private lecture on the origins of Frankenstein. The Shelley family gave the first two parts of their family archive to the Bodleian in 1893-4 and 1946-61, whilst the final part -- known as the Abinger papers -- was bought by the Library in 2004 through a public appeal.


Read more at Oxford Today:

Bodleian Treasures: Oscar Wilde's undergraduate port bill to CS Lewis' Narnia map

Health and safety in Tudor England

Images © Bodleian Libraries, Private Collection, National Portrait Gallery