Episode 21: Frankenstein

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The image and concept of Frankenstein’s monster—most notably personified by Boris Karloff in the 1931 Universal horror film—are indelible in literature, cinema and popular culture. Far more than just an 1818 novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein is a philosophical journey as well as a cultural phenomenon. But how did it come about? The idea for the novel was famously hatched at a lakeside chateau in Switzerland, the Villa Diodati, in the late spring and early summer of 1816 by Mary Shelley (then Mary Godwin), her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron (who was then having an affair with Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont), and his doctor John Polidori, who went on to write The Vampyr. A nightmare summer of inclement climate-changed weather, haunting visions of dead children and monstrous women, endless cycles of personal and sexual jealousy, and the toxic personality of Lord Byron all contributed to Mary’s flash of genius. The story of Frankenstein’s origin is wrapped up in the broader story of the 1810s as a whole, and is intimately connected to the environmental disaster of that decade.

In this episode, historian Sean Munger presents the complicated and fascinating personal stories of Mary Shelley and the literary circle that gathered in Geneva that summer, as well as their tragic ends in the years following. You’ll learn why Lord Byron was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” why the neighbors of the Villa Diodati set up a telescope on the lawn to spy on the scandalous goings-on, and you’ll meet the horrifying midnight vision that frightened Percy Shelley so much Polidori had to give him ether. This extravaganza of Gothic terror sounds like a bad horror film (and has provided the basis for more than one), but it’s real, actual history—like you’ve never heard it before.

(Some background music for this episode licensed CC3.0 by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

Additional Materials About This Episode

(Above) Lord Byron, as he appeared about 1813.

(Above) Claire Clairmont, Byron’s lover in the spring of 1816, and also Mary Shelley’s step-sister.

(Above) Dr. John Poledori, Byron’s doctor and author of The Vampyr. Told you he was handsome!

(Above) The Villa Diodati in Switzerland, where the literary circle met. This is how it appeared in 2008.

(Above) The Funeral of Shelley, by Louis Edouard Fournier, painted in 1889. This was the “Viking funeral” on the beach in Italy in July 1822, which was done evidently in compliance with local sanitary laws. Byron attended briefly.

(Above) Trailer for the 1931 Universal version of Frankenstein.

All images are believed in to be in the public domain. I am not the uploader of any of the YouTube clips embedded here.

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