Shelley and the Birth of Frankenstein

Two hundred years ago, Percy Bysshe Shelley made a tour of Europe with his lover and future wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her step-sister Claire Clairmont, who was pregnant with Lord Byron’s child. Their sojourn in the Alps quickly become notorious for two reasons: one night in June, the group challenged each other to write the scariest horror story, and the first seeds of the novel Frankenstein were sown. And the following month, on 23 July 1816 Shelley caused a scandal by publicly declaring himself an atheist when signing the visitors’ book at the Hôtel de Londres in Chamonix. The offending page from that hotel visitors’ book has just resurfaced in the Wren Library as part of a new bequest.

Visitor book

The visitors’ book was ruled with several columns, allotted to date, name, place of birth, and the starting-point and destination of the visitor’s journey. Shelley entered his name on 23 July 1816, born in Sussex and travelling from London ‘à l’Enfer’ – to Hell. In the space for comments, where an earlier visitor has commented on the divine majesty of the Alps, Shelley writes, in Greek, ‘eimi philanthropos, demokratikos, atheos te’: ‘I am a lover of mankind, a democrat and an atheist’. A later visitor wrote beneath this a verse from the Psalms: ‘The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God’.

Visitor book close-up

Shelley’s public declaration of atheism in this book quickly became infamous, and many came to the hotel in order to inspect the book. Underneath Shelley’s name is written ‘Mad. M. W. G.’ – Madame Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the future Mary Shelley – and a further name, now crossed out, was Claire Clairmont. It was very likely to have been Byron who underlined Shelley’s name along with ‘the fool’ in the Greek text, in order to vent his frustration at Shelley’s outrage, and who crossed out Claire Clairmont’s name. A later visitor cut this page out of the visitors’ book, and it found its way into the collection of Richard Monckton Milnes, the remarkable Victorian MP and bibliophile whose library was recently bequeathed to Trinity College by his grand-daughter Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe. Several very rare Shelley editions are included in the bequest, and this page had been pasted inside the front cover of his epic poem The Revolt of Islam.

Mont Blanc seen from Chamonix, from Narrative of an Ascent to the Sumhmit of Mont Blanc (London, 1828), by John Auldjo, a Canadian-born student at Trinity College who became a noted Alpinist.
Mont Blanc seen from Chamonix, from Narrative of an Ascent to the Sumhmit of Mont Blanc (London, 1828), by John Auldjo, a Canadian-born student at Trinity College who became a noted Alpinist.

Before they arrived at the the hotel in Chamonix, Shelley had taken Mary Godwin and Claire Clairmont to visit Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva, where he was staying with his personal physician, John William Polidori. On one night in June 1816, Byron challenged each member of the group to write a ghost story. Polidori’s efforts were later expanded into The Vampyre, the first vampire novel, and Mary Godwin’s story was published in 1818 as Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. This page shows the first appearance of Frankenstein’s monster, in the Alps.

Shelley returned to England in the autumn of 1816. The following year he began work on an epic poem inspired by his observations of the French Revolution. First published as Laon and Cythna, the work became better known in its revised version as The Revolt of Islam, and is a highly sophisticated parable of revolutionary idealism. Shelley drafted much of the text on a boat on the Thames near Marlow in Buckinghamshire. Trinity College Library houses one page from the neat copy which Shelley prepared for his printer, showing part of Canto IX. It forms part of a substantial collection of autographs, the Cullum Collection. Laon and Cythna was quickly withdrawn after publication, amid fears of prosecution for blasphemy, and was reissued with a new title and many altered lines in 1817.

Wittgenstein’s Letter to the Garden Committee


The papers of the eminent philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein are available via the Wren Digital Library. Outwith this archive, however, is a curious letter he addressed to the Garden Committee of the College in 1934, of incidental interest because of his studied objections to their plans for the Fellows’ Garden.

View of the Garden

The area of land to the west of Trinity College and alongside Queen’s Road was bought for the college in 1871 (it had been leased for about 60 years before that). At the time it was known as the ‘Roundabout’ because of the circular walks within it, but from then on it was designated as the Fellows’ Garden. Designs were provided by the landscape gardener William Brodrick Thomas (1811-98) who also designed the ornamental lake at Sandringham and the Garden Committee was set up to oversee the implementation of these plans. They included retaining the already established avenue of elms and the ‘roundabout’ path, but adding flowering shrubs and ornamental trees.

Wittgenstein's Garden Plan
Wittgenstein’s Garden Plan

Summer grasses in the Fellows’ Garden were traditionally left uncut, but in 1933 some experimental paths were cut through the long grass. Ludwig Wittgenstein – by this time a fellow of Trinity – in a letter to the secretary offered (presumably unsolicited) opinions and advice on this decision. Affronted by the line of the paths, he suggested re-positioning them as well as making adjustments to the shape of the flower beds and the position of trees. He also criticised the planting schemes “… the kidney shaped bed with the dahlias in it looks very bad because of the border of Veronica round the dahlias. This fringe makes it look like a gaudy birthday cake.”

No response is known!

The Fellows’ Garden is open to the public once a year as part of the National Gardens Scheme and also during the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival.

Birdsong in the Fellows’ Garden


Further Reading:

Jane Brown, Trinity College: a garden history (Cambridge, 2002)

Photograph of the Month


This photograph shows Abram Samoilovitch Besicovitch (b. 1891) mowing Trinity College lawns during the Second World War. Originally from Russia, Besicovitch came to Cambridge as a lecturer in 1927, was made a fellow in 1930 and was later appointed Rouse-Ball Professor of Mathematics (1950-58). He died in Cambridge in 1970.

For further biographical information see the Trinity College Chapel Website.