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.