It’s one of the most famous – indeed infamous – episodes in English literary history. In the summer of 1816 Lord Byron took a villa on the banks of Lake Geneva. He was attended by his doctor, John William Polidori, and another nearby house was rented by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, with whom the married Shelley had eloped two years previously, and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister and Byron’s mistress. The weather was terrible that year – so bad they called it ‘the ‘year without a summer’ – and the party spent most of their time indoors, gathered about the fireplace in Lord Byron’s drawing-room. And it was there, during a night of thunderous sturm und drang, that a chain of events took place that began with the telling of ghost stories, and led eventually to Mary Shelley’s ‘hideous progeny’, Frankenstein.
It’s been recreated dozens of times, both on page and on screen – most outrageously in Ken Russell’s 1986 film, Gothic, and most recently in my own novel, A Treacherous Likeness. But do we really know, even now, what actually happened? We know that Shelley had a fit of wild hysterics and had to be administered ether by Polidori, and we know – or think we know – that Mary later had a terrifying dream of a scientist and the monstrous thing he had made. She gave that celebrated account of her novel’s nightmarish origins in a preface to the book, but that was written 15 years later, long after all the men present that summer were dead. And Polidori’s account, not published until 1911, makes no mention of her announcing to the company – as she later described – that she had ‘thought of a story’. Mystery, melodrama, and some of the 19th century’s most memorable figures; no wonder those nights on the lake still exercise such a hold. If only we could have eavesdropped – imagine that –
And that’s what got me thinking.
Earlier this year I wrote a version of the Netherfield Ball in Pride & Prejudice as it might have played out if the characters had had Twitter, and as I worked on that it occurred to me what riotous tweeters the Byron set would have been. But there was a serious side to that thought too: Lord Byron was in many ways the Justin Bieber of his day, ‘followed’ with fervour by his fans, and pursued with equal relentlessness by a rumour-hungry press. So with a little artistic license and tongue half in cheek (but only half), here is my Twitter version of that scandalous party at the Diodati…
This post was originally written for The Spectator in September 2013