Frankenstein’s Moon


By Donald Olson, et al.

Some things about the Romantic origins of Frankenstein are well known and accepted, but others raise questions. The things that are known are these: on dark and stormy nights in June 1816, as jagged lightning bolts filled the sky and thunder echoed from the nearby mountains, a group gathered to tell ghost stories around the fireplace of a villa overlooking Lake Geneva, Switzerland. During one of those evenings, Mary Shelley might have shared the beginning of her scary tale.

The group that might have listened to Mary in Villa Diodati included Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, along with Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont and Byron’s physician John Polidori. Byron and Polidori lived in Villa Diodati during the summer of 1816, while the Shelley party rented a nearby house known as Maison Chappuis. Mount Tambora in Indonesia had exploded in April 1815. The cloud of ash, dust, and aerosols from this event, one of the greatest volcanic eruptions in historic times, produced cold temperatures and rain that sometimes drove the Byron-Shelley group inside, but did not dampen their enthusiasm for recording the spectacular storms and moonlit boating expeditions they enjoyed.

Although Mary gave a detailed account of that summer and the visionary origin of her tale in an introduction to the novel’s 1831 edition, the chronology — and thus the origin tale itself — remains in dispute. Our analysis, based upon astronomical, meteorological, and topographical evidence, sheds new light on the question of whether or not her account of the episode is merely a romantic fiction.

This vintage postcard, ca. 1900, shows Villa Diodati — the white house with the orange roof, just left of center — on a steep slope overlooking Lake Geneva. This location allows relatively clear views to the west, but the eastern sky is partially blocked by the hill. Image courtesy Donald Olson

Mary said in her introduction that after reading published ghost stories for their amusement, Byron suggested that they each write their own story. She found this a difficult task: “I thought and pondered — vainly ... Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.”

After several days of embarrassment, a talk around the fireplace that concluded after midnight gave her the spark of an idea: “various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life.... Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep.... My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me.... I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life.” As she returned to reality, she noticed that moonlight was shining through her bedroom window: “I opened mine [eyes] in terror.... I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. I see them still; the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters, with the moonlight struggling through.”

The standard chronology in most modern books, based upon examining the diary of John Polidori and the letters and journals written by the party during their stay in Switzerland, assumes that Byron suggested the ghost stories on June 16 and, by June 17, Mary was writing a scary story. The preference for June 16 is based upon Polidori’s diary entry noting that the Shelley party slept at the Villa that night; for June 17, Polidori records, “The ghost-stories are begun by all but me.” But Mary says that several days passed before she could think of an idea. If the standard chronology is correct, that means she either embellished or fabricated her account of how it all happened.

Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati, ca. 1820, where, just a few years earlier, he challenged Mary Shelley to write the ghost story that became Frankenstein. NYPL, Print Collection

A photograph of the same spot, taken in August 2010, shows that little has changed since Lord Byron's tenancy. Photo courtesy Donald Olson

There is another version of the chronology in which Byron made his suggestion on June 16, and Mary didn’t come up with her idea until June 22, which allows a gap of five or six days for conceiving a story. But our calculations show that during the hours before morning twilight on June 22, the moon was a thin waning crescent, only 13 percent lit, and the steep slope on which both houses stood blocked her view to the east of the rising moon. Moonlight could not have fallen on Mary’s bedroom window in the early morning hours of June 22, and thus this date is inconsistent with the visual details of her account. So, which account of Frankenstein‘s origin seems more plausible based on the sky?

Our research group traveled to Switzerland and made GPS measurements of the terrain where Villa Diodati still stands overlooking Lake Geneva. Moonlight and a careful reading of the archival evidence are also keys to unraveling the mystery. First, despite earlier assumptions, there is no direct reference in the primary sources to the date of Byron’s ghost story suggestion. Byron’s proposal may well have occurred several days before Polidori’s June 17 admission that “the ghost-stories are begun by all but me,” and this would allow Mary’s story of agonizing and failing to be true. June 10 is the known date when Byron and Polidori moved into Villa Diodati, the first night the combined group all gathered around the fireplace, and thus the first night that the story suggestion could have been made. June 10, as Polidori wrote, “got things ready for going to Diodati ... went to Diodati ... Shelley, etc., came to tea, and we sat talking till 11.”

Villa Diodati and the moon, reflected in Lake Geneva, appear in this hand-colored engraving, ca. 1833, by Edward Francis Finden (1791–1857) after a drawing by William Purser (ca. 1790–ca. 1852). Image courtesy Donald Olson

On June 13, there was a spectacular thunderstorm that both Mary and Lord Byron eventually turned into literature. And, on June 15, Polidori records another suggestive discussion: “June 15 ... Shelley etc. came in the evening ... a conversation about principles, — whether man was to be thought merely an instrument.” Mary’s recollection that “various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life” before she went to bed on the historic night could very plausibly refer to this conversation. The question, then, is: could bright moonlight have shone on Mary’s bedroom window after midnight on the night of June 15–16?

We found that in the early morning hours of June 16, 1816, a bright waning gibbous moon, 67 percent lit, rose into the southeastern sky. Standard computer programs give the time of moonrise as 12:01 a.m., but those programs assume a flat horizon. The moon actually would not have cleared the 15-degree slope of the hill until just before 2 a.m. and then would have illuminated the windows of the houses. This calculated time is in good agreement with Mary’s mention that “the witching hour had gone by” and description of “the closed shutters, with the moonlight struggling through.” Sunrise that morning occurred at 4:07 a.m., and the brightening sky would have overpowered the moonlight by roughly 3 a.m. Our calculations therefore suggest that Mary’s “waking dream” occurred between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. on June 16, 1816. If the moon had not been shining on her window that morning, the astronomical analysis would point to a fabrication on her part. Instead, the bright waning gibbous moon, together with our proposed chronology, supports the idea that Shelley’s introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein gave a generally accurate account of the novel’s origin.

The Texas State group photographed a waxing gibbous moon rising into the late afternoon sky above Villa Diodati. Photo courtesy Russell Doescher

Another view of the moon above Villa Diodati. Photo courtesy Russell Doescher

Light from a bright waning gibbous moon, such as this one, illuminated Mary Shelley’s bedroom window on the night of her “waking dream” that was the origin of Frankenstein. Photo courtesy Anthony Ayiomamatis

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Donald Olson, Marilynn Olson, Russell Doescher, Jayme Blaschke, Ava Pope, and Kelly Schnarr

Don Olson and Russell Doescher teach in the Department of Physics, and Marilynn Olson in the Department of English, at Texas State University, where Kelly Schnarr is an undergraduate in the Department of Education and the Honors Program. Ava Pope (BS, Texas State, 2010) is now a physics graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Texas State group has authored several dozen articles for Sky & Telescope linking astronomy to art, history, and literature. Jayme Blaschke is the author of Voices of Vision: Creators of Science Fiction and Fantasy Speak (University of Nebraska Press, 2005), is an active member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and is currently writing a non-fiction book on the infamous Chicken Ranch of La Grange, Texas.

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