When Lord Byron described the horror novel Frankenstein as “a wonderful work for a girl”, he wasn’t being patronising, just stating a fact. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was just 18 years old when she came to Lake Geneva and gave life to her “filthy daemon”. Two hundred years later, on the first warm day of the year in landlocked Europe, Geneva’s 18-year-olds were swimming off pontoons, canoodling on the rocks and rollerblading past the lavish mansions of the city’s quai Gustave Ador.
Back in 1816 Mary had wished to do the same – well, maybe not the rollerblading – but the weather was against her. So she stayed inside and wrote herself into history with the tale of the man-made monster who declares: “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend”. The circumstances in which Frankenstein was written is a story of thunder and lightning, in the skies and on the page, and, two centuries on, you can still trace its ghostly outlines in the unchanging topography of the lake.
I arrived in Geneva in May, the same month as the entourages of the poets Shelley and Byron in 1816, but with less of a frisson of scandal. Percy Bysshe Shelley had left a wife in England and eloped with his teenaged lover, Mary, who had just borne their son (they would be married, following his first wife’s suicide, later in 1816); along for the ride was another 18-year-old, Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, who had recently slept with Lord Byron in London (and was pregnant by him) and wished to do so again in Geneva.
The great Lothario himself, on the run from allegations of incest with his half-sister, Augusta, arrived separately with his physician and punchbag, Dr John Polidori. “I have taken a very pretty villa in the vineyards with the Alps behind,” Byron wrote to his friend, John Cam Hobhouse. The Shelleys moved into a more modest house near the lake shore with a vineyard in between. The two households were soon socialising and sparking.
The Shelleys’ house is long gone but the one Byron rented, the Villa Diodati, still exists – imposing as an embassy, with green shutters, from trees in the ritzy suburb of Cologny (think supercars and heavy-duty private security).
I was taken to see it by David Spurr, Professor of English at the University of Geneva, who is curating an exhibition about the creation of Frankenstein at the Bodmer Foundation Museum which, by coincidence, is just five minutes’ walk from the villa.
The exhibition, which runs throughout the summer, has objects to thrill the blood – not just the iconic portraits of Mary, Shelley and Byron, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery in London, but pages from the original manuscript, in Mary’s hand, with Shelley’s marginal annotations. As Prof Spurr said, “We can see the two of them, bending over the story and working on it together.”
As remarkable, in its way, is the official weather report for the city of Geneva in June 1816, which shows that it was cloudy and dark every day and that “the oak trees don’t have a single leaf yet”.
Across Europe the skies had been darkened by fallout from the eruption of Mount Tambora, in modern-day Indonesia, the previous year. Crops failed, people starved and, on the shores of Lake Geneva, “incessant rain often confined us for days to the house,” according to Mary.
In the candlelit drawing room of the Villa Diodati, the English poets and their acolytes passed the time discussing the life force and the possibility of reanimating a corpse. They also read horror stories and Lord Byron suggested they should each try writing one themselves.
Polidori would come up with a tale entitled The Vampyre, and Mary also proved eminently suggestible. One night between June 16 and 18, 1816, she had a nightmare in which “I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life”.
In the morning she announced that she had her horror story and scribbled down “It was on a dreary night of November” – words that became the opening of Chapter 5 when Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus (to give the novel its full title), was first published two years later. Her vision has endured ever since, inspiring numerous film-makers and actors as diverse as Boris Karloff and Gene Wilder.
The Villa Diodati is privately owned. You cannot visit the place where Frankenstein was conceived, upon Byron’s fateful suggestion, 200 years ago next week. So Prof Spurr and I made do with standing at the top of a meadow alongside the villa’s gardens. Facing us on the far shore of the lake was the monumental HQ of the UN in Europe; rising to our left the famous Jet d’Eau, blown into a slim sail-shape by the wind. Take these away and the scene isn’t so different from the one our friends would have gazed upon.
Mary transmuted much of the mood and weather of June 1816 – “vivid flashes of lightning dazzled my eyes, illuminating the lake, making it appear like a vast sheet of fire” – into Frankenstein. And the surrounding landscapes – the Jura mountains to the north-west, the Alps, including the white, flint-sharp peak of Mont Blanc, to the south-east – are frequently evoked.
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On a one-hour round cruise from the quai du Mont Blanc, on which the taped commentary pointed out the Villa Diodati high on its hill, the sun shone, the distant Alps unfolded like origami and I thought of Victor Frankenstein’s doomed bride, Elizabeth, exclaiming on their wedding day: “What a divine day! How happy and serene all nature appears!”
The newly-weds are sailing east along the lake at the time, in a passage that echoes real-life events following those highly-charged evenings in the Villa Diodati.
On June 23 1816, with the weather showing slight improvement, Shelley and Byron set out on a tour of Lake Geneva, leaving Mary behind to work on Frankenstein. They were following in the footsteps of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his novel Julie, or the New Heloise – set around the eastern end of Lake Geneva – as surely as I was following in theirs.
They hired a boat and boatman for their eight-day trip to Montreux and its environs. I took a train that sped me there in 80 minutes.
Byron cheerfully denounced Switzerland as “a curst, selfish, swinish country,” albeit “placed in the most romantic region of the world”. He would surely have been left speechless by the sophistication (and prices) of today’s Montreux, where the lakefront quais are lined with cut-out steel sculptures, there are poop-bag dispensers on the lampposts for dog-walkers, and the waiters in the Jazz Café wear two-tone shoes.
The poets’ journey here, and Byron’s second trip with his friend Hobhouse later in the summer, are a reminder that these visitors were tourists on a summer jolly as well as writers. In the finest tradition of the hypocritical “traveller”, the poets found their fellow English tourists ghastly and Byron dipped his pen in sarcasm after he encountered an Englishwoman who had nodded off amid such spectacular scenery: “fast asleep in the most anti-narcotic spot in the world – excellent!”
This happened at the Château de Chillon, a thrillingly romantic medieval castle rising from the lake near Montreux that conforms to an eight-year-old’s template of what a castle should be – dungeon, turrets and labyrinthine passageways. After surviving a sudden squall on the lake the poets were shown around by a caretaker. Thus it was that Byron carved his name on one of the dungeon pillars (it is preserved behind glass; some say it’s fake) and learnt the story of Francois Bonivard.
In the 16th century, Bonivard was chained in Chillon’s underground dungeon for several years for his opposition to Charles III, the Duke of Savoy, an endurance that inspired Byron to write the narrative poem The Prisoner of Chillon. It became a bestseller and intensified the very tourist buzz that Byron decried – an irony explored in a summer exhibition at the castle entitled “Byron is back!” that compliments the Frankenstein exhibition in Geneva.
In the end, the story of what happened on Lake Geneva in 1816 is about imagination and, in the courtyard of the Château de Chillon, I allowed myself my own modest flight of fancy. There’s a drinking fountain there, its twin brass spouts both dated 1726, and I pictured the two tousle-haired poets stooping to drink in a summer that was golden for both, despite the weather. In 1831, with Shelley, Byron and Polidori all long dead, Mary wrote of the “affection” she felt for Frankenstein “for it was the offspring of happy days, when I was not alone”.
Swiss flies several times a day from LHR and London City to Geneva. There’s a free train service into the city centre (pick up your ticket in the baggage reclaim area).
The Geneva Transport and Montreux Riviera Cards, available free from your hotel, entitle you to free public transport and other reductions. The Swiss Travel Pass offers unlimited travel on trains, buses and boats, as well as museum admissions: from £150 for three days.
In Geneva: the stylish Hotel Rotary Geneva, two minutes’ walk from the lake; double b&b from £161. In Montreux: treat yourself to the Belle Époque splendour of the lakeside Montreux Palace, below; double b&b from £263 (lake views from £299).
Where to eat
In Geneva: The Cottage Café in Brunswick Gardens near the Mont Blanc Bridge; garden terrace, classy food including prawn entrée for 15.50 Swiss francs (£10.60). Booking essential for garden table.
In Montreux, take the daily two-hour lunchtime Captain’s Table cruise on one of CGN’s restored lake steamers; great views and food to match for 49 francs.
From Geneva, take the one-hour Swissboat Croisière de la Sirène, with views of the Villa Diodati, from the pier on the quai du Mont Blanc: 16 francs. From Montreux, CGN cruises (see Where to eat, above) pass the Château de Chillon.